#F1 History: 1988 – Ayrton Senna wins his first Formula 1 World Championship

Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Carlo Carluccio

Have you ever sat with your feet in a stream and watched the current swirl around your toes? The clear cool water skipping over small pebbles and moving inexorably towards a destination unseen? This was the effect that Senna had on millions of people; a force of nature that could not be denied.

Ayrton SennaIt seems scarcely believable that over a quarter of a century has passed since I switched on the TV at 5.00am to watch Ayrton Senna win his first World Championship. It seems unfathomable that he was taken a mere five and a half years later, leaving behind a legacy that to this day, feels strangely unfulfilled.

Twenty six years ago, a Grand Prix didn’t have the blanket coverage we enjoy today. The internet was still to be introduced to the public and the only methods to find out how qualifying had progressed was to either be present at the event or look up the results on a teletext service.

In 1988, with McLaren enjoying a season of domination, it would have been shocking to find anyone but a McLaren on pole. With that in mind, and with eleven pole positions already to his name, it would have been just as shocking to find anyone but Senna on pole. Prost had achieved it twice, in France and Portugal and Gerhard Berger had claimed the pole in Britain. Otherwise it was a place reserved for the mercurial Brazilian.

Yellow text on a black background merely confirmed the facts, Senna was on pole from Prost but there was no depth to the story, that had to wait for the weekly race report in Autosport magazine.

Napolean, De Gaulle, Balestre and Todt have a chequered history when it comes to balance and rational behaviour. Before the Japanese race, Balestre took the extraordinary step of sending a letter to Mr Kume, the President of Honda, and released it to the press.

“…all over the world eyes will be riveted on the Japanese and Australian Grand Prix, the results of which will be decisive for the drivers. We should make every effort to ensure utmost technical objectivity reigns over these two competitions and that equipment (car or engine) of equal quality be made available to the two drivers of the McLaren team, for otherwise the image of the World Championship, present and future, would be tarnished. I thank you in advance for helping the FIA to achieve this end by giving the necessary instructions to all the Honda technical executives who may play a part on these two forthcoming events.”

Alain Prost

The implication was that Honda had been providing inferior specification engines to his countryman and that was why Senna was beating Prost. It was a highly provocative move by Balestre, one that was designed to aggravate Senna and upset Honda. It worked and Honda was furious.

Mr Kume was cold in his response. “Honda Motor Company Ltd sees fairness as the highest requirement of its philosophy for conducting business, and sets this quality as an ideology in its corporate dealings. For the last two races, Honda will continue to supply identical engines which will allow the drivers supreme examples of their skills, as we have always done in line with our basic ideology.”

The final paragraph read: “Finally I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you for consistently performing your important role as president of FISA.” The irony was completely missed by the arrogant President.

If Balestre was blatant with his nationalistic bias, at least it was understandable. What was more cynical was the bias of supposedly professional journalists and their subtle, repeated personal agendas.

Senna had irked the British press at the end of the 1985 season when he forced Lotus to not sign Derek Warwick for the subsequent season. His reasoning was that Lotus did not have the infrastructure or budget to support two number ones.

Senna would come to be known as the most ruthless individual that ever raced; yet the club that was so offended by his antics is unofficially christened ‘The Piranha Club’ and has demonstrated fierce ambition regardless of any outcome to others.

Warwick understood the reasoning and never had a problem with the decision, “At the time I understood what he was doing even though it destroyed me, it’s my belief he that he did it for the right reasons – and that was for him. We spoke about it afterwards, he apologised but said it was, he believed, the right reasons for him and the team. With history behind us, you have to say it probably was. He wasn’t afraid to face me, no.. he wasn’t afraid to face me.”

When the campaign failed to get Warwick reinstated, the fans and the press were livid and set out to destroy him. The press would systematically highlight Senna’s ruthlessness in a Machiavellian light and insinuate that he was fearful of an equal team-mate. Senna may not have shown it but he was deeply hurt by the accusations of cowardice. His relationship with the British press never returned to normal.

Their jingoistic response was based around the fact that Senna had 1) refused Warwick – Britain’s number one driver – a significant career opportunity and 2) attacked Lotus which at the time was – historically – the most successful British team and an institution; suggesting they couldn’t run two cars equally.


I offer, as evidence, Nigel Roebuck’s own words in his qualifying report for the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in October 1985.

“I have, I know, gone on about Senna and Lotus. To do otherwise would be to give a false impression of how Brands was last Friday and Saturday, of how one man dominated, psychologically and otherwise”

By contrast – barely three years later – Roebuck’s reporting of the Japanese Grand Prix barely concealed his abhorrence for Senna and the journalists blatant support of his “friend” Alain.

Friday 28/10/88

“Alain was not feeling great. ‘I slept for an hour last night, no more than that. I should have taken a tablet but the later it got, the more I was afraid to. In case I was drowsy in the morning’. Prost went on, ‘ I went the wrong way on set up this afternoon too. As it got cleaner, the track surface changed and we altered the settings to cope with it. Obviously, we went the wrong way, but tomorrow has to be better in all ways.’ he concluded.”

“And Ayrton was quite happy with his car. Indeed, some said, he nearly smiled as he talked about it.”

Saturday 29/10/88

“Prost was on a quick lap, but Stefano Modena declined to let him through. Alain backed off, it was to be the first of many frustrations for him – which must have been further increased when Senna came out, found a clear lap and went quicker than before. Ayrton was now under 1:42, the only man to do so. Prost, in fact, was the only other driver under 1:43.

Prost, though felt it was still his for the taking – if he could find an unhindered lap. Right at the end of the session he did. It was clearly an exceptional lap, obviously his fastest so far, maybe the pole. Into the final chicane, out of it and the stopwatch looked right. But over the line it was still 0.3 away from pole…

‘My fault’ Alain admitted, as he always does, ‘That was my only absolutely clear lap all day, and I was sure I could take the pole. It was good all the way round until I accelerated down to the finishing line and got second instead of fourth. Stupid!  Still I know that I’m competitive for tomorrow. My only problem was with the pop-off valve which was cutting in a bit early’. His humour was good.”

“Senna, by contrast, may have been on pole position yet again, but wore his usual po-faced and bored expression. The face of so much modern professional sport and remarkably unattractive and graceless too. ‘My first set of tyres was badly out of balance, so I only went hard on the second’, he commented. Had his quick lap been clear? ‘Yes’ A babble of conversation our Ayrton.”

Sunday 30th October 1988

Images from Japan tumbled through the cathode ray tube settled in the corner of the room whilst muted voices whispered as the household slumbered upstairs. Despite Japan being the home of state-of-the-art electronics, the cameras seemed to have been smothered in a thin film of sandy Vaseline and whilst the captured frames are not sepia toned, there was an element of nostalgia in the live satellite broadcast.

They say the camera never lies, but that morning the colours of F1 were subdued, the reds didn’t carry the same aggressive violence they held track side. The fluorescent oranges of the Marlboro branding were lifeless and the whites looked as though they were fabricated from Lotus Blossom petals.

Was this a Hollywood special effect to make the drama feel historic in nature? It felt as though we were being honoured a glimpse of a pre-ordained coronation that would become our memories.

As the cars came round to the grid, Senna pulled up on the right hand side of the grid. He adjusted his visor slightly to prevent misting and focused on his start procedure.

“You must think of everything in that enormous turmoil at the start of a race, it is a totally unreal moment, it is like a dream, like entering another world.”

The voices increased in pitch as the red light illuminated and as they changed to green Senna launched and practically stopped. The movement suggested a learner driver judging a biting point but this was the best in the world… surely not!

“I thought it was over for me right then.” He waved his arms frantically to warn the pack behind: “Stalling was my fault,” he said, “and partly a very sharp clutch”. 

After a run of four victories in the mid season he had crashed out in Italy, finished sixth in Portugal and fourth in Spain. Was this the pressure finally affecting him? Yet something guttural kept suggesting this wasn’t the end of the chapter merely a final test to be overcome.

Suzuka is one of the few circuits in the world that has a decline from the start-line. In the days before sophisticated electronic transmission and anti stalling technology, a driver could bump start an engine. His car began rolling forwards and he had just enough momentum to bump start the engine. It caught, died again and finally caught properly. Senna was on his way but engulfed by cars swarming around him. He would enter the first corner in fourteenth position.

His astonishing presence of mind allowed for a combination of it all to last barely four seconds. Whatever pressure had been felt before was replaced by the racer once more.

By the completion of the first lap, Senna was up to eighth. Prost was nine seconds up the road and cruising. Senna was taking the type of chances that were his hallmark and passing the cars that stood between him and Prost.

Prost had a gear selection problem, of course, but despite being in the greatest machine on the track which had dominated the season, he was “controlling the pace, taking care of the fuel

As Stirling Moss once said, “You’re either a racer or you’re a driver and there’s a big bloody difference. Drivers are easy to find, racers aren’t.”

Senna completed the second lap in sixth place, he passed Boutsen for fifth on the third lap and surged past Alboreto for fourth the next time through. He was now twelve seconds from the leader.

Berger gave up his third place on the eleventh tour and with a light drizzle falling, Senna began making in roads into Prost’s lead. The Gods had smiled on their favoured son because there was nobody on earth that could match the Brazilian in slippery conditions. Senna was truly inspired relying on his instinct, reactions and improvisation to close an eleven second gap to two seconds within two laps.

As they came to complete the twenty seventh run through 130R, Prost had hesitated on the main straight behind the Rial of De Cesaris. He remained behind, into and through the chicane and ran wide on to the kerbs. He had caught his wheels on the damp kerbing which pitched his car into a slide, his correction and obvious release of throttle was sufficient to lose momentum to Senna.

Afterwards, Prost would moan about his gearbox and the press gratefully blamed it in support. It was also quite obvious that the press office was disappointed that Senna won..

It was here that history took place. Prost moved to the centre of the circuit to pass the back marker and Senna ran along the wall and assumed the lead of the race.

Prost would again report gearbox issues after the race, yet with ten laps to the finish he began closing down the gap to Senna: 5.4, 4.1, 3.4, 2.9, 1.5… and then the rain started once again. Ayrton put it beyond any doubt and pulled away once more.

Two laps from the end, the rain had returned heavier than before and he pointed to the sky demanding the race be ended. The officials did not react and he had to wait till the completion of the fifty-first lap.

Out of the chicane he came, punching the air – with both hands – again and again in celebration as he crossed the line. He looked upwards thanking God.

Then he slumped back in his seat, his head against the headrest and the tension gave way. The tears seen through the visor seemed more than just joy, it was as if they were the culmination of a life’s desires and the fulfillment of a destiny. The world would never be the same again.

I still can’t believe that it’s over. I love to win. That is why I joined McLaren and Honda, I wanted to be in a winning car. The fact that Alain Prost was in the team made no difference at all.

How do I feel? At the moment I can’t take it in that I’m World Champion, but I feel as if I have lost a great weight off my shoulders. The race was amazingly hard because of the circumstances right from the start: through the traffic and slippery conditions. It was a fantastic race really. Until today, I have always said my best drive was at Estoril in 85 – my first win. But not anymore, this was my best.

Reginaldo Leme of Brazilian TV asks, “You were so focused on your goal that you sacrificed many friendships on the way up, you shoved people aside. Now that pressure is off, will it be different?” The answer was fresh tears running down his face.

Fuji TV set up a video recorder with a recording of the race in his room in the Suzuka Circuit Hotel. That night, alone and in darkness he relived the thoughts and pictures “of the greatest race of his life.

Gordon Murray, the 1988 McLaren MP4/4 designer was interviewed by Christopher Hilton some years later.

Q: Did you go to the championship decider in Suzuka?

A: Yes

Q: Was he wound up before that?

A: He was pretty wound up but I say again he could handle it. I used to talk to him for hours and hours and hours. I loved working with him. He was a much more complete driver than Prost was.

Q: Thats a very controversial statement.

A: Well, I think he was and I worked with them both.

Q: For Senna to win at Suzuka has to be one of the great drives.

A: Oh yes, absolutely.

Why was Ayrton Senna special? What ingredient made the world take notice so early in his ascendancy? What was it about this man that transcended the very sport he considered his personal fiefdom? Which unwritten rules would be redefined to describe his other worldly talents?

Many questions have been presented and no real tangible answer has been provided. It is hardly surprising because Senna himself was continuously growing and learning about himself before his death. The thirst for knowledge indicates a desire for growth and if the subject is still growing, all answers are by definition merely temporary.

This was a man when aged twenty two, racing in Formula Ford 2000, had the self confidence to turn down paid Formula Three drives with Formula One contracts attached, from Ron Dennis, Peter Warr and Bernie Ecclestone, so as to leave his future options open. Quite unlike the current method of taking on talents and paying for the very best equipment until they have reached the summit. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel are two that immediately spring to mind.

Then there was the first F1 test with Williams at Donington in 1983. The car had previously been around the track in 61.7. Senna had beaten this on his eighth lap and lowered it to 60.1 within 23 laps. He then walked away thanking the Williams team for the experience.

Quantum physics has become fashionable in the twenty first century and various sources describe the science simply, as all energy in the universe being vibrationally connected to everything else.

There could possibly be some truth in this esoteric belief and explains why people were not indifferent to this individual. There was a tangible human quality to him that people could feel and warm to, and children – perhaps the most discerning judges of character – absolutely adored him.

Maybe this is why the Japanese idolised him. His racing prowess was beyond question, as was his charisma and enigmatic personality. In Senna they recognised the mythical spirit of their own samurai. The philosophies of Buddhism and Zen influenced the samurai culture and Zen meditation became an important teaching due to it offering a process to calm one’s mind. Senna read the bible extensively and would use this in his quest for inner knowledge and peace.

The origin of the word ‘genius’ dates back to ancient Rome and yet to this day, 2,000 years later, we still have no precise definition of what constitutes a genius.

It is said that there is but a fine line between madness and genius and surely this would be an appropriate description of Ayrton Senna.

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Schopenhauer

Ayrton Senna

12 responses to “#F1 History: 1988 – Ayrton Senna wins his first Formula 1 World Championship

  1. I really enjoyed reading that Carlo.

    I was a teenager when Senna was driving. There have been plenty of talented drivers since Senna, but none with the same charisma or as thoughtfully articulate.

  2. Haa too much to read, too little time. Must.go.to.work.now. 🙁 which is sad cuz I like your pieces. To say it with Arnold: I’ll be back!

  3. What I didn’t like about Senna was the sanctimoniousness. “I am protected by God…”etc. About which he was totally wrong, or so it seems…

    • Senna never said he was “protected by god.” The man was deeply religious but never believed he was somehow better than others because of his belief… just more bs propaganda from the F1 media – and the haters.

  4. I watched all the races back then, live and commercial free. I was a very early user of a giant home dish satellite system and I got the races from live feeds from Europe. I have them all on Sony Beta tape format stored away for many years now if anyone is interested in them.

    Back then and even now I fell that Senna was a thug. A driver willing to crash and possibly injure or kill other drivers or himself due to his win at all cost attitude.

    [mod] Tasteless conclusion removed.

  5. “There was a tangible human quality to him that people could feel and warm to, and children – perhaps the most discerning judges of character – absolutely adored him.”

    Genuine? That’s what I felt when I first looked at his interview discussing Suzuka ’89. Passionate, dedicated, truthful, genuine are all adjectives springing to mind… Arrogant, may be, but still genuine. Not something one could say about Prost…

  6. Ayrton Senna was honest to a fault, a trait not understood most people and abhorred by too many people. As a result his frailties as a human were on equal display with his tremendous strengths.

    We know from the reactions to him from people like Murray Walker that the press chose to focus on Senna’s frailties and invent weaknesses in Senna’s character that did not exist. They then set about turning Senna’s strengths that are in others, held in the highest esteem, on their heads to further villains him.

    It is little wonder that quotes Senna never made have become words with quotation marks around them as it to make them true — but are words he never spoke. It is little wonder that a panel of four F1 journos sat on the 20th anniversary of his death and said they could never see Senna as the greatest F1 driver – and used the 2nd Suzuka incident with Prost as the excuse to demean him as a driver and person in the public’s eyes.


    And it is little wonder that fans ape this disdain without ever giving the pretense of thought as to why they say and feel as the do.

    As far as Senna’s ardently independent of team affiliation rise through the F1 ranks, he did so because his family had the money for him to do so. For drivers without Senna’s family’s wealth, even back then, drivers found monied benefactors to back their pursuit of an F1 seat.

    As a point of contention it should also be known that McLaren has been supplying young drivers with the best equipment they can offer through its “McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award,” begun with the express purpose of identifying and developing young British – it began in 1989. David Coulthard was its first successful F1 driver. Jenson Button was the second. If you go to awards.autosport.com you will find the history of the program. In addition to Coulthard and Button it lists Paul di Resta as the other F1 driver from its program. However, it does not mention Lewis Hamilton.

    The McLaren Young Driver Programme, proper, did not begin until 2010. Its first signee was Nyck de Vries.

    The story of how Hamilton approached RonDennis at the Autosport Awards Ceremony is well known by now. But it may not be well known that Hamilton was funded by Dennis because the Hamilton family hadn’t the funds for Lewis, already a winning age-group karter, to continue the ascent to F1. When Dennis talked with Lewis and quickly found out that the child was patterning his life after his hero Ayrton Senna, and then watched Hamilton drive and exhibit the same nascent abilities that Senna had, Dennis was quick to help in any way he could.

    The Red Bull Junior Team, on the other hand, began in 2001.

  7. Yesterday I watched the movie senna again. And than most of the evening I browsed Internet about him. Reading, watching, being impressed…

  8. An interesting point of view. I think Nigel Roebuck is pretty sound when it comes to F1. Don’t forget that Steve Nichols deserves credit for the MP4/4 too. He also has good words to say about Alain Prost

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