Some 65,000 spectators had packed the Donington Park Circuit for the 1988 British GP, and all was abuzz with excitement. This was the second year since the shift in venue from Silverstone to Donington in its country setting surrounded by green fields about 300 kilometers north of London. With its fully upgraded track surface, lap times had improved dramatically.
A rush of new lap records in all classes was on, and the enthusiasm of the fans added to the excitement. In the GP500 class in particular, Wayne Gardner took the pole position with a time of 1 minute, 35.09 seconds, a full three seconds faster than the best time he himself had set the previous year. The high level of racing was illustrated by the fact that 18 out of the 41 machines entered in the qualifying broke the previous year's lap records.
Riding a YZR500 (0W98) with a 70° V4 engine, Eddie Lawson had scored five wins in 12 series races run thus far in the season and steadily amassed points on his way to his third GP500 title. Lawson was 2nd in the qualifying after Gardner here at Donington. It was clear to all that the race was shaping up as a battle between these two, while Christian Sarron, who was also in good form, and Kevin Schwantz, with two season wins to his credit, would be chasing them for any opportunity to improve their standings. Or so it seemed.
That scenario was quickly overturned immediately after the start. It was Wayne Rainey, who stole the lead at the start with a fierce dash from the second row. Like Lawson, Rainey had debuted in the World GP with encouragement from Kenny Roberts. In the previous day's qualifying he had placed an impressive 5th.
Behind Rainey came Gardner, who cleared the first lap in 3rd place while battling with Pierfrancesco Chili. On the next lap, he moved up to 2nd and tried to surge into the lead, but Rainey held on and led aggressively at a blistering pace. Conversely, Gardner, perhaps trying too hard, overshot a turn with too much power and was out on the 5th lap. Although Gardner avoiding an actual crash, his mistake allowed Sarron and Niall Mackenzie (Honda) past.
After the 11th lap, Gardner again moved up to recover 2nd position, but his battle with Sarron and Mackenzie took time, energy and wear on his tires. He simply didn't have sufficient reserves of strength or performance to catch up to Rainey, who had been steadily extending his lead in the meantime.
Lawson had got off to a late start and trailed in 8th place. For some reason, after that, the speed he'd demonstrated in the preliminaries was nowhere in evidence. Doggedly pushing his machine, he somehow worked his way back to 5th position in the middle stages, but was overtaken by Kevin Magee, who had recovered from an accident in the early part of the race and mounted a surprising catch-up. At this point, it was all Lawson could do to stay in 6th position.
With no one in range to challenge Rainey's solitary run in the lead, the only possible threats were mechanical problems or an accident.
The first time Rainey had ridden the YZR500 was at the TBC Big Road Race held in the autumn of 1984 in Japan. Aged 24 at that time, Rainey started full-time racing in Roberts' team in the 1984 World GP250 after winning the 1983 AMA Superbike series. Despite ranking 8th, in the TBC he could only watch the duel between Lawson and Tadahiko Taira from the rear.
Now four years had passed since that time. He had again won recognition for his achievements in the AMA and was finally a full-time rider in the World GP500. Though the Yamaha team'sfirst win went to his teammate, Kevin Magee, Rainey had already climbed the podium five times during the season. Two weeks before, he had seized pole position from Gardner in a white-hot Suzuka 8 Hours, which he won with Magee in a runaway victory. The confidence from this win provided the psychological strength to maintain his equilibrium with his first GP victory imminent and supported his dynamic and sensitive machine control.
With every lap, his long-awaited first victory was coming closer. Finally, from the side of the pit, made of traditional English brick, the official holding the checkered flag came into view. The gap with Gardner was more than seven seconds. Now nothing stood in the way of victory.
With this win Rainey joined the relay of Yamaha champions for the first time. Eventually, he would go on to win the 500cc World Championship title three times, amassing a career total of 24 wins in the GP500. This feat compares with the achievements of Roberts, who won a total of 22 World GP500 races and was series champion three times, and Lawson, who won 25 races and was World Championship titleholder three times (with Yamaha).