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The origins of McLaren-Honda's greatest racer
To celebrate the McLaren MP4/4 being voted F1 fans' favourite car, we look back at the all-conquering machine, which famously won all but one race in 1988. Can its origins really be found in the disastrous Brabham BT55?

  By Gary Watkins

Alain Prost McLaren F1 1988

There can be no argument with the stats: 15 wins from 16 grands prix, 15 poles, 10 fastest laps and 1003 laps led from a total of 1031 make the 1988 McLaren-Honda MP4/4 the greatest one-season Formula 1 car of all time. Yet there is disagreement, an increasingly bitter one, about who should take credit for the all-conquering design that gave Ayrton Senna his first world title.

F1 design legend Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols, respectively technical director and chief designer at McLaren in the late 1980s, have both been described as the designer of the MP4/4 over the past 23 years. That can't be the case, and in truth the term should probably be given to neither of them. F1 technical directors, then as now, don't usually design racing cars, while Nichols describes himself back then as someone "leading a team of people better than me".

The quarrel is really about who was the brains behind the MP4/4, who conceived a car that gave new meaning to the word 'domination' in F1. Both Murray and Nichols, backed by some of his cohorts, lay claim to the concept.

For Murray, the MP4/4 is a continuation of the low-line philosophy he pioneered at Brabham for the 1986 season with the unsuccessful BMW-powered BT55.

His version of events is that he arrived at McLaren as technical director at the back end of '86, "determined to make the BT55 concept work".

Derek Warwick Brabham 1986 F1

Nichols dismisses the idea that the MP4/4, the first all-new McLaren since 1981, was designed around this concept and insists that he has "never thought of it as overly revolutionary".

He argues that the '88 McLaren was "a continuation of what had gone before" and a reaction to a changing rulebook in the final year of the turbocharged engine.

Murray claims his arrival at McLaren from Brabham was too late to do anything about the 1987 MP4/3, a chassis he variously describes as a "real hotch-potch" and a "consortium car".

"I got the guys together and showed them some Brabham drawings; you aren't allowed to do that these days!" Gordon Murray

That's a scathing assessment of a car good enough to win three grands prix, though the first pukka Porsche-engined McLaren to fail to win the world championship. But he's probably got it right when he says, "I couldn't see any glaring advantage over other people".

That was something the BT55 was meant to offer. Murray's final Brabham had been conceived to give the team, says its designer (invoking the term coined by Mark Donohue in the 1970s), the "unfair advantage".

"I'd got to the point with the BT52 where even with a huge rear wing and the winglets stuck out the side, we couldn't get any more downforce," he explains. "It became pretty obvious that the way to get more downforce was to clean up the airflow to the rear wing."

The idea he came up with was to cant the engine over at 18 degrees and lay the driver down from the normal 45-degree seating angle to something approaching 30 degrees. Thus, the Brabham 'rollerskate' was born.

Brabham Ligier Benetton Ferrari Lotus F1 1986

The BT55 didn't work for various reasons and ultimately hastened Murray's departure from Brabham. Team boss Bernie Ecclestone's increasing involvement in F1 politics - "he was moving into the bigger picture" - was one reason for his departure, but he admits that "the BT55 failure didn't help".

When John Barnard left McLaren for Ferrari, team boss Ron Dennis decided he needed a star name by way of replacement and Murray was his man.

Murray explains that he spent his "first months redesigning the design office and getting autoclaves into the company". Then his attention turned to the 1988 car.

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"I got the guys together and showed them some Brabham drawings; you aren't allowed to do that these days!" he explains. "I didn't have full working drawings, but I certainly had sketches with a 30-degree back angle to the driving position in eighth or 10th scale. I showed it to Steve and the guys and told them that that was what we were going to do."

That conflicts with what Nichols has to say. According to the American, the low-line nature of the MP4/4 was "only one aspect" of the car and one he "didn't consider of overriding importance".

He insists there was no all-encompassing plan to design a low-line car and that there was no big secret to a car that was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Nichols, during a meeting with this writer, pointed to a picture of the 1987 MP4/3 and said: "If you look at that car real quick, you think, 'There's the 4/4', but it's not. It's the 4/3."

He's right, the similarities are there to see. "Look at that car [the MP4/3, below] and then the 4/4," he adds. "Where do you think the 4/4 came from?"

Alain Prost McLaren F1 1987

The switch from the Porsche-built TAG engine to the Honda V6, a brand-new version of its title-winning twin-turbo, and a reduction in fuel capacity from 195 to 150 litres, had a lot to do with the way the MP4/4 ended up, he insists.

"The smaller engine and the smaller fuel tank meant it could be the next step on from what went before," he says. "The Porsche engine was a little taller and had two pop-off valves, one on each bank, so the profile was a little fatter.

"It was all down to the components. We had a lower engine and a smaller fuel tank, so what were we going to do, sit the driver up in front of it all? It was natural for the driver to lay down and be within that profile."

Nichols, like Murray a fan of Colin Chapman's low-line Lotus 25, insists the lower driving position was a logical development and not the result of a "eureka moment in the bath".

Yet Murray's version of events is at least partially backed up two members of the design team at McLaren in 1987.

Neil Oatley, who went on to head up the design team on a swathe of title-winning McLarens, has some recollection of the meeting Murray describes, though he says he's always thought of the MP4/4 as "Steve's car".

"I am pretty sure something like that happened," he says, though he concedes that he wasn't "involved myself". (Oatley was heading up the project that would result in the MP4/5, powered by Honda's forthcoming normally-aspirated V10.)

Oatley Murray Dennis Senna McLaren F1 1988

"I certainly saw layout drawings of that car [the BT55] lying about in the office."

Bob Bell, aerodynamicist on the MP4/4, says that Murray "brought a view to bear on how much we could lay the driver down, but I don't know how much of it was natural evolution and how much it was Gordon pushing for it. The ownership of the car conceptually is a pretty difficult thing to pin down."

Key to the concept of the BT55 had been the lay-down engine. The second obstacle in the way of clean airflow to the rear wing after the driver had been the tall, production-based, straight-four BMW turbo engine, which came complete with a Formula 3-style air intake "that sat up miles behind the driver". Murray says that when it became clear what power plant McLaren would have for 1988, he "got Honda to lower" the engine.

Honda had worked on the V10 project for a couple of years by then, according to Osamu Goto, team leader and development head at the manufacturer's racing division at the time. But it calculated that the turbocharged route was still the way to go, despite the 45-litre cut in fuel allocation, and set about producing a new engine with a different bore and stroke to replace the one that ultimately went on to win the world title with Nelson Piquet and Williams in 1987.

"That little V6 was pretty low anyway but they lowered it again," says Murray. "I explained the whole concept of the car and they lowered the crank height substantially for me."

That claim is backed up by Goto. "He said he wanted to keep the same driving position as the BT55 Brabham," he says. "Therefore he'd like a lower engine."

1988 McLaren MP4/4 detail

The gearbox that McLaren designed to take advantage of the new V6 was very much Murray's project, in fact it was his baby. No one involved in the project disputes that.

The crank height of the new V6 was 28mm lower than on its predecessor, which required a new gearbox. The use of a conventional two-shaft transmission would have resulted in power-sapping driveshaft angles, so Murray turned to the twin brains who had designed the so-called Z-drive gearbox that brought the power back to the centre of the car from the offset crank of the BT55's BMW unit.

The late Pete Weismann, who had a relationship with Brabham stretching back to the 1960s, and David North, who Murray brought in from Brabham, came up with an innovative three-shaft 'box that allowed for the correct driveshaft angles.

"The key to success of the MP4/4 was the gearbox, because we couldn't do it with a two-shaft gearbox," says Murray. "Once again, Peter Weismann came to the rescue with David. It was a huge risk technically to do a vertical three-shaft 'box. It was potentially the Achilles' heel."

Lotus, the other team to use the new Honda engine in 1988, chose to continue with its existing gearbox and tilted the engine fore to aft to achieve the right shaft angles. By doing that, of course, it negated much of the benefit that came with the lower engine.

Nichols and close friend Matthew Jeffreys, who was responsible for the design of the MP4/4 from the front bulkhead forward, agree that Murray was involved in the detail design of the new transmission.

"If there was one area that Gordon got involved in technically," says Jeffreys, "it was in the gearbox."

Murray's approach to the technical director's role was "more directorial than technical", according to Nichols.

Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 1988

"He said he didn't want to disrupt things and left us to get on with the car. He was much more involved in looking to the future and dealing with the new factory and drawing office."

That was certainly true at the start of Murray's tenure at McLaren, but by the time the design of MP4/4 had worked up to a full head of steam in August 1987, both the workshops and design office had long since moved to the team's new headquarters on Woking Business Park.

Another story, told by one of the men brought in to Brabham to replace Murray, suggests that his input stretched beyond the general concept of the car.

Murray's claim that he took "the BT55, turned it into a McLaren and solved the technical problems" is sweeping generalisation. But, maybe, not so far from the truth

Sergio Rinland had been hired by Ecclestone when it became clear that Murray was looking for pastures new in the middle of 1986. The former Williams engineer resurrected a novel front-suspension layout pioneered on the ground-effect BT49 for the '87 BT56, and bizarrely got Murray to draw it.

"Gordon was leaving but he was very good to me," says Rinland. "He offered to help out and said, 'Tell me what you want me to draw and I'll draw it'."

This pull-rod system, which did away with the need for a rocker, was also used on the MP4/4. At one race in 1987 – "Monza, I think" – Rinland remembers Murray and Nichols appearing at the front of the Brabham pit garage.

"I was doing the set-up and Gordon was explaining to Steve how the system worked," he says. "I'm not sure they could see anything, but I wasn't happy."

Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 1988

Quite why Murray and Nichols aren't content to share the accolades for arguably the best F1 car of all time isn't clear. They back away from rubbishing each other, but those who worked with them suggest their relationship wasn't a happy one.

"I don't think there was much chemistry between them and they could both be a bit stubborn in their own ways," says Oatley. "Maybe Steve resented Gordon coming in."

Nichols admits that he had told Dennis that there was no need to replace Barnard. "The main man had gone," he says, "and we wanted to do it for ourselves."

Nichols and his team did do it themselves in a way they never had under Barnard. "With John," says Jeffreys, "it was important to him that he had his stamp on everything. He could be very dictatorial. Gordon left us to our own devices much more."

There is no doubt Nichols, and the likes of Jeffreys, Bell, North and Steve Nielsen, designed the MP4/4 or did the detail work. But the concept? Surely the evidence laid out above proves that Murray, as is fitting of a technical director, was central to that.

Murray's claim that he took "the BT55, turned it into a McLaren and solved the technical problems" is sweeping generalisation. But, maybe, not so far from the truth.

Lucky escape: The Porsche V12

Alex Caffi Footwork Porsche F1 1991

Imagine how different the history of Formula 1 might be had McLaren not landed Honda engines for 1988. Then imagine how things would have turned out if the team had ended up with the Porsche V12.

McLaren had already had one bid for Honda engines and the services of Ayrton Senna rebuffed for 1987 and TAG, which funded the Porsche turbo V6, was desperate to call time on the project.

The void could have been filled by the disastrous Porsche V12 that eventually ended up with Footwork (nee Arrows) for '91.

"The Porsche engineers came along with their proposal and one of them pulled out a single drawing," remembers McLaren chief designer Steve Nichols. "He started unfolding and unfolding and unfolding. It eventually filled the whole table.

"It was this V12 thing, which was essentially two of the turbo engines stuck together with a shaft [the power take-off] coming out through the vee.

"It was hugely long and quite tall. It looked like something that should be in the back of a Leyland bus."

Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 1988

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Gary Watkins has, for reasons best known to himself, devoted all his working life to covering sportscar racing. This season is his 25th as a motorsport journalist, during which time he has reported on major long-distance events on four continents and approaching 60 24-hour races. He reckons a degree in political philosophy makes him well qualified for covering the sometimes Machiavellian world of international sportscars.

Gary, who also writes for RACER, Autoweek, Motor Sport, Autocourse and others, lives in Surbiton but spends more time on the road than at home for most of the year.
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