Senna’s win in the rain at Donington in 1993 with the McLaren-Ford, when at one point he had lapped the entire field, including Alain Prost in the (then-faster) Williams-Renault, was probably the finest race of his career, but perhaps his finest moment on the racetrack was in qualifying for Monte Carlo in 1988.
Nigel Roebuck had this to say about it:
At 1:48 Saturday afternoon, Ayrton Senna went out again, and I wondered why. Was the the old ploy of setting your time, then tooling round in the hope of keeping your rivals from a clear lap? Under Lotus’s direction, Senna did this to good effect three years ago, incurring the ire of such as Michele Alboreto and Niki Lauda. But it can’t be that: He’s a mature driver now, not about to risk his car or himself for mere gamesmanship.
So why was he out now? Had to be he had something else to try on the McLaren.
Senna was the one man in Monte Carlo who seemed to have no problem in finding a clear lap. If there wasn’t one apparent, he simply made one, and then another. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. Once in a while you get a weekend like this in Formula One, when one driver is not merely superior, but on another level altogether, a plateau quite beyond reach. In the past, at Monte Carlo, we have seen it in Alain Prost, who believes his pole position lap of 1986 to have been the greatest of his life. But now, while Senna was going out again in the last few minutes, Prost – in an identical car was trying to get within two seconds of him. Gergard Berger was fastest in the rain Thursday morning, but thereafter Senna headed every session. In the afternoon a dry line emerged during the last 20 minutes or so, and the No. 12 McLaren was around in 1:26.4, with Prost next at 1:28.3.
But on Saturday afternoon the Brazilian really let looose. After 25 minutes he was at 1:25.6. Three minutes later the score-board flashed a 1:24.4. And as we struggled to take this in, reality was suspended altogether with his next lap: 1:23.998. At this point the others were trying desperately to get below 1:28. When Senna’s final time appeared on the pit monitors, Patrick Head’s [at the time, chief engineer for Williams] jaw momentarily dropped, and he wasn’t the only one. How was it possible? Senna’s was merely one of 26 cars accelerating through the start-finish area. Where could it be making up two or three seconds every couple of miles?
If you watched through the swimming pool, you knew. Through those daunting swerves Senna was simply on a different plane, and if he were putting in that degree of commitment and flair everywhere else, his times were not beyond belief. Indeed, you had the impression that each lap was quicker than the one before. Perhaps the first left-hander around the pool puts greater call on a driver than any other in Formula One. It is quick, it is blind and absolutely unforgiving. No run-offs here, no getting away with mistakes. Here you can see which cars are working well; more than that, you can sense by his committment a driver’s faith in himself. Senna was not only visibly faster than anyone else, but also consistently closer to the wall going in. Awesome, in fact.
It was one of those special days when you watched true greatness – and knew it as you watched.
— “Autoweek”, May 23, 1988
Senna himself later said:
I felt as though I was driving in a tunnel. The whole circuit became a tunnel… I had reached such a high level of concentration that it was as if the car and I had become one. Together we were at the maximum. I was giving the car everything – and vice versa. Suddenly it was as though I had woke up and noticed that I had somehow been on a different level of conciousness. I was really shocked, and I went straight back to the pits – and didn’t drive any more that day. I realized that I had been in a kind of unending spiral. Faster and faster, closer and closer to perfection… But also more and more vulnerable, with less and less safety margin…
I didn’t allow myself any more [ever again] to go so far that I reached this state again. I can control it before it gets to this point. It’s too risky.
— quoted in “Ayton Senna”, Karin Sturm
As a matter of fact, the final grid times didn’t have quite that mindblowing a gap, but it was still pretty impressive. The times for the first three rows of the grid were:
Senna (McLaren-Honda) 1:23.998
Prost (McLaren-Honda) 1:25.425
Berger (Ferrari) 1:26.685
Alboreto (Ferrari) 1:27.297
Mansell (Williams-Judd) 1:27.665
Nannini (Benetton-Ford) 1:27.689