Thursday, 07 September 2017 10:00

The turbo dynasty of McLaren (1984 – 1988)

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Translated by Athanasios Rizos

Until the late 1970s, the Formula 1 community had not been concerned with the concept of engine turbocharging.

During the first ten years, turbos were allowed, but in 1961 – 1965 they were forbidden, as well as they returned to the regulations in 1966.

In addition to some unsuccessful Lotus efforts in 1970 – 1971, no manufacturer showed interest until 1977, where Renault introduced the Gordini V6 Turbo.

However, the evolution was slow and we had to enter the 1980s so as the rest of the manufacturers were convinced about the advantages of the turbo, as until then, the majority of the teams were satisfied with the availability of the evergreen Ford V8 Cosworth.

The end of 1980 found McLaren without a victory for the 3rd consecutive year.

The latter had come from James Hunt in 1977, as the team since then was not able to compete with the rest on the pace of “wing cars”.

Then, its main sponsor, Phillip Morris, decided to act pushing Team Leader Teddy Mayer to merge McLaren with Ron Dennis’s successful (in F2 & F3) Project 4, which they also sponsored.

That’s how McLaren International was created and the cars since 1981 were called MP4 which until the departure of Phillip Morris in 1996 meant Marlboro Project 4 and after 1996 McLaren Project 4.


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Ron Dennis was very ambitious, and that was shown from the beginning.

He recruited the talented designer John Barnard who created the revolutionary MP4/1 for 1981 which was the first car that was entirely made of carbon fiber.

If we consider that today all Formula 1 cars and many sportscars are built from this material, we can see the impact of this innovation on the 4 – wheel world.

1981 was a recognition year for the team, which managed to get its first victory after four years at the British GP with John Watson.


Ron Dennis, realizing that the future belonged to the turbo engines (to whom he invested after Renault and Ferrari), had begun getting in touch to create a comparable competitive one.

Particularly appreciating the experience and success of Porsche in endurance racing and Le Mans with their turbocharged engines, he approached cautiously the German manufacturer.

Porsche executives agreed to build a F1 championship engine as McLaren covered the cost.

But McLaren’s budget did not allow that, but Ron Dennis, proving his business insight, found the right investor in the face of Mansour Ojjeh.

Ojjeh headed TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde), a Saudi investment company that entered Formula 1 as a sponsor of Williams team in 1979.

The two men founded then the TAG Turbo Engines, with the French investing $5,000,000 in engine development while the agreement was announced in September 1982.

Meanwhile, the team did extremely well into the championship, with Lauda (returning into action after his retirement in 1979) and Watson winning 2 wins.


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In the meantime, John Barnard, wanting to avoid design compromises, gave detailed specifications to Porsche, and demanded that the would be adhered to.

In particular, the engine should as narrow as possible, so that the floor of the car could take full advantage of the ground effect.

Hans Mezger, Porsche’s chief engineer, after exploring all possible versions, ended up with a V6 with 80o aperture. 

Body and cylinder head were made of aluminum and the weight was not exceeding 150 kg.

It had a capacity of 1498 cc, with the small stroke of pistons allowing the engine to reach 11,000 rpm.

It was using a Bosch fuel injection system with 4 valves per cylinder and 7.5:1 compression.

Under each row of cylinders, the two turbochargers were fitted, while the other components as well as the two intercoolers (which were designed to cool the unit) were in the front of the engine.


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The result was a lightweight, compact, and sturdy enough engine that became an active part of the frame that was made of carbon fiber and aluminum in the MP4/2.
Porsche’s experience of endurance racing allowed the team to create a flexible fuel management system, as the new regulations banned refueling and the size of the tank was limited to 220 liters.
The horsepower, depending on the overcharging, ranged between 700 and 800 hp.
The ban of ground effect technology did not bring dramatic changed to the car and the development continued normally, whereas the presentation of the TAG TTE PO1 was held in January 1983 at the Geneva Motor Show.
The preparations of the engine were completed during summer but Barnard and Dennis did not want to start testing because they wanted to fine – tune the plans for the new car that would run in 1984.
In the 1983 championship, the team was moderate, with only one glimpse of an amazing 1-2 in the race of Long Beach where John Watson took an epic victory even though he started with Niki Lauda from the last places of the grid.


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The Austrian champion, realizing that the year was lost, demanded the new engine to be launched immediately, but the reluctance of Dennis and Barnard forced him to take control of the situation.
He met with Marlboro’s leaders, who then pressed (by threatening to cut the sponsorship) McLaren’s chief stuff to speed up with the procedure.
Then the first test was carried out with a modified version the current car (MP4/1D) on the Porsche private track in Weissach, outside Stuttgart.
The engine was not only tested in the MP4/1D but also in the Porsche 956C.


Weissach 1984 Lauda testing the new Tag Porsche F1 engine fitted in a 956 sportscar



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After another test in Silverstone, McLaren decided to run in the Dutch GP with MP4/1E and of course the new engine.

Watson, who was racing with the old car finished 3rd while Lauda with the new one retired from the race due to the brakes failure to handle the power of the TAG Turbo.


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The youth problems continued in the last three races of 1983 pointing out to John Barnard the shortcomings that he had to correct.
After the end of the championship, Renault fired Alain Prost, blaming him for the loss of the championship, and the French driver signed immediately to McLaren replacing John Watson (rumors say that he asked more money from Ron Dennis).
The new car was of course a development of the MP4/1, weighing only 540kg thanks to the carbon – aluminum frame.
The suspension consisted of double – wishbone, thrust bars and absorbers with springs while the brakes were made of ventilated carbon discs.


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The engine was connected with Hewland’s 5-speed manual gearbox which did not change despite the 200-horsepower difference between the TAG Porsche Turbo and Ford Cosworth.
The MP4/2 was prepared just a few days before the opening GP of 1984 in Brazil, where Prost won and Lauda retired.
From the very first race the championship route was obvious.
Brabham, Renault, and Lotus were quicker in qualifying (Porsche did not create qualifying – only engines like the others) while McLaren was faster, more reliable and more fuel – efficient during race conditions.


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Lauda and Prost dominated by winning 12 of the 16 races (5 the Austrian and 7 the Frenchman) while they did the 1-2 four times.

McLaren’s duet gave an equal battle for the title until the last race of Portugal where Lauda with an epic counter attack finished second behind Prost, securing his 3rd championship title by half a point difference!


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In the constructors’ championship McLaren (despite the 11 retirements in total) collected 143,5 points against the 57,5 of Ferrari, dominating the title.

The drivers of the British team never finished any race below 4th place, whereas the others either ran out of fuel or retired.


Portuguese GP 1984 – Interview of Niki Lauda and Alain Prost


For 1985, John Barnard prepared an evolution of last year’s car, the MP4/2B.
It had a different suspension as McLaren changed tire supplier from Michelin to Goodyear.
The huge rear spoiler of 1984 was banned, so a smaller one took its place while ongoing the championship new turbochargers were placed in the TAG Porsche’s engine.
The year started once again with Prost winning in Brazil while Lauda retired which was a usual image of the results of the team for the rest of the year.
Fuel consumption was again the characteristic feature of the championship with Ferrari, Williams and Lotus being very competitive.
Even McLaren was suffering with Prost being cancelled at the San Marino Grand Prix when he ran out of fuel at the end of the race and in the scrutineering his car was 2 kilos lighter that the limit.
But the French pilot managed to win 5 times while the consistency he showed by finishing often in the podium gave him the coveted title.


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Lauda managed to win in the Netherlands but suffered from mechanical failures throughout the year (11 retirements), leading him to the decision to retire definitively from racing despite Ron Dennis pressured him to continue.

McLaren again did not have the fastest car (6 fastest laps, 2 pole positions) but their conservative tactic allowed them to win once again the constructors championship by collecting 90 points against Ferrari’s 82 and 71 of Williams and Lotus.


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In 1986, fuel tank capacity dropped once again from 220 to 195 liters with John Barnard making again the necessary modifications to the new MP4/2C which had a new gearbox by Getrag.
The team was still competitive, but the rise of Williams–Honda was obvious while in some cases Lotus was faster.
Fuel consumption was yet the key of that year and has struck several pilots.
A typical example was Prost’s win in Imola, where the French champion finished doing zig – zags during his attempt to use every drop of fuel left in the tank.
Niki Lauda’s positions was taken by the 1982 champion, Keke Rosberg, leaving Williams after four years.
The Finnish, a classic example of oversteering driver, had lots of problems with the understeering set-up of McLaren so he was only one time on the podium (Monaco) and scored 8 retirements.


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In Portugal, he made impression, racing with McLaren painted yellow after Marlboro’s wish, as a part of the Marlboro Lights promotion.


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On the other hand, Prost with his well – known consistency in finishing races, he won 4 races (San Marino, Monaco, Austria, Australia) and he was always in the battle of the championship taking advantage of Mansell’s rivalry with Piquet.
Reaching the last race in Adelaide, Prost needed a victory and squadrons of the two Williams to win the title for a second consecutive year.
Luck smiled to him as Rosberg who was ahead retired by a tire failure.
Mansell then was out of the race for the same reason, forcing Piquet to enter the pits for preventive tire changes, giving the lead and finally the win to Alain!


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Prost won the title by a 2-point difference from Mansell and 3 from Piquet, while Williams mitigated the disappointment by winning the manufacturers championship collecting 141 points vs the 96 of McLaren.

By the end of the year, John Barnard left heading to Ferrari, whereas Rosberg announced his retirement from action. 


In 1987, FISA banned the soft tires of the qualifying session and imposed a limit on turbocharging via a valve that was limiting the pressure to 4 bars.
McLaren had a new car, the MP4/3, designed by Steve Nichols.
The body was more flat and lower, but shared the mechanic solutions as his predecessor, except from some few changes in the TAG – Porsche engine, such as the upgraded ECU.
Ron Dennis approached Ayrton Senna to replace Rosberg, but Lotus’s contract and Honda’s outlook on the engines were inhibiting factors, so he chose Stefan Johansson who had left Ferrari.
Although the season started with Prost’s victory in Brazil and Belgium (1-2 for McLaren) but Williams Honda’s superiority was obvious from the first races.


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The championship was again an internal matter of the Frank Williams’s team, but in this case Alain Prost was unable to take advantage of the battle between Mansell and Piquet.

He managed to win one more time in Portugal, with which he broke the record of more victories in F1, owned previously by Jackie Stewart since 1973.


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The results of the French champion, combined with Johansson’s five podiums, brought McLaren to second place in the championship with 76 points behind Williams (137).
At the end of the year also the partnership with Porsche ended, with Porsche turning its attention to IndyCar.
In total, the McLaren TAG – Porsche partnership had a result of 68 races, 25 wins, 7 pole positions, 3 drivers and 2 constructors’ championships over a 4.5-year period.

And we arrive in 1988.
McLaren had announced already at the 1987 Italian Grand Prix , their co–operation with Ayrton Senna and Honda.
Negotiations with the Japanese had begun earlier that year and were, of course, kept secret, with Prost and Dennis visiting several times the company’s headquarters until the deal was closed.
Senna agreed only after confirming that Honda would cooperate with McLaren, showing early that he left nothing to chance.
Ron Dennis (who had first approached the Japanese in 1979 for F2) wanted to use their engines from 1987, but the Japanese factory already supplied two teams, Williams, and Lotus.
The way the drivers’ title was lost in 1986 dissatisfied the Japanese but also Frank Williams’s refusal to accept Satoru Nakajima (who went to Lotus) as a second driver, so they broke the contract with the British team paying $24 million as compensation, while they had to pay for the engines that Williams would use in 1988.
Honda’s leaders wanted to create at any cost a team with the two most valued drivers, champion Prost and rising star Senna, who had left excellent impressions during their partnership with Lotus in 1987.


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The “Dream Team” was completed by former Brabham designer Gordon Murray, who together with Steve Nichols created the new McLaren MP4/4.
The body was very low, flat, and narrow, similar to the Brabham BT55 designed by the South African in 1986.
The driver’s position became more subdued (which Prost did not like) as there was a cleaner air flow to the rear spoiler.
The frame was made of carbon fiber.
Suspension were made of double – wishbone and spring dampers, with pull rod in the front and rocker arm in the back.
The brakes were made by discs that were a combination of ceramic and carbon fiber.
The manual 6-speed gearbox was a product of McLaren’s co – operation with the American Weismann.
The Honda engine had a RA168E code, was a six – cylinder V – shaped with an 80 – degree angle, made of aluminum and weighing 149 kilos.
It had a capacity of 1494 cubic centimeters, 4 valves per cylinder, 2 turbochargers, and a Honda fuel injection system.
In the race version based on the fuel consumption settings, it produced 650 – 700 horsepower at 14,000 rpm, while in qualifying around 900.


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In the context of the ban of the turbo (in 1989 the natural aspirated were returning), FISA tried to balance the gap between the turbocharged and non – turbocharged engines.
It imposed further limitations on fuel tank capacity where the limit was now 150 liters, in turbo engines the pressure was limited in 2.5 bar while the minimum weight remained at 540 kilos.
The MP4/4 made its debut in the latest tests made in Imola before Brazil’s first race, as Honda delayed the production due to minor problems in the turbos.
From the very first moment, it seemed that the FISA efforts for equal opportunities was frustrating, as difference between the competition was chaotic.
What followed had neither precedent nor succeeding.
15 victories (Senna 8, Prost 7) and 15 pole positions in 16 races with McLaren winning the constructors championship at the 11th race.


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 It needed a retirement of both McLaren cars for another team to win (Ferrari in Monza)!
The competition between Prost and Senna lasted until the Suzuka fight where the Frenchman wanted the victory to stay alive in the title battle, while the Brazilian could win it if he won that race.
At the start, Senna faced a clutch problem and fell to the 14th position while Prost took the lead.
The Frenchman, however, struggled with his gearbox while the Brazilian (who overtook everyone in front of him in the meantime) taking advantage of the light rain that fell, managed to reach, and overtake him in the start – finish straight thus taking his first championship.

The last lap of the Japanese Grand Prix


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Senna won 8 races taking also 13 pole positions, whereas Prost took 7 wins and 2 poles.Senna won 8 races taking also 13 pole positions, whereas Prost took 7 wins and 2 poles.

The two drivers in their first year in the same team were very skeptical and conspiratorial in their relations and despite their extreme – sometimes – dueling in the track (e.g. Portugal), the last race in Adelaide found them embraced in podium after another 1-2 (10th of the year) for McLaren.


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The division that prevailed during the next season in the team had not yet appeared.
In their first year of partnership, McLaren and Honda smashed the competition and made history by collecting 199 points against just 65 of the second Ferrari in the latest show of the turbo engines.
30 years ago, McLaren created a turbocharged dynasty with a German V6 engine and continued it with a Japanese one.
30 years later, they were back in the turbo era with a six-cylinder Mercedes – Benz and from 2015 they continued with Honda’s V6.
Their performance, though, so far does not remind us of the results of the 1984 – 1988 season.

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