1989 Spanish Grand Prix race report

1989 SPA GP Berger

Ayrton Senna scored pole, fastest lap and the win for McLaren

Motorsport Images

Invisible man

Somewhere in all the controversy, acrimony and infamy that characterised the Spanish Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna racked up his 20th F1 victory and McLaren International overtook Team Lotus International to lie second to Ferrari in the all-time wins ratings, 80 to 97.

Those statistics went rather unnoticed, however, but one that didn’t was Senna’s 40th pole position.

The Brazilian’s commitment to his F1 career is legendary, but also prompts him from time to time into the sort of rashness that makes one hesitate before applying the adjective ‘great’ to his performances. It would have been hard to envisage Jim Clark or Stirling Moss, for example, indulging in the ill-advised hot-headedness which sometimes characterises Senna.

Picture the situation: Jerez followed the week after Portugal, and the F1 circus arrived aflood with gossip about Nigel Mansell. There were all the post-Estoril comments from McLaren. Then there were Senna’s comments about ‘suicidal driving’ reported in the nationals. Then there was Mansell’s Thursday afternoon press conference by the Ferrari motorhome, as he responded to the one-race ban FISA had decided to impose.

1989 SPA GP Senna

Senna had pole sewn up in qualifying

Motorsport Images

Mansell was quietly outspoken, reiterated yet again that he hadn’t seen the black flag for the three laps it was shown to him, and threatened premature retirement from F1 if FISA didn’t exonerate him in a court of appeal in Paris the following day. It was good theatre, eagerly lapped up by the press, but it was a play given bad reviews by McLaren. As Mansell sat fidgeting restlessly at his holiday home in Majorca, having found out that FISA after all had no intention of letting him race and had succeeded in keeping him out of things by convening the court of appeal for the following Thursday, Ron Dennis went into seventh gear.

“I’m reluctant to get sucked into this issue,” he began, before proceeding to do just that. He showed film of the Portuguese incidents, from static trackside cameras and from the Ferrari’s onboard unit. He explained that the bad blood between himself and Mansell stemmed from the latter’s lack of a sense of humour. During the winter, McLaren’s Christmas party had contained a little gem wherein Murray Walker was dressed as a ringmaster, and a monkey as Nigel Mansell. No doubt the Woking funsters laughed their red and white socks off over that one.

Mansell, a man not renowned for his ability to laugh at himself, took a dim view. Dennis subsequently apologised at Monaco. He then went on to explain McLaren’s role in the post-race furore, praised the professionalism of his own drivers Niki Lauda at Hockenheim in 1983, John Watson in South Africa the same year, and Alain Prost at Monza in 1986 in obeying black flags after regulation contraventions.

He admitted he’d made “a fundamental mistake” in not letting Senna know sooner that the black flag was for Mansell, that his delay had had a major influence not only on that race, but possibly also on the World Championship.

He called Mansell unprofessional, branded him a liar. “I don’t buy the horseshit that he didn’t see the flag,” said Dennis trenchantly. “He knew. End of story.”

Less than two hours later he probably regretted much of the outburst, as the boot he’d just put into Mansell had suddenly changed to another foot. Gregor Foitek, unsuccessful in prequalifying the EuroBrun since Rio, and subsequently replaced by Oscar Larrauri, had been yet another player in F1 ‘s 1989 game of musical chairs, and when the record stopped for Spain, was left sitting in the cockpit of the lead Rial, once Guenter Schmid had rectified his oversight in not informing regular incumbent Christian Danner that his services were surplus to requirements.

1989 SPA GP start

It’s lights out at Jerez

Motorsport Images

Now Foitek is one of racing’s natural chargers. Not the most intelligent driver, perhaps, but a guy who only knows one way to drive. He was exhibiting that brio when his Rial’s rear wing began to break up in the Enzo Ferrari curve, the vicious flat-out right-hander behind the pits. The result was a mighty off that sprayed gravel all over the parked motorhomes the TAG McLaren bus included and left the young Swiss with a severe headache.

The marshals were late putting out any flags, and Senna went past once, warming his tyres for his first qualifying run. Next time round, they had finally got round to putting out black flags in response to the red flag now shown at the start/finish line. Through the accident site Senna was flatout still, despite the black flag that was clearly shown. According to a FISA official, it was one of eight that the Brazilian had deliberately chosen to ignore, even though the meaning of the flag is ‘proceed with caution and be prepared to stop’. Only when he came to the red, his hot lap completed, did he lift off. Such cavalier actions won him a $20,000 fine and saw all of his times posted prior to 13.55 eliminated. Senna shrugged his aloof shrug, and slammed round fast enough when the session was resumed to take the overnight pole. The following day he went faster still, without missing any black flags, and pole number 40 was safely his. Not so safe, however, was his reputation. Condemnation was almost universal, and more than one observer wanted to know why Mansell could be fined $50,000 and banned for one race for reversing less than 10 feet up a pit lane and then missing three black flags (possibly by accident) when Senna could escape so lightly by deliberately ignoring eight when an accident to another driver had invoked them in the first place. It was a good point.

In the McLaren motorhome Dennis looked sheepish and declared that Senna deserved his fine for breaking the rules. The entire episode left a nasty taste, and was followed by countless allegations of one rule for one, another for everyone else. Back in Majorca, Mansell began to fidget even more.

Away from the inevitable polemics, McLaren’s pace well, Senna’s at any rate, was something of a surprise, since Jerez had been regarded as a Ferrari circuit, if ever there was one. Indeed, Gerhard Berger had been fastest until Senna’s blistering pole-winning lap, but as the two 1990 McLaren drivers lined up on the front row, one couldn’t help but ponder where Mansell an angry, fired-up Mansell might have been.

Alain Prost, no doubt, wondered about that too. The Frenchman was very quiet all weekend, took a long time to set his McLaren to his liking, but then came closer to the ballpark with third fastest time. There were, however, problems with the gearchange, and on top of that his tattered friendship with Ron Dennis had probably succumbed once and for all when the latter decreed that Senna should have use of the spare for the weekend, even though it should have been his. Senna, Berger, Prost. To keep his championship chances aboil, Senna had to win, and he bore the mien of a dominator all weekend. To stop the fight going to Japan and Suzuka, Prost had to win (yet never looked likely to repeat that fabulous 1988 triumph, achieved against all fuel consumption odds) or see another beat Senna. Mansell had been an obvious potential ally. Berger, in Mansell’s contrived absence, was the only man who could upset the applecart. If Gerhard won with Senna second and Prost third, it was all over, the Frenchman garnering a nett 76 points to the Brazilian’s 57, and a 19-point margin with only another 18 available to his rival.

Berger has made some stunning starts this year. Remember Rio, that flier in Hockenheim, Estoril? And yet it was Senna who grasped the Jerez lead, and it was Senna who stayed out front throughout. Whatever one might have felt about some of his conduct in the past eight days, he drove a blinder in Spain, thriving under the pressure of innuendo and controversy. Berger worried him a little bit in the opening laps, as he pushed the Ferrari’s nose at every little gap and stayed within a second for the first 15 laps, but his chance had been at the start and he knew it. The uncharitable suggested he was already behaving like the dutiful McLaren number two.

1989 SPA GP Berger 2nd

Gerhard Berger was Senna’s closest challenger in qualifying and the race

Motorsport Images

Prost, from an early stage, settled for third, apparently lacking any kind of fight. The final argument with Dennis had knocked the emotional stuffing out of him. Almost immediately he found his helmet visor coated with a this film of oil mist from the Ferrari, and as it worsened, he dropped back. His qualifying gearchange problem was also still evident, and bit by bit he slipped from any kind of challenging position and concentrated on keeping an initially threatening Riccardo Patrese in his place. He called his McLaren a taxi, an oblique reference to his feeling that it was yet again below par with Senna’s? and said he was happy with third. And maybe he was. Four points minus his lowest score of three (from Hungary) still gave him 76, but if he couldn’t win in Spain, its real value was that it meant Senna still had to win the final two events. Had he finished fourth or lower he wouldn’t have added to his score and Senna might thus have been able to take the title with one win and a second, thanks to his greater number of wins tipping the equal points balance.

The way Senna drove in Spain, however, was simply an endorsement of his desire to win the only way he knows how: from the front. By lap 43, after the scheduled tyre stops, he led Berger by 5.92s, and over the remaining laps stretched that to an elastic 27 as Berger developed a more pressing problem. From lap 48 the Ferrares oil leak had worsened, to the point where it was spewing out a great cloud of smoke in fast left-handers. From keeping Senna honest, Berger slipped back, nursing the F1/89 but able to keep well beyond the troubled Prost’s reach.

It was, in fact, one of the dullest Grands Prix of the year, on a par with Monza to a large extent, but there were nevertheless many worthy performances from the bit-part actors. Underlining just what an aggresive charger he is, Jean Alesi hounded Martin Brundle mercilessly for eighth in the opening stages, coming back again when an attempt on the outside of the first corner failed on lap 12. Eventually his pressure paid off and, once past the wide Brabham on lap 22, he drew away rapidly to begin a prolonged chase of Emanuele Pirro’s well conducted Benetton.

The young Roman had outqualified team-mate Sandro Nannini after both had taken a lot of time to set their B198s for Jerez’s bumps and twists, and had worked up to a strong fifth by lap 21. By then he had disposed of Philippe Alliot’s Lola-Lamborghini, going better than ever before, and qualifying sensation Pierluigi Martini. The latter had been fastest in Friday’s free practice, second in the first official qualifying session and again on Saturday morning, and had then wound up fourth overall, a great deal of his performance was down the efficiancy of his Pirell tyres, but it certainly shouldn’t detract from his own efforts in the cockpit, which came despite twisting hisankle falling down the transporter steps between Friday sessions, and his ribs rendered sore when he spun the previous week at Estoril during second qualifying.

As Pirro pressed on, however, Martini struggled to make up ground after his first tyre stop, anti then spun into retirement after climbing a kerb trying to keep ahead of Eddie Cheever’s Arrows.

Alliot, who’d enjoyed only his second finish of the year the previous weekend in Portugal, had been a major surprise in qualifying by taking fifth slot on the grid, right in the 1m 21s with Prost, Martini, Patrese and Piquet. Though he succumbed to Brundle’s pressure with his tyre stop on lap 28, he soon recovered his rhythm, and was nibbling into the Briton’s advantage when the Brabham spun wildy on lap 52. For some laps Brundle had been struggling with a broken exhaust, and the escaping gases had finally cooked a rear damper and caught him out. With Stefano Modena dropping out after only 12 laps with electrical failure, it was a bad weekend for the Chessington team.

In the closing stages Gerard Larrouse’s heart was in his mouth as Alliot’s Crysler-Lamborghini V12 hiccoughed and cut out twice, but it kept going to the end to record its first finish in the points.

Pirro’s fine run ended on lap 60, when increasing leg cramp got the better of him and he spun into retirement. Earlier, on lap 15, Nannini had suffered a similar fate, albeit for a different reason. He’d pushed Piquet on to the grass exiting the hairpin on lap seven, thereby losing the Brazilian any chance of a point after his strong qualifying performance, but was in turn elbowed out on lap 12 as he became involved with Brundle and Alesi. Charging back from 18th place, he lost it going into turn one and sat helplessly revving in the gravel before acknowledging the inevitable.

1989 SPA GP Alliot

Phillipe Alliot secured a championship point for Larrousse

Motorsport Images

Alesi, meanwhile, had kept up the pressure once he’d made a late tyre stop, and closed rapidly on Ricardo Patrese before diving by for a well deserved fourth which simply served to underline his potential. Patrese then stopped for a third set of Goodyears, increasing understeer slowing, his Williams FW12C. The Italian had opted for the older chassis after trying the new FW13 on Friday, when both he and Thierry Boutsen found its behaviour as alarming it had been in Estoril. Boutsen elected to stick with his, but was thus condemned to an awful race scratching round no higher than 14th in the unpredictable machine until failure of the high-pressure fuel pump put him out of his misery. Clearly, the new car needs a lot more testing.

With new tyres Patrese charged over the final laps, but just failed to catch Alesi on the line.

Andrea de Cesaris soldiered on for seventh, in the one Pirelli-shod chassis which was unable to make use of its qualifying tyres, having escaped from the two Arrows after Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever collided on the circuit and again in the pit lane! Cheever blew up late in the race, when running last, while an unhappy Warwick was rebuffed by Piquet for eighth (poetic justice after he’d punctured one of Nelson’s tyres with his front wing) but eyed the Lamborghini’s performance with more than a passing interest since he’ll be sitting ahead of one next year.

Jonathan Palmer had looked a likely point scorer by the 30 lap mark, hoping for a non-stop run on a combination of Goodyear’s B and C compound race tyres in contrast to everyone else using Cs all-round, and was within 10 seconds of Alesi who had yet to stop. Later, however, his tyres gave out and his Cosworth DFR developed a crippling misfire, and he was lucky to make it home in 10th slot.

Leyton House March had yet another awful weekend, made even worse since this was the scene of another of its strong 1988 showings. Both cars gave trouble throughout qualifying and Capelli was delayed on the opening lap in a brush with Nakajima which eliminated the Lotus. Ivan recovered, but retired with differential failure on lap 24. The same distance later, team-mate Gugelmin was knocked out of ninth place when local hero Luis Sala tried an ill-advised passing move in turn two and ran his Minardi over the back of the March.

Neither of the Osellas made it home either, although the fact that they both qualified at all was remarkable, since it marked the first time this season they had managed the feat. In fact, Nicola Larini and Piercarlo Ghinzani were first and third in prequalifying as they exploited the sticky Pirellis, but the former had a hefty shunt when the suspension broke, and the latter didn’t get far before the transmission broke.

1989 SPA GP podium

Senna celebrates his sixth win of the season

Motorsport Images

A similar problem eliminated the other pre-qualifying star, JJ Lehto, who was the sole Onyx driver to get through after Stefan Johansson’s engine blew. The Finn had run briefly at Estoril, tested there after the race (and would have qualified mid-grid) and then sailed through Spanish qualifying as if he’d been born in the ORE-1’s cockpit. From 17th on the grid he ran in company with the Arrows twins, de Cesaris, Sala and Boutsen, and was biding his time when his gearbox leaked all its oil. Engine failures accounted for both Alex Caffi and Olivier Grouillard, the latter damaging his car with an offroad manoeuvre to avoid the spinning Nakajima on lap one.

The Spanish GP has a history of controversy, if one looks back to the 1969, 1975 and 1976 events, and the 1989 race will join them. Senna won going away, but if only Mansell had been there too… DJT