Honda's engine war at McLaren

Dear Nigel,

I am interested in your opinion of Prost’s allegations of Honda bias during the ’88 and ‘89 seasons. The extent of Senna’s advantage in qualifying was extraordinary, but re-watching some old Grand Prix tapes recently I heard James Hunt in the commentary state as fact that the speed traps showed Senna to have a higher performing engine than Prost.

This would seem pretty vital considering the extent to which Senna’s legend is based on his great dominance in single lap pace in these years. Do you have any clear recollections as to the validity of these claims?


Dear Simon,

It all seems so long ago now – 25 years, after all – and probably I’m inclined to remember the situation more from Prost’s point of view than Senna’s for the simple reason that I was much closer to him than I was to his team-mate. That said, I did believe that the evidence pointed to Ayrton’s getting preferential treatment from Honda, and certain McLaren personnel have quietly confirmed to me that that was their feeling, too. As Alain puts it, “I was a McLaren driver with a Honda engine – and Ayrton as a Honda driver with a McLaren chassis…”

In 1988 the McLaren pair had a staggering season, Prost scoring more points (105, from seven wins, and seven second places) than Senna (94, from eight wins, and three second places), but Ayrton taking the title, 90 to 87, by virtue of the ‘11 best scores’ rule which then applied.

“I really wasn’t too upset that Senna won the title in ’88,” Alain said, “because I’d won it twice already by then. For ‘89, though, I was worried about Honda – I never had the relationship with them that Ayrton did, and the way they handled the situation was difficult for me, because Senna and I had very different driving styles. Before the season began I had dinner with Mr Kawamoto, the Honda chairman, and he admitted that Honda was more for Ayrton than for me – because they thought he was more the samurai, and I was more the computer!

“So that was an explanation, and I was happier, because part of my problem had been that Ayrton was so bloody quick, it wasn’t easy to know how much was that, and how much was Honda helping him… Of course people said I was paranoid – but I used to notice, for example, that at the French Grand Prix – my home race – I always seemed to get a very good engine, and there I would win without problem…

“By Monza in ‘89 I was about 10 points ahead of Senna in the championship, but I was leaving the team to go to Ferrari, and by then Honda was really hard against me: in qualifying Ayrton was nearly two seconds quicker – OK, he was certainly a better qualifier than I was, but two seconds... that was a joke!”

As a footnote, all I would add is that when, in 1985, Keke Rosberg informed Frank Williams he would be leaving Williams-Honda for McLaren-TAG (Porsche), he had not the slightest doubt that thereafter he had inferior engines from Honda, relative to Nigel Mansell: “I’m not stupid,” he said to me, “and I’m always honest with myself. I’ve been in this business long enough to know when I’m getting equal equipment, and when I’m not…” When Prost later began to say the same thing, Rosberg never doubted him.


August 2019
100 years, three cars, one epic track test



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