Ayrton Senna in McLaren Honda 1992

Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo May 14th 1988 Saturday afternoon

Senna’s qualifying lap during the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix is widely regarded as the best single lap in Formula 1 history.

After 25 minutes in to the saturday qualifying session he was at 1:25.6. Three minutes later the score-board flashed a 1:24.4. And as we struggled to take this in, reality was suspended altogether with his next lap: 1:23.998. At this point the others were trying desperately to get below 1:28. When Senna’s final time appeared on the pit monitors, Patrick Head’s (at the time, chief engineer for Williams) jaw momentarily dropped, and he wasn’t the only one. How was it possible? Senna’s was merely one of 26 cars accelerating through the start-finish area.

If you watched through the swimming pool, you knew. Through those daunting swerves Senna was simply on a different plane, and if he were putting in that degree of commitment and flair everywhere else, his times were not beyond belief. Indeed, you had the impression that each lap was quicker than the one before. Perhaps the first left-hander around the pool puts greater call on a driver than any other in Formula One.

It is quick, it is blind and absolutely unforgiving. No run-offs here, no getting away with mistakes. Here you can see which cars are working well; more than that, you can sense by his committment a driver’s faith in himself. Senna was not only visibly faster than anyone else, but also consistently closer to the wall going in. Awesome, in fact.

It was one of those special days when you watched true greatness – and knew it as you watched.

I felt as though I was driving in a tunnel. The whole circuit became a tunnel… I had reached such a high level of concentration that it was as if the car and I had become one. Together we were at the maximum. I was giving the car everything – and vice versa. Suddenly it was as though I had woke up and noticed that I had somehow been on a different level of conciousness. I was really shocked, and I went straight back to the pits – and didn’t drive any more that day. I realized that I had been in a kind of unending spiral. Faster and faster, closer and closer to perfection… But also more and more vulnerable, with less and less safety margin.

— Ayrton Senna

by Nigel Roebuck, “Autoweek”, May 23, 1988