Ayrton Senna put a major scare to the back of his mind as he won a record sixth Monaco, following Prost’s penalty and Schumacher’s premature retirement
It wasn’t until the post-race press conference that you really began to find the perspective for Ayrton Senna’s fifth consecutive Monaco GP victory.
On the face of it, it had been a gift from the Gods, for it is not often that the Brazilian inherits his successes without having to pass a single car. Yet there was Alain Prost, stalled in the pits after a disastrous stop-and-go penalty for allegedly jumping the start, and then there was Michael Schumacher’s Benetton burning by the side of the road, its comfortable lead literally going up in smoke.
The two puzzles to this race came early. Did Prost really jump the start? And why was Senna so self-contained, appearing not to want to challenge his French and German rivals? It seemed quite out of character.
The former is a question that historians will argue about for years to come. To be honest, it looked as if he did when I first saw the television, but subsequent detailed slow motion footage tended to suggest otherwise. If he did, then he did so by the tiniest of margins. “All four of them on the front two rows were on the move a little early,” said one Lotus mechanic who’d gone down to watch the start. “We have no problem with the officials’ decision,” said a Williams team member. “From my point of view I don’t think I jumped the start,” said Prost himself. “I just made a good start and that is always on the limit. I think the penalty is, even without the problem of stalling, a little severe. Everybody has their own opinion of such a situation, and I now have to watch the video to make up my own mind.” When he had, he still felt ‘disappointed’ by the outcome.
Indeed, there is a case for applying a simple minute’s penalty at Monaco, where the pit lane entry is so tight that drivers who come in lose an inordinate amount of time. But what’s done is done. History cannot be rewritten. Had Prost simply come in at the end of lap 12, stood still for 10s, and got out again, he might just have scraped away ahead of the two Saubers in eighth and ninth places and then been able to charge back after Schumacher and Senna. Instead, he stalled his Williams Renault twice, lost around 100s and thereafter was condemned to an afternoon of catch-up that reaped a disappointing fourth place, one lap down. “The clutch was tricky both times,” he said afterwards. “That made it very, very difficult to get the car going.”
A minute penalty would have allowed him to keep out on the track, piling on the pressure in an attempt to distance himself sufficiently from Senna, and would have made for an electrifying race, but such is life. As Mario Andretti once said to his elder son when the latter voiced the opinion that his pater might have let him win a race: “Michael, that’s not the way it works.”
That other question, about Senna’s subdued performance, had the roots of its answer in Thursday morning’s free practice session. The Monaco GP meeting was barely six laps old, and the skies were just opening to dump the first of the day’s rain drops on to the Principality’s streets, when the Brazilian had a very unpleasant accident going down to Ste Devote. His McLaren was unsettled by a bump, got thrown off-line to the left, hit that barrier, and was then launched back across the road to strike the other guardrail head-on at a speed later estimated at 160kmh. At Anderstorp back in 1976 Chris Amon had felt he had all the time in the world to see his life flash before him as the Ensign headed straight for the guardrail. Senna had less distance to cover at Monaco, but still felt that he had a lot of time to await the inevitable.
“For sure I was afraid l was gonna lose my legs, that I was gonna be very badly hurt,” he said quietly later in the weekend.
He strained the thumb on his stronger left hand where he kept holding the wheel. It’s not something he would normally have done in such circumstances, but to the end he was trying to rescue the situation. And though it may not have looked it when he qualified fifth in the wet that afternoon, and improved to third in Saturday’s sun, he was in very very thoughtful mode. Understandably, that incident shook him badly.
“Monte Carlo is special, and always has been for me, from my very first race here with Toleman and throughout my career. And it continues to be special,” he said after one of the psychologically toughest races of his life. “After my accident on Thursday I knew I had lost the edge, because the difference between going flat out here and going 99 per cent is big. And in that shunt I lost the 100 per cent possibility. We still tried to come back on Saturday, and again I touched the Armco in the chicane.”
On that occasion, when he had been flicked into a spin by another bump, on the exit to the tunnel, he had been unable to restart and had sat quietly on a bench in the sun, pondering the bum hand Fate was dealing him.
“I was thinking hard, before going to bed on Saturday, throughout the night, and then when I got up this morning,” he admitted. “This morning I really was thinking positively about it. I didn’t think I would be able to take the lead on the first corner, but I would try to push the people ahead of me, even though I might not be able to cope with their speed.
“Michael was quick. But in those early laps I didn’t want to go too hard because I knew the tyres would be worn by the other end of the race. I just wanted to keep a good pace. And after some laps I started to push, which stopped the gap growing and allowed me to maintain pressure on him and hope for him to make a pit stop. I knew Benetton had worse tyre wear. I always hoped, and in the end I got what I was looking for…”
His thumb, he said, felt numb. The main problem was to maintain concentration, make the right decisions.
For Schumacher, on Prost’s enforced stop, things had seemed straightforward as he opened up a lead over Senna of as much as 19.1s by lap 20, before traffic came into the equation. At long last Benetton had traction control on its B193Bs, and after qualifying on the front row alongside poleman Prost he was absolutely delighted with the car. “I just keep thinking what we could have done earlier in the year if we’d had it sooner,” he kept repeating to himself.
Though an hydraulic oil leak eventually set fire to his car at Loews on lap 33, there was a definite air of optimism within the team as it packed up its gear. Even though Patrese had also retired, from a lacklustre sixth place with engine failure after 54 laps, it went home with its head high, aware that it had made a lot of progress in one weekend. Canada couldn’t come soon enough.
Ferrari, too, had cause for celebration with Alesi’s sterling third place, and a performance from Gerhard Berger that had seriously threatened Damon Hill’s softly, softly second place. The red cars qualified well on their older active suspension (with standard spring actuation rather than the gas system tried by the Austrian in Spain), and this time they were also reliable. Victory might never have been in the equation, but a rostrum finish certainly was.
Alesi had been the hero of qualifying with a performance that must have had Gilles Villeneuve smiling down on the scene of his own great victory back in 1981, and he led his team-mate right through until the 64th lap. Then, the team’s decision to call Gerhard in for fresh tyres on lap 39 worked in the Austrian’s favour and he sailed past after a previous try at Loews on lap 62 had resulted in a slight coming together. Earlier the Saubers had also biffed one another there as Wendlinger resolutely closed the door on team-mate Lehto as they fought for seventh place on lap 24. The Finn was an instant retirement with bent suspension, and was not a happy man despite the view the team tried to put over. The Austrian lasted until lap 32, when an ignition problem sent him into the pits and consigned him to an unhappy run to 13th, several laps down.
Hill had come under intense pressure from Alesi around the 27th lap, but Jean had been hurt badly by Zanardi as he lapped the Lotus, partly because his Ferrari’s V12 lacked torque. Gradually Damon eased away again. Now, however, Berger was able to make full use of his fresher rubber and he and Hill were nose to tail as they put another lap on Zanardi. They had dived through on the inside of the Italian going through Mirabeau on lap 71, when Gerhard thought he saw a gap down the inside at Loews. Indeed, there was one, but only for about a millisecond. He was too far back to dive into it anyway, but nevertheless he tried, with the inevitable result that the Ferrari hit the side of the Williams, which spun sideways. The Ferrari stalled, but Hill kept his engine running, and maintained his cool. Zanardi threaded round them, and so did Brundle who was in pursuit of the Lotus for the final championship point, but as Hill manoeuvred his FW15C Alesi’s chances of sneaking by into second place were thwarted, and poor old Andretti found himself trapped altogether. This was particularly tough on the American, who had already lost a load of time at the start when his McLaren had changed itself into third instead of second gear off the line. He’d then compounded that by hitting the back of Barbazza’s Minardi in the first corner traffic jam, necessitating a stop for a new nose. Now he had fought back to challenge Zanardi and Brundle for what would be sixth place, only to have any chance of a point damned by someone else’s error.
Meanwhile, Hill was concentrating again on keeping Alesi at bay, both struggling with worn tyres as Senna, who’d had the luxury of a quick stop for new Goodyears on lap 51, sailed serenely on to his date with Prince Rainier.
Damon had earlier been troubled in traffic by the awkward Comas, who lost him the great chunk that had allowed Jean to challenge initially, and as he had come up upon Andretti, Brundle and Zanardi again the Ferraris had been able close in. Heroics in traffic were the last thing he envisaged; a finish was paramount. “I was fuming,” he said after Berger’s assault. “Then l managed to get reverse – remarkably enough! – and drive off, which he wasn’t able to do. For the first few laps after I got that tap from him, the car felt unusual.” Like Senna, he then had to undergo trial by psychological worry.
Having dominated wet qualifying on Thursday, it had been his turn to experience Monaco’s darker side on Saturday morning, when a cracked left rear wishbone had pitched him into a frightening spin exiting the tunnel. By miracle he hit nothing, but the incident – due, it was thought, to a problem with a batch of wishbones – made a deep impression. Now here he was wondering if Berger’s attack had aggravated things and set him up for something similar. It was a relieved Briton who finally saw the chequered flag, 52s after Senna had ducked beneath it. “There was a point when I was four or five seconds behind Senna and remember thinking that I was the only person who could stop him from breaking my dad’s record of five wins. But this was my first Monaco; it was Ayrton’s 10th. He knows too much about how to run a race there. I have to say that if my father was still around today, he would have been the first to congratulate Ayrton on his sixth win.”
For Alesi third was just reward after his uncomplaining efforts for Ferrari all year, but Prost saw nothing remarkable in his own run to fourth. After his disappointment in Spain Fittipaldi was delighted with a strong fifth for Minardi, which needs good fortune right now as it exists from race to race. The Brazilian had come right the way through from 17th on the grid, genuinely passing Alliot, Barrichello and Herbert and profiting from others’ misfortune. Warwick initially fended off a strong challenge from Brundle as they chased Comas for 10th and that had become seventh with the demise of the Saubers, then sixth as Patrese pitted. Then Prost came through them, and on lap 38 Brundle finally slipped by the Footwork.
“The throttle jammed going into Ste Devote and while I was hard in sixth sorting that out Martin got by me,” said Derek. “I thought I’d hit the brake and the throttle at the same time, to be honest, but the next lap it was the same. I came into the pits, went out again, then had the same problem. Something was broken in the mechanism. A shame, because I reckon we should have had some points today…”
Thereafter Brundle moved away to challenge Comas, but had to drop behind Fittipaldi when he and the Larrousse driver got together at Mirabeau on lap 52. Martin came in for a fresh nose, while Erik was out with a flat Goodyear. Having finally been passed by Fittipaldi after a defensive run, Herbert then enjoyed a spirited little fight with team-mate Zanardi. The Englishman was holding second gear in engagement after 30 laps, then fourth, while the Italian had at last made some progress with his chassis set-up after an awful qualifying weekend for the Hethel team. He finally squeaked by Johnny on lap 59 to take over eighth as they chased after Barrichello, the young Brazilian’s tyres steadily going off after another spirited performance in the Sasol Jordan. Three laps later Herbert got a box without gears coming on to the pit straight as the recovering Brundle chased after him, and as the Castrol Lotus slowed suddenly the Ligier inadvertently tapped it into a spin which damaged the 107B’s rear wing and forced it into retirement. Brundle sped on, grabbing the final point from Zanardi as the Italian allowed Hill to unlap himself, and Berger’s naughtiness moved them all up a place.
Thus the 51st Monaco GP came to its close and Senna stepped forward for the plaudits for the sixth time and the fifth in succession. In the end it was one of those frustrating ‘what might have been’ events, even the anticipated war into the first corner proving something of an anti-climax. But it was another triumph over adversity for Senna, on a weekend when he might have been forgiven for stroking after that Thursday scare. Not all races need be won from the front, even in Monte Carlo. D J T