Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez
28 May 1989
Since Mansell’s famous win in Brazil, Ferrari hadn’t troubled the scorers and were in Mexico to try and do something about that. Berger was back, hands still bandaged. They also had a new airbox, with the low-profile slots either side of the driver’s head replaced by a more conventional overhead intake. What would really make the difference, though, is sorting out the reliability issues with their new semi-automatic gearbox.
Nicola Larini was left contemplating what might have been – as Ferrari test driver he had been slated to drive in Berger’s place if he had not been fit. Instead, he struggled with a fuel pump problem and failed to pre-qualify his Osella. Once more, the Brabhams were the class of pre-qualifying with Brundle and Modena taking the first two slots, with Caffi third and Stefan Johansson putting his Onyx into qualifying for the first time. Gachot failed to do the same by scant tenths.
Qualifying proper saw Ayrton Senna take his 33rd career pole position to equal Jim Clark’s record and Alain Prost put his McLaren alongside to make it McLaren’s 15th front-row lockout in 20 races. In third was Mansell, and alongside him Ivan Capelli in the new March CG891, recovering some of the qualifying form he had shown toward the end of 1988. Sadly, team-mate Gugelmin was struck with a series of car grumbles and by the time he was finally able to go out in search of a hot lap it was raining and he failed to make the cut. On row 3 were Patrese and Berger, the Austrian doing well with burned hands on his return. Alboreto was a fine 7th, alongside Boutsen in 8th, with Modena and Warwick rounding out the top ten. Monaco hero Brundle was down in 20th after a Friday accident and persistent overheating – he lined up alongside Stefan Johansson who would give the Onyx team their race debut. Johnny Herbert, still in pain from his legs and unable to fully depress the brake pedal, was 18th, with team-mate Nannini 13th – the pair still using the 1988 car following continuing development problems with the B189. Meanwhile the back row was one that might easily have been the front row not too many years ago: Arnoux 25th and Piquet 26th had 27 wins and three world championships between them.
The Mexico City circuit is remarkably hard to pass on, with an immense straight giving way to a tight infield section, a short back straight and the famous sweeping Peraltada curve; the only real passing opportunity for closely-matched cars was at the end of the main straight, and between Senna and Prost it would come down to tyres and strategy as much as anything else. On the high-altitude circuit, its surface cracked by the 1986 earthquake, Senna opted for “B” compound Goodyears, while Prost gambled on the softer “C” compounds which would wear quicker but give him more grip and speed. While Prost fiddled with his setup in Sunday morning practice, Senna ostentatiously lounged around the pit and watched the Indy 500 in the Goodyear hospitality tent, in between complaining about the pole position being situated on the dirty side of the track.
In the event, Senna’s strategy seemed to have paid off as he surged into the lead while Prost dropped behind Mansell. Behind them, however, Modena had a spin at Peraltada and was bumped into by Grouillard’s Ligier. It didn’t look particularly dangerous, but the course officials decided to stop the race and have a restart. Back to square one, with Capelli taking the restart from the pits in Gugelmin’s car after damaging a brake line on the first start. At the second start, Senna again got away best, though this time Prost stayed with him, and the McLarens were followed by the Ferraris of Berger and Mansell, then the Williamses of Patrese and Boutsen. With the softer rubber, Prost was able to stick with Senna though he couldn’t find the extra speed to get past. Mansell, meanwhile, wasn’t cutting an injured Berger any slack and was all over the back of his team-mate before getting past on lap 8. By this time, Capelli had already retired (again) with transmisison woes and Palmer’s Tyrrell had expired with throttle-linkage issues. Before long the first of the “big” drivers dropped out, Boutsen with an electrical fault on lap 16, followed a lap later by Johansson whose Onyx transmission gave up the ghost. He was in good company: in from fourth the same lap to retire was Gerhard Berger, whose Ferrari semi-auto gearbox had developed another fatal flaw.
Despite Prost’s tyres theoretically being quicker than Senna’s, the defending champion was slowly pulling away, while Mansell was starting to close. His former Williams team-mate Patrese was holding station, but a charging Alboreto was gaining rapidly, showing once again that the new Tyrrell was a decent bit of kit. On lap 19, Senna was already among the backmarkers, and Prost waved as he passed the pits – he wanted to come in to change to “B” compounds on the left side, where his softer “C”s were already wearing out. In he peeled the following lap, was stationary for a full fifteen seconds and dropped back to sixth with it all to do again. He quickly caught and passed Nannini, but was some distance behind Patrese and Alboreto in third and fourth and worse was to come: on lap 34 he had to come in again, his front-left tyre worn out: the McLaren mechanics had accidentally put a “C” on instead of the requested “B”. Another fumbled stop saw Prost lose another fifteen seconds stationary and scuppered any chance of him winning the race.
By this time a charging Mansell had done what Prost couldn’t and whittled away at the gap to Senna, which was now about six seconds with half the race still to go. Senna responded and pulled back out to ten seconds and in the process subjected his rival Prost to the indignity of being lapped, while Mansell was flinging around his Ferrari in a desperate attempt to get to grips with his old rival. It was not to be – just after posting the fastest lap on lap 41, a plume of smoke appeared and Mansell toured off, his gearbox fried again.
So it was left to Senna to cruise to an utterly dominant win, a country mile ahead of his nearest rivals. He graciously allowed Prost to unlap himself, point made. Patrese came second to open his 1989 account, but for a while it looked as if he might lose the place to Michele Alboreto, apparently rejuvenated by his return to the Tyrrell team and the excellent new car, but the ex-Ferrari man was unable to get much closer than 5 seconds behind. In fourth was Nannini after another solid race, a thoroughly dispirited Prost fifth and in sixth Gabriele Tarquini took the last point for AGS, and hopefully he’d be allowed to keep this one.
While Ron Dennis apologised publicly to Prost for the team cocking his pitstops up so monumentally, it was clear that the psychological advantage for the moment at least was now squarely with Senna, while the McLaren team looked just as unbeatable as they had been in 1988; they had 47 points while their nearest rivals Benetton had just hit double-figures. There was semi-serious talk about some sort of handicap for the McLarens to prevent the public switching off in droves, but how could you make that fair?
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.