Three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna started his journey as a McLaren driver in Rio de Janeiro, the city that celebrates its 456th anniversary this Monday (1). The Jacarepaguá raceway hosted the opening race of the 1988 season on April 3. Four years earlier, Senna had made his F1 debut, on the same track, as a Toleman driver.
The local audience, in 1988, was hoping that Senna would win his first F1 race ever at the Brazilian GP. The crowd’s excitement only grew in the previous day, when Ayrton took the pole position more than a second ahead of the driver who would be starting in second, Britton Nigel Mansell.
The Brazilian’s main rival in the year he won his first title, Alain Prost, was third on the grid. Right after the warm-up lap, even before the green flag was waved, Senna signaled he had a problem with his McLaren. The driver sprinted towards the pit boxes to take his spare car, and the whole field had to take another warm-up lap.
After the race was restarted, Senna took off from behind all his rivals, pushing hard in an effort to at least score a few points. The McLaren driver had an impressive recovery: he overtook big names, like Thierry Boutsen, Michele Alboreto and Nelson Piquet and made it to third, also taking advantage of Nigel Mansell’s retirement.
On the 31st lap, when Senna was applying pressure on Gerhard Berger in the fight for second place, Ayrton was declassified by the race officials, who deemed the use of a spare car illegal. Despite complaints by McLaren and Ron Dennis, the Brazilian was forced to go back to the pit box.
It was a disappointing Sunday, but Senna kept his focus throughout the year, and was able to score his first triumph as a McLaren driver in the very next race, by winning the San Marino GP. In the end, Senna won eight out of 16 races, that year. Prost, who won the Brazilian GP, had six other triumphs in 1988, finishing the championship as the runner-up.
Senna’s wins in Brazil would only take place at Interlagos, in São Paulo, during the 1991 and 1993 seasons. In Rio de Janeiro, Senna won three pole positions (1986, 1988 and 1989). His best result in Rio was a second-place finish in 1986, at the Jacarepaguá track, which has recently given way to the Olympic Park.