Motor racing broke out in Mexico at the Grand Prix weekend, and now I begin to realise just why those who witnessed it first hand were so ecstatic about that heady wheel-banging battle between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux at Dijon back in 1979.
The display that Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger put on might not have observed the full code of driving ethics, as they touched on more than one occasion, but it was as if F1 was letting its hair down as they both resolutely refused to accept defeat. In the end it was Mansell who got to the line first after an utterly inspired bit of overtaking round the outside at Peralta with a lap to go, and he duly chased home team-mate Alain Prost for a Ferrari 1-2 that thoroughly upset pre-race predictions of a McLaren-Honda rout.
For the first 60 laps it looked as though Ayrton Senna had things dans le valise, but a slow puncture finally took its toll as he was trying to nurse his MP4/5B home for third place. Berger, too, had had tyre problems, pitting early for fresh Goodyears before tigering back.
It might have been something of a processional race until lap 50, when Prost and Mansell really began to make inroads into Senna’s former 17 second lead, but thereafter it proved a real humdinger. The sport needs more like this one.
The morning warm-up brought a brief note of hilarity when a dog escaped onto the track and brought a short stoppage, Mansell being one of the most vociferous drivers having encountered it in Peralta of all places. Later Olivetti and Longines issued their official speeds for the first intermediate point and the start/finish line, giving P. Famelicus (the Mexican for dog begins with the letter p, famelicus means hungry) respective maxima of 34.01 and 33.39mph! Any amusement inherent in the situation – several parties wanted to inspect its passes, while others felt it had better straightline speed than a couple of lesser teams’ cars palled when stories spread that the chase car had rounded up the creature by the simple expedient of striking it . . .
Berger and Senna dominated the session, run on a track that was dry but had been washed clean by overnight rain. The weather forecast was bad for the race, but as it turned out the gods were kind and the Mexican GP went ahead in pleasantly cool conditions.
Prost, Mansell and Alliot had spins, while Senna celebrated the imminence of his 100th GP start by smacking cream cake into Jo Ramirez’s unsuspecting face. When the more serious business got underway, most of the Goodyear runners came to the line with Cs, but Williams and Onyx opted for Bs. As it transpired, it was to be a poor choice for the former, but good for the latter. “Full tank running on Bs on Saturday had shown them to be as quick as Cs,” said a rueful Frank Williams. “We tried a B/C mix in the Sunday morning warm-up, then Bs, and went faster on the latter. But, of course, the track’s always quicker then, so in retrospect what we should have done was go on to Cs right at the end, just to see.”
Alesi and Alboreto had some unwanted exercise when their race cars stopped on the warm-up lap, the Frenchman’s car having a recurrence of its qualifying electrical problems, the Italian’s developing an oil leak on the grid. Both took their spares.
In the McLaren camp Ron Dennis and co opted to pressure Senna’s tyres a little less than Berger’s, a ploy which was to have a crucial effect on the possible outcome.
At the green it was Patrese who stormed away first, with Berger lagging slightly and Senna diving round him. Mansell lost a little ground after a good getaway. Further back, both Lehto and Bernard were also smartly away, and by the end of the lap the order was Senna, having swept by Patrese along the pit straight, the Williams driver, Berger, Boutsen, Piquet, Mansell, Alesi, Warwick, Martini, Donnelly, de Cesaris, Nannini, Prost, Modena, Alboreto, Suzuki, Barilla, Alliot, Larini, Grouillard, Brabham, Lehto, Bernard, Nakajima (tapped into a spin by Donnelly), Foitek and Pirro.
Next time round Gerhard moved ahead of Riccardo, the Italian already realising that his tyre choice wasn’t right, while Prost picked off Nannini and Brabham pitted with the first manifestation of the electrical problem that would bring him in and out of the pits as his team tried changing various components. “Nothing did the trick, so it must be something in the loom,” said team manager Nigel de Streyter.
David retired eventually on lap 12, but not before Alliot had nearly rammed the stationary Brabham as David paused, apprehensive about a flickering exit light at the end of the pit road. Philippe had made a quick stop for tyres on lap 12 that dropped him to the tail of the field.
Senna had a two second lead after five laps, but already Gerhard could sense trouble. “I could feel my front tyres going off after three laps, and after 10 the left had a deep blister. I knew if I had to stop I had to do it early, to give myself a chance to recover ground, so I came in on lap 13.” In the stop he opted for Bs on the left and Cs on the right, and stormed back into the race in 12th place.
Ayrton, meanwhile, was into one of his majestic demonstrations. By lap 20 he was 15s ahead of Piquet, who was going like a train in the Benetton after disposing of Patrese on lap three and Boutsen two laps later. In his wake Mansell and Prost were beginning to make inroads into the gripless Williams duo’s advantage, while Nannini was following Prost after passing Alesi on lap 15. The Frenchman had Donnelly on his tail, Martin having worked neatly past team-mate Warwick on lap five. However, after only 10 laps the Ulsterman felt his tyres were past their best, and spent the rest of his race nursing the Lotus.
Berger was thirsting after them having overtaken Modena, while Martini and de Cesaris were next up, into lonely races. Barilla was chasing Alboreto, as he would until power loss for Michele dropped him into the Minardi’s clutches on lap 46, and then came Foitek, Grouillard, Lehto, Alliot and Larini, who had also stopped early for fresh rubber. Gone by this stage were Pirro, whose engine blew as he passed the pits on lap 11, Brabham, the brace of Larrousse Lolas and Nakajima. The latter trio all disappeared on their 12th laps, Bernard losing his brakes after working up to 15th, Suzuki and Nakajima clashing in the esses.
“My car felt really good in the opening stages,” said Aguri, “but then the left rear tyre was gone by lap five. I was going slowly, making room for the faster cars, when Nakajima ran into the back of me.”
Lehto’s unhappy race lasted only until lap 27. “Guess what?”, said the unhappy Finn. “My engine was so down on power that I wasn’t even able to use sixth. I stayed in fifth to save fuel! After my good start everyone came past me again, and then the engine finally quit.”
By the 30 lap mark Piquet’s tenancy of second place, keeping Senna honest, was coming under closer scrutiny from Mansell and Prost, who five laps later had worked into third and fourth places. On lap 36 Nigel had a look inside Nelson going into turn one, and made it next time round after a neat slingshot. Initially he didn’t get away much, but a tyre blister on the Benetton began to worsen, and Prost duplicated Mansell’s move on lap 42. Two laps later Nelson dived into the pits, worried about the increasing vibration and took another set of Cs. Patrese had done likewise on lap 43 after a quick spin, and both then proceeded to climb back up the order.
Up until the 45 lap mark, Senna’s lead looked unassailable, nine points in the bag. The problems he’d had balancing the car in qualifying looked a long, long way away. But then Mansell and Prost began to make some serious progress, and the thought began to gel: was Ayrton in trouble? Gradually that thought gained substance, by lap 48 the gap between the McLaren and the lead Ferrari was 12.2 seconds. Ayrton had stabilised it a lap later, but it went down to 11.4s before it opened another second on lap 51 as Mansell encountered Grouillard in the esses. Within two laps, however, it was down to 9.5s. This wasn’t defensive driving. Ayrton definitely had a problem.
“I could feel the car getting unstable and I guessed it was a tyre problem,” he revealed. “I called the pits but they didn’t hear me first time; I called again and was advised to stay out.”
“The closer it got to the end, the more sensible it seemed to keep Ayrton out there, since third place would be better than nothing,” said Ron Dennis.
Almost immediately after Grouillard, Mansell then lost a lot of ground behind Modena, again through the esses, and suddenly Prost was climbing all over him. The Frenchman had had an awful time all through qualifying, spinning on his second run on Friday afternoon, and complaining of dire lack of grip all through Saturday. But he had set up his Ferrari very carefully for the race, running less wing than Nigel, and had been in highly optimistic frame of mind before the start despite his lowest grid position in 10 years. After initial full tank understeer had neutralised he was revelling in his handling and as they completed lap 54 it was a clear three-way fight for the lead.
Coming down to turn one on lap 55 the two red cars swept up behind Foitek’s Onyx. Mansell was momentarily right behind it as he pulled the maximum slipstream, but then Prost suddenly jinked out to the far right of Mansell and Ferrari number one slithered into second place to the screams of the spectators.
By lap 60 the writing was on Senna’s wall. He and Prost passed the pits nose to tail and going into turn one Alain pulled out from behind and went calmly into the lead. His 41st win was only laps away.
The angry Mansell made short work of Ayrton, repeating Prost’s move the next lap, and by lap 62 Senna was eight seconds away from the lead. Two laps later, Mansell half spun, but Senna’s fresh tenancy of second place lasted mere corners as his right rear Goodyear exploded into ribbons of rubber, and he trundled slowly in to retire. He took the blow graciously.
“In part today was my fault, because I didn’t have to consult Ron. I could have gone in on my own for a new tyre.”
“I think we called it wrong, even though Ayrton’s eventual retirement was caused by a puncture rather than a tyre wear problem,” said a philosophical RD. Indeed, one of the strips left attached to the wheel showed clear evidence of puncture damage.
From his position in the pits Ayrton then had a grandstand seat for the final gripping fight between Mansell and Berger. Gerhard had made swift progress through the ranks after his stop: the misfiring Alesi on lap 50; the gripless Boutsen (who was also dealing with a soft brake pedal) on lap 55; Nannini on lap 61. Senna’s demise promoted him to third, and when Mansell had that brief spin on lap 64 he sensed a chance of second after all. As the Briton recovered, Gerhard came barging by, the two touching wheels. Mansell was having none of that and immediately fought back, and they touched again on two or three occasions. It was Dijon 1979 all over again, and the crowd was electrified. All round the track Nigel had the Ferrari flicking one way and then another in the McLaren’s wake, and each time Gerhard slammed the door. Then, coming out of the esses on lap 68, Mansell kept far, far to the left, and just kept running round the outside as they went into Peralta. “It was just a matter of closing my eyes and keeping my foot flat on the floor,” he joked afterwards, but it will forever rate as one of those classic overtaking moves.
Gerhard was obliged to lift a fraction, and that was that, the McLaren crossing the line a lap later 0.4s adrift after a bout of motor racing that injected some much needed excitement into F1.
Prost, meanwhile, had crossed it 25s earlier. “The car was a little uncomfortable on full tanks, but as the load lightened it got better and better, and by the end was much more efficient. I was asking the team to keep me informed whether I was gaining or losing ground to the leader all the way through, and I’m very happy. I had absolutely no problem.”
“It was a tremendous fight, and my only disappointment is that I feel I had more traffic than I deserved,” said Mansell, and amen to that. He was unlucky. “Alain set his car up fantastically well,” he continued, “and deserved to win. This is a great result for the team and a great race for the world press. I was pushing hard all through, and my spin came because I pushed a bit too hard after getting off line on to the dirt, which spoiled the tyres for a corner or two.”
Neither he nor Berger embraced one another quite the same way that Arnoux and Villeneuve did at Dijon, but Gerhard obviously enjoyed himself, even if the outcome was a reversal of his hopes. But for that difference in his tyre pressures, he might have stood atop the rostrum for the first time in his McLaren career.
Like Piquet, Nannini had blistered one of his front tyres, and as the track began to cool found himself unable to push as hard as the leaders. Nevertheless, he was able to reel in and pass the troubled Boutsen on lap 40 and scooped another three good points that underlined the growing maturity of Benetton’s challenge.
As he did in Brazil, Piquet deprived the unfortunate Alesi of the final point in the closing stages, taking his healthy Benetton past the misfiring Tyrrell on lap 68, while Donnelly clung on despite his rubber problems to take eighth.
“My tyres were throwing big chunks in the closing stages, and having seen what happened to Senna I was a little preoccupied,” he admitted after one of his best F1 showings to date.
As he lost grip in the closing stages, Warwick was powerless to fend off Patrese. “The handling was getting worse,” said Derek, “and I just couldn’t figure out why. Afterwards we discovered that the locknuts on the left front pullrod had unscrewed themselves, so the whole front end was out of balance.” Modena, Martini and de Cesaris completed their uneventful races in 11th, 12th and 13th places respectively. Persistence brought Barilla 14th after his pursuit of Alboreto, and despite a moment when he slid wide on to the dust and then the kerb at Peralta, Foitek brought his Monteverdi Onyx home 15th. “It took me a while to clean my tyres after that, and the undertray was damaged so the handling was worse,” he admitted, “but my worst problem was a soft brake pedal after the first 20 or 30 laps.” For all that, he did a brilliant job just keeping the car out of the pit wall, thus avoiding a repeat of Alliot’s indiscretion in ’88.
After his stop Larini recovered for 16th from Alboreto and Alliot, with the luckless Senna classified 20th behind Grouillard. It might have been something of a sleeper for its first 45 laps, but what might be the last Mexican GP ended up an absolute gem, the most exciting of the season. Come to think of it, it was probably the best since Silverstone 1987. DJT