10 July 1988
It was the Northamptonshire circuit’s 40th anniversary year and in celebration a series of upgrades had been made to the facilities, including a new press centre, a hospitality tent and huge screens to show the BBCs live broadcast feed. McLaren had made some aerodynamic tweaks for the upcoming series of high-speed, low-downforce tracks, while Williams were still beavering away with their “reactive” suspension. But first it was time for Nigel’s press conference, where he put an end to months of speculation by announcing that he had indeed signed terms to drive a Ferrari in 1989. Thierry Boutsen, meanwhile, confirmed in typical quiet, understated fashion, that he would be taking Nigel’s place.
On Friday, it was evident that Williams’s suspension just wasn’t working: after a series of hairy moments and a couple of offs, Nigel Mansell was only 13th and Patrese was slowest of all in 30th and in danger of not qualifying. That night, as both drivers fumed, Patrick head took the brave decision to bin the system entirely and stayed up all night with the technicians doing what he had previously told the drivers would take months and fabricating a new passive suspension system. He told an interviewer the next morning that:
It’s a bodge frankly. We’ve put steel mechanical springs and dampers on. We’ve changed the front struts into dampers, designed some new bits and pieces which we machined up overnight. We did some new pistons for the front struts…it’s a bit of a bodge as I said”
It seemed to work though – when the dust settled on Saturday qualifying Mansell had improved to 11th and Patrese to 15th. Still not brilliant but much better. But most people’s eyes were on McLaren – and for different reasons than usual. For “Team Perfect” appeared to have got it wrong with their new aerodynamics and were struggling themselves: Senna third and Prost fourth and it was the Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto taking the front row of the grid. Behind the McLarens, the two aqua-blue March-Judds of Capelli and Gugelmin were an astonishing fifth and sixth, ahead of Piquet’s Lotus, with Nannini, Warwick and Nakajima making up the top ten. At the blunt end, Tarquini once again failed to pre-qualify the Coloni and was joined on the pitwall for the race by Larrauri, both Zakspeed drivers and Stefan Johansson.
By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, anticipation for the race was running high, especially as the heavens had opened and we were looking at the first wet race since Portugal in 1985, which would narrow the turbo/atmo gap even further. The omens for a break in the total McLaren domination of the season were good. And so when the lights went out the crowd roard as Berger got away well, Senna got away really well to overtake Alboreto and Prost seemed to go backwards, ending up ninth as Gugelmin, Capelli, Nannini and Mansell all piled through . With visibility almost zero in the great clouds of spray for everyone except Berger in the lead, the order stayed the same for some time apart from an unlucky Capelli who dropped back with electrical problems. By lap thirteen though, Alboreto was visibly struggling to keep Gugelmin et al behind him, while acknowledged rainmaster Senna was right on Berger’s tail. A lap later he was past and in the lead, and pulling away, and the audience’s – rather resigned – attention switched to the battle for third, which was not between Alboreto, Nannini and Mansell, with Gugelmin kepeing a watching brief behind.
Mansell was on a flyer and on lap 20 got past Nannini, prompting the Italian to spin and let Gugelmin through. Two laps later, at the same corner, he was past Alboreto into third and the crowd was on its feet despite the rain. “Mansell Mania” was back and the Englishman was wowing the crowds, carving chunks out of the gap to second place, setting fastest lap in the process. On lap 24, Prost peeled in to retire, citing handling problems but it was clear he simply had no interest in risking life and limb scrapping over a midfield place in the dreadful conditions. Ten laps later Capelli’s electronics finally gave up the ghost and Boutsen’s transmission broke a few laps after that but with the slower pace, attrition was much lower than at other races.
Mansell was still charging, using the wet parts of the track to cool his tyres until on lap 50 he pulled a slingshot move reminiscent of his move on Piquet the previous year to go second. Berger, who had had 50 seconds in hand not long before, was being forced to ease off with fuel consumption concerns, so Mansell’s second place looked safe: however, he had yet to finish a race this year and there were still 15 laps to go. But no, just this once the Williams kept going: no reactive suspension to break and the weather conditions cooling the Judd engine meant that the Englishman took a popular second place behind Senna. Berger ran out of fuel on the very last lap, allowing Nannini through to take his first ever podium finish with Gugelmin, Piquet and Warwick all benefitting from the Austrian’s misfortune.
In the end, 19 cars were classified (both Ferraris ran out of fuel in the closing laps but had done enough, as had Larini’s Osella. Senna made it four wins apiece for himself and Prost but all eyes were on Mansell after a typically gutsy drive and the Ferrari fans were left looking forward very much to seeing him in one of their cars.
|11||Andrea de Cesaris||3|
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.