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How McLaren shattered all F1 records in 1988

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How McLaren shattered all F1 records in 1988
By:
Co-author: Matt Somerfield
Apr 3, 2020, 4:11 PM

On this day in 1988, McLaren kicked off the most dominant campaign by a team in the history of Formula 1, winning nearly all 16 races with the legendary MP4/4. Giorgio Piola and Matt Sommerfield reflect on the season, using the extensive archive of Motorsport Images.

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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The only running that the MP4/4 had had ahead of the first race at Rio was on the last day of testing at Imola. As such, everything was still very raw for the team going into this race, with Senna later disqualified during the race having switched to the T-Car when he suffered gear shift issues on the parade lap. McLaren still won convincingly though, as Prost cruised to victory nearly 10 seconds ahead of Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari.

You’ll note that the Titanium rollover hoop wasn’t painted for the first round either, a detail that Ron Dennis had resolved for the second race: not only having them painted in white but also emblazoned with the drivers name and a sponsors logo too.

McLaren favoured a medium downforce arrangement for Jacarepagua, supplementing the trailing edge of the rear wing element with a Gurney flap too.

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2/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Imola was where McLaren really flexed its muscles, demolishing the rest of the field as they lapped everyone, taking their first 1-2 finish of the season, with Senna taking the spoils.

The team ran a medium downforce setup once again but this time it didn’t add the Gurney flap on the trailing edge of the wing.

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3/24

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Senna’s lasting legacy is further enshrined with his performances at the Monaco Grand Prix, his innate ability to thread the car through the barrier-lined streets clear to see. And, whether he was at the wheel of the double winged Toleman TG184, that ought not have been able to compete with the front runners, or in the dominant McLaren MP4/4, he commanded them in a way that demands almost mythical status.

This freshly colourised artwork from the Giorgio Piola is now available for you to own

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4/24

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The 1988 Monaco Grand Prix weekend was no exception, with Senna clearly on a different planet to Prost that weekend, as the Brazilian was able to extract a great deal more performance from the MP4/4 than his counterpart. Prost did close the gap during the second qualifying session from just under two seconds on Thursday, to just under one and half seconds on Saturday.

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5/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Visible in the previous image but abundantly clear in this one, is a rear wing trialled by McLaren for the Monaco GP but not raced. The biplane rear wing arrangement had become a feature elsewhere on the grid. But it was placed in a much lower position than the one seen here on the MP4/4, although it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the high downforce arrangement used by Tyrrell that season.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

The startling fact is that footage of Senna’s now almost mythical lap doesn’t exist, as the broadcaster was following other action at the time and, whilst onboard cameras were being used during this time period, they weren’t mounted to every car as they are today. Surely though, this only adds to the legend, as we are only left to imagine his almost superhuman feat...

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7/24

Photo by: Sutton Images

Race day: Prost had a decent start but struggled to engage second gear, allowing Gerhard Berger to pounce. The Austrian kept Prost at bay as they tussled throughout the race for second place, as Senna duly disappeared down the road. On lap 54 Prost was able to stick a move into Saint Devote and set about reeling in his teammate, who was now more than 50 seconds away.

Prost knew that barring a failure or accident he couldn’t take victory, as overcoming Berger with the pace advantage he had was troublesome, so overtaking Senna, who had been quicker than him all weekend, would be impossible.

The drivers traded fastest laps in a psychological game of cat and mouse, before Ron Dennis intervened and told both drivers over the radio that they must slow down, look after their cars and bring home the 1-2.

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8/24

Photo by: Sutton Images

Crash: On lap 66 the unthinkable happened. Senna, who’d been untouchable all weekend was climbing out of his MP4/4 having crashed going through Portier. The left side of the car and its suspension crumpled in the impact with the Armco barrier and with that Prost went on to take victory.

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9/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As we look inside the cockpit of Senna’s MP4/4, you’ll note the adjustable suspension mechanism on the left-hand side. This allowed the driver to change the front anti-roll bar settings on the fly, providing each driver with their own dedicated setup option at any point they chose fit.

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10/24

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

McLaren did look at the option of running its high downforce rear wing configuration for the Mexican GP but went on to use the medium downforce option instead. It also ran different sidepod bodywork, opening up the radiator and intercooler inlets and exits.

Whilst the RA168E engine only had a limited lifespan that didn’t stop Honda from developing race specific variants, with Mexico high on that agenda due to the rarefied air at the high altitude circuit. It created an entirely new spec engine that could breath more easily at altitude and, whilst this led to a corresponding increase in fuel consumption, it was a sacrifice worth taking, as it took another 1-2 finish with their closest competitor almost a minute down on race winner - Alain Prost.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

It was more of the same from McLaren at the Canadian GP, with only the result reversed, as Senna led the 1-2 this time around but still clear of the next competitor by 50 seconds. It ran in a medium downforce configuration once again, whilst this image gives a good view of the curved Jabroc rubbing strip mounted on the underside of the front wing endplate.

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12/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Detroit street circuit saw a return of the high downforce rear wing on the MP4/4 with a Gurney Flap also affixed to the upper flap to increase downforce and balance. Prost wasn’t as comfortable with the many 90 degree corners and short straights that posed the challenge around this street circuit, but having recovered from a poor showing during qualifying, he rose from 4th to maintain McLaren’s 1-2 finishing streak.

Meanwhile, Senna drove off into the distance lapping everyone in the field aside from his teammate, who languished nearly 40 seconds behind the Brazilian.

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13/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The front brakes glow as Alain Prost, at his home GP, romps to victory. You’ll also note Prost’s more forward seating position in this shot of the Frenchman.

The team returned to a medium downforce configuration for the French GP and scored yet another 1-2. Senna had led for a while but gearbox issues for the Brazilian meant he succumbed to Prost’s advances.

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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Senna went on to dominate the British Grand Prix but the team’s 1-2 finishing streak was brought to a climax, as Prost retired from the race on lap 24, citing handling issues and a lack of power.

The team had decided to run different downforce configurations for this race too, as whilst Prost’s car (left) was outfitted with the medium downforce setup, Senna had a low downforce variant (right). It was also the first time that the trialled a new sidepod solution, ditching the snorkels that fed the turbochargers but it continued to race with them, having had some instability issues throughout the weekend.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Both drivers opted for a lower downforce setup for the German Grand Prix, as they returned another 1-2 finish, Senna claiming a 13 second advantage over his teammate and a 52 second advantage over their closest rivals.

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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The Hungarian GP saw Senna on pole but by the smallest margin so far, as Nigel Mansell was just a tenth away. Meanwhile, Prost was down in seventh place, a factor that meant very little during the race, as the team romped home 1-2 once more with Prost just half a second behind his teammate.

Both drivers utilised the high downforce rear wing with a Gurney flap for this event, whilst peculiarly the MP4/4’s wing mirrors were painted white, the only and only race that occured. Meanwhile, the panel alongside the cockpit, usually painted in white was painted black instead, matching its surroundings, but this feature was retained for the rest of the season.

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17/24

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

This picture of Senna at Spa gives a real sense of the speed as the drivers straightened their car and fired it onto the Kemmel straight. The team ran its low downforce package for this race and dominated once more, with Senna 30 seconds clear of Prost and 1:15 seconds clear of Ivan Capelli in his March 881.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

This side shot of Senna at Monza shows the now black panel attached to the chassis, in front of the sidepod and how it blends with the monocoque ahead. Also note how far back Senna sits in the cockpit when compared with the earlier shot of Prost.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

The McLarens were both outfitted with the low downforce rear wing for Monza, as it looked to shed as much downforce and drag as possible around the temple of speed. However, even given McLaren’s best efforts, this would be the race that denied its clean sweep, with an engine failure for Prost and Senna getting tangled up in an accident that ended his race prematurely.

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20/24

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Prost leads Senna as the pair do battle for the lead of the race, in a heated affair that saw tempers flare both on and off the circuit. Prost runs out the eventual victor, with Senna left down in seventh place having backed off due to a faulty fuel readout.

Medium downforce setups were favoured by both, whilst Gurney Flaps were applied to the outer trailing edges of the rear wings.

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21/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Senna and Prost were both unhappy with their cars during Friday, but Senna still managed to edge out Mansell by around a second, whilst Prost languished two seconds off the pace. Saturday was a different story though, as the Frenchman had instructed a batch of changes that would see him close the gap to his teammate to within a tenth of a second.

High downforce setups with a full Gurney Flap across the trailing edge of the rear wing were employed by both drivers and fuel consumption would be a major factor heading into the race. Prost went on to win the race, whilst Senna slipped back down the order, suffering once more with his fuel readout.

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22/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The drivers championship could be won on Honda’s home soil, a track itand McLaren were immensely familiar with given the amount of testing they’d conducted there throughout the season. Honda had created another one-off engine specification for the race too, whilst both drivers would use a medium downforce setup.

Senna was on top during qualifying but only by three tenths from Prost but, drama would befall the Brazilian on race day, as he stalled his MP4/4 at the start. Managing to bump start the car, due to the track falling away towards turn one, he found himself down in twelfth place. He charged back through the pack as it began to rain lightly, favourable conditions for the Brazilian who’d become known for his skills in changeable conditions.

Senna went on to haul in Prost who was suffering with a gear shift issue and with a certain inevitability about it the Brazilian went on to win the race and the drivers championship.

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23/24

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The last race of the season was hosted at Adelaide and provided McLaren with the opportunity to showcase its superiority once more. Senna led Prost during qualifying by just a tenth but the Brazilian’s poor start allowed Prost to take the lead into turn one. This would be its finishing position, as both battled through the field, Prost lapping everyone up to Patrese in fourth place, whilst Senna suffered from gearbox issues that left him 30 seconds adrift of his teammate.

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

The McLaren team crowd around the championship winning cars

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About this article

Series Formula 1
Teams McLaren Shop Now
Author Giorgio Piola