Bob McMurray: The timely upset at Monza
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It is highly unlikely any season will equal or surpass the one we witnessed in 1988.
It was the season that rewrote motor sport history books.
Thirty years on, the 2018 McLaren Formula 1 team can only wish for a tiny amount of the success the team had in that record-breaking season when the MP4/4 cars of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won every race bar one.
It was not until the British Grand Prix, round eight, that a car other than a McLaren led a lap.
With the two best drivers on the grid, the best chassis by far, designed by Steve Nicholls, combined with a 1.5-litre turbo charged Honda engine, developed specifically for the last season of the turbo-charged era until turbos were reintroduced in 2014.
Honda had switched from Williams and joined forces with McLaren for 1988 after four successful years with the McLaren team running the Tag Turbo engine and Ayrton Senna had switched from Lotus to complete a dream team from Woking.
That team was led by Ron Dennis, in my opinion the best motorsport team principal in history.
From the outside it was a tedious season, the only question being “who would come third to the McLarens at each race?” but within the team it was a great season. There were ups and downs; Senna was disqualified in Brazil, then famously crashed into the barriers at Monaco while miles in the lead.
Prost had a rare engine failure in Britain, but coming into the Italian Grand Prix at Monza the team looked invincible.
On Sunday August 14, in the days leading up to Monza, Enzo Ferrari — the last true colossus of the sport stretching back to the early days — had died.
The Tifosi at Monza were still in mourning and some resentment towards McLaren was obvious, for they needed Ferrari to win in memory of “Il Commendatore”.
Qualifying was the usual with Senna on pole and Prost next to him in second with the second row occupied by the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto. The race outcome was predictable, the McLarens were going to be first and second: the only question was who would be first.
Prost was soon in trouble with a misfiring engine but he pushed Senna hard and in the process caused them both to use more fuel than planned. By the time Prost retired from the race Senna was having to back off, and both Ferraris were creeping closer.
With just three laps left to run, Senna had it all under control, until he met Jean-Louis Schlesser, driving a Williams, at the first chicane.
Senna dived inside Schlesser who had tried to make way but went off track. On rejoining, he found the car of Senna in his path.
Senna was bounced out of the race and the Ferraris swept past into an emotional first and second place at their home Grand Prix.
McLaren cars won all the other races of the season with Senna becoming World Champion.
Prost earned 105 championship points to Senna’s 94, but in those days only the best 11 out of 16 races counted — meaning Prost ended up with 87 to Senna’s 90.
As the season wore on the tension that was to become infamous between Prost and Senna festered, though the animosity was known only to those inside the team, for the time being.
At the end of the season the Honda Marlboro McLaren team had achieved 15 out of a possible 16 pole positions and 15 out of a possible 16 race wins, the most dominant team over a single season.
The 30th anniversary of that famous Monza race is this weekend.
With the 50th anniversary of the McLaren team’s first Grand Prix win taking place last week at Spa, sometimes things from the past “feel like only yesterday”.
In this case the current McLaren team must feel as though it were100 years ago.
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