Ghost stories are not a big thing in Formula 1 history, but in the summer of 1988 you did have to wonder. At the time, McLaren-Honda was dominating with its amazing MP4-4. To give you an idea just how dominant it was, at Imola the two McLarens both qualified in the 1m27s, Senna being 0.7s ahead of Prost (imagine that gap today), but the third fastest driver was the World Champion Nelson Piquet in his Lotus-Honda. This matched the McLarens through the speed traps but was more than three seconds a lap off pole position. That is a huge car advantage and with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna as drivers, the team delivered 11 straight wins. The rest of the field was never really involved. The best was Gerhard Berger in his Ferrari, but the rest were nowhere. It was Ron Dennis’s dream to win all 16 of the races. To achieve the perfect clean sweep and you would have been mad to bet against that. We think of it now as having been a golden age, but the truth is that the races were rather dull, much more so than they are today, when everyone is much closer, even if Mercedes has had an advantage.
Nothing seemed to work. In the first week of June Pope John Paul II visited Maranello and was taken for a spin around the Fiorano test track by Piero Ferrari. The Pope blessed the F1 cars and Italians hoped this would make a difference, but they both retired with mechanical failure a week later in Canada. The Pope’s visit to Maranello did highlight the fact that Enzo Ferrari was not very well. He was then 90 years old and had been ailing for some months. The fact that he did not make it to the factory to see the Pope highlighted that things were very serious. In the course of July, the reports got worse. And then on Sunday, August 14 it was announced that Il Commendatore had “serenely ended his earthly life”. He was interred in the family tomb in the San Cataldo Cimitero in Modena.
Two weeks later, it was a sombre F1 circus which gathered in Spa. It was the same old story. McLaren dominated. Both Ferraris retired. A fortnight later they reconvened at Monza. It was the same story again. The McLarens qualified side by side on the front row. The Ferraris were third and fourth. The order did not change at the start and remained a McLaren 1-2 until lap 35 when Prost retired with an engine failure. Senna stayed ahead, working his way through the midfield, lapping them one by one. At the start of the 50th lap (in a 51 lap race), Senna came up behind the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser, who was standing in for Nigel Mansell, who was out of action because of chicken pox. It was Schlesser’s first F1 World Championship race and he was running a very decent 11th, three places behind his team-mate Riccardo Patrese. He saw Senna coming and tried to get out of the way. Senna went for the gap, but he had left Schlesser with nowhere to go and the two cars collided. Senna spun. The crowd at Monza went berserk, not only was the McLaren out, but suddenly there was a Ferrari 1-2, on the team’s home turf. There were memorable scenes of wild celebration and as F1 cowered inside the paddock walls as the fans beseiged the compound, more than a few folk wondered if Enzo Ferrari, sitting on a cloud somewhere, might have been responsible…
It was the only non-McLaren victory of the year.