Ayrton Senna may have won a third championship in four years for McLaren in 1991, but Williams-Renault ended the year on a high with a clear advantage in engine performance. Over the winter this was allied to the most sophisticated electronics package ever to grace a Formula One car.
Computer-controlled active suspension dynamically altered the height and stiffness of the car to suit each corner. Traction control gave the Renault V10 optimum grip under acceleration. And the aerodynamic wizardry of Adrian Newey blessed the FW14B with an abundance of low-drag downforce. A Formula One legend was born.
The opposition were well aware of what they were up against. Alain Prost took a sabbatical season, sacked by Ferrari at the end of 1991 and declining to return for Ligier. Although it wouldn’t become public knowledge until much later in the season, he had already signed to drive for Williams in 1993.
McLaren retained Gerhard Berger alongside Ayrton Senna. Three-time champion Nelson Piquet had finally retired, leaving Martin Brundle to take the second Benetton-Ford alongside Michael Schumacher. Jean Alesi remained at Ferrari to be joined by Italian Ivan Capelli – the first Italian racer for the Scuderia since Michele Alboreto in 1988.
Further down the pit lane the Brabham team were beginning what would be their final season with Belgian Eric van de Poele and Italian Giovanna Amati – the sport’s most recent female driver to date. Coloni had become defunct but their owner had sold their chassis to the new Andrea Moda team, who from the Brazilian Grand Prix embarked on one of the most hopeless Formula One campaigns ever known.
Mansell’s perfect start
The Grand Prix circus returned to Kyalami in South Africa for the first time since 1985, but to a greatly shortened and tightened version of the original circuit that found little favour with the drivers. Mansell picked up where he had left off seven years earlier, by winning for Williams. Team mate Patrese followed him home, and the pattern for the season was set.
Round two was in Mexico, the last time the country held a Grand Prix at the Hermanos Rodriguez Circuit. Mansell and Patrese dominated again, their active suspension systems already giving them a substantial advantage over the fierce bumps. Senna’s transmission lasted just eleven laps and Schumacher made the first of eight appearances on the podium in 1992.
McLaren brought six chassis to Brazil – three new MP4/7As and three MP4/6Bs – in a futile attempt to halt the Williams steamroller. Senna retired with intermittent engine failure after holding up a string of cars and enraging Schumacher.
Mansell and Patrese’s run of 1-2s finally ended at Spain as the teams returned to race at the Circuit de Catalunya for the second time in nine months. This time rain poured down in sheets, and Mansell was stretched for perhaps the first time as Schumacher proved able to catch up the Williams in the early stages. He finished second, while Alesi finally gave the Ferrari faithful something to smile about with a characteristically inspired wet weather drive.
A good thing, too, for the next round was at Imola. The Mansell-Patrese show resumed and the Tifosi started trudging home on lap 39 when Alesi joined Capelli in retirement – both the Ferrari-engine Dallaras made it further in the race.
Victory charge halted
Even at Monte-Carlo, Senna’s stomping ground, Mansell looked hard to beat and was leading comfortably with only a handful of laps to go when he suffered a puncture and had to pit. He shot out of the pits and onto Senna’s tail but couldn’t find a way past on the narrow circuit, the Brazilian infuriating him with weaving and brake-testing. Senna took his fifth Monaco Grand Prix win.
Further back, Roberto Moreno incomprehensibly managed to qualify the abysmal Andrea Moda, and dragged it around for eleven laps until the engine gave up.
Mansell found himself stuck behind Senna again next time out in Canada, and crashed trying to pass the McLaren in the opening stages. Senna retired shortly afterwards handing the lead to Berger. A thrilling fight to the flag looked to be in the offing as Brundle reeled him in, only for his Benetton to fail, leaving Berger to win.
Back to business
When the teams returned to Europe normal service was resumed. Mansell won a two-part race in France but eyebrows were raised when Patrese moved over to let Mansell by during the race – apparently according to some pre-arranged team orders. They weren’t necessary at Silverstone where Mansell dominated the entire weekend and won by a massive margin, the crowd pouring onto the track afterwards in an orgy of ‘Mansell-mania’.
He won again in Germany to set up a shot at the title in Hungary. Although he didn’t win the race he did take second place behind Senna after a pit stop to replace a puncture, which was enough to settle the championship earlier than it ever had been before. “It’s a great feeling isn’t it Nigel?” said Senna on the podium afterwards. “Now you know why I’m such a bastard.”
At Spa-Francorchamps Mansell was the favourite to win again but in a wet-dry race Michael Schumacher won his first Grand Prix. It came after he had spun off and fallen behind Brundle. Noting the condition of his team-mates wet tyres he made an early stop for slicks and jumped to the front where Mansell, struggling with a down-on-power engine, couldn’t respond.
A shock on the driver market
By the Italian Grand Prix speculation over Mansell’s arrangements for 1993 were dominating the headlines as Prost’s move to Williams was announced. Senna let it be known that he would drive for Williams for free, a claim that must have infuriated Ron Dennis who was sacrificing McLaren’s development budget to finance the Brazilians huge retainer. But Prost’s veto clause against Senna – “cowardly” in the Brazilian’s mind – kept him out.
Mansell, unwilling to partner the Machiavellian Prost again and feeling slighted by Williams, elected to move to the American Indy Car series with the Newman-Haas team. With Patrese already committed to Benetton and too much of a gentleman to renege on the deal, the most dominant team in the sport inexplicably found themselves short of a second driver. Test driver Damon Hill found himself in the right place at the right time and was promoted to the race squad.
In the race Mansell tried to let Patrese take a home win, but both suffered atypical car failures. Patrese limped in fifth while Senna won from the Benettons.
To the bitter end
Still fuming about the terms of his departure from Williams Mansell was more determined than ever to leave the sport with a few final victories. This he did in Portugal with little difficulty, though the same could not be said for Patrese. Stuck behind Berger he moved to pass the Austrian just as the McLaren was heading for the pits. The Williams was launched into the air, passing perilously close to the pit wall and a bridge, before mercifully returning to the ground without harming Patrese or any longer.
As the teams entered the final flyaway races there were 26 entrants left, meaning that no drivers would fail to qualify in the latter rounds. Brabham had dropped Amati and van de Poele and were left with Hill, but disappeared after Hungary. The next round, at Spa-Francorchamps, was Andrea Moda’s last, which was perhaps for the best as they had sent McCarthy on track with a flexing steering column that nearly threw him into the wall at Eau Rouge. Finally Fondmetal folded after Portugal leaving Gabriele Tarquini and van de Poele (again) without drives.
Mansell deferred to Patrese again in Suzuka and this time the Italian won and Mansell retired with a late engine failure. Berger beat Senna to second but had already agreed a move back to Ferrari for 1993 to replace Capelli. Capelli was thrown out two races before the season’s end, replaced by Nicola Larini.
The Australian Grand prix should have been the final clash of the titans between Mansell and Senna, and the opening laps gave indication that it might be as Senna hounded Mansell in the opening laps. But Mansell was blocking and brake-testing the Brazilian in the same way Senna had done to him earlier in the season, so Senna punted him out without remorse at the final hairpin on lap 18. It was their last ever confrontation on the track.
This left Berger to sign off for McLaren with a fitting victory, chased to the flag by Schumacher and Brundle. Brundle, too, was on the move for ’93 having fallen out of favour with the mercurial Flavio Briatore, and would partner Mark Blundell in Renault-powered Ligiers the next year.
Senna was left with no choice but to drive for McLaren again in 1993, but he would spend the winter refusing to confirm his decision and thus extracted the maximum possible money from McLaren when he finally did come to race for them next year. This went some way towards making his predicament even worse, as McLaren lacked funds to develop their own active suspension to the same level as Williams.
Meanwhile his arch-rival Prost was about to return from a year off into the best car ever seen in Formula One.