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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1988 British Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1988 British Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna lines up at the starting grid at 3rd place (A screengrab from the 1988 British Grand Prix, editorial use only)

Ayrton Senna lines up at the starting grid at 3rd place (Screengrab of the 1988 British Grand Prix, editorial use only)

What

British Grand Prix

Where

Silverstone

When

July 1988

“Race day, though, was Ayrton-made. He might not care for slippery and perilous conditions any more than anyone else, but they are manna to him, bring out all his artistry. From first to last on Sunday, he guided the McLaren with sanded fingertips, never made a mistake, nor looked like it.”

Journalist Nigel Roebuck in his AutoweekUSA article on the race at Silverstone

Race Brief

It had been an especially interesting Qualifying – for this season at least. Nigel Mansell, tired of his inconsistent and unreliable Williams, announced that he would be moving to Ferrari at the end of the season. The Prancing Horse had done surprisingly well during the Qualifying, with Gerhard Berger on pole and teammate Michele Alboreto at 2nd. The McLarens, rather shockingly, had not scored a pole—a first this season, because of severe handling issues courtesy revisions to improve aerodynamics. The team finally ditched the new tech for the old set-up. It improved handling for Qualifying, but not by much. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost ended up 3rd and 4th place on the grid. The day dawned grey and damp—it was going to be a wet race.

It looked like everyone except the front-runner, Berger, would have to contend with a disorienting and large wall of grey spray. Slippery would be an understatement. Senna slipped to 4th place even as Alboreto tried to get into the first place at the start. But that lasted barely a moment, as Senna dispensed with the Italian and took the second place for himself. His teammate Prost though slipped down the ranks to a lowly 9th. The ignominy! Up ahead, Berger and Senna broke away from the pack and moved off to fight a race all of their own. Behind, Alboreto battled Mauricio Gugelmin, Ivan Capelli, Alessandro Nannini. A charging Nigel Mansell whose Williams had come alive in the rain, flanked them, determned to take a podium finish. By lap 13, Prost, the world championship leader, had slipped to 15th place. Senna had been trying to get past Berger, but the Austrian was holding his own, and all eyes were on the battle for 4th.

The story had changed a little by lap 14. Senna took advantage of the back markers—including Prost who he lapped—and moved past Berger to take the race lead. He started pulling away almost immediately. By lap 21, Senna and Berger had managed to open up a large gap—more than 46s ahead of Alboreto, who was trying his best to hold off Mansell. By 24 laps though, the race results were clear, well almost. Senna had lapped everyone up to 9th position, Berger had held on to his 2nd place, 52s behind, Mansell had taken 3rd place, and Prost had retired.

As the race reached the final stages, the weather was still being tricky and the track was drying. Mansell managed to hold his own, making his move on lap 50 when he caught and passed Berger. The Austrian was battling fuel issues and lost places fast, ending the race at 9th place. Alboreto retired on lap 62 after he ran out of fuel.

The race ended with Senna in 1st place, Mansell at 2nd and Nannini in 3rd.

Ayrton Senna douses Nigel Mansell with champagne. (Photo: LAT Photographic / Williams F1; editorial use only)

Ayrton Senna douses Nigel Mansell with champagne. (Photo: LAT Photographic / Williams F1; editorial use only)

The Ayrton Moment

It was inevitable, wasn’t it? Because when it rained…when it really and truly rained, Ayrton Senna came into his own. He made the car dance like a puppet, a graceful puppet, taking it exactly where he wanted it to go. At least that is what it looked like, always. So, it was no surprise that Senna despite being at 4th place drove a flawless race in pouring rain. Blinding spray? What’s that? He then proceeded to lap his teammate and build up an incredible gap. By the time the race ended, Nigel Mansell was 23s behind the Brazilian, and that was at the end of the race, when Senna had slowed down to preserve fuel.

The win was an incredible moment—crucial for the world championship, no doubt. But it also demonstrated Senna’s flawless driving technique in the rain. Because watching him drive in the rain was truly beautiful.

NEXT: 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

PREVIOUSLY: 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

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Categorised in: Ayrton Senna, Faces

2 Responses

  1. Really loving this series, great memories of watching F1 back then, been great to be transported back!

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