The dawn of Formula One’s most dominant car

When the 1988 Formula One season began in Rio de Janeiro, nobody knew that the record book on dominance was about to be rewritten. But that’s just what happened. When the bottom half of this car, the McLaren MP4/4, was attached to the carbon fiber shell photographed at dusk before the race, all mayhem was let loose. The 900–1,200 676 hp Honda V6 in that bottom half didn’t hurt either.

Neither did McLaren’s new driver, Ayrton Senna, who was signed from Lotus to partner their two-time world champion Alain Prost, launching his career at McLaren at his home race, the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix.

“I think the 1988 season is gonna be incredibly competitive,” ESPN Speedworld’s David Hobbs said before the race. In the waning days of the turbo era, boost reduced from 4 bars to 2.5, fuel tanks reduced to 150 liters, it was set to be an early year for naturally aspirated engines before they would become mandatory for 1989. It wasn’t.

Except for an uncanny double retirement at Monza a week after Enzo Ferrari’s death, which resulted in a Ferrari 1–2, the McLaren MP4/4 won every race of the season. Senna won eight and his first championship, Prost won seven, and the 1.5-liter Honda RA186-E V6 engine in that car, good for up to 1,200 hp, is still the stuff of dread and dreams.

Just ask Lewis Hamilton.

Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport (click for wallpaper size)