Red Five's red mist

A moment's rashness prevented Nigel Mansell from extending his sizeable World Championship lead in Canada. As an electronic malfunction sidelined Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger picked up the pieces for McLaren

It was easy enough for Nigel Mansell to rationalise Ayrton Senna taking his 61st pole position in Canada. After all, his own efforts had been thwarted by a fault with a sticking suspension component during free practice on Friday morning, and then a combination of traffic, lack of grip and a Renault RS4 engine that the telemetry said was a good 40 bhp down on what it should have been. To boost himself, Mansell could also look to his own speed on Saturday morning, when he lapped faster than anyone else would all weekend. The trouble was that the changeable weather conditions that day meant that the track was marginally slower than it had been during Friday's sun, and the result was that Williams Red Five — Cinq Rouge – did not feature on the front row for the first time this season.

It was worrying that, for Mansell, even if team-mate Riccardo Patrese was alongside the World Champion's improving McLaren MP4/7A. The dilemma was simple: the McLarens had better straightline speeds than the Williams-Renaults, just as they had had in Monaco, and much of that came from superior acceleration. If Senna won the start, passing on the tight Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Montreal's Ile Notre Dame was going to be very difficult, particularly when tyre conservation was so important.

When the lights finally went green after an inordinately long delay Senna spurted ahead, neither of the Williamses being able to do anything about it despite their traction control. Patrese saw Mansell coming through as if tomorrow was on hold and wisely let him keep coming, reasoning that the inevitable attack might later profit him. Despite that, however, Mansell never got close enough to challenge the Brazilian for the lead, and that was to be his downfall. He would scrape ahead, briefly, but when he did so it would be en route for the spin that cost him at least six World Championship points, possibly 10.

In the early stages the two Williamses were sandwiched between the two McLarens, with Schumacher and Brundle in the Benetton Fords thrusting along in their wake but only just ahead of the two impressive new Lotus Fords of Herbert and Hakkinen. As interesting as the fact that Herbert set fastest lap on the third tour, and Hakkinen on the fourth, was that Schumacher was using the Series VII version of the Ford HB, Brundle a Series VI and the Lotus boys Series Vs, yet all four were very well matched as the colourful crocodile sped round the 2.75-mile circuit.

k was stalemate, of course, with Senna driving one of his supremely confident 'tactically defensive' races, but it was gripping stuff nonetheless because you never knew who or what was going to crack first as the gaps opened and closed depending on who was attacking whom. It was evident, however, that the Williamses were the quicker cars overall, just as it had been in the morning warm-up when Mansell had lapped in 1m 22,466s. However, Brundle had been only a thousandth slower in a Benetton that was genuinely running on a full fuel load, and that suggested that the McLarens were holding back the pace.

Mansell certainly thought so, and on lap 15 his patience was exhausted as he tried a do-or-die effort down the inside of Senna going into the final chicane. A more championship minded driver would have weighed the odds, considered waiting a little longer to see how things developed and in any case wouldn't have tried down the inside of an area known to be slippery. It was the closing stages of Monaco all over again.

This time, Mansell went all four wheels over the kerb and as he went into the sandtrap he kept his foot hard down in an effort to come out the other side. He did so, regaining the track just ahead of the McLaren but sadly devoid of his nose wings. By now thoroughly out of control the FW14B spun, and after a futile effort sitting in the cockpit for more than a lap in a move perhaps designed to induce stoppage of the race, its pilot sprinted across the track and began looking for somebody to harangue. After shaking a fist at Senna, Mansell then sought out former Lotus boss Peter Warr, now the chief steward at FISA. PEW was not of a mind to sanction anybody, so Mansell turned his attention to Ron Dennis before storming out of the circuit. A wiser head might well have been prepared to accept only six points rather than try for 10, especially since he nursed a 38-point championship lead going into the event, but then Mansell's character has always been one to seize every opportunity. This time it simply didn't work out.

It certainly didn't work out for Patrese, either, as Mansell hoving across his bows gave Berger the chance to slip through into second place as Riccardo was obliged to lift momentarily, and thereafter the Italian had not one but two McLarens to contend with. Moreover, those Benettons were still there, lurking with menace. Hakkinen had dropped back a bit after losing fourth gear, and Herbert would be without a clutch from the 20th lap, but never theless the Lotuses looked good too and were clearly more than a match for the two Ferraris as Alesi and Capelli sandwiched the again impressive Karl Wendlinger in the March Ilmor.

Capelli was the second to go, heading straight into the barrier when, he suspected, something broke at the back of his F92A. Then Herbert's excellent weekend ended sadly with a blown clutch on lap 35 and Hakkinen followed him into retirement a lap later, having been passed by Alesi and Wendlinger, when his remaining gears began jumping out of engagement.

Berger was clearly quicker than his teammate on this occasion, just as Brundle was faster than Schumacher, but Ayrton was driving without leaving any gaps that might be exploited. Then, as they went into lap 38, the MP4/7A's Honda V12 simply cut out, possibly through a fault in the electronic management system. Mansell could breathe again after all as his points advantage remained the same. It began to look if perhaps 'Championship Luck' was still with him.

Patrese had little time to savour the fact that his tyres were perfectly preserved for a late challenge to Berger, when his Williams began to lose gears. First sixth went missing, then fifth and fourth, and as he slowed there was another change. As Schumacher lapped Morbidelli on lap 39, the Minardi pilot inadvertently obliged him to run wide. In an instant Brundle pounced, scything smartly between the two and immediately drawing away from the man who had so far this season rendered him an also-ran. Immediately the Briton began to exploit his Benetton's phenomenal braking ability to the full and was closing quickly on Riccardo when the Italian finally pulled into the pits. Brundle, his tyres now in perfect shape, began to reel in Berger as the race moved towards the 50 lap mark, but after reducing the gap to 4.7s on lap 45 Martin went missing. Something in the final drive had broken, and the most convincing performance of his F1 career was over. So, too, was any battle for the lead. Berger had simply to stroke home, with Schumacher again showing his innate wisdom by settling for second in a race he knew in his heart he was not capable of winning.

For a long time Wendlinger looked like embarrassing Ferrari by challenging Alesi, but when the Austrian's third gear began jumping out he nursed the March home for an excellent fourth place and his first helping of World Championship points after a drive of remarkable fire and maturity. If he got what he deserved, others did not.

Katayama was in fine form all weekend in his Venturi Larrousse, which he qualified 11th on his first visit to the venue. In a steady but quick run, during which at one time he tangled with team-mate Gachot, he had risen smoothly to fifth with only seven laps to run, when his Lamborghini V12 blew up. That let a hard-trying de Cesaris into fifth place after a drive in which he had fought off the persistent attentions of Erik Comas in the Ligier until pulling clear from the 38th lap. Thereafter the Frenchman had his hands full of the press-on Michele Alboreto, whose efforts in the Footwork were thwarted, but only just, by the superior acceleration of the Renault V10. The final races of note were those of Martini and Lehto in Dallaras rendered frightening to drive by aerodynamic shortcomings and flexure of the suspension. JJ closed quite dramatically on his team-mate in the final stages, but when his car began jumping out of third he dropped away again.

For Berger it was thus the dream race, even when his gear selection system refused to respond to the button just after Senna's demise, and obliged him to use the hand lever. And even when a minor rear wing infringement – a nut securing the Gurney flap protruded 3mm too much – threatened to take away his victory. In the end, two and a half hours after the race, that was sorted out and commonsense was thankfully restored. To have taken away a race won the hard way would have been cruelty indeed.

For Mansell Canada was, for the second successive year, not a dream but a nightmare. And just as in 1991 debate will rage as to the culpability for his accident. The man himself slammed Senna's tactics, indicating that he thought he had been unfairly squeezed out. Blank faced, Senna merely responded that Mansell had appeared to try and straightline the chicane and come unstuck. As usual, the matter remained controversial, as it does when these two chargers are involved. As the teams left Canada, aware that the Williams-Renaults are still the quickest cars even if the modern-day circuits don't always let their drivers prove the point, the focus was not their continuing advantage, however. It was whether, after all, Nigel Mansell really does have it in him to string together a World Championship challenge. Before the meeting he had expressed the view that McLaren would win: surely, he could not have foreseen that an error would let the red and white cars through?

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX, Montreal, June 14
69 laps of 2.75 mile (4.425 km) circuit (189.934 miles; 305.325 km)

1st: Gerhard Berger – McLaren Mp4/7A-Honda V12 – 1h 37m 08.299s
2nd: Michael Schumacher – Benneton B192-Ford HB V8 – 1h 37m 20.700s
3rd: Jean Alesi – Ferrari F92A-Farrari V12 – 1h 38m 15.626s
4th: Karl Wendlinger – March CG911B-Ilmor V10 – 68 laps
5th: Andrea de Cesaris – Tyrrell 020B-Ilmor V10 – 68 laps
6th: Erik Comas – Ligier JS37-Renault V10 – 68 laps