Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet, Jacarepaguá
26 March 1989
As the teams assembled for the first Grand Prix of the year, there was a sense of anticipation perhaps even greater than usual. The turbo ban meant not only that the form book could well be shaken up, but that the high-pitched whine of the turbocharged engines was replaced by the throaty roar of powerful V8, V10 and even V12 engines.
There were a couple of notable absences: the First team had failed their mandatory crash tests and would not be competing, and Didier Calmels, co-owner of the Larrousse team, had been arrested for the murder of his young wife. Perhaps the most missed though was Philippe Streiff, who had had a huge testing accident in his AGS at the Jacarepaguá circuit the week before the race. Rushed to hospital. the Frenchman was reported to be in a very serious condition.
With two cars thus missing, there were “only” thirteen cars taking part in pre-qualifying and as the cars got underway on Friday morning the talking and speculation would stop and the racing would start. The Brabhams were easily the class of the Pre-qualifying group and were joined in the main qualifying session by Foitek (EuroBrun), Larini (Osella) and Schneider (Zakspeed), while the two Onyx cars were hugely off the pace, with Johansson 7 and Gachot 10 seconds off Brundle’s top time.
In qualifying proper, the predictions of continued McLaren dominance seemed justified as Senna took pole, with Prost having handling problems and only managing 5th. What opened a few eyes, though, was Riccardo Patrese in a record-breaking 177th Grand Prix, who put in a stunning lap to put the new Williams-Renault combination second – his first front-row start since 1983, and Boutsen showed it was no fluke by qualifying fourth. Between them in third was Berger, with Mansell sixth alongside Prost. Of the newcomers, Johnny Herbert was an excellent tenth, outqualifying team leader Nannini, and the Brabhams qualified an impressive 13th (Brundle) and 14th (Modena). Olivier Grouillard lined up 22nd for his first Grand Prix, while Arnoux failed to qualify; he was joined by Dalmas, Foitek and Roberto Moreno’s Coloni in missing the cut.
Come race day and the Ferraris were having problems: Mansell and Berger were both having engine problems as well as gremlins in the new semi-automatic gearbox and both were humorously resigned to not finishing. And, in Berger’s case at least, they weren’t wrong. Getting a great start, he dove up the inside, collided with Senna and was out, with the world champion trailing back to the pits for a new nosecone. All of which meant that the man in the lead was Riccardo Patrese, and behind him was Thierry Boutsen – Williams first and second: so, very different from 1988 already! Boutsen’s first race for Williams was not to be a success though: picking up some debris from the Senna/Berger collision, his engine expired on lap 3, promoting Mansell to second. Some of the more fragile new cars were already starting to fail – the hot, high-speed Rio track being a car breaker at the best of times. Modena’s Brabham with a half-shaft failure on lap 10, followed a lap later by Piquet’s Lotus with a dud fuel pump.
On lap 16, Mansell passed Patrese to take the lead, all the while expecting his car to pack up at any moment, but for the moment he was leading his first race for the Scuderia. He was still there on lap 20 when he pitted for tyres, followed a lap later by Patrese, which left Alain Prost leading. Mansell came back onto the track behind Prost and – to the almost audible gasps from around the world of Formula One, calmly reeled him in and sailed past on lap 28 to regain the lead. So at about half distance it was Mansell first, Prost second, Derek Warwick third in his new Arrows and Johnny Herbert fourth, Gugelmin fifth and Patrese down in sixth but charging. The veteran had made it back up to third before an unplanned second stop effectively ended his race, but it had been a good showing nonetheless. Warwick, too, was a victim of the pits, dropping back to seventh with a sticking rear wheel nut. His team-mate Cheever, struggling further back, collided with Bernd Schneider’s Zakspeed and both were out. Cheever struggled out of his Arrows and collapsed, to the puzzled concern of everyone, as it didn’t seem to have been that big of a shunt.
The pit drama wasn’t over yet, either – on lap 45, Mansell peeled in from the lead and changed five wheels: four rubber ones and the steering wheel. The gear-change paddles had been working loose and he was in danger of losing fifth gear, so with that sorted he was off again, once again with Prost ahead of him. Further down the order, Patrese was still going great guns and broke the lap record on lap 47, only to retire with an alternator failure five laps later. Prost, apparently on a non-stop strategy, was beginning to fade as his rubber wore out and Mansell was able to catch, pass and pull away, then hold the lead for the remaining fifteen laps to take a famous victory; the first driver since Mario Andretti in 1971 to win his debut race for Ferrari. He was joined on the the podium by Prost and by Gugelmin who had got ahead of Herbert and finished only 1.6s behind the McLaren. Johnny Herbert took fourth – not bad at all considering he could still hardly walk – with Warwick salvaging fifth and ruminating that he had lost 25 seconds in his pit stop and finished 18 seconds behind Mansell and Nannini picking up the last point in the other Benetton.
As Mansell celebrated his win – cutting his hands on the sharp trophy in the process – it emerged that Cheever’s discomfort had been caused by being too tall for the car; the requirement for the driver’s feet to be behind the axle line meant that designers had simply designed smaller cockpits. Something would have to be done about that. Prost, meanwhile, revealed that he hadn’t been on a non-stop strategy exactly, but rather that a gear linkage had broken and he realised if he stopped he’d never get going again – so he stayed out.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.