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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna, over 50 seconds ahead of his teammate Alain Prost at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. (Image: Screengrab from an exclusive clip from  Senna, the movie; editorial use only)

Ayrton Senna, over 50 seconds ahead of his teammate Alain Prost at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. (Image: Screengrab from Senna, the movie; editorial use only)

What

Monaco Grand Prix

Where

Monte Carlo

When

May 1988

“Monaco. 1988. On that day, I said to myself, ‘that was the maximum for me; no room for anything more. I never really reached that feeling again’.”

– Ayrton Senna on his qualifying lap at Monaco in 1988.

Race Brief

1988. There was something very special about that year. It was a time of dreams coming true, of winning yes, but also of losing. It was a time of that perfect qualifying lap and an imperfect race.

In Monaco though, it started out as a rather innocuous race on that dry and sunny day. There were the usual DNFs courtesy technological failures, crashes, and even a nudge from a driver overtaking. Yet, it is a race remembered, revered even, as is the Saturday before it.

It started with Qualifying and a stunning final qualifying from Ayrton Senna that put him straight at pole, and then some. Then, came race day. It was the usual scramble at the start, as the lights went off. Nelson Piquet retired – a victim of a broken nose cone courtesy a collision. Alain Prost slipped to third place because of a mistake, Gerhard Berger took second, and Senna was off into the distance, on a different plane, racing perhaps only himself.

Behind however, there was mayhem – that joyful mayhem borne of clenched jaws, narrowed focus and racing. There were two main battles being played out – that of Michele Alboreto and Nigel Mansell, and further ahead of Prost and Berger. Neither gave way. But then on lap 33, Alboreto made his move, nudging Mansell in the process, and into the barriers. The British driver ended his race there. Meanwhile up ahead, Prost was trying every trick in the book to pass Gerhard Berger. He succeeded on lap 54. Now it was time to make a go at Senna. But Ayrton Senna was nowhere to be found. He was 50 seconds ahead of his French teammate. The two traded fastest laps, until Senna lost his concentration and crashed into the barriers on lap 65. A surprised, but pleased, Prost took the first place, with Berger and Alboreto taking a 2nd and 3rd.

A loss of concentration meant Ayrton Senna crashed into the barriers during the race. (Image: Screengrab from Senna, the movie; editorial use only)

A loss of concentration meant Ayrton Senna crashed into the barriers during the race. (Image: Screengrab from Senna, the movie; editorial use only)

The Ayrton Moment

In 1988, Ayrton Senna had finally got the drive he wanted and needed. McLaren was a team steeped in racing history where Senna would truly grow as a racer. But in 1988, Senna was two races into the season and facing off the man who would become his nemesis, Alain Prost. Senna was determined to win at Monaco in his stunning red and white McLaren MP4/4, a beauty with a 1.5L V6 Honda turbo engine. It began with the Qualifying – perhaps one of the greatest in F1 history. Senna had qualified on pole, but that didn’t stop him. He took off like a streak of lightning, the roar of the V6 resounding through the streets of Monaco and his car dancing across the circuit. He was an impossible 1.427s faster than his teammate and 2.7s faster than Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger.

The spectators and the teams were still reeling from Senna’s stupendous pace on race day. Would there be a repeat? There nearly was. Nearly. Because this was the race with the win that never was. Senna’s pace was fast, incredibly fast. By the time Prost reached 2nd place, Senna had already created a gap of 55.114s. This wasn’t normal.

Senna was almost in a trance, detached, as he later recalled, exactly like the one he slipped into during qualifying. Ron Dennis, worried that there would be a mistake, told Senna to go slow. But Prost was clocking in fast laps and Senna wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. The Brazilian paid for that after a lapse in concentration saw him crash into the barriers. Disgusted, he left his car on the circuit, and walked away, heading straight to his home apartment in Monaco, emerging the next day, as the team was packing up.

Even though this was a win that never was, it left an indelible mark on Senna. It was a turning point for him, one that would make him look inwards and analyze his racing. For the F1 world and its fans though, it was the moment when Ayrton Senna brought a touch of spirituality to racing.

TOMORROW: 1988 British Grand Prix

YESTERDAY: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix

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Categorised in: Ayrton Senna, Faces, Legends

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