Finest ever laps in Monaco

Senna relives his experience of leading the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Must read

Ayrton Senna has given Formula One so many stories and memorable events that it’s hard to select just one that best represents the brilliant driver he was.

Monaco May 14, 1988 – Saturday afternoon, 2nd qualifying session

After 25 minutes in to qualifying session he was at 1:25.6. Three minutes later the score-board flashed a 1:24.4, and while all others struggled,he has driven his next lap with time: 1:23.998. What a Lap?! The greatest lap ever driven. It was one of those special days when you watched true greatness… The qualifying lap for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix not only saw Senna put his McLaren on pole position, but by an incredible 1.427 seconds over his teammate and rival Alain Prost. It is often said in Formula1 that the most accurate measurement of a driver’s true ability is his results in comparison to his teammate, who has access to an identical car. That the 28-year-old Senna, with only seven grand prix victories under his belt, managed to out-qualify the 33-year-old Prost, a winner of 29 races, two world championships and with four more years of experience to rely on, was staggering. Senna’s complex personality and poetic description of that lap, arguably the greatest in the history of Formula One, has left what the Brazilian meant by his lack of “conscious understanding” open to interpretation:

“I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more.”

-Ayrton Senna

Nigel Roebuck had this to say about it:

At 1:48 Saturday afternoon, Ayrton Senna went out again, and I wondered why. Was the the old ploy of setting your time, then tooling round in the hope of keeping your rivals from a clear lap? Under Lotus’s direction, Senna did this to good effect three years ago, incurring the ire of such as Michele Alboreto and Niki Lauda. But it can’t be that: He’s a mature driver now, not about to risk his car or himself for mere gamesmanship. So why was he out now? Had to be he had something else to try on the McLaren. Senna was the one man in Monte Carlo who seemed to have no problem in finding a clear lap. If there wasn’t one apparent, he simply made one, and then another. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. Once in a while you get a weekend like this in Formula One, when one driver is not merely superior, but on another level altogether, a plateau quite beyond reach. In the past, at Monte Carlo, we have seen it in Alain Prost, who believes his pole position lap of 1986 to have been the greatest of his life. But now, while Senna was going out again in the last few minutes, Prost – in an identical car was trying to get within two seconds of him.

Gergard Berger was fastest in the rain Thursday morning, but thereafter Senna headed every session. In the afternoon a dry line emerged during the last 20 minutes or so, and the No. 12 McLaren was around in 1:26.4, with Prost next at 1:28.3. But on Saturday afternoon the Brazilian really let looose. After 25 minutes 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. Where could it be making up two or three seconds every couple of miles? 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.  

Murray Walker remembers the weekend well and just what Senna had done to put in that breathtaking lap. “Everybody was stunned at his qualifying,” he says. “Everybody. Even the team who were used to him. Success at Monaco in particular is absolutely proportional to the courage. It’s precision and courage. Commitment on the braking points and placing the car on the apex. Qualifying was a combination of those two things.” Murray, who grow up in South Africa and came to the UK to work in car design, made his name at Brabham in the 1970s and early 80s with his innovative and advanced, often revolutionary cars. In the team run by Bernie Ecclestone and on a shoestring budget Murray returned wonders, with Nelson Piquet taking two titles for them in 1981 and 1983. Then, persuaded by McLaren to become their technical director in 1987, he had the resources to make an indelible mark.

He was in charge for three drivers’ and constructors’ titles in a row before stepping away from Formula One at the end of the 1990 season. McLaren and Senna made it four in 1991. Murray tells his story in great detail in One Formula – 50 Years Of Car Design, which has just been published by Porter Press. Remembering his time at McLaren before this weekend’s Monaco GP he recalls the relationship he developed with Senna. “We became good friends,” he says. “Although he was very intense about his racing, he was relatively quiet and almost religious sometimes outside the racing. We trusted each other and worked together very well. He loved setting the car up for qualifying. I would manage the session. We had a very simple system of me standing up on the wall with a stopwatch and watching for gaps to send him out.” In 1988 at Monaco it worked to perfection and Senna was untouchable that weekend until that single lapse during the race. The mistake shocked Murray but Senna’s reaction did not.

“I knew Ayrton well and he would have been so angry with himself because his concentration and his precision and dedication was so intense,” he says. “To do something like that would have destroyed him completely. He didn’t want to face the team but not through embarrassment. I have told drivers: ‘If you do crash the car don’t come back to the pits because I don’t want to see you.’ Drivers who do that a lot don’t want to face the team but not Ayrton. He would have been so upset with himself he would have wanted to contemplate that. He was that sort of guy.”

Full Race Report

If the Monaco Grand Prix was held anywhere other than through the streets of Monte Carlo, it would be rejected out of hand by everyone connected with the Formula One circus. The road surface leaves a lot to be desired, the width is ludicrous in places, some of the corners are artificially tight, and ‘run-off’ areas are just a state of mind. The pit-lane would not pass an intelligent scrutiny, the paddock is a water-front slum, facilities are primitive and any sort of logical movement about the place is virtually impossible.

But, if all the wrongs were righted it would not be Monte Carlo, and without Monte Carlo nobody would want a similar shambles in Nice or Menton. Apart from being a tax-haven for the rich and a convenient home for international ‘travellers’ of non fixed abode, Monaco thrives on other people’s money – and the world of Formula One is a good customer, the teams causing their sponsors to spend money like it was going out of fashion. The bigger and more ostentatious you can be in flaunting your wealth and influence, the more successful you are considered to be by your rival’s Public Relations Department. And all in the warm, colourful, exotic atmosphere of the south of France: except that this year we hardly saw the sun, and the rain made even the most ostentatious display look tawdry. Being a law unto itself, the Automobile Club of Monaco manages to have Formula One practice and qualifying on Thursday and Saturday, whereas any other country has to have it on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday it contrives to start its race at 3.30pm, just to be different. But Monaco is Monaco, and if you want to run a Grand Prix round the streets you have to make allowances – and then some. As there is no pre-race testing allowed, the first morning of official practice is usually used to bed in the circuit, the cars blowing away the dust, forcing a clear line through the streets where no racing car has been for a year, and coating that line with rubber. At least, that is what normally happens: this year it rained most of Thursday, so qualifying was rather inconclusive for some, though not for all. Honda produced two versions of its latest turbocharged V6 engine, one more suited to the characteristics of the circuit than the other, and Lotus and McLaren each had a pair to try. The McLaren team was in a class of its own, depressing all the opposition even on the wet track, and even more so as the track started to dry out at the end of the qualifying hour. Even within McLaren there was first and second divisions, for Senna was also in a class of his own, almost two seconds faster than his team-mate Alain Prost. With 31 entries, one had to be eliminated, and on Thursday this was done by rules. Certain drivers had to pre-qualify during the morning testing, the slowest being dropped, and these drivers had to stop and have their cars’ weight checked every time they re-entered the pit-lane.

Stefano Modena forgot to do this with the EuroBrun, so he was disqualified. Four more had to be eliminated before the race and this was done on qualifying lap-times up to 2pm on Saturday. After more rain, Thursday evening and yet more on Friday, the weather took a slight turn for the better on Saturday. After a grey and cool test-session on Saturday afternoon. As can be imagined, there was something of a rush to get out and record a qualifying lap. Wet or dry made little difference to Ayrton Senna, who was still in a class of his own. FIA restrictions on boost-pressure from the 4-bar of last year to the 2.5 bar of this year seemed to change little, McLaren and Senna finding reserves of speed elsewhere. Pole position this year for Senna was 1min 23.998sec, against last year’s pole time by Nigel Mansell in the Williams-Honda of 1min 23.039 sec.

Senna’s team-mate was one-and-a-half seconds slower, while the rest were happy to be within four seconds of the flying Brazilian. The four drivers eliminated were Nakajima (Lotus), Schneider (Zakspeed), Campos (Minardi) and Bailey (Tyrrell). The fastest 3.5-litre non-turbo car was Mansell’s Williams-Judd in fifth place, and ‘those who profess to know’ had predicted that the non-turbo cars had a good chance of success round the streets of Monte Carlo! If they did have an advantage it was not noticeable.

Rain returned on Sunday morning, but did not develop, though it ruined the 30-minute ‘warm-up’ session and everyone had to prepare for the race with very little knowledge of what they were really trying to do. The attitude of most people was to try not to be lapped by Senna too often. The 78-lap race was due to start at 3.30pm, but for some their troubles began before then. On his way round the circuit to the ‘dummy-grid’ Arnoux’s Ligier-Judd V8 died on him, and he had to make his way back to the pits and take the start from the pit-lane in the spare Ligier.When Senna led the remaining cars round on the parade-lap Streiff was in trouble with the accelerator pedal on the AGS-Cosworth DFZ and instead of taking his place on the grid, he disappeared into the pit-lane, never to be seen again. We were down to 24 cars and the race hadn’t started. Within seconds of the start, we were down to 23, as a mid-field collision at the first corner eliminated Alex Caffi with the red Dallara and Piquet limped up the hill with a crumpled nose-cone, making it back to the pits to retire.

It had not been Piquet’s weekend, for he was never in the picture during qualifying, finishing in 11th position. Arnoux managed to avoid the tailenders and join the race. The race, if you can call it that, was really an Ayrton Senna/McLaren/Honda demonstration, made all the more spectacular by Prost making a poor start from his second position on the grid and being passed by the effervescent Berger, much to the joy of the usual large contingent of Ferrari supporters. Senna simply ran away from everyone, while Prost had to run at the pace of the Ferrari, since he could not find a way by. Behind him came Mansell, keeping a wary eye on the temperatures of his Judd engine, and then Alboreto in the second Ferrari. Nannini followed in the first of the Benettons with a hard-charging Derek Warwick behind him – the Arrows driver enjoying himself, being ‘on form’ all weekend and really getting stuck into business. At the end of this leading part of the field was Jonathan Palmer, in his Tyrrell 017 with normal Cosworth DFZ, and after making a good start he gave it all he had and was hanging on in ninth place.

Boutsen had had a troubled practice in the Benetton and was bogged-down among the Lolas, while at the back came Larini in the new Osella, the team only too happy at having qualified for the race. The merry-go-round of the street circuit is such that overtaking is something you think about in theory, but only achieve if your rival makes a mistake or has trouble: once the pattern is formed in the first two or three laps, it is a question of patience and consistency – except for Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian pulled out an incredible lead. Even when he caught up with tailenders, they hardly slowed his progress, his remarkable vision and judgement taking him through gaps which his direct rivals looked on with disbelief. Prost fizzed about behind Berger’s Ferrari hoping to intimidate him, but while it worked in Portugal last year it had no effect this time for the Austrian has learnt a lot since then. Behind them Mansell was struggling in fourth place, fearful that his engine was going to overheat, and eventually Alboreto decided it was time he joined the front running turbocharged cars. On the wiggly bit round the swimming pool area on the harbour front, there was a slight ‘coming-together’: Mansell spun out of the race with damaged right rear suspension while an apologetic Alboreto went on his way, now in fourth place. Every now and then Prost would really lean on Berger, but the young Austrian was unmoved, until on lap 54 the Ferrari engine gave a hiccough and that was all Prost needed.

The McLaren was through and away. Berger tried in vain to hang on, but at peak revs the Ferrari engine was making a hesitant ‘boom-boom’ in its exhaust pipes, as if the boost-control valve was playing up. With McLaren cars now first and second, with no opposition, the team orders went out over the in-car radio to ‘ease-off’, and their lap-times dropped from around 1min 26sec to 1min 29sec. Then it happened. For 66 laps Senna had swept down the twisty descent and onto the sea front, taking the right-hand bend of Portier and heading for the tunnel. Each time he had aimed the right front wheel at the apex, his nose-fin skimming the wall as the car traversed the corner, sweeping across towards the iron barriers lining the edge of the road. On lap 67, with only eleven-and-a-half laps to go to the chequered flag, Senna made a minute error of judgement. His right front nose-fin struck the apex of the corner, and the car was sent off line and into the outside wall, its left front wheel and suspension bent back on the unyielding Armco and its left rear wheel smashed. On most circuits there are bevelled kerbs or grass verges to allow for such slight errors, but not at Monaco. As Shamus said to Paddy “near enough is not good enough, it’s got to be right”. Senna had got it wrong. A lucky Alain Prost cruised home, given victory on a plate, but one cannot help wondering, if Senna had been left to run his own fast pace, whether he would not have made that infinitesimal error of judgement which cost him the race.

Prost was quite happy to be philosophical about the whole thing and accept the victory. It would have been another thing altogether had he been racing against Senna and had ‘pressured’ him into a mistake, as he had with Berger last year. But it as lucky for McLaren International and the Honda Motor Company that the Ferrari engine had begun to make that ‘boom-boom’ noise, which had allowed Prost to nip by into second place and eventual victory. Naturally Honda was pleased to be first, with Ferrari second and third, but was less happy with the fallibility of its drivers – Nakajima failing to qualify, Piquet qualifying so badly he was slower than Palmer’s Tyrrell and then having an accident at the first corner, and Senna throwing the race away. Prost was the blue-eyed boy of the French sector of the crowd, and no doubt also to the army of Japanese who look after the McLaren and Lotus teams. For the struggling small teams there were some good pickings. Warwick ended up in splendid fourth place thanks to being in the right mood for the whole meeting: it had got him a good position on the grid, and he made the most of a good start and kept the hammer down until fading brakes forced him to ease up a bit. Palmer was in a similar situation, and ninth on the opening lap as was the incentive he needed, driving hard and fast, even after he had lost the tow from the leading bunch.

His fifth place was well-earned, as were the championship points he scooped for Team Tyrrell. Patrese had to work for his sixth place, for when lapping Alliot’s Lola the Williams collided with it, leaving a furious Frenchman sitting in a very derelict car while Patrese limped round to the pits for repairs rejoining in eighth place. He drove hard to snatch sixth place from the second Lola, driven by Dalmas, with two laps to go. Probably the happiest team of all was Enzo Osella’s little group, for Nicola Larini kept the new Osella going and was still running at the finish. The V8 Alfa Romeo turbocharged engine is now built completely by Osella’s own factory, and with the 2.5-bar boost limit it has achieved a measure of reliability. It may have finished ninth, and three laps behind the winner, but it was as good as winning to the team.