Phoenix Street Circuit
11 March 1990
The Phoenix street circuit had been well received – particularly in comparison to Detroit – but the heat had been a problem in 1989 so it took a new position at the start of the season. With the season now beginning with two flyaway races, several teams decided to wait until the start of the European season to debut their new cars, but there was little familiarity about the grid in Phoenix with all the lineup changes over the off-season. There was more news in the run-up to the race, too: Ken Tyrrell had turned some heads by signing terms with Pirelli after 18 years as a Goodyear runner, and there were a couple of substitute drivers. Alex Caffi had hurt himself while cycling and his spot in the Arrows would be taken by Bernd Schneider, and Emanuele Pirro was recovering from a bout of Hepatitis, giving an F1 debut to Gianni Morbidelli.
10. Bernd Schneider
The talented Schneider had been a victim of the debacle that was Zakspeed’s 1989 season and, while he had actually made the grid on two occasions, it was hardly the best shop window for his talents and, with no German teams, engine suppliers or anything else, he had not been able to find another drive for 1990 unlike his team-mate Aguri Suzuki with his Japanese backing. Still, a substitute appearance for a rather better team might enable him to show what he could do.
21. Gianni Morbidelli
Son of Giancarlo Morbidelli, maker of motorcycles for the Motorcycle Grand Prix series, Gianni decided early to go for four wheels over two and entered karting in 1980. Winning at his sixth attempt he moved up to Formula 3 and in 1989 he won both the Italian F3 title and the European F3 cup, as well as winning races in Italian touring cars. For 1990 he moved into F3000 with the Forti Corse team, and was also offered a role as a Ferrari test driver. This last proved a good recommendation to the Scuderia Italia team when a substitute for Pirro was needed.
And so it was time for the musical chairs and the analysis of testing times to stop and the cars to take to the track. Pre-qualifying was still necessary but there were now just 9 (instead of 13) cars gunning for those four spots in Qualifying proper: the two-car Larrousse, EuroBrun and AGS teams and the single-car Osella, Coloni and Life teams. Top of the heap, to some surprise, was Roberto Moreno in the EuroBrun with Bernard’s Larrousse second, Grouillard’s Osella third and Suzuki’s second Larrousse taking the last spot. These four were a full two seconds faster than the AGS pair, while Gary Brabham had a black-box failure in the Life and was some 35 seconds off the pace and Gachot’s gear selector broke and he trundled round the track in over five minutes before packing up.
The eagerly-awaited first qualifying session of the year did not disappoint the neutrals – with Pirelli still the qualifying tyres to have and a sudden rainstorm on Saturday, there was a distinctly topsy-turvy look to the grid. Sure, there was a McLaren on pole, but it was Gerhard Berger, not Senna. Alongside him was the irrepressible Pierluigi Martini, continuing Minardi’s fine qualifying form from the end of 1989. Row two was occupied by the Dallara of Andrea de Cesaris and the Tyrrell of Jean Alesi. In fifth and sixth were the old Brazilian sparring partners of Senna and Piquet – the latter’s new Benetton apparently suiting him well – with Prost back in 7th. Lining up alongside Prost was another “Pirelli Surprise”, Grouillard’s Osella. Boutsen was 9th and Modena 10th in the Brabham. Of the other high-profile drivers, Patrese was 12th, Mansell 17th and Nannini 23nd. At the back were Warwick’s Lotus and Gugelmin’s Leyton House, with Capelli, both Onyxes and Morbidelli failing to qualify (the latter after demolishing his Dallara on Friday and not being able to set a time on Saturday). Gregor Foitek would, after ahis disastrous 1989 season, finally make his GP debut in 24th.
On Sunday morning it was announced that Philippe Alliot, who had qualified 20th,
would be excluded after mechanics worked on his Ligier outside of the pit area on Friday. Everybody else shuffled up a place, which meant Ivan Capelli would start after all. Martin Donnelly, meanwhile, suffered a gearbox failure and didn’t make the dummy grid. And then, finally, the 1990 season could get underway. If the watching pundits had assumed normal service would be resumed, they were mistaken – Berger got away well and stayed comfortably ahead of Martini, but up from fourth swept Jean Alesi to take the lead going into turn one. Not only that, but he began to pull out a lead! Behind him, Patrese had collided with Grouillard and Nannini with Schneider, and all four had come in for repairs. By lap four, as Larini pulled off with a stuck throttle, Alesi had pulled out a lead of some four seconds over Berger, with Senna having made his way up to third followed by de Cesaris, Martini and Piquet.
On lap 9, Senna went second as Berger lost the back end under braking and slid backwards into a tyre wall. He was able to keep going, but would have to come in for a new rear wing. So now Senna was some six seconds behind the Tyrrell and not making much impression, while behind a terrific scrap for third place was going on between de Cesaris, Piquet, Boutsen and Prost (emitting a plume of blue smoke that suggested something was amiss with his oil system), with Martini suffering from grip problems and dropping back. On lap 15, Berger shot out of the pits having finally got his car repaired, and emerged right in the middle of this battle, behind Piquet but ahead of Boutsen who angrily hit the brakes, gesticulating, as Prost came powering past. Now the Belgian had not only lost the place on this tough passing circuit, but he was getting Prost’s oil on his visor. The number 1 Ferrari pulled in to retire on lap 22.
Senna, it transpired later, had been hanging back deliberately to see how Alesi’s tyres would last and by lap 30 it was clear the answer was “very well, thank you” so the Brazilian sped up and caught Alesi, triggering a fantastic scrap for the lead as he tried lapa after lap to find a way past. On lap 34, he managed it, squeezing through the inside at turn one – only for the fearless Alesi to retake the lead at the next corner. Fantastic stuff, but Senna was not to be denied. A lap later, he got ahead again at turn one and this time he made it stick. Alesi stuck with him for a few laps, then apparently decided to let him go and husband his tyres.
At half distance it was Senna leading Alesi with Boutsen third, Piquet fourth after stopping for tyres in a bid to sort out his grip problems and Stefano Modena fifth. Behind him was Mansell, having made his way into the points from 17th. On lap 45, Berger’s eventful McLaren debut came to an end with a clutch problem, just as Mansell overtook Modena for fifth. It wasn’t to last though – just five laps later Ferrari’s miserable weekend was compounded as a sudden gout of flames burst from the back of Nigel’s car, pitching him into a 180mph spin which he did well to collect before coasting to a stop.
By lap 60, Senna had built a huge lead and the racing died down a little as drivers began conserving tyres and trying not to blot their copybooks in the tight circuit. There were two further retirements after Mansell: Aguri Suzuki was a promising 7th when his brake pedal didn’t respond and he shot into an escape road on lap 53, while Paolo Barilla was, it turned, out, a bit too big for his car and retired with a dead left arm on lap 55.
Ayrton Senna took what was in the end a dominant win, with Alesi a fine second and Boutsen a satisfied third in a misfiring Williams. Piquet picked up three points on his Benetton debut. Modena finished fifth after all and Satoru Nakajima made Ken Tyrrell’s smile even broader by taking the final point after starting 11th. Minardi hung on for 7th, Schneider brought his 1989-spec chassis home 12th and Roberto Moreno made it to the end – albeit 5 laps down – in the EuroBrun.
A disastrous first race for Ferrari, who had looked so good in winter testing, but a promise of some cracking racing to come.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.