McLaren had dominated the 1988 season with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the wheel of its Honda-powered cars. The team had won all 11 of the season’s grands prix up to the Italian round, and as Prost and Senna rolled into the famous Autodromo Nazionale Monza, nothing looked like upsetting that trend.
Meanwhile, life was tough over at Ferrari. Not only was the team struggling on track but Enzo Ferrari, the company founder and team leader, had died a month earlier. This was to be its first race since his death.
Drivers Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto beat the odds to put the scarlet Ferraris third and fourth on the grid – but then something truly other-worldly started to happen…
Fifteen laps to go and Prost’s Honda engine, which had barely missed a beat all year, suddenly gave up and he retired in the pit lane. Ferraris were now second and third, but Senna was 20 seconds up the road with just 10 laps to go.
Berger and Alboreto kept the hammer down and started to erode the gap. Senna was taking it easy – no need to push. The Brazilian master was just playing, surely?
In fact Senna had been in trouble since the mid-stages of the race – he had used a little too much fuel to get ahead of Prost and was now trying to nurse his car home. With four laps to go, the gap was down to six seconds.
Entering the penultimate lap, Senna went to lap Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams at the Rettifilio chicane.
But Schlesser, making his only GP appearance as a stand-in for the poorly Nigel Mansell, got out of shape and came back into Senna’s car. The McLaren was pitched into the air, breaking its right rear suspension as it landed and spinning to a halt on top of a kerb.
Ferrari’s fans, the tifosi, went into raptures as their beloved scarlet stallions swept past. Now it was a six-mile race to the line between Berger and Alboreto, with Berger holding on to make it a Ferrari 1-2 at the team’s spiritual home. It was as if the Commendatore himself had intervened from on high.
But Berger’s history with Monza doesn’t end there. Fast-forward twenty years and the Austrian was back at the circuit to play a part in another iconic Formula One victory.
As team principal for the fledgling Scuderia Toro Rosso team, Berger watched on the pit wall as his young prodigy Sebastian Vettel converted a stunning pole position into an equally stunning win, becoming the youngest-ever grand prix victor in the process.
"He's bloody good," was Berger’s opinion of Vettel that day. "He can win races, but he's going to win world championships.”
Two great victories. One very special race track.