Monza 1988: The one that got away


When anglers swap tales of ‘the one that got away’ – the elusive fish they most memorably failed to catch – they often use a little… shall we say, poetic licence when recalling the experience.

After all, there’s always room for a little further embellishing of the legend, especially when recounting unlikely tales to old friends at the end of a long day.

McLaren, too, has its own ‘the one that got away’ story: the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, the one race that frustratingly fell short of our reach during an otherwise-dominant season spent racing the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Yes, it all happened a very long time ago, but, it’s still the itch that remains unscratched; ‘the one that got away’ indeed. 

And, like those tall tales told, it’s developed something of its own legend – not least, a widely circulated story that Prost may have deliberately continued chasing down leader Senna, despite his engine lapsing onto five cylinders, in a bid to push the Brazilian’s fuel usage into the red.

Clearly, the story infers that the canny Frenchman wanted to try and provide his team-mate with a little added difficulty at the end of a long, fast and thirsty race.

Is it true? Well, we had a chat to those who were there and, sadly, it’s merely another of motorsport’s apocryphal tales.

So let’s try and establish a little fact from fiction.

“Sadly, it’s not true – it’s just an imaginative story,” explains McLaren legend Neil Trundle, who was the chief mechanic on the race team back in ’88.

“However, Honda did run a different grade of NGK sparkplug at Monza that year – why they did that, I don’t know.

“During the race, Alain’s engine went onto five cylinders, but he only managed a couple of laps before coming into the pits – not enough to push Ayrton. We took the engine cover off and took out the plugs – and there it was; the middle had dropped out of one plug. Overheating was the likely cause, which was why we instructed Ayrton over the radio to go richer on the mixture to keep the plugs cooler because the wrong grade of plug had been used.

“Then, with about five laps to go,
 the Ferraris closed right on to his tail and, being marginal on fuel, he got caught up with a backmarker. If we had changed the plug on Alain’s car, I reckon he’d have been able to get out there and get back into the points.

“The whole thing was very unlike Honda because they rarely – if ever – made mistakes like that. You could say that problem with Alain’s engine cost him the championship. Ifs and buts...”