Recent history has suggested that if the year ends in an eight, it rains at the British Grand Prix. Our three-part Silverstone feature looks at the three most recent deluges, in 1988, ’98 and 2008…
Given McLaren’s dominance of the 1988 championship – ahead of the mid-season British Grand Prix, it had won all seven races, and hadn’t looked remotely likely to be toppled in any of them – few were expecting an upset in form at Silverstone.
Between them, team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had carved up the season’s victories, the Frenchman leading the Brazilian by 54 points to 30 by virtues of his wins in Brazil, Monaco, Mexico and France. Senna had taken victory in San Marino, Canadian and Detroit.
But, there was something about the peculiarities of the sport’s fastest, most extreme circuit, and the fickle nature of the British weather, that meant the team made remarkably hard work of what should have been a relatively straightforward weekend.
Even before the race, McLaren found it tough going at Silverstone. Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari had topped pre-race testing several weeks earlier, although, as usual, the wet British summer had played its part and dry running had been in short supply.
But the red cars had not only taken that form into free practice but into qualifying itself. For the first time in ’88, a McLaren wasn’t on pole. In fact, a McLaren wasn’t even on the front row – Gerhard Berger had taken pole from team-mate Michele Alboreto. It was to be the first and only time a McLaren had not topped the qualifying order all season.
Why was the dominant McLaren struggling?
The team had brought a major bodywork upgrade to the race, re-routing the distinctive periscope inlets atop the sidepods to a new position behind the radiator outlets.
At what was then the fastest track of the season, the drivers struggled with a handling imbalance, Prost reporting a combination of understeer and oversteer and increased sensitivity to crosswinds.
The Ferraris were fastest in Friday qualifying, and, for Saturday, with the MP4/4s failing to behave in their new configuration, the periscopes were re-installed.
That meant all of Friday’s running was rendered unusable, and set-up work had to begin afresh. Senna tried as hard as he could, even spinning twice at Stowe, but he couldn’t match the Ferraris, ending the session third. Prost’s best lap was spoiled by traffic, leaving him behind the Brazilian, in fourth.
Still, the consensus was that fuel consumption would hurt Ferrari more than McLaren in the race. Then, on Sunday morning, the rains came. Senna was quickest in the warm-up as the teams prepared for the first wet British GP since Aintree in 1961.
It was a day tailor-made for the Brazilian, whose prowess in poor conditions had long been established. At the start he quickly sliced past Alboreto, and began to look for a way past Berger. The Austrian wasn’t going to give up so easily. However, Senna knew that, even in the wet, the Ferrari couldn’t maintain front-running pace with its heavier fuel consumption, so he showed some patience
For Prost meanwhile the race turned into a nightmare. Using a carbon clutch in the wet for the first time (Senna had the standard version) he had been completely swamped at the start. He found himself with a poorly-balanced car in a traffic jam and was struggling to even see, let alone make progress through the field. Indeed, he went further backwards from his initial 11th place.
Remarkably after just 14 laps, Berger and Senna came up to lap him. Perhaps surprised by the sight of another McLaren suddenly ahead of him, Berger hesitated out of the flat-out Abbey curve. Senna made a dive down the inside to take the lead, and then lap Prost, who had given him just enough space.
Senna duly pulled away from Berger to add another perfectly judged wet win to his already impressive resume. After an impressive start, the Austrian tumbled down the order as his fuel numbers worsened, finishing a distant ninth.
Much to the great pleasure of the crowd, British hero Nigel Mansell put in a typically lion-hearted drive to finish second. It was his first points finish of the season after the Briton had endured a dismal start to the year in an uncompetitive car.
After the race, Senna was pragmatic about the diverse fortunes of both McLaren drivers: “Alain has been on the podium twice without me this year, so I suppose it was his turn to have some bad luck,” said the Brazilian. “Sometimes things go right for one of us and not the other, so it was satisfying to win after handling so many fresh situations for the first time this year.”
But for Prost, the afternoon had been a disaster.
Just 10 laps after being lapped by his team-mate, and floundering in 16th place behind the Dallara of Alex Caffi, he decided that enough was enough.
With such poor visibility in the rain, the Frenchman decided that his personal safety was more important than a vain chase while already 10 positions adrift of the points.
Inevitably, it was a call that stirred much controversy, particularly in his home country, where the question was asked angrily: how could a double World Champion simply call it quits like that, instead of ploughing on?
“There were all sorts of stupid comments in the press,” he said. “Someone even wrote that I was exhausted after winning the French Grand Prix! Other people said I had lost my nerve and couldn’t drive in the wet. But when it was very wet and you have the combination of aquaplaning and visibility, I never wanted to take a risk. I was always thinking of Didier [Pironi] and Hockenheim . But how do you say that to the press?
“At the end of the day, it’s my judgement and my life,” he added. “And if people won’t accept that view, it’’s their problem, not mine. I can live with that…”