Courtesy of Bonhams
It is evident from our long years of market experience that the essence of truly collectible and iconic competition cars is surely a combination of several very significant factors. The crème de la crème cars upon the very pinnacle of collectibility each have an individually unique and completely verifiable racing history, jeweled by significant success. They also embody the finest standards of contemporary competition-car design and construction. They often embody design and manufacturing technology that is a joy to behold, intricate to the eye and often highly innovative. And, in the most desirable cases, they will have the closest and most intimate historic bond with a truly iconic and charismatic racing hero... This 1993 McLaren-Ford MP4/8A Formula One car is the very machine with which the late and legendary three-time World Champion Driver Ayrton Senna scored the record-breaking sixth — and last — of his historic race victories right here in the Monaco Grand Prix. This startlingly well-preserved Ayrton Senna icon is offered here not only in running order, but also still featuring both the self-same V8 Cosworth-Ford HB engine — serial 510 — and the self-same McLaren gearbox — serial 2 — that Ayrton Senna used so brilliantly when it won him that sixth Monaco Grand Prix title.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1993 McLaren-Cosworth Ford MP4/8A Formula One
Years Produced:1993
Number Produced:Four
Original List Price:N/A
Chassis Number Location:Tag in cockpit
Engine Number Location:On the center back of block
Club Info:McLaren Heritage
Alternatives:1993 Williams FW 15C, 1993 Benetton B193, 1993 Lotus 107B
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 119, sold for $5,009,297, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Les Grandes Marques à Monaco auction on May 11, 2018.

Roughly eight years ago, when writing a profile of a 1979 Williams FW07 Formula One car (SCM July 2010, “Race Profile,” p. 60), I made the statement that “I’ve often spoken of the combination of ‘collector’ values and ‘weapons-grade’ values in vintage racing cars. In anything open-wheeled, particularly anything newer than about 1960, the collector values are relatively small.”

That, my friends, has changed.

The problem with open-wheeled, single-seater racing cars — from their invention as American board-track and speedway racers in the 1920s through the present — has always been that they are unusable except on the race track.

From its inception until very recently, the old-car collecting hobby has been exactly that: a hobby. As a hobby, it has been fundamentally amateur and about the collector’s personal enjoyment of the cars that have been accumulated, with the result that a car’s being practical and relatively easy to use has formed a major component of perceived value.

The most valuable cars have always been the ones that could be taken for a drive, shown at an event and shared on a tour with your spouse and friends.

The open-wheeled race-car boom

It’s probably unnecessary for me to point out to readers of this magazine that, however much we may love and enjoy them as an experience, many automobiles have joined art, jewelry and relics as a financial-asset class.

During the roughly 15 years that I have been writing Race Profiles for SCM, I don’t know how many times I have repeated the truism that open-wheeled cars are worth between half and one-third of their equivalent road cars, but I now have to admit that it is no longer the case.

This may be the result of a growing and more sophisticated understanding of the technical and historic attributes of Formula One racers. Or perhaps it is because of so much money chasing after a limited supply of highly collectible automobiles.

In any case, many open-wheeled racers are now investment-grade cars.

This change has happened during the past five to 10 years. As an example, in 2006 (October 2006, “Race Profile,” p. 56) I wrote a profile of an Alain Prost-driven Williams-Renault FW15C that was our subject car’s competition in the 1993 season. It sold for $410,000.

When I wrote the July 2010 Race Profile of a Williams FW07, it was — and still remains — arguably the most-competitive car that can be entered and driven in contemporary vintage F1 competition. It sold for $465,000. Today you’d need to move the value decimal point one step to the right to buy either one.

The most-advanced cars of their eras

But let’s talk about cars. Formula One has always been the epitome of technical automotive development, and its evolution shows large technological jumps followed by periods of relative constancy as the teams adapted to the new ideas.

These periods can be thought of as eras. Thus we can talk about the Pre-Wing 3-liter cars, the flat-bottom Winged 3-liters, then the Ground Effects cars, followed by the 1.5-Liter Turbo era, and on through many iterations to the present. One of the most insane eras, certainly technically, was the Active Control period.

Starting in the 1970s, computing power and the ability to utilize it grew exponentially as the chips and memory became smaller and faster than ever before. It became practical to put computing power inside racing cars.

Computers changed everything

In the mid-1980s, Lotus started playing around with the idea of using on-board computing power to control how a racing car worked. Soon all the serious teams were following along.

Anti-lock braking was the beginning, followed by digital engine-management systems, which led to traction control.

By the end of the 1980s, designers were wondering whether it was worthwhile to have computers control the suspension as well. Why use old-fashioned springs, anti-roll bars and shock absorbers between the chassis and the wheels when maybe it could be done with digitally managed hydro-pneumatic units instead? This was the beginning of what we call active suspension.

The idea was to have the on-board computer work in real time to keep the tires in optimal contact with the track with the best possible weight distribution — and the ride height perfect for the aerodynamics to work.

The driver was only responsible for pushing pedals and steering.

If optimization meant the chassis leaning into a corner, raising the nose to brake, or the back to accelerate, that’s what the computer did — in microseconds. By the 1993 season, active suspension had come into full flower. The cars were incredibly fast, insanely complex and horribly dangerous if anything failed (which happened with disturbing frequency).

Williams had the best package of engine, technology and drivers for that year — and the team won the manufacturer and driver championships. However, McLaren, harnessing driver Ayrton Senna’s brilliance in the “almost as good” MP4/8, made a fight of it and managed to come 2nd in both championships.

The technology involved in the Active Control cars was so extreme for the time that the FIA actually tried to eliminate it mid-season, but this wasn’t viable, so they waited until the season ended before outlawing everything digital except ignition and telemetry.

The relics of an era

1993 was the end of the Active Control era, and the 1993 cars represent the ultimate iteration of the computer-controlled racing car. Any comprehensive collection of Formula One is incomplete without one.

The problem is that there are virtually none out there, as the various teams had stopped selling their old racers at least 10 years before. The cars had just become too complex and dangerous to risk anyone outside the team driving one.

These Active Control era cars are now stupendously rare. A very few made it into private hands as gifts or favors to well-connected parties for static display. Today’s car is one of those relics.

Aside from maybe demo laps somewhere, there is no venue to run a car like this. No matter — there is no way anyone in their right mind would drive an “Active” F1 car more than 100 yards anyway.

These cars are simply too complicated and utterly dependent on 25-year-old electro-pneumatic components controlled by antique computer software and hardware to be driven. These are strictly for display.

The lucrative road-car connection

One of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of racing cars is that they are more collectible if the constructor is still building important road cars.

Thus there are Ferrari collectors, Lotus collectors and McLaren collectors willing to part with serious money to complete their lineups, but lesser-known team cars don’t carry the value.

Famous livery and driver matters tremendously as well, so the iconic red-and-white Marlboro colors — particularly when paired with the famous Senna yellow helmet — make our subject car like catnip to the right buyers.

This still seems like a lot of money for a pure collectible, but it definitely is iconic and ticks all the boxes to be a top-value car.

The market has clearly jumped in the past years and seems set to continue for a while, so the fundamentals work. There is also a rumor that the buyer was a well-known and extremely astute member of the racing community, so I will defer judgment. I would say fairly bought. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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