The McLaren MP4/3 would find itself sandwiched between two incredible McLaren chassis, notable bookends in Formula One history. However, the MP4/3 would have one important, and often overlooked, distinction.
From the very first moments of taking over ownership of McLaren, Ron Dennis would be noted for employing only experts. Therefore, when it was more than apparent the normally-aspirated Cosworth DFV engines no longer offered the necessary power to battle with the latest of the turbocharged engines, Dennis would look to only one source for his power needs.
The merger of McLaren and Ron Dennis' Project 4 (hence the MP4 chassis distinction) would lead to McLaren receiving an immediate boost of new life. Dennis would start out reinvigorating the team by building a competitive car first and then looking to a new engine second.
To build the car the team would need to be competitive, Dennis would turn to John Barnard to design the car that could make up the performance difference. Turning to a new construction material known as carbon fiber, Barnard would end up producing a chassis that was incredibly light but also very rigid. Called the MP4/1, the new car with the Cosworth DFV normally-aspirated engine would go on to score four victories in 1982 and would follow it up with a single victory in 1983.
It was clear that Barnard's work with Hercules Aerospace, which supplied the carbon-fiber car, would completely revolutionize chassis and car design. However, in order to be as competitive as Dennis wanted the team still needed a turbocharged engine that would work with Barnard's designs.
There were other turbocharged engine suppliers in Formula One. However, Dennis would again choose expertise over the expected or the norm. Instead, Ron would approach a factory outfit well adept to turbocharged engines and turbocharged engine design. Dennis would approach Porsche.
Porsche had not been part of Formula One in a couple of decades but they certainly knew everything there was to know about turbocharged engines. And this would be why Dennis wanted Porsche to develop an engine for his revolutionary new car.
Initially tested at the end of the 1983 season, the TAG Porsche engine would hit an incredible stride with McLaren's MP4/2 chassis. With Niki Lauda and Alain Prost at the wheel, McLaren's MP4/2 would absolutely dominate the 1984 championship and would follow that up with another victorious performance in 1985. Even in its third year of competition, when the rest of the teams have obviously made incredible strides, the MP4/2 would still manage to earn a 2nd place result in the Constructors' Championship. During its three years of racing experience the MP4/2 would earn McLaren the Constructors' Championship twice and would earn the World Drivers' Championship three straight years.
Even though the MP4/2 had an incredible run, it was clearly time for an all-new chassis to be designed and produced in order to keep McLaren's incredible run of championships going.
Regulations would play an integral part in the new car's design. A limit of 195 liters of fuel meant Barnard would be able to design a car that was much more low-slung than any of the previous models. The sleeker exterior shape of the car would lay the groundwork for one of the most famous McLarens ever to be produced. But as for the MP4/3, the same TAG Porsche 1.5-liter engine, twin-turbo engine would be fitted underneath the carbon-fiber chassis.
But even with the low-slung, sleeker styling and the updated TAG Porsche engine, the MP4/3 would have a hard act to follow. But in its one year of competition, the car would still hold its own. The car would earn Alain Prost three victories. The most important of these three would be the win at Portugal, which gave him more career victories than Jackie Stewart, the then record-holder for career victories.
While considered a let-down from its predecessor, the MP4/3 would still earn McLaren 2nd place in the Constructors' Championship. Unfortunately, Prost would go from two-straight World Championships to finishing 4th in the standings. This was to be the end of an incredible partnership. The MP4/3 would bring to an end an incredible chapter in McLaren's history and would setup McLaren's most successful chassis of all time.
Offered at this year's Gooding and Company auction at Amelia Island in Florida would be one of just six MP4/3s designed and built by McLaren International. Chassis MP4/3/1 would serve as a spare car throughout the majority of the 1987 season. However, it would not go silently into the night. The chassis would have its opportunity to take to the track in an actual race. In August of 1987, at the Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring, Stefan Johansson would end up striking a deer with chassis MP4/3/2. The damage caused by the deer would be severe enough that the car could not take part in the rest of practice, qualifying or the race. Therefore, Johansson would turn to MP4/3/1.
Johansson would end up qualifying the car 14th on the grid. Considering the car had been used as spare parts throughout the year, during the race, the car would perform well. Had it been in the hands of Prost it may have done even better. But as it were, MP4/3/1 would carry Johansson home to a 7th place finish, just outside the points.
Special in many ways, not least of all the fact it was the very first of the MP4/3s to be produced, chassis MP4/3/1 would house one of the final Porsche Formula One engines and would have a hand in helping Alain Prost to secure his place in the list of all-time grand prix greats.
Boasting of the truly staggering figure of 1,060 hp, MP4/3/1 would be perhaps the most powerful of all the Formula One cars to go on to be part of a private collection. Finished with Prost's name adorning the engine cover, MP4/3/1 would be offered from the extensive Drendel Family collection with a very special display engine and would end up garnering $858,000 at auction. This would be significantly more than estimated prior to the auction. This would be a fitting tribute to a car squeezed between some of the most interesting and intriguing volumes of Formula One Grand Prix history.
Sources: 'Lot No. 52: 1987 McLaren MP4/3 Formula 1', (http://www.goodingco.com/car/1987-mclaren-mp43-formula-1). Gooding and Company. http://www.goodingco.com/car/1987-mclaren-mp43-formula-1. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
'McLaren MP4/2 TAG-Porsche', (http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/car/339/McLaren-MP4-2-TAG-Porsche.html). Ultimatecarpage.com: Powered by Knowledge, Driven by Passion. http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/car/339/McLaren-MP4-2-TAG-Porsche.html. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, 'McLaren MP4/3', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 February 2012, 18:14 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=McLaren_MP4/3&oldid=477043046 accessed 12 March 2012
Wikipedia contributors, 'McLaren MP4/2', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 January 2012, 04:56 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=McLaren_MP4/2&oldid=472381190 accessed 12 March 2012