Senna’s greatest race?
Silverstone has delivered many great races for the McLaren team over the decades and both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button will be going into this year’s British GP both determined to further enhance a formidable reputation at its home round of the world championship which extends back to James Hunt’s victory in 1977. Yet looking back over the list of distinguished McLaren Silverstone winners, many team insiders will be taking time out to reflect on possibly the most impressive win of all, that delivered by Ayrton Senna in 1988 in truly appalling conditions of torrential rain.
The 1988 season represented one of the outstanding high points in McLaren F1 history. The technical regulations were in a state of transition with a combination of 2.5-bar boost restrictions and 150-litres fuel capacity intended to steer many teams away from turbocharged engines and opt for the 3.5-litre naturally aspirated option which would become compulsory for 1989. Yet Honda’s and McLaren’s highly accomplished technicians believed there was more life to be squeezed out of the turbo option and 1988 MP4-4 proved them right. McLaren won 15 out of the season’s 16 races, Ayrton winning eight and Alain Prost seven.
Not only was the McLaren MP4-4 a technical tour-de-force as far as getting the most out of the regulations was concerned, but it saw McLaren deploying one of the strongest driving teams in its history. Some observers reckoned that Senna had bitten off more than he could chew coming into the McLaren squad where Prost had been very much its ‘sitting tenant’ since arriving on the scene in 1984. But just as Prost had undermined Niki Lauda’s position in the team four years before, so Ayrton was confident that he would beat Prost by “being faster, fitter and more committed” than the Frenchman. Many people concluded that, by the time he’d clinched his first title crown at the end of 1988, he had achieved his aim.
Ironically, at Silverstone, it initially looked as though the McLarens had met their match. The Ferrari turbos of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto dominated qualifying to button up the two positions on the front row of the grid with Senna and Prost lining up third and fourth on row two. Yet this was always going to be a race where managing the allocated 150-litres of fuel to the most efficient effect would be the key to success and, when the coquettish British summer weather delivered torrential rain on race morning, Senna felt confident he was home and dry.
For his part, Prost hated these sort of conditions. It wasn’t that he lacked the delicate touch required for the throttle in such dire weather, but he thought it was irrational to be plunging through spray in zero visibility at 170mph. Senna, characteristically, sensed this as a vulnerable aspect of his team-mate’s psyche – and pressed home his advantage.
At the start the two Ferraris surged into an immediate lead with Senna initially shadowing them tactically. Yet Prost found himself overwhelmed by the conditions. Perhaps his MP4-4 had been set up a touch too stiffly, perhaps Senna was getting inside his head. Whatever the truth of it, Alain dropped steadily down the field and finally crawled into the pits to retire with 25 of the race’s 65 laps completed.
Meanwhile, both Ferraris were using too much fuel and had to back off, allowing Senna to surge through into the lead. From then on the sodden spectators were treated to a Grand Prix masterclass, with Ayrton’s velvet touch and huge sensitivity carrying him steadily away from the pursuing pack. Ayrton’s steering input seemed minuscule and finely controlled, unlike others who seemed to be sawing madly at the wheel in frenetic fashion and to little effect. The track dried slightly towards the finish, but by then it was too late for the hard-charging Nigel Mansell to close the gap in his Williams-Judd.
Ayrton eventually won the race at a stunning average speed of 124.142mph. By the time he took the chequered flag, Prost was already back in civvies preparing to leave the circuit. By any standards, it had been a remarkable race for the McLaren squad.