Mexico City, June 16.
It was going to happen sooner or later. A Williams victory, that is. Several times this year the developing Patrick Head/Adrian Newey package has been hammering on the Honda Marlboro McLaren door. In Mexico, it finally took it off its hinges.
The signs were all there, of course, in Canada, and even though the real cause of Nigel Mansell’s last lap catastrophe there remained uncertain, there was an upbeat air in the Didcot quarters. The FW14s handled the notorious bumps of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez markedly better than anything the opposition could put up, and where the McLarens and the Benettons edged pointily over them, and the Ferraris looked far, far too stiff, the Williamses seemed to glide along, in a class of their own.
Irked by suggestions in the French media that Alain Prost might be Williams-Renault bound for 1992, Nigel Mansell had to watch again as team-mate Riccardo Patrese outqualified him, for the sixth time in six races. But there were reasons. Riccardo felt unwell all weekend, attacked by the infamous Mexican tummy, but his run on Friday was ultimately good enough for the pole, his second in succession, and unsettled weather on Saturday prevented anyone bettering it. For Mansell, it was Canada all over again, as he was quick to point out.
“The clutch went there; here it was the gearbox computer that dumped on me on Friday and obliged me to use the spare.” Where both Williams race cars used development versions of the Renault RS3, Mansell’s spare had a standard engine, a point that far from pleased him. Nevertheless, he was quick enough in it to take the other front row slot, and when the race finally got underway, his spare now equipped with an identical motor to Riccardo’s, it was he who led.
Not that the race got underway easily. It took three starts, this one. As the grid lined up for the first, Alesi and Lehto signalled that they were in trouble in the humid conditions, and out went the delayed start board. The next time an over-zealous marshal waved a yellow flag under Olivier Grouillard’s nose, and the Frenchman promptly switched off his Fomet 1’s Hart DFR and raised his arms. All quite logical. Except that the marshal needn’t have waved the flag. To reward Grouillard’s commonsense, the stewards deemed him to have stalled, and held him to the back of the grid as punishment. Having made it through pre-qualifying for the first time in 1991, and qualified a superb 10th, it was a cruel outcome for Gabriele Rumi’s little team.
Where Mansell edged ahead of Patrese the moment the lights went green in Canada, in Mexico his principal opposition came from Senna and Alesi, third and fourth in qualifying, as Riccardo got caught out in the shuffle.
For Senna, Mexico was a weekend to forget. A week to forget, really. Just before he’d left for central America he had had a narrow escape from serious injury after falling off a jetski at the coastal resort of Angra dos Seis. A friend following him struck him with his jetski, and the World Champion had been fortunate to escape with 10 stitches in the back of his head. “If I leave here with as many points as stitches, I’ll be happy,” he had said, but his problems were not over. As the Williams duo set the Friday pace, Ayrton went out for his second run on qualifiers, intent on getting on to the front row. Instead, trying to take the daunting 180 degree banked right-hander Peraltada flat in sixth, he had a monumental accident. As the McLaren went into the corner, he went to change down to fifth halfway through. The shift unbalanced the MP4/6, it slipped a couple of feet off line, and thereafter he was just a passenger as it spun round and hit the tyre wall on the outside of the curve. He might just have got away with it, had his speed not been so high, but as the McLaren struck the tyres it was flipped over on to its rollover hoop. For moments there was something chilling about the suddenness with which the velocity was checked, but then Ayrton clambered out from the wreckage, none the worse for wear. It was, without doubt, the biggest shunt of his career.
If it affected his driving for the remainder of the weekend, it certainly didn’t show. For the second time in 1991 he had a car that wasn’t as good as the best in the field, yet did he ever give up? In the early stages he pushed Mansell as hard as he could, once he had aggressively disposed of the interloping Alesi who had temporarily inserted himself into second place on the opening lap by the expedient of diving down the inside into the first corner. As the two of them raced side by side for the corner on the second lap, Senna’s animal instincts came to the fore as they did in Portugal in 1988 as he feinted at the Ferrari in most ungentlemanly fashion.
It was Patrese who really moved in the opening laps, after that poor start. Alesi succumbed on lap four, Senna on lap 11, the lap on which Riccardo slashed Mansell’s 1.6s lead to 0.3s. It took him another four laps to pass his team ‘leader’ and the lead was not won easily. Side by side they charged down to the Curva Moises Solana at the end of the straight, Mansell on the inside. Both braked super-late, and as Nigel ran ever so slightly wide, Riccardo kept coming round the back of him. Side by side they raced down to the left/right flick that leads on to the next straight, Riccardo on the inside. Mansell kept his lead through the left-hander, but Riccardo had the line for the right and first place changed hands. It was a superb bit of motor racing, and it was not to be the last in an astonishing contest.
Within a lap Riccardo had opened a devastating 3.1s gap, and would parlay that into 22s by lap 48. Nigel, meanwhile, would again be reminded of Senna’s most champion quality, his utter refusal to give up. The McLaren was not a match for the Williams, but Senna damn nearly made it one. Whenever Mansell opened a breather, Senna would come back at him, and their battle was joined for a while by Alesi (who briefly deposed Senna for third on lap 14 before indulging in a half spin on the 15th) and then a charging Piquet. Indeed, around the 22 lap mark Mansell, Senna, Piquet and Andrea de Cesaris in the Jordan, were nose to tail, all in with a chance of second spot. It was quite the best race of the season, the best since Mexico last year.
Modena, in the Braun Tyrrell Honda, had also been a charger initially, until his Pirellis went off and made him spin. A stop for replacements dropped him away, and another when he flat-spotted them finally killed his chances.
Piquet’s challenge was hampered by the need for a stop for fresh Pirellis, and then the left rear wheel bearing wore out, a plume of smoke heralding his retirement on lap 45.
Alesi, too, met with misfortune in his best race since joining Ferrari. As Prost struggled with an electrical misfire caused by a faulty alternator, and retired after 17 laps, the younger Frenchman carried the Ferrari challenge right into Williams and McLaren territory after that half spin, actually working back up to fourth until his clutch failed on lap 43.
In a race enlivened dramatically by the battle up front, there was no shortage of action throughout the field. Immediately behind the second place battle Bertrand Gachot chased energetically after Roberto Moreno’s Benetton, having caught and eventually passed JJ Lehto’s well-conducted Dallara by lap 27. The Finn’s race ended with a blown Judd V10 and a coating of its expelled lubricant over his rear Pirellis, while Bertrand’s ended with a blotted copybook and his second trip of the weekend into the Peraltada sandtrap. Going into the corner on lap 52 he had encountered neutral instead of fifth gear, and fifth place was lost.
Moreno had been delayed during his tyre stop. Unable to radio ahead and warn his team he was coming in, he had had to spend several laps bringing the replacement Pirellis up to full temperature, and any remote chance he had of chasing after the fleet de Cesaris was ruined. Even when the Italian’s throttle potentiometer began to malfunction with 20 laps to go, obliging him to ease the revs, the Benetton could not get close enough, an indication of how much progress the Jordan team is making, and how much Benetton currently misses John Barnard as it regroups in the wake of his departure.
It all so nearly went wrong for Jordan on the last lap, as the potentiometer problem cut de Cesaris’ engine altogether, and then the marshals instructed him to push the 191 towards the tantalisingly close finish line. Reluctantly Andrea obliged, and earned himself temporary disqualification. After a stewards’ meeting, and several false alarms, he was incorrectly reinstated on the grounds that the race had actually finished by the time he committed his indiscretion. He should have been reinstated on the basis of the clause in the regulations that allows a driver to push his car when directed to do so by the marshals.
If very stylish drives by Eric Bernard and Gianni Morbidelli were rewarded by sixth and seventh places, others were less fortunate. Mark Blundell, who had qualified an excellent 12th in the Brabham BT60Y, ran with Bernard for a very long time, passing him just after Eric had overtaken him on lap 25, and then hanging on dearly when a misfire helped Bernard by again.
That became a Yamaha engine failure on lap 55, after he had underlined his promise.
Team-mate Brundle was also pushing hard early on until his tyre pressures rose and ruined the handling, and after his stop at the end of lap 20 he was lucky to escape without injury when the right rear wheel fell off and threw the car into a sandtrap in the esses.
Suzuki, too, deserved better than the broken gear that eventually locked his transmission and put him out on lap 49 at the height of his fight with Morbidelli, and it was eventually left to the down-on-power and gripless Boutsen to bring his Ligier home eighth ahead of the evenly matched and well-driven Lotuses of Hakkinen and Herbert. Once again the Leyton Houses proved slow and unreliable, as did the sole Footwork Porsche to qualify (Alboreto’s), while a split water radiator led to a massive engine failure for Berger at the end of his fifth lap, and sent Martini crashing at Peraltada on the Honda’s oil. Perhaps the saddest story of all was Grouillard’s, the start nonsense wrecking his day, and a detached oil line adding the final insult.
The 1991 Mexican GP, however, will be remembered most of all for Mansell’s charge after Patrese after cockpit adjustment of his Renault’s mixture had cured its early tendency to run hot, and the manner in which he slashed his lead from 22s to less than two by the time the chequered flag fell. But it should also be remembered for the manner in which Riccardo calmly set his fastest lap on his last tour, eking out the second he needed to ensure his fourth GP victory. It might have looked close, but he was judging things to perfection, and his result was richly deserved.
Senna? In the circumstances, third place was quite something given his two accidents, and showed just how determined an individual he is. Such a defeat also proved what he had been saying several times prior to Canada, when few took notice of his comments that McLaren was not as invincible as it might seem. He knows a bit about motor racing, does the World Champion. And right after Mexico he knew full well that McLaren and Honda needed to pull something special out of the bag if it was to stop Williams and Renault from running them very close for the World Championship as the season neared its midpoint.
By David Tremayne of Motor Sport Magazine (1991), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.