27 August 1989
The teams arrived in Spa looking forward to a great race. Hungary had been a corker and the famously changeable conditions at Spa always had the capacity to mix things up. There was more driver musical-chairs as Rial boss Gunter Schmid fired Volker Weidler and signed Pierre-Henri Raphanel to take his place, Raphanel’s seat at Coloni being filled by Italian debutant Enrico Bertaggia. With Jean Alesi off driving in Formula 3000, Tyrrell offered the seat to Johnny Herbert.
Thierry Boutsen was due to start his 100th Grand Prix at his home race, and indeed the circuit where he had made his debut in 1983 with Arrows. Also celebrating were Gerhard Berger who turned 30 on race day and would be hoping just to finish, and Derek Warwick who was 35 on Sunday.
Meanwhile there was worry for Brabham as owner Joachim Luehti was arrested in the pitlane by the Swiss police for alleged financial “irregularities” and designer-engineer John Baldwin walked out. The team were quick to reassure everyone that the irregularities didn’t involve them, and they had finance to the end of the season at least.
The rumour mill was also in full swing; Alain Prost had said he would make an official announcement in Italy as to his drive for 1990, which seemed to confirm rumours he would partner Mansell at Ferrari; Sandro Nannini was another name connected with the Prancing Horse, with Capelli apparently due to join Benetton either to partner or replace him.
32. Enrico Bertaggia
Born in the Venetian town of Noale, home to the Aprilia motorbike concern, Bertaggia raced karts as a young man before progressing directly into Formula 3 at the age of 21 in 1985. He came to the attention of the racing world in 1987 when he won the Italian F3 title with the Forti Corse squad. Formula 3000 beckoned for team and driver, but both found it tougher going than they had anticipated and after posting 3 DNQs and a 19th place at the start of 1989, he returned to Formula 3 and won the Monaco race before Enzo Coloni called in August.
Pre-Qualifying once again saw the two Onyx and the two Larrousse Lola drivers through, with new boy Bertaggia way off the pace, 25 seconds off Johansson’s top time and 19 off the next-slowest man, Foitek in the EuroBrun. By Friday afternoon’s Qualifying session it was pouring with rain, though, and it soon became obvious that Pirelli’s wet weather tyres were nowhere near as effective as the qualifying compound that had proved so helpful to the Minardi and Dallara squads of late. Lucky for them, then, that Saturday’s session was dry. Senna took pole once again, with Prost alongside once again – normal service resumed – with birthday boy Berger and 100th race Boutsen on row 2. Behind them, their team-mates Patrese and Mansell. Nannini, Modena, Gugelmin and Warwick made up the top ten. Johnny Herbert (pictured) was 16th on his return, Gachot qualified 23rd for his first race at Spa, Cheever could only manage 24th with Sala and Grouillard on the back row. Not qualifying were both Rials as usual, and both Lotuses. After a run of decent results for Piquet recently it was a bitter pill for them to swallow. This would be the first time – excepting boycotts – that there would be no Lotus in a race since 1970, when the team withdrew after the death of of Jochen Rindt.
Race day dawned and it was raining again. The Pirelli runners, in desperation, hand-cut grooves in their qualifying slicks and all the drivers contemplated the perils of racing in the wet, particularly here at Spa where, like Hockenheim, the spray seems to hang in the air in the long woodland sections. Alain Prost was, as ever, not keen on racing in the rain; memories of his part in Didier Pironi’s 1982 accident still raw for him. Senna, along with Berger, Boutsen and Cheever, was regarded as a rain specialist. So the smart money was on another Senna win to keep his championship hopes alive, though most neutrals were hoping for a sentimental win for Boutsen. After both Brabhams (on those hand-cut Pirellis) aquaplaned off the circuit on the formation lap, a half-hour delay was enough for the two cars to be restored to the grid, some drainage channels to be cut and mud swept off the track where it had begun to be washed onto the road.
The grid got away cleanly and Senna, with the advantage of a clear track ahead of him, settled comfortably into the lead, pursued by a hesitant Prost with Berger right on his tail and Mansell behind, having leaped up two places by taking to the grass at the start. Herbert’s Tyrrell debut was short as he spun off on lap 4, limping back to the pits on his still-not-quite-healed legs wearing the Benetton overalls he’d been using all weekend. Arnoux came in to retire a lap later, having collided with Alliot twice in five laps and deranged his front suspension. Brabham’s nightmare weekend continued as Modena came in on lap 10, unable to get his car handling right (he was using Martin’s hastily-repaired race car while Martin used the spare).
Then, on the same lap, we were once again treated to the sight of Gerhard Berger climbing out of his Ferrari long before the chequered flag; just for once, though, it wasn’t a technical problem – he’d hit a patch of standing water and just aquaplaned off. Poor Gerhard – though as a frustrated John Barnard pointed out, Nigel’s car was set up exactly the same and he was fine! So Mansell was third, though some way back from the McLarens, and Boutsen and Patrese were running together behind him. On lap 20, the two Williamses came to lap Alboreto’s Larrousse. Boutsen went through, but Alboreto moved just as Patrese came through and the pair collided and went off – allowing Nannini through into fifth, struggling with a visor that kept misting up and with Derek Warwick pressuring hard from behind.
By lap 22 – half-distance – Mansell was some 18 seconds behind Prost, but he put the hammer down and started driving another great race like we saw in Hungary, helped by a track that was starting to dry out. He closed relentlessly on the McLaren until on lap 35 he was right up with the Frenchman, who responded by speeding up himself and making his car as wide as possible; “I wanted those six points … very badly” said Alain after the race. Lap after lap, Nigel ran wide at La Source, hoping to build up momentum for a slingshot on the run down to Eau Rouge, but he never quite got through.
The pair’s efforts enlivened what had admittedly been a somewhat processionary affair so far, with the driving rain hampering and discouraging much in the way of passing. Indeed, Johnny Herbert, talking to the BBC during the race was asked how close you had to be to see the red tail-light on the car in front. “With your helmet on the lens” was his laconic reply. Meanwhile over on Swiss TV, Marc Surer was explaining that a lot of drivers went off the barely-audible engine note off the car in front, while looking to the sides to catch glimpses of familiar trees, advertising hoardings and so on to keep their bearings.
Alain was working so hard to keep Mansell behind him that the pair of them were catching Senna at a rate of knots. The Brazilian had eased off to ensure a finish, and it looked for a while as if he might have eased off a bit too much. In the event though, despite Prost setting the fastest lap on lap 44 of 45, the three finished in formation, just 1.8 seconds between them. Boutsen had driven a lonely race to fourth, and Nannini managed to keep Warwick at bay to take fifth and sixth places respectively.
And so Senna edged closer to Prost. With five races to go, the gap was down to just 11 points, and Prost would soon have to start discarding results as he had scored in ten races so far to Senna’s six. Mansell, too, would receive full value from all his scores, having retired five times.
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* Top 11 finishes only are counted.