Autodromo Nelson Piquet
3 April 1988
There is always a start of term atmosphere at the first race of the season, a mixture of anticipation and excitement, familiar faces and new ones. The newly-renamed Jacarepagua circuit hosted the opening race once again (though crowds were noticeably thinner thanks to a vicious recession in Brazil) and there was the usual good-natured jostling for position and attempts to make a good impression. The new Scuderia Italia team had not quite got their car ready so would enter one of Dallara’s F3000 chassis (left) instead while they put the finishing touches to it.
Despite the predictions of a closer season, it was still expected that the turbos would dominate qualifying – so it was something of a surprise when Nigel Mansell put in a stonking lap in the Williams-Judd to start second. It was his sixteenth successive front-row start, if you don’t count the two races he missed at the end of 1987, and he would start alongside Ayrton Senna – the Sao Paulo boy in his new McLaren-Honda spoiling the Piquet Party. In fact, Nelson was back in fifth in his new car, the Lotus still not quite right for him Between them, Prost and Berger occupied the second row, and Alboreto would line up alongside Piquet in sixth. Perhaps a bigger shock than Mansell’s second place was Ivan Capelli’s tenth place in the March, with Gugelmin just three places back in his first-ever F1 race. At the blunt end of the grid, Alex Caffi perhaps unsurprisingly failed to pre-qualify the makeshift Dallara, while Bailey’s Tyrrell, Larini’s Osella and both Zakspeeds would also not be taking the start on Sunday. Of the other new teams, both EuroBruns made it onto the grid (Modena 24th, Larrauri 26th), split by Tarquini’s Coloni in 25th.
There was drama before the race even began: the cars formed up for the parade lap and Capelli’s March stayed resolutely put, his water hose blown. Not only that, but pole-sitter Senna lurched forward and then crawled, his gear selector stuck in first. Amid frantic waving, the start was aborted and Senna and Capelli sprinted for the pit lane, from where they would start in their spare cars, leaving Mansell effectively on pole. When the lights went out for real, Mansell made the most of it, surging ahead of the chasing turbos led by Prost’s McLaren and Berger’s Ferrari
The first race of the year often exposes all the frailties of new cars and there was a swathe of early retirements as gremlins made their effects felt: Larrauri and Gugelmin didn’t make the end of lap 1, Campos retired on lap 6 and Capelli completed March’s disappointment when the engine on the spare car failed on lap 7. So did Patrese’s Judd, with Nannini’s Benetton debut ending a lap later, also with engine failure. Throughout all this, Mansell continued in the lead, holding off Prost and the turbo boys. Until lap 19, that is, when he peeled into the pits, his engine overheating. Once stationary it stopped and refused to restart. So Prost took over the lead, driving cautiously with one eye on his fuel gauge, but just enough to keep Berger at bay. The crowd, though, were busy watching Senna in the other McLaren as he carved through the field after having had to start from the pit lane. From 21st on lap 1, he was up to 8th by lap 10 and on lap 18 he was past Boutsen for fourth. Fourth became third when Mansell dropped out, and before long he was past Berger too for second. A simply stunning drive, and even the Piquet-supporting sections of the crowd had to admit it was something special.
Prost, however, was not ruffled and continued on his precise, methodical way. He only stopped once for tyres, on lap 26 (most other drivers were two-stopping) and the next lap Senna came in, stalled, and got back out in sixth – only to be black-flagged and brought back in to be disqualified for having started the race in the spare car after the parade lap. Quite why it had taken so long to decide this wasn’t clear, but for the second race in a row Senna was disqualified, following his oversize Lotus brake-ducts in Adelaide.
Berger, having reacquired second place, now got the bit between his teeth and charged, putting in a series of fast laps, sending lap records tumbling as he cut Prosts’s lead from thirty seconds to ten – but it wasn’t to be enough. Alain Prost cruised to a dominant win, with Berger second. Nelson Piquet’s Lotus debut came with a respectable third place, with Warwick’s Arrows, Alboreto’s Ferrari and Nakajima’s Lotus making up the points-paying positions. Only three more cars were running at the finish – Boutsen’s Benetton, Cheever’s Arrows and Johansson’s Ligier which was two laps behind
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.