An almost perfect result

Once again the Williams duo ran away and hid, but just how much of their superiority was due to active suspension?

It was as predictable as it was impressive, really. The second Williams 1-2 of the season, that is. There was not much that was spectacular about the motor racing at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but as ever the undercurrents held fascination.

Prior to the event Williams designer Patrick Head had been his usual modest self, playing down the likely effectiveness of the active suspension, but practice was but minutes old when the overall message came across loud and clear: his FW14Bs were in a class of their own. And as the weekend progressed volume was added to the message by the state in which the once dominant Honda Marlboro McLaren team found itself.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the McLaren drivers were in a war in central America every bit as vicious as the strife in Guatemala. The 2.7-mile track is one of the best in the world, in concept. But in execution it is seriously lacking. They had changed the daunting Peraltada corner for this race. It's a sweeping, 180-degree right-hander which brings the cars back on to the start/finish straight. At best, cars used to get through there at maybe 165mph, but this year they eased its banking from 12 to five degrees and had resurfaced part of it. The call for the change had come after Ayrton Senna's celebrated roll in qualifying the previous year, and in its time the corner had claimed several victims. Senna had gone off there in 1986, Derek Warwick in '87, Philippe Alliot in '88, and this year and last it would display an attraction for Minardis. None of these incidents, as with Senna's in 1991, caused injury, but back in 1962 it had claimed the life of Mexico's favourite racing son, Ricardo Rodriguez, as he lost control of Rob Walker's Lotus 24 while trying to claim pole position. Later, they would name the circuit after him, and when his great brother Pedro was killed in 1971 it became the Autodrorno Hermanos Rodriguez the Circuit Brothers Rodriguez. What is sad is that the track's condition betrays the honour of that illustrious name.

Even with the revised surface there was a nasty dip on the fast line into Peraltada, and everywhere else there were bumps galore. The track covers a subterranean river, which disturbs its foundations depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Many car and driver combinations simply put up with them and made the best of a bad job, but when you were a McLaren driver in Mexico you operated under even greater pressure as the Williams duo wrought their havoc. Worse, there was an additional threat. As it awaited the new MP4/7A McLaren could just accept its situation, and the role of second fiddle to Didcot, but here was an interloper: Michael Schumacher in the Benetton Ford.

It meant that Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger had to screw their MP4/6Bs down tight, to the point where they darted dangerously from bump to bump, right on the very knife edge. Inevitably, as in any war, there were casualties. As Berger was lamenting: "You just can't take the risk of pressing hard over the bumps because you just don't know what the car is going to do," Senna had a huge shunt before the exit of the Esses. This section of sweeping road gets faster and faster until catapulting the cars down the back stretch and on towards the delights of the Peraltada, and in the penultimate sweep the McLaren simply hit a bump and got away from him. It twitched, he corrected it, but by then it was off line, into the ever-present dirt that awaits the unlucky. Devoid of grip it looped into a spin and headed backwards for the retaining wall. At the last moment, its wheels locked, it came around to strike the wall almost sideways on, with an impact so severe that Senna's helmet all but touched the left-hand sidepod. As it was deflected round and came to a stop he could be seen moving, but the moment he removed his helmet the pain was unpleasantly evident in his face.

It transpired that he had had another of his miraculous escapes, to add to his 1991 Mexican and Hockenheim inversions, and on Saturday he bravely ran despite a left leg badly bruised where a suspension component had been punched into the cockpit. He freely admitted that he had expected the worst when the car came to rest. That the chassis itself had withstood the shunt spoke volumes for the wisdom of FISA's latest mandatory crash tests.

That day it was Berger's turn, the Austrian going off in the left-hander approaching the Retorno corner when, just like Senna. his MP4/6B was thrown off course by its reaction to a severe bump. Earlier on, in the Esses you could actually see momentary daylight under one of his rear wheels, so bad was the surface. Gerhard survived the incident with nothing more than intense anger at the way the marshals craned away the car with him still aboard but later limped away from a virtual repeat of Senna's accident. Truly, it was not a weekend for McLaren to savour.

For Schumacher, however, it was yet further indication of a glittering talent as confidently he thrust his Benetton between Mansell and Patrese on Friday afternoon. Riccardo rectified that on Saturday, only just failing to better Mansell's pole position time of 1m 16.346s, but still the young German lurked, a comfortable 1.3s faster than team-mate Martin Brundle, who nevertheless occupied the fourth slot.

On Friday this was a new Brundle. tetchy, gnawed at by pre-meeting suggestions that his place in the team might be taken by new Benetton test driver Alessandro Zanardi. A man obsessed with off-track politics and, it seemed, fighting to cope with the news that having got the best GP seat of his life, he had a team-mate who could blow his doors off. By Saturday. though the gap between the two was similar, Martin was back to his old self, more cheerful, more positive, more comfortable in a car whose driving position is still not to his liking. Schumacher was the star, but Brundle too had outqualified the McLarens on row three . . .

The start, just like the pole, was Mansell's. Mindful of the hard time Patrese had given him in the 1991 race, the Briton charged off the line and by the end of the first lap had opened a gap that would win him the race. Riccardo would match and sometimes beat his lap times from then on, but by that point Nigel had done all he needed. Just as he had done in South Africa, he controlled the race, but there had been a moment of alarm. "I had snap oversteer on the warm-up lap," he revealed, "and we had to change the car a lot on the grid." They changed it in the right direction, and thereafter he was never troubled. And in direct contrast to the Honda V12s, the Renault V10s were very good in Mexico. "Elf came up with a special fuel for the altitude," said Mansell, "and that worked exceedingly well. The engine was going very strong."

The two of them kept each other honest until the 25th lap, when the gap jumped two seconds. As the laps unfolded, activity in the Williams camp suggested imminent preparation for a tyre stop, but Riccardo had the problem under control. "The left front had given up, and I had to back off a little and think of how to save my tyres, especially the fronts. After that I could not push, but I still tried to keep the pressure on Nigel so I would try three quick laps, then slow down, then three more quick ones . . .

In the end Mansell won by 12.971 s for his second perfect score. It was his 23rd GP success, bringing him level with arch-enemy Nelson Piquet, on to Fangio's tail, and in the slipstream of Clark, Lauda and Stewart. . .

If Brundle had fretted in qualifying, the race gave him his chance to show his mettle. Down to the first corner he was briefly third before Senna sliced across his bows to take the position, and then Schumacher had gone by down the main straight going into the second lap. The two had had a pact that Martin would let him by if he was significantly quicker, but that wasn't the case. "In fact, what happened was that as I came out of Peraltada it was very slippery and I got into a big slide. Michael got into a smaller slide, and towed by me."

As Senna's bold run ended with suspected transmission failure after only 12 laps, the world champion stayed trackside, watching with a cool expression and doubtless making mental notes about the performance of the Williams chassis and Schumacher's driving. He was also ideally placed to observe the brightest spot of the race, a terrific scrap between Brundle and Berger. The two were rarely more than a few car lengths apart on an afternoon when the Briton laid valid claim once again to recognition as a topline F1 driver, and even when the Austrian finally towed up to the Benetton and edged ahead going into the first corner (named after '60s Mexican star Moises Solana) on the 42nd lap, Martin immediately retaliated. As Johnny Herbert had discovered to his chagrin on the first lap, the inside line was slippery, and as Berger slithered wide Brundle darted straight back around the McLaren and Gerhard had to start all over again. The McLaren was slow on the straight, and initially poor on full tanks, but McLaren had done a masterful job in at least taming it for the race. It looked better and better as the laps went by, and even though one particular bump was throwing it out of fourth gear, he edged back into the Benetton's draught. As they came up to lap Boutsen's gripless Ligier Brundle was held up. Possibly it was just one of those things; possibly Boutsen, a man with his enthusiasm for the Benetton driver well in check, was repaying him for what he believed was the wrong done to him by Brundle at Monza last year. Whatever, at some stage during all this Boutsen threw off one of his tear-off visors and it lodged, by pure fluke, in Brundle's oil radiator duct. Immediately the Ford HB's temperature rose and. as Berger pounced and then began to set fastest laps in a brief chase of Schumacher, Brundle's race ended with overheating. If his qualifying still needs a lot of work before it can match Schumacher's, it was interesting to note that he lost precious little to the German on race times. Schumacher's average over the first 40 laps was 1m 21.071s, Brundle's 1m 21.255s.

Berger managed to close to within six seconds of the lead Benetton in the closing stages, but Schumacher was equal to the challenge and stabilised the gap again on his way to his first - but surely not his last - rostrum finish. "I felt the pressure from Martin in the middle of the race," said Michael. "He was about four or five seconds behind me, and he was pushing quite hard. l had a big problem with my right front tyre which was graining at Peraltada, which forced me to take it a bit easier. When Gerhard began to push I found I could go a bit quicker and keep the tyre okay, but when I came in at the end I discovered that the left rear was blistered."

In their wake Ferrari had another appalling day. After going off at Peraltada on only his second lap of the weekend, Alesi finally qualified 10th after all manner of engine and handling problems, while Capelli was a mournful 20th, ironically starting alongside Karl Wendlinger in the March CG911B that he used to drive. "No grip, no power, no handling, no straightline speed," he shrugged. Had he been prescient he might have added "no race", for his ended on the startline when Wendlinger misjudged a gap, clipped the rear of the Ferrari and pitched it into the outer wall. The March, unable to star this weekend as it had in the Austrian's hands in South Africa, likewise went no further.

Alesi lasted only 32 laps before his Ferrari succumbed to an oil system problem that technical chief Claudio Lombardi had feared after all the qualifying dramas. They were an embarrassing 32 laps at that. for Mika Hakkinen had thrust his Lotus Ford into ninth place from the start (profiting from a brilliant start and Herbert's first corner spin) and hounded the F92A mercilessly. Both were overtaken by the irrepressible Andrea de Cesaris, himself recovering from a first corner trip on to the grass, but this time from the outer line.

The Tyrrell Ilmor was very strong in a straight line, and none too shabby through the corners either, and the Italian was once again revelling in his situation. Kicked out by Jordan in preference to Gugelmin's bag of Sasol bucks, he must have smiled into his Nomex balaclava as the Irish/Japanese team had another awful weekend, alleviated only by greater promise exhibited in qualifying. This time there was to be no disappointment for Andrea as he picked up a very useful two points, while Hakkinen took the final one for sixth after a mature performance that underlined the Lotus revival. Herbert, angry with himself for that initial indiscretion (a rare one, indeed), recovered well for seventh ahead of JJ Lehto, who deserved better after Dallara made serious progress with its handling following its South African dramas. Both the Finn and team-mate Martini qualified well, but suffered serious understeer throughout the race. Where the Italian needed three tyre stops before quitting. JJ soldiered on with one and recovered to head home the disappointing Ligiers and the developing Venturis, one of which Gachot had qualified extremely well.

For Williams, then, Mexico brought an almost perfect result. There was but one flaw. "Riccardo and I agree that last year, when we finished 1-2 here, we had a better ride with the passive car than with the active system this year," said Mansell. "If you look at the lap times, you will find that they are slower this year than they were last. It's a bit confusing, we will have to think about it."

So will everyone else.

MEXICAN GRAND PRIX, Mexico City, March 22
69 laps of 2.747-mile (4.419 km) circuit (189.543 miles; 304.975 km)

1st: Nigel Mansell - Williams FW14B-Renault V10 - 1h 31m 53.587s
2nd: Riccardo Patrese - Williams FW14B-Renault V10 - 1h 32m 06.558s
3rd: Michael Schumacher - Benneton B191B-Ford HB V8 - 1hr 32m 15.016s
4th: Gerhard Berger - McLaren MP4/6B-Honda V12 - 1hr 32m 26.934s
5th: Andrea de Cesaris - Tyrell 020B-Ilmor V10 - 68 laps
6th: Mika Hakkinen - Lotus 102D-Ford HB V8 - 68 laps