The McLaren MP4/3 didn’t win the World Championship, but it did help Alain Prost break a record.
1987's McLaren MP4/3 is something of a forgotten car in the team’s illustrious history, perhaps because it failed to scale the heights of its immediate predecessors and successors. Indeed that season was the only time in an incredible run from 1984 to 1991 that McLaren did not win the title, although Alain Prost was on top of the table after four of the 16 races, before his rivals surged ahead.
Nevertheless, MP4/3 was by no means a failure, as it played an important role in defining the following year’s MP4/4, the most successful car in the team’s history. It also had a respectable record on track, earning 12 podium finishes, including three victories – and one of them represented a special milestone.
Thirty years ago this month Prost scored his 28th career win in Portugal, surpassing the then record total of Jackie Stewart. That seems like a modest total now, but at the time, when there were fewer races per season and reliability so often robbed drivers of certain wins, it was a significant achievement for the Frenchman.
The 1987 season was always going to be a tough one for McLaren. The team had won the three previous titles with the TAG Porsche engine, but it was apparent in 1986 that Honda had the upper hand – and it was only a twist of fate in the Adelaide finale that robbed Williams of the title. The other big challenge was created by the departure of technical director John Barnard in the summer of ‘86. Thus MP4/3 had to be designed by the engineering team that he left behind.
“John and Ron were coming more and more into conflict,” recalls Steve Nichols, who took over. “And for whatever reason John was distracted, and doing less and less. We’d had flat-bottomed cars since 1983 and for his 1986 car, four years later, we still had this skinny little monocoque, which made no sense whatsoever. He’d done virtually nothing for the 1987 car when he finally departed the scene in August, so we had to take over and do the best we could without our chief designer.
“My philosophy has always been make the best possible race car. Quite often designers seem to pick out a single element, and design the car around that. I’m always trying to think a bit wider, not whatever parameter you want to pick out, but what do we need to do to make the best possible race car? So you have to take into account things like the rules that you have to work with, the laws of physics, and fundamentals like that.”
Nichols stresses that the 1987 car was a significant step on the way to the all-conquering MP4/4 of the following year.
“The design philosophy for the 4/3 was exactly the same as for the 4/4 – we’ll make it as compact as we can, as low as we can, try to optimise everything as best as we can, starting in August.
“We didn’t want to bite off too much, and then fall short, because we were in a situation where a lot of us had more responsibility than we’d ever had before. And so maybe take a little bit of walk, don’t run approach.
“So we maintained a lot of what had gone before. Having said that, we made the monocoque more compact, we made all the bodywork more compact, or as compact as we could make it considering the limitations that we had, with the big pop-off valves, and so on. We changed from a top radiator outlet to a side radiator outlet.”
The team knew that both Williams-Honda and Lotus-Honda would be serious threats, but the season got off to a solid start. Prost won in Brazil, retired with an alternator failure while running second at Imola, then won again in the third race at Spa. Even after retiring with an engine issue at round four in Monaco he still led the championship, but after that life became much harder.
As the Honda cars set the pace Prost had a run of third places interspersed with more frustrating failures as Porsche struggled to keep up with its Japanese rival.
“It looked more promising in the beginning,” says Nichols. “And then maybe its shortcomings began to be exposed, through the year, as the other cars became more competitive. It wasn’t a terrible car by any means, it was pretty good.
“I’ve always said that it was good enough that we were able to attract both Honda and Senna to come to us for the next year. Senna must have been able to see the writing on the wall for Lotus, because he came over to us.”
Indeed in September it was confirmed that Senna would be joining Prost at McLaren in 1988, and that Honda was coming with him. The TAG Porsche project, which had brought so much success, would be canned at the end of the year.
Prost’s Spa win in May had equalled Jackie Stewart’s then record of 27 GP wins, which had stood since 1973. All season people had been anticipating a further success from the Frenchman that would put him out on his own as all-time race winner, and it finally happened in Portugal.
Things didn’t start well when he ran as low as sixth early on with a rogue set of tyres, but attrition and strategy saw him work up to second, behind Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger.
“The chase was on as of the 31st lap,” Prost wrote in his autobiography. “And believe me, it was quite a chase. Berger was some 15 seconds up on me, but I was convinced he would be easy meat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I piled on everything I could, driving one fastest lap after another, sliding, opposite-locking, and turning up to full boost. After all, what did I have to lose? Quite frankly I don’t believe I have ever driven another race like it.
“My brakes were beginning to overheat, and above all, the McLaren’s tyres were taking a terrible beating. I told myself the same things must be happening to Berger’s Ferrari.”
When the Austrian began to push in order to stay ahead, he made a mistake and spun off on his worn tyres. Prost sailed into the lead and logged his 28th victory.
“People might not believe me,” said Stewart at the time. “But I’m glad to see Alain take my record.I am glad that he has done it because he’s the one that deserves it. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the best race driver of his generation.”
Next time out at Jerez Prost and team mate Johansson finished second and third, but remarkably the pair failed to score a point between them in the last three races of the season. McLaren still finished second in the constructors’ championship, albeit trailing Williams by 137 points to 76.
Prost meanwhile was only fourth in the drivers, a disappointment on the heels of his two titles. However he had three wins to his name, the same as World Champion Nelson Piquet, and one more than the third placed Senna. Had he experienced better reliability he would at least have been in the fight.
McLaren now turned its attention to 1988, the arrival of Senna and Honda. And history was about to be made.
“If you look at the 4/3, sometimes you think it’s the 4/4,” says Nichols. “But then hang on, the proportions are a little bit different. The engine cover is longer and the driver is further forward, with his feet still stuck out the front. But you can see that the design philosophy was the same, and in fact the sidepod was a direct swap over, it went straight from the 4/3 to the 4/4.”