F1's Great Drives: Ayrton Senna - 1988 Japanese Grand Prix


A title showdown at Suzuka between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. A familiar narrative but at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, it was to be Senna's day

Senna McLaren Suzuka 1988


The iconic moments of Ayrton Senna’s career trip off the tongue. Giving a masterclass to the rest of the field at Estoril ‘85; coming through an East Midlands monsoon at Donington ‘93; qualifying 1.4sec ahead of Alain Prost in the same car at Monaco. Snapshots of a career defined by passion, speed, charisma and raw talent.

There’s a strong argument, however, for the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix being his greatest drive of all. It certainly was one of F1’s.

Other races at Suzuka brought out the worst in Senna, but one day in 1988 gave us one of his best. He quite simply refused to lose. As David Tremayne put it in his race report that day, “the hungrier man won.”

The 1988 season was dominated by McLaren-Honda and the world’s two best racing drivers, Senna and Prost. The hard-fought duel remains one of the all-time great championships.

“We had a perfect year in ‘88 – we were untouchable, no-one could get near us,” says Jo Ramirez, McLaren Team manager and close friend of Senna. “The nice thing was, the public [at each race] knew that it was going to be a McLaren win, but they didn’t know which one.

“In some ways Senna was still the coming man, a challenger to the undisputed heavyweight Prost.”

“Ayrton won eight and Alain won seven, they were so good and both had a car like two drops of water – absolutely identical. We left them to battle without any team orders.”

The car naturally played a pivotal role in that trophy-laden McLaren era. Often credited to Gordon Murray, it was actually Steve Nichols’s design, the MP4/4, which became (in terms of win rate) the most successful F1 car of all time.

The Marlboro-liveried rocket won 93.8 per cent of all races it was entered in. Not during the years of Michael SchumacherFerrari domination, nor the Sebastian VettelRed Bull steamroller of 2010-2013, did another car get statistically close.

It was only recently, when Mercedes’ W07 won 90.7 per cent of its entries, that another car put up similar numbers.

Nichols said of his creation, in conversation with Motor Sport, “People ask about the secret of the MP4/4, but there was no secret. It was just well engineered in every area.”

Meanwhile, Honda had been persuaded to transfer one of its engine supplies from Williams to McLaren for 1988. This in turn had a large influence on Senna deciding to move from Lotus to the Woking team also.

Honda’s almighty RA168E-turbo, combined with Nichol’s chassis and with Senna and Prost at the wheel, would prove devastating.

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As the first race of the season approached, speculation mounted as to which of the two chargers would claim supremacy.

In some ways Senna was still the coming man, a challenger to the undisputed heavyweight Prost. To others, the Brazilian had long since arrived. He just needed the machinery to prove it.

The two would go at it hammer and tongs all year. By the time F1 fraternity touched down in Suzuka, Senna simply had to win and he was champion. By virtue of the “eleven best results” scoring system employed that year, Prost could only add three points to his total even if he won in Japan.

In qualifying, Senna maintained his imperious one-lap form of that year, besting the other McLaren by 0.3sec. The Brazilian had scored 13 poles that season, whilst Prost had two.

“Alain always accepted and never hid the fact that Ayrton on one lap on was absolutely unbelievably fast, with the way he managed to build up the engine revs in a corner” says Ramirez. “[Prost] tried to do the same but never managed.”

It was what happened on race day that really mattered though, and on Sundays the McLaren pair were much more closely matched.

“He didn’t tolerate the mistakes of the team and his mistakes he would tolerate even less.”

Senna lined up first on the grid with Prost alongside him, with the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger just behind in 3rd.

The poleman, as Murray Walker put it, had been “tight as a violin string” pre-race. This might just have contributed to what happened next.

As the lights went out, as rev-limiters hit their peak and Goodyear tyres squealed, most of the field got away well – apart from Senna.

The car juddered as the Brazilian suffered every racing driver’s nightmare. He’d stalled it.

The onrushing field swarmed around him, with Berger just managing to swerve and avoid the polesitter. It was only the Austrian’s razor-sharp reactions that prevented a collision.

Luckily for Senna, the Suzuka pit straight is on a slope. As he waved his arms frantically in the air – to warn other oncoming drivers – his car began to roll down the hill.

The Brazilian somehow kept his composure and managed to bump start the car. It seemed to take a couple of goes, but the McLaren eventually managed to haul itself away from the grid and get up to speed with the pack.

After this apparent disaster Senna was 14th, with Prost first.

James Hunt, in his television commentary at the time, proclaimed proceedings had “absolutely put the race into Prost’s lap.” Was it all over? Not if Senna had a say on the matter.

The fightback began immediately, as he got past Eddie Cheever, Maurizio Gugelmin, Nelson Piquet, Phillipe Streiff, Jonathan Palmer, Riccardo Patrese and Andrea de Cesaris – on the first lap alone.

Even by his usual intense standards, the Brazilian was driving like a man possessed.

As he crossed the line to finish lap one, Senna had managed to bring the car up to eighth.

“Ayrton admitted it [stalling] was his mistake.” Ramirez notes, “Perhaps it gave him that spark, that extra performance on the day.

“He was a guy that didn’t tolerate the mistakes of the team and his mistakes he would tolerate even less.”

There’d been spots of rain just prior to the race start and these returned on the opening laps. As a known master in the wet, it played to Senna’s advantage.

From the archive

He had further help from Nigel Mansell who, in his eagerness to make first lap progression, had speared his Williams into the back of Derek Warwick‘s Arrows. Both had to pit, with Senna benefiting once more.

Next up was the Williams of Patrese and Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton. Both were quickly disposed of and by lap two, Senna was now in sixth position.

The Benetton of Thierry Boutsen fell on lap three, Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari at the final chicane a lap later. Even with his superior car, Senna seemed to have reached a higher, previously unseen level of driver performance.

Berger’s Ferrari proved a trickier proposition. On lap one he had hustled Prost for the lead, but the fuel consumption problems which had plagued the Scuderia all season were coming into play once again.

Ayrton Senna, 1988 Japanese GP

Senna cut a nervous figure ahead of the race

Getty Images

Although Berger had dropped back to third, he still kept Senna behind for five laps before eventually falling prey to the McLaren.

Further up the road was the Leyton House March of Ivan Capelli – a joker in the pack. The March car, powered by a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre Judd engine, had been steadily improving through the second half of the season, to the point where it was now challenging the McLarens.

After scoring a third in Belgium and then finishing second in Portugal, Capelli wanted more.

With Berger behind him, the Italian had begun closing down Prost. On lap 16, he got a better run off the chicane and managed to nose ahead of the Frenchman as they crossed the start finish line. Prost had the inside line however, and managed to regain the advantage as the pair snaked into Turn One.

“Prost could see him coming, coming, but he could do nothing about it. It was bad for him.”

While these two fought and rain began to fall, Senna closed in. It took four laps.

As Capelli and Senna exited the final chicane on lap 20, the former over-revved his Judd engine, causing an electrical failure. The Italian’s car spluttered to a halt and Senna moved into secon. Prost was now in his sights.

Prost was able to hold the advantage for a while longer. The rain began to ease off slightly, allowing lap times to return to dry weather pace.

Coming round to end lap 27, Prost found himself hemmed in by backmarkers, as he had been with Capelli.

From the archive

This time he had Gugelmin and de Cesaris fighting ahead of him. With the pair focused on their own battle and not getting out of the way, the leader’s pace became limited.

Senna saw his chance, and pounced. Trailing the two backmarkers, Prost’s acceleration out of the final chicane was far from optimal. The Brazilian slipstreamed up behind him and took the inside line.

At the same time the McLaren pair negotiated de Cesaris, the cars almost three wide as they entered Turn 1. Senna kept his nerve, and emerged from the corner in front.

Ramirez says there was a sense of the inevitable as Senna loomed down on Prost. “He could see him coming, coming, but he could do nothing about it. It was bad for him.”

In 27 laps, Senna had gone from first to 14th – and back again. He’d achieved what was almost unthinkable in just over half a race distance.

The São Paulo native might have fought back from the depths of the field, but he still had his foe right on his tail. In contrast to the rapid progress he had made thus far, four laps after taking Prost, Senna’s advantage was only 2.5sec.

Prost shaved the gap down to 1.25sec a lap later. As more rain began to fall, Senna began to pull away again. As had been seen several times earlier in the season, it was a racing duel of the highest order.

On lap 37, his margin was up to 5.5sec. Prost fought back over the next five tours and reduced it to 1.5sec. What made the difference? Once more, a backmarker came into play.

Local hero Satoru Nakajima was enduring a mixed day. Having squandered his impressive sixth-place grid position by selecting the wrong gear as the light went out, he had battled back to seventh place.

Senna wasted no time nailing yet another pass into the final chicane. His team-mate couldn’t quite do the same, taking a whole lap to get past Nakajima.

This proved to be the terminal blow for Prost. The time lost was vital, and with that, Senna had finally managed to break his rival.

He carried on to stretch his lead, eventually winning the race by 13.3sec from Prost.

The Brazilian had become world champion – achieving his dream in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Ramirez remembers the post-race contrast between the two McLaren men: Senna’s elation, with emotion rarely shown, at fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition versus Prost’s despondency – he had lost a race and championship that was seemingly his.

“I remember we swore a little bit in the intercom of the car, it was just fantastic. I had never seen him as happy as that before.

“Alain was very sad, because he realised the best guy one it on the day. He was so disappointed because also he knew his car was perfect.

“He couldn’t repeat what he did in the last two races where he won, but he was a guy that was still very good to them [the team]. They both took pictures with [Honda founder] Soichiro Honda.”

Thierry Boutsen pours champagne over Ayrton Senna on the podium at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

Senna’s champagne shower courtesy of Thierry Boutsen


Ramirez said Senna struggled to get over the sense of disbelief in winning, even when the celebrations were in full swing:

“In the evening Ayrton invited everybody to the steak house at the circuit, so the whole team had a fantastic meal. We all got a little bit drunk and even when he was drunk, Ayrton couldn’t believe it, he said to me ‘Is it really true?’

“I said ‘Maybe when you wake up next morning, the maid will bring you the paper and then you’ll realise that you are world champion.’”

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But the moment may have come too quickly for McLaren, says Ramirez, who suggests that some of the McLaren team harmony may have been maintained had Prost emerged victorious and not Senna:

“To be honest, I would have preferred if Alain would have been champion in ‘88. If Ayrton hadn’t won it that year, but he just maybe won it the next year [‘89], and perhaps the next year [after that], maybe the relationship would have been longer there, Alain wouldn’t have the left team.

“For sure, Ayrton was the future and in Ron’s eyes, he was definitely the man that was going to take the team to the next stage, but it just happened too soon. I would have loved to have had that partnership for a few more years.”

Tremayne wrote: “In truth [Senna] had mainly been luckier than Prost with the backmarkers.” Was it luck? Or was Senna simply better at dealing with the racing problems as they presented themselves?

It’s open to conjecture, but it was the Brazilian who ultimately proved victorious.

There’d be more wins, more championships and more iconic moments, but Japan ‘88 will always be one of Senna’s, and F1’s, greatest drives.