Flashback: The one and only - Senna's British GP win

Ayrton Senna. Even those who have never seen him race, indeed many of those who have never seen any race, are well aware of his towering legend. 

Britain however was rarely fertile territory for him. Of his forty-one Grand Prix victories only one was the British Grand Prix. A Senna win in the 1988 season – a year synonymous with the dominance of him and Alain Prost in their Honda-powered McLaren MP4/4s – might not seem all that remarkable, but as was often the way with Senna if you looked closer there was more to it.

The deviation from the usual started in the practice and qualifying days, which resulted in the first – and only – occasion of 1988 that something other than a McLaren sat on pole position. Indeed there was not even one on the front row: it was instead occupied by Ferrari pilot Gerhard Berger on pole alongside his team mate Michele Alboreto. Senna and Prost were left to start from row two, a consequence of the tiniest hesitation in the McLaren onward march for just about the first time that year. The team had designed some bodywork especially for Silverstone’s high speed layout but a test there a fortnight earlier wherein the team was due to try it was rained off. And in Friday’s running both McLaren drivers complained of poor handling. The revised aero was abandoned for Saturday, but it all left the Woking team a day behind. And this track, featuring at the time only one slow corner, was the least punishing of Ferrari’s tardy throttle lag, meaning the red cars were close enough to take advantage. 

Some onlookers got excited at all of this, but it was transient and predictably so. Berger post-qualifying didn’t make any secret that come race day the Ferraris wouldn’t have the fuel consumption to trouble the McLarens (this, the last campaign before turbo engines were banned, was the year of a swingeing 150 litre fuel limit per race for turbo cars).

The picture though was changed a little on race morning. It rained and the low cloud suggested that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was also to be the first F1 race to have so much as a drop of rain falling on it since the Belgian Grand Prix of 1985, close to three years previously.

A few speculated that the rain would help the Ferraris run with the McLarens on fuel economy after all; others that it would let the non-turbo cars get closer to the turbo-powered McLarens and Ferraris. But those with long memories knew what rain really meant. Senna had won that last wet Belgian race at a canter in 1985 as well as won, dominantly, the previous wet race to that in Portugal the same year. And the one before that, in Monaco in 1984, he probably would have won had the decision to halt the race early come a few minutes after it did. So, out of three wet races in his F1 career Senna could claim two crushing wins as well as a near miss of a stunning and unexpected one.

At the race’s green light (no safety car starts in those days) Senna followed the Ferraris through Copse corner but then burst past Alboreto into second place immediately in the run to Becketts. That done, he showed an equally immediate desire to seize the lead from Berger and indeed had a long look down the inside of the Ferrari at Stowe, but Berger just about held him off and as his Ferrari completed lap one in the lead it was, astonishingly, the first race lap of the season not headed by a McLaren. This being race number eight.

But what of the other McLaren? Well, if the cards were falling for Senna they definitely were not for Prost. Prost hadn’t liked wet weather driving for a good few years (a legacy of Didier Pironi’s harrowing accident in Hockenheim in 1982 which Prost was involved in), but on this day that was only the start of his worries. Prost’s car featured a carbon clutch, which he described as ‘much more brutal and sudden’ than the normal clutch on Senna’s car. Also, Prost’s Honda engine management system wasn’t offering many revs in the cool air temperature. These two things ensured Prost’s start was a stinker, which put him into the pack where all were blinded by spray. The engine malady further didn’t resolve itself, meaning that Prost ‘even with full boost couldn’t pass Caffi’s Dallara on the straight’. And worst of all Prost had a problem all weekend with a front wing not mounted properly, it moving around under load sometimes giving understeer and sometimes oversteer, but never predictably. Prost therefore went backwards.

What the commentating James Hunt referred to as ‘the two young lions’ of Berger and Senna quickly disappeared into a private race meantime, as if the track they operated on had less water on it than it did for everyone else. The gap to third place was six seconds after just two laps, nineteen after six. Soon it was well upwards of a half a minute.

But all was not as it seemed. Even with the rain falling Berger knew that he didn’t have the fuel mileage to run with Senna, a saturated Silverstone still being quicker than most tracks on the calendar. But the Austrian resolved nevertheless to have some fun, cranking his turbo boost up, putting his fuel consumption well into the ‘red’ as he did so, to allow himself a glory run at the front. Like a romantic figure from a Greek tragedy, Berger’s gesture while ostentatious was ultimately and wilfully doomed to failure. And it only served to cloak for a time the main story of the race, that there was only ever one man in it for first place.

That resolved itself before long however, and ironically it did so as Berger and Senna were lapping Prost. It also oh-so nearly ended Senna’s race. Prost was really struggling by now, running in fifteenth having been overtaken by the luminary of Stefano Modena in the Eurobrun. Berger came through Abbey on lap fourteen, then a flat out kink, to find a tardy Prost on the racing line, which required him to get out of the throttle. Senna flashed past Berger immediately but perhaps in his excitement seemed to brake later than ideal for the subsequent Woodcote chicane. For a tiny heart-in-mouth moment it looked like he was going to spear straight into the side of his team mate; indeed he would have done had Prost not dutifully leapt out of the firing line (given this was his championship rival and Prost was clearly going to get little out of the afternoon it’s admirable that Prost didn’t let Senna simply drive into him). But Senna got away with it, and with McLaren fratricide narrowly averted was into the lead and away. From that point on barring unreliability there was little doubt surrounding the destination of the race win.

But even without tension over the outcome Senna’s dominant wet weather performance remained diverting; very much a quintessential demonstration of a master revelling in his craft. The legendary scribe Denis Jenkinson watching on was one of those in full admiration: ‘We now settled down in the intermittent rain to watch a real artist at work, Senna’s delicate touch on steering and throttle being a joy to see. He was completely unchallenged and in total command of the conditions.’ Senna lapped everyone up to sixth-placed Nelson Piquet, before deciding at around half distance to save his tyres (and possibly his fuel) by cruising home. By the end he was still some 23 seconds clear of the rest.

Senna’s grip of the race was further aided by Berger’s fuel read out. Berger had assumed that once he’d given up chase of Senna he could turn everything down and retain his second place pretty comfortably. Not so. Indeed, such was Berger’s early spendthrift behaviour he had to tail off his pace disastrously if he wanted to finish and let car after car cruise by in the closing laps. By the final tour he was sixth – the final points scoring position. But accelerating to the line out of the final Woodcote chicane his Ferrari coughed once more from its lack of petrol, and three more cars flashed past leaving Berger to finish ninth and pointless. 

But of course, in any British Grand Prix of this age one could guarantee that, one way or another, Nigel Mansell would find a way of performing a central role. And this remained so even in the most trying circumstances of 1988. Williams had lost the stellar Honda engines at a moment’s notice in late 1987, leaving Williams with underpowered and unreliable Judds. Furthermore, Williams’ attempt at introducing ‘reactive’ suspension was proving difficult and in Silverstone’s Friday running it displayed a mind of its own and threatened to throw the cars off the track repeatedly. Patrick Head nevertheless surprised everyone by taking the nuclear option on Friday evening and abandoning the suspension altogether, and a heroic overnight job (which Head admitted subsequently was a ‘bodge’) by the team got a car with conventional suspension ready for Mansell for Saturday. And from starting in eleventh the race day rain gave Mansell an opportunity to make progress, putting all of his much-renowned bravery and muscle to good use. He moved past the likes of Alboreto, Mauricio Gugelmin in the March, Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton (the two cars respectively designed by Adrian Newey and Rory Byrne) and eventually an economy-minded Berger to finish second, the best of the rest behind Senna. Thus the soggy home fans were sent away happy.

And as for Alain Prost? Having sunk down to sixteenth place, behind Alex Caffi’s Dallara unthinkably, Prost decided simply to jack it in for the day. And just had Niki Lauda had in Fuji twelve tyres earlier he made no bones about it. Many respected his judgment given everything (poor-handling chassis, down on power engine, blinding spray and no hope of points) but – perhaps predictably – some of the press contingent, particularly those from Prost’s homeland of France, slaughtered him, relying heavily on chivalrous metaphors and labouring under the impression that F1 drivers were somehow on a mission. Someone indeed went so far as to declare pompously that Prost was ‘no longer on a pedestal’. But as Prost noted subsequently had he crashed during his futile exercise that day, hurt himself and missed a few races, the very same people would likely have played a very different tune.

But the one tune that everyone danced to on the day of the 1988 British Grand Prix was that played by Ayrton Senna. It was a day on which no one was left in any doubt of the young man’s genius behind a steering wheel, a genius that was not in the least diminished by falling rain and would be rewarded by his first world championship later that season. For one day only, not even the Mansell-adoring Silverstone hordes in attendance would argue about who was number one.