It all began 35 years ago, when Alain Prost won the Brazilian Grand Prix. Today, we’ll find out what makes F1 so special and icon-like by understanding its key ingredients for success. This includes a talented driver pair, great design skills and management staffs, an excellent engine plus perfect chassis. All these come together to allow one team to write its name in the F1 history books.
In 1988, McLaren had the right mixture of things that made them create one of the strongest cars in car racing.
– The Amazing F1 Records of McLaren in 1988
McLaren was well prepared for the upcoming season with Honda as its engine partner. They worked on the MP4/3B, a prototype car that would be used to design and power their new car in the 1988 season. Unfortunately, they only had four months until the first race so everything had to be figured out quickly – not just the construction of the car, but also all its plans and drawings.
The team at McLaren was working under a very tight deadline, so they had to make sure the car that they are creating could do everything well. People still argue who really designed the MP4/4 model. This was because after John Barnard left for Ferrari, Gordon Murray came from Brabham and Steve Nichols took over the management work.
During that time, cars had started to be designed with the driver leaning back in the cockpit. Interestingly, McLaren’s challengers during this period reflected a lot of the same design elements as the BT55. It felt like it was due to McLaren having Gordon Murray on its team.
McLaren made new regulations so drivers had to stay behind the front axle, and their fuel tank was smaller for 1988. It allowed McLaren to do more things. Here’s a photo of the McLaren MP4-2C from 1986 which shows how it looks inside and out.
McLaren made a change to their cars’ design by choosing sides that were more vertical instead of the usual V-shape. Not only did this help with aerodynamics, but it also made the car much stiffer. To make this happen, they got a special machine called an autoclave which cost them a lot but allowed them to build the parts themselves.
Hercules Aerospace had a big part to play in helping McLaren create the first full carbon fiber car called the MP4/1. It only supplied the special materials needed. Since McLaren was running out of time, it decided not to follow the popular way of making these cars. Others used female molds, but McLaren kept using male tooling.
McLaren was able to adapt their car body quickly if ever they made a mistake or found something new. Plus, using the flat panel method gave them strength over the others who just used regular moulds. They can use special materials called unidirectional carbon fibre fabric for production too.
The last part of the monocoque was a removable section called the bathtub. It includes all parts inside the cockpit including the seat backs, dashboard and side panels. It makes the structure even stronger and less bendable.
Over time, technology improved how this part was made but it still had fit issues and did not match exactly with the rest of the monocoque in colour.
The McLaren MP4-4 Honda driven by Ayrton Senna didn’t have any special features in terms of its aerodynamics. However, it was equipped with three different configurations that allowed it to match up to different race tracks throughout the season. We will take a look at this more closely in the gallery.
The design team changed the sidepod design when creating the McLaren MP4/1c car. Instead of having a top outlet at the top, this one was placed at the side. At around this time, Senna moved from Lotus to McLaren and Honda started to supply the car with its 1.5 litre turbocharged engine that came from their own development.
The RA168-E is a super cool engine that packs lots of power – around 700bhp. It’s also very efficient with its fuel and incredibly reliable, even compared to today’s cars. The FIA wanted the turbocharged engines to have the same power as regular “naturally aspirated” engines and so they designed the awesome RA168-E!
In 1988, the rules changed so turbo cars could only use 2.5 bar of power instead of 4, and they only had 150 litres of fuel instead of 195. To make up for that, these turbo cars were given a weight advantage of 40kg compared to “atmos” cars, who had access to 215 litres of fuel.
To get the best performance from this new setup, Honda worked with Shell to create a special fuel blend that was much better than normal fuel because it prevented the engine from exploding and it needed to be heated first before using.
This powerful mixture of parts made it easier to drive the car compared to other types of turbocharged cars. The Honda engine was combined with a special clutch, created by Tilton in 1987, that had a low crankshaft. This gave it an advantage over other vehicles.
The Tilton carbon clutch was very small. It only measured 5.5″ around, which is much smaller than most clutches, which are 7.25″. The advantage of the Tilton was that it helped McLaren handle the Honda engine better by giving more heat management, smoother engagement and higher torque.
Since the crankshaft and clutch were so small, McLaren had to think outside the box when designing their gearbox.
Gordon Murray wanted to fix the problems they had, so he asked Pete Weismann (who already worked with Brabham) to help design a new solution. After discussing it, they decided to use a triple shaft system which would allow them to keep the engine as low as possible and not damage the driveshafts like Lotus did by tilting their two shaft gearbox upwards.
Honda designed the gearbox with an oil system that uses a dry sump to keep things cool, reliable and stable. This helps it stay strong when experiencing extreme pressure like what race cars do. That’s why someone took a picture of McLaren MP4-4 1988 – so all people can see how this design works!
The MP4/4 car is an amazing vehicle and very impressive in every way. It was unbeatable when it raced and marked the first time that turbo-charged cars had been used in the sport.