How Ferrari upstaged McLaren dominance in its most important race

Speaking to AutoClassics at Race Retro, legendary F1 designer John Barnard explains how Ferrari stopped the McLaren MP4/4 from taking a clean sweep in 1988

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Three decades on, the McLaren MP4/4 remains the most dominant car in Formula 1 with a win rate of 93.8 percent. In 1988, drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna notched up 15 wins from 16 races for McLaren, a ratio not even the tour de force of Mercedes in the current hybrid powertrain era has matched – its closest effort in 2016 falling short by 3 percent.

Only did that season's Italian Grand Prix prevent the MP4/4 from attaining a perfect score. The race at Monza was the first grand prix held following the death of eponymous marque founder Enzo Ferrari. In front of the renowned Tifosi fanbase, Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger took the spoils ahead of Italian driver and team-mate Michele Alboreto.

Heading into the weekend, the MP4/4 had won all 11 preceding races. But during the race a rare spark plug failure caused a misfire for the 1.5-litre V6 turbocharged Honda engine, forcing Prost to retire. Then race-leader Senna collided with Jean-Louis Schlesser as he attempted to lap the Williams driver. With terminal right-rear suspension damage sustained, Ferrari claimed an historic, and seemingly fatalistic, one-two. But on that day, as much as McLaren had failed to win, Ferrari took the top spot on merit.

The ‘88 season was a stopgap for Ferrari following delays to the development of its naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V12. That meant it retained the cumbersome F1/87 design from the previous season that had taken it to only fourth in the constructors’ championship.

To improve its ailing fortunes and at great expense, Ferrari had set up a technical office in Guildford, UK as part of its negotiations to attract pre-eminent designer John Barnard – whose legacy includes the introduction into F1 of the carbonfibre monocoque, semi-automatic gearbox and pioneering the coke-bottle shape of the engine cover, all of which are still in use. But it was on a visit to the Ferrari factory in Maranello that Barnard uncovered the secret to McLaren’s most potent force: the Honda engine.

‘Strangely enough, leading up to the grand prix I’d been concentrating in England on getting the first new normally aspirated car done,’ reflects Barnard.

‘I went to Italy and they were running some tests on the dyno on a Garrett turbocharger. I said to the engine guy, “What’s it like? Let me have a look so I can see.” I looked at the results and the response time was like a tenth of a second better than ours. This looked like a step we could use. I got quite strong and said, “Get on the phone now. You get to Garrett in California and you get those turbos for the next race”.’

‘So we got the turbos and the next thing that happens was we starting talking about why Honda had got so much horsepower. We thought they had done something a bit tricky with the manifold. In those days, you had these 2.5-bar pop-off valves. There was no regulation on where you could mount it – I think it just had to be on the inlet somewhere. So if you then crafted your inlet manifold, which was a cast manifold, to such that where you put the valve was in a constricted area, you effectively created a Venturi [an area of low pressure].’

‘So now your valve doesn’t pop until you’ve got something like three-bar. So you can have the standard valve on there but because you’ve created this Venturi section under it you’ve increased it in the engine.’

What Barnard discovered was that by mounting the pop-off valve where the pipe was of a smaller diameter then it was at a reduced point of pressure. And so with a lower pressure section more air was being thrown into the turbo.

In turn, that meant Honda were able to run higher pressures in the turbo relative to the valve. So, despite still satisfying the regulations, more air was fed to spool the turbos and that reduced lag. More air for the combustion also increased the power output.

‘The engineers said, “We don’t think this is quite right”. I said, “Look, if you think they’re [McLaren-Honda] doing it then go and do it now!” So we were effectively running 2.9-bar and consequently the horsepower went way up.’

Now armed with the knowledge of why he suspected Honda’s engine had proved so imperious, Barnard could improve the Ferrari powertrain and begin to overcome its aerodynamic deficit to the competition.

‘OK, our car probably wasn’t as slippery as the McLaren because the Ferrari was a development of the ‘87 – quite a bulky car – and really there were not many other modifications from ‘87 to ‘88. We weren’t expecting to run it because we were going to use the normally aspirated car but the engine wasn’t ready.

‘Doing these things with the turbos and the inlet manifold gave us that bit more. OK, the McLarens had a problem that day but we were there with them enough to pick up the lead.

‘When we won I didn’t go overboard, I tried to keep things under control, which is very difficult in Italy. When you’re at Monza it’s such a big deal.’

Ultimately the Italian Grand Prix was a little more than a wobble for the MP4/4 that season. With the naturally aspirated engines following a year later, what Barnard learned about forced induction was too little, too late. And although the new ‘89 Ferrari won the Brazilian season-opener with Nigel Mansell at the wheel, McLaren continued to dominate in the new engine era.

But for that one race, and in a set of circumstances that could embarrass many Hollywood movie plots, everything aligned for Ferrari.

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