Phoenix Street Circuit
4 June 1989
With the decision of the Detroit city fathers not to invest in improvements to the street track or the new circuit at Belle Isle, their opposite numbers in Phoenix, Arizona jumped at the chance to put their city on the map. Another street circuit, there was a certain amount of apprehensiveness that many of the factors that people hated about Detroit – the terrible surface, the lack of facilities – would be present at Phoenix too, and there was also unease about the temperatures expected in the summer in Arizona. In fact, only the short-notice nature of its addition to the calendar had prevented it being moved, but with a five-year contract this could presumably be done in future seasons.
Phoenix native Eddie Cheever, now in his eleventh season of Grand Prix racing and entering his 132nd race, was the focus of local media attention (such as it was), but for everyone else the big story was still the psychological batle between Prost and Senna. The Frenchman had been thoroughly beaten in Mexico and would be looking to redress the balance here. First, though, the now familiar Friday morning ritual of Pre-Qualifying, and the equally-familiar Brabham at the top of the rankings on a weekend in which they announced a new MD (former McLaren owner Teddy Mayer), a new major sponsor (Japanese finance house Nippon Shinpan) and their drivers for 1990 (Brundle and Modena both re-signed). Caffi’s Dallara was another equally familiar pre-qualifier, and Stefan Johansson brought the Onyx into Saturday’s session again.
It was another McLaren front-row lockout with Senna again having the advantage over Prost, who went backwards into a wall on Saturday and demolished his McLaren – the first monocoque he’d broken since joining the team in 1984. Third was an excellent Nannini, Mansell fourth and Brundle fifth after another great qualifying performance. He was followed by Caffi and Modena – three pre-qualifiers in the top seven and the mid-season re-adjustment couldn’t come quickly enough for the Brabham and Scuderia Italia teams! Berger lined up 8th, with Alboreto 9th in the Tyrrell and Warwick 10th. Williams had been struggling with gearbox, engine and setup problems and could only manage 14th (Patrese) and 16th (Boutsen); local boy Cheever was 17th and Johansson put the Onyx 19th. Lotus continued to have problems in its 400th race, with street-circuit haters Piquet and Nakajima 22nd and 23rd. Missing the cut were both Ligiers, Moreno’s Coloni and Dalmas in the Larrousse.
Sunday morning’s warm up saw another shunt with Nannini demolishing his Benetton and having to go to hospital for a checkup; he was fine other than some neck strain and, like Prost, would take the start in his team’s spare car. The weather was hot – very hot – and several drivers were experimenting with in-helmet cooling systems pioneered by NASA, while some teams such as Larrousse had removed their engine covers to better cool the engines and electronics. The locals were staying away en masse as well, so it was a subdued Phoenix that saw Prost streak away at the start, only to suddenly slow and allow Senna through – it turned out that he’d hit a bump, the rear wheel had momentarily left the track, spun freely and tripped his rev limiter. A freak occurrence and he slotted comfortably into second with Nannini and Mansell following. With limited overtaking opportunities, there was no change in the order until Nannini had a spin on lap 4 and dropped to eighth. The Italian dropped out of the race entirely on lap 10, his neck strain worse than the thought.
By this time, Senna had pulled out quite a lead, and behind Mansell in third were Brundle, Caffi and Modena, all three pre-qualifiers, making the most of their extra time on the track on Friday morning, and having a lively battle between the three of them. By lap 20, a quarter distance in this 81-lap race, the hot conditions and unforgiving circuit were already taking their toll: Alliot and Warwick had both crashed out, both Marches expired with transmission difficulties and Alboreto’s Tyrrell gearbox also gave up the ghost. Mansell came in still suffering from gearbox troubles – he rejoined well down the order and would be back in to retire on lap 31. This promoted Caffi to third place, followed by Modena and Brundle.
On lap 29, Senna’s engine started misfiring intermittently and five laps later, with Prost now right up behind, he motioned his team-mate through into the lead and came in for his team to have a look at it. So Prost now led Caffi, who was in turn being chased down by Berger, since both Brabhams had disappeared with brake problems. When Caffi came in for new Pirellis, he dropped back to fifth and set about tyring to regain places. Unfortunately, in the process he had a coming-together with team-mate de Cesaris who was on a charge and unlapping himself. De Cesaris seemed not to register Caffi’s presence at all and simply ran him into the wall, continuing merrily on his way. another one was out, and Berger had only nine laps to enjoy his secure second place before he was out with another alternator problem, cutting power to the gearbox. By this time, it was clear that the race would hit the two-hour limit long before it reached 81 laps, and it would just come down to a question of who would finish.
In the end, Berger’s retirement was the last, promoting the Patrese/Cheever battle to a battle for second and leaving only 9 cars running. And that was how it ended after 75 laps: Prost took his first win of 1989 to go back to the top of the table, Patrese took his second successive second spot and Cheever was a delighted third – if only some of his compatriots had been around to see it. In fourth was Christian Danner, his best result yet and Rial’s equal best. In fifth, despite constant pain in his feet from the stop-start circuit, was Johnny Herbert and in sixth was Boutsen, who had been held up with a puncture earlier but nabbed the place on the last corner from Gabriele Tarquini, having another great race in the AGS. Behind Tarquini, de Cesaris and Palmer completed the finishers, the Tyrrell driver having run out of fuel from fourth place on lap 70. Ironically, Ken Tyrrell was the only team owner who had vetoed a proposed move before the start to reduce the race distance to 70 laps.
It hadn’t been a classic, but the McLarens had been shown not to be bulletproof after all, and Prost had been able to bounce back straight away. Patrese showed he was enjoying a new lease of life at Williams, while Ferrari and Lotus had a lot to do – in the latter case, there was even the possibility of them ending up in pre-qualifying in the second half of the season if things didn’t pick up soon. As for the new circuit, the verdict was cautiously positive. the surface was a lot smoother and the roads a lot wider than Detroit, and purpose-built pits made life easier for the teams. “Acceptable but dull” was the general mood on the track itself, and a move to a better date and the reduction in laps would help with the heat. For the organisers, though, the lack of local interest was a worry – promoter Chris Pook had been responsible for the Long Beach race which had ended up failing through lack of interest and high hosting costs…
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.