Having spent three seasons preparing to win on a regular basis notwithstanding the six triumphs since 1981, McLaren at last had everything in place to sweep the board. It may have been slightly late joining the turbo generation, but the preparation for it had been typically thorough and from now on the team was ready to stamp an indelible mark on the 1980s.
By the start of 1984 everything that had been learned from the interim MP4/1E had been incorporated into the design of the new MP4/2, which John Barnard believed was far more integrated. The team had a much better understanding of the 80-degree one million Deutschmark TAG V6 and it was now producing an extra 50bhp compared to the previous season. Everything was neatly packaged, in one of the first truly homogenous F1 designs of the era, and after strenuous testing the MP4/2 was ready to catapult the team into the front rank.
The new car shared much in common with the outgoing MP4/1 E, but the monocoque was redesigned to accommodate the shorter engine and the larger, 220-litre fuel cell that it required. The curve of the sidepods changed too, as the turbochargers were positioned as far forward as possible so that the pods could curve in at the rear to maximise the coke bottle and enclose the engine and gearbox in the most aerodynamically efficient way.
Remarkably, McLaren would dominate the season using just three cars: MP4/2-1 for Niki Lauda, MP4/2-2 for Alain Prost, and a T-car numbered MP4/3. Lauda, indeed, used just that one car throughout the entire 16-race season, the odd knock never severe enough to compromise the strength of the Hercules-built CFC monocoque.
Prost’s return was a major coup, giving the team a tremendously strong driving partnership. The Frenchman was now a seasoned Grand Prix winner, and he had a point to prove after being fired by Renault when the French manufacturers World Championship challenge collapsed in the South African denouement the previous year.
It quickly become apparent that in the MP4/2 Prost and Lauda had the tool to dominate the 1984 season from start to finish. With two World Championships under his belt, Lauda as the incumbent star insisted that he would do the majority of the testing and development of the car. However, as the season progressed there was no escaping the fact that the younger Prost was the faster driver. This was particularly so in qualifying, but over the course of the season 'The Professor' was also to win seven races to Lauda's five.
If the car had any weakness it was in the areas of braking and the gearbox. The team was still relying on a transmission unit designed for the less powerful Cosworth era. As for the brakes, it was still experimenting with CFC components whose performance under stress remained a major limiting factor. Different forms and shapes of cooling ducts were developed and tested but as the season progressed all that really emerged was that on circuits demanding frequent heavy braking the time between one application and the next was insufficient to allow for cooling.
On the plus side, the performance of the new engine completely vindicated Ron Dennis’s decision to commission Porsche. BMW had also been considered, but the need for bracing struts for its turbocharged four cylinder engine was incompatible with Barnard’s intended rear-end design and he was similarly unhappy with the compromises which would have been required by the adoption of Renault’s own V6. With the TAG engine he could dictate from the outset where key components were located, thus harmonising the installation in a manner not seen since Colin Chapman first worked with Cosworth to install the DFV in the Lotus 49.
McLaren’s wind tunnel expertise was also key. Barnard told Motor Sport readers in 2005: “I think we were well ahead of the other teams in terms of... the way we could anchor and move [our scale models]. So we had faith in our aero numbers. The combination of rear wing, winglets and diffuser worked tremendously on the MP4/2.” By generating plenty of rear-end grip in this way, the car inspired great confidence in both drivers.
“We knew from that first test that we had a strong car,” Barnard said, but he admitted that he was frustrated with the new rule changes, calling the period of this highly successful car’s gestation, “One of my most annoying times in F1”. In particular he felt that the switch to flat-bottomed cars effectively robbed the team of up to 50 per cent of the engine’s potential, nullifying much of the advantage it should have brought at a time when no other team had gone quite so far as to have a whole new engine built to suit the regulations then in force.
Even compromised in this way, however, the MP4/2 was to give McLaren those 12 wins from the 16 races, lead Lauda to his third Drivers’ World Championship, and massacre the opposition in winning the Constructors’ Cup by an incredible 86 points. True, a loose front wheel cost Prost the win at Dijon, Porsche still had some work to do on its engine, and the brake-cooling issue still needed to be resolved, while one can only imagine Prost’s frustration at winning more races but losing out to Lauda by half a point. But in every other regard the MP4/2 provided McLaren with a near-perfect season, and even/one else on the grid with a warning shot that no-one could ignore.