From the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix to the beginning of the 1988 Championship, a lot has passed for Senna and Prost, who in the Principality had only anticipated a close encounter on the track, before the incessant rain forced Jackie Ickx to suspend the race. The Frenchman has conquered total leadership within the McLaren team, thanks to the farewell of Niki Lauda and the two World Championships won between 85 and 86, and at the age of thirty-three he is at the height of a career that already includes him among the most successful ever.
Senna concluded his three-year experience with Lotus, during which he tasted the joy of victory, six times to be precise, and established himself as a very fast driver, especially on the flying lap; the Brazilian only needs a constantly competitive car to allow him to fight for what matters most: the World Cup, of course.
The opportunity of life for the native of São Paulo presents itself, precisely, in 1988. The reigning Champion team, Williams, lost Honda's supply of turbocharged engines, by far one of the most trusted brands for powertrain production at that time.
A story that has deep roots.
Saturday September 5, 1987, Honda breaks the contract with Frank Williams and announces the new marriage with McLaren. The previous day, during the morning, the English team issued a note which stated:
"Following a joint agreement between Williams and Honda it was decided to terminate the collaboration started in 1983 which led to winning twenty Grand Prix and the world constructors' title in 1986 (they still had to win the 1987 constructors' championship). excellent relations, but we also have incentives to start a new adventure. We are building a car for 1988 and have decided to use the naturally aspirated 3500cc Judd engines in the next season".
The Judd engines are actually eight-cylinder Hondas used in the Formula 3000 championship. John Judd is an English tuner who, working on these engines, will be able to supply three teams in 1988. Up to now the engines have been assembled with parts built in Japan, but from 1988 they will be produced entirely in England and will be used by Williams, Ligier and March. Subsequently, in a press conference on the afternoon of September 5, 1987, Honda executives reiterated what had already been announced by Williams. Honda breaks the contract with Williams for a number of specific reasons:
- The loss of the World Championship in 1986 due to the internal struggle between Mansell and Piquet;
- The difficult relationship between Williams designer Patrick Head and the Japanese who perhaps wanted to know more of the secrets of the English technician regarding chassis and aerodynamics;
- The conviction of the Japanese manufacturer to gain advantage by relying more on the drivers than on the teams.
In 1988, Honda will supply engines to the McLaren of Prost and Senna, and to the Lotus of Piquet. In fact, at the end of the meeting, Honda present its new collaborators, Prost, Senna and McLaren manager Ron Dennis, with toasts, good wishes and other nice words. The unexpected development of events means that the engine desired by Patrick Head since the end of 1986, designed by Katsumi Ichida, with the oil pan lowered by forty millimeters, will never be used by Williams, but will favor the creation of McLaren MP4/4.
Lined up on a stage, impassive and kind, the designer Goto, the head of Formula 1 Sakurai, the directors of the various services Yoshida and Hoguchi read a series of documents from which they learned what had already been known from the Williams statement. It was then announced that the official naturally aspirated engine, for 1989, is under construction and will be tested during 1988.
It is therefore in this context, with a car that proves to be unbeatable, that the genius and perseverance of the Frenchman will clash with the crystalline talent and aggressiveness of the Brazilian.
According to the regulation imposed for the 1988 season, the allowed boost pressure drops from 4 to 2.5 bar, with a consequent reduction in engine power, while the quantity of fuel introduced into the tanks of supercharged engines is reduced to 150 liters against 180 of the previous season. For this reason it is necessary to make motors with very low stroke values; but since this is the last season in which the use of supercharged engines is allowed, the manufacturers, except for Honda, have decided to use the old existing materials, as they are projected towards future aspirated engine projects.
In Rio de Janeiro, on March 8, 1988, at the Jacarepaguà circuit, after three and a half months of rest (with the only interlude of a short test on the Suzuka track, in Japan, on behalf of Honda) to recover physically and to forget the stress of an intense season but below expectations at Lotus, Ayrton returns to driving a Formula 1 car.
The initial program includes three or four days of driving, with Prost in the role of box observer, then an exchange of roles. But Ayrton, in his first day of work, with the old McLaren-laboratory, an MP4/3B equipped with a Honda engine, only gets the eighth time in 1'34"04. Among other things, Prost does not miss the opportunity to have some fun against his teammate.
In fact, during the test carried out for the tires, McLaren only brings one car. Alain is in charge of running only a few laps to check that everything is in order, and then leaves the task to Senna, but upon returning to the pits, while the mechanics replace the tires, he decides to delay the exit from the car. The reason is simple: The Professor saw Ayrton nervously strolling around the pits with his helmet already on. When the Frenchman finally decides to slip away, he can smirk as he sees Ayrton yelling at the mechanics:
"It's not fair, it's not fair".
After testing, Ayrton claims he still doesn't understand the car. The McLaren executives therefore decide to let Alain continue the tests, justifying themselves with the need to have exact parameters on the evolution and possibilities of the car with a driver who has been testing all winter. For Ayrton it had to be a peaceful, gradual return. But this did not happen. Journalists chase him, ask him if by chance he does not hear a second guide, but he rejects all allegations, declaring:
"Alain and I are on par, we will have identical material. It is the spare car that will be once up to me, once to him, in perfect alternation".
On March 22, 1988, the new car, which was expected for the morning after being shipped from England, actually arrives only at 9:10 pm, since it first gets stuck at customs in Bologna, and then in traffic. The English team had booked the track until the whole day of March 23th; moreover, after five days of good weather, on March 22th the weather conditions changed and on the Imola track a persistent rain made the tests of the teams still engaged in their tests more difficult. Finally, on March 23, 1988, the new McLaren, designed by Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols, presents the MP4/4 model. Alain begins testing, and immediately notices that McLaren has produced a car that has the potential to be nearly unbeatable:
"It's absolutely fantastic. I just hope Ayrton goes quiet, we don't have to show the world what we have".
In fact, Prost immediately turns two seconds faster than all other competitors. The Professor confessed to the press that he felt very satisfied with the new car, even though he felt uncomfortable in the narrow interior.
At this point, Dennis decides to take Senna to a corner of the garage to invite him to go slow. What the Brazilian does not know, however, is that Alain did not indicate to the mechanics that during the test he wore out the brake pads; for this, Ayrton, as soon as he got into the car, arrived at Tosa and left the track, and very slowly returned to the pits. During the winter, however, Alain is not the only one who enjoys teasing Ayrton; Nelson Piquet also makes fun of his compatriot. The rust between Piquet and Senna is long standing and dates back to the past year, when Nelson stated:
"Lotus has finally chosen the right Brazilian. To become world champions, they have to take a driver who is capable of it".
Ayrton's response was not long in coming:
"If Nelson ever wins a race in 1988, it will be for the work I did the previous season".
The skirmishes continue when in Rio, during the tests, to the question relating to his public absence, Ayrton replies:
"I preferred to leave to allow Piquet to appear on the pages of the newspapers".
A joke that Nelson does not like, and replies:
"Senna didn't show up because he'd have trouble explaining why he doesn't like women".
The exchange, perhaps born as a joke, is unleashed in a real media storm, until Senna decides to sue Piquet, and assisted by the lawyer Geraldo Gordilho, before the judge Joao Antonio da Silva, accuses Nelson of defamation.
Indeed, by dint of digging the Brazilian journalists publish a clearly false news dating back to the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in September 1987. According to this alleged story, the beautiful Marjorie Andrade, who accompanied Senna, was just a girl hired from an escort service of luxury to make Ayrton look good, and that the handsome Brazilian Junior who always accompanied Senna before, had disappeared from the circuits by the specific will of Senna's family, tired of all the rumors that were circulating about the homosexuality of his son.
Ayrton's alleged lover would be Americo Jacoto Junior, childhood friend and personal secretary of the Brazilian compatriot. A friend who, due to the strong pressure of the family, had actually been forced to abandon his job alongside Ayrton, making him lack a fundamental point of reference. But on March 17, 1988, the model Marjorie Andrade refuted these insinuations, giving an interview to the Brazilian weekly Machete:
"I had a relationship with Ayrton that lasted seven months. It was very nice but today it's all over. Every comment about him is pure slander. Ayrton is a real male, he is the man with whom I identified myself more, I make a million and a half dollars a year, I don't need to get paid for things like that".
However, the news of Ayrton's alleged homosexuality, in that March 1988, has already been around the world, so much so that even Brazilian homosexual organizations make it known that they want to present themselves to the circuit with a large pink banner with the written:
"Ayrton we are with you against discrimination".
But the police promptly replied that such support will not be allowed into the racetrack.
At Jacarepaguà, home to the first seasonal grand prix, harassed by questions about Senna's homosexuality allegations, Nelson simply replies:
"But I said it so to speak, as of a person who doesn't like dogs".
Before moving on to the racing fields, the controversy continues, as the new Lotus driver, after having let slip the unfortunate declaration on Senna's private life, goes on to attack all the greats of Formula 1, starting with Enzo Ferrari: in an interview that appeared in the Brazilian Playboy, a statement by Piquet emerges, according to which Ferrari is ninety years old and is no longer able to manage the company, and Formula 1 can't wait to get rid of it; then he adds to the dose by declaring that the Ferrari have no chance of winning the world championship this year, given the division of labor between the English and Italian factories. After that it's Prost's turn, labeled as:
"The one who did the most stupid things in Formula 1".
And also of Mansell:
"Rude and with an ugly wife".
He still has some for Senna too, defined one who:
"Spend more time justifying mistakes tha tuning the machine".
In addition to a Piquet with a long tongue, Prost's protests against the very high number of competitors continue undeterred, forcing the Federation to organize pre-qualifications:
"Maybe we were better off when we were worse off. I mean that a few years ago when the turbo started to crush all the other engines it was hard to put together the minimum number of competitors. Formula 1 seemed destined to be reduced to a group of four mad cats. Now, instead, here we are in overnumber thanks to the mass return of aspirated engines. The confusion of thirty-one registered cars, the humiliation for many of disappearing from the scene even before the race, so many more dangers lurking. They wanted to bring Formula 1 back to everyone's reach and they succeeded but I also think that many are deluded, here there are too many people who have no hope, who will not achieve anything, who will only cause chaos and confusion".
In fact, having enrolled in the championship as many as eighteen teams, for a total of thirty-one drivers, a pre-qualifying session was set up again, to be held during free practice on Friday, in order to reduce to thirty (maximum number foreseen by the regulation) the drivers who would take part in the actual qualifying. But despite the controversy surrounding his private life and the doubts arising from the fact that he tried the new McLaren only for a few laps, Ayrton hits pole position in his Brazil, and on Brazilian television he too indulges in poisoned statements.
"How nice to be in pole position on the circuit named after Piquet".
McLaren's tests had been so positive that Ron Dennis, on March 27, 1988, was unbalanced in a series of alarming predictions:
"Senna and Prost can win all races. We will not make tactics for this championship, we will just try to always finish first. This is our goal".
The start of the season confirms the clear superiority of the McLarens over the competition. On race day, when the traffic lights are about to come on, Ayrton raises his arm. Everything stops. Departure postponed. McLaren mechanics fumble over the broken gearbox, but there is nothing they can do there on the spot and with little time available. The start is postponed for three minutes and Senna's McLaren is returned to the pits.
Despite the indications of his chief mechanic Neil Trundle and the regulation that prohibits it, Ayrton takes the forklift, lines up at the exit of the pits and when everyone has started, he too leaves, last.
Senna drives really fast and is always thirty, thirty-three, even thirty-five seconds behind Prost who is in the lead. Everyone is asking: will he ever make it up? He does it. On the twentieth lap, after a third of the race, he is already behind his teammate. It could have been the first clash, and instead on lap twenty-six here is a black flag waving with the number 12. Senna must stop immediately, he initially ignores the flag, but then from the pits they tell him to return. The disqualification is immediate.
The regulations are clear: Senna could not change car even starting last from the pits.
Too bad, the race in this way loses one of the main protagonists, even if, given that the public was enthusiastic about his comeback, for most of the race the stewards let Ayrton run until he reached the second position.
"When I tried to put the car in gear at the start, I realized that the gearshift linkage was stuck. I raised my arms and the race was stopped. I wanted to race with my car and I asked the mechanics to fix it, thinking that all the starting procedure would have been repeated, at least fifteen minutes later. Instead the starter made it resume immediately and I changed the car. They made me take so many risks, couldn't they have made up their minds earlier?"
Prost takes advantage of it, who quietly wins at his teammate's house:
"The race was easy. This is the best McLaren I have ever driven. I had problems in qualifying, everything was perfect in the race. The tactic was to take a good margin and change the tires only once. I also drove safely in the final, as I knew I could accelerate whenever I wanted. Berger never worried me. We are strong".
Alain's only concern is the kisser. The protagonist is this J. Moura, nicknamed El Beijoquelro, a famous person in Brazil for his continuous attempts to subject the stars of entertainment and sports to his effusions. During the second start of the Grand Prix, Mr. Moura suddenly appeared on the track, starting to race among the cars that already had their engines running. He reached Prost's McLaren, bent down and kissed the French driver's helmet, stunned by the unexpected appearance. The kisser then escaped. Reached by the policemen he got down on his knees and said:
"I wanted to kiss Senna, I got the wrong car".
Carried out in his arms, he then reappeared as a ghost in the press room trying to perform his favorite action on the face of an Italian journalist. Again he was forcibly removed, as he said:
"I love you all".
After the first Grand Prix of the year in third position, Piquet returns to talk about the interview he gave at the beginning of the year, and joking about it, explains what really happened:
"What an exaggeration and what a fool. Here we will have to understand each other once and for all because I like being in the company of journalists. Being with them also teaches me to understand many things about other countries, they are often intelligent people, of good company, cheerful. But when one at dinner or after dinner speaks at full speed, synthesizing the concepts with hasty idioms and then finds them printed in the same way, well then one feels the desire to sew up his mouth and not speak anymore. But even if I get angry, then I am not able to do so".
"Let's start with Ferrari. I said he is a gagà, a Brazilian word that means, let's say, a person a little burdened by age. Now it turns out that I called him a dot. But for heaven's sake, I respect the engineer Ferrari a lot and this was not the sense of what I said. Ferrari is ninety years old, he can be lively and lively as long as you want, but it is certainly not the Ferrari of thirty or forty years ago. The Ferrari of that time, I mean with the freshness and the grit of that time, he would not have done the mistake he did by taking Barnard, who had said clearly from the beginning that he did not love Italy and did not want to work in Italy. He pays the consequences of having two working groups, distant and I believe also fighting each other".
Then, regarding Mansell's wife, and about the British driver, he declares:
"Here too, how much mess. They asked me who were the most beautiful women in Formula 1 and I answered first of all Caterina, my partner, and then in order I named: Rita Cheever and Susy Patrese. Someone threw me there: And Mrs. Mansell? No, I don't think much of a beauty, I replied. If you want to play at getting me in the middle now, well, go ahead, I'm not. About Mansell, on the other hand, I said what I thought; and that is, in my opinion, rather that losing the world championship by being beaten on the track, he preferred to leave the scene with the accident. The incident was certainly true but the consequences seem to me to have been a bit exaggerated. While leaving Nagoya airport he gave interviews, shortly after returning home he was seen playing golf in his club, a mechanic of the team who had rescued him told me it was not at all serious. What should I do? Say the opposite?"
And regarding Prost he points out:
"I will have talked for half an hour extolling Alain's talents and merits and now it turns out that I spoke badly of him. The opposite is true. Prost is a very good driver. But he also makes mistakes. If I had my own team, I would hire Prost and Senna. Ayrton is very good, he has not yet won a World Cup and he has a great desire to win it. Having said that, I am ready to repeat the criticisms I have already made of him. And that they are not the ones that you have all inflated, but others: a month ago I said that instead of finding excuses to justify his distance from the tracks he would have done better to devote himself a little more to testing his new car".
Then he concludes by saying:
"Ferrari will certainly not win the World Championship if it continues to lag behind like in Brazil. And the same can be said of Lotus. But everything can change because everyone tries to improve and often succeeds. The balance is done later, not before".
So, is it all the journalists' fault? Nelson replies:
"No, I don't say that. But I say that sometimes there is some journalist who starts a fire from a simple lit match. Let's face it: the things I said are the same that I always hear from the same journalists. On Prost, about Ferrari, about everyone. Then I laugh at it and everyone attributes it to me. It's convenient this way, if you let a world champion tell them they turn into good titles. Are they the laws of communication? They are. But the sense, the tone and the way in which I may have said certain things or have only consented to others, was very different. Let me be clear: I do not consider engineer Ferrari to be a fool at all. But with age he is, he is no longer what he used to be. This is not an offense as you want it to appear".
Meanwhile, while the good Nelson explains what really happened, clearing himself of the accusations suffered, on April 21, 1988, while tests are underway in Monza, Ayrton is the protagonist of an impressive and dramatic accident, while with his McLaren he is simulating a race.
The episode took place at 6:05 pm, when the Brazilian is making the forty-third of the fifty laps scheduled. The Brazilian driver is exiting at full speed, around 270 km/h, in sixth gear from the second corner of Lesmo. The car went through, spun a couple of times and then hit the right side with the guardrails. The front wheel fell apart, the rear one squashed, the nose flew and dozens of pieces scattered around it. Ayrton then returned to the pits, sitting in the back seat of an Alfa 33, and told about the accident:
"What a scare. I was saved by a miracle. As a crash test it was almost the best. It must be said that these cars are sturdy. Luckily, however, I did not hit the nose. The car had already been sliding at that point for several laps. At the last step it went off on a tangent and I couldn't control her".
The exit from the track interrupted the test, however McLaren still had positive indications from which to take inspiration:
"Apart from the accident, I'm satisfied. At Imola we will play for the victory. As far as I'm concerned, I'm leaving with a handicap after what happened in Brazil, so I'll have to try to catch up on both my teammate Prost and the other opponents".
In Imola, Ayrton in qualifying trims more than three seconds to the third classified, Nelson Piquet. McLaren dominates qualifying with overwhelming superiority. The only one who comes close to the Brazilian's performance is Prost, who, however, is seven tenths from pole. It is even worse for Ferrari, which with Berger qualifies over three and a half seconds behind. The Austrian, disappointed with the result, does not hide his feelings:
"It is sad to work so hard only to discover that we have gone back. Unfortunately, the myth of the top car is over, perhaps a car that much would be worth packing it up and sending it back home".
After qualifying, a little case bursts out. When the cars of Senna and Prost are subjected to the usual checks at the end of the tests, the operations of the marshals, usually fast, got stuck, sending things to length. The bottom of the two McLarens would not have been regular, but at the end of long discussions everything was resolved with a promise from the English team to put things right. The Federation had already had the feeling in Rio that something was on the verge of regularity, since after the Grand Prix a circular was issued to remind all the teams that the bottom had to correspond to the characteristics of a standard issued in 1984, and that probably many believed that had fallen into disuse. The flat-bottom rule was introduced to put an end to the use of the ground effect which at the time had become a highly efficient but dangerous aerodynamic device.
Now, if someone had managed to reproduce at least a part of that magical effect today, they could have gained substantial chronometric margins on the track. This is not the case with McLaren, as the two cars are not disqualified from testing.
At the start Senna easily maintains command of the race, while Prost starts very badly, after having even risked having the engine switched off. The Frenchman recovered very quickly from sixth position up to the shoulders of his teammate, who, however, is unreachable at this point.
Senna then leads to the finish, winning the first race with McLaren ahead of Prost and Piquet. After the race, Alain and Ayrton are interviewed side by side. The French driver makes his debut like this:
"Unfortunately, the only problem with our Honda engine concerns the start. You have to keep it revved up, in a precise way. I didn't succeed and I advanced in fits and starts, so much so that four of them overtook me. This compromised my result in how much, honestly, it was difficult to reach Senna if he didn't make mistakes, as he was able to do. In any case I have one more result under my belt and I feel calm".
And Ayrton replies by telling the press:
"The fight with Alain is beautiful and correct. Neither of us creates traffic problems for the other, because we both go fast. Really, the traffic on the track of slow cars is the most serious obstacle we have to face.I even touched the tail of a car. Of course it's nice to race like this: in the past I always had to chase someone, now it's the others who have to chase me".
The reporters ask both of them if they are not afraid to kill the World Championship:
"I believe that our technical challenge is of big interest. The very fact that we are so far ahead of everyone is something sensational, interesting for those who really love the science of fast motoring, not the lottery".
Replies Alain. But is there a secret?
"Let's not laugh. If anything, the completeness of the technical sector. But these are things that everyone can verify, and try to reproduce at home".
Says Ayrton instead. Don't you get bored of winning so easily?
"I think that between winning easily and fighting angrily to lose, the first option is preferable. At the cost of being banal, I say that a perfect and boring car is better than an imperfect and fun car. But then my car is boring for you, not for me".
Alain then concludes. And here comes the question that everyone is asking. Will the rivalry between you two break out? Prost answers first:
"We still don't know each other well, me and Ayrton. But so far everything is going well".
"Alain is a perfect companion, for me the experience of being in the team with him is already magnificent".
A few days later, on May 12, 1988, at Le Castellet in France, McLaren set the new circuit record during private tests, with Prost lapping in 1'05"19 followed by Senna in 1'05"93, despite having the new transversal gearbox that has been tested for a long time. McLaren's advantage over their rivals is embarrassing. After such a dominant start, everything suggests a new easy triumph for McLaren in Monaco.
However, the Grand Prix raced in the streets of Monte Carlo shows an Ayrton far from the ability to manage situations required in such contexts, especially if you have to compete with a World Champion; this, despite Ayrton approaching perfection during qualifying, trimming abysmal gaps to his teammate:
"Sometimes I think I know some of the reasons why I do my job. Monte Carlo 1988, qualifying session, Saturday afternoon: I was already in pole position, first half a second, then a second and I always went stronger. In a short time I was two seconds faster than anyone else; I was driving instinctively, I was in another dimension, in a tunnel, far beyond my rational capacity. On that day I said to myself: this is the best I can achieve, there's no room for anything more. I've never achieved that feeling since then".
During the Saturday session, Prost sets a time of 1'26"90; Ayrton responds with a time of 1'24"40; then Prost tries again and drops to 1'25"4, but Senna inflicts the final blow with an extraordinary 1'23"90. Prost's pale and incredulous face at the end of qualifying says it all: the Frenchman simply can't understand how and where Ayrton got that lap time out.
McLaren-Honda supremacy seems to be attacked only by unforeseeable events and by none of the other rivals on the track. The challenge is evidently only between the two McLaren drivers. The journalists insinuate that in the circuit that has seen Alain triumph several times, on this occasion it is difficult to maintain undisputed leadership. In this regard, Alain confesses that:
"I know perfectly well that it will be the most difficult and demanding Grand Prix in recent years. For the first time there will be twenty-six cars at the start. A crowd for a circuit like this narrow and winding. Overtaking is prohibitive, therefore, also considering that the average level of the performance of the single-seaters has risen. To tell the truth, I will have my work to do when the start is given, remembering what happened in Imola where I let myself be surprised. The Honda engine, in fact, has only one problem precisely in these situations, as it must be kept to a high and exact number of revs to avoid a sudden drop that can block you on the grid. At the same time I realize that if there is an opportunity to overtake Senna without great difficulty, it will be the start".
Speaking of his teammate and his incredible pole position, Alain professes a sentence that will become damn true the next day:
"He takes too many risks".
Perhaps it is true, Senna takes too many risks, sometimes useless, especially considering the supremacy of McLaren over his rivals. However, a clear and higher than expected gap between the two teammates on the flying lap was confirmed.
A second and a half between the two is a long time and, fortunately for Prost, it does not correspond to the difference in meters on the starting grid, which is always the same.
Alain tends to diminish the seriousness of the gap from his teammate, but many begin to get the impression that Senna is destined to win the race alone. The common idea in the pits is that Prost should only hope for Senna's mistake.
All this only aggravates Ferrari's position, because it is true that the second row conquered is a breath of fresh air, an important psychological boost in a moment of great confusion and great rivalry within the House, but it is also true that Senna trimmed over two and a half seconds from Berger. Just about what has been said, Gianni Agnelli, just out of the Ferrari awning, is stopped by a breathless journalist who has blocked his way:
"Lawyer, in short: when will these blessed Fiat shares decide to regain share? You know, I have quite a few...".
Exclaims the reporter.
"So you think to me that I have more shares than it".
Growls the lawyer. At that point an attempt is made to sweeten the president of Fiat who every year, in Montecarlo, arrives for the Grand Prix at the strangest hours and with the most unusual means in an attempt, always terribly useless, to mislead the curious. So before asking him about the meager performance of the Ferrari, the reporters take the speech remotely bringing it to the Honda topic:
"They are good, there is really nothing to say".
Confusion reigns in Maranello. Indeed, the modified engines that were supposed to arrive on Friday night did not arrive, by Harvey Postlethwaite's own admission:
"The engines are the same as you have seen until today, we have only changed the electronic mapping but this is normal, it is done in every race because every race is different from the others. I would say that the miracle depends only on the fact that in these tests everything it went the right way, everything went smoothly, no inconvenience in Berger, no one in Alboreto. And then the values were re-established, because the only ones who can keep up with the McLarens are ourselves".
Yes, the only ones who can at least try to keep up with the McLarens are the Ferraris.
At the start of the race Ayrton takes the lead; Alain, on the other hand, misses a shift and loses second position in favor of Berger at the first corner.
The Frenchman takes fifty-four laps before regaining second position. In the meantime, from the pits they report to Ayrton that his teammate has overtaken Berger. Ayrton therefore decides to push on the accelerator, given that the teammate is starting to close the gap, despite the enormous distance between the two. Fifteen laps from the end Ron Dennis yells on the radio of the Brazilian driver:
"Slow down, it will never catch you. Slow down".
But there is no way that the team principal can convince Ayrton to slow down. Thus, on lap sixty-seventh the drama is consumed: the Brazilian driver misses the Portier corner and flies against the barriers. The mistake that cost him the retirement, committed a few laps from the end while he had almost a minute ahead of his teammate, is an invitation to the entire public opinion to shower him with all kinds of criticism.
Ayrton, disappointed in himself, abandons the car and walks towards his apartment, located on Boulevard Princess Grace, not far from the Portier, where he will remain closed for hours to think. In fact, it will take some time before Ayrton decides to answer the countless phone calls from Jo Ramirez, and in tears he admits:
"I don't know how it happened. I barely touched the inside of the curve or the barrier, and the car jumped, the steering wheel slipped out of my hands and in a split second I was hitting the outside of the track. the biggest idiot in the whole world".
Meanwhile, Alain, radiant, declares to reporters:
"I won because Ayrton stopped, but I was there, ready. And when I passed him I thought about my points and that of McLaren and I found myself very happy. This is sport, competition. I don't know what happened to him, I want him to talk about it, every sentence of mine could be misinterpreted. I raced for second place after I missed the transition from first to second at the start: I sprinted very well, but I let myself go from Berger. From there I began to think about the second place to take and keep absolutely. Berger's car leaked oil and water, every now and then I took three to four seconds off to avoid taking risks and also to clean my visor with gloves. I had decided to try to pass him in the second part of the race, I did so. Perhaps he also made a mistake when engaging a gear when I overtook him. I was satisfied with myself as a man, then I passed to happiness as a child: yes, when at a certain point I found myself first. I had problems with the rear brakes, not a serious thing, but always a boring thing. It was enough to rest every now and then, that is not to force as much as possible, and everything went smoothly. It is possible that Senna also had them, and more serious, until the accident. He must have brushed the track a little too much. He closed the turn to the right, touched with the front wheel and lost control of the car".
After a few hours, even Ayrton admits his faults, speaking to a Brazilian journalist who reports his words to his colleagues:
"Yes, it was my mistake. I was happy, I knew that Berger had overtaken Prost, I was already dreaming of being world champion. Then Prost became second, he did some very fast laps, I answered. I regained my advantage again, and I lost my focus. I delayed the braking, I hit on one side, I lost control of the steering, I hit on the other, and it was all over. I had lost the rhythm. When I lack concentration, everything becomes more difficult. I already had risked finishing out two or three laps before, and unfortunately it happened again and I couldn't stay in the race. I'm very sorry because I wanted to win at Monte Carlo and I absolutely wanted to grab points in the standings. Prost says that the championship is now downhill for him. I answer that the season is still very long and anything could happen".
With the disqualification suffered in Brazil and the withdrawal in the Principality, interspersed with the success of San Marino, they make two zeros in three races, and a gap of fifteen points from Prost.
A few weekends and Ayrton is already facing a crossroads: if he does not react immediately, he could lose chance to win the title and his political weight within the team, where the support of Honda may no longer be sufficient to guarantee him equal treatment.
Meanwhile, another mystery breaks out in Mexico concerning McLaren and Ferrari.
In fact, it seems that Ferrari, in Rio, have taken an unknown engineer in the environment and sent him to browse in the garages of others, accompanied by two grandchildren, trying to understand above all the functioning of the intake ducts of the Honda engine mounted on the McLarens. Then there would be a meeting during which a hypothesis emerges: that inside those boxes there was the trick to have more horses and go faster. But in what way?
Mocking the valve that should open when the turbo delivers more than 2.5 atmospheres of pressure, and which instead makes a fuss about the Ferrari, opening earlier and downgrading the power. In practice, according to what was hypothesized by the Ferrari engineers, the Japanese would have created this trick by creating a Venturi effect inside the box, that is, a bottleneck that accelerates the flow of air compressed by the turbo but which also causes it to lower in pressure. In other words, inside the Honda engine the air enters at 2.7 pressure, passes the throttle, lowering itself to 2.5 pressure right in front of the valve which thus does not open, and then resumes height at 2.7 at the moment of entering the cylinders.
Two decimals of pressure more how many horsepower can they produce? Fifty horsepower according to the technicians and that's precisely those fifty horsepower that Honda has more.
At Ferrari they get to work right away, now they finally know how to recover lost horses. The faces are no longer so dark, for Monte Carlo the Ferrari news were already expected on the track, however, as mentioned, the news did not arrive in time and Ferrari made up for a heavy gap.
On the eve of the Mexican Grand Prix the bombshell news of Honda is disclosed and the case becomes topical, to the point that the technical commissioners of the International Federation, after the first day of testing, dominated as always by Senna and Prost, take one of the McLarens and they check it far and wide, even slipping their eyes and hands into the suspicious boxes through the valve attachment.
Everyone is expecting the twist, the Japanese caught red-handed, oriental faces sprinkled with blush, all the others rubbing their hands with joy. But nothing. The response is that everything is regular, like the minute of distance between the McLaren of Prost and the Ferrari of Berger. The desolate Harvey Postlethwaite can only confess.
"We didn't expect that they could go so fast here. We made up a second behind, but the difference is still noticeable".
Later it turns out that a cheap little valve that measures fuel consumption has played a bitter mockery on Ferrari. In fact, inexplicably towards the middle of the race, Berger arrived just over two seconds behind Senna and his lap times gave the clear impression that the Brazilian driver would soon be overtaken. Instead all of a sudden Berger slows down and arrives at the finish line with fifty-seven seconds behind Prost and fifty from Senna:
"I thought I could at least get close to Senna. Instead, by the middle of the race I realized that fuel consumption was out of the ordinary and so I had to slow down to be able to keep my position. This worries me a lot because on this track there shouldn't have been problems of this kind. Who knows what could happen in Montreal where gasoline consumption is normally very high and decisive".
The surprise comes to the surface during the post-race technical checks when many of those liters of petrol were extracted with a pump to make the Ferrari engineers bleach. In fact, all the technicians were a little afraid about consumption for a very simple reason: beyond the official statements, the Ferrari engines used in Mexico City offered much more horsepower, consequently also the consumption that previously did not scare Ferrari suddenly has become a bugbear.
So the on-board computer had been reprogrammed with some caution, without imagining that a crazy valve would suddenly start signaling the wrong figures. However, it should be noted that even the magical McLarens have had some problems with consumption, as demonstrated by the fact that never before had the engineer Goto been seen so agitated at the pit wall until that Grand Prix, and so busy to report his pilots to go slower.
On the other hand, Prost does not seem to have worries, who hears the Marseillaise playing again on the podium, before showering his colleagues on the lower steps of the podium with champagne. It is the thirty-first time that the Frenchman has won, he should be used to it, but every time it is a new, different joy, especially now that he has a teammate capable of fighting him, as perhaps not even Niki Lauda at the time. We have to wait for the McLaren driver at least twenty minutes to get rid of the very long television interviews. After the race, Prost looks tired:
"It was a very tough race because it was very tight and demanding. The difference between me and Senna was all made at the start. After taking two disastrous routes in Imola and Montecarlo, it finally went well and this was the secret of success. I always pulled to the limit, at the limit of petrol consumption as the Brazilian never gave up on me and there was certainly no team play. Of course, eighteen points ahead after four races is a good margin. But I don't think this will be a downhill championship for me. Maybe I have only one opponent, Senna, but he's also a strong rival and has the same car as me. I won't be able to afford any distractions".
While Ayrton, slumped on a sofa, admitted he hadn't had a chance to attack first place:
"I was defeated at the start. When I shifted into second gear by squeezing to the maximum, the pop-off valve opened and I stalled, so much so that Piquet and Berger passed me too. I recovered immediately, before the conclusion of the first lap, but it was already too late to grab Prost who marched at a perfect pace. Only if he made a mistake I could have caught him. Anyway I don't give up, I will fight to the end. Basically we got a clear victory each, he in Brazil, me in Imola. Here and in Montecarlo the results were conditioned by luck".
After the Grand Prix in Mexico, where at the start Prost takes the lead, and Senna, delayed by the fight with his compatriot Piquet, comes second, in Canada and in the United States Ayrton returns to victory. In Montreal, qualifying was once again dominated by the two McLaren drivers, with Senna in pole position in front of his teammate, while Berger again complained for the lost opportunity in Mexico, and very frankly and with much regret declares:
"Honestly, I'm not optimistic. At Ferrari these days there has been a lot of politics and little concrete on the track. I feel like I'm on a boat where everyone is rowing on their own. And I'm sorry because the potential is great, because if we were all united there would be the ability to fight McLaren. I just hope that a precise definition of roles and tasks will be reached. In Mexico they told me that the sensor that sent the data to the computer did not work. I trust them. But I would like to have a counter-proof. Only if I get to the end and can push to the limit will I be convinced".
But the Canadian race will only confirm McLaren's strategic domination, at the start, Prost overtakes his teammate, taking the lead in the race; Alain is surprised on lap nineteen, when Senna overtakes him taking advantage of a lapping, then maintaining the first position until the finish line. At the end of the match, Alain admits defeat:
"I had a good start and when I was up front I thought I could dominate the race. Instead I lost for two different reasons. First: when Senna overtook me, I had moved too far to the left due to a lapped and the brakes weren't too bright. The Brazilian put pressure on the turbines and put me in bad, very clean anyway. Second: the moment I was behind, I told myself that continuing at that pace Ayrton would end up having problems with the petrol. It happened when I had to round Arnoux and the two Arrows. At that moment I lost contact. I tried to push hard and I realized that I would never be able to reach him. I must also point out that from the pits they signaled me in the final to maintain the position, to take home second place without fooling around. I obeyed. And I hope, if a similar situation arises that Senna will do the same for me too. The next race in Detroit will still be favorable to Senna. When the traditional tracks arrive, I will try to increase my advantage, perhaps taking risks. I must however admit that Senna is the fastest and also the most correct driver that I have ever had as a partner".
An acknowledgment that Senna accepted with a smile, raising his hat in the direction of the Frenchman, before declaring that:
"Getting pole position on this track was a bad move. A driver shouldn't be fooled in this way by the greed to always prove to be the best. The first place on the grid was on the dirty part of the track and the wheels skated there, even if I didn't take the wrong start. I threw myself in the wake of Alain's car, looking for the ideal point to overtake. But it seemed difficult, it seemed to me that Prost was faster on the straight. Instead I was wrong. When space opened up at the hairpin I threw myself in and it went well, and when I was in front, I realized that the cars were the same and that he would not have had the chance to grab me if I had not made mistakes. There were problems. I knew we were at the limit with consumption, even if we could keep a higher pace than our opponents. I did not trust the computer, which betrayed me in Mexico. So I settled on Prost. When he attacked I reacted".
On the Detroit street circuit, Ayrton again and clearly imposes himself on his rivals, conquering the pole position with almost a second advantage over the closest of his pursuers, Berger, while Prost instead gets only fourth place, also behind the second Ferrari driver, Alboreto. Before the race, Alain and Ayrton are again interviewed together, and the Brazilian takes the opportunity to make some pretty interesting statements:
"I went through a very hard period for many reasons. Inside I had to seek the trust of the technicians, outside I had to fight against the malice unleashed by Piquet with his statements to the newspapers. Another in my place, if he hadn't been animated by an identical passion, would also have given up everything. But I love racing, I made it a reason for living and I think I have overcome all the problems. With Prost at the beginning we looked at each other with suspicion. Now there is a great respect. We exchange information. He is a highly experienced driver but he always had to fight hard to get results. Great tactician and natural talent. very insidious opponent for consistency and regularity. It is clear that he tries to take less risks, he has already arrived, he has much more to lose by doing madness. I think I only have a different type of driving, more aggressive. But I don't look for unnecessary dangers. It is clear that if you want to make a pole position you have to give your all, look for the limit. But nothing more".
Then Alain is asked if he thinks Ayrton was a bit too reckless:
"Before, maybe I thought so too. He seemed reckless and incorrect. Now I understand his temperament well: he is only very determined, confident. He is a great professional of the steering wheel, fussy and sensitive, who only in some situations was almost forced to perform out of the ordinary actions, perhaps because he did not have adequate means. Perhaps he still lacks a bit of experience, but this, for him, is not a bad thing. When you think too much, you probably lose a little too much."
Senna maintains command of the race, ahead of Berger, Alboreto and Prost; a little later the latter quickly overtook the Ferrari drivers, taking second place on lap six; however he is never able to seriously threaten his teammate, who leads undisturbed to the finish.
The high number of retirements allows second-tier stables to obtain good placings: De Cesaris and Martini, fourth and sixth at the finish, conquer the first points in the history of Rial and Minardi, which thus can avoid pre-qualifying in the second part of the championship, while Palmer comes fifth for Tyrrell. It should be noted that the Faenza team, in order to avoid losing that position of vital importance for its future, during the race decided not to replace the tires on Martini's car who, during the last lap, also took off the whim of split by one lap from the leader of the race, Senna. Alain is still satisfied with second place, and after the race he continues to congratulate his teammate, winner in the streets of Detroit:
"I realized in the first part of the race that it was impossible to reach Ayrton. There was a risk of going out at every corner, I practically lost the race in qualifying".
Ayrton, for his part, appears to be intimately satisfied and presents a topic that is close to his heart:
"In Monte Carlo I learned my lesson. I always drove with maximum concentration, aiming for pace. I don't like going like this, but there was no other possibility, given the track conditions and the lack of opponents. The asphalt was bad, you shouldn't race in these conditions. In any case, I won and this is always a great pleasure".
In the meantime, the incredible performances of the McLaren Hondas begin to hold ground in the discussions in Formula 1, and as usual when a car is clearly superior to the others, the most disparate and even disparaging voices come out, little by little.
We talk about tricks and try to discover the secret of so much speed.
It is no mystery that someone, to explain for example the low fuel consumption of the cars of Prost and Senna in Mexico and Montreal, even thought of tanks hidden in the chassis.
In the days preceding the Grand Prix raced in Detroit, however, another information leaked: according to some technicians, based on surveys made by FISA inspectors on McLaren, according to which engines and exhausts are extremely clean, Honda would have put a system to pulverize the petrol in the injectors in order to create an almost perfect mixture of fuel and air that is burned without any residue, exploited to the last drop. In this regard, says the engineer Giuseppe Giliberto, head of the feeding systems sector of Magneti Marelli-Weber:
"As far as we know it is a known system that we also have in the experimental phase. It is nothing revolutionary, much less useful. The savings are minimal, or at least not such as to justify certain differences, but it is piezoelectric, very similar to that used in certain lighters. There is a flake of quartz in the injectors that hovers at a very high frequency as the petrol passes and pulverizes it. No secrets".
As it is no secret Alain's desire for revenge against Ayrton, in fact, in France the Professor returns to beat Ayrton. At Paul Ricard, in practice, Prost finds the perfect set-up of the car and signs the pole position driving like a demon, and half an hour from the end of the tests he gets out of the car, puts on his jeans and watches the rest of the qualifying:
"It was a perfect lap. I certainly couldn't do better than that. If Ayrton can go faster and set a better time, he deserves pole".
Ayrton, observes the scene, tries to improve, but fails to beat Alain's time. After Senna's six consecutive pole positions, Prost manages to beat his teammate in front of the home crowd. During the first phase of the race, Prost kept the lead ahead of Senna, but the Brazilian overtook his teammate during tire changes in the middle of the race, favored by a pit stop. However, during the race Ayrton begins to be slowed down by gearbox problems, thus allowing Prost to get closer to him. The Frenchman overtakes his rival during the sixty-first lap, with a memorable move: the two join a group of backmarkers and Prost voluntarily breaks away from Senna.
When the latter, upon leaving Signes, is slowed down by Piquet, Prost attacks him to the delirium of his audience. Despite the gearbox failure, Senna manages to reach the finish line in second position, while the Ferrari drivers compete for the last place on the podium, eventually conquered by Alboreto. At the end of the race, a radiant Alain offers himself to the journalists:
"Senna had already braked a couple of times in an abrupt, unusual way. When we got behind Martini's Minardi, I realized that Ayrton had perhaps made a mistake. His car seemed to lose effectiveness due to the lack of air needed to the aerodynamic pressure. I saw a gap and I entered with decision. It was a pretty easy race, because in the previous two days I had set up the car well. I was slightly superior, faster than Ayrton in all points of the circuit. So I felt capable of attacking him. This is still a win. very important because I had decided to attack from the French Grand Prix and I succeeded. I realized that in the previous rounds I used too much caution in lapping. It was necessary to act more decisively as my main opponent in the fight for the title has the same car as me. Maybe I realized it too late and I lost some points. The championship is still long, it will probably be decided at the end, even if I will try to close the conversation first. Now the tracks I like are coming, Silverstone and Hockenheim, very fast circuits, and I will be able to take less risks in lapping. He won't be an easy rival to beat".
Then it's the turn of the loser of the day, Senna:
"I was surprised, honestly I wasn't expecting an attack at that point. He could have done it later, with more confidence, as I was having gearbox problems and missing the engine brake. Prost instead took a big risk and went good. The only excuse I can find is that Martini could also get out of the way and avoid letting me move, an action that convinced Prost to try to overtake. The gearbox didn't work well, even before Prost passed me. He was good anyway. He would have overtaken me in any case maybe one lap later. I also had problems with fuel consumption. Prost started with more petrol than me".
Meanwhile, Aleardo Buzzi, a man from European Philip Morris who is the main sponsor of Ferrari, brings Nigel Mansell to Ferrari for the 1989 season, in exchange for a salary of more than 2 million dollars. Ferrari, with the support of the sponsor, accepted the requests of the British, so it was only waiting for a response from the driver, who in the meantime had received even more attractive offers from Williams. To make room for him Michele Alboreto must now find a new arrangement for the following season. And, now free to speak, to the question relating to McLaren's alleged secrets, Michele replies:
"What is the real secret of McLaren? Why is it so fast? Why does it seem unbeatable? Every so often I read that the McLaren has some trick, that the Japanese are so good. It may be true, I am not able to judge these But in my opinion the first real secret of McLaren is Ron Dennis, the general manager and co-owner of the team. Ron is one who knows how to line up all the people who work for him. The second secret is the chassis even more than the engine even if everyone is talking about Honda".
At Silverstone, for the first time in the season the pole position was not won by a McLaren driver: this time Senna and Prost had to settle for third and fourth position. To interrupt the monopoly of the English team is Berger, alongside with Alboreto, who states:
"For some time we had recovered power in our engine. The difference with the Honda is that they manage to have more power at low revs, more acceleration and therefore to prevail on circuits with difficult corners. But that doesn't matter here at Silverstone where the corners are very fast, you almost always go at full speed and therefore the maximum power is expressed. Let's also add some small aerodynamic improvements, a new suspension bar brought by Barnard and that's all explained. In practice you can still go down with the times and both Berger and I will try. In the race, on the other hand, the situation is completely different. It will not be possible for us to run at this pace, we would run out of gas long before reaching the finish line, so I think that McLarens will always remain favorites".
And in fact Ayrton makes a comeback in the race taking advantage of the weather conditions favorable to him, while Prost decides to retire on the twenty-fifth lap for safety reasons.
When the lights go out, Berger maintains command, defending himself from Senna, while Prost snaps badly, slipping backwards. On lap fourteen Senna got past Berger, conquering the first position and then keeping it up to the finish line. While with regard to Ferraris, Alboreto's forecasts prove to be well founded.
In a race that seemed to be favorable, with just a few laps to go, both Ferrari drivers were forced to retire because they ran out of petrol. In vain they ask Piccinini for explanations, who replies curtly:
"We are trying to find out".
Eventually, it turns out that someone was wrong in putting the electronic chips into the engine. In this regard, just as rumors about Enzo Ferrari's health are overlapping, the two Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto, on Wednesday July 20, 1988, complete a series of tests concerning consumption.
To further worsen Ferrari's situation, it is discovered that while on Berger's car complicated electronic calculations are carried out to find the right set-up on each track, on the Alboreto car they have always proceeded with the empirical systems of old-fashioned Ferrari, that is, by trial and error. In this way, the difference in performance between two cars that look the same every Friday morning at their debut on the track, has been accentuated over the months until officially decreeing a gap between the two drivers which in reality does not correspond to their actual abilities.
In the meantime, however, starting from the British Grand Prix, a series (never seen before) of races conditioned by the weather begins, and this inevitably changes the values on the field.
Or at least that's what people think at that moment, but at the end of the year...
In any case, Prost, having started badly from fourth position, slips back to sixteenth place, also due to mechanical problems deriving from the Paul Ricard, where by abusing too much of the curbs, the Frenchman damaged the bottom of the car. Then, during the race, realizing that there would be no way to get closer to the top three, he decides to retire so as not to take further risks:
"I had problems right from the start. On the line-up lap my clutch jammed. The same happened at the start. In any case, my car was not going well. So I gave up because I didn't want to take unuseful risks. Everyone does what he thinks best, with his life or with his car. Now I am going home. It may be that I can still afford the luxury of staying at the top of the championship, it may be that today I have lost the title. We'll see. There was no chance of recovering as the weather conditions were prohibitive. We ran at 200 km/h on average without seeing absolutely anything. In the first positions it was different, at most the difficulties came in the voiceovers. But I was entangled in a group of unbridled competitors who did not seem real to be able to attack a McLaren. So I asked myself: is it worth it to risk getting hurt and compromising everything? The answer was no. And then I retired. If the car had been competitive it would not have happened. But I had no chance of finishing in the top three. And honestly, I don't need pennies. The title this year is won with victories, at most with the podium".
This action, however, unleashes quite a few controversies, and it's up to Prost himself to defend himself:
"Do they want a pilot to commit suicide to show that he is courageous, that he is not afraid of anything? Do they want him to take unnecessary risks? I am not an acrobat. I am a professional, I like to race and above all I manage myself with my brain as I always have done and not with that of the others. They say that I lost the world title, that Senna has now taken over, that he is psychologically advantaged. I answer: there are still eight races to go and the Brazilian will find them very long. He is not used to fighting for the world championship and he does not know what it means to reach the last test without a decision having yet been made. He will notice it. In all this affair, however, Senna has been very correct, the mutual esteem that we have will allow us not to get involved in quarrells. We will fight to the end fairly and I think I will have a good chance of winning my third title".
This is while Ayrton is calm in the press room. The Brazilian is certainly convinced not only of having won a good race, but also of having dealt a severe blow to his team-mate Prost. Despite this, he does not tread on his hand and indeed is magnanimous with his teammate, but giving the feeling of being a little too diplomatic and very close to teasing:
"I am sorry for Alain as I know he had some difficulties. Obviously I am happy for my success which boosts me in the championship, now there are only six points of difference. In any case I am convinced that we will have to play for the title with victories. It seems to me that the season is quite beautiful as with each race the situation changes face. I got a bad start, making the tires skid. But even the Ferraris did not do better. I tried to surprise Berger, but the Austrian was keeping a too high pace and so I let him go. In fact I fell behind. I preferred to wait the good moment that came with the lapping of Prost. We didn't touch with Alain. On several occasions, however, due to poor visibility, I risked ending up outside. There was also a negative side for us. For the first time McLaren had problems in racing".
The controversy also continues in Germany, and Alain, just arrived in Hockenheim, declares:
"I'm at the top of the standings, I've won four races and have a good chance of aiming for the third title. I don't see why I should be under this kind of pressure, as if it all depended on one race".
But as anticipated, rain is passing over the whole of Europe and will continue for weeks. So also in Germany the rain is the main driver, a condition that benefits Senna, proverbially more at ease in the wet.
Meanwhile, in qualifying Ayrton conquers the seventh pole position of the season, with almost three tenths of advantage over Prost, while the Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto are lined up in the second row, far away in lap times.
This does not mean that there was no battle, at least between the two team mates based in Woking. Rather the two literally slaughtered each other by hundredths of a second. First the Brazilian went on the attack, overtaking the French by about thirty thousandths of a second, then Prost took the lead by a whisker, then Ayrton settled at the top of the ranking, with an advantage of 277 thousandths of a second.
The tension for Prost is high to the point that on Saturday, after arriving three quarters of an hour late, he triggers a general spat in the press room, also backed by Senna, saying that he cannot waste much time with useless interviews. The two-time world champion calmed down and declared:
"I had the fourth and fifth gears that came out under braking and it was also difficult to change. In addition, the engine was leaking oil, smoking and lacking power. I wasn't able to do a perfect lap but it is a matter of small fractions. Our car is perfect".
Yes, McLaren is perfect. Also because having been forced to abandon the new bodywork in tests in England, stubborn and stubborn as he is, Ron Dennis tried the new chassis again at Hockenheim and achieved the desired results.
Then, however, the race starts with the circuit in humid conditions, but without further downpours that already characterized the previous days. Starting from pole, Senna keeps the first position, while Prost slips behind Nannini and Berger; Alain quickly got the better of both, but failed to seriously worry the Senna tread, finishing in second position. After the race, Ayrton asserts:
"It is always problematic to drive in the rain. I still manage quite well. The tires deteriorated, the stability of the car was precarious. We had set-up for the dry track and the air intakes for the brakes that were too large cooled down and blocked the wheels. In any case I started in the best way and I made no mistakes, even if I risked a lot. Alain and I have equal means, you can only try to win. I think we will get to the last race, you will see it will be exciting. However, I must say that I like the track in Budapest very much".
Otherwise, Prost appears dark in the face:
"It went well for me at the beginning of the championship, now luck has turned to Senna. He is good, but two consecutive races in the rain hadn't been done for a long time. I don't like water, but I must say that I have shown that in normal conditions I am not that far behind. At Silverstone it was not possible to continue, I was very detached and the car was really bad".
Situation of great embarrassment and chaos is created again in Ferrari, since the two bosses Cappelli and Castelli are stopped at the entrance and cannot enter due to a simple case of homonymy. A few moments after receiving the call from the two bosses, a mechanic sets off in the direction of the gates and solves the matter, while in Maranello Migeot has already been replaced at the wind tunnel by a French engineer named Henry Durand.
A few days later, there is no rain in Hungary, although during the tests the sky is covered with looming clouds. The result is always the same. Ayrton conquers the eighth pole position of the season, ahead of Mansell, Boutsen, Capelli, Nannini and Patrese, while the championship leader Prost scores only the seventh time:
"That's the game. I absolutely have to get pole position. When I am in front at the start, I challenge Prost to overtake me. He is good, but on that track it will be an almost impossible feat, since we have identical cars".
This is what Ayrton declared before the two qualifying rounds, while Alain admitted that the situation was becoming critical for him and that the season would continue uphill:
"Last year McLaren was not as superior to other cars as it is today. I had to fight against several opponents and it was also possible to set up tactical races, just to get some points. Now only the victories are worth, we fight each other for the first and second place. And whoever gets behind is defeated. Psychologically it's terrible. It's no longer a car race, but a boxing match, a gruelling head-to-head ".
On Sunday, Senna maintains the lead, exploiting the greater power of the Honda engine to keep Mansell behind him, who started better than him but unable to worry him; then he acquires a good margin on his pursuers, led by the two Williams drivers; However, both Patrese and Mansell had to retire, due respectively to engine problems and an off-track exit, while, further back, Prost made up several positions.
Of course, in the days leading up to the Hungarian Grand Prix there are those who jokingly say that Ayrton made a pact with the devil, being that for almost two years Formula 1 had passed unscathed with bad weather, while this season just ended two races, at Silverstone and Hockenheim, under water, with a third in perspective.
On Sunday there is the threat of rain looming over the Hungarian Grand Prix, since Wednesday night, in fact, the area around the Hungarian capital had been devastated by a violent storm. The Brazilian who is already called the king of the races in the rain, in this regard, in an improvised face to face with his teammate, proves to be self-evident, exclaiming:
"Rain is the same for everyone".
Then he adds:
"I was under much more pressure at the start of the season than now. There were, then, a lot of unknowns to deal with. And I knew that in front of the two-time world champion I would have to undergo an examination. Now I'm not saying that I'm relaxed, because it would be stupid, but I'm much calmer. After all, I have nothing to lose. The championship is still long, Prost always has arrows in his bow, as I have mine. Of course, another win in Budapest would suit me, because I would go to six against four. And we all know, given the superiority of ours. McLaren, that in the end, being able to add only eleven results, the first places will count heavily".
Prost, at close range, nods, then says:
"Here there are no tactics. We have to finish first, the rest does not count. Let's hope that this evil storm that has been following us for a month goes elsewhere. I only ask to be able to race regularly. This one in Budapest is not my favorite track, but in normal conditions there are no problems. A Senna in the team, if I had to start over, would I take it back? Yes, of course. I think above all of the interests of the team. And Ayrton was the best driver who could sign McLaren".
After so much concern about the adverse weather, on Sunday it was the sun that marked the race of the two rivals for the title, favoring - in part - the Alain's comeback. During the race, the Frenchman comes behind his teammate, begins to tail him, and on the forty-ninth pass he tries an attack taking advantage of the presence of a backmarker, but Senna manages to pass him again. After a little scare, the Brazilian leads to the end, winning ahead of Prost, thanks to this result hooked to the top of the world rankings.
"We are teammates and I could not close the door. I saw that he was faster because he caught the slipstream of two cars, mine and the Coloni of Tarquini which was behind me. Then he went wide in the corner and I was able to overtake again "
Senna comments in the press room at the end of the race, while Prost admits he was mocked:
"I was surprised by Ayrton. He decelerated a lot, I thought he was putting up more resistance. So I accelerated to the maximum and went long, ending up in the dirty part of the track out of the way. Unfortunately, it was easy. Afterwards it was too difficult to go and get it. Also because my car had vibrations in one wheel and was no longer well balanced".
And the next day, before leaving the circuit, Alain reiterates that:
"I have overcome the most difficult moments. I knew and know very well how fast and skilled Senna is. Just yesterday, however, on the day of the defeat and his third consecutive victory, I realized that I can still overcome him, be better than him. It's true, he mocked me in my attempt to overtake, he was clever, he let me go knowing that then I would be in trouble. He played myself like a rookie. However I realized that when all goes well, even on tracks that are not my favourites, I can go fast. After all, if you make a difference, considering that I started from seventh position, and given the small advantage he had at the finish, I was the best".
In Belgium, three weeks later, Alain aims for the recovery on one of his favorite tracks, but since qualifying he realizes that beating Ayrton will be difficult: the Brazilian gives him four tenths:
"Half a second faster than me here. It's not possible, not here. It's fucking fast".
When Alain pronounces this sentence to Jo Ramirez, Ayrton hears everything and lets himself go to a satisfied smile. A rarity in the pits for him. Shortly after, when Alain leaves, Ayrton confides in Jo Ramirez:
"I was faster than Alain. I want to become the strongest in the world and I'm beating him".
The situation in Ferrari is increasingly complicated, as the head of engine design changes - engineer Massei arrives from Fiat in place of Jean Jacques His - but the result does not change: thirds and fourths, almost a second behind. The only satisfaction for Berger is a beautiful red-brown hair of a girl known in the pits: before starting qualifying, Berger raises his finger and a mechanic rushes towards him.
"Who is that there?"
Berger murmurs in his colleague's ear. Surprised by the question, the mechanic goes to the girl, whispers for a few moments and returns out of breath putting a piece of notebook with the girl's phone number written on it. All under the eyes of Ferrari's sporting director, Piccinini, who embarrassed pretends to look the other way.
As if that were not enough to animate an otherwise boring qualifying day, a group of journalists discover the presence of strange sheets in the garbage, and picking them up they realize that they are the printouts of a computer of some team. Reading them, you will discover very secret electronic mappings of a turbo engine, data on consumption, on the number of revolutions, on horsepower, on operating defects. And it turns out it's from Ferrari.
Piccinini, who in the meantime passes absently in front of the journalists, bleaches his face because he immediately recognizes the characteristic sheets used by the Maranello engineers, rushes over to those present, tears the sheets from them and asks:
"Where did you get them?"
They were there in the garbage can, reporters reply. Piccinini thinks they are making fun of him, so he calls a young engineer, to whom he asks:
"Are these papers ours?"
The affirmative answer arrives from the young and embarrassed engineer, who sinks his arms up to his neck in the bin where other sheets were deposited, trying to save what can be saved, and then take everything away. The mystery of how so many and such documents ended up in a garbage can, just as the episode in which a hammer remains inside Berger's car, in a previous circumstance, remains a mystery. All this is the result of a total confusion that reigns in Maranello, where revolving doors persist, and engineers have been in and out continuously for too many months.
Last in chronological terms is the Porsche technician, Ralf Hahn, who is passed off as an engine test room specialist, but who is actually an engineer who has worked at Porsche for years, and should theoretically still work, in the delicate sector of mapping electronics. With these contenders, it is also understandable why McLaren has an easy time holding firmly to the top-of-the-class role. Nonetheless, the drawbacks are not lacking in McLaren as well.
In fact, in the formation lap before the departure in Belgium, Ayrton notices that the infamous pop-off valve, the one that limits the turbo pressure to 2.5 bar, does not work perfectly. Then he warns via radio the pits and the mechanics who, with the presence of a FISA technician, replace him on the grid, a few minutes from the start.
In the race there is no story, despite this small inconvenience: Alain starts better, but Ayrton immediately takes back the first position and also wins at Spa. With this victory Magic conquers the lead of the drivers' championship, making him the favorite over his teammate too. For the rule of discards; the Brazilian has nine useful results against Prost's ten, with seven wins against the opponent's four.
And while Senna already has two nil results to take away - a disqualification in Brazil and a retirement in Monte Carlo - Prost can only lightly throw away his retirement in England. Of the five races that are missing, Prost would have to win four to get the better of his teammate.
A hypothesis that the Professor first of all considers impossible. Calculator in hand, the numbers say that if the possible four victories of Prost were accompanied by a single victory and a single second place for Senna, the two would end up on equal points. In this case the title would go to Prost who has a higher number of second places. Senna, on the other hand, needs two more victories to become mathematically champion, and this is a more easily achievable hypothesis. Therefore, at the end of the race, disheartened, Alain appears compliant:
"Senna is the new world champion. He is the strongest and he has been the best with the same cars. I have always found it difficult to beat him. This was the last chance I had, it is unthinkable that I can win four of the five remaining races. I'm happy for him, he deserves the title, the logic has been respected. Next year you will see two world champions in McLarens. Now the pressure I have been subjected to will finally ease. I am ready to start a new championship, a new challenge with different cars with the naturally aspirated engine. For this season I will try to help Senna win more races and McLaren to break all records. I had chosen a different aerodynamic solution to reduce fuel consumption and my car was less stable and slower in the slow part of the circuit. I was thinking of attacking him in the final, but from lap 25 I had to let him go also because the tires were slightly deteriorated".
However, Senna points out that the title is not yet in his hands:
"I don't consider myself champion yet, I lack mathematical confirmation and in Formula 1 you never know. I didn't get off to a good start, making the wheels skid. It had never happened so clearly. At the braking of the first corner I could have widened to keep Prost out, but it would have been too risky for both of us. So I preferred to let him pass. But I immediately got into the slipstream and at the first chicane I passed him without any problems. Once in the lead, I thought about saving fuel, tires and engine. The race was too important to make mistakes".
Then, returning to the words spoken by Alain in his favor, Ayrton, albeit happy, specifies:
"Not even by winning the Italian Grand Prix in two weeks I will be able to consider myself world champion. But conquering Monza is one of my dreams, so I will arrive at the Italian racetrack fully loaded with two goals to hit. Certainly I will have a success in the next race as Prost would then be forced to win all four remaining races, namely Portugal, Spain, Japan and Australia. But I don't want to sell the bear's skin before killing him. I also owe a lot to Alain because I had the opportunity to learn many things from him. And then there's McLaren. Our cars are missiles compared to the others. The merit goes to the technicians and also, partially, to us drivers who were able to test them well. I can say, without fear of being proven wrong, that this year many drivers could have aimed for the world title if they had our cars available. Fortunately, I was driving one of the two McLarens".
What is certain is that with five races to go, McLaren has mathematically won the Constructors' World Championship. We therefore reach the potentially fateful Monza Grand Prix.
First, however, precisely on this circuit, on August 18, 19 and 20, 1988 private tests are held in which, needless to say, in the first two days Senna sets the best time, while Michele Alboreto tests the experimental engine of the new car, already tested on the bench at the Fiat workshops:
"The engine we are testing is different in terms of adjustments and consumption. This time we should have taken the right path. Unfortunately, however, before the results are seen, it will take some time. Perhaps we will succeed only towards the end of the season".
And Senna is obviously satisfied with the time obtained, even at the end of a rather short working day:
"Those of McLaren were simple set-up tests without any particular novelties. I like the Monza track, even if I have no particular preference in terms of circuits. From here to the world championship, there is still more: tomorrow (August 19th) I will be at Silverstone to test our new car which is ready ".
On August 19, 1988, it was Prost who replaced the Brazilian driving the McLaren, while Gerhard Berger conducted tests on the new electronically controlled suspensions:
"I haven't done many laps today, but this clever suspension looks good enough".
Only on the third day of testing, Ferrari managed to set a better time than the McLarens:
"The electronically controlled suspension car was affected by various problems that we were unable to resolve immediately".
Piccinini declares in order to dampen any enthusiasm. For Monza there are few calculations to be made: if Alain does not reach the finish line and Ayrton wins the race, the Brazilian is world champion. All this, while a few days earlier, on August 14, 1988, Enzo Ferrari passed away. The season finale is approaching.
Only four more stages left, the balance could be made up of the smallest detail, a case in which Alain seems to be slightly ahead. But Alain - as he has already stated publicly - arrives in Monza with the idea of helping his teammate to be crowned world champion for the first time. Ayrton, for his part, does not trust the intentions of his teammate:
"If I win here in Monza it's another record, but it doesn't mean having the world championship in your pocket. Prost, I know him, will never give up".
In prediction of the Italian Grand Prix, the Honda technicians have come up with another version of their engines, more suitable for fast circuits.
The results are immediately good, as the Japanese engineer and Honda manager Osamu Goto admits. Senna in fact, wins the tenth pole position of the season, beating Prost by three tenths; behind the two McLarens qualify the two Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto, and the Arrows of Eddie Cheever and Derek Warwick. The two F1-87/88C are also powered by experimental engines that do not guarantee greater horsepower, but should provide greater reliability, as explained by the Ferrari Sports Director, Piccinini:
"Guys, I'm not a technician so I can't tell you much. But I know that lately we have worked hard to recover reliability, but how can I give you a guarantee? I'll have the sure answer only on Sunday evening after the race. One what is certain: we don't have fun losing ourselves either, so we try to get results, but the fact is that everyone is making progress and the work becomes increasingly difficult and complex. We have examined on the computer all the data concerning consumption that in Monza creates some apprehension: we hope to keep the situation under control".
The Italian Grand Prix in Monza does not do well to either of the two McLaren drivers, nor to Prost, nor to Senna. Alain, in particular, starts the weekend with a run off in the second variant, during qualifying:
"I don't know what happened, some mechanical problems. Senna is very strong, you have to try them all. But it's getting harder and harder. On this track you have to drive by cutting the chicanes and this is not for me. There are drivers who even pass with the whole car off the track. I had to adapt to this technique, otherwise I would have lost too much time in practice. The situation would have to be adjusted, raising the curb or changing the line of the turns. But here with you, with the ecologists, who have even questioned the Grand Prix, you can't move a leaf. Now I have to consult with Ayrton. For the race I don't know yet if I will adopt some of his solutions, or he will adopt mine. In any case, in the end we will have cars of the same level and, barring problems, it will be another McLaren double. We have no problems".
Senna made no mistake and at the start kept the lead ahead of Prost, Berger and Alboreto; there are no major changes until the 35th lap, when the Frenchman has to retire due to an engine problem.
At this point Senna seems to have victory in hand, but due to a misunderstanding, at the Variante della Roggia he collides with Schlesser during the lapping maneuver two laps from the end of the race.
The Brazilian's retirement thus allows Berger and Alboreto to win a double for Ferrari, less than a month after the death of Enzo Ferrari. Given the tragicomic situations in which Ferrari found itself during the season, is it possible that it will win without further thrills, even and especially after the race?
If the Italian Grand Prix distributed great emotions for Ferrari fans, the traditional technical checks of the cars, which began while the majority of the people had started to leave the circuit, risked turning success into a sensational mockery for Ferrari.
After the race, the commissioners of the International Federation happily carry out their task, when one sees one an irregularity: the capacity of the petrol tank of Berger 's Ferrari had just been checked, which, according to the regulations, must contain a maximum of one hundred and fifty liters of fuel.
The commissioner begins to do the math several times: the final figure is threatening: one hundred and fifty one and a half liters, which would have meant the immediate disqualification of the Austrian driver. Ferrari would still have obtained first place with Alboreto, but the success would have aroused controversy and suspicion.
A mistake, a simple and trivial mistake. Not being able to have a one hundred and fifty liter container, the commissioners first empty the tank completely and then fill it with seven twenty liter tanks, for a total of one hundred and forty. The remainder is introduced with two-liter bottles.
Six were poured instead of the five planned, which is why there must have been at least 151.5 liters inside the tank. At this point the operation is completely repeated, and in the end it is clear that the tank contained exactly 149.5, that is two liters less than what was previously calculated.
Obviously, a small crowd gathers in the park fermè, especially with the sports directors of the other teams. In the end, the technical commissioners remedied the oversight by inserting in an official statement that the tank of Berger's car is regular, making the Ferrari men breathe a sigh of relief.
Although the hypothesis of fraud was excluded, it could have been an error in the construction of the tank, which would have transformed a day of celebration into a nightmare. The only one who never lost his temper was, to be honest, the sporting director Marco Piccinini:
"I was very calm because I knew it was not possible".
However, they were minutes of anxiety that ended a day full of tensions. It was supposed to be graduation day with honors for Ayrton Senna; for the Brazilian was to be the Grand Prix of the season's record of victories, the race that should have given him the world title.
Otherwise, they were bitter and painful hours for him, having thrown away a very probable, if not already acquired, success. Dark-faced, Ayrton honestly admits that he made a mistake:
"It was my fault. I shouldn't have slipped into that trap. I thought, given the superiority of my car, that I could pass and slip into the Williams. But there wasn't enough room for two. I got hooked and the race was over. Too bad. But this episode will not discourage me. These things happen. I don't know if Ferrari could have overtaken me. I gained a good advantage in the first half and I was going safely. From the pits they told me by radio to be careful. The Honda engines on Prost's car and on the Lotus of Nakajima worried them. I too was not calm, there was something in the engine, in the functioning that I did not trust. For this reason I slowed down conspicuously, just to avoid taking risks. When Berger got close I increased slightly the pace so as not to find it on me too soon. I thought about not letting myself get caught in the wake and in any case I was trying to save the tires. In a possible sprint I would have been able to respond adequately and win. Anyway, nothing has changed, since Prost didn't finish first, in a certain sense, since there is one race less to run, I have increased my advantage. But let's not talk about the title, at the moment I don't care. And then I'm happy for the Ferraris, after all this is their home and it is right that they have achieved this success. During the race I saw them behind me and I understood that they were as good as I was. This defeat burns more for me, for the team, but maybe today there was a gentleman up there who didn't want to hear about letting us win".
For his part, Alain reiterates that nothing changes for the championship, and that his teammate remains the favorite for the final victory:
"I retired because the engine broke, but it was caused by an electrical problem. The same one I've always had these days. I had some problems with fuel consumption and I think Senna wasn't in a different situation either. I don't think that in a sprint he could have used all his power. About my teammate's accident, I don't want to judge, it happens, he's wrong. There are a lot of pressures in these cases, in the last few races, I know something about it. Nothing changes for the title. The count remains seven to four for Senna who already has the world championship in hand. I am still happy that Ferrari won, especially here in Monza. It was the best way to remember Enzo Ferrari, without his team the Formula 1 would not be so important and popular. Every year even if they're not the strongest, in the end they always manage to do something. And it is good for all of us. People continue to be interested. I have seen a more competitive Ferrari, it has improved in the engine".
The ranking remains unchanged, 75 to 72, with the discard rule to be taken into consideration. So here we are at the Portuguese Grand Prix, weekend number thirteen out of the sixteen on the calendar. The Professor, encouraged by the new chassis brought at his request by McLaren (number six), conquers the Pole Position somewhat surprisingly, given Senna's hegemony on the flying lap throughout the championship. For the Frenchman, in fact, it is only the second start from the pole, after the one at Paul Ricard.
To obtain this result, Prost unleashes yet another stroke of genius: taking advantage of a red flag, remaining only fifteen minutes of official tests, he decides to change his clothes and wait with his purple sweatshirt attached to his shoulders for the end of the tests, at the pit wall together with his engineers, perfectly aware of putting pressure on his opponent: the harder he tries, the slower he would go. Ayrton, being only second in the standings, throws himself on the track in search of an unexpected pole position, but the huge traffic prevents him from making the miracle: Alain had outsmarted him, making his teammate nervous.
In the second row, behind the two McLarens, with an enormous gap of over a second, is the surprising Ivan Capelli at the wheel of the March, and Berger with the Ferrari. It is September 25, 1988: that day, the fateful time bomb inside the McLaren garage will explode, and the consequences will last for the rest of the championship and well beyond. It is a matter of a few seconds, the time to risk a maneuver at the limit on the straight, and only during the first laps.
At the start, the second following the stall of the engine of De Cesaris's Rial-Ford, Prost easily holds the leadership, but unfortunately for him in the rear an accident involves several cars: red flag is out and everything has to be redone. A few minutes later, the third traffic light goes out, and this time Alain is not as feline in taking off from his pitch; Senna joins him, touches the white line that delimits the track, and in a brutal and courageous way he slips the Frenchman on the outside, thus taking the first position.
Prost doesn't even think about keeping up with him, so he sticks behind him to immediately create the right moment for the counter move, which arrives immediately, at the stroke of the second lap: Prost takes advantage of the slipstream, Senna seems to give him the inside, he takes it all but at that moment the Brazilian tries to abruptly close the door in the face of the opponent by pressing him to the wall.
Ian Phillips of the March team even has to retract his pit-board to avoid hitting Prost. Despite this Alain is tough and does not lift his foot, on the contrary he pushes Ayrton towards the grass, reaches the braking point and regains the lead of the race. But now he is understandably enraged by his teammate's maneuver. Punctually, after the race Alain thunders in the pits at Ayrton's address:
"If you want to win the championship low enough to be ready to kill or be killed, you can have it".
Before the outburst, the Frenchman easily wins for the fifth time this season ahead of Capelli and Boutsen, while Senna has to deal with fuel consumption problems reported by his car since the early stages of the race, and is forced to race with the others.
Ayrton reaches the finish line sixth, more than a minute behind the winner, a gap also due to the contact with Mansell's Williams, with whom he battles for most of the race. After the race, Prost doesn't even seem to remember having won the race and being back in the lead of the World Championship, he is just furious with Senna for the way he tried to defend himself:
"I was going faster, I could pass and he held me against the wall, while the trajectory was to the right. I saw the flag sticks of the commissioners passing a few centimeters from my face. At this point, in order not to be crushed and end up causing a terrible accident, I had to push the accelerator hard. I was practically forced to overtake. I don't understand why Ayrton behaved this way. He must have had his reasons".
Then he adds:
"This victory is a breath of fresh air. But he is still leading the dance: as victories we are five to seven. And I have completed the series of positive results that can be added together. What do you want me to say? I had chassis and engine problems for five races. This time there was a new chassis and everything worked perfectly".
On the other hand, to those who ask him for explanations on the disputed overtaking, the Brazilian firmly replies:
"Watch the slow motion scene on television carefully and you will find that I have not committed any unfairness. I had problems right from the start, with the electrical system, while the on-board computer told me that I would not have enough petrol to finish the race. So I had to slow down".
The following week it's time for Jerez. To keep hoping, Prost is practically obliged to win. Alain, after criticizing Senna's actions in the early stages of the Portuguese Grand Prix, at Jerez also proves controversial towards the Honda that supplies the engines to McLaren:
"Everything went well at Estoril. But it was the first time the engine worked perfectly in several months. You all saw how Senna overtook me on the straight at Monza and Spa. He seemed to have at least 70-80 hp more available. And I have always had problems in five or six races. I can't understand why everything has always gone smoothly for Ayrton".
And at the same time, the controversies continue to pursue Ayrton, who in turn closes in on himself and replies to the press:
"It's true, I love being number one. And that's why I wanted McLaren, a winning car. Alain was already in the team, but it made no difference to me. Now I know I have this chance to win the World Championship, but I also know that I haven't achieved anything yet. Everyone says I'm under stress now, but that's nothing new. I've always had pressure on me: it's part of my life as a pilot. When Prost said, in Belgium, that I would become champion, I was not surprised. I knew what he hoped, that would upset me psychologically. But nothing happened. I always run to win, I don't even hear what Prost says".
Despite the Brazilian driver's pole two seconds ahead of his direct rival, only fifth, the race is won by Prost, while Senna faces the same problem that had affected him seven days earlier in Portugal, and is only fourth.
Five points in the standings divided Prost and Senna before racing the Spanish Grand Prix, five points still divide them, as if nothing had happened. Alain won, but of the nine points of the first place he was able to add only three, since he already has the eleven useful results foreseen by the regulations, so he had to discard a previous second place worth six points from his ranking, while Ayrton finished fourth, even earning three. That's why Ayrton, at the end of the race, is not so sorry for his performance and indeed explains why he seemed subdued:
"To win the World Championship, I needed a victory and a fourth place. I immediately understood that I had too many problems with consumption here: I could run out of fuel and get nothing out of it. I raced for fourth place and so I can say that this Grand Prize was not a wasted race. Today, in addition to a bad start, I had problems with the consumer meter that immediately went out of use. So I couldn't know how to conduct the race. I was at the limit with consumption and in the final I didn't even have the chance to attack Patrese. However, nothing is lost, it will mean that I will win one of the next two races. I miss the victory now: between Japan and Australia I will take one".
Fresh as a rose, almost rejuvenated by a success in which perhaps not even he dared to believe, after the race Alain talks for a long time:
"It was one of my best races, perhaps the most brilliant of all. I raced on a circuit where my driving style does not perfectly adapt to the characteristics of the track, I had to win and I won, reaching the best possible result. It was absolutely not a tactical race. I pushed hard from the first meter. I think I got a perfect start, taking advantage of the best part of the track, the cleaner one. And I was also lucky because Mansell was able to get over me and Senna, avoiding dangerous attacks. Even if the Englishman proved, as always, a tough opponent, very difficult so much so that he kept me constantly under pressure, I didn't have a moment of rest, except in the final when I had an advantage such as to be able to control the race. I must say that I had put the car in good shape on Saturday and in the morning".
Then Alain focuses on the battle for the championship:
"The fight for the title is still open. But Senna always has the knife on the side of the handle. It is unthinkable that he will finish the season without winning at least one more race, given the trend he has had so far. But I can still hope. And that's the beauty. The more time passes, the more I charge. I went through a very difficult moment, starting with the British Grand Prix, but I passed it brilliantly. Let's say that at this point a lot depends on Senna, but also I can say my word. I'm happy to go on a long journey to try and win the third title. There will be a lot of pressure on us".
Ayrton takes the blow well, also because he knows that a victory is enough to end the championship in his favor, so he leaves and goes to Brazil to spend a week of vacation at home, to relax in view of the final squeeze in Japan and Australia. But before boarding his Jet, he wanted to know exactly what had happened to his car, which was held back by a problem that didn't take him beyond fourth place. So, for an hour and forty minutes Ayrton talks after the race with the McLaren and Honda technicians and has reviewed, line by line, the telemetry printouts.
A championship practically already closed in Monza, now it seems more open than ever.
This immediately makes the president of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre suspicious. How is it possible that McLaren, having dominated the championship far and wide, is unable to make two equally competitive cars?
Because Prost appeared in difficulty, with an inferior car, on five tracks (Siverstone, Hockenheim, Budapest, Spa and Monza) always denouncing engine problems, while Senna lost in two congenial circuits such as Estoril and Jerez, due to the on-board computer that erroneously reported a higher fuel consumption than expected?
Technically it would not be impossible to change the performance of the engines: with electronic mappings, it would be enough to change a parameter to change the performance or in any case the data received from the on-board computer.
On the other hand, Nelson Piquet claims that the Japanese manufacturer has different engines, for example, some with long stroke with small pistons, others with short stroke and large pistons; but the engineer Goto, responsible for Honda, denies, at least partially, the words of the Brazilian:
"Sometimes we do experiments, but not in racing, where all our drivers have the same engines".
But why should Honda do this? Well, there is a plausible hypothesis that could support this thesis: in the Formula 1 environment it is hypothesized that Honda could have created a diversion to carry on the duel between its two drivers up to the Japanese Grand Prix, providing two opponents of equal means in the decisive race.
This is the thought that begins to hover in the mind of the president of the International Automobile Federation, Jean Marie Balestre, and that is the suspicion that Honda has sabotaged Ayrton's engines, so he makes it known publicly, with a telegram sent to the Brazilian Federation, to have firmly asked Honda to supply strictly identical engines to the two drivers in the next races in Japan and Australia, to prevent the world championship from losing credibility.
This statement was released during the world motor sport conference opened on the evening of October 12, 1988, in Paris, where Balestre added that FISA would pay close attention to the smooth running of this final phase of the championship between Senna and Prost:
"I asked for specific guarantees from Honda and McLaren so that the two drivers are treated on equal terms. I made an investigation and I can say that no combine has been made in previous races, but if there are irregularities, serious penalties will be established".
Meanwhile, almost simultaneously with Balestre's announcement, Honda from Tokyo announces that it has developed two technologies to increase the performance of turbo engines. The first concerns the valves whose opening is no longer fixed but variable according to the engine speed, and is regulated by a computer: according to Honda this system allows to increase the power on a turbo with 1600 cubic centimeters of displacement. The second system allows instead to reduce the response time of the turbo allowing you to use more horsepower during acceleration at low revs. Beyond the suspicions of the FISA president, it is Senna himself who denies this hypothesis in Imola, during a test dedicated to the new naturally aspirated Honda engine that will be used in 1989, declaring:
"It is difficult to interpret the intentions of the Japanese, but I don't think anything particular is happening, it's the normal racing situation. In Monza, for example, I had three different engines available that weren't doing very well. In Spain I was able to drive a car with a new chassis and I got back to being competitive. But I refuse to believe that a serious manufacturer like Honda sabotaged me. The truth is that I did fourteen races, twelve went well, two bad. But not for the fault of others. There are always small differences between our cars, wanted by us two. It may even be that sometimes one gets the right solutions and the second gets them wrong".
At Imola, on October 13th and 14th, in testing the new Honda aspirates, the McLarens set the track record on the second day: Senna's 1'28"924 against the 1'29"529 set by Prost on the first day test, but above all much faster than the time set by Berger with turbo engine, 1'30"551, so much so that Ferrari decides to immediately return to Maranello.
Returning to the world championship, just three races were enough to completely change the scenario of a championship that already in Monza could have ended with the victory of Senna. Now, however, Prost has changed his mind and does not think in the least to help his teammate, and indeed declares:
"Now I am convinced, I will go to Suzuka and Adelaide to win. In any case I will try to stay ahead of Ayrton if by chance Ferrari tries to repeat last year's feat".
Ayrton however is charged:
"Prost has a five-point advantage. So it will be a good fight, I prepared well, with a few days of relaxation at home, in Sao Paulo, and a little gymnastics. Fear? No, I'm focused as always, I'll do my best. In any case, the championship is now more exciting than before".
Ayrton is right: now the challenge for the World Champion title is exciting. Eighty-four points for Prost, seventy-nine Senna, we go to Japan.
Prost and Senna thus present themselves at the penultimate and decisive Grand Prix of the 1988 season to be raced in Japan. Alain would be 90 points, but the discard rule not only deprives him of a much more comfortable gap, but paradoxically relegates him to the role of underdog in the championship.
In fact, the Frenchman, in case of victory, can only discard a second place, in doing so he would earn just three points; Senna, on the other hand, from the top of his seven victories, one more than his rival, by winning in Japan would discard the sixth place obtained in Estoril, making a leap of eight points in the standings. Consequently, with this scenario, the Brazilian could already celebrate his first World title this weekend.
The eve is obviously hotter than ever and there is speculation on every little rumor that circulates inside the paddock, in particular on alleged inequalities of treatment within the team, due to the problems recorded on Senna's car in the last two outings. Estoril and Jerez, both to the Honda engine supplier and its alleged preference for Ayrton.
It is even assumed that Senna intentionally wants to lose the championship because he promised his mother that once he won his first world title he would retire. All seasoned with interviews on Thursday, during which Prost tries to unload all the pressure of the moment on his teammate, emphasizing his past experience fighting for similar goals, and how Ayrton can sin on the psychological aspect, given his obsessive desire to win.
Beyond the psychological games, Alain's statements are certainly not far-fetched, especially if you go back to the Monaco and Monza races and the sensational mistakes made by the Brazilian while he was easily in the lead, retirements without which the games would have already been largely closed. Ayrton is not in the least touched by such declarations, on the contrary, he almost admits his psychological subjection:
"I absolutely have to win, on a psychological level it would be more complicated for me to have to play in the last race in Australia".
The qualification confirms his intentions: twelve pole positions in the season, an absolute record, and twenty-eight in his career, with Prost three tenths away. Ayrton, when it comes to flying lap, is unequivocally the best; the Professor will have to play his best cards in the race if he wants to keep the games open.
The gap from the rest of the grid no longer causes a sensation, in a season dominated by the English car powered by Japanese engines, even more determined to crush the competition in their home Grand Prix; Gerhard Berger is third at a second and a half, followed by Ivan Capelli and the excellent Lotus, also with Honda engine, of Piquet and Nakajima. However, a very disappointing season for Piquet, never able to fight for victory for the whole season; the podiums won in Brazil and Imola (and then in the last race in Australia) certainly cannot satisfy him. The night before the race, Senna is persuaded to wander around the casino tables to ease the tension, but forgets to check the time and goes to bed late.
In the race day the tension is equally high and, to make the atmosphere even more like a Hollywood film, in addition to the sleep accumulated by Ayrton, there is the unknown factor of the rain that hangs over the Suzuka circuit. An unknown factor that, however, can only further load Senna, a declared master, as well as in the dry lap, also in situations of wet track. Remaining in the field of cinema, however, Senna's film becomes dramatic when the lights go out and his McLaren starts sobbing, unable to leave.
Ayrton waves his arms while the other cars parade him, Prost in the first place, but luckily for him the slight slope of the straight means that the engine can be restarted: Senna is in the race, but his fantastic pole from the previous day, albeit so close, is already only a distant memory, since he finds himself in fourteenth position, while Prost is easily walking. The easiest thing for anyone to do at that moment would have been to give up and resign themselves to playing for it in Adelaide, in two weeks.
But Senna is Senna, and at the end of the first lap he is already in eighth position. Subsequently, Patrese, Nannini, Boutsen, Alboreto and Berger almost become mobile chicanes for the Brazilian, who burns them one by one with an aggressiveness and a disarming ease. After just ten laps, Senna is third at eleven seconds behind Prost, with Ivan Capelli coming between the two McLarens.
Those who already thought of Adelaide after those sensational moments at the start, must already change their mind. That October 30, 1988 is Ayrton's day, and further proof of this is the rain that finally breaks the delay and begins to fall on the track, initially not copiously, but just enough to stiffen Prost, even surprised by Capelli who puts in front.
The Milanese is hopeful of being able to accomplish the feat and win his first race in Formula 1, but on lap twenty-two the Judd engine drops him, and he must retire.
Rain, gearbox problems, and lapping that become more unpleasant than usual: the sporting drama is consumed for Alain on lap 27, when he is reached and passed on the main straight, helpless in the face of today's superiority of his rival.
Paradoxically, the most difficult moment of the race for Senna begins right after overtaking: with a treacherous track and two sensational slips while he was in the lead that he carries on his conscience, the imperative for the remaining twenty-four laps is to keep a cool head and not throw everything at nettles, since a mistake this time would cost dearly.
The rain rages on the track and the anxiety does the same with him, to the point that five laps from the end he tries with eloquent gestures with his arms to suspend the race early.
He will not be listened to, but it does not matter, because at the checkered flag all the ghosts disappear, as well as the tension of the previous days, the fear at the start and in the last laps: Prost is second and thirteen seconds away. Ayrton made it.
At twenty-eight he is World Champion for the first time in his career. In the post-race, Ayrton does not hide his joy and the ups and downs of emotions during the race and even after the victory of the first world title, in a flash interview made while returning from Japan, he speaks for the first time about his faith:
"The most difficult moment of the race was certainly at the start. It was my mistake: I dropped the number of revs too much and, with a very sensitive clutch, the engine had even stopped. It was pure luck that I was able to restart as the wheels were still in motion, At that moment I thought it was all over: I saw myself parading from all sides, I really thought there was nothing more to do. It was the most difficult moment".
"I tried to keep calm, but in the first laps I was very agitated, I miraculously avoided Gugelmin who spun in front of me. Little by little I regained my pace and the car didn't have any problems. the difficulty came from the conflicting information provided by my on-board computer and the signals sent to me from the pits. At one point there were two laps of difference in the consumption data, and with Prost behind me I didn't know what to do. For about ten laps I looked for a kind of compromise, then, fifteen laps from the end, suddenly the two laps mysteriously disappeared on my computer. At this point I could not even look at the signals sent from the garage to Prost: I would have had to pay too much attention to the signs and this was certainly not the right day to focus on it".
"I'm sure I had the best race of my life. Previously I thought my best performance was the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, but today I think I surpassed myself. Today I had a mountain of problems to solve, it's it was a breathless race, pulled from the first to the last lap. I had no problems with consumption, I was always able to push to the death. In the last few laps I protested against the race direction because with the rain the track had become very dangerous. On other occasions they would have suspended the race immediately, yet this time they made us run in a situation of great risk. There was a lot of tension, yet no one has taken on this responsibility. Instead of sending letters to Honda, Balestre would do better to deal with these things and with some drivers who created situations of great danger during the lapping phases".
"I want to publicly thank Honda and McLaren who have always provided both drivers with the same and top quality material. Even today I didn't have any mechanical problem, I think every driver wants to win a world championship, but this season has been terrible for all the tension that had been created since the first races. It was precisely this psychological pressure that led to Monte Carlo's mistake. Probably it was the most difficult moment, but it was from that day that my life changed. From that mistake I drew a new strength and a new power to fight for the world championship. It was after that accident that I made the big step in my career as a driver and as a professional".
"At that moment I approached God as I had never done in the past. I did not change my habits, but my way of seeing things. I left Monaco very frustrated, I thought for a long time. help from my family and some loved ones who have shown me a new direction for my mind. These are things I only say now because doing it earlier would have been perhaps more dangerous in Fomrula 1. I have always been a Catholic, but my way of believing is different now. The night before the Suzuka race, I slept very little, just half an hour, but I think it's normal when it comes to events like this. Now the only thing I want is to sleep, then I'll go to Bali for a week of relaxation. I think next year we will be more and more at the top, and maybe Alain and I will have more fun, we will be more relaxed".
Prost, on the other hand, does not hide his disappointment more than necessary and throws a few digs, hiding it behind the compliments for Senna:
"I'm not sorry for the lost world championship. It was the progress of the race that frustrated me. The traffic, the gearbox that didn't work perfectly, some engine problems with the pop-off valve. I lost eight hard-earned seconds, in two laps, mainly due to some reckless who did not step aside. And Senna overtook me taking advantage of a moment of battle. Ayrton still deserves the title, he is better in certain situations, he knows how to attack decisively. Now the world championship it is his, souls are calmer, we are preparing for next year, for a new challenge. I want an immediate revenge".
At the end of the season, with the Australian Grand Prix won by the Frenchman, the total score is 105 points for Prost, and 94 for Senna, however with the discard rule, the final result is 90 for the new World Champion, and 87 for Alain, who also in this case does not hide how disappointed he is for this scoring system:
"It is unacceptable to finish the season with an eleven point advantage and not be a Champion. It is incomprehensible and the FIA must change for the good of Formula 1".
Eight wins against seven, thirteen poles against two, three fastest laps against eight. These numbers added together not only correspond to an extraordinary battle played on the edge, but are also witnesses of McLaren's impressive hegemony during 1988. A script destined to be likely the same in the following season.
In Australia Prost wins again, even if nothing counts for the purposes of the ranking:
"I was able to start better than Senna. Then I was surprised to see that he had no intention of recovering. After so much bad luck this season, I am happy with this victory. I was not at all worried about overtaking Berger. I knew that Ferrari has big fuel consumption problems and would never reach the finish line at that pace. So, when the Austrian passed, I even slowed down. I saw him stopped, I was sorry because I thought that there were people in the stands who maybe really believed that Ferrari could win. The fact is that, since before the race, Berger and Alboreto told me that they were in the trouble with consumption But I also knew that Ferrari wanted to prove something in this last race. That's why I didn't get upset too much".
Ayrton Senna also dismisses Ferrari's performance by stating:
"We at McLaren were also at the limit with consumption, let alone Berger who has always had more than us. In the race I broke first and third gears and had difficulties with second so I couldn't do anything more".
But it is Ron Dennis, in the press room, during a rather boring interview session, who animates the environment when all of a sudden he snatches the microphone from Ayrton's hand and thunders against the journalists:
"You all implied that I would give Senna and Prost different cars to orchestrate the championship according to my dark wishes. So I ask you, who of you thinks so, raise your hand".
Obviously no one dares to lift a finger. So Dennis increases the dose and attacks:
"What need was there, for example, to go and check the differential of this monster of perfection after the victory in Japan?"
Controversy aside, it is noteworthy what happens in this period to the Neapolitan-Tyrolean of Austria Gerhard Berger, who asks Lauda for help from the former world champion because he is in trouble with the Austrian Ministry of Defense.
The reason? He should leave in uniform, and some Austrian newspapers have already photo-mounted him with helmet and camouflage suit! Yet the young Austrian manages to never lose his smile, so much so that in Adelaide, as soon as he meets Lauda, he stands at attention, clumsily simulating a military salute; a playful way of asking him for help.
Obviously Gerhard has no intention of going to report to the recruitment, and in Austria it is already scandal. Lauda has many contacts, he knows people who count, people who allowed him in his time to be able to escape from the military service. The two chatter, until Lauda exclaims:
"You could try thoracic insufficiency, two centimeters less are enough and you bleed it, listen to me, stop eating".
Leaving Berger's weight problems aside, the season finale is different for the two McLaren drivers. Ayrton, has won the world title and has no intention of retiring, even if his mother asks for it, as some of his enemies had gossiped. He doesn't even think about returning to the Amazon to look after the estates of his father, Milton Da Silva. Moreover, at the beginning of 1989, he found the female company in Xuxa Meneghel, the television diva of Rete Globo.
Alain, on the other hand, dedicated himself to intense days of testing in Jerez and Estoril to develop the new atmospheric engine and, taking advantage of the break, on December 21, 1988, he went to dinner with the Honda manager, Nabuhiko Kawamoto. A dinner that should be of clarification, and in a certain sense it is, but not in the sense that one can expect: Alain recognizes that there have been difficult times, like in Portugal, and that although Senna has won more races than him, there have been occasions where he had to win, like in Budapest. Apart from that, his only request remains to have the same treatment for both drivers in 1989, without having to see special engines coming into the pits only for Senna.
At that point, Kawamoto acknowledges to Prost that perhaps the engineers could have worked better on his car, and that if they didn't, it's because they gave Senna more support. Kawamoto begins to talk about the new generation of engineers, men born after the war who have a marked preference for Senna, because he personifies more the figure of the samurai, that warrior who never gives up regardless of the obstacle that arises, in full contrast to Prost, less spectacular, more calculating but equally successful.
It is in this moment that Alain realizes that throughout the 1988 season he has done nothing to find a solution to the difficulties he has encountered, only to be amazed once he has discovered the truth. Kawamoto guarantees him equal treatment at the end of the meeting, but as the weeks pass Alain will realize that the promise has not been kept.
Davide Scotto di Vetta