8 July 1990
The French Grand Prix, in a masterpiece of bad timing, fell on the same day as the World Cup final in Rome – fortunately for concentration during the race, the final saw Argentina play West Germany: neither country had any representation in the F1 paddock. The “Ferrari derby” of Mansell’s England against Ferrari’s Italy for third place had been resolved in the latter’s favour the previous day.
There were dismaying rumours circulating that this would be F1’s last visit to the popular circuit at Le Castellet with a new modern facility being built by the French government further north. If this was indeed the case, Prost would be even keener to record his fifth home win, and post-Mexico testing seemed promising for the Scuderia. Pre-qualifying saw four French cars going through, with the two Larrousse Lolas taking their habitual top two slots and the two AGSes also both making it through – Tarquini for the first time and Dalmas for the second. Life (pictured) put in their now traditional token appearance with no time set while Gachot could only manage a time of over four minutes in the terminally tubby Coloni-Subaru.
Qualifying proper did indeed end with a Ferrari at the head of the grid, but it was the wrong one for the home crowd: Mansell took top spot ahead of Berger, with Senna and Prost on row two. Behind them were Nannini and Patrese, with in 7th place a real surprise: Ivan Capelli’s Leyton House. Neither of the turquoise cars had qualified in Mexico and two of their main backroom men – Adrian Newey and Tim Holloway – had departed, but they had left behind them some aerodynamic revisions that seemed to have made a world of difference. Capelli’s team-mate Gugelmin was tenth, behind Boutsen and Piquet. David Brabham and Yannick Dalmas brought up the rear, with Barilla, Tarquini and both Onyx cars.
The lights went green on a scorching Provence Sunday and the cars erupted off the grid. Mansell led Berger and Senna into the first corner, while Prost was crowded out and dropped to sixth behind Nannini and Patrese. Mansell, though, seemed to be having a problem; Berger was in the lead and pulling out by the end of the lap and Senna was right on Mansell’s gearbox. As he too passed the Ferrari commentator Murray Walker wondered aloud whether the McLaren team had been sandbagging – deliberately underperforming, or at – so far this weekend. The top four – Berger, Senna, Mansell and Nannini – continued to run close together for lap after lap, with Senna unable to make an impression on Berger who was running less wing and was faster on the straights. Behind them, Prost was clearly being held up by Patrese but was likewise unable to get past thanks to the grunt of the Renault engine in the straights.
Piquet made the first stop for fresh tyres on lap 20, dropping from 7th to 15th but hoping that he would make up places as the others stopped, which promoted Alesi and Capelli to 7th and 8th respectively, the pair having an almighty scrap until the Tyrrell came in on lap 22. Soon Capelli was nipping at the heels of the Patrese/Prost battle, while Nannini almost bumped wheels with Mansell as he tried to make his way past. On lap 27, Prost peeled in for new tyres, still unable to get past Patrese – just as Senna took Berger for the lead and Mansell almost followed through as well. An uncharacteristically slow McLaren stop put Berger back on the track in 11th, with Patrese third and hot on his heels. Three laps later, Senna pitted for tyres and had an even worse stop than Berger, dropping to eighth.
All of this promoted Mansell to the lead but on lap 33 he was in for his stop – a good one this time – promoting Patrese, with Capelli behind and Gugelmin now third, with Prost chasing. Capelli overtook Patrese for the lead as the Italian came in himself, meaning that on the track the two Leyton House cars were running first and second – however they hadn’t stopped yet and Prost was gaining rapidly on Gugelmin with Nannini, Mansell and Senna following. So the question was how would it shake out when the Leyton House cars came in for tyres. Gugelmin was holding up Prost and Nannini was catching up, the Frenchman all the while trying to get past the Leyton House.
By lap 47, it was becoming obvious that Leyton House were in fact not going to stop, and now Nannini was right behind Prost and trying to get past the Ferrari, who was in turn becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to get past Mauricio Gugelmin. Finally on lap 54 he sold the Brazilian a dummy and got past, setting off in pursuit of Capelli, who was starting to make the odd wobble suggestive of tyres going off. Nannini was now left behind Gugelmin with Mansell and Senna in 5th and 6th places gaining on him.
Prost soon reeled in Capelli as Nannini took Gugelmin four laps later, and the second Leyton House shortly afterwards toured off with a cracked fuel line. Tyres fading or no, Capelli kept Prost behind him for lap after lap and indeed put up the fastest lap on lap 62. But there were still 18 laps to go and Prost was determined. Mansell had come in the previous lap, dropping to eighth, and was charging back up, harrying Patrese for 7th place and setting fastest lap on lap 64. Capelli and Prost approached traffic – there had been relatively few retirements and there was still a lot of traffic on the circuit – but it was no problem for the Italian and he emerged the other side two seconds further ahead than he was earlier!
As the laps ticked down, the gap from Prost to Capelli got shorter, then longer, then shorter again but there was still no way past and the Miami Blue car had now led for over 40 laps. On lap 72 of 80, Mansell was harrying Berger for 6th when his engine let go and he pulled off – rumours were already rife that he was unhappy at Ferrari and this wouldn’t help. A couple of laps later, Prost was right up with Capelli and dodged out, but Capelli held the line and Prost had to start again. Nannini went out from a fine third place with electrical failure but all the attention was on the front.
Finally, with just three laps to go, and to the cheers of the crowd, Prost dived down the inside at the double right-hander and took the lead and pulled out a second a lap to take his 42nd Grand Prix win, his fifth in France and Ferrari’s landmark 100th Grand Prix. Capelli, with dropping fuel pressure in his last couple of laps, hung grimly on for a popular second place just 3 seconds ahead of Senna (who had been over 10 seconds behind when Capelli lost the lead), Piquet fourth, Berger fifth and Patrese. Like the Mexican and Canadian races, it had been a corker, and the 1990 season was shaping up to be a vintage one.
Prost thus closed up to within three points of Senna, and the two were equal on three wins each, and next up was Silverstone where Mansell would be determined to (and usually did) go well in front of his home fans. But lest we forget, it’s McLaren’s home race too and they wouldn’t want to have Ferrari put one over on them there.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.