This week will see the unveiling of the McLaren Honda MP4-30, surely one of the most eagerly anticipated F1 cars of recent years given the heritage of the combination.
Some 27 years ago, we awaited the first Honda-powered McLaren, the MP4/4 with a similar sense of expectation. The big difference is that, back then, Honda was already well established after five years with Williams and Lotus. This time around, the potential of the Japanese power unit is a huge unknown, not least because the whole Honda operation has been revamped since its last F1 foray in 2008. Nevertheless, there are clear parallels between the situations then and now.
It was at the 1987 Italian GP that McLaren confirmed that it would use Honda power in 1988, and that Ayrton Senna would be joining Alain Prost. The disappointing ’87 season thus proved to be the last for the venerable but mighty TAG Turbo, which had lost any advantage it once had.
McLaren now had its hands on the best engine, and without a doubt, the most exciting driver combination of the era. In addition former Brabham wizard Gordon Murray had joined as technical director in 1987, filling the void left by the departure of John Barnard.
In fact, the team seemed to hold all the aces. With so many assets onboard, team boss Ron Dennis was struggling for the most appropriate name for the team. I still remember sitting in Ron’s office while he sat at his desk arranging and rearranging three scraps of paper that read simply, ‘McLaren’, ‘Marlboro’ and ‘Honda’. Ron couldn’t find a configuration that worked, needing to both satisfy his title sponsor and his new engine partner. I leant over the desk and placed them in what I felt was the most obvious order – and so ‘Honda Marlboro McLaren’ came to be.
It may not have been the most elegant of names, but all the pieces seemed to be falling into place. There was one big question mark, however. The sport was moving to normally aspirated engines for 1989, and the ’88 season would be the last for the turbos. The transition had begun a year earlier, but only a handful of teams had opted for the non-turbo route. Now, for ’88, some top teams – including Williams – made the switch, and it seemed to be a good idea to do so.
On paper, it looked fairly clear-cut: the turbos would be severely handicapped with maximum boost dropped from 4.0 to 2.5 bar, and a reduction in fuel tank capacity (no refuelling stops in those days) from 195 to 150 litres. There was also a hefty 40kg weight handicap relative to cars running the new engines.
The general idea was that these restrictions would handicap the turbos, and indeed the FIA’s ever-colourful president Jean-Marie Balestre was convinced that they would have no chance of enjoying a winning swansong season before the normally aspirated engines became compulsory in 1989.
History relates that it didn’t quite turn out that way...
To speed up the ‘getting to know you’ process, McLaren did just what it did at the end of last year – the team created an interim B-spec car out using the old chassis fitted with the new engine, in order to go testing and give Honda the best possible opportunity to adjust to the rule changes.
In fact, McLaren built two MP4/3Bs, because there was a requirement from Honda to send one to Japan for winter running at Suzuka, where new test driver Emanuele Pirro would eventually complete thousands of kilometres. One car was converted from 1987 race spec, while the other was the final unraced monocoque, and could thus be properly adapted during the build process.
It wasn’t simply a case of slipping the Honda into the space where the TAG had once sat, despite the two engines sharing fundamentally the same 80-degree V6 architecture. In reality they were quite different, and there was very little compatibility between their systems and ancillaries. Outwardly the car looked similar to the standard 1987 machine, although the large Honda logos on the engine cover gave the game away! Underneath, aside from everything around the engine itself, there was also a new gearbox casing and oil tank.
“In many respects it was similar to the TAG engine, with an 80deg vee, the same sort of size,” recalled project leader Steve Nichols. “It was not quite as pretty aesthetically, you might say, it looked a bit bigger in some areas so there was going to be a problem mounting it. For instance the TAG engine had a heat exchanger for the oil cooler on either side, this had it on only one side so that would have to be accommodated. But overall it looked like a viable package, something we could easily integrate.”
The car ran for the first time in Prost’s hands at a chilly Silverstone in December, and later in the winter Senna took the wheel for his first ever experience of a McLaren since his famous test with the team in 1983. Honda’s work focussed on optimising the new engine at lower boost, while improving fuel economy to deal with the smaller 150-litre fuel tank. It was a major challenge, but one that the Japanese engineers tackled with relish.
“The engine was good right from the beginning,” said Nichols. “Although it was hard to evaluate because the TAG engine had been 4.0-bar and the first Honda engines were 2.5, so there was never any direct comparison between the two. Working with the Honda people was very good, there were a lot of them, and they were very, very competent. They had somebody to do each job.”
Without the restrictions that are imposed these days – last year's MP4-29H was in essence built just to run in the post-race Abu Dhabi test – the team logged a huge amount of priceless mileage. However, there were some problems. Inevitably the test car was a compromise, and its behaviour on track reflected that. That made it hard to accurately predict the potential of the definitive 1988 package.
Nevertheless, all the information that was gleaned was ploughed back into the design of the MP4/4, a process that had not commenced properly until after the Honda deal was finally signed off in September. It was to be a clean sheet of paper incorporating all the lessons learned from the testing, while also reflecting the philosophy of Murray, who was keen to produce a ‘lowline’ car, something he’d tried with the bold but hopelessly slow Brabham BT55 two years earlier.
Crucially, the interim car allowed McLaren to hold back the test debut of the MP4/4 until the last possible minute, and the team used every available day for its development. From the outside, we wondered if that really was the right strategy – surely it would have been wiser to get the actual race car out running early, just like everyone else? However, McLaren had kept us guessing before and it had paid off, so we gave the team the benefit of the doubt.
The MP4/3B was used at the major winter tests of 1988 at Estoril, Jerez and Rio, and still there was no sign of the new car. At Imola, the final European test before the Brazilian GP, journalists waited in vain for it to appear. Some gave up and went home.
However, after a superhuman effort back in Woking the prototype was dispatched by cargo plane just in time to catch the final day at the autodromo – talk about cutting it fine! It arrived late on the Tuesday night, and after final preparations it took to the track on Wednesday, just nine days before the first day of practice and qualifying in Brazil. The race team joined the test mechanics, who had been working for weeks with the unloved and now redundant MP4/3B.
“While we were there with this awful car the race team arrived with MP4/4,” recalled test team manager Indy Lall. “And it just looked the bollocks. We were knackered, and we were just sort of shovelled into the corner because Ayrton and Alain didn't want to know about the old car any more – and you can't blame them.
“But it gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about what happened next. The MP4/4 went on track and the lap times just went quicker and quicker and quicker. It was getting dark – and Ayrton didn't want to stop. It was an absolutely amazing experience.”
In Senna's hands the car was an astonishing two seconds faster than its nearest rival. Clearly the irrepressible Brazilian had never heard of the concept of sandbagging! Indeed, it was immediately obvious to both the media and McLaren's shell-shocked rivals that Murray, Nichols, Neil Oatley and their design office colleagues had got their sums right – and so too had Honda.
“It was a very good package, and the drivers were great,” Ron Dennis would say a few years later. “Within two hours of first testing the car at Imola, it was apparent that it was really good. When you’ve been working in racing a long time, you can get a damn good idea on the first day whether the car will perform or not...”
Had there been a major weakness or a problem to be addressed at this stage, then the 1988 season might have turned out very differently. Instead the team came away from Imola knowing that it had a winner on its hands. The homework done with the MP4/3B had paid off, and in 1988 McLaren experienced the most successful season that any F1 team had ever enjoyed, winning 15 of 16 races.
So what of 2015? McLaren and Honda took a lot of flak after various problems kept the MP4-29H in the garage in Abu Dhabi in November, and inevitably the policy of putting all that effort into creating a test car came under scrutiny. However, while Stoffel Vandoorne might not have run many laps it was crucial that those issues emerged in November, and not at Jerez in February with the brand new car. In that respect, the test car project will have quietly paid dividends.
Of course, this time the new McLaren-Honda will made its debut at the same time as its rivals, so there will be none of the brinkmanship of 1988, and that famous last-minute shakedown. Now we just have to wait and see how competitive it is out of the box...