How Senna’s mesmerising lap embodied the creative spirit of McLaren Applied Technologies
Donington Park, April 1993. The heroic Ayrton Senna crosses the finish line to win the European Grand Prix after overtaking no less than Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Alain Prost on his barnstorming opening lap.
Senna, behind the wheel of the MP4/8, holds a very real claim to one of the greatest laps ever witnessed in Formula 1 history.
“That was a race which really saw the best from that particular car,” Senna’s boss at McLaren, Ron Dennis, remembered. “The car was fully electronic, had active ride, and had the ability to memorise virtually every parameter, like the gear changes.
“It provided the driver with the opportunity to concentrate on driving. We contributed a lot to that race, because the car did a lot of thinking for the driver. All the driver had to do was drive it, and of course that’s something that Ayrton did very well!”
Ayrton Senna races to victory at Donington Park in 1993
When Honda exited Formula 1 in 1992, McLaren Racing turned to TAG Electronics (now McLaren Applied Technologies) to provide high-performance electronic components for its Ford-powered cars. TAG Electronics, a subsidiary of McLaren, specialised in the production of high-performance motorsport and automotive electronics.
Between 1989 and 1992, TAG Electronics, led by Dr Udo Zucker, established its reputation in motorsport, supporting Group C cars in the World Sportscar Championship. The company also helped create the legendary McLaren F1 road car’s pioneering electronic systems. But the team always had the belief that they could prove their engineering capabilities at the very pinnacle of motorsport – Formula 1.
Members of the TAG Electronics team and the year they joined
As well as supplying engines to McLaren Racing, Honda had also provided Electronic Control Units (ECUs), an arrangement which ended when they left the sport. This opened the door for TAG Electronics.
Working on the upper level of a two-tier warehouse in Woking, with the McLaren F1 road car being crafted on the floor below, the team were tasked with designing and manufacturing many new parts for McLaren’s 1993 challenger in just three months.
The MP4/8 was the first F1 car to be fitted with a complete TAG Electronics package, including new ECUs, sensors, ignition coils, and a digital driver display.
The brain of the MP4/8 - The TAG 2.12F ECU
“Before the start of the ’93 season, McLaren asked us to inspect the Ford engine to explore how we could integrate our systems with it,” said Bob McDonald, Head of High-Performance Components at McLaren Applied Technologies.
“We embrace a challenge – we always have and always will. Back then we were keen to prove that we could be a trusted supplier for F1 teams. We concluded that the main challenge was to ensure our components integrated with the advanced active ride system, which the race team did a superb job to develop.
“Benetton were also running the Ford HB V8 engine, but we believe the quality and seamless integration of our electronics package extracted a performance advantage for McLaren."
McLaren Applied Technologies’ pioneering approach was born from new techniques and innovations the team formulated back in the early 1990s. “We were focused and determined to create the very best systems on the grid,” added McDonald. “We even set up our own lab for calibrating fuel injectors, which no other company did back then.”
One of the challenges the team faced to help McLaren compete with the then dominant Williams was to create bespoke components that had never been made.
“We didn’t have a production line of F1 parts, because we weren’t a major supplier,” said Dieter Schulz, then Head of Electronic Engineering. “In fact, some of the components we embedded on the MP4/8 didn’t even exist. But we succeeded through high-quality engineering and design.”
The innovation race in motorsport is unrelenting. It takes a committed team with a diverse skillset to win a world championship, and the same principal can be applied to a motorsport electronics business.
From designers to engineers, finance teams to admin support, everybody is required to perform to the best of their ability.
“We worked incredibly hard but had a great team spirit. No matter the challenge or the deadline, we all pulled together to get the job done to the impeccable high-standards set at McLaren. At times, we worked 12-15 hour days, and even did ‘overnighters’ to get components ready for Grands Prix,” said Mark Booker, Head of Motorsport Operations.
“The buyer who would arrive in the morning, would even cook us breakfast sometimes! A few cups of coffee, and we were back to production. We were in it together.
“The MP4/8 was a phenomenal racing car. Fully automatic gearbox, fully active suspension, and a two-way telemetry system which meant the race team could change the car’s configuration while it was on the track.”
The McLaren MP4/8
The team also set standards in customer service as well as components.
“Customer service was and always will be paramount for McLaren Applied Technologies, added Booker. “We sometimes even hand-delivered components to race circuits around the world.”
Booker recalls an extraordinary moment where he witnessed the genius of Senna, this time outside of the racing car. “I was lucky enough to be within earshot of Ayrton during a practice session during the ’93 season.
“Ayrton was asking his mechanic if he could have his rear-left suspension raised by 2mm at a specific corner on the circuit. It was an unfathomable level of attention to detail. He was a simply a genius, and McLaren provided him the car in which to flourish.”
Towards the end of the 1993 F1 season, TAG Electronic systems went on to innovate new solutions, including a twin-injection manifold, which helped increase the air and fuel-flow to the engines.
In the history books of McLaren Applied Technologies, 1993 is remembered as a year of opportunities, hard work and fantastic achievements, underpinned by the core values that drive its success today.
Creativity, audacity, and bravery. A committed group of people on the fearless pursuit of advantage.
Today, McLaren Applied Technologies is just that, now on a global scale.