Test Drive Tuesday review #42: 1988 McLaren MP4/4
The McLaren-Honda MP4/4 is one of the most famous and iconic F1 cars of all time, and there are a lot of very good reasons for that.
The first one being of course that it still is, despite Mercedes’ current effort, the most dominant car in F1 history, winning 15 out of 16 races, and leading 93% of all the season’s laps. One very good example that illustrates plainly the MP4/4 shattering pace is the qualifying results at the San Marino GP, at Imola. That year, both Senna’s and Prost’s cars qualified in the 1:27’s, while no other car succeeded in breaking the 1:30 barrier. Also, out of the 14 races he finished, Prost always came in first or second… There are many ways to explain that: most of the other teams were running less powerful naturally aspirated engines that year, preparing for the 1989 turbo ban; thanks to a compact Honda turbochared V6, McLaren was able to develop Murray’s concept of a very low chassis, limiting drag and weight; and of course, it was driven the most legendary pair of drivers.
The Prost vs. Senna rivalry ignited that year, as it was to be expected with the two best drivers in a clearly dominant car that excluded anyone else from winning the championship. Senna won the driver’s title after a thrilling season, but it’s also worth noting that Prost had more overall points than the Brazilian: at the time, only the top 11 finishes of a driver counted, and Prost had fewer wins than Senna.
The MP4/4 isn’t only a legend. Thanks to SRW, it’s also one of the best driving experience you can have.
Of course, the brutal power is exhilarating, but we’ll come to that in a minute. You see, I think that the most brilliant thing about the MP4/4 is its aero vs mechanical grip balance. Since downforce were still far from today’s levels, and the trend was to huge tires, most of what you feel, even in a fast corner, is the car gently moving around its massive rear tires. Because of that, the car is much more communicative, much more engaging than, say, the more recent MP4-27. That isn’t to say that modern F1 cars are boring; they are another kind of challenge, thrilling in its own way. But there is something truly special with the MP4/4. It is so talkative, so full of feedback, as soon as you start pushing it. It’s a car that truly enjoys being pushed hard, and gets better and better the harder you drive it. But of course you don’t get better and better, and here lies a big part of the fun you can have with it. How early do you dare to go back on power? How late can you brake without missing the apex or spinning?
This could be annoying, in a less amazing car. But here, since the front end feels rock-solid and the rear-end is just here to remind you of mankind’s mortal condition, you can go straight to your limits with a lot of confidence in the car, but also enjoy the thrill of knowing that you are closing in with what you are capable of doing, and that one moment of inattention could virtually kill you. There, you can find yourself in the perfect zone: right at the edge of your talent, right at the edge of the car’s limits. The car leaves corners with its back-end moving around, and enters them with as much precision as you can give it. It’s a try symbiosis between you and this tiny carbon tub. The car feels alive, you feel alive, it’s just an amazing feeling.
You just have to be careful not to go beyond what you can do, because then the punition is quite immediate.
Another thing is that the tires are quite temperature-sensitive, and heat up pretty quickly if you’re not careful. That means that turn 1 in a race is quite interesting, while the last of the esses at CotA can be extra challenging if you pushed a bit too hard. But again, because the car is so easy to read, so full of feedback, it is a joy to listen to it and adapt your driving style to the conditions.
And the drive train only adds to that. It’s not just that it’s immensely powerful, it’s the way it delivers its power that makes it so memorable. The big (and somewhat rudimentary compared to nowaday’s standards) turbo is here tweaked up to qualifying form, pushing out 900bhp. But all of these horses don’t come in a disciplined manner: below 8,000 rpm there isn’t much to see. But passed 10,000 it feels like some kind of bomb went off at the back of the car. You wait for it, wait for it… and BOOM, you’re at the next corner. Or in the wall. Depends how you deal with it. There are two equally valid techniques to tame this beast: either you short-shift it to perfection, and time the explosion to happen exactly when you can put it to the road; or you don’t, and take a lesson or two in throttle control. While the latter might be slightly faster, unless you’re an alien that’s gonna be a bit risky to do it for an entire race. But that’s the beauty of it, I think.
And then you think about Senna’s famous Monaco lap, and you think that these guys were truly made of something else. Taking it around CotA while sitting comfortably at home is already quite the scary job; pushing it like a mad man in the narrow streets of Monte-Carlo is true modern-days heroism. It’s cars like the MP4/4 that forged the grandeur of Formula 1, and the McLaren is a car that will remain forever in the sports history as one of the all-time greats. It’s cars like the MP4/4 that made me love Simraceway so much, and it will remain one of my all-time favorites. Don’t let its pricing lure you away: save a bit, and enjoy motor racing’s nirvana.
To see how it did compared to more modern F1 cars, head to the TDT Leaderboards: https://goo.gl/ATr6mF