Formula One: 1988 Portuguese GP

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End of entente?

Alain Prost will always have good reason to remember the Portuguese Grand Prix. He started it from pole position and he turned it into his 33rd career victory, but there was more. He was delighted with a success that was a vital step back in the direction of his third World Championship, but it was also the race in which he felt his team-mate Ayrton Senna had come within inches of taking both McLaren-Hondas out.

The story of Estoril began when Prost received a new chassis. Privately, because that’s the sort of driver he is, he had been complaining to his engineers for the past few races. Since Silverstone, in fact, he felt there had always been something ever-so-slightly wrong with his car’s set-up, be it in the engine management or the overall balance. Only in Hungary had he been content, and then he had had to overcome the non-turbo cars after backmarkers messed up his qualifying effort.

In Portugal, then, he was not just content, he was delighted. Now he could abandon the race-tired MP4/4 Senna had used earlier in the year, and make full use of an almost perfect car. This, he said, was the way he knew the MPF4/4 should be: crisp, responsive, and quick.

Qualifying was interrupted on Saturday afternoon when Gabriele Tarquini’s Coloni was dragged out of its dangerous resting place in the sandy run-off in Turn One, but by then Prost had already reversed Friday’s positions to pop in the 1min 17.411sec lap which would earn him the pole. And by the time a sweating Senna returned to the pits, unsuccessful in his efforts to dislodge his team-mate, the Frenchman was nattily attired in his street clothes. One up to Alain.

The race was to follow current Formula 3000 and Formula Three idiom, requiring three starts before it was really on. In the first Andrea de Cesaris stalled his Rial. In the second, Derek Warwick was very slow away and was struck in the gearbox by. . . Andrea de Cesaris in the Rial! Satoru Nakajima and Luis Sala were also involved, but third time round everything was fine.

start

The McLaren team-mates battle for track position heading for Turn One

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Prost had edged ahead in the second start, only to have Senna hang tough on the outer, more grippy line, and cut ahead into Turn One. In Start Three that was exactly what the Brazilian did again, but already he had been slightly unsettled after Prost had edged him as far to the left of the track as he dared. Prost being Prost, that meant Ayrton was able to keep his wheels on the grey stuff, albeit only by a finely-calculated inch or so, for the Frenchman is scrupulously fair. It was all perfectly legal gamesmanship.

Round that first lap, however, it was already obvious that Senna was going to have a lot of trouble maintaining his advantage this time, and even this early it was apparent that Prost had the superior set-up. As they came round the long right-hander leading back onto the pit-straight, McLaren No 11 was right behind McLaren No 12, and then pulled out.

What Senna did next was to cause the real fuss of the meeting, and burn itself into the memory of Prost’s mental computer. As he drew alongside, Senna simply lunged at him. No other words accurately describe the incident. And in the lunge, Prost was squeezed perilously close to the wall. Indeed, March team-manager Ian Phillips had to pull back his pit-board to avoid striking Prose’s helmet. Recalling the pit-wall incidents in Mexico and Detroit, he was not alone in being incensed by the Brazilian’s tactics.

“I knew I had to keep my foot down because at one stage we had our wheels interlocked,” said Prost afterwards, his anger still simmering. “If I had eased off, we could have caught wheels and then who knows what would have happened?”

As he rode over a spectacularly nasty bump, his MP1/1 squirmed momentarily sideways, and that obliged Senna to give him more room. His foot still buried on the bulkhead, Prost steamed ahead into Turn One, and his victory was made. Even in the post-race interviews, however, the satisfaction of a vitally important win came second to voicing his opinion of his partner. “If that’s how he wants to win the championship,” he said trenchantly, “I’m not interested. I don’t want any part of it. And, yes, we will have words.”

Throughout the season — their Hemingwayan Dangerous Summer — the two have maintained cordial relations, with one or two minor hiccoughs, but at Estoril they finally became very strained. It was exactly what many onlookers had expected from the outset. There were words exchanged afterwards, although their exact form remained a secret between the two, and Senna was later given a metaphoric slap on the wrist by the stewards of the meeting. By Jerez, Prost and Senna were friends again — on the surface.

While that near miss occupied many minds at the time, it was in no way the final drama in what turned out to be one of the best races of the year. The key player, once Senna had raised the curtain, was Ivan Capelli, in absolutely blistering form in the Leyton House March. Ivan had raised eyebrows by qualifying third after a battle with Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari, and there he was, at the end of that opening lap, sitting dangerously close to Senna. What’s more, he wasn’t hanging on by his fingertips: he was pressuring the Brazilian for all he was worth and looking every bit the faster of the two.

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Ayrton Senna leads Nigel Mansell

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In the lead, Prost treated the thousands of Ayrton Senna Fan Club members in he crowd to a display of pure virtuosity as he opened out an advantage, even though he was running the minimum boost and the leanest mixture settings possible. Right from the start of the meeting McLaren appreciated just how hard on fuel Estoril would be, and Prost was cannily making full use of his chassis’ perfect handling.

Capelli was clearly being held up by Senna as Prost drew away, though, and realised quickly that his rival had a problem with grip. “So I began to push him even harder,” he beamed. For 22 laps Senna’s defensive driving kept him at bay, the Brazilian being ruthless but fair after his first-lap lapse. Then Capelli got out of the last turn better than Ayrton, and this time the March draughted neatly by into Turn One.

Senna’s troubles weren’t over, for now it was Berger snapping at the McLaren’s heels, confident he had a Ferrari capable of repeating its Monza victory. It took the hard-charging Austrian less than the full lap to slam past, after a spectacular manoeuvre going into the third-gear downhill left-hander leading out on to the second half of the course. He came from a very long way back under braking, took Ayrton Senna completely by surprise and wobbled through as the McLaren all but hit the back of the F187/88C. It was a timely reminder that, in the right car, Berger is a match for anyone.

As the Portuguese Senna fans watched in resigned silence, Berger hauled swiftly on to Capelli’s tail, and suddenly the race was alive, as both were catching Prost hand-over-fist.

A challenge from the Ferrari was understandable, given the improvements the team has made recently in the engine department, but to see a March in second place brought gasps of pure amazement. However, throughout qualifying it had been crystal-clear just how well Adrian Newey’s excellent design was handling, and Capelli was exploiting it to the full despite his power disadvantage. The gap was 9.7 seconds on lap 21, but it was down to only 1.8 seconds on lap 35, and even if Ivan did find a way past Alain, it was clear he would still have his hands full with Gerhardt. It was the best racing since Hungaroring.

Of course, it was just too good to be true, and it couldn’t last. Berger was really giving Capelli a hard time, but unbeknown to outside observers, the Austrian was in great discomfort. Reaching for a control on the dashboard — at the time he thought it had been the mixture control, but it turned out to be the ride-height adjuster — he had accidentally triggered off his onboard fire-extinguisher instead. As the ice-cold extinguishant blew round the cramped confines of the cockpit his legs initially began freezing.

At Pau in 1974 Patrick Tambay had a similar unpleasant experience in Formula Two, suffering painful leg burns that left permanent scars, but fortunately for Gerhard the extinguishant began to thaw and quickly turned to water. However, while that eased his immediate problem, it soon created another. Going through Turn Three on lap 36 the Ferrari snapped sideways, got away from him and slid into retirement in the sand.

“I think we had McLaren on fuel today,” he shrugged after walking back to the pits. “I think we could have won.” He was not, after all, to avenge his 1987 defeat at Prost’s hands. But why the spin? “The water got on the brake pedal and my foot slipped off . . .”

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Alain Prost in the McLaren

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The immediate pressure was now off Capelli, but as Prost began more and more to like what his fuel read-out had to tell him, he eased the gap open again as he used a fraction more boost. It was enough to take him clear of the March threat at the race’s mid-point, but in the closing stages the gap began to shrink again as Ivan went back on the attack. “Then I saw Mauricio’s car smoking at the side of the road, so I figured I’d better ease up and be grateful to finish second to Mr Prost. It’s no disgrace, huh?” An uncomplicated racer who actually enjoys what he does for a living, Capelli felt honoured to finish behind his hero. It made a refreshing change.

Gugelmin’s 881 had been a handy fifth for a long time, but had dropped to seventh as its Judd V8 began to show signs of seizing. “I didn’t get to it this time,” he grinned. Usually his sixth sense has helped him save big rebuild bills, but this time the Judd was in a sorry state.

If Senna expected some relief when Berger passed, he was to be disappointed, for no sooner had one contender gone from his mirrors then another appeared — his old adversary Nigel Mansell. Looking fit and well after his two-race absence, the Briton was back with all his old fire—and even his old moustache — and from the way he hounded Senna he might well have been back in a Williams-Honda. He’d had initial trouble dialling himself and the still non-reactive FW12 in to the circuit in qualifying, and had only really posted one good lap, which put him sixth in the line-up, but in the race he was a match for Ayrton and sat inches from him for lap after lap, trying this way then that.

His sheer persistence and bravery were awesome to watch in Turn One, and on lap 33 he was so nearly alongside when Ayrton slammed the door, the two indicating just how much further they’ve matured in outlook since their celebrated coming together at Spa last year. This time they were able to run wheel-to-wheel with nary a hint of contact, but the Williams just didn’t quite have the steam to overtake. Then came lap 54. That was the lap on which Jonathan Palmer lost his ongoing battle with a recalcitrant Tyrrell 017, and spun into the barriers in the left-hander just before the corner leading on to the pit-straight. He was dragging back to the pits, nose wings askew, as Senna and Mansell hove into view.

“I was closer to Ayrton at that point on that lap than ever before,” said the Manxman, and that could have made the vital difference on the drag down to Turn One. “I was right behind Ayrton when he jinked out to the left as we went round to the last corner. As he did so, that was the first time I was aware of Jonathan, right on the line.”

He tried to go to the right of the Tyrrell, realised at the last moment just how slowly it was running on the racing line, and then rapidly switched to the left. Too rapidly. Senna, who’d had the advantage of seeing Palmer sooner, was himself already kissing the barrier. The Williams whacked the McLaren up the gearbox and then went into the wall — “hard,” said Mansell pointedly—. and out of the race. He limped home on foot, another spot on the rostrum evaporated.

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Riccardo Patrese takes a trip through the gravel

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That took the immediate pressure off Ayrton, but now he was in even worse trouble. From the start, he complained, his fuel read-out had been pessimistic, and in the lap after Mansell’s tap and his brush with the barrier he called in for fresh tyres, worried that a new handling imbalance might be the result of a puncture. When he rejoined he was never in the hunt, and had dropped behind Alboreto, Boutsen and Warwick, the survivors of a heady battle for what eventually became third place.

From the start, Michele had run right behind a very on form Nelson Piquet, and came under intense pressure himself from Riccardo Patrese and Boutsen as the quartet lapped literally nose-to-tail, all very evenly matched. Piquet was confident he had the advantage in the early stages, and like Patrese was conserving his Goodyears. But then his clutch pedal began to stick on the floor.

Estoril is a track of many gearchanges, and remembering his retirement at Monza, the World Champion backed off a little as he tried to get round the problem with early braking and gentle gearshifts. Initially the ploy worked, but soon Alboreto was a real menace and a pit-stop was unavoidable. The system was bled and he did a few more laps, but the problem persisted and became in for good, to Peter Warr’s evident disappointment. “Nelson felt he was on for a solid third,” he shrugged. “He had plenty of fuel in hand and the car was going well, the best it has for some time . . .” A good result would have been a real fillip.

Patrese lasted until lap 29, confident he had Alboreto’s measure and was biding his time. Then the Ferrari threw up a stone from one of the numerous gravel beds, and the innocent Williams driver was out with a punctured radiator.

All of this was Boutsen’s good luck, as he was elevated two places without overtaking anyone. Throughout qualifying Benetton had, unusually, proved unable to sort its B188s, but Thierry was happier with his in race trim until it began to vibrate alarmingly after the right front wheel lost a balance weight. That stymied his chase of Alboreto just as they were closing on the slowing Gugelmin.

But Lady Luck was onhand again in the closing stages. An easy third going into the final lap, Michele felt the Ferrari splutter on the last dregs of fuel as he rounded the final corner, and by the time he rolled across the line Boutsen who was by now also in trouble with fluctuating fuel-pressure) had gratefully scooped his place. Warwick, too, had gone by to demote him to fifth. The Ferrari’s fuel computer had been giving spurious, optimistic readings . . .

Boutsen’s team-mate Alessandro Nannini had been delayed on the first lap at Monza, staging a scintillating recovery from a pit-lane start. Incredibly, he had much the same to do in Estoril, except this time it was a driver error that brought him into the pits after the opening lap. He’d clipped a barrier after miscalculating how warm his tyres were, and though he stormed as high as ninth by lap 50, he finally retired exhausted by the strain of fighting a serious vibration, the result of chassis damage inflicted in the incident.

Warwick was lucky to repeat his Monza result and take home another three championship points in the Arrows, not only because of getting another chance after fluffing his second start but also because his chassis was so badly balanced that the right front and left rear Goodyears were worn right down to the canvas. By the flag the tough Englishman felt completely wrung out.

Alex Caffi had pressured Warwick for a while as both momentarily closed on Alboreto and Boutsen’s battle for sixth place, but Scuderia Italia’s Dallara broke an exhaust primary and began to sound very flat, and was later held up as Philippe Streiff refused to let him lap him.

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Alessandro Nannini goes side-by-side with Patrese

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The Frenchman had been involved in a gripping duel with Tarquini’s Coloni, and had eventually pulled away when the Italian car slowed as its water-temperature ran dangerously high and a gearbox bearing began to seize. This particular contest had a note of irony, since the Coloni F1 operation is now run by former AGS personnel Christian Vanderpleyn, Michel Costa and Frederic Dhainault.

Luis Sala switched to the spare Minardi after the start-line shunt and was happy to bring it home eighth after stopping Friday’s free practice with a shunt into the armco, but team-mate Pierluigi Martini retired with a dropped valve on lap 20 while running between the Dallara and de Cesaris’ spare Rial. Andrea generally had one of those days after his starting dramas, the ARC 01 lasting until lap 12 before snapping a driveshaft after a strong showing.

This time both Ligiers qualified, albeit on the penultimate row of the grid. Much good it did Stefan Johansson, who ran only four laps in an encouraging 17th place before his Judd broke going into Turn One. Arnoux fared better, fighting in the initial stages with Palmer and Nicola Larini’s Osella before finishing fifth after a low-profile run. Larini also finished, but an aggressive opening spurt was spoiled by a pit-stop to change a tyre which had a slow puncture. In the closing stages he, like Tarquini, was reduced to a crawl as the Alfa Romeo V8 began running out of fuel.

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Prost on the way to his fifth race win of the season

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Though few of the many dices actually developed into passing and repassing, the Portuguese Grand Prix had a lot going for it, and will go down in history as the race in which the season-long entente between Messrs Prost and Senna began to wane as the pressure of the championship chase began to tell.

After suffering four consecutive defeats at Senna’s hands, the wily Prost had bounced back with a brilliant win, while his team-mate surveyed two races which had yielded him a mere point. Prost knew only too well how unsettling such failure can be just when the championship is coming into sight, and headed for Spain in supremely confident frame of mind. His optimism was fully justified . . . DJT

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