Circuit Paul Ricard
3 July 1988
The teams returned gratefully to Europe and home bases and made the most of the two weeks between races. Everyone except McLaren seemed to be having all sorts of issues – a “palace coup” at Maranello saw designer Harvey Postlethwaite leave for Tyrrell and immediately begin work on their 1989 car; Williams revised the radiators and cooling systems to try and stop their Judds overheating so much (but still couldn’t fix the reactive suspension) and Lotus were in all sorts of trouble. So much so in fact that early silly-season rumours were beginning to circulate that they team might lose not only their Honda engines for 1989 but manager Peter Warr, designer Gerard Ducarouge and Camel sponsorship as well – and if all that happened then surely Piquet would not be far behind.
For McLaren, meanwhile, the story was more one between the two drivers. Senna had taken pole at every race so far and was gunning for a record seven in a row. Prost was determined not to let his legion of passionate French fans down. He hadn’t won at home since moving from Renault in 1984, and was itching to set that straight. He also knew that although he led on points, the “best eleven results” rule meant that he and Senna were in real terms neck and neck on three wins each.
Roared on by the crowd, Prost took the pole position by almost half a second – his first pole since Monaco last year, no less – from Senna, with the Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto lining up in their now customary second-row slots. Behind them were the two Benettons of Boutsen and Nannini – also becoming an increasingly familiar sight at this end of the grid, ahead of Piquet and Nakajima, the Japanese driver atoning for his DNQ in Detroit with a fine session to qualify 8th. Mansell was 9th, though Ivan Capelli put his March in an impressive 10th (even more impressive with his foot still in a cast) to break up the symmetry, with Patrese struggling back in 15th (behind the Dallara and Rial cars among others). Both Zakspeeds qualified for the race for once, though Ghinzani was then disqualified for missing a weight check, which promoted Oscar Larrauri onto the back of the grid. Joining Ghinzani in sitting out the race were Tarquini, who once again fell at the pre-qualifying hurdle, Julian Bailey and both Ligiers – the second time this year and the second time ever that both of the blue cars had failed to qualify and particularly galling at their home race.
As commentators looked forward to the race, many wondered how the Benettons and other atmospheric cars would fare in the hot weather at 2,000 foot altitude, which was expected to rob them of some 50 horses and a problem the turbos wouldn’t have. It was also expected that tyre stops would be needed on the abrasive Paul Ricard surface and this always had the facility to shake things up a bit. And of course with much of the 80 laps done at full blast, fuel consumption was always a factor for the thirsty turbos.
What the home fans wanted to see, though, was not a cagey fuel-conscious race but a ding-dong battle with their man Prost coming out on top of his upstart rival. In fact, when the lights went green, le professeur got away perfectly and streaked into the lead with Senna trailing in his dust – by the end of lap 2 the gap was already 1 1/2 seconds with Senna having to defend second place from the snapping Ferraris. Soon it was 2 seconds and Prost seemed comfortably able to maintain the cushion no matter how hard Senna pushed. In fact both were pushing very hard and there were worried Japanese faces in the garage as the Honda techs watched fuel-consumption readouts.
Berger pitted early for tyres on lap 22, allowing Alboreto up to third, Boutsen disappeared from 6th with electrical problems on lap 29, and on lap 34 the positions changed again as Senna dived in for a pit stop, rejoining some 22 seconds behind Prost. However, only 3 laps later it was Prost’s turn to come in, and a sticky wheel nut kept him in for longer, rejoining about 3 seconds behind Senna as both fought through traffic. Normally, Senna would be in his element here, slicing boldly through the backmarkers while Prost took a more conservative approach, but the Brazilian was wrestling with a “spongy” gearshift which was hampering his rhythm, so Prost was able to catch up with ease and the two red and white cars ran closely together as if on rails for lap after lap. Prost set the fastest lap of the race on lap 45, but it wasn’t until lap 60 that he finally found his way past, diving around the outside of Senna in a stunning move at the Courbe de Signes to retake the lead, which he was not to lose again.
Behind them, too, the Ferrari pairing of Alboreto and Berger were having quite a battle. The Italian had lost third place to Berger after the Austrian’s pit stop gave him fresh rubber, but had taken it back when his tyres faded again, taking a fine third place and beating Berger on the track for the first time in quite a while. In fact, Alboreto was the only driver to finish on the same lap as the McLarens – quite an achievement in these days.
Nelson Piquet came in an isolated and rather despondent fifth, having driven the last twenty laps with no second gear, with Nannini picking up the last point – his second of the year – for Benetton. And Mansell, last year’s winner? Out just after half-distance with a suspension failure and making no secret about his dissatisfaction with the Williams car, which with Patrese’s earlier retirement with brake problems had now finished just twice in 14 attempts. Shortly after the race, Mansell announced a press conference would be held before the British Grand Prix in a week’s time, and rumours spread that he would announce he was signing for Ferrari to replace Alboreto (a Postlethwaite ally).
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* Top 11 finishes only are counted.