Phoenix though was an incongruous place for fireworks. Its uninspiring downtown street track, visited for the first time the previous year, was just the latest of F1’s faltering attempts to make it in America.
Its move for 1990 from an achingly-hot June slot to March and having longer to promote the race did little to increase limited local enthusiasm. A nearby llama race the same weekend elicited greater interest apparently.
But fireworks we got. Another Pirelli tour de force, combined with the second of the two Phoenix qualifying sessions being rained on, added up to a starting grid with good claim as F1’s wackiest ever.
Gerhard Berger bagging pole on his McLaren debut wasn’t outlandish, but what followed was. Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi was next, with a best just two-thirds of a tenth from top spot. Then it was Andrea de Cesaris’s Dallara, and Alesi’s Tyrrell. Only then did we have the haughty Senna, who’d struggled with his Honda engine.
The Ferraris were both hampered by gearchange problems, seventh with Prost and 17th with Nigel Mansell. The Williams lined up ninth and 12t; the Benettons sixth and 22nd. And Olivier Grouillard was eighth. In an Osella. Pirelli-shod, obviously.
Alesi though was disappointed even with his high-up slot – a consequence of the team’s late tyre supplier switch.
“I didn’t qualify well because of my inexperience – I touched the wall twice – so I was not precise,” Alesi told Motor Sport. “But I was quite confident for the race.”
Quite. He needed only until the first corner to thrust his Tyrrell down the inside of Berger’s McLaren to lead. “My thought was, ‘I hope my friends in Avignon are watching the race!,’” Alesi recalled.
“It was the moment in which Jean truly won his F1 spurs. You just don’t do that to Senna!”
And this was no opportunist and fleeting glory run, as Alesi then scampered clear at an astonishing rate. He was 2.4sec clear after one lap, and his advantage grew each time by. Underlining as much, he set what would be his fastest lap that day, and the fourth fastest overall, on lap four.
On that same lap Senna moved past De Cesaris into third and had only team-mate Berger between him and the upstart leader. But already he was 6.5sec off Alesi and the gap continued to increase. Senna though was displaying none of the impetuosity that characterised his previous year.
On lap nine Berger tank-slapped into a tyre barrier, after snagging the throttle under braking, which gave Senna a clear run at Alesi.
“You might have expected the gap to start shrinking the moment Senna took second place,” David Tremayne noted for Motor Sport, “but that wasn’t quite the way it happened in Phoenix. True, it was 8.3sec on lap 10, and 7.8sec on 11, but by 14 it was out to 9.41sec!
“Thereafter it began to come down again, to 6.4sec on lap 17 and 2.88sec on lap 22, but you could sense Senna weighing up the unusual situation, rather as Mike Tyson must have pondered Buster Douglas’ punches.”
Alesi knew the score. “Suddenly I started to see some red coming in the mirrors,” he noted, “and I understood it was Ayrton, because I had the pitboard.” Even Alesi’s boss Ken Tyrrell accepted there and then on live TV that Alesi would have no means to resist.