Fifteen days after Ayrton’s victory Seine in the British Grand Prix, the F1 Circus moved to the very fast track of Hockenheim for the next German Grand Prix, the ninth round of the 1988 world championship. This race also represented the turning point of the season and as it happened under the flood from Silverstone it was the Brazilian from McLaren who achieved another deserved success, the eleventh in his career and the fifth since the beginning of the year aboard the powerful MP4 / 4 Honda designed by the duo formed by Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols.
His teammate Alain Prost appeared more determined than ever after the setback accused in England and the victory in the home Grand Prix at Le Castellet, which until the retirement at Silverstone had allowed him to consolidate his leadership in the drivers’ ranking by increasing the advantage over Senna until to fifteen points. But as mentioned, Prost’s zero in the standings in the rainy Silverstone allowed Ayrton to recover and reduce the gap to just six points on the eve of the German stage. On the occasion of the Hockenheim match, the Federation decided to restore the rule that required a session of pre-qualification for slower cars, but in this case the newborn Rial, thanks to the excellent fourth place obtained by our de Cesaris in Detroit, was exempted from the trap represented by this extra fraction. Since it was summer in the paddock, the first market movements also began in view of the 1989 season and in particular those related to the technicians. In Germany, the experts noticed the strange absence of Frank Dernie from the Williams box and this depended on the fact that the press indiscretions gave him close to Ligier for the following year. In reality, Dernie was instead in talks with Lotus which he would then join in a few months as technical director. As for the smaller teams, the Austrian Gustav Brunner – under the Rial – had planned his move to rival Zakspeed for the following season.
Returning to the strictly actuality of the track, some cars showed some modifications and the large air intakes that appeared on the sides of the Ligier Judd of René Arnoux and Stefan Johansson struck the curiosity of those present. During free practice Berger he was the victim with his Ferrari of a spin at about three hundred kilometers per hour, when he unexpectedly lost control of the car on the straight. Fortunately, the Austrian did not hit any of the rival cars passing by at that time and he himself did not suffer any consequences. At the time that of Hockenheim was a very fast circuit and equipped with very long straights on which people usually traveled with little downforce and tried to balance the car in the best possible way for the mixed part of the Motodrom that preceded the finish line. It was the period in which the drivers also had to face the fearsome Ostkurve, which was part of a 7.8 kilometer route and where the average mileage, together with those of Monza, were the highest in the whole championship. Fixed stability issues encountered a couple of weeks earlier at Silverstone, McLarens returned to dominate qualifying which took place on a dry track and saw Senna prevail over Prost by 277 thousandths with a time of 1.44.596. With this result, the very fast Brazilian climbed to seven in the total count of starts at the pole during the season, once again proving to be the number one specialist within the Woking team. Behind the two red and white single-seaters both Ferraris qualified, but with Berger who, despite being third, had seen Senna trim by about a second and a half behind.
Even further back his teammate Michele Alboreto, 2.558 behind, while Nelson Piquet with Lotus Honda, the same engine as McLaren, was even more than three seconds behind his compatriot Senna. Then followed in order to close the top ten, Nannini on Benetton Ford, Capelli with the excellent aspirated March Judd, Nakajima on the second Lotus, Boutsen with the other Benetton and the Brazilian Gugelmin also on March Judd. Furious from the first five rows the two Williams Judd of Mansell and Patrese who showed themselves in debt of speed on the German track and in turn remedied over five seconds from the tread. To understand how different the performances were between the first cars of the class and those competing for the last available places on the grid, just think that between the best time obtained by Senna and that of the Argentine Larrauri, who qualified 26th with the Eurobrun, there was nearly eight and a half seconds of difference. On Sunday morning a downpour poured out a significant amount of rain on the Hockenheim track, which was completely soaked in water in view of the start of the race, while the sky was covered by threatening clouds. Given the conditions of the road surface, all the riders on the grid opted to start with rain tires except the outgoing world champion Nelson Piquet, who instead tried the gamble by opting for slicks. When the traffic lights went out, Senna kept the lead of the platoon, but in the meantime Prost, less quick than his teammate, was overtaken by Berger’s Ferrari and Nannini’s Benetton.
On the first lap the cars lifted enormously water columns on the long straights almost to make the race look like a motorboat race. Incidentally, the visibility of who was behind, from the second position onwards, was really limited due to the huge amount of sprayed drops that ended up on the opponent. At the expense of it was immediately Piquet, who at Ostkurve went off the track ending up against the protections, victim of the move to start with dry tires. When the cars crossed the finish line for the first time, Senna kept the leadership undisturbed ahead of Berger, Nannini, Prost, Alboreto, Capelli, Boutsen, Mansell, Patrese and Warwick. After the first five laps, with the situation remaining unchanged in the leading positions, the track began to dry out and this allowed Prost to overtake Nannini at the braking point of the first chicane. Meanwhile, Senna’s lead over Berger was about eight seconds. Shortly afterwards Prost himself, reassured by the better grip, quickly came under the Austrian from Ferrari and Senna was already starting with the dubs, as he found himself facing Alliot’s, stopping to replace the wet tires with slicks. Unfortunately, precisely in the act of facilitating the passage of the Brazilian from McLaren, the transalpine of the Lola Larousse ended up in a puddle which caused a ruinous acquaplaining and the following contact against the barriers, which cost him the retirement due to the breaking of a rear suspension. At the twelfth lap Prost was the fastest driver on the track and at the third chicane the “Professor” took the second position on Berger, thus returning to be the first pursuer of his teammate.
Over the next three laps the gap between the top three stabilized, with Senna maintaining a lead of twelve seconds on Prost, while Berger continued to slowly lose to the McLaren Frenchman and was fourteen seconds behind the latter. Further back, Mansell and Capelli staged a good battle for sixth position between motorized Judds. However, on lap 16 the Williams del Leone accused a gearbox problem and had to pit. Later, the Englishman managed to get back on track, but was the victim of a spin and had to retire permanently from the race. On lap twenty-one, when the McLaren duo now seemed impregnable for the competition as third-placed Berger had slipped more than thirty seconds behind, the rain began to fall slightly on the track. Slowly, the road surface was completely wet again and it was at the expense of Cesaris who spun in his Rial. Five laps later he had already stopped, but it was evident that in those conditions no rider could have resorted to slicks as the track was too wet to allow dry tires to be used. Despite the weather being absolutely unreliable, Senna continued to dictate the law and ruled Prost about twelve seconds from the summit. On lap 30, the Brazilian was slowed down by the fight staged by Patrese and de Cesaris for the tenth position and lost some time in making the dubbing. Subsequently the race offered no further twists apart from a thrill for Berger when overtaking Schneider, also lapped and a Prost’s spin who put two wheels on the wet curb, but was not affected and quietly resumed his run.
The last laps, always on the wet track, saw an absolute balance in the top positions, with Senna maintaining a twenty second lead over Prost and Berger who, behind by fifty, continued to gradually lose ground. The only jolts in the finale came from the departure of the two Italians Patrese and Nannini. The Paduan slipped on the water and ended up against the wall, while the Sienese accused the breaking of the accelerator cable of his Benetton Ford. Fortunately, the driver of the Anglo Treviso team managed to return to the pits, but the prolonged intervention of the mechanics precluded him from winning the points he would have largely deserved after having occupied fourth place for the entire race between the two Ferraris. In the two concluding passages Berger further slowed his pace because as always the Ferrari was forced to save fuel and so the two drivers from Maranello set off in order towards the checkered flag. The Grand Prix was easily won by Senna who won a well-deserved success on the day when a mistake could have proved fatal, while Prost closed behind him about thirteen seconds behind. Then came the two Ferraris, who preceded the very good in fifth place Hair with March, who in turn managed to regulate the competition from the Belgian Boutsen, who closed the points zone in sixth position. The victory at Hockenheim allowed Senna to get even closer to fellow rival Prost in the rankings, arriving just three points behind, while McLaren became unassailable in the Constructors’ one where he commanded with a seventy-six lead over Ferrari. Senna’s umpteenth success in the wet further legitimized his position as leader in wet driving, where since his absolute debut in F1 four years earlier he had shown absolutely extraordinary qualities.