Berger takes the improbable checkered flag. (LAT archive)
At Monaco in 2013 Ron Dennis was reintroduced to Jean-Louis Schlesser, whose single Grand Prix appearance for Williams at Monza 25 years ago changed the course of McLaren’s history.
Turning to his companion Carol Weatherall, Dennis said: “This is the man who ruined my life and our perfect record back in 1988.”
Without Schlesser, Ayrton Senna would almost certainly have won that Italian Grand Prix a quarter of a century ago, and McLaren-Honda would thus have completed a clean sweep of all 16 races that year.
Ferrari went to Monza in turmoil. The Scuderia’s season had largely been one of humiliation, as the warmed-over one-year-old F187s that Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto were given to drive were rarely a match for the all-new lowline McLaren MP4/4s with which Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had won all 11 races held to that point. At times, even the less potent normally aspirated Benetton B188s and Williams FW12Cs had embarrassed Ferrari despite the red cars’ turbo power.
With turbo cars’ fuel allocation slashed from 195 to 150 liters, the Ferraris simply did not have good enough fuel consumption to take advantage of their power output on race day. By contrast, despite this being the final season of the turbo rules, Honda had spared no expense to develop the supreme all-new 80-degree V6 RA168E turbo engine. The combination of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Gordon Murray, Steve Nichols as well as Dennis’ superbly organized team of fastidious individuals had made the red-and-white cars untouchable.
But Monza was different for Ferrari for another crucial reason. It wasn’t the first race after founder Enzo Ferrari had died at 90 on Aug. 14 that was Spa on the 28th but it was the first race on Italian soil since that historic event. And the mood was necessarily somber.
It remained so when Senna and Prost wrapped up the front row of the grid in the two qualifying sessions, the Brazilian on 1m 25.974s, the Frenchman on 1m 26.277s. Berger managed an heroic 1m 26.654s, Alboreto 1m 26.988s, but both had reason to grumble. Gerhard had had gear linkage problems, while Michele broke his transmission altogether. Allied to a lack of grunt from the Ferrari V6, the auguries for a home victory were poor.
The Italian was also nursing a simmering anger that the Williams team had reneged on what he thought was a firm deal for him to join in 1989 after they had shaken hands in Hungary. Meanwhile, on this superfast track, the Megatron (nee BMW) turbo-engined Arrows A10Bs of Eddie Cheever and Derek Warwick filled the third row.
Sunday, Sept. 11 began with what the tifosi had most feared: McLaren domination of the morning warm-up (remember them?). Senna was fastest, but Prost was only eighth-thousandths slower. The Frenchman, however, was concerned about his high-revving Honda RA168-E’s pick-up, and reported that a vibration that he’d detected in qualifying was still present.
At the start he got away well but by the time he hit third gear the engine was misfiring again and Senna had a clear run to the first chicane. Even though one of them was wounded the two McLarens quickly pulled clear of the two Ferraris, as Senna backed off to do just enough to stay clear of Prost on a track where fuel consumption was critical. At half-distance, Prost banged in a series of quick laps to halve the five-second deficit to Senna, but no one quite registered the significance of this at the time. Then the Frenchman’s MP4/4 began to fade and slipped behind Berger’s Ferrari before expiring with engine failure on the 34th lap. The tifosi cheered heartily.
Reacting to Prost’s failure a burned piston which was due to the lean fuel mixture Honda was running to try and eke out its mileage, Senna was instructed by pit board to richen his and start babying his engine. He immediately began to lap two or three seconds a lap slower, which encouraged Berger to speed up. He too needed to conserve fuel, but in his case, this was situation normal in 1988. With five laps left, what had been a 26sec gap had been reduced to around five, and though Senna speeded up again Berger was still closing and bringing Alboreto with him. Suddenly the tifosi sensed that their beloved Ferraris might just have a chance.
My colleague Nigel Roebuck and I had been watching all this drama unfolding from the press grandstand which was located opposite the pits. Wisely we started making our way back before the flag fell and pandemonium broke out once the paddock gates had been closed; we were in the tunnel that passed beneath the pit straight when we heard the screams of the tifosi. By the time we emerged into daylight once again, everything had changed.
Schlesser had been drafted in to replace Martin Brundle, the Williams test driver who’d raced the Judd-powered FW12 to seventh at Spa in the absence of Nigel Mansell, who was said to be suffering from chickenpox but was also deeply uninterested in driving a Judd-powered car at either of the fast tracks. Brundle had been fastest in the wet at Spa and done well, but his mentor Tom Walkinshaw made it clear he didn’t think he would do himself any further good running at Monza.
“I like to think Tom was thinking of me as well as himself,” Brundle said recently. “He didn’t absolutely forbid me from driving in Italy, but he made it clear he didn’t think that I should.” Which is why “Schless” who would win the World SportsCar championship with Sauber-Mercedes in 1989 and ’90 got to emulate his tragic uncle Jo, and have his sole outing in the big league at the age of 40.
Senna actually had things under control, but since he was obliged to run that richer mixture he was conserving fuel by driving the car super-hard in the corners instead. On the 49th lap he came upon Schlesser going into the first chicane. The Frenchman, who’d qualified some two seconds off the pace of his teammate Riccardo Patrese, was being lapped by the leader for the second time, headed into the chicane and was shown a blue flag.
Going into the tight left-hander on a very wide line on the outside of the corner, he locked his front brakes and ran wider still and struggled to turn his Williams in. Senna, meanwhile, perhaps feeling the pressure from the Ferraris more than McLaren liked to admit, came spearing down the inside just as Schlesser, who had been trying to give him room, got back on to the gray stuff after getting two wheels in the dirt. As Senna turned into the right-hand part of the chicane, his right-rear wheel made contact with the Williams’ left-front.
In a red and white flash the McLaren spun and became beached on the outside curb. The unthinkable had happened: McLaren was going to lose a race. Better still for the tifosi, Berger won with Alboreto half a second adrift. They went crazy, their cheers seemingly heard across Italy.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Schlesser said initially. “I gave him as much room as I could spare, and I was on my limit in that respect. I couldn’t have given him more.”
Senna, perhaps even then wishing that he had been a little more circumspect, said: “He locked a brake and I thought he had run really wide, well off line. Then, as I came inside him, he came back on to a tight line and we collided. It was a big disappointment, but what’s done is done.”
That didn’t sound like a man who was blaming his opponent.
“I was running on minimum power during the second half of the race,” Senna added, “taking things easy to be on the safe side, and allowing the Ferraris to close up. I was under no pressure”
Support for Senna came from his friend Mauricio Gugelmin, whose March 881 had also been about to lap Schlesser and thus saw the collision in its entirety. “I think he’d felt that Schlesser would go straight off,” he said. “And in that situation you have to keep going. It’s a difficult situation, but I don’t think Ayrton took a risk.”
Later, Schlesser bravely went down to McLaren to apologize to Senna, and the matter was resolved amicably enough.
Meanwhile, however, Berger’s success was in jeopardy. In the scrutineering bay, his Ferrari’s fuel capacity was checked, checked again, and checked a third and a fourth time. The first time, FISA officials were able to refill the tank with 151.5 liters of Agip. Surely some mistake? Amid growing consternation and many tremorous hands holding the containers, 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 attempt and everyone breathed sighs of relief.
Well, everyone apart from Alboreto (RIGHT), who stood to win if Berger was disqualified. The disgruntled Italian’s car had jumped out of fourth gear early on, and he’d eased back in order to cool the transmission lubricant. That alleviated the problem and a series of fast laps, culminating in the race’s fastest on the 44th, brought him back on to his teammate’s tail. Had he won, what would Frank Williams and Patrick Head have said, after rejecting him in favor of keeping Patrese?
For the crowd, this was a side-order of drama. The entre was a remarkable 1-2 on home ground, totally against the 1988 run of play, almost as if Enzo Ferrari had been watching from on high as his cars beat the dominant McLarens. The miraculous triumph was the Scuderia’s first on home soil since Patrick Tambay had steered to victory “for Gilles Villeneuve” at Imola five years earlier. And it would be the last such scarlet triumph in Italy until Michael Schumacher won at Monza in 1996.
Was it a fabulous victory? No. Did it rate with such triumph-from-tragedy successes as Graham Hill’s in Spain in 1968, after Jim Clark’s death, or Damon Hill’s in Spain in 1994 after Senna’s? No, not really. It was simply one of those days when the gods turned their backs on the favorites and smiled on the underdogs. But try telling that to the tifosi!
Oh, and Schlesser’s response to Ron Dennis’s comment at Monaco this year? He merely smiled at Carol and said to Ron: “No, I made you, because what happened that day at Monza kept you hungry”