Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola
23 April 1989
With four weeks since the Brazilian race, there had been plenty of time for teams to test and tinker. Some teams had their new 1989 challengers on track – Tyrrell’s new 018, still unsponsored but now in the traditional blue with the team name written on the sidepods; Larousse’s new Lola LC89 – but others (most notably Benetton) would have to persist longer with their 1988 cars for now. Phillippe Streiff’s prognosis wasn’t looking good, meanwhile, with it looking increasingly likely that the talented driver would be paralysed from the waist down. In the meantime, his seat at AGS would be taken by Gabriele Tarquini, newly unemployed after First’s rather sudden demise. This meant that a record 39 cars would be entered.
Friday morning came and again the Brabhams eased through Pre-Qualifying with no problems, and were joined by Caffi and Larini for Dallara and Osella respectively. The Onyxes were much improved, with Gachot fifth and top of the DNPQs. Bottom of the heap this weekend were the two Germans Weidler (Rial) and Schneider (Zakspeed).
The rain came on Friday afternoon and although Gerhard Berger had provisional Pole when he went to bed, it was with a time that would have put him well adrift at the bottom of Pre-Qualifying, so it would all come down to Saturday’s session. It was, in fact, Senna who unsurprisingly sat on Pole at the end of it, with Prost alongside. On the second row was Mansell’s Ferrari and Patrese’s Williams, with Berger and Boutsen behind mimicking their formation. Then came Nannini and Piquet, with in ninth place a truly impressive Alex Caffi – still in Pre-Qualifying, let’s not forget – alongside an equally eyebrow-raising Olivier Grouillard in just his second Grand Prix outing. Tarquini put the AGS 18th, Johnny Herbert could only manage 23rd after an off, starting alongside Nakajima who had to change his Judd engine. The back row was Palmer and Dalmas, leaving two ex-Ferrari drivers (Arnoux and Alboreto) to join Christian Danner and Roberto Moreno in watching the race from the sidelines.
Race day dawned fine. The key at Imola is the long , curved flat-0ut left-handed blast of Tamburello, from the start-line around to the tight corner at Tosa. Both Senna and Prost would want to get to Tosa first, from where they could make their car wide for the rest of the turning, undulatinc circuit. The lights went green, and off they went, and Senna got the better start, leading away around Tamburello while Prost had Mansell nibbling at his heels. It was Senna that got through Tosa first and even when Mansell dropped back a little and had his heels nibbled in turn by Patrese, Prost wasn’t able to make much impression on him. Capelli had an uncharacteristic early spin from 13th and was out on the second lap, and then on lap four, it was Berger’s turn. Something broke in his car and he went straight on at Tamburello, ploughing into a concrete wall at some 180mph.
Shedding pieces and bouncing wheels across the busy track, what was left spun along the concrete wall and finally came to rest under a giant advertising hoarding. And then caught fire. Marshals were on the scene ten seconds later and the blaze was fully extinguished sixteen seconds after that. While the race was black-flagged, Berger was quickly extracted from his cockpit, seen by Professor Sid Watkins and choppered off to Bologna hospital. With Watkins looking optimistic, a rescheduled start time was arranged. The cause of the accident was still unknown, and the destruction to the car was such it might never be discovered exactly what had given way. However, Nigel Mansell made the brave (and entirely characteristic) decision to race.
And so they did it all again. This time it was Prost who got the better start, roared ahead through Tamburello, while Mansell was a bit slower away this time and ended up fifth behind Patrese and Nannini. Senna didn’t seem like he was willing to give up the lead he had been enjoying first time round, though, and caught Prost at Tosa, outbraking his way past. Mansell begain to work his way back up, distracting the shaken Tifosi from their worries over Berger with a great drive, passing Nannini to fourth, then going after his former number two, Patrese. Lap after lap he closed, then harried him – a Briton in an Italian car chasing an Italian in a British one, and the fans were loving it almost as much as Riccardo was loving having Mansell behind him for once! Patrese’s engine failed on lap 22, and Mansell only had a couple of laps to enjoy third before he too was out, in his case with a gearbox problem.
With both Ferraris out and the two McLarens miles in the lead from Nannini’s Benetton, the fans began leaving Imola in numbers. And, to be quite honest, they didn’t miss a lot. Senna cruised to an emphatic win, Prost came second with a lap record, courtesy of trying to catch up again after a spin. Nannini was third, Boutsen fourth for Williams, Warwick fifth and Jonathan Palmer took a point in the brand-new Tyrrell. That might help the sponsorship situation. Finishing just outside the points was Alex Caffi – a very fine weekend’s work indeed for the young Italian team and their young Italian driver – and behind him Gabriele Tarquini brought his AGS home a morale-boosting 8th.
The podium seemed subdued, oddly, and once Senna had eventually worked the cork in his champagne loose, a token spray at Prost, who raised his hand in a “no thanks” gesture, was all the celebration there was. Trouble in Team Perfect? This could be interesting.
The drama wasn’t quite over yet, though. Olivier Grouillard had had his fine qualifying performance brought to nothing after the team had removed the car wheels on the grid before the second start to replace his undertray which had picked up a bit of Berger’s car. He had been black-flagged and disqualified shortly after the start, and the Ligier team now protested that both Williams (for Boutsen) and Dallara (for Caffi) had changed their wheels in the pits during the second start. They were disqualified too, which promoted Warwick to fourth, Palmer to fifth and Tarquini to an even more morale-boosting and point-scoring 6th place.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.