The McLaren MP4/4 - the most successful F1 car ever built

 From Steve ..........


I suppose the story of the MP4/4 began with John Barnard’s departure for Ferrari .

 Rumours about his future had been circulating and I became aware that something was happening with a casual remark from the night watchman at McLaren who said that we must be incredibly busy as our Technical Director was at the factory in the middle of the night printing numerous McLaren drawings! When I was the technical chief at Ferrari several years later, I saw some of those same  McLaren drawings in his former Ferrari facility in Guildford.

When I told Ron Dennis that John was copying the drawings and must be planning on leaving his reaction was a combination of extreme anger and disappointment.  He said he felt like he had put John on a pedestal and John had stood on the pedestal and pissed on him. This was followed by mild panic as to how we would manage without him.

I explained that in reality John didn’t do everything himself, that there was a team in place, that under his direction all the required functions were already performed by members of the design team and that in his absence this thoroughly competent design team would be more than capable of filling the void. Having calmed down a bit, Ron let John go (loud ructions from upstairs!) and let us get on with the job, which was to focus on the car for next season, the MP4/3.

This was all happening in August and nothing had been done about the ‘88 car, so time was very limited and the 4/3 was inevitably going to be something of a compromise.

I would have liked to have done an all new monocoque. Design work had stagnated in some areas and this component had been retained unchanged, since 1981, from the original MP4/1. It had been designed around a very narrow trapezoidal section, to provide the widest possible area for ground effect tunnels either side of the driver. With the introduction of flat bottoms in 1983, this was unnecessary and resulted in a structural compromise, with no trade-off benefit.

Timescales meant that a new monocoque was out of the question, but there were still opportunities for improvements. A reduction in fuel tank capacity and a slightly more compact engine meant that the package behind the driver could be  lower, and it obviously made sense to lower the driver as well to stay within the profile of the engine and fuel tank.

Looking at aero, I elected to change the airflow through the radiators so that it exited from the side, reducing the height of the side pod and further enhancing the low, compact, design.

Although the MP4/3 was a stop gap, we came second behind Williams-Honda in the Constructors’ Championship and it was good enough to secure the services of Ayrton Senna and a supply of Honda engines for the following year.

During this period, Ron had appointed me as Chief Designer and said that he was not going to get himself in a position again where he had a “superstar” technical director whose departure might be seen by outsiders as a serious blow to the team.

The design department was a bit bemused, therefore, when we were all invited out by Ron for lunch to be introduced to our new Technical Director, Gordon Murray!

To be fair, both Ron and Gordon stressed that he would not be involved in the Formula One design function but would be acting more as a figure head, performing other corporate functions and projects, such as organizing the new factory and launching the McLaren road car.

I found Gordon extremely affable but didn’t envy him his new position. There wasn’t really a proper role for him in the Formula One operation at the time where there was a design team who had proved that they could function extremely well on their own.

To overcome any confusion, Gordon sent around a memo, in which he said that I had total design responsibility for the MP4/4 and that Neil Oatley would be looking at the car after that, the MP4/5, a naturally aspirated car, requiring a longer gestation period. This confirmed a discussion I had already had with Ron. Originally the plan was that Neil would do the MP4/4 and I would do the MP4/5, but as Neil was new to McLaren, Ron thought it would be better for me to do the 4/4 as the timescales for that car were going to be much tighter, and I agreed to that.

Gordon gave himself the task of liaising between the drawing office and production, assisting in getting the components we were designing, made, and looking after the well-being of the drawing office.

Far from interfering with the design side, Gordon kept absolutely to the structure as outlined in his memo. It has been reported that some Brabham drawings were brought into McLaren for the drawing office to look at, but one of the things which impressed me with Gordon was that he was extremely ethical about not bringing any Brabham IP to Woking. I can honestly say that I did not see any Brabham drawings, sketches, notes, etc. during that time.

Design on the 4/4 started later than I would have liked while negotiations with our potential new engine supplier, Honda, were concluded.

With the 4/4, I at last had the chance to do a new “tub”. The new rectangular cross section monocoque had much more cross-sectional area and was something like twice as stiff. The rules for 1988 had changed, requiring the driver’s feet to be behind an imaginary “axle” line drawn between the front wheels, thus moving the driver further back in the car.  The fuel allowance had been brought down to 150 litres with no refuelling in the race.  The reduced fuel volume and rectangular monocoque meant that the fuel tank was lower. Tilton had introduced a smaller diameter clutch which helped Honda to produce a more compact engine. It meant that the engine could be lower.

Again with the 4/4, a lower engine and smaller tank meant that we could recline the driver a little bit more, but not a lot more than in the 4/3, so that we again had the driver and the fuel tank within the profile of the engine. I think the body work on the MP4/4, which was less bulky than the “Barnard” McLarens, perhaps made people think that the driving position was more radical than it actually was. 

So, we had a much stiffer monocoque, a lower driver, a lower fuel tank and a lower engine all of which pleased me since my mantra has always been make it low light and stiff. 

Gordon was true to his word concerning not getting involved with design, his contributions being that I might like to look at Pete Weissman for the gear box concept (but that it was up to me), and some suggestions on tooling materials for the monocoque.

The aero was directly evolved from the 4/3; in plan view, the similarities are obvious with the side pods being near identical. Drag was largely dictated by the large, rotating, exposed wheels and the wings so the slightly smaller cockpit area and engine cover made very little difference and, contrary to what has been written, the overall aero package was only a marginal improvement on the MP4/3.

There has also been an assumption that running a turbo engine against naturally aspirated units gave us an advantage.

In the early years of the turbo formula boost levels were unrestricted. Manufacturers were building engines just for qualifying, with power outputs in excess of 1200 bhp, although no one really knew how high the figures were as the dynos at the time were not capable of giving readings above 1000 bhp. These engines were good for only a handful of laps and were swapped for the race. Boost on the race engines was wound back significantly.

To overcome this madness, limits had progressively been placed on boost, and by the time of the MP4/4 we had maybe 650 bhp, but fuel capacity meant that this was not available over the full race distance.

1988 was a transition year with the regulations designed to favour those teams running normally aspirated cars.  In fact, they had a significant power advantage from flag to flag. True, we could modulate how we used the energy we had by altering the boost but would often have to go into extreme fuel conservation mode to get to the end of a race, with the drivers having to corner at ten tenths to maintain lap times with the power turned down.

This “press on” attitude explains the one blot on our 1988 season when Senna crashed lapping a backmarker at Monza (Prost had already retired). Observers at the time questioned why Ayrton made the move when he could have waited and taken his time for a much less risky pass further round the lap. No one was aware just how marginal our race advantage was and the total commitment in the cockpit needed to preserve it.


Soon after the success of the MP4/4 in 1988, articles started to be written speculating about a possible link between the MP4/4 and Gordon’s infamous Brabham BT55.


As I have said, Gordon was emphatic that he would not be involved in design decisions and he kept to this 100%.

Some have assumed that with the job title of “Technical Director” he must have had a leading input but as any one at McLaren at the time (and a read of his memo) will tell you, this was not the case.

There have also been suggestions that the Honda engine was significantly superior to every other unit, but I would point out that the same engines, drawn from the same pool, did not seem anything like as special in that year’s Lotus, something of which Lotus themselves were only too aware.

They simply could not believe that our car was so much quicker than their own and convinced themselves that we must be cheating. At pretty well every event they were pressurising the FIA to go over our McLaren with a fine tooth-combe.  At Montreal, the MP4/4 was pretty much completely taken apart by the officials.  I remember Ron Dennis coming back to our pit with the fuel bag tank draped over his arm, such was the detail of their investigation. Needless to say, they found the car to be 100% legal. 

During the design period of the 4/4 it felt like I was either behind my drawing board at the McLaren factory or getting sustenance from the Woking McDonalds ,on my way home, just before they closed at eleven, with the occasional luxury of sleep!

We were late arriving for the first test, completing the car in the pits before the first run, but it was obvious the minute Prost and Senna got behind the wheel that we were significantly quicker than anybody else.

The season that followed has gone down in history with the MP4/4 the most dominant car before or since, winning 15 out of the 16 races, 10 of which were 1/2 s. For me, as impressive as the speed is the incredible reliability we had, a huge testament to the professionalism of McLaren, Honda, Weissman et al.

A detailed record of the design, build and race history of the 4/4 can be found in a Haynes “Owners’ Workshop Manual” book which I highly recommend.

Naturally I’m incredibly proud of the car and the small team that produced and raced it. 


I know I speak for us all when I voice our frustration that credit is not always given where it should be. 


Martin Brundle drives the MP4/4


It was good to see the MP4/4 “in action” at the Brazilian GP, although at a pretty sedate pace. It’s gratifying to see the high regard that drivers like Martin, Bruno, and previously Lewis Hamilton have for this car. Even Sebastian Vettel, watching from the side lines, said how can you not love that car? .............    However, I thought that I ought to correct a couple of inaccuracies.....  

Managing the car.......

  ...........the mechanics probably told  Bruno that the engine produced 1200 hp. 

This myth was also perpetuated in the video where Lewis Hamilton drove the car in the company of Jeremy Clarkson. The 1200 hp number was a rumor that I heard primarily about the BMW engine from many years earlier when fuel capacity and turbo boost were unlimited. You have to remember that we were restricted to 150 litres of fuel and 2.5 bar boost. With these restrictions, we were averaging something like 625 hp for a race distance. 

Honda did a great job to maximize power and fuel economy considering these regulations, but we still had to restrict revs and boost, and use lift and coast to complete a race distance. Even some technical people don’t seem to understand this. 

John Barnard, for example, has said the he believes Honda had found a way to circumvent the pop off valve, using pressure waves and placement of the valve in the plenum. He seems to be forgetting the 150 litres of fuel restriction. There is no way we could use more boost and more revs to generate more horsepower and still finish the race on 150 litres of fuel. He has also said that he thinks the MP4/4 gets too much credit and it pisses him off. 

He seems to think the car was nothing special and it was all down to the engine. Well, as I’ve said before, Honda did a great job with the engine, but with the regulations there was only so much they could do. I would have to say the car was pretty special.   

Just one example.  We out qualified Lotus/Ducarouge/ Piquet by three seconds at Imola.

Lauda told me that Piquet was at least as good as him. 

Lotus and McLaren drew their engines form the same Honda pool. Not just the same specification, but physically the same engines. Lotus thought we were getting special engines, so at Monaco, we removed our qualifying engines and installed the race engines as normal.  Lotus then put our qualifying engines in their cars for the race. 

The qualifying engines would have very slightly more horsepower, and the race engines would be ones that Honda thought might be more reliable. 

In the race Lotus were quite easily beaten. I was surprised that John has such low regard for his ex-colleagues/protégés. I would have thought that he would be proud of us and what we had accomplished using what we had learned from him.