Monza, September 11

If you believe in the law of averages, the day had to come when McLaren and Honda would not win a 1988 Grand Prix.

Up to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza the McLaren International team drivers, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, had cleaned up every Grand Prix this season, Senna winning seven races and Prost winning four, and quite often they finished first and second. The Italian Grand Prix was the twelfth race this season for the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships, and for 34 laps of the total of 51 it looked to be another dominating first-and-second for the red-and-white cars, with Senna well ahead of Prost — but a race is not finished until it is won.

Ayrton-Senna---Monza-1988Practice and qualifying did not produce anything unusual as far as the front of the grid was concerned, for Senna was uncatchable, even by his team-mate with an identical car.

Conditions for Friday and Saturday were about perfect, and while Friday qualifying hour sorted out a pretty reasonable grid order, with Senna one tenth of a second ahead of Prost, Saturday conditions were even better and Senna improved on his time and put himself into the unique position of being the only driver to break 1 minute 26 seconds, his time being 1min 25.974sec. Prost did not improve on his Friday time, but the Ferrari drivers, Berger and Alboreto both improved and got very close to Prost.

A mild eyebrow was raised at the sight of the two Arrows drivers, hand-in-hand as ever, occupying the third row of the grid ahead of the fast-fading Lotus pair and all the “hot-shoe” normally-aspirated-engined cars. It seems Heini Mader and his engine men discovered that the FIA boost-control valve on the “upright” BMW engine had not been in the most advantageous position, probably involving complicated things like pressure waves. A re-positioning had worked wonders, and the system was now putting the full 2.5-bar pressure into the cylinders. At one point Cheever actually clocked 200 mph past the timekeepers, while the Hondas and Ferraris were levelling off at around 192 mph.

The 1988 restriction of 2.5-bar boost-pressure, as against the 4-bar allowed in 1987, has trimmed the power of the turbocharged engines, but not as dramatically as officaldom hoped; it is only really noticeable on the super-fast circuits, and Monza is one of them, in spite of the three “chicanes” spread around the circuit. Senna’s pole position time was two seconds down on Piquet’s 1987 pole-position time, and the best 3½-litre non-turbo engined car was almost three seconds behind Senna. The back row of the grid was virtually eight seconds slower than the front row, which is too much of a differential at the high average speeds at which races are run these days.

Standing out like a sore thumb was the second Williams-Judd, actually car No 5 which should have been driven by Nigel Mansell. He was still on the sick list suffering from the pox, and all Frank Williams could rustle up was Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser, who has done a lot of racing, but never taken part in a Formula One race before. Having “lent” Martin Brundle to Frank Williams for the Belgian Grand Prix, Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw quite rightly wouldn’t risk him for a second “loan” and the fact that the Williams cars are sponsored by Barclay cigarettes ruled out “borrowing” a driver contracted to Marlboro cigarettes! Some years ago this contracting of drivers centred around petrol companies and quite often an Esso-sponsored driver was prevented from driving a BP-sponsored car, or a Shell driver could not drive an Esso car. Petrol companies are still very involved, but not with driver contracts; they have been taken over by the cigarette companies.

As usual one of the tail-end “rabbits” was eliminated on the first morning of practice. This time it was Oscar Larrauri, and by Saturday afternoon four more had been eliminated as being too slow.

The race itself started at 3pm in front of a very large crowd, even though the Italian populace had been told by their newspapers that “only a miracle could give Ferrari victory against the might of Honda”. Before the green light was given there had been drama.

Berger arrived at his grid position in third place, at the very last moment, his Ferrari not running properly as he left the pit-lane. He returned to the pits, did another warm-up lap in the spare car, and threaded his way through the dummy-grid to take up his place.

The all-clear was given for Senna to lead the field round on the parade lap, and all but Nannini followed him. The Benetton was left immobile as an electronic “gizmo” involved with the engine throttle system had failed. While the rest went away on the parade lap, the Benetton was wheeled across to the pit-lane exit and the Benetton and Ford/Cosworth people leapt into action.

As the two McLarens came up the finishing straight, heading for the starting-grid, the drivers indulged in a full-power burst of acceleration, Senna doing his first, and as he slowed abruptly, Prost accelerated past — a flagrant violation of FIA rules, which say that not only must you not change your position during the parade lap, but you certainly must never overtake the pole-position man! If you didn’t have rules you couldn’t break them, could you?

Apart from Nannini being in the pit-lane exit the start was superb, and Prost disappeared towards the first “chicane” an inch ahead of Senna.

Before the start Berger had jokingly said he would try to lead the first lap, just for the hell of it, because he had no hope of leading the last lap! That wasn’t to say he was going to give up — he was just being realistic in view of the last eleven races. He very nearly got between the two McLarens as they left the start, but not quite. This time it took Senna even less time to take the lead than he had taken in the Belgian Grand Prix, and he was aided by Prost’s Honda engine not being 100%, sharp as he accelerated through the gears.

By the end of the opening lap it was all over. Senna had pulled out the sort of lead Jimmy Clark used to do over Dan Gurney, Graham Hill and John Surtees back in the ‘Sixties. Just before Senna completed the first lap, Nannini took off like a scalded cat from the pit-lane, and anyone around the circuit who hadn’t been paying attention would have believed he was leading the race. For two glorious laps the Benetton led the field and one wondered if this was a preview of 1989 racing!

On lap 3 Senna went by Nannini and conveniently put him between the two McLarens. Berger and Alboreto were hard after Prost and Cheever was in a strong fifth place, followed by Boutsen once again “the class” of the non-turbo brigade. Prost and the two Ferraris overtook Nannini so that the front of the race looked alright, with Senna out on his own followed at a fair distance by Prost, with Berger and Alboreto pounding along behind.

The race had barely settled down before there was a noticeable absence of yellow cars: both Lotus-Hondas were gone, Piquet into a gravel-trap and Nakajima into the pits with engine trouble. Engine trouble? In a Honda? Out on the track Prost’s Honda engine had developed a distinctly flat note to its exhaust, and it was getting worse. Even more worrying was a sudden loss of power on lap 31 and an increase of six seconds on his lap time, which meant that Berger closed up visibly. Three more relatively slow laps for Prost had the Ferrari on his tail, and Berger was able to enjoy the glory of powering past the sick McLaren-Honda, before Prost pulled off into the pit-lane and stopped at the McLaren pit.

In a flash the boys in red and white had the upper part of the bodywork off and up in the air, while Honda men surrounded the engine. It did not take many seconds to diagnose engine failure and the car was wheeled away. Piston-orientated internal trouble suggested mixture control and boost pressure, and Senna was called up on the in-car radio and warned to ease off a bit and notch up the mixture strength to play safe. He had a comfortable lead over the two Ferraris so there was no real problem and he slowed his lap times by between a second and a second-and-a-half.

There was a sudden awareness that out of four Honda-powered cars at the start there was only one left in the race, and there were still sixteen laps to go. Both Ferraris seemed healthy, the two Arrows were now running strongly, Cheever leading Warwick, Capelli had taken the category B lead from Boutsen, Patrese was eighth and Gugelmin ninth.

Nannini was tenth, having gone through all the rabbits in the back end of the field like a dose of salts. It was a great pity the smiling Italian had lost that whole lap at the start, for his car was running well and he was driving hard. There does not seem to be much difference between the Benettons and the Marches, taken as complete packages, so it all comes down to a pretty straightforward battle between the Ford-Cosworth works DFR engines and the Judd V8 engines, and this time Judd was winning, for Boutsen’s DFR was misfiring at high revs.

With the end in sight Senna could gradually ease off, but not to any great degree for the two Ferraris were still healthy and not too far behind. Confident now that they had no fuel consumption worries they both pushed their lap times below 1min 30sec, and actually improved on Senna’s best race lap which he had recorded on lap 29 while building up his lead. The Ferraris were beaten once again, but not disgraced, and the crowd were warm to the two drivers, for they could appreciate that they hadn’t given up the fight.

In ninth place, Gugelmin was about to be lapped by Senna, while he himself was about to lap Schlesser in the Williams, who was soon due to be lapped for the second time by the leader. Having wafted past the Williams, the turquoise March suddenly found it tucked in behind, and next time round Schlesser was giving Gugelmin a hard time under braking for the first “chicane”, sitting it out with him, wheel-to-wheel! It seemed a pointless exercise as Schlesser was a lap behind the March and there was nothing to gain. As they went into the start of the fiftieth lap of the race, the Williams outbraked the March towards the “chicane” just as Senna came up to lap them both, Gugelmin for the first time and Schlesser for the second tirne.

In the middle of the “chicane” Senna tripped over the Frog and landed heavily on the kerbing , and that was that. The last Honda had gone, and with it Senna’s eighth victory this season, McLaren’s hopes of winning all sixteen races, Ron Dennis’ personal wager with Bernie Ecclestone, and all the media hype about records of this and that; a complete fracture of an established pattern.

For the 80,000 tifosi none of that was of any importance. As Berger sailed past the stricken McLaren the cheering drowned the sound of the cars, and preceded Berger all round lap 50 to reach a crescendo from the vast main grandstands as he streaked over the line at 185 mph to start the last lap, hotly pursued by Alboreto in the second Ferrari. The noise as the two Ferraris got the chequered flag most have reached up to “Zio Enzo” up on high and for once the police and marshals did not try to restrain the crowds as the cars finished their slowing down lap and headed for the parc fermé.

By the time Berger, Alboreto and Cheever, who had come into a well-earned third place, appeared on the winners’ balcony overlooking the starting area the track was packed solid with humanity as far as you could see in both directions. Cheering, shouting, singing, waving flags, carrying banners and no doubt many of them weeping with emotion, they waited for Gerhard Berger to appear. When he did the clamour must have been heard in Milan, and when Michele Alboreto joined him it was even louder. It was Joy Day for Italian motor racing.

As one Italian journalist said: “It was a nice present from McLaren-Honda, and it went to the right man and the right team.” To which I replied: “Yes, and in the right place.” Any place other than Monza for McLaren-Honda to falter would have been a shame, and for any other team to have benefited would have been unjust. Enzo Ferrari may be dead, but long live Ferrari!

source: / October 1988