In 1988 there were 16 races and McLaren-Honda won 15 of them. No team has dominated a season the way they did, before or since.
The background to the year was that the governing body were set on banning turbos by the end of 1988. The Honda engines had clearly been the most powerful in 1987, but also the most flexible and easiest to manage in terms of fuel consumption, which was equally important given the strict limits on fuel tank capacity.
Ron Dennis inked an engine deal with Honda (who were dumping Williams) and brought Ayrton Senna from Lotus to partner Alain Prost. This was the start of something very big.
Williams were left with normally aspirated customer Judd V8 engines, about which unfavourable things were said, particularly its ability to pull the skin off a rice pudding.
Lotus retained their Honda engines and brought reigning champion Nelson Piquet from Williams, allied to Honda’s man Saturo Nakajima in the second car. Ferrari retained Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger, the latter having won the last two races of 1987 and entering the season optimistically.
That optimism was destroyed by McLaren, whose car was whole seconds per lap faster than anything else, including the Honda-engined Lotuses. The season would be all about the rivalry between Prost and Senna.
Prost gave the car a winning debut in Brazil, where Senna was disqualified for changing cars. The first glimpse of the rivalry between the two came at Monte-Carlo. Senna had a comfortable lead over Prost (whom he had out-qualified by over 1.5s), and when the Frenchman upped his pace he responded by lapping even faster. Prost relented, and Senna too relaxed his pace. But that was when the Brazilian’s concentration lapsed. He swiped the barrier at Portier and was out.
But Senna came back even stronger. He embarrassed Prost in the rain at Silverstone, and easily had the beating of him in wet weather at the Hockenheimring as well. By Spa-Francorchamps Prost was already talking of defeat. He knew that the ‘best 11 scores count’ rule would undoubtedly give the championship to whichever of them won the most races – and Senna was ahead in the tally. But now the Brazilian was feeling the pressure of impending championship success.
Enzo Ferrari died in August and the following month the cars that bore his name gave a reprieve from the McLaren onslaught with a majestic one-two finish on home ground. Prost had retired with car trouble, and Senna was taken out by backmarker Jean-Louis Schlesser.
At Estoril the fight started to get ugly. As Prost passed Senna at the start of lap two the Brazilian pinched him up against the pit wall, the two coming perilously close to disaster. Prost scraped through and won – and he triumphed at Jerez as well.
At Suzuka he looked set for another win when Senna stalled at the start. But the McLaren coughed back into life and Senna battled his way through the field. While Prost struggled in traffic his lead was decimated by Senna. The Brazilian squeezed past to win the race, and with it, the championship.
Prost took a final win in Australia. He had accrued more points than Senna over the year, but also had to deduct more as only his best 11 results could count. It was a tough way to lose a title.