1989 had ended amidst controversy: over Alain Prost’s collision with Ayrton Senna that gave the former the title; over the running of the Australian Grand Prix in appalling conditions; and over Prost’s withdrawal from that race after just one lap, his final outing for the McLaren team that had given him his three championship titles to date. Senna’s protest against his disqualification from the Japanese Grand Prix earned him a suspension that was only lifted on the eve of the new season when Senna relented and paid a USD $100,000 fine.
Prost effectively swapped seats with Berger, bringing the number ‘1’ to Ferrari. In these days before championship order determined all the teams’ numbers, McLaren signalled their title intentions by adopting Ferrari’s traditional numbers ’27’ & ’28’, with Senna taking over the emotive ’27’ – invariably linked with the memory of Gilles Villeneuve. Ferrari gave notice of their speed over the winter as the motorsport press reported their impressive testing times.
Elsewhere, Williams had signalled the beginnings of a return to form with their Renault engines and kept veteran Riccardo Patrese allied to Thierry Boutsen, twice a winner in 1989. Nelson Piquet finally extricated himself from his Lotus nightmare and joined Benetton-Ford alongside the impressive Alessandro Nannini. Lotus switched from Judd to Lamborghini engines, that were also being used by Lola, and cars for Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly. But this once-great team was entering its death throes.
There were 35 entrants to the first race of the season and 1990 would be another year in which pre-qualifying would be used to weed out the slower entrants at the beginning of the weekend. EuroBrun, Coloni, AGS and, most of all, the utterly hopeless Life team, troubled the F1 timekeepers only rarely with their forays into racing proper.
Senna storms the early races
At round one in Pheonix, Arizona, Ferrari suffered a double retirement and Tyrrell’s Jean Alesi made the headlines by leading and battling furiously with Senna. The Brazilian got the upper hand, but Alesi marked himself out as a future star with a strong run to second. Berger suffered an ignominious McLaren debut and crashed out, complaining that the cockpit, designed for Senna’s slight frame, was far too small for him. The Brazilian round was Senna’s for the taking but he tripped up when lapping Alesi’s team mate Saturo Nakajima, letting Prost through for the win.
San Marino yielded a third different winner – Riccardo Patrese took his first win since 1983 at the same circuit, thereby setting an unusual record for the longest gap between consecutive wins for a driver – one that he still holds. Senna suffered wheel rim failure and Prost took fourth.
The Monaco Grand Prix was stopped and restarted after one lap when Prost and Berger collided. As in the previous street round Senna romped home ahead of Alesi, who began to attract significant press interest about his future. Through the traditional Monaco attrition (only six cars were still circulating at the finish) Alex Caffi rose to fifth to take a useful two points for Arrows.
At Canada came a curious result – Berger crossed the line first by 45s, but with a one-minute penalty for a jump start was classified fourth. Senna won a tricky wet/dry race which caught out many drivers including Alesi, who was unlucky enough to hit and destroy Nannini’s stationary Benetton which the Italian had crashed five laps previously. With Prost fifth, Senna stretched his lead.
Prost fights back
Prost retaliated with a hat-trick of wins in Mexico, Germany and France. The Mexican win was one of his finest, won from 13th on the grid, though aided by Senna’s tyre failure. Mansell finally got a strong result, passing Berger around the outside of Peraltada in a shocking move with two laps to go. Prost won in France after usurping surprise leader Ivan Capelli in the Adrian Newey-designed Leyton House-Judd, with three laps to go. In Britain Prost won at Mansell’s expense, who suffered his fifth mechanical failure in eight races, compared to Prost’s two.
Feeling that he was getting inferior machinery compared to Prost and frustrated that Ferrari seemed to favour the Frenchman, Mansell announced that he would retire at the end of the season.
Mansell’s antipathy towards his team was underlined in Germany, when he retired his healthy Ferrari much to the team’s annoyance. Senna hit back with his fourth win after passing Nannini, who boldly elected to try to complete the race distance without changing his tyres. This was a significant tactical ploy on Benetton’s part, as their Pirelli tyres often lasted longer than the Goodyears of most of their rivals.
The Hungarian Grand Prix, as in 1989, was a cracker. Thierry Boutsen led all the way, closely pursued by Senna. In the closing stages the drivers’ simmering frustration at the difficulty of passing at the Hungaroring reached boiling point as first Senna turfed Nanine out of the race, then Berger rammed Mansell at the same corner. Crucially for the championship, Prost spun off and lost six points to Senna. He had lost another six after the Belgian and Spanish Grands Prix, following a victorious Senna home in both. Meanwhile, it emerged that Mansell’s replacement at Ferrari would be Alesi, much to the disappointment of Ken Tyrrell, who had relished the prospect of pairing the Sicilian with his team’s new supply of Honda engines in 1991. This was perhaps Tyrrell’s last chance of genuine competitivity that had gone begging.
Mansell atoned for his 1989 disqualification from the Portuguese round by winning on the Estoril track, but he further alienated himself from his team en route by nearly running Prost into the pitwall at the start, squandering the team’s one-two qualifying position. The race was stopped early after Caffi crashed heavily into the barriers in the fast opening corners. Mercifully, Caffi’s injuries only kept him out for one race. Derek Warwick had been similarly fortunate to escape unhurt when he flipped his Lotus on the exit of Parabolica on the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix. He immediately bounded from the cockpit to take the restart in the spare car.
Nannini, too, had a lucky escape, from a helicopter accident. But he suffered grave innjuries to his arm, which had to be amputated. F1 was robbed of a talented driver who had a promising racing career ahead of him. Nannini went on to drive a specially adapted saloon car in the Deustche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) but never raced in F1 again. Roberto Moreno took hisa place at Benetton.
Warwick’s team mate Donnelly was more than just lucky to survive his crash in practice for the next race at Jerez in Spain. He hit an unguarded section of metal Armco barrier at close to 270kph (170mph) which atomised the car and flung poor Donnelly clear, his seat still strapped to his back. He suffered terrible leg injuries, and bruising of the brain and lost nearly half his blood volume. The rapid arrival and intervention of the medical car and Professor Sid Watkins was loudly, and rightly, hailed as being crucial to Donnelly’s survival, and the circuit was never used in the same form again, however questions of the safety of the cars were, in hindsight, never seriously addressed. In this context, the final outcome of the 1990 season is all the more shocking.
The Spanish race at least kept the championship going as Senna suffered radiator failure and Prost led home a Ferrari one-two.
This effectively meant that the points situation with two rounds to go was the reverse of what it had been in 1989 – with Prost needing two wins to take the title, and Senna only needing Prost not to finish. And, as in 1989, the title would be decided in Japan.
Confrontation at Suzuka, Part Two
Senna’s pole position at Suzuka in Japan was unremarkable in that it was yet another Senna pole – his eighth of the season. But it became critical to the championship when the race organisers refused Senna’s request to have the pole position slot moved to the right-hand side of the grid, where the racing line ran and the track was cleaner. Senna maintained that the right to move the pole position was his perogative having set the fastest time, at that he had even secured the agreement of the stewards to this before qualifying. He was adamant that they had gone back on their decision under the influence of FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre, whom he also blamed for his disqualification in 1989.
Prost may have reflected before the start that, having deliberately run into Senna to win the championship the year before, he could expect the Brazilian to return the favour under the same circumstances. But he probably did not expect that not only had Senna indeed drawn this conclusion, but that after the row over moving the pole position Senna was convinced that he was the victim of a conspiracy, and vowed not to let Prost pass through the first corner in the lead under any circumstances. Sure enough, Prost drew ahead at the start on the grippier side of the track and Senna hurled his McLaren down the inside of the Ferrari, sending both cars spinning into a cloud of dust at 200 kph (130mph).
Senna became the champion in an instant. Public reaction was a mixture of anger and disbelief. Prost summed up his rage thus: “He pushed me off. I am not prepared to fight against irresponsible people who are not afraid to die.” All the same, there was no comment from Prost on what had gone before, nor was there any question of him not participating in 1991. McLaren team owner Ron Dennis was more sanguine, dismissing it as “rough justice” in the light of 1989. Senna, for the meantime, declined to explain his actions at length. That would come later.
In the fury over the anticlimactic and deeply controversial conclusion to the year it almost went unnoticed that Piquet won the final two rounds for Benetton. The first, at Suzuka, amid scenes of some emotion as he led home Nannini’s replacement – and Piquet’s compatriot – Roberto Moreno, who had spent much of 1990 trying in vain to get the EuroBrun past pre-qualification.
Piquet won in Australia too, ahead of old rival Mansell (now un-retired having been offered a plum Williams drive for 1991) in a thrilling chase to the flag. Senna slid off and into the unforgiving walls of the street track. Perhaps he had been distracted by the now infamous verbal bashing dished out to him by Jackie Stewart on Australian television, in which Stewart accused him of being involved in too many accidents for a driver of his ability. Prost, too, had upset his peers by refusing to line up for a portrait of past champions (including Stewart and Juan Manuel Fangio) to commemorate the 500th round of the Formula One World Championship.
1990 had been another round in the bitter feud between Prost and Senna, and it would be the last time the two would fight for the championship in equal machinery. But their mutual resentment of each other and their unflinching commitment to success would continue to dominate Formula One until Prost made his final retirement from the sport.