In 1988 McLaren-Honda were the dominant force, and their two drivers, two time world champion Alain Prost and his younger team-mate Ayrton Senna arrived at the Japanese Grand Prix with the championship within the grasp of Senna.
Senna had dominated qualifying that season, taking 11 poles to Prost’s two, but in terms of race wins it was only 7-6 in Senna’s favour. Prost had been the more consistent finisher, an arrived in Japan leading the championship standings by 5 points from Senna, but with the rules of the time dictating that only the best 11 results from the 16 race season would stand, Prost, who had already filled his best 11 results with 1st and 2nd places, could only gain 3 points by winning a race as he would lose the points of one of his second place finishes from the revised total (with 9 points being awarded for a win in 1988, and 6 for second place). Senna on the other hand, came to Japan with a sixth place (1 point) and fourth place (3 points) counting towards his total, so a win would in effect be worth 8 points (the awarded 9 minus the sixth place point that would drop off his total) – and with an extra race win already over Prost that meant that victory in either of the final two races of the season would see Senna champion.
Senna took pole position number 12 of the season, with Prost lining up alongside him on the front row, the McLaren pair light years ahead of the rest of the field, with the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger the closest challenger a full second and a half back on Senna’s time. The race looked set to surely produce yet another McLaren 1-2 to add to the 8 they had already secured that season, but as the lights went out, there was disaster for Senna, his McLaren lurching forward off the grid and stalling, Senna waving his arms as Berger came within a whisker of collecting the McLaren as he flicked to the outside around him. With the help of the downhill slope of the Suzuka starting grid Senna was able to bump-start his McLaren, but by the time he got going he was down in 14th place, cars swarming past him left and right on the run down to the first corner.
Up front Prost was away cleanly with Berger and Ivan Capelli (in the Adrian Newey penned March). Given the dominance of the McLaren Senna would surely be able to work his way through the field, but could he chase down Prost to secure the title? By the end of lap one Senna was up to eight place, his cause aided by a clumsy move by Nigel Mansell (Williams) on Derick Warwick (Arrows) at the hairpin as they disputed fourth place, with both drivers having to pit.
Senna was wasting no time putting the superiority of his McLaren to use, charging through the field. By lap 3 he had already moved up to fifth, passing the the Lotus and Benettons, with only the Ferrari’s of Alboreto (fourth) and Berger (second) and the impressively fast March of Capelli (third) ahead between him and Prost. Alboreto was dispatched quickly on lap 4, Senna mugging him on entry to the chicane. Senna was already 13 seconds down on Prost, and now had to set about bridging the gap to the Berger/Capelli battle, with Capelli recording the fastest lap of the race at this point, and the unfancied March was putting pressure on Berger’s Ferrari for second, with Prost unable to distance himself from the duo. Capelli pulled off a shock by passing Berger for second on lap 5, getting a better exit from the final corner and slipstreaming him down the straight and passing him into the first corner. Released from traffic Senna was now putting the boot down, hammering in fastest lap as he closed up on the leading bunch. Prost responded though, and pulled 5 seconds clear of Capelli.
There was plenty of action going on behind, with Alboreto spun around by an over enthusiastic Nannini (Benetton) at Turn 2, and reigning champion Piquet spinning his Lotus– but all eyes were up front, as Capelli started to up his pace, reeling in Prost’s McLaren as Senna put a move on the struggling Berger to take 3rd place on lap 11. Some rain had fallen prior to the race, and this started to return now, making the track slippy but not damp enough for wet tyres – just to make matters more interesting! Capelli had latched onto Prost’s gearbox, and was starting to give the more fancied McLaren all sorts of trouble, and as conditions got slippy the March even got its nose in front, albeit briefly, as Prost was slowed coming out of the chicane on lap 16, checking as the Lola of Aguri Suzuki spun in front of him– Capelli pounced, running wide around Prost on the final corner and passing him on the outside as they headed down the straight, only for Prost to retake the position immediately, using the superior power of the McLaren Honda to pull back level as they ran down the straight and holding the inside line into the first corner.
The combination of the duel with Capelli, the slippy track (as shown by Derick Warwick spinning his Arrows into retirement) and unhelpful backmarkers was allowing Senna to cut chunks out of the gap to Prost. Capelli was giving Prost all sorts of problems, but his wonderful performace would go unrewarded, the March retiring with electric problems on lap 19 – by which time Senna had closed right up onto his tail. The McLarens were now locked in a head to head fight – and even though the rain had stopped in the slippy conditions Senna was surely favoured to blast past Prost. But Prost was holding firm, and kept Senna at bay, seeming comfortable holding his team mate behind him, as more drama unfolder down the pack as Nigel Mansell’s eventful race came to an end, his Williams going airborne, launched onto two wheels as he attempted to lap his old nemesis Nelson Piquet Lotus at the chicane, the Williams nearly rolling but correcting itself at the last moment and crashing back down onto its four wheels and into retirement.
Up front the battle between championship rivals seemed locked in stalemate – until backmarkers once again caused Prost grief – again at the chicane, this time Prost completely held up by the Rial of Andrea de Cesaris, with Senna getting a run on him onto the main straight – Prost moved to the inside to defend, but Senna squeezed his way past to take the inside line to Turn 1 and the lead of the race. With Senna in the lead the rain returned, and it seemed like the race was done – Senna settling in well to the conditions and pulling a gap over 5 seconds. Prost initially responded, managing to get the gap back down to 1.5 seconds. But Senna was able to slice through the backmarkers quicker in the risky conditions, and Prost began to lose touch, with Senna pulling away to take a comfortable win, some 13 seconds up as he crossed the line to achieve his ambition of becoming world champion.