Champion-elect equals Senna’s eight-in-a-season victory record
”I’m not designed to finish second or third. I am designed to win.”
Well, though he’s said that in the past, Ayrton Senna didn’t win in Germany. Not on the track, anyway. But as far as underlining his brilliance when he forgets about the occasional questionable manoeuvre, he won handsome personal victory as he finished second to the inevitable Nigel Mansell at Hockenheim.
To Raymond Sommer and Gilles Villeneuve the manner in which you played the game was more important than the result. To the real Coeur de Lion or the French-Canadian, 17th place was satisfying if the car was only good enough for 18th. Senna does not share that view, believing victory to be everything. That has been the very cornerstone of his career. Yet he must have drawn intense satisfaction from finishing only 4.5s behind Mansell.
In qualifying the Williams-Renaults had again been in a class of their own, just as they had been in testing. And as they lined up on the front row, 1.146 and 0.796s respectively ahead of Senna’s McLaren-Honda which itself was 0.610s ahead of Berger’s, the ghost of Canada had been exorcised. In Montreal it seemed as if McLaren had almost caught up; now we can see just how much Williams’ Friday problems there had flattered its rivals, and just how the inferior track conditions in the Saturday sessions confused the issue. In Magny Cours, Silverstone and Hockenheim there was only one message for Ron Dennis: there is still an awful long way to go. Indeed, he tacitly acknowledged the fact at the annual Boss clothing dinner. “I thought about making as humorous speech,” he began, “but in the end I decided I didn’t want to talk about the MP4/7A…”
And some say he lacks a sense of humour.
Really, Hockenheim should have been a cakewalk for Williams, given its clear advantage, but there were worries. Patrese stole the start, for the third time in as many races, as Mansell’s car shifted directly from first gear to third, but he got a good tow and as they came down to the first chicane he edged ahead of Riccardo. Situation normal.
This was where many observers had expected all hell to break loose, for the chicanes had been modified this year, to incorporate run-off areas. The second, prior to the Ostkurve, was sharper than ever, a proper 90 deg right-hander followed by a similar left/right and with another gravel bed on the outside. Mansell would get to know it well.
As it turned out, everyone behaved themselves on the first lap, although Senna’s bold lunge down the inside of Berger had spectators gasping. It was just the sort of thing that Ayrton gets agitated about himself, as he did with Patrese in Hungary in 1990 and as he has on occasion with Gerhard. His McLaren missed its sister by millimetres, and stayed off Patrese’s rear end by a similar amount. If it hadn’t worked we’d doubtless all have nodded sagely and criticised the champion’s rashness: it did work though, and it was a brilliant bit of opportunism that would set him up for the rest of the day, as his similar move on Patrese did in Monaco.
Mansell stretched his legs convincingly early on, with Riccardo riding distant shotgun and Senna outpacing a chase between Berger and Michael Schumacher. In a Benetton Ford equipped with the latest version of Ford’s Series V11 HB V8, the German was under a lot of pressure in his homeland, and after his recent spate of accidents a decent result was crucial. This time, however, the Benettons didn’t quite have the legs of the McLarens as they had had in England, and Gerhard was able to contain Michael’s challenge without too much difficulty. Until his tyre stop. How many times have his stops been markedly slower than others? Well, this was another one as he came in at the end of lap 14. There was a problem with the left rear wheel — it looked as if he had forgotten to keep his foot on the brakes and that the spinning hub initially threw the wheel from the mechanic’s grasp. By the time he got going again he was a distant 11th, but in any case his race was doomed. Perhaps through heat sink while he sat in the pits, his Honda V12 had developed a serious misfire, and after a couple of sporadic laps he was out.
Mansell had come in for tyres that lap, too, which was early even by Hockenheim standards. Like Berger, Senna, Patrese and Brundle of the leading runners he had opted for Goodyear’s regular C compound tyres, where Schumacher and the Ferraris were on harder Bs in the hope of going non-stop. What had prompted his pit call, however, was not so much wear as fear of a puncture. Since Patrese’s testing accident at Imola earlier this year Patrick Head has perfected an onboard electronic means of warning the driver of any tyre pressure loss, something that active suspension tended to disguise previously. Around lap 13 he almost lost control of the Williams twice. “I think I picked up debris, because the handling was terrible all of a sudden. Then the warning light came on so I came in believing I had a puncture,” he revealed.
It turned out that he hadn’t got a puncture, but the stop had dropped him to fourth. That soon became second as he passed Schumacher and then Patrese stopped for fresh rubber on lap 19, and now the battle between Mansell and Senna was on, the former on his new Goodyears, the latter surmising that he might just get through on his Cs without stopping. Last year Alesi drove brilliantly to get through on one set of Bs, and Senna was mindful that anyone else able to do that would have the advantage of him. “I knew that the only way to get on the podium today was to go through without stopping and take a chance,” he said, and it was a chance that paid off.
Within laps Mansell was right with him and it was only a matter of time. Senna knew that, notwithstanding his ability to endure intense pressure, and when Mansell went off on lap 19 going into the second chicane and powered through the gravel on the exit to resume the chase, the Brazilian recognised Canadian symptoms building in his rival. He also knew he couldn’t push super-hard if he wanted to preserve his tyres for another 26 laps. As they came out of the corner, with de Cesaris only a few metres ahead, Mansell was tucked right up in the McLaren’s slipstream and Ayrton waved him by. 1992 win number eight now seemed just a formality.
Patrese, however, was a different proposition. It took him a long time to find a way past Schumacher, even though the German had damaged his car in a third chicane incident on the first lap. A pipe had been cracked which allowed either coolant or lubricant to spray on to the left rear tyre. Despite that handicap he drove superbly to keep the more powerful Williams at bay until finally being obliged to concede third place when he got sideways going down to the first chicane on lap 33 and Riccardo was able to drag by. By then, however, Senna was a long way down the road and Riccardo’s tyres were past their immediate best after the duel. Nevertheless, by lap 37 the Williams was only 2.1s adrift and second place also seemed a foregone conclusion. In his outburst at Silverstone Senna may have claimed that he has reached the point where he is no longer prepared to risk his life to finish second or third, but it certainly didn’t seem that way as time and again he fended off Patrese’s attacks. Unlike last year’s battle with Prost this was clean but very, very close. Twice, going into the third chicane, Riccardo was so far alongside the McLaren, on the inside line, that it seemed he had done it. Yet each time Senna kept his foot down to slingshot round the outside so he had the inner line in the middle of the corner. It was superb stuff. Certainly, he would not have been so ruthless with a rival of Mansell’s aggressive calibre, who would have fought fire with fire, but that was academic. He was fighting Patrese and it was gripping to watch.
The Italian lost ground when he locked up his right front going into the first chicane on lap 41 but he was back on Senna’s tail by the end of the lap. He was too close, as it transpired, for as they went into lap 42 he lost downforce in the McLaren’s wake and went skittering over the kerb on the exit to the first corner. As the left rear tyre slithered up in pursuit of the trajectory of the front it looked for a moment as if he was going to spin, but Riccardo held the slide well, the Williams leapt for a few feet, and then the chase was resumed. It ended ignominiously, on the final lap. Having tried everything and failed, Riccardo went for the inside line going into the stadium, as Allan McNish successfully had in the preceding day’s F3000 encounter. Against Senna it was doomed from the outset, since Riccardo was already on the dusty line when he had to brake as Ayrton began to close the door. The Williams spun, went over the grass, and came to rest with its engine running, but it stalled as Riccardo tried to recover, and that was his chance of any points gone. In a weekend when it became obvious to one and all that he would be replaced by Prost, it was an unhappy ending.
Schumacher thus found himself elevated to third, with Brundle pleased to take fourth. He’d made an excellent start to beat both Ligiers and both Ferraris which had outqualified him. “I just sort of aimed down the middle of everything,” he said. Coming out of the third chicane he was right on Michael’s tail, when the German got it wrong and went off the road briefly on the exit. “When he came back on,” said Brundle, “he literally forced me off. I wasn’t impressed with that…” They sorted it amicably afterwards.
Martin was close enough to be a threat in the early stages, pacing himself nicely and keeping just far enough back from Michael to avoid having his temperatures start to climb. “I was really happy on my Cs that I could go right through,” he said, “and I was able to close finely and then ease back a little while staying in touch.” Later, however, he aggravated the back injury he had sustained in his tangle with Alesi at Imola, and he drove the rest of the race in great pain, and with a numb right foot. Braking from 200mph for the chicanes cannot have been a sinecure under such circumstances. He’d had the same thing in Brazil last year in the Brabham BT59Y, and at times could not be sure whether his foot was on the throttle or the brake. Despite that he closed dramatically on his team-mate towards the end as Michael’s fluid loss put his temperatures even higher, and they were mere seconds apart at the flag. Good drives, both.
The animals went two by two at the start of the German GP, indicating that it is the sort of circuit that favours the machinery more than the drivers. And, specifically, power outputs. Behind the Williamses, McLarens and Benettons, Alesi led Capelli, followed by Comas and Boutsen in the Ligiers and Hakkinen and Herbert in the Lotuses. Jean survived non-stop to take fifth place despite an audible misfire that afflicted him from lap 22, while Comas drove exceptionally well to go non-stop on Cs, just beating Boutsen who stopped for new tyres on lap 18 and was right in his wheeltracks by the end. After their dismal performances earlier in the season, the Ligiers are finally beginning to look serious again.
Neither of the Lotuses finished. Hakkinen and Herbert swapped places a couple of times early on before the Briton fell back with an engine that wouldn’t pull, and eventually it cut out altogether after the Ostkurve. Hakkinen was keeping Boutsen honest prior to their tyre stops, but succumbed to an engine failure.
There were other good performances that went relatively unnoticed. Wendlinger qualified an excellent 10th but was in trouble from the start after a half-spin in the second chicane damaged a tyre. After his stop, which took it unawares, the team noticed that the same incident had ripped off a front wing diffuser so he came in again for a new nose, while later the car’s ballast came loose in the cockpit, necessitating another pit call. While he was running the Austrian kept ahead of the Ligiers for a while, as an indication not only of what might have been, but of the strength of the underrated March-Ilmor combination.
Tarquini had the Fondmetal going well for the second race in succession, chasing the similarly-powered Lotuses from a distance after forcing by the obstructive Grouillard on lap three (and slamming his tactics roundly afterwards!), but succumbing to engine failure once he’d lost ground with his tyre stop.
Mansell’s off-course moment again raised doubts about his temperament, for at that stage he could not have known of Senna’s decision to run non-stop and might therefore reasonably have waited for the Brazilian to pit rather than risk all, but then his career has always encompassed risk and there was no gainsaying his eighth victory of the season’s 10 races. Especially since he had been obliged to back off the pace in the last 10 laps as his tyres, like Senna’s were so blistered and chunked that he was suffering from severe vibrations down the straights. At Hockenheim the last thing you need to have on your mind is the worry of a tyre failure. Nor could one be anything but impressed by the awesome reliability of his Williams-Renault, which last retired through a mechanical fault (the ignition electronics) way back at Spa last year. The championships for both Mansell and Williams-Renault hove closer into view in Germany, and few would begrudge either their success the way they’ve gone this season. D J T