Icon: The 1988 McLaren-Honda MP4/4


With Honda returning to Formula 1 in 2015 with McLaren, The Checkered Flag takes a look at the first car the partnership developed in their first spell together – The 1988 McLaren MP4/4.

The MP4/4 was one of the most successful F1 cars ever created. It was designed by Steve Nichols with assistance of Technical Director Gordon Murray, and went on to win fifteen out of a possible sixteen races in the hands of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

The 1987 season had not gone to plan for the team, and the TAG-Porsche partnership came to an end having been out performed by the Honda-powered Williams and Lotus teams. Team boss Ron Dennis had managed to broker a deal with Japanese engine-makers Honda for the 1988 season, which was to be the last year of that turbocharged era of Formula 1, to supply 1.5-litre V6 engines at the expense of Williams, who were left with the normally aspirated Judd V8 engines.

The driver line-up was also altered for 1988, with Swede Stefan Johansson being dropped in favour of Senna, with Prost suggesting the Brazilian would be a better option for the team. It would be an inspired decision, although the relationship between the two team-mates would deteriorate during their two-year partnership.

The MP4/4 was late to test, but was immediately quicker than anything that had been on track before. The first race in Brazil was a sign of things to come, with Senna grabbing a dominant pole position at the Autodromo Nelson Piquet. Although Senna’s bad luck at home cost him any chance of victory – a gearbox issue consigned him to the spare car and was promptly disqualified for changing to it after the green light had been illuminated – Prost jumped into the lead at the start and was never headed.

Senna took a second pole position at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola ahead of Prost, with the lead McLaren almost 1.5 seconds faster than third placed Nelson Piquet in the Lotus. The domination was continued into the race, with Senna leading Prost to a 1-2 finish, more than a lap ahead of third-placed Gerhard Berger of Ferrari.

Ayrton Senna won the '88 Championship in the MP4/4 (Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd)
Ayrton Senna won the ’88 Championship in the MP4/4 (Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd)

Senna made it three pole positions in three races in spectacular fashion, beating Prost by an almost unbelievable 1.5 seconds around a track he would call his own in the next few years – Monaco. Senna dominated the race until the sixty-seventh lap when he made an uncharacteristic error and crashed out, handing Prost the victory, although the Frenchman was made to work hard for it by Berger, who for fifty-four laps held off the McLaren driver after getting a better start.

Another Senna pole in Mexico was followed by another Prost win, although Senna was able to claim second, while fifth and sixth poles in Canada and the United States led to 1-2 finishes for the team, Senna ahead of Prost both times. Prost took his first pole (of two during the year) in France, and led home Senna this time for another McLaren 1-2 finish.

Silverstone marked the halfway point of the season, and saw the only race of the year where McLaren did not get pole position, with Ferrari team-mates Berger and Michele Alboreto sharing the front row ahead of Senna and Prost, although in the race it was business as usual as Senna dominated in the rain to clinch his fourth win of the season match Prost, although Prost led Senna by 54 points to 48, while Berger was languishing in third on only 21.

The gap in the championship closed to just three points the following round at Hockenheim, when Senna once again took the spoils ahead of Prost, while the gap disappeared completely in Hungary, with Senna leading Prost home for his sixth win of the year. Senna made it three wins on the bounce in Belgium, again ahead of Prost, to take the lead in the championship, while McLaren themselves went more than a hundred points clear in the Constructors’ Championship.

The Italian Grand Prix of 1988 was the only blip in the perfect win record, when an errant Jean-Louis Schlesser – racing for Williams in place of an ill Nigel Mansell – spun Senna off at the first chicane, allowing the Ferrari’s to take an emotional 1-2 finish in front of their home fans, weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari.

Honda will return to F1 with McLaren in 2015 (Credit: McLaren Media Centre)
Honda will return to F1 with McLaren in 2015 (Credit: McLaren Media Centre)

Prost returned to the top step of the podium in Portugal, although Senna could only finish sixth, the result giving Prost the lead in the championship again. The two McLaren drivers had a close call early in the race when Prost attacked Senna down the pit straight, and the Brazilian appeared to push the Frenchman towards the pit wall at high speed. Many believe this was the catalyst of the rivalry that would come over the next few years.

Prost won again in Spain with Senna again off the podium in fourth, but with the best eleven results counting towards the championship, Senna would have the opportunity to clinch the title in Japan. And he would do it in spectacular fashion.

Senna grabbed another pole position on Saturday in Suzuka to take the advantage, but suffered a bad start to fall to fourteenth while Prost took the lead. Senna fought back brilliantly, overtaking everyone between him and his team-mate into second, and then passed the Frenchman for the lead to secure his eighth win and the championship.

Prost took the final win of the season in Australia, and with Senna second, the team took their tenth 1-2 finish of the year, a record that was only recently broken by dominant Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS team of 2014. Senna took the title despite scoring less points, his eleven best results of the year giving him 90 points compared to Prost’s 87.

The McLaren-Honda MP4/4 was simply superb throughout 1988, a class above the rest. The Ferrari team finished second in the Constructors’ Championship but were also-rans, finishing 134 points adrift. The decision to switch from Tag-Porsche to Honda was inspired, but a lot of praise can be placed on the design team of Nichols and Murray.

Although a completely different era of Formula 1, the 2015 McLaren-Honda MP4/30 has a lot to live up to. We’ve seen partnerships resume in the past – such as Williams and Renault in 2012/13 – not reach the same heights as before, and it will take a lot of effort from both McLaren and Honda to succeed this time around. Both are perfectly capable however.