1989 San Marino Grand Prix race report

1989 San Marino GP feature

Ayrton Senna won out in a tense battle with McLaren team-mate Alain Prost

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A miracle

Miracles do happen in motor racing. We saw one at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix.

It may not have been quite the sort of miracle the tifosi had in mind for Ferrari once they’d seen the times the McLaren-Hondas turned in during testing and again in qualifying, but it was a solid, 99-carat, bona fide miracle all the same.

Not so many years ago, we’d now have been talking of Gerhard Berger in late terms, rueing the passing of yet another charger who never knew when to quit. Instead, we can still smile at the hardiness and irrepressibility of a racer who can strike the concrete wall at Tamburello at 170 mph, survive sitting in the ensuing fire for 23.51 seconds, and then discharge himself from the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna only the next day to fly to Willi Dungl’s Austrian clinic.

Berger can thank Ferrari for building a car which was tough enough to withstand the impact, and the smooth speed of the Italian rescue services, for his life. How he survived the shunt and the fire, and came out of both with nothing more serious that a cracked shoulder-blade, broken rib and sternum, and some nasty chest and hand burns, is still a complete, yet welcome, mystery.

As I said, miracles do happen in motor racing. The miracle the tifosi craved, however, was very different. They had desperately hoped for a repeat of that delicious surprise success in Rio, when Nigel Mansell had deified himself — at least until they find a reason to plunge the knife into him before twisting it — by taking John Barnard’s F1/89 Ferrari to victory.

Mansell. A year ago no Italian gave a damn about him. Now they appreciate in him what British fans have loved for so long. His fight. His strength. His speed. Above all, probably, his courage. And he needed that more than anything at Imola as the race restarted after the four laps which had ended in Berger’s shunt. When the green lights came on for the second time that afternoon, the Ferrari team still had no means whatsoever of identifying exactly why No 28 had failed to make it round Tamburello but had instead speared almost head-on into the wall.

There was talk of a front wing having detached itself, of suspension failure, possibly even of gearbox casing failure. Berger had been on the knife-edge in qualifying, and had suffered a couple of offs in his pursuit of the McLarens. Maybe something damaged then had finally broken. Nobody knew for sure, although Monaco would provide some pointers. Bernie Ecclestone didn’t want Mansell to race. He felt that No 27 should be withdrawn. Cesare Fiorio and the organisers faced a dilemma: what would the crowd do if the second red car was out? It was nothing compared to Mansell’s dilemma. In the end he did the two things you would expect of him. He got into his car, and he raced it as hard as it would go until it broke.

He was easy off the line with it, easy enough to have Sandro Nannini and Riccardo Patrese insert themselves between him and the two McLarens he’d been chasing fruitlessly in the first part of the race, but thereafter he gave it his all. Some of the national dailies accused him of stroking.

They didn’t watch him in action where others did. He gave it everything. Ultimately, as everyone had suspected, that wasn’t enough, but it was the machine not the man that was lacking.

In one of the most prolonged test-sessions ever, McLaren had occupied Imola for eight days before the race, and it showed. In Rio the Ferraris and the Williams-Renaults had been close; in Imola they were also-runs. Senna and Prost had between them assessed no fewer than eight different variations of the Honda V10 engine during that test. With that kind of sledgehammer it was inevitable the Formula One nut should crack.


1989 San Marino GP Q3

Mansell was the closest qualifier to McLaren with 3rd for Ferrari

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From the word go the MP4/5s were the class of the field. True, Berger had grabbed the fastest time on Friday afternoon, when the track was drying rapidly and the situation was something of a lottery. In fact, both Senna and Prost had brief spins in the damp, Alain when a brake stayed on after he’d taken his foot off the pedal. But once the cars were running in the dry there was nothing in the place to touch Neil Oatley’s design.

In grabbing the 31st pole of his career, Senna moved ever closer to Jimmy Clark’s record of 33, and in the first start he headed Prost comfortably. In the second, Alain got the drop on him and led as far as the right-hander on the run to Tosa. There, however, Senna towed up to him and slipped neatly ahead on the left-hand side, just as he used to whenever Martin Brundle beat him off the line in early 1983 Formula Three races. Smoothly, confidently, the Brazilian slammed away, but then Prost got his head down. If the Frenchman lacks that mite extra in qualifying, his fastest-lap record is impressive, and with a string of quickest times he edged closer to his team-mate. He was 1.48 seconds behind on lap nine of the restart, but hacked that down to 0.65 sec by lap 13. In a race whose result would be decided on aggregate times, Senna still had a cushion from the ,first “heat”, but Prost appeared to have the better race set-up, just as he had in the Iberian races last year, and Senna was under pressure.

If Imola was an otherwise dull race, that was the high point, as the two McLaren drivers traded sensationally fast laps way clear of their so-called opposition. Senna was the more aggressive in traffic and began to edge away again, and then Prost got trapped behind Thierry Boutsen. The Belgian was into his own charge from the back and wasn’t about to make life easy for anyone, and by the time Prost had found the way round him, Senna was comfortable again.

1989 SM GP start

Prost takes the lead at the first start

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Then on lap 43 the Frenchman left his braking a fraction late going into the last corner by the pit entrance and looped into a spin. He maintained his momentum as the McLaren slithered on to the grass, and kept the Honda V10 running. In fact, the whole thing didn’t lose him an awful lot of time, or even disturb his rhythm too much, but it was the end of any challenge. The front left Goodyear had picked up a blister, hence the initial trouble.

After his gentle start, Mansell hounded Patrese for all he was worth, but his 1988 team-mate is freshly invigorated this season, and was proving a tough proposition.

Testing had indicated that the Williams FW12Cs should be able to run at a similar pace to the McLarens, but the race proved that was not quite the case. However, Ferrari and Williams were very evenly matched. Whatever Nigel attempted, Riccardo seemed able to contain, even though they were literally only inches apart. You sensed it was only a matter of time before the Englishman found the may through, but when he did finally deprive his rival of third, he did so only after a phenomenal avoidance. Going down to the Rivazza on lap 22, Riccardo’s engine suddenly lost power before vomiting a cloud of oil smoke. Mansell, right behind as Patrese slowed dramatically, just jinked round him.

Six years earlier Riccardo had been jeered by his fellow countrymen as he slid off and handed the victory in San Marino to a Frenchman; but Patrick Tambay had been driving a Ferrari, so what did national honour matter as far as the driver was concerned? This time, a cheer greeted his latest bout of misfortune, as a Briton in a Ferrari swept into third place, but at least the crowd had the courtesy to applaud Patrese as he walked in.

If they thought Mansell might now do something about the disappearing MP4/5s they were sadly mistaken, though. The gap barely fluctuated and then suddenly, two laps later, the Ferrari too had gone, its gearbox electronics again malfunctioning. All Nigel had had to do was run smoothly home to four solid points, which would have kept him atop the points table …

In normal circumstances, Boutsen ought to have benefited from those retirements. For the second race running he’d been outqualified by his team-mate, but he nevertheless started from the fourth row, alongside Berger. However, he was running directly behind the Ferrari when it went off, and picked up a puncture on the lap it crashed, possibly from its debris. As the cars assembled on the grid for the restart, Roland Brunseyrade, the FISA starter, ordered Williams to push its car into the pits if it wanted to replace the punctured tyre, refusing to let it do so on the grid. Team manager Michael Cane argued he should be allowed to change the tyre on the grid on safety grounds, without the penalty of the car thus having to re-start from the pit-lane, but Brunseyrade was adamant. The FW12C was pushed away as instructed. In the paddock, Frank Williams was screaming into his radio. He knows the rules pertaining to such matters intimately, but his radio set was not operational at that moment .. .

Boutsen duly started from the pit-lane, drove like an angry man, and wound up a solid fourth, only a slot lower than he was likely to have finished anyway. Then Ligier protested that he should have been blackflagged for having his car worked on in the pits during a re-start (expressly forbidden in the rules), and he was excluded.

The whole episode was not quite the French sour grapes it seems at first sight, but it was an organisational blunder.

After its appalling 1988, Ligier has bounced back very well with impressive newcomer Olivier Grouillard, who qualified an excellent tenth in the new JS33. He shared row five with the equally impressive Alex Caffi and they ran together as they rounded Rivazza and headed towards the start/finish line after the fourth lap of the original race. That was when they saw the first red flags.

In the ensuing melee, Caffi spun his Scuderia Italia Dallara and made contact with Grouillard’s car. The Ligier sustained damage to its undertray and rear wing. The Dallara, like the Williams, had a puncture and Scuderia Italia team manager Patricia Cantu found himself in exactly the same situation as Cane. Meanwhile, out on the grid, Ligier prepared to change Grouillard’s undertray, but had to remove the JS33’s rear wheels to do so. That too is illegal, and after completing four laps of the re-start, Olivier was shown the black flag.

1989 Monaco GP Nannini 3rd

Alessandro Nannini brought some joy to the home crowd with 3rd in his Benetton

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Ligier protested its rivals on the basis that it was unfair to let them continue while it had suffered itself. Boutsen was thus deprived of his hard-won fourth, while Caffi lost an excellent seventh, at that stage the best finish of his and Beppe Lucchini’s team’s careers. Both Williams and Scuderia Italia lodged appeals, and interestingly, in Monaco, FISA clarified the rule relating to safety tyre-changes during re-starts, to permit changes on the grid. There were even rumours that the Imola race director was to be fined for insisting they had to go to the pits.

The San Marino Grand Prix seemed to be a race for the common man, a chance for the little guys to show their mettle. As Benetton and March struggled to find grip in qualifying, on Goodyear’s new-construction rubber, “Piero” Martini surged to eleventh place on the grid in the locally manufactured Minardi. Even Enzo Osella’s little team was in on the act, as Nicola Larini pre-qualified easily and then took the efficient Osella to fourteenth slot.

Martini didn’t last long in eleventh place before his gearbox broke, but Larini was in brilliant form as he took the FA1M/89 to a stunning sixth by lap 42. Sadly, though, a tendency to bounce at the front, probably as the dampers wore, became more pronounced and lost him time and places, and then the brake pedal began to feel odd. “I thought it was air in the system,” he explained, “but it turned out to be the left rear wheel bearing breaking up.” When it broke up altogether, the car was pitched into the wall and a great effort was over.

Gabriele Tarquini was also in fine form in the Faure AGS, in his first race as Philippe Streiff’s replacement. Hampered by poor aerodynamics and only a five-speed gearbox on a circuit where six are essential, he stayed right with Alex Caffi in the closing laps of the race, the two Italian coming-men fighting a glorious battle, and took the last championship point when Caffi and Boutsen were excluded. He may well lose it if the appeals are upheld, but it was a fine drive.

So what of Benetton and March, the heroes of Rio? In qualifying Sandro Nannini smoothly reasserted himself over his new team-mate Johnny Herbert, who blotted his copybook slightly with a car-damaging spin on Friday morning, but neither liked the feel of their B188s. Nannini finally got his to handle well enough to snatch the fastest V8-engined time, and then found in the second race that it could all but match the pace of Mansell and Patrese. He thus began to apply subtle pressure just as they both retired, and thereafter came through to salvage something with an unchallenged third.

Imola was not to bring Johnny the same glory as Rio. He’d been running less downforce than Nannini when he spun on Friday, and thereafter he never got the B188 going to his satisfaction. In the race he had worked up to eighth, through others’ misfortunes, but then spun at Tosa. It was a while before he could try to rejoin, thanks to traffic, and then his attempt to spin-turn in the right direction simply took him into the sand on the opposite side of the track. By the time he got going again, cursing himself, he was fourteenth; by the finish — and at least it was another finish — he was eleventh.

Like Nannini, Capelli worked at his March and eventually massaged it into good enough shape to qualify thirteenth alongside Larini, but after making a strong start and leading Nannini for one lap, he slid off on oil at the Rivazza next time round and crashed heavily. Team-mate Mauricio Gugelmin couldn’t better 19th on the grid and lost a lot of ground with a puncture.

He’d already lost his clutch early on, and the maltreatment necessary to engage a gear after his stop certainly didn’t help the transmission, which subsequently broke.

By contrast to March, Arrows continued its Rio form, at least with Derek Warwick, and the Englishman was in ebullient mood as he battled with Nelson Piquet, who actually looked something like his old self as he planted the Lotus 101 eighth on the grid to Derek’s twelfth. Just as they did back in Formula Three in 1978 they ran wheel to wheel or nose to tail, but then Piquet’s Judd engine broke on lap 30 and Derek was able to ease back a little to take fifth on the road and fourth when Boutsen’s disqualification was announced. His reduced pace was probably just as well, as the Arrows was using a lot of oil by the finish.

That Jonathan Palmer wound up fifth in the new Tyrrell 018 was nothing short of amazing, and it was just the slice of luck that Ken Tyrrell deserves after that appalling 1988 season. Palmer, however, should not have been driving the new car. It was originally slated for Michele Alboreto, because of his nationality, since there was only one ready and, in any case, poor old JP fitted better in the 017B. That plan had to be revised when Alboreto just missed qualifying because of the inevitable new-car problems — it had literally been rushed straight from the factory — but as Palmer had qualified the 017B, a swap was made. Under the rules it is permissible to interchange car models, provided the driver has qualified. 018 was than set-up for the Englishman, who went forward regarding the race as little more than a much-needed test session.

It oversteered so badly in the first race that he spun at Tosa on his second lap, but prior to the re-start Harvey Postlethwaite had another crack at the set-up and in the second race Jonathan was delighted as he charged through the field.

Eddie Cheever’s fortunes looked up as he qualified a strong fourth in Friday’s wet, but thereafter his usual bout of minor mechanical troubles dropped him to 21st in the line-up. He gave it everything in the race, and worked as high as sixth before a cracked exhaust (Warwick had a similar problem) dropped him back to ninth by the finish.

Herbie Blush made a welcome reappearance on the racing, as opposed to administrative, side of the sport, as team director at Brabham, after his year’s sabbatical with FISA. Sergio Rinland’s BT58s again pre-qualified easily, only to go slower as qualifying progressed, and Modena’s 1 min 27.350 sec from Friday morning was the team’s best time all weekend. Both drivers were frustrated, Modena spinning heavily into the wall at the approach to Rivazza while coping with a long brake pedal which required pumping early in the race, and Brundle battling with poor handling due to a detached diffusor and retiring when the fuel pressure dropped.

Satoru Nakajima once again failed to impress anyone, apart maybe from the odd tortoise, on his way to 14th after losing many laps with electrical problems, while Andrea de Cesaris was in one of his baulking moods and eventually obliged Luis Sala to become trapped in the gravel pit at Acqua Minerale as he occupied all the road motoring out of it himself.

The newly-renamed Equipe Larrousse had an unfortunate debut for its new Lola LC89s, mainly because Magneti Marelli’s objection to its experiments with Bosch electronics forced a decision to opt for the German product and thus left little time to sort it fully to suit the Chrysler Larnborghini engine. Dalmas’ car wouldn’t fire up for the first start and was denied the re-start, and Alliot came straight into the pits at the end of lap one and wasn’t classified.

Ayrton Senna won his fifteenth GP, but the real story of Imola was the manner in which Alain Prost stormed off after the race, not prepared to speak to anyone. Unbeknown to most, and at Senna’s suggestion, he had agreed to a pact wherein neither would overtake the other during the opening laps, to avoid the risk of jeopardising their championship chances. Senna saw nothing wrong in the fact that he’d passed Prost despite the agreement, but Prost was livid, felt betrayed, and would later be quoted as saying Senna was not honourable.

1989 San Marino GP Senna finish

Senna opened his account for the season with a win at Imola

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In short, the gloves had at last come off in a personal relationship that few ever gave a chance of becoming anything much anyway. Along the pit-lane rival camps rubbed their hands, hopeful that the strain might open a chink in Honda Marlboro McLaren’s apparently impregnable armour, and certain that the rift had set an intriguing scene for Monaco … DJT