Read time: 6.5 minutes
The McLaren MP4/4. It needs no introduction. 15 wins, 15 pole positions, the car that Ayrton Senna drove to his first title and, statistically, the most dominant Formula 1 car of all time. You know the story.
But while our march to a fourth constructors’ title was straightforward, the launch of our 1988 challenger was far from it. From utter despair to equal measures of disbelief and relief, very few people know about the rollercoaster 24 hours that preceded the moment it broke cover. Until now…
Before we reveal all, let us be clear that when we say ‘launch’, we’re using the term in its most liberal sense. This was before the days of burgeoning marketing budgets, Spice Girls, and bringing a large chunk of downtown Valencia to a standstill.
No, these were the days of power suits and perms. It was the tail end of March ’88. The McLaren test team led by Indy Lall had been running relentlessly, first at Rio and subsequently at Imola with an interim version of the 1987 MP4/3 – a car that was proving difficult to drive and off the pace – while awaiting the completion of the MP4/4.
Nevertheless, a first season with Honda was dawning, Ayrton Senna had joined the team, and Alain Prost – already a double world champion – was hungry for more titles. Expectations were high, but frustrations from testing were mounting.
Then, finally, on the penultimate day of testing – just over a week before the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix – the test team received a call from the factory to let it know that the MP4/4 was ready, on a flight to Italy with the race team, and that a minivan was needed at the airport upon its arrival.
And so, two truckies duly began the 45-minute drive from Imola to Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport in a minivan – as instructed – while the rest of the test team continued to run the troublesome MP4/3B on track.
The sound of silence
“We had just landed and got off the plane, along with the MP4/4, and that’s when it happened,” says Gary Wheeler, who was no. 2 mechanic on Ayrton’s car at the time.
“The truckies were asked where the truck was, and they replied: ‘What truck? Nobody asked us for a truck?’
“…silence,” reveals Indy Lall. “Deafening silence and sheer horror. The penny had dropped, along with everyone’s jaws.”
“‘How do you think the car is going to get from here to the circuit?!’
“As you can imagine, certain members of senior management were not best pleased.”
Fasten your seatbelts
“Screeeeeeeeeccchhhhh! I’ll never forget that minivan careering into the paddock,” says Indy. “It was like something out of Starsky and Hutch.
“The doors flew open. Bedlam ensued. Everything was pulled out of the garage and disconnected. And I mean literally everything. All the cables and air lines required to run the MP4/3B were fed into the garage from the transporter, which was now needed to collect the MP4/4 from the airport.
“And then the truckies were gone – the tailgate of the transporter still retracting upright as they sped off into the distance. Off they went, and there we were: garage in pieces, with a car we could no longer run.
“Of course the truckies returned – again – and, crucially, with the MP4/4 this time. In came this red and white rocketship. It was so sleek and low to the ground. It just looked the b*llocks.
“From that moment, no one was interested in the MP4/3B, or any of us [on the test team]! We were lost souls, absolutely exhausted and shovelled into the back of the garage. The focus had firmly shifted to preparing the MP4/4 for the final day of testing.
“I think Ayrton drove it first. He was reluctant to come out of the car and then he said that it was so good that it was ridiculous.
“As with any new car, there were lots of systems checks to carry out, so we couldn’t just go out and keep running. This meant our lap count wasn’t anywhere near as high as the other teams and it left them under the impression we were having teething problems, when really we were just checking things over.
“We urged the drivers not to go flat out because we didn’t want to show our hand, and yet, even under restraint, the car just kept going quicker and quicker.
“I vividly remember that moment. It gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about it. We’d never seen anything like it and the other teams had no idea what was going to hit them.
“It was just… phenomenal.”
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