Formula One -- 1991 French Grand Prix


Nevers-Magny-Cours, July 7th. The French Grand Prix was near to sinking into oblivion in the dust and heat of the arid Paul Ricard circuit near the Mediterranean coast, with a bland and rather dull circuit, to which the public never really flocked in great numbers. The French Federation took a gigantic step in encouraging the transformation of the little circuit at Magny-Cours to enable it to cope with the Formula One giant “circus”, thus getting the French Grand Prix back into the middle of France, and encouraging a greater attendance. It seemed to have worked, for race day was said to have attracted an attendance of something like 100,000 spectators.

The whole weekend developed into a battle royal between McLaren-Honda, Williams-Renault and Fiat-Ferrari, with no holds barred and the race itself was a splendid confrontation between Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost, both much happier in “fighting the good fight” as rivals than ever they were as team-mates. On any circuit the front row of the starting grid has got to be a good place to be and in qualifying Prost was making the most of a new Ferrari, designated 643, with Jean Alesi also in a new car. The changes in design were mostly chassis, suspension and aerodynamics, the front of the monocoque having the fashionable “Tyrrell Nose” while the inboard front suspension layout was neater and tidier and all tucked into the front of the cockpit section, like most other cars these days. The side radiators and air intakes were more compact and the routing of the air through the rear suspension was much more like the original John Barnard “Coke bottle” shape. Power was still supplied by the five-valve-per-cylinder V12 engine, coupled to the electronically controlled gearbox as in the previous car. Looking at the new car it seemed obvious that it should have appeared at the beginning of the season, along with the new Williams and new McLaren; there was not the feeling that it had been conceived since the season began.


Alain Prost leads at the start on home soil

Motorsport Images

With Renault being on their home ground it would be easy to say that they made a special effort, but the fact is they always make a special effort, no matter where they are racing, as do the Williams team. Suffice to say that Mansell and Patrese had the best material available, and both made good use of it during practice and qualifying. If McLaren and Honda had not had Senna driving for them they would have been in dire straights, Gerhard Berger giving the true indication of the actual potential of the team. As the end of Saturday qualifying approached there was a keen needle-match going on between Mansell, Prost, Patrese and Senna.

Friday qualifying had been held in oppressive heat, so much so that engines were not breathing as well as they might, and provisional pole-position had gone to Senna with 1 min 16.557. Prost, Patrese, Alesi and Mansell had all been trying to get below 1 min 17.000, Mansell being the closest with 1 min 17.095. Senna’s lap was typical of the Brazilian when he looks to have a difficult task on his hands. “Hero Time” was clearly 1 min 17 secs, as Mansell, Prost, Alesi and Patrese had shown, and with total confidence he went out and recorded 1 min 16.557, half a second quicker than the best of the rest. Once again there was a tangible feeling of disbelief all along the pit lane, with everyone posing the question “How does he do it?”

On Saturday conditions were a lot cooler, the sun being obscured by a haze and engines were breathing more freely. The whole pace speeded up by about three seconds, partly because of the lower temperature but naturally as drivers got more used to the new circuit. Everyone was going quicker, even those drivers who had little hope of getting into the top 26 with a place on the starting grid. It was still Patrese, Prost, Mansell and Senna setting the pace at the front and with only a few minutes left the situation was tense. The four drivers in question were all in the 1 min 14 sec bracket, with only decimal places separating them. Patrese was on .559, Prost was on .789, Senna was on .859 and Mansell was on .895, and Senna still had a second run to make. The tension in the McLaren pit was intense, but Senna sat waiting, calm and confident. The moment came and away he went with just time for a warm-up lap and then the “flyer” before the qualifying hour ended. As he started his warm-up lap disaster struck, not to the McLaren-Honda V12, but to Olivier Grouillard’s Fomet 1 which could be seen out on the circuit with a spume of oil smoke pouring out of the back. In his own way he was as committed as Senna for he was in 21st place on the grid, and the Fondmetal team were desperately in need of 20th place, which is where the FOCA starting-money payments stop, even if you do qualify on the grid!


Mansell locks his brakes

Motorsport Images

Senna now had an oily track on which to try and take pole-position, but once committed there is no turning back and he ended his flying lap in the throes of a spin across the timing line, which is situated just after a sharp corner. He spun the McLaren down the pit straight without hitting anything, and his time was faster than his first qualifying run had been, but not enough to improve his position of 3rd place on the grid, behind Patrese and Prost. Under normal circumstances the fast boys were crossing the finishing line, coming out of the last corner, at over 90 mph. On his fastest lap, going sideways over the line in the throes of a spin, Senna’s McLaren recorded 66 mph. The Longines-Olivetti timing equipment can only tell the truth, regardless of what is actually happening. A very happy Riccardo Patrese took the honour of being on pole position, and nobody begrudged it.

While the drama for the front of the grid was being enacted there was as much drama going on at the back of the grid, for of the 30 drivers who were attempting to qualify the last four are eliminated. Hakkinen (Lotus) just could not match the performance of his team-mate Herbert, both AGS drivers failed, even though the cars were resplendent in new colours, and last of all was an unhappy Stefan Johansson, still deputising for Alex Caffi in the second Footwork car. The Porsche firm made the drastic decision to withdraw their V12 engines from the Footwork team, and return to Weissach for some serious thinking. Faced with huge penalties from FISA for missing races, the Footwork management made a hasty deal with Brian Hart Engines, to use the Hart development of the Cosworth DFR, as used by the Larrousse team. This meant some rapid redesign to install the V8 Hart in place of the V12 Porsche, in the Footwork A12 chassis. Neither car was adequately tested before practice began and various troubles plagued them both, Alboreto just scraping on to the back of the grid, but Johansson failing by 2 seconds. It is going to be difficult to not give Footwork the accolade of “Shambles of the year” when the season finishes.

Race day conditions were good, with thin cloud keeping the intense heat of the sun to bearable proportions and after the French President had shown approval of the new Magny-Cours circuit, and the public had shown their approval of the new location for the French Grand Prix by filling the place to over-flowing, all was ready for the 72 laps of the little “Slot-car” track. Senna elected to race the McLaren T-car and for a change Mansell was not dickering-about between his two cars, the designated race car behaving itself all weekend. Patrese, as usual, was quietly philosophical about his car being his car, with no worries nor complications, and very happy to be on pole position. The two Ferrari drivers were more than content with their new cars, and the billiard smooth circuit making the Leyton House drivers more happy than they have ever been, so that they could begin to use the potential of the Ilmor V10 engine.


Mansell and Prost go wheel-to-wheel at the hairpin

Motorsport Images

The start was clean enough, but did not go according to some plans, for Patrese got the dreaded “random Beta particle” in his gearchange electronics and got a false neutral instead of second gear. Apart from this baulking Senna slightly, it gave Prost a clear run at the first corner. He had made a superb start from second position on the grid, and ever the opportunist, Mansell had profited from his position behind the Ferrari. In half a lap the scene was set, Prost was away and wide awake and waiting for no-one (pity he doesn’t drive like this all the time!), Mansell was in second place and determined to match anything that Prost could produce, and in third place Senna had already made his strategy. Conscious of the fact that all things being equal the McLaren-Honda was only just a match for the Williams-Renault, and now the new Ferrari, he decided to run a fast but regular race to watch developments in front of him, not being worried by anyone behind him, even Berger who was in his slipstream, or Alesi who was equally close behind. Poor Patrese was back in ninth place by the time he got himself sorted out. As the opening lap dust settled a green Jordan car could be seen way off the circuit stuck in a run-off area; it was Gachot who had come off second best in a scuffle. The other Jordan was reasonably placed in 12th position.

There was uneasiness in the Honda pit when Berger’s McLaren stopped on lap 7 with engine failure, and Senna’s only hope of winning seemed to be that of waiting for Prost and Mansell, or preferably both, to run into trouble. Tyres were going to play a small factor among the front runners who were all on Goodyears, but that factor was mostly down to the team mechanics who would be doing the tyre changes. Prost and Mansell seemed to be very evenly matched and were lapping at a relatively “slow” pace compared to qualifying, some 7 seconds a lap slower. But so was everyone else. It was turning out to be something of an endurance race, with the wiggly circuit having to be covered 72 times, calling for consistent driving and a pace to suit the driver/car combination.

Andrea de Cesaris had suffered a spin which dropped him from 11th place down to last, but he was pressing on back up through the tail-enders and was in the throes of catching Brundle’s Brabham-Yamaha when Prost caught up with him. This slight check on the pace of the leader was just what Mansell wanted and he closed up rapidly. While Prost was positioning himself to deal with the situation ahead, Mansell did a brilliant piece of “out fumbling” and got the Williams-Renault ahead of the Ferrari even as they passed the slower cars. It was a brilliant manoeuvre by Mansell and the French populace cheered him loudly for Renault were now leading the French Grand Prix. By this time Patrese had fought his way back up to fifth place, behind Senna and Alesi who were third and fourth.


Prost focused in his Ferrari

Motorsport Images

The rest of the competitors were in a race of their own, with Piquet and Moreno in the Benettons being hard-pressed by Gugelmin in the turquoise Leyton House, its Ilmor engine being a good match for the works Cosworth engines. This Brazilian trio were having a good little scrap, Gugelmin eventually splitting the two Benetton drivers. It was an interesting little interlude, but of no consequence in the real picture of the French Grand Prix, for that was still the scene of Mansell and Prost, Ayrton Senna being a distant spectator as the battle raged. The World Champion had settled into a comfortable rhythm, letting the chasing Alesi actually set the pace.

Patrese was the first of the leading bunch to come into the pits for new tyres, followed by Senna and Prost, the Ferrari stop being unbelievably quick which put him in a challenging position back on the track, ready for when Mansell made his tyre stop. Alesi was in and out quickly, so the overall picture did not change, but then Mansell was in and though the stop was quick it was not as quick as the Ferrari one had been, and before Mansell got back on the track Prost was back in the lead, with a number of back-markers between them.

One thing about Mansell is that he seldom gives up, and we now saw him at his best. The slower cars between him and Prost were actually going pretty quickly, being the Benettons of Moreno and Piquet and the Leyton House of Gugelmin, as well as the Ligier of Thierry Boutsen. Mansell knew that Prost was vulnerable when it came to fumbling his way through slower traffic, for he had profited once already by the Frenchman’s weakness, so why not a second time. We were now beyond half distance but time was on Mansell’s side, though he did not waste any of it. By lap 50 the Williams had its nose up the back of the Ferrari and they were lining up to lap Patrese who was running in fifth place. On lap 55 at one of the slow corners Prost found himself surrounded by Williams-Renaults and when they sorted themselves out it was Mansell ahead of Patrese and Prost in the same place he had been when it all started going into the corner. This time Mansell had gone round the outside, previously he had gone down the inside to out-fumble Prost. “Our Nigel” was excelling himself and if Senna had been close enough he would have been impressed with what he saw. It took Prost four laps to find his way past Patrese, by which time Mansell was long gone.


Mansell takes the chequered flag in his Williams

Motorsport Images

It was all over, Mansell swept on to a super victory, one that he whole-heartedly deserved, a victory truly won after a good clean fight. The Renault racing department were over-joyed, convinced for some time that their V10 engine was the equal of anything produced by Honda or Ferrari, and now they had demonstrated it in front of their own people. The working relationship between Patrick Head and the Williams team on the car and Bernard Dudot and the many people in Renault-Sport on the engine, is one of the better things to have come out of the international aspect of Formula One.

In the closing stages of the race Alesi had made a brave little show of trying to get by Senna, and take third place, but it was fruitless, the Brazilian being in charge of a poor third place all the time. Only four drivers completed the full race distance, Patrese and de Cesaris being one lap down, the Williams driver being plagued by the “random Beta particle” again near the end of the race, while the Jordan driver made his team very happy with a sixth place, won the hard way, which must have made those who finished behind the green car think a bit deeply.

When it was all over the Stewards of the Meeting fined Mauricio Gugelmin ten thousand US dollars for committing a “dangerous manoeuvre” during an incident between him and Mansell on the 70th lap, an “incident” that neither driver seemed to have been aware had happened: it probably looked “dodgy” on the television screen, exaggerated as always by the use of long-focus lenses. In addition to the fine the Stewards imposed a ten-second penalty, but fortunately that did not affect the Leyton House driver’s finishing position. His team-mate Ivan Capelli had a very short race, for he spun and stalled his engine while avoiding someone else’s accident. — DSJ


Results (top five): French GP, Nevers-Magny-Cours, July 7th

72 laps of 4.271 km circuit (307.512 km; 191.079 miles)

1. Nigel Mansell, GB, (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1h 38m 00.56s

2. Alain Prost, F, (Ferrari F1/91B – Ferrari V12) 1h 38m 05.059s

3. Ayrton Senna, BRA, (McLaren MP4/6 – Honda V12) 1h 38m 34.990s

4. Jean Alesi, F, (Ferrari F1/91B – Ferrari V12) 1h 38m 35.976s

5. Riccardo Patrese, I, (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1 lap behind

Conditions: Hot and overcast

Winner’s Average Speed: 188.271 kph (116.986 mph)

Fastest Lap: Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1m 19.168s on lap 49; 194.215 kph (120.679 mph)