Pre-ignition combustions are extremely harmful and undesired, but the recent search for extremely efficient spark-ignition engines has implied a great increase of the in-cylinder pressure and temperature levels, forcing engine operation to conditions that may trigger this type of anomalous combustion much more frequently. For this reason, an accurate on-board diagnosis system is required to adopt protective measures, preventing engine damage. Ion current signal provides relevant information about the combustion process, and it results in a good compromise between cost, durability and information quality (signal to noise ratio levels). The GDI turbocharged engine used for this study was equipped with a production ion current sensing system, while in-cylinder pressure sensors were installed for research purposes, to better understand the pre-ignition phenomenon characteristics, and to support the development of an on-board diagnostic system solely based on ion current measurements. In this work, pre-ignition events induced by heavy knocking operation have been analysed. The focus was mainly on ion current signal real-time processing, and on the possibility to correctly and rapidly detect pre-ignition events. In a previous work, destructive effects of this kind of combustion on engine components had been described. As shown in the paper, the development and implementation of an ion current based detection algorithm results to be very effective in identifying pre-ignition combustions, and it could allow an extremely fast reaction of the engine controller that can prevent further anomalous combustions once the first event has occurred. Moreover, pre-ignition phase information extracted from the ion signal and characteristic combustion angles obtained from pressure signal analysis are well correlated, further confirming the ion signal robustness and accuracy.