With Honda leaving F1, McLaren did not announce its new engine supplier until November 1992, and when the name was eventually revealed it was Ford. The return to Cosworth power, for the first time since 1983, it was disclosed, would be via a team-financed development of Ford's HB powerplant.
This was a light and economical 3.5 litre V8 the by no means a bad engine, but there was no escaping the fact that, whereas McLaren had previously been able to call upon bespoke power units from the likes of TAG Porsche and Honda, its new hi-tech MP4/8 would have to rely on a proprietary unit. One, moreover, which would be one specification behind that used by Benetton in its B193 because Ford already had a supply contract with them.
Ron Dennis had tried very hard to secure a deal with Renault, and even considered buying Ligier in order to obtain its Renault engines. McLaren would naturally have wanted to use Shell fuel and lubricants, and ultimately this proved a stumbling block with Renault’s sponsor, Elf. There was thus no alternative but to invest an estimated £6 million in developing the HB.
Design work on the new MP4/8 thus started without a clear idea of which engine would be used, although McLaren’s computer-aided design capabilities would at least enable the design team to make up for lost time.
Featuring a battery of advanced new technologies, the car was the company’s most sophisticated design yet with new electronic engine management software, chassis control, data acquisition and telemetry systems. Designed and manufactured by McLaren Group subsidiary TAG Electronic
Systems exclusively for McLaren, these systems were accompanied by a new, lightweight electronic control panel in the cockpit. Fitted into a new, improved chassis, the fuel-efficient Ford HB engine gave McLaren cause to be optimistic. It was hoped that whatever the car lacked in outright horsepower it would make up for with even better preparation and engineering, clever race strategies, chassis and electronics from TAG. The new car was also to feature even more advanced active suspension set-up and traction control.
And Ayrton Senna would drive it. Or would he? At times that seemed uncertain. For a while he appeared to be running on a race-by-race basis as he and Dennis negotiated over his financial demands with sponsors. Nevertheless, the season yielded five wins at a time when Williams Renault was the dominant force, compared to a singleton success for Benetton with the latest-spec engine. McLaren's tally in 1993 was all the more remarkable because, while Senna returned after a winter spent relaxing home in Brazil, various rule changes meant that when Michael Andretti joined the team from the US he was effectively denied adequate time to familiarise himself with the circuits.
As a consequence, having shown good speed when previously testing in the MP4/7 he failed to make his mark with the MP4/8 because of the lack of 'seat time' and was eventually replaced by one of the sport's coming-men, fresh from Lotus, Mika Hakkinen.
Senna really liked the MP4/8, particularly after testing at Silverstone where he ran his quickest laps there almost first time out. He proved his value to the team in the very first race at Kyalami by coming a close second to Prost’s Williams despite suffering an active suspension problem.
He quickly followed that with wins at home in lnterlagos and in one of the greatest Grand Prix drives of all time in the wet at Donington Park. Andretti, meanwhile, crashed in all three events.
Despite a strong drive in France and a podium spot with third place at Monza, the American, the son of 1978 World Champion Mario Andretti, was unable to recapture the magic he showed in lndycar racing and after the Italian race Hakkinen stepped up from test driver to team driver.
Senna, meanwhile, continued to impress, taking a record sixth win at Monaco despite a massive shunt at Ste Devote corner during practice. Nobody who watched him in action doubted the Brazilian’s commitment, even though the MP4/8 let him down in lmola, Montreal, Estoril and the Hungaroring. Worst of all was at Silverstone, when the team used Ford’s new Series Vlll engine for the first time, only for yet another fuel—reading glitch to leave him stranded on the very last lap for the third year in a row. Nevertheless, his season ended on an upswing.
At Suzuka, and then again at Adelaide, Senna succeeded in pulling off superb victories. The Australian success, it transpired, would be his last and at the time enabled McLaren to declare itself the most successful Grand Prix team of all time.
Senna trailed that year’s champion, Alain Prost, by 23 points, but had humbled him on more than one occasion, most notably at Donington, in what was seen to be a less powerful car. Long before Adelaide, where emotions in the team ran high, he had announced that he would be leaving McLaren after six seasons and three World Championships, to join Williams. The team, meanwhile, went towards an uncertain future testing a Lamborghini V12-engined MP4/8B before inking a supply deal with Peugeot for the coming season.