Expectations were running high for Senna’s McLaren debut, equipped with the same Honda engines as the Williams and Lotus, but with an overall set up that could keep him going fast for the entire race.
During qualifying sessions, Senna did not disappoint and won the pole position for the 17th time in his career, starting in front of drivers like Nigel Mansell (Williams), Alain Prost (McLaren), Gerhard Berger (Ferrari), Nelson Piquet (Lotus) and Michele Alboreto (Ferrari). It was Senna’s first pole position on the Brazilian ground. Maurício Gugelmin was also making his debut in Rio de Janeiro, but he wouldn’t run for more than 20 meters after the start of the race.
During warm-ups, on an overcast Sunday morning, Ayrton Senna was once again the fastest driver, which brought much confidence and hope for a potential Brazilian victory. The packed Jacarepaguá Autodrome went wild when the cars began to line up on the grid.
But as soon as he placed his car in the front row, the driver realized that there was a problem with the gearbox. He returned quickly to the boxes, changed cars, and started from there, in the last position. He went flying. But the team failed to warn Ayrton that this maneuver was subject to penalties – and the race officials themselves waited 30 laps to rule on the procedure.
After the second start, Prost passed Mansell and took the lead. In three laps, Senna leaped from 24th to 18th place. And by lap number 13 he was already in 7th place, only to overtake Boutsen and Alboreto.
More than a great recovery race, it was Senna’s chance to show how much better than his competition he could be when driving a car that put him in contention for the championship.
Not much longer after that, Senna had Piquet in his crosshairs. While everybody thought they were going to battle for the fourth place, Piquet offered no resistance and Senna slid through, soon inheriting the second place after Mansell retired and Berger made a pit stop.
While trying to catch up to Prost, Senna had to make his pit stop, and the car’s issues came back. The Brazilian signaled to the mechanics that the left-side refrigeration was defective, but they appeared to not understand him. He was stuck for 32 seconds and came beck to track in sixth place, behind Prost, Berger, Piquet, Alboreto and Boutsen.
Two laps after leaving the pit-lane (lap #30), a race official raised the black flag with the number 12 – Ayrton’s car – meaning he had lost his chance of scoring his first points with McLaren. Even though Ron Dennis tried several times to prove that the car swap at the start was above board, the officials saw it differently.
The race summary declared that “car no. 12 did not obey proper starting procedure”, requiring him to remove his McLaren from the track.
Senna retired, but not before an impressive performance on the racetrack. The podium at Jacarepaguá was occupied by Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, and Nelson Piquet. It wasn’t the start Senna was hoping for the 1988 season, but its end surely made up for it: he won his first world title, that year.