Wheel of misfortune
What more does Nigel Mansell have to do to win the World Championship?
It was the question that sprang most readily to mind as one watched him, three-wheeled, impotently punching the steering wheel, as his Williams sat stricken in the Estoril pit lane.
In literal terms, the task that faced him after the Portuguese GP far outweighed any figurative allusions. One moment his championship challenge had gathered a momentum that could only have been optimised had Ayrton Senna retired from the race. Mansell was leading, Patrese was a dutiful second and the Brazilian third. Senna had started the race with 77 points to Mansell’s 59; an 18-point advantage. Ten for a win and only four for Senna, should the status quo have been maintained, would have reduced Ayrton’s lead to 12 with 30 points up for grabs in the remaining three races. Within two laps, however, all that became academic.
In Estoril, Mansell could have done no more. True, he had been thoroughly upstaged in qualifying by Patrese, but there were some underlying causes, not the least of which was a stomach upset and then a team mistake on front suspension set-up which hampered him on Friday. At the start of the race, though, after a violent and unnecessary-looking weave at Senna which actually caused them to brush wheels, Mansell staged one of those examples of heroic opportunism that have so characterised a turmoiled career.
Going into that long, long right-hander at the end of the pit straight, Patrese led from Berger, with Senna third and Mansell to his left, on the outside line. Maintaining his momentum, the Briton then drew level with, and slightly ahead of Senna, before chopping across his bows and effectively slaloming between the two McLarens to grab a spectacular second place by the exit.
It was precisely the sort of move the Brazilian would have pulled given a similar opportunity, and it caught both McLaren drivers napping. Senna, however, saw things differently. “What Nigel did was crazy. With the championship to go for he was prepared to throw up everything. I had to brake and throw my car to the right to avoid an accident.”
It was the usual tosh drivers come out with these days when the boot isn’t on their own foot, and those who recalled the manner in which Ayrton himself had clinched his 1990 championship were so amazed at his cheek that they began to think of having their ears syringed. Did he really say that? Of late there has been a degree of harmony in F1, following the Senna/Prost detente in Hungary, but here emotions were out for public airing again, and the darker side of Senna’s character emerged once more as he added, in thinly veiled threat: “This time Nigel was lucky and I was prepared to give way. Next time I won’t be..”
There was a time when drivers such as Fangio, Moss, Clark, Hill and Gurney raced wheel-to-wheel without complaint, contact or acrimony, but they seem to fade further into history as each modern Grand Prix unleashes another tide of animosity.
That move could well have won Mansell the title, we thought as we watched it, spellbound. It was breathtaking in its sheer audacity, and at a stroke it removed two of his greatest obstacles. By the end of the season we might well look back on it as the Manoeuvre of the Year. It was Mexico 1990 all over again, except that this time Mansell took not one but two McLarens.
And it was all for nothing.
Patrese, the star of qualifying, surrendered his lead to Mansell on lap 18, as we had all known he would, for the Italian veteran is a team player in the most sporting sense of the word. Thereafter, Nigel held an easy advantage as it became clear that the Williams-Renaults could only beat themselves. After Monza, Ron Dennis had harboured hopes that the McLaren-Hondas would be fully competitive with them in a straight fight, but it was not to be. Majestically, Frank’s cars pulled further and further ahead, and the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships remained more and more attainable goals. Both men were driving superbly, within themselves, and neither car missed a beat.
It would all go wrong as Mansell pitted on his 30th lap. Four wheels and fresh Goodyear C tyres went on, but there was a problem with the nut on the right rear. As the gunman tightened it, it cross-threaded. His tyreman missed his actions in removing the offending nut and groping for a replacement, for he was already waving his arms to team manager Peter Windsor to signal that their corner of the car had been serviced. As Windsor noted that all four tyremen were indicating the same thing, he raised the lollipop that reminds the driver to keep his foot on the brakes, and as the jacks were lowered and Mansell felt the tyres touch the ground, he was away. Behind him, the right rear gunman waved his arms in futile warning, but it was all too late.
Mansell got as far as the Tyrrell pit before the nutless right rear wheel and tyre was thrown off, and it bounded into two of Uncle Ken’s mechanics who were fortunate to escape serious injury. The Williams tricycle slewed to a halt in the fast lane of the pits, and confusion reigned.
“Trying to push any kind of racing car, when others are at racing speed, is suicidal,” said Windsor. “Besides which, the rules preclude pushing in the pit lane.” The only sensible alternative was clearly to refit the wheel and, this done, Mansell resumed in furious pursuit. He was now a lap down, and all hope of the championship appeared to have receded.
Patrese’s own stop, on lap 34, put Mansell back on the lead lap, a distant 15th. Thereafter he drove brilliantly, an aura of red mist almost visible around the cockpit. Lap by lap others fell victim to the Williams: Moreno, Morbidelli, Modena and Gugelmin. The higher he rose, the tougher the opposition became, but he made another place when Nelson Piquet stopped for his third set of Pirellis on lap 43, and was catching the Brazilian’s team-mate Michael Schumacher’s Benetton before the German followed suit. The Williams was without doubt the best car in Portugal, but Mansell was dragging out everything it had to give with a series of fastest laps. When de Cesaris stopped his Team 7Up Jordan for a third set of Goodyears on lap 47, the FW14 was back into the points. Moreover, it was catching Ivan Capelli’s strongly-driven Leyton House at 2.5s a lap. It was only a matter of time, and ahead of the Miami Blue CG911, Jean Alesi’s Ferrari and Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi were within striking distance too. Third place was far from an unreasonable expectation.
The mood lasted until lap 50. Two years ago Mansell claimed not to have seen the black flag shown to him after he had reversed his Ferrari in the pit lane. He had gone on to collide with Senna and earn himself exclusion from the Spanish GP that followed. This time he saw the flag the moment in came out, and for the second time in a dramatic race the Williams headed for the pits.
The race stewards had finally had sufficient time to consult their rulebooks and to determine that the Williams team had serviced its car in an illegal part of the pit road. The sensible thing would have been to make him stop and then allow him to resume, in the sort of stop-and-go penalty they levy in CART racing. However, the FISA rules do not at present allow this. The only penalty is exclusion, and Mansell was duly disqualified. There was no right of appeal. He had driven flat-out for 20 laps, risking everything, only to be told now that he had been wasting his time. It was barely surprising that he stalked off, tears flowing, and left the circuit immediately.
Whatever happened next was bound to be an anti-climax, and so it transpired. Already, one of Gerhard Berger’s better showings for McLaren had ended in disappointment when he retired on the 38th lap with a misfire. The Austrian had outqualified Senna and always looked the stronger of the two McLaren drivers, which was unusual in itself, starting from the front row and pushing the two Williams initially. Alain Prost had gone, too. For the Frenchman it was another disastrous weekend, when his relations with Ferrari plumbed fresh depths amid continuing speculation that he would be quitting to join Ligier. The terms of his contract with Ferrari prevent him driving for anyone else for a season if he does not stay for 1992, but the rumours were suggesting that he was nevertheless prepared to take a year off rather than stay. It was an indication of just how much he has come to detest life at Maranello.
It became sourer still when his Evolution Four V12 blew up comprehensively on lap 40, just as it appeared he was beginning to consolidate third place. He moved another step towards his first winless season since he began in F1 back in 1980.
For Ferrari, worse was to come even though Alesi would survive overshooting his pit during his tyre stop and go on to take the final podium place. To the intense embarrassment of Piero Lardi Ferrari and Piero Fusaro, there was little Pierluigi Martini hammering along all race within striking distance of the 643. Martini in the Minardi M191, the one with the Ferrari V12 engine that it won’t be running in 1992.
“My car was so much better than Alesi’s,” said Martini afterwards. “I really think I had a good chance to pass him, because my car was handling better all round the circuit.” Unfortunately, though, the Ferrari was throwing out a lot of oil, and most of Mr Agip’s product was finding itself all over Piero’s helmet. Once he’d worked through his three rip-off visors he was down to the helmet’s visor, and the moment he tried to wipe that he discovered that his gloves were smeared with oil too. It was enough to oblige him to drop back, and to finish 10s adrift of Alesi, but the little Italian’s performance, allied to Prost’s retirement and the fact that the Ferraris couldn’t lap within a second and a half of the Williamses, was sufficient to underline just how serious has been the decline of the Prancing Horse in 1991.
With boss Akira Akagi still under arrest in Japan, Leyton House desperately needed a fillip, and Ivan Capelli looked set to provide it by chasing Martini throughout. Gugelmin had qualified seventh and Capelli ninth, the team’s best showing this year, and fifth place seemed in the bag when the manner in which the CG911s bounced over Estoril’s numerous bumps finally broke the nose mountings and slid Ivan into a barrier. The damage was enough to force him into retirement, and following a delay trying to find a way by Mansell’s Williams in the pits, Gugelmin could not better seventh place behind the Benettons. On this occasion Piquet was fired up enough to outqualify Schumacher and to lead him home, but the young German continued to demonstrate his raw ability and left no-one in doubt that he has an excellent F1 future. De Cesaris’ penchant for following rivals too closely killed his first set of Goodyears and obliged an early stop on lap 25, and then he did the same thing and needed another set. This time the right rear wheel jammed and mechanic Steve May put his back out trying to wrench it off. Team owner Eddie Jordan was not amused, since Andrea had been running sixth by lap 42 and looked set to score the extra points that the new team sorely needs.
Points are something Braun Tyrrell Honda appears to have forgotten how to score since Montreal, and once again Ken’s cars had a miserable outing. Stefano Modena appeared off-key throughout, but his Honda’s apparent lack of power (and subsequent blow-up) were explained later when a tear-off visor was found in its airbox. Whether it was one of the Italian’s isn’t known, but it had blocked the intakes and richened the mixture, and eventually the engine succumbed. Nakajima spent most of his time warding off the return of his lunch under heavy braking.
The Dallaras disappointed with understeer in qualifying and early retirements, Pirro switching off his Judd before it broke and Lehto abandoning in high dudgeon when the gear lever worked loose. The Ligiers were as gripless as usual but Comas drove another strong race to finish 11th behind Roberto Moreno, who had kept the second Jordan seat after a load of hyperbole and dealing had kept Derek Warwick out of it after all, and Lotus only got one finish as Hakkinen nursed tired neck muscles to take his second 14th place in a row. For Scuderia Italia the race marked another slip in the progress it seemed to be making early in the season. For Ligier, another catastrophe given the size of its budget. For Lotus, which lost the faster qualifying Johnny Herbert after only a lap when his clutch exploded and ignited a magnesium and oil fire around the casing, at least another chance to embarrass richer teams.
The other Britons, Blundell and Brundle, had mixed outings. After a host of suspension dramas at Spa, Brundle was not amused when he suffered another failure just after topping Friday’s pre-qualification times, and then Blundell had something similar break on the 13th lap and plunged off into the gravel at the end of the main straight. “I was,” he said with commendable aplomb, “very lucky that it broke there and not as I was exiting the corner.” Circuits in more developed countries might be required to spend vast amounts on stringent safety measures, but in Portugal the run-off areas appear to be given as much thought as they were in Jerez, until Martin Donnelly proved why they are so essential last year. Brundle saw his team-mate’s abandoned car, and guessed what had happened, but despite his lack of confidence in the BT60Y drove his with remarkable courage and eventually got the better of Michele Alboreto’s Footwork to take a 12th place that was not an accurate reflection of the commitment of the man at the wheel.
While all eyes were on Mansell, and the effective end to the World Championship battle as the cars were packed away ready for the drive to Barcelona the following week, there was nevertheless a great deal of pleasure to be derived from Patrese’s fifth Grand Prix success. The most experienced driver in the business, he was once the bad boy of F1. Nowadays the picture could barely be more different, for in the Italian the sport has a thoroughly relaxed individual who is totally at ease with himself. Perhaps because he doesn’t win that often, he always looks genuinely delighted when he reaches a chequered flag first. And in an age where the deadpan expression seems de rigeur for Grand Prix victors, that still counts for a lot. — DJT
Results (top five), Portuguese GP, Estoril, September 22
71 laps of 4.34 km circuit (308.850 km; 191.910 miles)
1. Riccardo Patrese, I, (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1h 35m 42.304s
2. Ayrton Senna, BRA, (McLaren MP4/6 – Honda V12) 1h 36m 03.245s
3. Jean Alesi, F, (Ferrari 643 – Ferrari V12) 1h 36m 35.858s
4. Pierluigi Martini, I, (Minardi M191 – Ferrari V12) 1h 36m 45.802s
5. Nelson Piquet, BRA, (Benetton B191 – Cosworth V8 EXP) 1h 36m 52.337s
Conditions: Very hot
Winner’s Average Speed: 193.626 kph (120.314 mph)
Fastest Lap: N. Mansell (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1m 18.179s on lap 36; 200.310 kph (124.467 mph)