Qualifying at Monza went as expected with the McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost heading the field, Senna the only driver to lap the 5.80 km (3.603 mi) under 1:26. In the first Italian Grand Prix since the death of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari; his beloved scarlet cars were 3rd and 4th on the grid, Gerhard Berger in front of Michele Alboreto. Berger and Alboreto also had cause for optimism before the race as changes to the V6 turbo had seen improved fuel consumption. As a mark of respect for the Ferrari founder, Alboreto and Berger were allowed to be the first cars to take to the track for Friday morning's first practice session.
The third row of the grid was a surprise, even at this power circuit. Ever since the item was made compulsory for turbo powered cars at the start of the 1987 season, the Arrows team had been experiencing problems with the FIA pop-off valve on their Megatron turbo engines, the problem being that the valve was cutting in too early and the drivers weren't able to exploit the full available power. In 1987 this meant that drivers Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever struggled to keep up with their turbocharged rivals. In 1988 it meant they were often only as fast as the leading atmos, and often they were in fact slower, even on noted power circuits such as Silverstone and Hockenheim which should have suited their turbo power. The team's engine guru Heini Mader had finally solved the pop-off valve problem (which turned out to be the pop-off valve being located too high above the engine, a problem Honda and Ferrari had long since solved), and suddenly with an extra 30-50 bhp at their disposal the Arrows A10B's were actually 5 km/h (3 mph) faster than the Honda-powered McLarens on Monza's long straights allowing Cheever and Warwick to line up 5th and 6th respectively, one place in front of World Champion Nelson Piquet in his Lotus Honda. This also meant that turbos filled the first seven places on the grid. Piquet's Lotus team mate Satoru Nakajima qualified 10th, with the Lotuses split by the fastest non-turbos, the Benetton-Fords of Thierry Boutsen and Alessandro Nannini in 8th and 9th places on the grid. Due in no small part to their sudden improvement in speed, Arrows were suddenly being seen as a dark horse for the race should McLaren and Ferrari run into problems.
Defending World Champion Piquet, the race winner in 1986 and 1987 when driving for Williams, never looked at ease during qualifying at a track where the Honda powered Lotus 100T should have been a long way ahead of at least the 'atmo' cars. Unfortunately it wasn't discovered until late in qualifying (by which time it was too late) that the team had inadvertently set up both Piquet and Nakajima's cars with the settings for the Imola circuit and not for Monza.
The 1988 Italian Grand Prix was the last race of the turbo era in Formula One in which all cars powered by turbocharged engines that entered actually qualified for the race. Both McLaren and Lotus-Honda's, Ferraris, Arrows-Megatron's, Zakspeeds and the lone Osella all easily qualifying for the race, with the slowest of the turbos, Nicola Larini in the Osella qualifying 17th, 4.507 seconds slower than pole man Senna, despite the Osella V8 turbo (a re-badged Alfa Romeo 890T) being rated as having approximately 50 bhp (37 kW; 51 PS) more than the Honda V6.
With emotions running high so soon after the death of Enzo Ferrari, the tifosi had been praying for a Ferrari victory at Monza. However, with the McLaren dominance, hopes for a home victory seemed bleak. The season was dominated by McLaren, who had won all 11 of the season's races before the Italian Grand Prix, and would go on to win the 4 remaining races.
Nigel Mansell was still affected by chicken pox, and was still forced to sit out. Martin Brundle, his replacement in Belgium, was asked to race again but his Jaguar Sportscar team boss Tom Walkinshaw vetoed the move, so the second Williams seat went to team test driver (and Brundle's chief rival for the 1988 World Sportscar Championship) Jean-Louis Schlesser.
Prost managed to jump Senna at the start, but as he changed from 2nd to 3rd on the run to the Rettifilo his engine began to misfire and would not run properly again. This allowed Senna to power past into the lead before the chicane. Berger followed Prost with Alboreto, Cheever, Boutsen, Patrese and Piquet running in line. Senna built up a 2-second lead after the first lap and Prost, realising after the first lap that the misfire wasn't going away, decided to turn his boost up to full and give chase to his team mate. Many people in the F1 Paddock believed that Prost, knowing he wouldn't finish, hoped to make Senna use too much fuel in his desire to keep the lead, something which could have consequences for Senna later in the race if he was forced to back off to try to finish.
Prost continued to chase Senna despite the misfire, his full boost run saw him able to stay within 5 seconds of the Brazilian, though at no stage did he truly threaten his team mate. Berger had initially given chase and stayed within a couple of seconds of Prost, but before lap 10 had started to drop back in order to save fuel. By lap 30 the Frenchman had reduced Senna's lead to only 2 seconds, but as he went by the pits at the end of lap 30 the misfire suddenly got worse and by lap 35 had been passed by Berger and Alboreto and was heading for the pits and his first mechanical retirement of the season (and the only time in 1988 that a McLaren would retire due to engine failure). While this was happening Alboreto, troubled by gear selection problems early in the race, had dropped back from Berger to allow his gearbox oil to cool hoping it would come good. It did and the Italian in the All-Italian car began to charge at the Italian Grand Prix, and was catching his team mate.
Later in the race Berger and Alboreto began closing on Senna rapidly, though it was assumed that Senna was merely pacing himself to the finish, and Senna himself later said that he had things well in hand. With two laps remaining in the race, Senna attempted to lap the Williams of Schlesser at the Rettifilo Chicane. Senna headed to the left to pass the Frenchman on the inside of the first chicane, however Schlesser locked his brakes and the Williams slid forward towards the gravel trap. Using his rallying skills Schlesser managed to collect the car and turned left to avoid going off. Senna, who had taken his normal line and hadn't counted on Schlesser regaining control was t-boned in the right rear by Schlesser's Williams causing broken rear suspension for the McLaren. Senna spun onto the exit kerb of the first part of the chicane and with the car stuck on the kerb he was forced to retire from the race. BBC commentator James Hunt placed the blame squarely on F1 rookie Schlesser, although many felt that Senna had not given any allowance for Schlesser to come back on the track and that had it been Prost he would have waited until after the chicane to power past the Williams. Senna's former flat mate and close friend Maurício Gugelmin, whose March-Judd had also been about to lap Schlesser and was behind the McLaren after being lapped on the run past the pits, saw the collision in its entirety. "I think he'd felt that Schlesser would go straight off, and in that situation you have to keep going. It's a difficult situation, but I don't think Ayrton took a risk."
It was generally thought that Senna had used too much fuel in the first half of the race in his bid to keep in front of Prost and that was why the Ferraris were rapidly catching him towards the end of the race, with Berger reducing what was a 26-second gap when Prost retired, to be only 5 seconds behind when Senna and Schlesser collided 14 laps later. Senna's former Lotus team boss Peter Warr commented after the race that he felt Prost, knowing he wouldn't finish the race, had suckered his team mate into using too much fuel in the hope that it would keep his championship hopes alive. Prost's tactics may have contributed to McLaren missing out on a perfect season, but they had the desired effect as Senna scored no points (after four straight wins including Britain where Prost failed to finish) and he was still in with a good chance of winning his third World Championship.
The Tifosi were beyond overjoyed as Berger inherited the win, with Alboreto taking second place only half a second behind in the first Italian Grand Prix since the death of the great Enzo Ferrari. Alboreto was actually the fastest drive on the track in the last laps and gained over 4 seconds on his team mate in the final 3 laps. American Eddie Cheever (who actually grew up in Rome) finished in 3rd place for Arrows, 35 seconds behind the Ferraris and only half a second in front of his team mate Derek Warwick in a great race for the Arrows team. Warwick had actually got a bad start and had fallen outside of the top ten. However, with the Megatron engine now producing full power the Englishman began to charge and ran the last 10 laps challenging his team mate. The remaining points went to Italian Ivan Capelli, a considerable achievement by the atmospheric March-Judd on a circuit which requires powerful engines (Capelli spent the first half of the race locked in a battle for 6th place with the Williams of Riccardo Patrese and Warwick's Arrows). Capelli's high place also showed just how aerodynamic the Adrian Newey designed March 881 was. Sixth place went to the Benetton-Ford of Thierry Boutsen.
Motor racing journalist Nigel Roebuck later reported that after the race an overjoyed member of the Tifosi had approached Schlesser, shook his hand and said "Thank you, from Italy".
Another hard luck story was Alessandro Nannini who was forced to start his home Grand Prix from the pits due to a failed throttle on the warm up lap. By the time the Benetton team fixed the problem, Senna was coming through the Parabolica on his first lap meaning the Italian, who was to start 9th, was last and almost a lap down within the first lap of the race. For the rest of the afternoon Nannini charged, setting the fastest lap of the race for atmospheric cars and finishing in 9th place.
In the scrutineering bay, Berger's Ferrari's fuel capacity was checked four times. The first time, FISA officials were able to refill the tank with 151.5 litres of fuel, exceeding the limit of 150 litres. A second refill and then a third were undertaken, and still the Ferrari took too much. Eventually they succeeded in adding just 149.500 liters at the fourth time of asking. Eddie Cheever's Arrows had the same problem as Berger's Ferrari when his fuel tank was at first found to be 151 litres, but more checking found it to be under the limit at 149.5 litres.Bold Text indicates World Champions.
Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings. Points accurate at final declaration of results. The Benettons were subsequently disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix and their points reallocated.