Ayrton Senna's third win of the season made it six out of six for McLaren in 1988, on the way to an unprecedented 15 wins and ten 1-2 finishes in 16 races. Senna's victory matched the season total of teammate Alain Prost, who finished 38 seconds behind the Brazilian in second place. Thierry Boutsen took third for Benetton, as he had a week before in Canada, and Andrea de Cesaris scored the first points ever for the Rial team by finishing fourth. Minardi also scored their first point with Pierluigi Martini's sixth place.
With turbocharged engines scheduled to be eliminated prior to 1989, and their effectiveness intended to be curtailed by two rule changes for 1988, few teams opted to develop totally new equipment that would only be used for one season. Only Honda, who defected to McLaren from defending Constructor's Champion Williams, and Ferrari developed new engines to meet the revised turbo rules– boost reduced from 4 bars to 2.5, and fuel capacity reduced from 195 liters to 150 (refueling was banned from 1984 through 1993), and only McLaren developed a completely new chassis. Though the new rules were intended to narrow or eliminate the performance gap between the turbos and the normally aspirated engines, Honda and Ferrari were able to display a 50 horsepower (37 kW) advantage over the best 3.5-liter equipment of the opposition. With that kind of power differential, the only new chassis in the field, and Senna and Prost behind the wheel, McLaren quickly turned the season into a two-man show.
Detroit's tight 90-degree turns and short straight sections had given the underpowered "atmo" cars a chance at several times during the turbo era, and some teams were hoping the quirky circuit might give them a bit of a chance. Senna took the twenty-second pole of his career by more than eight-tenths, but the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto both lined up ahead of Prost, who was fourth. The teams were all hoping for cooler temperatures for the race on Sunday, after the track had begun to break up during qualifying (expedited by a Trans-Am race on Saturday). Predictably there was a push from the F1 teams to have the Trans-Am race cancelled, but with that series having guaranteed television coverage of each round (of which Detroit was a part), the race went ahead and as feared, the powerful, heavy saloons tore the track up surface even more. Hasty concrete repairs made the surface extremely abrasive for the soft compound tires most teams had brought, and teams were forced to reconsider their plans for a non-stop race. On Sunday morning, Berger said, "Really, I think today is a lottery...." Then, recalling how the first five races had gone, added, "...which probably gives us our best chance of the season."
In front of 61,000 fans on race day, Senna took the lead off the grid and was uncontested into the first corner. The Ferraris followed, with Prost beginning to challenge them already. He took a look around the outside of Alboreto in Turn 2, but had no room. For the first three laps, the four leaders hung quite close together, but by the end of lap four, Senna's lead was more than two seconds. Prost got by Alboreto on lap five, and Berger on lap six, but by that time, Senna was over six seconds ahead.
It didn't take long for the Ferrari challenge to dissipate. On lap seven, having already passed Alboreto, Boutsen tried to get by Berger as well, but his Benetton hit the left rear wheel of the Ferrari, puncturing the tire and putting the front-row starter out of the race. Two laps later, Alessandro Nannini tried to get the second Benetton past Alboreto. Nannini dove inside, but when Alboreto tried to shut the door, the cars touched and the Ferrari jumped into the air and then spun. Alboreto made it around to the pits to change tires and check things over, then put in some terrific laps and worked his way back up to seventh before spinning again on lap 46.
It seemed, at first, as if Nannini had escaped the contact unharmed, but on lap 15, he pitted with a damaged right front suspension and failing brakes. The brake problem "was really the cause of the problem with Michele," he explained. "Almost from the start, I was having to pump the pedal. If the brakes had been okay, I think I could have avoided him."
Instead, any hope of a threat to the McLarens was gone with the race one-quarter over. The red and white cars, with Senna eight seconds ahead, seemed to be carefree. In fact, Prost had been struggling the entire race with an uncooperative gearchange. "It was strange– the gearbox felt as though it was seizing up. The worst change was from fourth to fifth, which I think I missed at least once a lap right the way through."
With the Ferraris and Nannini out, Nigel Mansell took up fourth spot for Williams. The Judd had suffered all season with overheating problems, and with the temperature in the mid-90s, he didn't like his chances of finishing the race. Sure enough, on lap 19, "the red light came on, and that was the end– the engine just cut." Teammate Riccardo Patrese assumed fourth position until lap 27, when the same thing happened to him. He pulled off and parked alongside the barrier, right behind Mansell.
Pierluigi Martini, driving in his first Grand Prix in almost three years, was running extremely well for Minardi and got up to fifth place on lap 35 when Maurício Gugelmin's March retired. He would likely have finished there, if not for the relentless and resilient performance of Jonathan Palmer for Tyrrell. Palmer had come together with Stefano Modena in the EuroBrun on the first lap, requiring a stop to replace the nosecone, and leaving him dead last by a sizable margin. By lap 47, he had worked his way into the points, and in the closing laps, he was the fastest car on the circuit. Palmer's two points for fifth place were his reward for what was probably the most impressive performance of the race.
Senna and Prost both had time to make leisurely stops for new tires, and Senna went on to lead all 63 laps. Prost had set the race's fastest lap on Lap four, but he could never really challenge the Brazilian for the lead, and knew he would have to settle for second place, finishing 38.7 seconds behind. Prost said, "Over the years I've developed a style of driving which involves braking into the apex of a corner. I don't think most of the guys do that, but it works for me. On this surface today, though, it was impossible to do it without simply sliding straight on. So I had to change my whole way of driving, brake carefully in a straight line, then turn in. No excuse, you understand, but it meant adapting, doing something which isn't my natural style." None of the other seven finishers was on the lead lap at the end.
The drivers became outspoken about their dislike of the race, and afterwards race winner Senna said that he was driving so slowly on the last laps because the track was breaking up so badly that it was like driving in heavy rain; and he, Prost and Boutsen said in post-race interviews that the race was an unpleasant one and Formula One needed to race somewhere else in the city if Formula One really wanted to stay in Detroit. Even though there were some negotiations to move the event only a few miles over to another street circuit on Belle Isle, these plans ultimately fell through, and sure enough, this was the last Formula One Detroit Grand Prix, after the FIA declared the temporary pits not up to their set standards. F1 moved 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away on the other side of the country to a street circuit in Phoenix, Arizona, for the next 3 years; that event was officially known as the United States Grand Prix.
The Detroit race was run as a CART event on the same Renissance Center circuit from 1989-1991 (though the unpopular chicane before the pits was removed), before it was abandoned by CART who moved to the Belle Isle circuit in 1992.Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings.