1992 Italian Grand Prix: A Weekend Of Surprises

Mansell retires twice in one day, and as Patrese also falters Senna sweeps to a lucky but deserved victory

A great deal has been written about Nigel Mansell this year, some of it positive, some not. Bar Canada, we have seen little to criticise in his on-track behaviour, although his off-track activities have often left something to be desired. But at Monza we saw what deserves to be remembered by history as one of the best sporting gestures in F1. One that deserves to be rated with Ronnie Peterson’s refusal to embarrass Mario Andretti at times in 1978, or Gilles Villeneuve’s integrity chasing – but not challenging – team-mate Jody Scheckter at Monza in 1979. In doing so then Gilles had thrown away his own title aspirations, but that had been the agreement ever since the South African had triumphed at Monaco. Gilles might not have liked having to sit behind the other 312T4, but Jody was confident all through that the French-Canadian would not compromise his own integrity by breaking his word. And Gilles didn’t.

When Mansell lost a massive 12.2s to teammate Riccardo Patrese the logical conclusion to draw was that the Briton was in some sort of trouble, but at that stage that was not the case. “Riccardo and I spoke before the race,” he explained afterwards, “and I knew how dearly he wanted to win it.” Patrese won the San Marino GP at Imola in 1991, but has otherwise been unlucky on his home ground. After the gearbox failure he suffered when leading the 1991 Italian GP, he desperately wanted to make this one stick. Mansell was happy to help. “I let him go by,” he admitted, as Riccardo took the lead on lap 20, “and after that I rode shotgun for him.”


The start of the 1992 Italian Grand Prix

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That gallant action was played out against a backdrop of what was Mansell’s worst ever GP weekend, for only hours before he had announced his retirement from F1 after failing to agree terms with Canon Williams Renault for 1993. In the race he could have been forgiven for sticking up two fingers to the team that, he felt, had done him down. “To say that I have been badly treated, I think, is a gross understatement,” he had complained. Whether you agree is a matter of how much you know about the wranglings that have been going on between Mansell, Frank Williams, Renault and Elf ever since Mexico in March, and how much you believe the statements from both sides. For the record, it seems to us that since he refused to sign the contract he was offered just before the Spanish GP in May because £12M to £13M was not enough and would not bring him on par with Senna, he brought his current plight on himself by failing to see which way the financial wind was blowing. Not only in F1, but in a world currently torn by the worst recession in decades.

Be that as it may, however, his behaviour on the track that Sunday afternoon was impeccable. The temptation to go for a record ninth win in a season must have been immense, yet he was prepared to help the team-mate who has steadfastly assisted his progress to the World Championship. In Hungary Mansell might not have felt able to credit Riccardo after the Italian had blown him off in the race until spinning off, but in Italy he responded in the best possible way.


Jean Alesi and Martin Brundle negotiate the first chicane

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Sadly, for both of them, it would all go wrong. The start of this Italian GP could have been very fraught, given that Mansell and Senna shared the front row. The one heading for retirement, thoroughly disillusioned with F1, the latter one of the catalysts behind his troubles after offering his services free to Williams and thereby triggering a reduced financial offer made to Mansell only days after he felt he had come to an acceptable agreement. Instead, it all went off cleanly for everyone except Spa winner Michael Schumacher. As Senna’s engine hesitated and obliged him to declutch momentarily, Alesi burst through to snatch second place behind Mansell’s inevitable Williams. The Frenchman had qualified a remarkable third in front of the tifosi, but it was not so much a case of Ferrari staging a serious upturn in fortune, as a bit of gamesmanship. There were those in the paddock who believed that FISA had agreed to turn a blind eye to the set-up the team ran on the first day of qualifying. After all, with race ticket sales down 40% in preceding weeks, anything likely to drag the fans in on race day was not to be sniffed at. The race would soon show the truth of the matter.

Patrese chased after Senna for the first 13 laps, having started from fourth on the grid after experiencing serious lack of grip in qualifying on Friday and a return of his Spa misfire on Saturday. On lap 14 he slipstreamed the MP4/7A down to the first chicane, and slipped neatly ahead. It was a move that drew detached praise from Ayrton, as Riccardo went round the outer line, and kept everything under control despite locking his front brakes in the process. After that Mansell watched until he had drawn away a little from the McLaren (which was running in passive form after trying its new active suspension of the first day of qualifying), before playing his sporting ace. The 6-5 order might be less familiar than it has been for most of 1992, but as usual the Williams-Renaults were dictating the pace. Senna, the only driver able to carry the fight to them, was keeping within three seconds of the brace of FW14Bs, but knew that even he would not be able to challenge unless they hit trouble. His time would come.

Meanwhile, Berger in the second McLaren was busy chasing back through the field after his race car had suffered an engine problem on the grid and been wheeled away just in time for him to hop into Senna’s spare and to start from the pit lane. That had further helped Alesi to have his moments of glory before being deposed by Senna and Patrese, but the locals still had something else to cheer as CapeIli chased hard after his team-mate in an initially aggressive fifth place. This Monza, however, was not to bring the victory of 1988 which is Ferrari’s most recent on home soil. The Italian GP was the 13th race of the season, and it was run on September 13th. Perhaps fittingly, both red cars went missing on their 13th lap. Alesi, having pulled away from CapeIli, then slowed to a crawl and pulled off at the second Lesmo with low fuel pressure, while at the end of the lap Ivan locked his rear brakes going into the Parabolica and slid ignominiously into retirement in the gravel bed.


Riccardo Patrese leads team-mate Nigel Mansell

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Both Benettons had lagged with excessive wheelspin at the start, and rising star Mika Hakkinen had quickly thrust his Lotus past Brundle as they came out of the first chicane to steal seventh spot and endorse his burgeoning reputation. Schumacher, who preferred the spare B I 92, had already made another mistake when he shifted into fifth instead of third gear going off the line, thus compounding his sluggish getaway. Then, under braking for that first wiggle, he had tapped the rear of Boutsen’s Ligier, damaging his Benetton’s nose.

At the end of the lap it had thus been Mansell from Senna, Patrese and Alesi side by side down the pit straight, Capelli, Boutsen, Hakkinen, Brundle, Herbert, Comas, Lehto, Morbidelli, Gachot (minus second gear), Wendlinger, Alboreto, de Cesaris, Suzuki, Grouillard, Tarquini, Martini, Berger (who was really flying), Naspetti, Gugelmin and Katayama. Schumacher had dived into the pits to have his nose and front wing replaced before emulating Berger and charging back into the race.

As the danger from Senna receded slightly, the two Williams continued to lead as the race moved to the halfway point, but behind the leading trio the field had been decimated. Van de Poele’s clutch broke even before the first chicane, then Suzuki was struck from behind by Grouillard as they raced to the same corner. At the second chicane the Footwork suddenly snapped sideways and spun into the barrier, most likely due to suspension damage, while a couple of laps later a suspected deflated tyre pitched the Tyrrell off temporarily at Ascari.


Benetton brake discs glow as Michael Schumacher hits the brakes

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Lotus fortunes slumped early, like Ferrari’s. After four laps the again impressive Hakkinen felt his Ford HB hiccough; two laps later it tightened up. The first time, he’d lost a place to Brundle as they chased Boutsen for sixth; this time he stopped for good.

Of late the Finn has tended to overshadow team-mate Johnny Herbert, but having outqualified him again he found the Englishman well able to stay with him in the race as they ran eighth and ninth. Herbert had finally eliminated a floaty feel in the front end of his Lotus 107, which had bothered him all through qualifying, and it made all the difference. “The handling was beautiful,” he enthused. “Of those in my group I reckon I had the best balance. It was a little bit difficult in the slow corners, but in the high-speed stuff it was easily the best.”

When Brundle passed Boutsen on lap seven Herbert moved smoothly on to the Ligier’s tail, and when the Ferraris dropped out they became fifth and sixth, Johnny could feel a tiny vibration, though, and, worried that he might have blistered a tyre, eased back a little to conserve his rubber for a big challenge past the half distance mark. He never reached it. Like Hakkinen’s, his engine expired, this time on lap 19.

Ligier should then have retained points even though Schumacher had come storming up to deprive Boutsen of his fifth place by lap 27, but the French equipe was also out of luck. Comas was by then running a strong seventh, heading a queue comprising Lehto, Alboreto, de Cesaris and a closing Berger.


Senna leading by himself

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This was not motor racing, as such, more chasing, for Gerhard was the only one who really looked likely to overtake any of his rivals. Then de Cesaris got the jump on Michele going by the pits and into the braking area for the first chicane, and that would ultimately earn him the final point and leave the Footwork driver in his regular 1992 slot: seventh. Berger duly moved through them all by lap 42, despite starting from the pits, despite running Senna’s settings and a different engine specification to the Brazilian, despite a tyre stop on lap 15 which had dropped him from 10th place ahead of Michele and Andrea.

Comas’ luck ran out when he got off line letting the leaders lap him on the 36th tour and then promptly spun when his dirty tyres lost grip at Ascari, while Boutsen’s run ended as he cruised into the pits on lap 42 with a dead engine. Electronic failure in the management system was suspected. That same lap, however, all attention was focussed on Mansell, for having lapped the Ligier he suddenly slowed and crept into the pits. His FW14B was stuck in sixth gear, and he was through. It was only his second retirement of the season, and poor reward after his selfless generosity to Patrese.

Nothing seemed capable of stopping the Italian veteran winning now, for Senna was a good 10 seconds adrift by lap 47, while Brundle was marginally catching Senna and Schumacher was catching Martin in turn. A lap later, though, it was over for him. The Williams had developed a hydraulic fault that cocked its nose into the air and settled the back end down, and as he also struggled with his gears and toured to the finish, he would be passed not only by Senna, Brundle and Schumacher, but also by Berger on the final lap. To add to his distress, which manifested itself in what these days is an uncharacteristic wobbly with Frank Williams, he also lost second place in the Drivers’ Championship standings as Schumacher edged ahead and Senna’s 10 points brought him up to equal third.


Brundle celebrates his second place on the podium

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It was not the time to suggest that he had not been the only unfortunate, but Lehto looked set for a deserved seventh in the difficult Dallara until it suffered electrical failure, and Gachot’s energetic charge in his wake in the opening laps, after qualifying an excellent 10th, was ruined by engine failure. Morbidelli might also have done something about sixth since he was right in that battle too until his Lamborghini succumbed on lap 13.

In the end Senna took a fortuitous victory, but he made his own luck by running as hard as he could and on the day the McLaren was the more reliable tool, even though he started to have a little bit of a problem on downshifts as Patrese initially challenged him. Later an exhaust split too. Nevertheless, he scored the 36th win of his career as Brundle matched the best result of his. Back in 1984 FISA took away his second place at Detroit in the Tyrrell because of all the additives-in-the-water hoopla, but where Mansell’s F1 career appeared doomed this day, Martin’s again picked up momentum. Patrese might have taken his Benetton drive, but as the teams packed up from Monza and Nigel Mansell was left to ponder things lndycar, it seemed increasingly likely that his place alongside Prost at Williams for 1993 would go instead to his fellow Englishman. Strange the way fortunes can fluctuate in racing. D J T