Grand Prix flashback: France 1988

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Indianapolis, 2007, 2The inter-McLaren battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton is already being compared to the great McLaren rivalry of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Hamilton is cast in the role of new boy Senna – Alonso is a two times champion just as Prost was in 1988.

But at that year’s French Grand Prix Prost sprang a surprise on Senna – perhaps history will imitate this weekend? The circumstances in which Prost won the race is very reminiscent of the Alonso-Hamilton duel at Indianapolis two weeks ago.

It was the final year of turbo F1 cars and the McLarens, with Honda’s 1.5 litre V6 turbo, were staggeringly dominant. They would win 15 of the 16 races that year – a record that even Schumacher’s tenure at Ferrari failed to eclipse.

The French Grand Prix was then held at Paul Ricard – today a favoured testing venue for F1 teams. A characterless venue it did boast one significant redeeming feature – a long, fast straight that culminated in the ultra-fast Signes right-hander, followed by a long right hander Double droite de Beausset.

Senna’s exceptional qualifying pace had served him well all season and he had started each of the six rounds from pole position. But on home territory Prost was on top form.

He took a provisional pole with 30 minutes of qualifying remaining. He climbed out of his MP4/4 and changed into jeans and T-shirt, remarking that he thought his time unbeatable, and if Senna could beat it, he deserved the pole.

Senna couldn’t beat it.

Behind them on the grid were the two Ferraris (how little things have changed!) of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto. Row three was all Benettons – Thierry Boutsen and Alessandro Nannini – and row four the Lotus-Hondas of Nelson Piquet and Saturo Nakajima.

But on race day these six and the other 18 starters would be irrelevant to the battle for the lead – except when they were being lapped.

Prost led from the start, and Senna followed. These were the days before refuelling stops but tyre changes would still be necessary. When the two made their stops Senna’s was quicker and he took the lead from Prost on lap 37.

Prost bided his time, the master tactician aware there was still more than half the race to go.

He closed in on Senna as the pair battled their way through traffic. Normally Senna excelled at this, but the short Paul Ricard circuit was thick with stragglers.

On lap 60 Senna hesitated behind one – just as Hamilton did at Indianapolis two weeks ago – and Prost pounced. Around Signes he kept his right foot buried, the throttle wide open, and drew alongside Senna, boxing his rival in behind a lapped car.

Screaming around Beausset Prost nosed ahead and was gone. The Professor won the race in Senna fashion – capitalising on his rival’s trouble with back markers.

But Senna’s response over the coming weeks swung the championship decisively in the Brazilian’s favour. He won the next four rounds at Silverstone, Hockenheim, Hungaroring and Spa-Francorchamps.

The championship would ultimately be his. But the rivalry between the two grew more intense with each passing race. At Estoril in Portugal Senna squeezed his team mate’s car up to the pit wall at flat out speeds – and a bitter feud that would last five years had begun.

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