Berger takes the improbable checkered flag. (LAT archive)
At Monaco in 2013 Ron Dennis was reintroduced to Jean-Louis Schlesser, whose single Grand Prix appearance for Williams at Monza 25 years ago changed the course of McLaren's history.
Turning to his companion Carol Weatherall, Dennis said: “This is the man who ruined my life and our perfect record back in 1988.”
Without Schlesser, Ayrton Senna would almost certainly have won that Italian Grand Prix a quarter of a century ago, and McLaren-Honda would thus have completed a clean sweep of all 16 races that year.
Ferrari went to Monza in turmoil. The Scuderia's season had largely been one of humiliation, as the warmed-over one-year-old F187s that Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto were given to drive were rarely a match for the all-new lowline McLaren MP4/4s with which Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had won all 11 races held to that point. At times, even the less potent normally aspirated Benetton B188s and Williams FW12Cs had embarrassed Ferrari despite the red cars' turbo power.
With turbo cars' fuel allocation slashed from 195 to 150 liters, the Ferraris simply did not have good enough fuel consumption to take advantage of their power output on race day. By contrast, despite this being the final season of the turbo rules, Honda had spared no expense to develop the supreme all-new 80-degree V6 RA168E turbo engine. The combination of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Gordon Murray, Steve Nichols as well as Dennis' superbly organized team of fastidious individuals had made the red-and-white cars untouchable.
But Monza was different for Ferrari for another crucial reason. It wasn't the first race after founder Enzo Ferrari had died at 90 on Aug. 14 – that was Spa on the 28th – but it was the first race on Italian soil since that historic event. And the mood was necessarily somber.
It remained so when Senna and Prost wrapped up the front row of the grid in the two qualifying sessions, the Brazilian on 1m 25.974s, the Frenchman on 1m 26.277s. Berger managed an heroic 1m 26.654s, Alboreto 1m 26.988s, but both had reason to grumble. Gerhard had had gear linkage problems, while Michele broke his transmission altogether. Allied to a lack of grunt from the Ferrari V6, the auguries for a home victory were poor.
The Italian was also nursing a simmering anger that the Williams team had reneged on what he thought was a firm deal for him to join in 1989 after they had shaken hands in Hungary. Meanwhile, on this superfast track, the Megatron (nee BMW) turbo-engined Arrows A10Bs of Eddie Cheever and Derek Warwick filled the third row.
Sunday, Sept. 11 began with what the tifosi had most feared: McLaren domination of the morning warm-up (remember them?). Senna was fastest, but Prost was only eighth-thousandths slower. The Frenchman, however, was concerned about his high-revving Honda RA168-E's pick-up, and reported that a vibration that he'd detected in qualifying was still present.
At the start he got away well but by the time he hit third gear the engine was misfiring again and Senna had a clear run to the first chicane. Even though one of them was wounded the two McLarens quickly pulled clear of the two Ferraris, as Senna backed off to do just enough to stay clear of Prost on a track where fuel consumption was critical. At half-distance, Prost banged in a series of quick laps to halve the five-second deficit to Senna, but no one quite registered the significance of this at the time. Then the Frenchman's MP4/4 began to fade and slipped behind Berger's Ferrari before expiring with engine failure on the 34th lap. The tifosi cheered heartily.
Reacting to Prost's failure – a burned piston – which was due to the lean fuel mixture Honda was running to try and eke out its mileage, Senna was instructed by pit board to richen his and start babying his engine. He immediately began to lap two or three seconds a lap slower, which encouraged Berger to speed up. He too needed to conserve fuel, but in his case, this was situation normal in 1988. With five laps left, what had been a 26sec gap had been reduced to around five, and though Senna speeded up again Berger was still closing – and bringing Alboreto with him. Suddenly the tifosi sensed that their beloved Ferraris might just have a chance.
My colleague Nigel Roebuck and I had been watching all this drama unfolding from the press grandstand which was located opposite the pits. Wisely we started making our way back before the flag fell and pandemonium broke out once the paddock gates had been closed; we were in the tunnel that passed beneath the pit straight when we heard the screams of the tifosi. By the time we emerged into daylight once again, everything had changed.