The 1988 Japanese Grand Prix was a Formula One motor race held at Suzuka Circuit, Japan on 30 October 1988. It was the fifteenth and penultimate race of the 1988 season.
As expected at the Japanese track where engine power can make up for a lot, it was no surprise to see the McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the front row on this, Honda's home track (the company in fact owns the Suzuka Circuit and McLaren's test driver Emanuele Pirro was based there almost full-time). At times in 1988 the turbos had been qualifying (and often racing) faster than they had in previous seasons despite the restricted 2.5 bar of turbo boost available. At Suzuka the situation was reversed, Senna's pole time was 1.8 seconds slower than Gerhard Berger's 1987 time. Berger himself could only manage 3rd on the grid with a time that was 3.3 seconds slower than his 1987 time in an updated version of his Ferrari, though with about 300 bhp (224 kW; 304 PS) less.
He was joined on the 2nd row by the sensational Ivan Capelli in the naturally aspirated March-Judd. The March team's late season showing made their sponsor (Japanese real estate company Leyton House) very happy. Capelli qualified in front of the two Lotus-Hondas of outgoing World Champion Nelson Piquet who was suffering from a virus, and home town favourite Satoru Nakajima.
Nakajima, not normally the best of qualifiers or racers despite having equipment superior to most, including the same all-powerful Honda V6 turbo engine as the McLarens, could have easily been excused for performing poorly this meeting and indeed from actually taking part at all. Only 30 minutes before the start of Friday morning's practice session he was informed that his mother had died that morning. In the circumstances his effort in Saturday qualifying to equal his more illustrious team mate's time right down to the thousandth of a second was exceptional. Piquet and Nakajima qualified 5th and 6th respectively, Piquet in front only for having set his time earlier in the last qualifying session. Nakajima had actually been faster than the triple World Champion on Friday, an effort that won the much-maligned Japanese driver new fans and much praise in the F1 paddock considering his personal circumstances.
Lotus showed great faith in Nakajima by announcing they had re-signed him for the 1989 season. This was despite the team having to use Judd V8 engines after Honda's announcement a few races earlier that they would not be supplying their engines to the team after 1988.
French driver Yannick Dalmas was declared medically unfit for the race and was replaced in the Larrousse team by Japan's Aguri Suzuki who had been competing in and would win the 1988 Japanese Formula 3000 championship. Suzuki qualified 20th on his F1 debut, one place behind temporary team mate Philippe Alliot. Dalmas, originally thought to have an ear infection that kept him out of both Japan and the final race in Australia, was diagnosed with Legionaire's Disease later in the year.
The all-McLaren front row was the 11th of the year, but its drivers had contrasting fortunes. Prost led away from Berger and Capelli, while Ayrton Senna stalled on the grid. However, Suzuka Circuit had the only sloping grid of the year and he was able to bump start his car into action, albeit in 14th place by then. Derek Warwick and Nigel Mansell collided and had to pit for a puncture and a new nosecone, respectively. Senna was trying very hard to make up for the lost positions, and had gained six places by the start of lap two. He then passed Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen, Alessandro Nannini and Michele Alboreto to take fourth place on lap four. Meanwhile, Capelli had not only set the fastest lap but also passed Berger – who was already troubled with fuel consumption problems – on lap five to take second place. Alboreto spun out while he was in sixth place.
On lap 14 the weather started to come into contention as rain began on parts of the circuit, benefiting Senna. On lap 16 Capelli seized his chance to pass Prost for the lead, the first time a non-turbo car had led a Grand Prix since 1983. (Other than the first few metres of the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix where Nigel Mansell had inherited Pole Position, but was quickly overtaken from the start by Prost's McLaren and Berger's Ferrari.) Prost had been slowed when the Lola of the debuting Aguri Suzuki had spun at the chicane and got going again just as Prost and Capelli were braking for the tight right-left complex. He then missed a gear coming out of the chicane thanks to a troublesome gearbox and was passed by the March, but Capelli's lead only lasted for a few hundred metres as the extra power of the Honda turbo engine allowed Prost to regain the lead going into the first turn. Capelli made several further attempts to overtake Prost before ultimately retiring 3 laps later with electrical failure.
Nigel Mansell's race lasted until lap 24 when he had a coming together with the Lotus of Nelson Piquet whom he was trying to lap (Piquet had spun his Lotus into the gravel trap outside of turn 1 and had been pushed back onto the circuit by the marshals, as had Alboreto a few laps earlier). At the chicane Mansell tried to go on the inside of Piquet but the cars touched with the Williams taking flight and almost going over. Mansell was out on the spot while Piquet, still unwell with a virus and complaining of double vision, would continue for another 10 laps before retiring through fatigue.
By then Senna was catching Prost rapidly, and with traffic, Prost's malfunctioning gearbox, and a tricky wet and dry surface, conditions were favourable to the Brazilian. On lap 27, as they attempted to lap Andrea de Cesaris, Satoru Nakajima and Maurício Gugelmin, Senna managed to force his way through as Prost was delayed by the de Cesaris' Rial. BBC commentator James Hunt famously called de Cesaris a "disgrace" for blocking Prost and publicly lambasted him during the commentary for his driving (it wasn't the first or last time Hunt would criticise de Cesaris' driving during his commentary). Senna then put in a succession of fast laps, breaking the former lap record and building a lead of over three seconds, despite being delayed while lapping Nakajima.
With slick tyres on a track that was now wet, Senna was gesturing for the race to be stopped but this was not to be. The race ran out its entire distance and Senna led home from Prost; Honda was delighted with a 1-2 in their homeland. Boutsen took third place, whilst Berger recovered to fourth place after Alboreto held up Nannini, who had to settle for fifth. Patrese finished in sixth, and Nakajima was 7th.
With victory in the race, Senna clinched the World Championship. Due to the scoring system in 1988, Prost could only add three more points to his total even if he won in Australia, which would give him 87 points in total. If Senna then failed to score they would be equal on points, but Senna would still win the title, having taken more wins (8 to 7). Victory in Japan was also Senna's eighth win of the season, which beat the record for total wins in a single season, previously held by Jim Clark and Prost.Bold Text indicates World Champions.
Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings. Drivers could only count their best 11 results; numbers without parentheses are Championship points; numbers in parentheses are total points scored. Points accurate at final declaration of results. The Benettons were subsequently disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix and their points reallocated.