My old friend and journalistic colleague James Allen (@Jamesallenonf1) set me thinking recently when he tackled the subject of ‘the perfect lap’ in one of his thought-provoking blogs.
In James’s piece he shone the spotlight on the white-knuckle feats and grey-matter comments of a number of contemporary aces – including Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who have all bagged pole positions for McLaren – asking them whether they could recall a specific lap to which they might be tempted to apply the adjective ‘perfect’.
Their replies were interesting and thought-provoking, as you might expect, but, having spent the past 40 years trackside or in press rooms from Anderstorp to Zolder, via Brands Hatch, Interlagos, Kyalami, Monza, Osterreichring, Suzuka, Watkins Glen and dozens of other daunting racetracks besides, some of them extant and others extinct, I have no hesitation in stating that there was one lap – or tight sequence of laps – that stands out head-and-shoulders above any other I have ever witnessed.
I am referring, of course, to ‘Senna, Monaco, McLaren-Honda, qualifying, 1988’. That is a deliberately stark description, but hard-core Formula 1 enthusiasts will already realise exactly what I mean. Yes, it is an opinion – my opinion – but I honestly believe that on this occasion there is no contradictory view that can usurp it.
An F1 car’s competitiveness, proven by testing data, whether accumulated on a team’s simulator or garnered on long days spent grinding around in official tests, can only go so far. But it is the inspirational genius of the men strapped deep into the cockpits that is the crucial factor in the equation, making a good lap a great one. Or even a perfect one.
So come with me as I journey back exactly a quarter of a century and consider just what genius was on display through the streets of the glamorous Principality that famous Saturday afternoon.
It was the year of the F1 super-team. Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team principal, had assembled one of the most formidable fighting forces that F1 had ever seen. Driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the Honda turbo-powered McLaren MP4/4s had come out of the box at the start of the season ready to win from the word ‘go’. But Ayrton had raised his sights even higher. He was absolutely determined to humble Alain in the most convincing fashion imaginable.
At Monaco he succeeded – and then some. Although the two McLaren-Honda rivals locked out the front row, Ayrton’s pole lap was a staggering 1.5 seconds quicker than Alain, a double world champion already, could manage.
"And, remember, we were using race tyres for much of qualifying, which meant we could manage more than a single-lap run," Ayrton told my dear old friend, the late Denis Jenkinson of Motorsport magazine. "I got to the stage when at one point I was actually more than two seconds a lap faster than anybody else, including my team-mate, who was using the same car, the same tyres, the same everything.
"It wasn’t because he [Alain] was going too slow," Ayrton explained, "but because I was going too fast. I felt at one stage that the circuit was not a circuit any longer, just a tunnel of Armco barrier. But [events were unfolding] in such a way that I was over the level I considered reasonable. There was no margin, whatsoever, to anything.
"When I had that feeling," Ayrton went on, "I lifted immediately [from the throttle pedal]. Then I felt I was operating on a different level, which I didn’t quite understand. So I backed off and came into the pits. I said to myself, 'Today, that was special. Don’t go out any more. You’re vulnerable.'"
How close to the absolute limit Ayrton had been operating only became truly evident when it came to the next day’s race. As expected, driving at the very zenith of his brilliant best, Ayrton was pulverising the rest of the drivers, half a minute ahead of Alain, who was lapping superbly himself yet was nonetheless being utterly annihilated by the flying Brazilian.
Then, with dominant victory apparently assured, Ayrton ran a mite wide at Portier, the right-hander that leads into the tunnel, and smote the retaining wall, breaking his McLaren’s suspension. Game over.
"I’d driven almost the perfect race," he said later, "Probably the best I’d ever done in terms of qualifying, race performance and car set-up. Earlier I’d had a moment in Casino Square when the car jumped out of gear, just as I started to relax. I nearly hit the barrier then, but I got myself under control. But then it happened to me again, at Portier, and it caught me out."
Had he been driving perfect laps? Had his retirement been caused by the fact that he’d been operating absolutely on the limit, without margin, such that even the tiniest misjudgement would cause cataclysm? Had he, indeed, been trying to improve on perfection?
This observer, your humble correspondent, watching every high-speed twitch of that scarily rapid red-and-white rocket-ship, spellbound by the most magnificent display of virtuoso grand prix driving I had ever seen, was absolutely certain that the answers to those questions were yes, yes and yes.