Formula One -- San Marino Grand Prix

A Hat Trick

Imola, April 28: A vast crowd stayed in silence to watch Ayrton Senna as he reeled off the 61 laps of the splendid Autodromo 'Enzo and Dino Ferrari' at Imola to win the 11th Gran Premio di San Marino for McLaren-Honda. Apart from this being the third time he has won the Imola race, the significant point was that it was his third win this season in the brand new McLaren MP4/6 powered by the equally new Honda V12 engine, and at the time of writing there have only been three races. While other teams are suffering 'teething' troubles with new cars or new engines, McLaren-Honda came straight out and proceeded to win with the new designs.

For the Italians, and that means Ferrari enthusiasts, the whole meeting was a disaster and, in fact, there was only one occasion to cheer loudly. This was mid-way through Friday qualifying when Patrese held temporary 'pole position' time with his Williams FW14 with Renault V10 power. On the second runs Prost took the lead with 1.22.195 (Hurrah!), but then an embarrassed silence fell as Patrese did 1.21.957; admittedly he was a true Italian but his car was Anglo-French and painted in a motley mixture of blue, white and yellow. If it had been painted red it might have helped. Then Senna went out in the red and white McLaren-HondaV12 and 1.21.877 was enough to snatch pole-position for the time being. On Saturday the rains came and they stayed on and off for the next two days. Friday's times settled the grid line-up and the race itself was settled almost before it started on Sunday.

A look down the accompanying starting grid will indicate which teams got off to a good start at this first European Formula One race, and which were in trouble. Some of them could have improved their situation had the weather stayed fine and others might have done if they had not had to bring along brand-new and untested cars, all of which produced murmurs of sympathy until you realized that the McLaren-Honda V12 was equally brand new when it won its first race in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 10th and won again in Brazil on March 24th. People say that McLaren-Honda 'keep moving the goal-posts' but I think they are in a different 'ball-game' at the moment.

As the twenty-six 'qualifiers' lined up on the grid on Sunday lunchtime the rain started and there was a mad scramble to change from 'slick' tyres to heavily treaded 'rain' tyres, and the Goodyear and Pirelli workers who had been hard at it all morning making sure all their teams were suitably supplied had to continue their efforts even more vigorously. At 10 minutes before 2pm when the start was due, the rain was falling so heavily that it was bouncing up off the tarmac and water was streaming across parts of the circuit on the steepest hills. Eventually the grid was cleared of people, umbrellas, water-proof covers and tyre-warmers and all 26 engines were started and a fine sound they made. Eleven V12 engines, eight V10 engines and seven V8 engines with over 15,000 horse-power to share among the 26 drivers, though most of them would have settled for 150bhp under the prevailing conditions. Senna led them away on the 'parade lap' in which they are supposed to keep grid station. On the far side of the circuit, on the descent to Rivazza, the left side of the road was streaming with water and Senna had a few 'moments' negotiating the water. Prost arrived and promptly spun and sailed out of control across the wide open space on the inside of the circuit. Berger also slid off the track but the McLaren kept straight and tobogganed across the grass to rejoin the circuit and his place in the grid parade, while Prost's Ferrari slid backwards into the tyre barrier. Everyone else negotiated the stream and get back to the starting grid and the race started without Alain Prost.

Patrese made a lovely start from his second position and took the lead from Senna on the way to the first corner, with the other 23 starters obscured in a mass of spray, for though the rain had stopped falling everywhere was soaking wet and the 100,000 spectators were in a state of wet shock over the retirement of Prost before the race had even started. At the end of lap 1 Patrese had a nice lead over Senna, who looked as though he could bide his time over the situation as there was already no danger behind him. He was followed by Modena (Tyrrell-Honda), Berger (McLaren-Honda), Alesi (Ferrari) and Martini (Minardi-Ferrari) with no sign of Mansell or Piquet who are about the only two to challenge Senna on driving and racing.

Mansell did not complete the first lap as he collided with Brundle's Brabham-Yamaha BT60Y on the last corner and the Williams came off second best, with a punctured left rear tyre and broken rear suspension. Brundle was able to limp round for another lap, with smashed nose-cone and broken steering, to regain the pits and have repairs carried out and rejoin the race, while Mansell walked back to the paddock ranting about 'the idiot' who ran into him, not knowing it was Martin Brundle!

Berger moved up into second place on lap 2, passing Stefano Modena, and then Alesi thought it was time that he got the Tyrrell-Honda V10, but he misjudged things and ended up in the sand trap, bogged down and out of the race. This was at the Tosa hairpin where there are more Ferrari enthusiasts to the square yard of hillside than you would think it possible to accommodate. A very sheepish Jean Alesi set off to walk back to the pits, admitting quite simply that he made a mistake, whereas his team leader arrived from the opposite end of the circuit full of excuses for his error, though even his own team members clearly did not believe any of them. The huge crowd was aghast. Barely four minutes had passed and there wasn't a Ferrari on the track, it was totally unreal. There were two Ferrari engines still running, in the Minardi cars of Martini and Morbidelli, and an Italian driver was leading the race, but few seemed to care. Those who had only paid to stand in the mud began to drift away and head for home, while those who had paid a lot of money for a grandstand seat decided to sit tight and try and get something back for their large outlay. At least the rain had stopped, and drivers were contemplating making pit stops to change over to 'slick' tyres. Gugelmin in the leading Leyton House Ilmor V10 was the first to come in, and then Patrese came in and as he drove down the pit lane the Renault engine spluttered and stopped as he braked at the Williams pit. An electronic gizmo had failed and by the time Patrese got going again Senna had not only gone into the lead but had been in for a set of 'dry' Goodyears and was many laps ahead.

Patrese had never looked confident and comfortable during his nine laps in the lead, with Senna and Berger shadowing him with the two McLarens, but at least he was leading, something not many drivers do while Senna is around. For six laps the first four cars were Honda-powered, the two V12 McLarens with 1991 engines and the two Tyrrell with V10 engines from 1990, a sight that must have depressed the engine men from Ferrari, Renault, Cosworth, Ilmor, Judd, Lamborghini, Yamaha and Porsche. Nakajima's Tyrrell broke down on lap 16 and Modena's on lap 42, but in neither case was the Honda V10 to blame, other than by providing more power than the Tyrrell transmissions could cope with. With the race barely over halfway the two McLarens were a lap ahead of everyone else and it was pretty academic as to who filled the following places. Moreno held 3rd place from lap 42 to lap 54, in a new Benetton B191, but then its works Cosworth engine failed, while the other Benetton B191 of Piquet was hardly seen, the Brazilian spinning off the wet tack on the second lap.

Consistent running by the slower cars was beginning to pay off in the championship points collecting and the prize money. Lehto, the Finn with the unpronounceable christian name, moved into 3rd place, bringing tears of joy to the faces of the Scuderia Italia as he got the chequered flag in the Dallara BMS 191, and a satisfied smile to the face of John Judd whose new V10 engine had performed well. His old V8 Judd engines in the two Lotus cars had done a good job as well, with Mika Hakkinen and Julian Bailey in fifth and sixth places, respectively. In fourth place was Pierluigi Martini in a Ferrari V12-powered Minardi car, but being painted white, yellow and black it was not surprising that it was overlooked in the general gloom that descended over the Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrrari at Imola.

In the closing stages Senna had to pussyfoot a bit as his oil pressure warning light was flashing and for much of the race Berger's front brakes seemed to be troubling him. The McLaren-Honda V12 car may not have been perfect, but they were good enough to finish first and second, the only two cars to complete the full race distance.

Unluckiest man was undoubtedly Eric Van de Poele, the young Belgian driver of a Lambo 2-Lamborghini V12, making his race debut, having got through pre-qualifying for the first time. A few laps from the end, while in a firm fifth place, the Lambo fuel pump malfunctioned and the car stopped almost within sight of the finish. -- DSJ

NB: Further details and reflections on the San Marino GP will be found in Formula One Scene.

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Results (top five): San Marino GP, Imola, April 28

61 laps of 5.040 km circuit (307.440 km; 191.034 miles)

1. Ayrton Senna, BRA, (McLaren MP4/6 - Honda V12) 1h 35m 14.75s

2. Gerhard Berger, AUT, (McLaren MP4/6 - Honda V12) 1h 35m 16.425s

3. J.J. Lehto, FIN, (Dellara BMS 191-Judd GV V10) 1 lap behind

4. Pierluigi Martini, I, (Minardi M191- Ferrari V12) 2 laps behind

5. Mikka Hakkinen, FIN, Lotus 102B-Judd EV8) 3 laps behind

Conditions: Very wet start, then dry

Winner's average speed: 193.671 kph (120.341 mph)

Fastest Lap: Gerhard Berger (McLaren MP4/6 - Honda V12) 1m 26.531s on lap 55; 209.682 kph (130.290 mph)