The British Grand Prix was round eight of the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship.
Williams’ Nigel Mansell usually took some beating on home soil, but this year it was going to be different.
The Honda engines that powered the Williams team to nine wins and both championships in 1987 followed reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet to Lotus for 1988 leaving Williams with a customer, non-turbo engine for the first time since 1983.
Only the 3.5 litre naturally aspirated Judd v8 was no Ford DFV, and its turbo competitors were now outputting 640bhp, some 40bhp more than the Judd engines could manage.
Williams ended the 1987 season with eight wins from eleven races. They started the 1988 season with twelve retirements from 14 starts: seven DNFs on the bounce for Mansell.
McLaren-Honda, Williams’ main rival in 1986 and 1987 won all seven.
Nigel Mansell, Williams’ de facto #1 driver arrived at Silverstone pointless, with little chance of getting off the mark at a high speed Silverstone circuit (then the fastest on the calendar) that was likely to painfully expose the main flaw of what was actually a decent Williams FW12 car, namely its chasmic power deficit to the turbos.
A normally enthusiastic British Grand Prix crowd were unusually subdued for Friday qualifying, and more gloom followed with a disastrous session for Williams in which their experimental reactive suspension caused a number of high speed moments for its two drivers and saw Mansell’s team-mate planted at the very bottom of the timesheets, 14 seconds off a time that would see him qualify for Sunday’s race.
“One flying lap – and the thing threw me off the road at Copse” said Mansell dejectedly.
Patrick Head, acknowledging the reactive suspension wasn’t working made the decision to switch both cars to conventional springs overnight, gambling on the fact that anything had to be better than what they had.
“We’ve put steel mechanical springs and dampers on. We’ve changed the front struts into dampers, designed some new bits and pieces which we machined up overnight. We did some new pistons for the front struts. It’s a bit of a bodge” said Head.
It was a gamble that paid off as the following day Mansell planted his car in 11th for Sunday’s race (albeit two and a half seconds off the pace) with team mate Patrese a few places back in 15th.
Predictably, the Turbo cars of Ferrari and McLaren dominated the first two rows with a gap of a second between fourth and the rest of the field.
The hardy British race fans emerged from their tents on Sunday morning to a cold, miserable, wet Silverstone which, perversely, delighted us! Rain is always a great leveller, would reduce the advantage the turbos had over the NA cars and the tricky conditions would give Mansell an opportunity to show what he could do.
As lights out approached the rain refused to ease and a wet race was confirmed.
Game on! (well, race on.)
At the start, the Ferraris maintained their lead from Senna as the trio moved away from the pack.
Prost who always struggled in the wet got a poor start dropping down the order as Mansell, much happier with his conventionally sprung Williams, made the most of the conditions to ease his way up to seventh.
Ferrari’s Berger held his lead as Senna moved past Alboreto in the sister Ferrari.
The two Ferraris were expected to be very tight for fuel, their powerful but thirsty turbo engines requiring some fuel saving to get them to the flag. Their worries were eased somewhat with the wet conditions allowing them to turn down their engines, but they were still marginal nonetheless.
Berger, seeing that his only opportunity to compete for the win in a race he was leading was to turn up the wick and hope for the best, turned up the wick and hoped for the best!
As the leading duo attempted to lap Prost on lap 14 (!) Senna took his opportunity to seize Berger’s lead, and he nipped by going into Abbey Curve.
Mansell meanwhile, now up to sixth was harrying Mauricio Gugelmin’s March and Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton (both, like Mansell, with NA engines that were enjoying the cold air they were running in).
Gugelmin was the first to fall victim to Nige’, when he hesitated lapping the Tyrrells, Mansell (and Nannini) pounced and our hero was up to fifth.
Nannini was next up for Mansell who surprised the Benetton driver with a move up the inside into Club that sent the Italian into a spin as Mansell sped on, encouraged by a rapturously supportive crowd loving what they were witnessing, and up to the back of a fuel saving Alboreto.
A recovering Nannini came back at Mansell but another spin put paid to his challenge, having demoted the Brit back to fifth.
Mansell passed Alboreto for third and then set his sights on Berger in second setting fastest lap of the race* – something none of us thought we’d see in the entirety of 1988, least of all at Silverstone – before passing the Ferrari for second on lap 50.
Mansell held on to his hard fought second to the flag behind Senna who by now was long gone.
The Ferraris finally ran out of fuel before the race end behind him allowing Nannini, with whom Mansell had battled for much of the race, to take third – one of only three times in 1988 that two NA powered drivers stood on the podium.
Mansell’s second place finish, his best of the year and his first points gave driver, team and supporters a much needed fillip in what would prove to be a trying year – Mansell’s last with Williams before moving to Ferrari for 1989.
*Mansell’s fastest lap of the 1988 British Grand Prix was over 13 seconds slower than his fastest lap of the 1987 British Grand Prix the year before.