Champions McLaren-Honda kept their driver line-up of twice-champion Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger, although the Austrian had failed to score a win for them in 1990. Alain Prost remained Ferrari lead driver but Nigel Mansell had returned to Williams alongside Riccardo Patrese.
His Ferrari replacement was Jean Alesi, who had passed up a Williams seat for the chance to drive for the Scuderia. Mansell edged out Thierry Boutsen who defected to Ligier, and thereafter precious little further Grand Prix success.
The FIA tweaked the points system and it was widely regarded to be a step in the right direction. The “best eleven scores count” rule was dropped to make the system simpler, and the reward for a win was increased to ten points instead of nine. It was hoped that this would increase the value of a win, and discourage the championship leader from ‘settling for second’.
Senna’s perfect getaway
The season began on the streets of Pheonix, in front of such a poor attendance the championship never returned again. A local ostrich race reputedly drew a larger crowd. Senna romped to a straightforward win, the race being stopped after 81 of 82 laps on the two-hour rule. Prost finished second.
In Brazil Mansell served notice of Williams’ intentions with a strong run until his gearbox failed. Senna finally, emotionally won his home race, despite a late scare in a growing rainstorm when his McLaren stuck in sixth gear, with Patrese bearing down on him. Berger took third.
McLaren took a one-two in San Marino, Senna winning again, with JJ Lehto a remarkable fourth for Dallara-Judd. Mansell finally scored his first points of the year in Monaco but Senna had a fourth consecutive win – the strongest start ever made to a Formula One Championship.
It ended in Canada with alternator failure on lap 25. Mansell led until the final lap, when his engine died as he waved to the crowd. Nelson Piquet motored by to take his final victory, for Benetton-Ford. “I almost came,” he said afterwards. Stefano Modena was second for Tyrrell-Honda, some recompense for his failure to finish in Monaco when the Honda dumped oil over the straight.
Williams turn a corner
It was Patrese, not team leader Mansell, who took Williams’ first win of the season in Mexico as the pair finished first and second. Senna failed to finish having crashed in qualifying, and Prost failed to score for the third time in four races. Senna’s 40 points still looked imposing against Prost’s 11 and Mansell’s 13.
But Mansell was coming on strong and won the next three races: France (passing home favourite Prost twice), Britain and Germany. Senna ran out of fuel in the last two events and demanded radical improvements in his post-race briefings. The French race was the first to beheld at Magny-Cours at the behest of President Mitterand.
Senna hit back with a win in Hungary, the Williams drivers following him home. Mansell led convincingly in Belgium, the Renault engine still enjoying an advantage over the Honda, but he retired at half-distance with electrical failure and Senna took maximum points. Meanwhile Belgian Bertrand Gachot’s incarceration after an incident with a taxi driver granted Michael Schumacher his first Grand Prix start for the new Jordan team. He qualified an exceptional seventh, but retired on the first lap with clutch failure.
Disaster for Mansell
Mansell’s win in Italy, Senna second, kept his championship hopes alive but they suffered a mortal blow in Portugal. Having pitted from the lead his right-rear tyre was not properly fitted and bounced down the pit lane. It was replaced in the fast lane of the pits and Mansell was disqualified. Patrese won, but Senna’s second place was invaluable. Schumacher was now driving for Benetton and scored his first point with sixth.
The Spanish Grand Prix was held at the Circuit de Catalunya for the first time, and produced an excellent race. Mansell and Senna duelled brilliantly, millimetres apart at over 200 mph down the main straight as Mansell took the lead.
For the fifth year running the championship was decided in Japan. McLaren let Gerhard Berger run away at the front of the field as Mansell was bottled up behind Senna. Mansell’s impatience got the better of him and he spun off, making Senna champion. Senna passed Berger and disappeared into the lead, before gracelessly granting Berger the win at the final corner.
Farce in Australia
With no wins to his name from 1991 and a Williams contract in his pocket for 1993, Prost had nothing to lose in pointing out Ferrari’s obvious failings to the press. The Scuderia took a dim view and fired the Frenchman, but he wasn’t likely to be disappointed as he probably wouldn’t have chosen to start the rain-lashed Australian Grand Prix.
It would last just 14 laps and was the shortest Grand Prix ever. The race continued even as a shunt blocked half the straight and Mansell nearly hit a wreck as he moved to pass Senna. The race was finally halted when he spun off and injured an ankle, with seven others already having crashed.
With half points awarded it was enough to confirm McLaren as constructors’ champions for a fourth consecutive season. But in Australia Williams ran their Adrian Newey-designed FW14B, which was about to revolutionise the sport.