Home » The McLaren MP4/4 Wasn’t The Greatest Formula One Car Of All Time, It Just Had No Competition

The McLaren MP4/4 Wasn’t The Greatest Formula One Car Of All Time, It Just Had No Competition

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Well, thank God that’s over and done with. I don’t like Christmas. Supermarket aisles descend into war zones. You’re forced to spend time with people you hate and spend money you don’t have on plastic crap you don’t need. Your parents turn up and start criticizing every aspect of your life, crushing any self-esteem you’ve built up over the year. Long-festering resentments get an airing and the whole sordid affair collapses into boozy acrimony which is barely forgiven by the time the whole process is repeated next year. In that spirit of the season then, there’s something that’s been bothering me for a very long time, like the hand I broke as a schoolboy that still nags me on a cold day: The 1988 McLaren MP4/4 wasn’t the greatest Formula One car ever designed. Apart from its drivers, there was nothing particularly exceptional about it. Pass me the sherry, I feel better already.

Authors note: This is a special belated bumper holiday edition of Damn Good Design. It should have been with you a few days ago but I was mostly cheese and Baileys and couldn’t be bothered. Although I had the bones of the rant, I had to research some of the specifics, and that takes time. This whole thing needed more wrangling than my Boxing Day bowel movement but will I hope prove ultimately as satisfying. Enjoy.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

Formula One cars are pure engineering exercises, and I’m always bleating about design and engineering being two separate disciplines, but this is a special holiday edition of Damn Good Design, and it’s my column and I can write about what I like, so deal with it. Secondly, design is about context; and when it comes to the MP4/4, there’s a whole lot of that which gets left out of the conversation. It’s not that the MP4/4 was too good for the opposition. It’s that the competition was so epically shambolic they might as well have been competing in a different Formula. And because 1988 was a transitional year for Formula One, some of the competitors were in effect doing just that.

Senna in the MP4/4. Image McLaren Racing

Why bring this up now? A good question to which I have several very good answers. Nursing a grievance of this magnitude for 35 years is not good for my blood pressure lest I subject myself to a Torchinsky style aortic rupture, and I’ve had enough trips to the ER this year thanks (bastard couldn’t even let me have that one thing). And in this Year of Our Liberty Media 2023 the MP4/4 is no longer mathematically the most dominant Formula One car over a single season – this year’s all-conquering Red Bull RB19 is. Thirdly, a few years ago a critically lauded but rather one-sided documentary elevated a certain fanatical yellow helmeted Brazilian driver to god-like status in the minds of midwits who weren’t there, and thus the MP4/4 was propelled into the stratosphere along with him. Finally, there’s the issue of who actually designed the bloody thing – something that Gordon Murray has needlessly burnished his reputation with by claiming sole credit for.

A Life Of Disappointment Began In 1988

My level of interest in Formula One has ebbed and flowed over the years. I discovered it as a troubled kid in the mid-eighties, and for a couple of hours every other Sunday afternoon I became an equal rather than a target in the eyes of my classmates. I could escape from a world of cruelty and strangeness I didn’t understand, to one of turbochargers and downforce that I did. Because of the weird way the developing brain writes memories, my recall of mid-to-late eighties grand prix motor racing is astounding. I know McLaren second driver Stefan Johansson had the fiercest blue eyes in the sport since Francois Cevert and that the 1987 Benetton drivers were Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi. Ask me anything about the last twenty years or so and I’m afraid I’d have to look the answers up. But what really accelerated my fandom was there was a British guy to root for. And he won a lot of races.

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Red Five. The Man. The Legend. The Moustache. Nigel Mansell in the 1987 Williams Honda FW11B. Image Autosport via Newspress

Bristling Brit Nigel Mansell. Fearless in the car, drama queen out of it. Too naïve at the time to fully understand the intricate weave of personalities and politics that made up the soap opera side of the sport, I was transfixed by his blood and thunder driving. Two characteristic turns of bad luck had robbed him of the ’86 and ’87 championships. I was convinced 1988 would be his year. But apart from a couple of gutsy drives to second places in the British and Spanish Grands Prix, Mansell was nowhere all season. In fact, those were the only two races he actually finished. Aside from an emotional 1-2 for Ferrari at Monza, in 1988 the McLaren Honda MP4/4 swept all before it all season long, winning 15 out of 16 races. Prost and Senna internecine warfare aside, it was all bloody tedious. As an angsty fourteen-year-old, the McLaren MP4/4 temporarily ruined Formula One for me in 1988, and that’s why I’ve held a grudge for so long. Consider it part of my origin story on my way to becoming the cantankerous and contrary smart arse you see before you.

It feels appropriate to start the story of the McLaren MP4/4 with the driver most closely associated with it, Ayrton Senna. According to his book The Life of Senna by Tom Rubython, Senna believed he should have been world champion already well before 1988 but had been hamstrung by a Lotus team that was slowly becoming uncompetitive. After he had broken his contract with Toleman to join Lotus in 1985, Senna thought he could mold the Hethel team around him to bring the success he thought his talent deserved. Despite numerous race wins, Lotus were unable to give Senna the car he wanted to mount a sustained assault on the world championship, but his final year with the team in 1987 was to prove fortuitous in another way – it brought him into contact with Honda and their all-conquering turbo V6.

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1987 Lotus Honda 99T. Image Lotus Media
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The lack of cupholders was one of the reasons Senna left Lotus for McLaren. Image Lotus Media

 

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Senna dragged this overweight actively suspended tub of shit to two wins in 1987. Image Lotus Media

Honda had been supplying Williams exclusively since 1984, but according to The Life of Senna, it was Frank Williams’ pigheadedness that caused the relationship to deteriorate to the point Honda wanted out of their contracted partnership a year early. For 1987 Honda supplied both Williams and Lotus, and Williams had delivered a world championship with Brazilian Nelson Piquet taking the driver’s title. Honda liked Brazilian triple world champion Nelson Piquet – but they absolutely adored Senna. His win at all costs mentality and the moral flexibility required to achieve this sat well with Honda who saw more honor in winning than being virtuous. When Senna decided to drive for McLaren alongside Alain Prost in 1988, he would be taking Honda engines with him. Honda, determined racing number 1 (in those days the world champion carried number 1 on their car) would remain on a Honda-powered car, paved the way for Piquet to move to Lotus in Senna’s place and Williams were out in the cold.

An Era Of Lunacy

The Lotus-Honda relationship had come about because their existing engine supplier, Renault exited the sport at the end of 1986. Renault had basically introduced the concept of the OEM backed “works” team to Formula One. Prior to their arrival at the end of the seventies, it was entirely possible to fold up a load of aluminum sheet into a tub, bolt an off-the-shelf 3-liter Cosworth DFV and Hewland gearbox on the back, slap some slicks on and go Grand Prix motor racing. When Renault turned up at the end of the 1977 season with a curious turbocharged 1.5 liter V6 in the back of their car, it exploded more often than it finished a race, leading the guffawing F1 establishment to nickname it “the yellow teapot.” Their derision turned to horror as Renault slowly worked out the kinks and the stylish Elf-liveried cars started romping past everyone on the straights. Ground effects helped keep the DFV powered cars competitive until that form of aerodynamic sorcery was banned at the end of 1982, but as the decade wore on turbocharging would go on to birth the most lunatic Formula One cars ever built. With boost unrestricted by 1986, special ‘hand grenade’ qualifying engines were making over 1300bhp for about three laps before detonating. To drive these wheeled nuclear explosions, you nailed the throttle on the way into the corner; so by the time you hit the apex all hell would be breaking loose. Wrestling the resulting tank slapper all the way down the straight, you then promptly returned to the pits for a change of overalls. Like all good times in motorsport, the whole thing was becoming unsustainable – and with the death of Brabham driver Elio de Angelis in testing in 1986, too bloody dangerous.

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FISA (then the governing body in charge of regulations) decided enough was enough. Normally aspirated engines would be allowed back onto the grid from 1987, and the turbocharged engines would be emasculated by lowered boost limits and reduced fuel allowances for ’87 and ’88 before being banned outright for 1989. For 1987, most teams did basically nothing. But in 1988 there was an additional wrinkle: 1987 cars would be allowed to race essentially unaltered apart from the reduced boost and fuel limits, down from 195 liters to a paltry 150. However, if you introduced a new car for ’88, the driver’s feet had to be behind the centerline of the front axle. In those days, a race car would be expected to compete for two, maybe three seasons with upgrades (provided it wasn’t a complete turd or a technical dead end). To further close the gap in performance for 1988, normally aspirated cars would not be subject to any fuel capacity limits and would be permitted to run 40kg (88 lbs.) lighter than the turbo cars. According to Autocourse’s contemporaneous reporting, then-FISA President Jean Marie Balestre said at a 1986 meeting of F1 constructors in Estoril:

“I promise you gentlemen, in 1988, no way for the turbos …”

FISA hoped these new rules would bring parity between the two engine types – but the reality proved to be one of the most one-sided formula one seasons in history.

1988 And All That

Because of the driver’s feet behind the axle rule, most teams still running turbo engines were not willing to build a car that would be obsolete after just one season, 1988. Ferrari had won the last two races of ’87 and concluded, not unreasonably, that an updated version of the F1/87 would remain competitive. To get a head start on the next engine development race, some teams decided to switch to normally-aspirated power a year early. Ford, with an eye on supplying customer engines in 1989, dusted off the DFV and bolted it in the back of the Benettons. Williams, cast aside by Honda had to scratch around for a power plant, eventually settling on the NA Judd CV8, based on an old Honda IndyCar block. Williams thought their ace in the hole would be active suspension, something Lotus pioneered for 1987 but abandoned for ’88 because they couldn’t get it to work properly. It would turn out Williams wouldn’t be able to get it to work properly either. McLaren had to design a new car – as MP4/4 designer Steve Nichols says in ‘Conquest of Formula One’ by Christopher Hilton:

“In many respects it was similar to the TAG engine we were using, with an 80° V, the same sort of size. It was not quite as pretty aesthetically, you might say, it looked a little bigger in some areas so there was going to be a slight problem in mounting it. For instance, the TAG had a heat exchanger for the oil on either side, this had it only on one side so that would have to be accommodated but overall it looked like a viable package, something we could easily integrate. The first step was to do an interim car with the Honda engine in it but with all the modifications you’d need to do that. All the interfaces between the chassis and the engine were different, the fuel connections were different, the inter-coolers had to be different so there was a lot of work just in that. The engine was good right from the beginning although it was hard to evaluate because the TAG engine had been 4 bar and the first Honda engines we had were 2.5 bar, so there was never any direct comparison between the two.”

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The one season only Honda RA168E. Image Honda

“The engine was good from the beginning,” might be the understatement of the fucking decade. Boost limits were policed with an IndyCar style pop-off valve mounted on the inlet manifold, with any excess boost simply venting to atmosphere. Again, according to the book “The Life of Senna,” Honda found a way to circumvent this restriction by introducing a low-pressure area in the inlet manifold where the pop-off valve was mounted. Ferrari didn’t figure out the dodge until the middle of 1988, and even then it took a little help from a certain Bernie Ecclestone. Honda also lowered the height of the crankshaft – something that apparently Williams had asked for during 1987 but Honda had been unwilling to develop for them. Honda designed an entirely new engine just for 1988, knowing it would have a shelf life of exactly one season.

The MP4/4 Design Controversy

There was nothing revolutionary about the design of the MP4/4. As Nichols says in “Conquest of Formula One,” chief designer of the original MP4 John Barnard had left McLaren in 1986 to join Ferrari. Nichols found himself in charge and didn’t want to deviate from the design thinking that had made that car and its successors so competitive. Despite being new from the ground up to accommodate a different engine, the MP4/4 was a continuation of that philosophy. It was, according to Nichols and McLaren design engineer Matthew Jeffreys, not a better execution of the “lowline” Brabham BT55 that Gordon Murray had designed previously. From the October 2021 issue of Motorsport magazine:

Murray often cites the problematic BT55, which scored two points and racked up 19 retirements – as the initial inspiration behind the MP4/4, but both Nichols and Jeffreys (Matthew Jeffries, McLaren design engineer) refute this, explaining why any association is superficial, as well as citing the illegality of copying another car.

“None of us were looking at BT55 drawings and we wouldn’t have wanted to be either – it was a disaster,” says Jeffreys. “Why would we want a McLaren to have copied a car that had huge problems and was also two years old? “If you also look at the MP4/3 [also designed by Nichols] and MP4/4 you can see one is a development of the other – the backend is virtually identical.”

“Gordon says ‘Compare the two cars [BT55 and MP4/4] together, you’ll see they’re almost exactly the same,’ adds Nichols. “When you look at those two cars, they’re nothing alike. The only similarity is that they were both low. But if you look at anything else – the rules were different [and therefore] the fuel tank size was different, the drivetrain was different, different engine, different gearbox – everything.”

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I really feel like a cigarette. Image Honda

The Lack of Competition

Only McLaren had an entirely new engine and car for 1988. Lotus had the new Honda engine but their 100T was the underwhelming ’87 99T with the active suspension yanked out. Ferrari along with perennial no-hopers Osella, Zakspeed and Arrows had detuned versions of their ’87 cars. Everyone else plumped for either the normally aspirated Judd CV8 or the twenty-year-old Cosworth DFV. Although the Ferrari F1/88 had been fastest in pre-season testing, this was mainly because the McLaren was finished late and had hardly completed any testing at all. There was a glimmer of hope at the first race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, with a typically herculean effort by Mansell to drag his Williams-Judd FW12 into second place on the grid six tenths behind pole sitter Alain Prost in the MP4/4, but it would prove to be a false dawn. By the second round at Imola, the McLarens would be at the front of the grid some two and half seconds faster than third-place man, Nelson Piquet. Ferrari, completely outfoxed by Honda’s solution to the pop-off valve sometimes could match the McLaren race pace but couldn’t get close to their economy. By the time they got their fuel consumption issues under control late in the season, the championship was long gone, any further development for 1988 was pointless.

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Color cameras hadn’t been invented in 1987. Image Ferrari

Ferrari’s sole win of the 1988 season serendipitously came at the Italian Gran Prix, just a month after the death of The Old Man. Prost suffered Honda’s only engine failure all season and Senna tripped over a back marker. It was the only race both McLarens would fail to finish, shattering dreams of a McLaren whitewash. Senna was on pole or second on the grid for every race except the British Grand Prix at a pre-buggered-about-with Silverstone. Ron Dennis’ pursuit of total dominance introduced side-pod snorkels to the MP4/4 for that race, only for them to upset the cars’ handling for qualifying. Ferrari were 1-2 on the grid but on race day Silverstone turned into a swimming pool and Senna simply disappeared into the distance, as he frequently did in treacherous conditions.

In the end, the MP4/4 scored 199 points out of a possible maximum of 240 for the constructor’s world championship. Because only a driver’s eleven best results were counted, Senna won his first title despite Prost scoring more points overall, by dint of his eight wins to seven for Le Professuer. The old sporting cliché is you can only beat what’s in front of you, but in 1988 an extraordinary convergence of circumstances and changing regulations meant McLaren had effectively no competition. Lego-haired Belgian Benetton driver Thierry Boutsen opined to Nigel Roebuck in the January 1989 issue of Car magazine, “without the McLarens I’d have won six grands prix this year” (not quite true, as he was third five times).  That’s the background that gets neglected when people fawn over the MP4/4.

Could Mansell Have Had A Williams-Honda In 1988?

In an interview with Alan Henry in the 1988 Autocourse Formula One annual, Nobuhiko Kawamoto (President of Honda R&D and de facto head of the F1 engine program) hints that Honda could possibly have supplied Williams, as well as McLaren and Lotus in 1988. He admits a great fondness for Williams, and in particular Nigel Mansell. When asked about his predecessor Yoshitoshi Sakurai, the man responsible for ending the deal with Williams he says:

“He was not trained at an early stage of his career with Honda to deal sympathetically with foreign people. This aspect of his background I think contributed to some misunderstandings, particularly with journalists”.

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Nobuhiko Kawamoto admits that a combination of these circumstances led him to suggest that Sakurai made a switch to another, rather less sensitive job within the Honda R&D organization. ‘He was very good in management terms for Honda, but if our company wants to become a member of the F1 fraternity, the first thing we need to do is become more open”.

I’m not an expert on Japanese culture but that sounds like the politest bus-toss I’ve ever heard. Cynically, it might just be PR spin given he was speaking to a British audience. Whatever. Nigel Mansell would have to wait another four years for his sole world championship. That would come behind the wheel of a Formula One car that legitimately could claim to be one of the most innovative and dominant race cars ever designed – the 1992 Williams Renault FW14B.

… but that’s a story for another day.

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Lead image: McLaren Media

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Veil of Farts
Veil of Farts
22 days ago

Late to the party, great stuff!

Good take, well supported, well written. Subscribed.

SK2807
SK2807
3 months ago

Adrian, this is the best thing I’ve read on this site since it began. Bonus points for the Zakspeed reference, they were abysmal.

Great work!

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Coloni’s futile effort is probably my fave, although one year Osella ran an entire season with the Alfa Romeo turbo engine (might’ve been 1988) which was physically incapable of completing a race on the fuel allowed. Like, really, what was the point?

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago

The BT55 is the exception which proves the rule that “if it looks good, it flies good.”

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
3 months ago

Christmas (in its secular CONSUME! form, at least) really has become the worst major holiday: fact.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
3 months ago

Great stuff! This is by far the most interesting period in F1 history.

“as he frequently did in treacherous conditions.” Yup, that’s why he was the best.

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
3 months ago

Nice piece of history. I began following F1 in the early 70s. The Turbo era really changed how teams approached the entire car + engine package. And started the trend towards the teams that spends the most money wins. The number of competitive teams really shrank. Having the same team win over and over makes it tough to maintain interest.

With the insane popularity of F1 in Europe, it may be just me that moved on. The lack of US drivers and teams didn’t help.

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

By and large, yes. But, let’s not forget the early years of James Hunt and team Hesketh. And you had Surtees. Even Chapman was no Ferrari and he was successful with Lotus.

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Still made for interesting racing. But I guess my point was, for those years, a privateer could at least field a team. Even just for fun, like Lord Hesketh. Those times are long gone. Pretty much in all major forms of racing.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
3 months ago

Dear Uncle Goth, as a non-baptized child in a Catholic country, I share your sentiment regarding Christmas. It still lingers on, too.
Also, don’t forget the Hallmark Xmass movies. Tortuous, all of them.

Fantastic write, by the way. Great to read you again. Have a great year ahead!

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
3 months ago

So where are you on the sherry vs port? Or do you partake in both at family events?

Mike
Mike
3 months ago

This whole thing needed more wrangling than my Boxing Day bowel movement but will I hope prove ultimately as satisfying. 

And with that, I know I’m going to need more than the 5 minute break from work I just gave myself. I’ll be back later!

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago

Great stuff again Adrian.
I always thought the MP4/4 was a great looking car, and still is.
Thanks.

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
3 months ago

Lego-haired Belgian Benetton driver Thierry Boutsen” quite possibly the funniest yet accurate descriptor I’ve read of someone and after looking up some photos of him quite spot on.

Turbeaux
Turbeaux
3 months ago

I was going to say the same thing. Didn’t know what Adrian meant until I clicked on the wiki link and spit out my drink.

Mike F.
Mike F.
3 months ago

Thanks for that excellent bit of F1 history – takes me back to when I was just getting into the sport. And be thankful for Christmas 2023, when the holiday season didn’t start until late October. Another few years and the Christmas decorations will be going up in August.

Dennis Ames
Dennis Ames
3 months ago

Was this not the engine that used a Toluene mixture as a Fuel?

Dennis Ames
Dennis Ames
3 months ago
Reply to  Dennis Ames

I had to look it up, this was the Weird Fuel years, I remember reading this in Car and Driver:

Later, Honda fessed up that its 1988 fuel at the conclusion of the turbo era was 84-percent Toluene and 16-percent n-Heptane, the latter chosen to give a Research Octane Number of 101.8. (At the time, regulations limited it to 102 RON.) 

Source:https://simanaitissays.com/2021/09/02/formula-one-fuel-tidbits-part-1/

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
3 months ago

On of the best “Man to Man with Dean Learner” episodes is the one with the Steve Pising (“it’s pronounced ‘pissing!'”) as a stand in for Mansell. The segment at his auto parts chain is terrific.

Angel "the Cobra" Martin
Angel "the Cobra" Martin
3 months ago

This article made my day. I love the bits of snark tossed in with all the information. BTW, I just bought a 2010 Clubman S for my mother in law. She’s awesome and she deserves an awesome car.

Scruffinater
Scruffinater
3 months ago

Ok, now I want the companion article on the visual design and *not* the engineering. Maybe the MP4/4 was not the engineering feat we have been lead to believe, but to my (completely untrained) eye it is sexy AF. I would love to read Adrian’s dissection of the design from a visual standpoint.

AssMatt
AssMatt
3 months ago
Reply to  Scruffinater

Hell, you had me at the naked “feel like a cigarette” shot. Aero and advertising are important, sure, but holy Honda, that Bat-sled makes me tremble!

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

That Senna movie almost made Dennis look like an actual human being. No small feat!

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

It would be interesting to hear which F1 cars you think are successful aesthetically. With my limited knowledge of racing, mine are pretty obvious: Lotus 25 and Brabham BT52.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago
Reply to  SonOfLP500

You forgot the Ligier JS5 with the HUMONGOUS air intake. Definitely the smurfiest of all the F1 cars that ever smurfed.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
3 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

!

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

@DavidTracy, the lobbying effort starts here.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I realize that this thread has exceeded its shelf life, but I saw a beautifully made-up model of a Lotus 72 in JPS colours, but no JPS markings, at the Tamiya Plamodel Factory this afternoon. Yum.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
2 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I think you might want to set up camp there. If you ever visit Japan, maybe you should time it to coincide with the Shizuoka Hobby Show (spring) or All Japan Hobby Show (autumn).

Re the 72, being able to take it in at scale in one eyeful, without dazzle paint, shows what can be achieved with two-dimensional surfaces.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
3 months ago

Red Five! ‘Ar Nige! Looks equally at home in a Williams or a Spitfire.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

If I’m not wrong, Senna used to say that Mansell was the only driver that could appear on BOTH of your rearview mirrors at the same time. An epic force of nature, Mansell.

Angel "the Cobra" Martin
Angel "the Cobra" Martin
3 months ago

“Senna dragged this overweight actively suspended tub of shit to two wins in 1987.”
Well, that made my day.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
3 months ago

I see someone is a fan of Sellar and Yeatman.

Chronometric
Chronometric
3 months ago

Hop on a plane next year and my Yank family will make you miserable in wholly new ways. But, we can drive antique cars, walk dogs on the Florida beach, and eat food that wasn’t invented by destitute sheep farmers.

And, as an F1 fan of similar duration, I really appreciate the content. It is interesting to contrast the 1988 season with 2016. It was pretty clear the championship was between teammates and before long the knives came out.

Last edited 3 months ago by Chronometric
Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
3 months ago
Reply to  Chronometric

I would bet that no F1 principal would be stupid enough to let Senna/Prost happen again. Hamilton/Rosberg was an accident.

Chronometric
Chronometric
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I think Alonso is still a duplicitous twat. Helluva driver though. And a real personality. If F1 is entertainment, they need more Alonsos and less Russells.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
3 months ago

Wow, it seems you and I have very similar Christmases.

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