The 1988 French Grand Prix was a Formula One motor race held on 3 July 1988 at the Circuit Paul Ricard, Le Castellet. The race, contested over 80 laps, was the seventh race of the 1988 Formula One season and was won by Alain Prost, driving a McLaren-Honda, with team-mate Ayrton Senna second and Michele Alboreto third in a Ferrari.
The two McLarens lined up in their usual front row places, but, for the first time this season, Alain Prost was ahead of Ayrton Senna, the Frenchman beating the Brazilian by almost half a second to take his first pole since the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix and in doing so stopping his team mate from a record breaking 7th pole in succession. The two Ferraris filled the second row, Gerhard Berger beating Michele Alboreto by over 1.1 seconds, though neither driver believed they could race with the McLarens simply because of fuel consumption. On the third row were the two normally-aspirated Benettons of Thierry Boutsen and Alessandro Nannini, while the Lotuses of Nelson Piquet and Satoru Nakajima filled the fourth row, Piquet being the last driver to qualify under 1:10. The top ten was completed by the Williams of Nigel Mansell and the March of Ivan Capelli, who had recovered after fracturing his left foot in a crash during practice in Detroit two weeks before.
Meanwhile, Ligier had a disastrous weekend on their home turf with both René Arnoux and Stefan Johansson failing to qualify, though they did have a celebration of sorts over the weekend as Arnoux turned 40 the day after the race. Julian Bailey also failed to qualify in his Tyrrell, while Piercarlo Ghinzani qualified 22nd in his Zakspeed but was excluded for missing a weight check, thus promoting Oscar Larrauri's EuroBrun to the last grid spot. Larrauri qualifying was to the displeasure of many of those towards the front of the grid as the Argentine in the slower than most EuroBrun-Ford Cosworth had developed a reputation of being a mobile chicane in both qualifying and races and most felt that would be a problem on the shortest track on the F1 calendar.
Prost led away from Senna and the two Ferraris, with Piquet passing the two Benettons for fifth. Despite worries in the McLaren pit about overly high fuel consumption (the fuel readouts in the cars were showing less fuel used than what the Honda telemetry was telling the team), Ron Dennis was reportedly prepared to let his drivers run out of fuel at the expense of a perfect season if it taught them to be more conservative given their obvious advantage over the field, though ultimately the onboard readouts were proved correct. Prost maintained a two-second advantage over Senna until the mid-race pit stops, while an early stop for by Berger on lap 22 allowed team-mate Alboreto through into third. While both McLarens were racing each other out front, they were still pulling away from the field at sometimes a second per lap.
Senna made his pit stop three laps before Prost, enabling him to take the lead thanks to a slow stop for Prost with a sticking front wheel, but traffic on the Mistral Straight (including a less than helpful Piquet who most likely enjoyed seeing Senna lose the lead to Prost at close quarters) and a gearbox problem allowed Prost to close right up to him and then overtake him on lap 61 as they lapped Alex Caffi and Pierluigi Martini at the Signes corner. Meanwhile, Berger reclaimed third only for Alboreto to pass him again during the pit stops, while Mansell suffered his seventh consecutive retirement, dropping out on lap 49 with suspension problems though he had been dropping back for a number of laps with power loss from his Judd V8 engine. After returning to the pits and getting himself cleaned up, the Englishman left the circuit profoundly fed up with the performance of the Williams, fuelling ongoing speculation in the press that he would leave the team at the end of the year to join Ferrari after the Italian team had announced they would not be keeping Alboreto for 1989. Despite the rumours turning out to be correct, Mansell continued to deny he was joining Ferrari.
In the closing laps, Prost pulled away as Senna's gearbox troubles continued, losing several gears. The Brazilian eventually finished nearly 32 seconds behind the Frenchman, though he was still nearly 35 seconds ahead of Alboreto, the last man on the lead lap. Berger was fourth ahead of Piquet, who also suffered gearbox problems in the later stages of the race; the final point went to the Benetton of Nannini. France was the first time since the 1987 Monaco Grand Prix that Alboreto had finished in front of his team mate in a race where they both finished. During the race Alboreto had the advantage of an almost perfectly balanced car, while Berger complained of severe understeer, something not needed at the high speed Signes corner at the end of the Mistral.
The fastest lap of the race, a 1:11.737 set by Prost on lap 45, was over two seconds slower than the 1:09.548 set by Piquet in a Honda-powered Williams the previous year - a consequence of the restrictions imposed on turbocharged engines this season with the major difference being the speeds attained on the now 1 km long Mistral Straight. In 1987 the fastest turbo cars (Honda powered) were timed at 325 km/h (202 mph) on the straight. In 1988 the top speed was recorded at 311 km/h (193 mph).
For Prost it was his third win in his home Grand Prix after winning in both 1981 at Dijon (his first Grand Prix victory) and 1983 at the full length Paul Ricard. On both occasions he had been driving for the factory Renault team.Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings.