When McLaren turned up at the first race of 1988 with scarcely any testing miles on its new car, few expected the MP4/4s to dominated the season the way they did. But at the Brazilian Grand Prix hopes of a closely-fought season were wrecked as McLaren dominated. Guest writer Andrew Tsvyk tells the story.
This year the final race of the 2008 Formula 1 world championship will be held at Interlagos. Without doubt, the race will get a lot of attention from the locals, as their countryman, Felipe Massa, will attempt to clinch his first world title.
This year Brazil is the proud host of the final race of the Grand Prix season. Twenty years ago the Brazilian Grand Prix was the first round of the championship – and saw the first of a record-breaking 15 wins from 16 starts by McLaren in a single season.
Senna takes pole
Another difference is that the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix was held at the Autodromo Nelson Piquet in Rio de Janeiro, while the 2008 season finale will take place at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace at Interlagos in Sao Paulo.
As soon as the Friday practices were underway, the locals poured into the circuit to watch the world’s best drivers in action. And there was a very good reason for that, as in the eighties the Brazilian drivers were a force to be reckoned with in Grand Prix racing. While the Brazilian influence on Formula 1 takes its roots from the seventies, when the likes of the Fittipaldi brothers and Carlos Pace raced, it reached its heights in the eighties. In that decade Nelson Piquet won three world championship titles, the last of which came just a year before, in 1987.
Tired of the internal team rivalry with Nigel Mansell, Piquet decided to move to Lotus for the 1988 season, taking the coveted number one with him. The deal seemed to make a lot of sense early on, as Honda ceased to supply their engines to Williams at the end of 1987, despite the championship success. The Japanese automaker lost interest in the Grove-based constructor, as Frank refused to give a drive to a certain Satoru Nakajima, a Honda protégé.
Honda has begun supplying another legendary Grand Prix outfit, Team Lotus, in 1986. Lotus did not mind having Nakajima as a driver. Soon Camel joined the team as the title sponsor and for 1988 agreed to pay Piquet’s sky-high honorariums, helping to lure the triple World champion.
Piquet’s place at Williams was taken by Riccardo Patrese, while Judd power substituted Honda’s power units. However, there was no way for Williams to continue its winning ways, as Judd engines lacked both power and reliability.
But the most important news for the Brazilian fans was that their new hero, Ayrton Senna da Silva, was recruited by Ron Dennis to drive a McLaren alongside double World champion Alain Prost. And McLaren had taken up Williams’ supply of Honda engines.
Although McLaren had only shaken down the all-new MP4/4 shortly before flying the cars out to Rio, Senna stuck the car on pole position. Nigel Mansell, who, in his turn, produced quite a surprise by qualifying his underpowered Williams FW12 on the second spot of the starting grid. Third place was occupied by the other McLaren driver, Alain Prost.
Fourth place on the grid went to Gerhard Berger, the Austrian once again managed to get the better of his Ferrari team-mate, Michele Alboreto, who was down in sixth.
The two Ferraris were separated by a Lotus of the reigning world champion Piquet. Prior to the Grand Prix Nelson made a couple of harsh comments about Senna, as the ever-growing popularity of his countryman was starting to irritate him. Piquet tried to distract Senna by using psychological warfare and his tactics were not exactly subtle – in one interview he claimed Senna was homosexual.
Problems for Senna
When the cars lined up on the grid for the start of the race, Senna’s race was over. When the Brazilian tried to select first gear, the gear linkage snapped, signalling the end to his hopes of a first home win. Further back in the field, Ivan Capelli’s March started to smoke viciously, as his engine had enough. A parade lap must be more demanding than it seems…
Senna’s problems must have been a pleasant surprise for Piquet, but Ron Dennis was not amused. Senna quickly got out of his stranded #12 McLaren-Honda and rushed to the pits, where a spare car was waiting for him. As a result, the Brazilian would start his home Grand Prix from pit-lane. A good chance of a win was gone.
Meanwhile, when the lights did go green, signalling the start of the race, twice world champion Prost flew by Mansell’s Williams and took the lead of the race. The Frenchman was in the field of his own, pulling away from the chasing pack, led by Berger, by a second a lap. At the end of lap one Mansell was running third, with Piquet in a Lotus-Honda fourth, Alboreto in a Ferrari in fifth and Boutsen in a Benetton-Ford in sixth.
Soon Boutsen got by Alboreto and set off after Piquet. The triple world champion proved to be a tough nut to crack, and, subsequently, the Benetton was stuck behind the Lotus. Shortly, Senna joined the fray.
Having started from the pit-lane, the McLaren stormed through the field. But what made his performance that Sunday afternoon even more remarkable is the fact that the spare car, which he switched to after his problems on the grid, was set up for Prost. From 21st on lap one, Senna was running 18th a lap later. In 12 laps’ time he was challenging Alboreto for sixth. The Brazilian quickly went through and closed on Boutsen and Piquet who were arguing for fourth spot. Boutsen was demoted as he hesitated behind a backmarker and the McLaren pounced – and Senna was by Piquet on the next lap.
Senna moved up to third at the expense of Mansell who stalled the engine during his first pit-stop. This was just the beginning of the end for the Williams, as engine problems proved to be terminal.
Prost seizes the advantage
Back at the front the order remained unchanged, with Prost enjoying a commanding lead over Berger. But some observers believed that Senna still had a fair shot at winning his home Grand Prix, as he was trailing the leader by less than 30 seconds. Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Ayrton was shown the black flag for changing cars before the start of the race. It took the officials almost 30 laps to disqualify Senna.
At the sharp end of the field Prost was never challenged. The Frenchman led every lap of the race and scored his 29th career win.
Second place went to Berger who must have been more than pleased with his performance that afternoon, while the best of the locals, Piquet, crossed the finish line in third. The reigning world champion was unable to challenge the leaders that day, but a steady drive helped the experienced Brazilian start the season with a descent result. And he did not forget to entertain his faithful supporters as, with 15 laps to go, he made a breathtaking move on Boutsen and Warwick, disposing of both in one turn.
Warwick brought his Arrows home in fourth place, earning valuable points in the process. The Leafield-based outfit managed to take advantage of their Megatron engines, which were, in fact, re-badged BMW turbos. The race in Brazil was just a sign of things to come for Jackie Oliver’s team. – Arrows would have their best season in 1988, scoring enough points to clinch fourth place in the final donstructors’ standings.
Alboreto finished fifth, while Japanese driver Satoru Nakajima scored what would be his sole point that season by bringing his Lotus-Honda home in sixth.
While Alain Prost got a very important victory on his rival’s home turf, the Frenchman would lose the battle, as the 1988 title would eventually go to Senna. But that is another story.
Read more about the 1988 F1 season: 1988 F1 season history
This is a guest article by Andrew Tsvyk. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.