If the Honda Marlboro McLaren steamroller had thus been halted, there were some valid reasons, and the indications were that either Senna or Prost could have won the race. The Brazilian threw away his chance with the sort of impetuosity that is now a surprise from the man who was so incredible at Suzuka last year. The Frenchman, however, had a more sensible excuse.
Rio has a highly abrasive surface, and where drivers made only one tyre-stop last year when everyone was running the same rubber, this year two were expected thanks to the re-engaged competition between Goodyear and Pirelli.
While Patrese and Williams hoped to make it through with only one, and suffered as a result, Prost was fully intending to make two, and was cunning enough to time his first for lap 15, earlier than most.
However, just prior to it he had begun to detect a problem with his clutch, and this developed to the point where he could no longer use it. Without it he was thus consigned to run the remaining 45 laps on the same tyres.
That set the scene for one of the greatest drives of a glittering career, for with minimal fuss and his own unique blend of speed, precision and gentleness he coaxed that McLaren to the finish. Not only that, but to second place, just 7.809 seconds adrift of Mansell.
“If I had been able to stop for a third set of tyres, I am sure I would have won,” he ventured. It was no idle boast from a beaten racer, either, but a quietly spoken comment from a man who had put in the best drive of the race. The pity of it was that so few people seemed to realise just how good it had been.
The Williams-Renault challenge ultimately came away with nothing, which was rather less than it deserved. Throughout testing, Boutsen had been bang on the pace, and when McLaren’s new MP4/5 arrived late, on the Thursday of the allotted week, its sprint-car oversteer had vexed Senna so much that Prost took over honing it until he finally achieved some semblance of balance. Senna then hacked it round as hard as he could and just pipped Boutsen’s times, but as the Belgian sought to retaliate his rear suspension broke.
Already Philippe Streiff’s accident had cast a pall over affairs and raised questions about the wisdom of the current breed of cars. Now Boutsen’s accident raised more, since it was clearly a component failure. What was most worrying was that Patrick Head’s cars don’t break. “They might loosen the odd wheel in America,” he quipped at the race, in deference to Watkins Glen in 1980, “but they don’t break. The worrying thing is that the corner which broke was the most damaged in the ensuing shunt.”