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1990 McLaren MP4/5B

  • A factory McLaren International entrant in the 1990 Formula 1 World Championship
  • Raced by Gerhard Berger to third place in the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix
  • Driven in free practice for the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix and extensively tested by the three-time Formula 1 World Champion Ayrton Senna
  • Used extensively by McLaren in 1990–1991 as a testbed for its innovative active suspension system and sequential gearbox
  • Ready to be driven, benefitting from a fastidious nut-and-bolt restoration carried out by McLaren Heritage’s trusted technical specialist Paul Lanzante Ltd.
  • Sold
  • Chassis no. MP4/5B-03
  • Vehicle Location: England

The McLaren MP4/5B

It’s fair to say that McLaren faced an unenviable task when it came to replacing its all-conquering MP4/4, a car which won a scarcely believable 15 of the 16 rounds of the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship. But the MP4/5 and subsequent MP4/5B proved, perhaps unsurprisingly given the calibre of McLaren’s crack team of designers and engineers, to be worthy successors.

As the sport’s snarling turbocharged engines were outlawed at the end of 1988, so McLaren turned to Honda’s new 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V10, an engine which pumped out a smidgen below 700HP and revved to an ungodly 13,500rpm. Other changes in this textbook case of effective evolution included a stronger carbon-fibre and honeycomb monocoque, an airbox above the driver’s head designed to feed the insatiable appetite of 10 intakes, a combination of push- and pull-rod double-wishbone suspension and, eventually, a transversely positioned gearbox.

The opposition proved no match for the McLaren MP4/5, which clinched 10 victories and the constructors’ title. The mercurial Ayrton Senna might have won six of them against teammate and bitter rival Prost’s four, but after a very public altercation at the final race in Japan and a subsequent disqualification for the Brazilian, it was Le Prof who walked away with the drivers’ gong.

The small upgrades implemented for the following year’s MP4/5B – a revised monocoque and an updated engine, among others – were dwarfed by the scandalous conclusion to the previous season and the big news that Alain Prost was leaving McLaren for Ferrari, in a direct swap with the Austrian Gerhard Berger. Compared to the slightly bulkier MP4/6 which followed, the MP4/5B is, in our view, the most cohesive and beautifully packaged McLaren Formula 1 cars. Never has a car stopped us in our tracks to the same extent as this supremely special single-seater.  

This McLaren MP4/5B

The spectacular MP4/5B seen here gracing the Belchers Farm bricks and which you’re undoubtedly ogling slack-jawed is chassis number 03, the third of the seven chassis built. This McLaren’s maiden track outing came behind closed doors during pre-season testing at Estoril in Portugal, alongside chassis numbers 02 and 04 (Senna had damaged chassis 01 during the new car’s first shakedown session at Silverstone).

Both Senna and Berger enjoyed valuable seat time in this MP4/5B at Estoril – an especially crucial activity for the latter driver, who was new to the McLaren International team and obviously keen to make a good impression.

For the first three rounds of the 1990 Formula 1 World Championship, taking place in the United States, Brazil and San Marino, MP4/5B-03 served as the McLaren team’s back-up ‘T-car’. McLaren got off to a fine if not perfect start to the season, Senna clinching a stellar victory at Phoenix, followed up by two second-place finishes from Berger at Interlagos and Imola.

Next up was the Monaco Grand Prix on the glitzy streets of Monte-Carlo – the commonly held jewel in Formula 1’s crown. This MP4/5B was once again designated as the ‘T-car’, but owing to the notoriously challenging street circuit’s propensity for accidents and race restarts, Senna opted to drive chassis 03 in Thursday’s free practice session.

In doing so, he could set up the spare to his exact liking so that in the event he was required to use it in the race, he wouldn’t need to readjust to an unfamiliar car. And as the team’s undisputed number-one driver, nobody was going to argue with that, not least his new teammate Gerhard Burger. In the session, Senna topped the timesheets, clocking a lap of 1min21.8sec – an impressive 1.2sec ahead of Berger and 1.7sec ahead of his archrival, Ferrari’s Alain Prost.

In qualifying on Saturday, while driving his own MP4/5B (chassis 04), Senna picked up where he left off on Thursday, snatching pole position with a 1min21.31sec – a time he set early in the session and which nobody could better. Senna held a special place in his heart – and clearly his talent – for the Monaco Grand Prix, evidenced by the fact he won the race six times between 1987 and 1993. For the race, Berger lined up fifth behind his teammate, Alain Prost, Jean Alesi and Riccardo Patrese.

“Could anyone beat Senna and could everyone else avoid each other on the first lap?,” posed Autosport magazine’s Joe Saward. He followed up: “The answer to both questions looked decidedly negative.” In the end, Saward’s sentiments were entirely accurate. Senna tore to a faultless and utterly dominant victory, though the events which led up to the Brazilian crossing the finish line were anything but straightforward. 

On a frenetic opening lap so typical of the Monaco Grand Prix, Berger, having passed Patrese into fourth, was overly confident into Mirabeau corner and turfed himself and an innocent Alain Prost out of the race as a result. The red flags were promptly brought out and, as was the way back in those days, the two disgruntled drivers jogged back to the pitlane to hop in their respective ‘T-cars’.

Enter MP4/5B-03. Despite this McLaren being set up for his teammate, Berger had no choice but to race the car. The Austrian was a famously tall and stocky driver, who struggled to negotiate his whole frame into this MP4/5B's seat, which had been prepared specifically for the Senna.

In spite of the challenges, Berger managed to keep his nose clean the second time around and drove a mature and masterful race, finishing third after 78 laps – a mere car’s length behind Jean Alesi, the young French talent who frankly drove his Prost in a manner in which it had no right to be driven. McLaren International left the principality extremely satisfied. Senna and Berger occupied the first and second spots in the Drivers’ rankings, while the Woking-based outfit were a clear 20 points ahead of Williams in the Constructors’.

MP4/5B-03 was discharged from its competitive Formula 1 duties following its incredible podium finish in Monaco. Over the course of the remaining 12 races, Ferrari’s Alain Prost would mount a championship charge on Senna, resulting in one of Formula 1’s most controversial title deciders and an event which would define one of the sport’s greatest rivalries. At the first corner of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Senna drove into Prost. In causing both himself and his opponent to retire, Senna had secured the World Championship – his second – in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Thanks to Berger’s supporting performances, McLaren clinched the Constructors’ title, 11 points clear of Ferrari.

Behind the scenes, this MP4/5B was used extensively by McLaren as a test and development car for various innovations, including the active suspension system and the paddle-operated sequential gearbox. While chassis number 03 was tested at Imola, Paul Ricard, Silverstone, Hockenheim and Monza, between September of 1990 and July of 1991, the car was stationed at Suzuka in Japan with Honda’s engineers.

In addition to Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger, the list of drivers who clambered behind the wheel of MP4/5B-03 included Allan McNish, Jonathan Palmer and Stefan Johannsson. Johansson remembers the Suzuka test in which he drove this McLaren very well. “I maintained a great relationship with the McLaren team after I left in 1987 and undertook quite a lot of testing,” the Swede told us. “I remember this particular occasion at Suzuka alongside Jonathan because it was one of the very first tests the team did with the semi-automatic gearbox.

“It was a really exciting period of dramatic technological change – analogue was shifting to digital and the cars had progressed from turbocharged dinosaurs into very refined machines. As you can imagine, the level of resource at McLaren was unparalleled and everything was optimised to the nth degree. I’m sure it’s the exact same story today!”

As was the fate of all McLaren’s Formula 1 workhorses, this MP4/5B returned to Woking to reside in its mythical ‘Unit 2’ – essentially an anonymous warehouse filled with McLaren racing cars of yesteryear. That was until 2017, when chassis number 03 was acquired by a Chicago-based collector – one of just seven chassis built and an even smaller number sold into private hands.

Appreciative of this McLaren’s historical significance and wary of safeguarding its future, the new owner commissioned Paul Lanzante Ltd. to undertake a fastidious and comprehensive restoration. McLaren’s trusted specialist for its heritage cars, Paul Lanzante seared himself into McLaren lore when his team ran the Ueno Clinic F1 GTR which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans on behalf of the factory in 1995.

When MP4/5B-03 arrived at Paul Lanzante Ltd., the car was stripped back to its bare carbon-fibre chassis. All the stressed components were shot-blasted before being sent for crack testing. As the process of stripping the car progressed, Paul Lanzante Ltd.’s technicians unearthed a number of small unique features which pointed to the car’s testing duties – the hydraulic reservoir on the front bulkhead, for example, which accommodated the prototype active suspension system.

Once all the individual components were signed off, so commenced the painstaking process of restoring this Formula 1 car back to its former glory. The utmost respect and attention were paid to honouring the car’s originality. Many of the technological processes honoured those of the period. All of the driveshafts, axles and gearbox output flanges, for example, were sent to Pankl in Austria, one of the only companies in Europe which does the black oxidised coating. Look closely at the axles and driveshafts and you’ll see they’re that delightful maroon-bronze colour.

Furthermore, every aluminium component, from the wheel nuts to the fuel line fittings, has been re-anodised. Speaking of fuel, the tank has been replaced with a new unit and an ultra-rare original magnesium fuel hatch was sourced. In line with the evolutions in modern technology, a new ECU has been installed but encased in the original casing and designed to operate the original dashboard. Finally, the beautiful white bodywork was repainted and the signature red and black Marlboro livery reinstated. 

Howling V10s pumping out in excess of 600HP. Do-it-yourself manual gear changes. Immortal cigarette-lavished liveries. And drivers who were as brazen and fearless on the track as they were charismatic off it. In our opinion, the late-1980s and early-1990s were peak Formula 1. And this sensational privately owned McLaren MP4/5B – which scored a podium finish in the world’s most famous Grand Prix in addition to being driven extensively by the mercurial Ayrton Senna, a man an entire generation would argue is the greatest to have ever lived – perfectly embodies that magic.

To say we are honoured to be offering this impossibly special piece of motorsport history, which naturally would be welcomed at the world’s most prestigious motorsport events historic or otherwise, is an understatement. To quote the estimable Paul Lanzante, MP4/5B-03’s next custodian will have bought “one helluva car”.

 

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