Benetton was effectively the Ford works team as they had exclusive use of the 3.5L Ford DFR V8 engine for 1988 where others running Ford-Cosworth power had to make do with 1987's DFZ engine (upgraded from 3.0 to 3.5 litres). When the FIA announced that turbo's would be banned after 1988, Ford made the decision to halt development of the V6 Ford TEC turbocharged engine used in the B188's predecessor the B187, and instead concentrated on the development of an engine for the new 3.5L rules. As Benetton were under contract to run the Ford engine (a contract they did not wish to break), the teams designers were forced to design a car to take the naturally aspirated V8 rather than the turbocharged V6.
Despite this, the B188 was visually similar to the B187 it replaced, though it featured a bulkier engine cover to house both the larger engine and a larger fuel tank, as well as featuring larger twin air intakes (located above each sidepod, rather than above the drivers head as would become the norm). The B188 also featured a longer, sleeker looking nose section to take advantage of the rule that would come in from 1989 that meant the drivers feet had to be behind the front axle line.
The DFR, a development of the Cosworth DFV that had been introduced to F1 by Lotus in 1967, developed approximately 620 bhp (462 kW; 629 PS), the most powerful 'atmo' engine of the season. This compared to the 650 bhp (485 kW; 659 PS) of the turbocharged Honda and Ferrari engines and only 590 bhp (440 kW; 598 PS) for the older DFZ V8. However, where as the turbo powered cars were restricted to a fuel tank size of 150 litres, the atmospheric cars fuel tank size was able to be much larger. The B188 reportedly had the largest fuel tank on the grid at 215 litres.
The B188 was driven by the teams 1987 driver, Belgian Thierry Boutsen, and the hard charging, chain smoking Italian Alessandro Nannini, who had joined Benetton for his 3rd F1 season after two years driving the uncompetitive Minardi's with their overweight and underpowered Motori Moderni turbo engines. The B188 was a consistent performer and was usually the class of the atmospheric cars, a class which also included the F1 Constructors Champions of the previous two years Williams, and the up-and-coming March team (who's car was designed by a young Adrian Newey), both of whom were using the new 600 bhp (447 kW; 608 PS) Judd CV V8 engine.
Boutsen would score 27 points, including 5 podium finishes, to claim 4th in the Drivers' Championship with five 3rd place finishes, while Nannini scored 12 points, including his first ever podium with 3rd at the British Grand Prix (despite two spins on the very wet Silverstone Circuit) and a second 3rd place later in the season in Spain. Overall with the B188, Benetton finished 3rd in the constructors championship with 39 points, 16 points in front of 4th placed Lotus, who not only used the same Honda engines as the dominant McLarens, but also had reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet as lead driver. Benetton would have in fact finished the season with 46 points but both cars were disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix for using irregular fuel. The disqualification of the Benettons was not made official until a month after the season had finished, so many published records list Boutsen and Nannini as having finished third and fourth respectively at Spa.