Senna’s dream of becoming world champion with the Lotus team was over in 1987: Although he was now driving on Honda engines, which gave him an advantage, the environment at Lotus no longer suited Ayrton Senna.
Senna already had plans, but his team had anticipated Senna’s steps: Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet was signed by Lotus for the 1988 season – Senna was not informed in advance. Since Senna did not have a deal with another team at that time, his future was uncertain…
Transition to McLaren
Senna had been considering a move to McLaren for some time. Now that Lotus had signed another driver, it was time to put his plan into action. It was certain by then: Senna would move to McLaren for the 1988 Formula One season. McLaren offered him an environment with a lot of competition: world champion Alain Prost, against whom Senna had raced in the past, became his teammate. Senna saw such great competition as beneficial.
In return, Senna brought the engines from Honda: Previously, McLaren had raced with TAG Porsche engines. Honda’s exclusive deal with the Williams team thus expired.
In September 1987, Senna said of his relationship with Lotus:
“I’m in Formula One to be a winner. My goal is to win while Lotus’s is merely to survive. We just couldn’t continue together. They knew I was on my way out. I just didn’t tell them that my next stop would be the McLaren team, with which I had everything straightened out, as well as with Honda. It’s a question of philosophy. (…) The only reason I’m still racing is because I want to become a world champion.“
There are two types of contestants….
Should his wish come true? At McLaren, he had undoubtedly arrived in the right place. The team had previously produced two world champions: Niki Lauda and Alain Prost.
Alain Prost was aware of his new competitor at the beginning of the 1988 season, but reacted quite relaxed. He said of his new teammate:
“He has never been with a teammate who drives fast. He has the advantage of his youth and motivation; I have a lot of experience, and I have a say in the matter. Our aim is to build a top-flight team and if we have the best car, we will compete against each other, and for the championship. There are two kinds of contestants: there are your opponents, and there are your team-mates, who are often the most redoubtable because that’s the only way to size yourself up, since you’re driving the same car.“
Golden year for McLaren
Senna had made the right decision: 1988 was to be a golden year for McLaren. The 1988 Formula One season was the last season in which turbochargers were allowed. It was a masterstroke brought to the track by Honda engineers: The McLaren MP 4/4 had Senna and Prost raving. One of the secrets of the McLaren MP 4/4 was high boost pressure. In 1988, the boost pressure was limited to 2.5 bar. However, Honda designed the engine in such a way that the available boost pressure was up to 2.9 bar – but a clever technique caused that the boost pressure at the head of the pop-off valve was only 2.5 bar. This meant that the vehicle was designed to comply with the rules and at the same time was more powerful than any other vehicle on the racetrack.
Driving more slowly…
At the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna took pole position – 1.427 seconds ahead of his teammate Alain Prost. Motorsport journalist Denis Jenkinson wrote that the goal of the other drivers was not to be lapped too often by Ayrton Senna: Throughout the race weekend, the McLaren was two seconds faster than any other car.
During the race, Senna was in the lead for 66 laps. Senna later described being in a kind of trance during the race. The gap to Alain Prost was widening.
But when Senna set off on lap 67, his team boss Ron Dennis radioed him: He was ordered to slow down. Senna obeyed and slowed down.
But his biggest rival put a spoke in his wheel: Alain Prost stepped on the gas again and caught up. Senna panicked that he would no longer win the race – and hit the gas again.
No mistakes allowed in Monaco
The track in Monaco doesn’t forgive mistakes: On the fateful 67th lap, he collided with a wall. The wheel suspension was broken: The race was over for him. Senna was so upset that he ran straight back to his apartment in Monaco and didn’t show his face for the rest of the day.
Alain Prost won the race. Senna believed after this race that he had lost the fight for the 1988 world championship.
Senna said about this race:
“That day I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving it conscious and I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was a tunnel which I was just going, going, going. And I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding.“
Deciding the championship
Although Ayrton Senna secured the most pole positions in the 1988 season, it was open until the penultimate race at Suzuka who would ultimately win the world championship: it was a showdown between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
The Formula One world championship 1988 was decided on October 30, 1988 in Japan.
In qualifying, Senna secured the pole position – a familiar scenario in the 1988 season. But at the start of the race, Senna stalled: He got the engine running again, but slipped to 14th place. Prost was leading.
By the end of the first lap, Senna was already in eighth position. In the following laps he continued to overtake – on lap 19 he was directly behind Prost due to the drop out of Ivan Capelli. On lap 27, Senna overtook Alain Prost to take the lead. Prost was having gearbox problems.
Senna maintained the lead even when it started to rain in the second half of the race. In the rain, Senna brought his race car across the finish line: Brazilian flags were waved all over the grandstands. Senna fought his way up from 14th place to first place.
Ayrton Senna had won his first world championship in 1988 at the age of 28.
Senna’s dream comes true
The last race of the 1988 season in Australia was a mere formality: Although Prost had won in Australia, Senna already had enough points to win the world championship. Senna had won the championship by three points. It was not only a victory for Senna, but also a victory for McLaren: With 15 wins in 16 races, McLaren won the 1988 Constructor’s World Championship. McLaren scored 199 points in the Constructor’s standings, while the second-placed Ferrari racing team, with Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto as drivers, scored 65 points: This describes the dominance of the Honda engines.
Immediately after his victory, Senna returned to Brazil to celebrate his world championship title.
Senna had achieved his goal: He was world champion.
But this was far from the end of his career…
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Rubython, Tom: “Ayrton Senna: The Life of Senna“, 2004 BusinessF1 Books & Jones, Bruce: “Ayrton Senna – Portrait of a racing legend“, 2019 Carlton Books.
Cover picture: Ayrton Senna in the McLaren pit box, © Instituto Ayrton Senna, taken from Wikimedia Commons