The 1988 San Marino Grand Prix was a Formula One motor race held at Imola on 1 May 1988. The 60-lap race was the second round of the 1988 Formula One season. Ayrton Senna scored his first victory for the McLaren team, with turbocharged Honda-powered cars sweeping the top three positions.
The McLaren-Hondas totally dominated qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost occupied the front row of the grid with times of 1:27.148 and 1:27.919 respectively. Their nearest challenger was the Lotus of reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet with a time of 1:30.500. All the more interesting was that Piquet's Lotus was powered by the same specification turbocharged Honda engine that powered the McLarens and he was as fast as them through the speed trap on the run to Tosa, yet he was over 3 seconds slower than Senna. The difference was that the lowline McLaren MP4/4's were untouchable under acceleration and they had superior grip to any other car on the grid.
Amazingly, considering the team's success in its Formula One history dating back to 1966, this was only the third time that there was an all-McLaren front row for a Grand Prix. The other two times had been at the 1972 Canadian Grand Prix (Peter Revson and Denny Hulme) and the 1986 German Grand Prix (Keke Rosberg and Alain Prost).
Nigel Mansell missed qualifying on the front row of the grid for the first time since the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix. He qualified his Williams-Judd in 11th place, five places behind team mate Riccardo Patrese in 6th. The fastest atmo car in qualifying was the Benetton-Ford of Alessandro Nannini who ended up 4th on the grid in front of the disappointing Ferrari of Gerhard Berger who, along with team mate Michele Alboreto (who qualified 10th, almost 4.5 seconds slower than Senna), found the turbocharged Italian V6 engines down on power throughout.
The claims of Berger and Alboreto were backed up by the speed trap figures. The fastest cars on the long run to Tosa were the McLarens and the Lotus-Honda of Piquet, all timed at 306 km/h (190 mph). The Ferraris were much slower at 293 km/h (182 mph), and were some 16 km/h (10 mph) slower than the McLarens over the start-finish line (McLaren were fastest there at almost 250 km/h (155 mph). In fact, both Ferraris were almost 5 km/h (3 mph) slower over the start line than the atmospheric Benettons and were also slower at that point than the Zakspeeds, showing just how much trouble they were in.
One of the surprises of qualifying was American veteran Eddie Cheever. Not noted as the best qualifier, Cheever qualified 8th in his Arrows-Megatron, though he was still 4.1 seconds behind Senna. Cheever and Arrows had tested at Imola a week before the race and came up with a set-up they liked. The same settings were put on Derek Warwick's Arrows but the Briton admitted he found the settings lazy and could only qualify 14th, 1.2 seconds slower than his team mate. The turbocharged Arrows' were touching just over 300 km/h (186 mph) on the run to Tosa.
The EuroBrun-Ford Cosworth of Oscar Larrauri, the Ligier-Judd's of Stefan Johansson and former Imola pole winner René Arnoux, and the Zakspeed turbo of Bernd Schneider all failed to qualify, while the Osella of Italian Nicola Larini was excluded after scrutineering when it was discovered that the cars engine mounting points had been illegally changed and that the drivers feet were found to be forward of the front axle line. For Ligier it was the first time since the team's début in Formula One in 1976 that neither car had qualified for a race. For Arnoux it was a bitter pill to swallow as he had sat on the pole at the circuit three times previously when he had driven for both Renault (1980 and 1982) and Ferrari (1983).
After qualifying, Lotus team boss Peter Warr and lead driver Nelson Piquet made the claim that despite the three second gap between the McLarens and the rest of the field, they believed the Lotus and even the Ferraris were better aerodynamically than the McLarens and that would hurt their fuel consumption on what was one of the most fuel thirsty circuits on the calendar. Warr predicted the McLarens would not be able to maintain their advantage and still finish the race on their 150-litre fuel limit. Not for the first time his public predictions would prove to be wrong.
The McLaren of Ayrton Senna led from the start, whilst his teammate Alain Prost had his engine stall coming to take his place on the grid (Prost later reported that the engine had also stalled earlier on the parade lap). The car was still rolling so he bump started it but it almost stalled again as the race started and he dropped to 7th place behind the Arrows of Eddie Cheever. Whilst he was able to recover these places and get back to second place by lap 8, he could not catch Senna who controlled the gap according to the traffic. Maintaining a lead of 6–10 seconds, Senna slowed on the last lap to make sure he finished without running out of fuel which reduced the gap to the pursuing Prost to just 2.3 seconds at the line. Prost later admitted he had turned up his turbo boost in his fight up to second and although still lapping quicker than most of the field, he was then forced to conserve for the rest of the race for fear of running dry before the end.
Nelson Piquet battled with an ill-handling Lotus but used superior Honda power to maintain 3rd place ahead of a train of cars including both Benettons, both Williams and Berger's Ferrari. He was lucky to make it to the finish line as the extra boost needed to keep his position cut severely into his fuel. Had he not been lapped only four laps from the finish (meaning he only had to complete three of the remaining laps), he might not have had enough fuel to complete his last lap.
Nigel Mansell made a superb drive from a poor 11th place on the grid to be briefly up to 3rd place after taking Piquet under braking for the Rivazza on lap 40. Less than a lap later however, Piquet again used his Honda's superior power to slipstream Mansell through the Tamburello and re-take 3rd through Villeneuve. However fleeting the move was, Mansell would retire just a lap after dropping to 4th with a faulty voltage regulator.
Thierry Boutsen's Benetton came home in 4th ahead of Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari, though late in the race he was hampered by a down on power engine thanks to a cracked exhaust on his car, and rounding out the points was his team mate Alessandro Nannini. Nannini had been fighting for 3rd place with Piquet, but despite being consistently quicker in the corners, he had to yield to the Lotus' superior Honda power on the straights. Piquet and Nannini tangled at the Tosa hairpin, and a couple of laps later lost 4th place to Boutsen after spinning at Tosa. Nannini dropped to 7th with Boutsen, delayed 2 seconds by Nannini's spin, now charging after Piquet. A fired up Nannini then put in the fastest atmospheric lap in a climb back into the points and 5th place. Nannini had to settle for 6th though after being passed on the last lap at the Acqua Minerale chicane by a grass-cutting Gerhard Berger, now charging thanks to being lapped and having to drive one less lap on fuel.
Both Senna and Prost recorded a fastest race lap faster than Nelson Piquet's qualifying time and both McLaren drivers had lapped the entire field up to and including Piquet in 3rd place by lap 56 of the 60 lap race. That was actually good news for Piquet and Berger in their turbo powered cars against the atmosphetic Benettons as it meant they had to do one less race lap on their allowed fuel and could push harder for the final three laps of the race. Prost's second place earned him 6 points which saw him surpass his 1984 and 1985 McLaren team mate Niki Lauda as the all-time career points leader, with 421.5 to Lauda's 420.5 points.
In what had become standard practice at McLaren since Prost's disqualification for being 2 kg underweight at the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix, both McLarens stopped within metres of taking the chequered flag. Prost had started the last lap some 7 seconds behind his team mate but was only 2.334 behind at the flag as Senna had driven only as fast as he needed to both win and conserve fuel at what was traditionally one of the most fuel thirsty circuits on the Formula One calendar.
Surprisingly given that in previous years numerous drivers of turbo powered cars had failed to finish a race at San Marino due to running out of fuel and that the 1988 fuel limit of 150 litres was 45 less than in 1986-1987, and 70 less than the 1984-1985 limit, no turbo runner ran out of fuel at Imola in 1988. The only turbo starter to not finish was the Ferrari of local hero Michele Alboreto, who was classified as 18th and last despite suffering engine failure on lap 54. This was his second engine failure of the day after his Ferrari also blew up in the morning warm-up session forcing him into the spare car for the race. He was also forced to start from the rear of the field after stalling his engine as the field went away on the warm-up lap.Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings.