By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Gordon Murray, the Formula One design great who oversaw the sport’s most successful car to date, hopes for purely personal reasons that someone can beat Mercedes at least twice this season.
The South African was technical director at McLaren in 1988 when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won all but one race, 15 of 16, with 10 one-two finishes, 15 pole positions and 10 fastest laps.
That achievement remains the closest any team has come to a perfect year, although Mercedes almost did it in 2016 with 19 wins and 20 poles out of 21.
Even three decades later 72-year-old Murray, who also designed the 1990s McLaren F1 supercar and is now promoting a flat-packed plywood-bodied vehicle for the developing world, still feels a proprietorial pride.
“I need Mercedes to lose two races this year,” he told Reuters laughingly at the Royal Automobile Club launch of a two-volume, 948-page opus that covers in detail his 50 years of car design.
“Every season I go, ‘Please don’t win two races’. It doesn’t look like it this year.”
In 1988 McLaren lost only at the Italian Grand Prix, an emotional victory by Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger a month after the death of Enzo Ferrari.
“Alain Prost had an electrode fall off a spark plug, which I’ve never had in all my years in racing, and Ayrton (Senna) tripped over a backmarker in lapping,” recalled Murray. “Otherwise it would have been a clean sweep.”
Mercedes have won the first five races in one-two formation this year, with five times champion Lewis Hamilton leading Valtteri Bottas three times and looking a cut above the rest.
They have been on pole four times, with a fastest lap each, and people are increasingly asking if they can go all the way.
The closest Mercedes have come to losing so far was in Bahrain, when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc led from pole position but was denied victory by a late engine problem.
“They (Ferrari) threw the race away,” said Murray. “They should have won that one. But they (Mercedes) need to lose two races (for me) to keep my record.
“So I’m watching. They’ve got a good chance to do it, I have to say.”
Steve Nichols was chief designer of the McLaren MP4/4 car but Murray can claim significant ownership, having brought plenty of ideas from Brabham where he also produced the unique and highly controversial BT46B with a large fan at the rear.
The MP4/4 was 1-1/2 seconds a lap quicker than rivals but Murray said the year stood out also for work done behind the scenes.
“I went through a failure list from the previous era before I arrived and found out why things were failing and fixed that and introduced post-race meetings and analysis tools… they didn’t have anything,” he said.
“So it wasn’t just the design of the car and the drivers. We had the perfect year. I made the cars very reliable.”
Murray still follows Formula One, and was at the Bahrain Grand Prix, but feels it needs to do “something fundamental” to create more excitement and better racing.
“They really have to,” he said. “It’s a drivers’ championship first and foremost.”
Murray would like to see less downforce, with tiny wings front and back, and more design freedom in the centre of the car.
“We just had so much fun in the days when you could think of an idea, build the parts the next week and go a second and a half a lap quicker at the next grand prix,” he said.
“These days its hundreds and hundreds of hours in the wind tunnel and then a tiny little front wing change and you find two tenths of a second. I find that really difficult to get excited about.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ken Ferris)