This episode of the MotorSportsTalk series is a really well done, though brief, retrospective on the 1988 Australian GP and one of the most historically significant F1 seasons of all time. Nice job by NBC Sports F1 in its first year of U.S. coverage. (Watch the video, which is BBC footage of a riveting earlier duel between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at Estoril.)
The gloves came off in the 1988 championship contest in Adelaide 25 years ago today. What had been a tense rivalry between the two McLaren drivers began its transformation into a grudge match following a notorious encounter in the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Prost beat Senna to pole position, but the Brazilian driver took the lead at the start. Prost fought back as lap two began, drawing alongside – only for his team mate to push him towards the pit wall. “If we’d touched at that speed, it would have been like a plane crash,” Prost fumed afterwards. “If Ayrton wants the championship that badly, he can have it.” Senna continued to drop back, suffering a rare engine problem with his Honda V6 turbo.
While a relieved Prost retook the championship with his fifth win of the season, Senna slipped back to sixth place. But the die had been cast – for their relationship and the rest of the championship. Prost had now scored 11 times and a driver could only count his best 11 results. Therefore over the remaining races Prost would have to keep scoring highly to continue adding to his total — and that meant beating Senna.
Some observers (like me) felt at the time the 1988 season was boring, as the McLaren MP4/4 was so much quicker it took pole in 15 of 16 races. Yet like 1967 with Jim Clark and Graham Hill — absent the histrionics, of course — it was in fact a watershed moment of superior technology being raced in the hands of masters. And for the nostalgic, in his first year with a front-running F1 team, of those 15 McLaren pole positions 13 were from Senna: a record of excellence surpassed in the decades since only twice, by Sebastian Vettel with 15 (2011) and Nigel Mansell with 14 (1992).