Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
26 August 1990
Silly season was well and truly upon the paddock, with rumours and speculation about Ayrton Senna’s future in particular doing the rounds. His McLaren contract was up at the end of the year and there were strong indications he had been talking to Frank Williams about a drive for 1991. Mansell was rumoured to be reconsidering his retirement, in which case where would he go? Clearly not keen to remain at Ferrari, would he go to McLaren in Senna’s stead, or rejoin Williams? And what about that second Ferrari? Alesi was also rumoured to be in talks with Williams, but was also a hot tip to be Prost’s new team-mate – though Stefano Modena and Ivan Capelli were both capable and Italian…
Almost unnoticed, the Monteverdi team made the not entirely surprising announcement that they were quitting the sport forthwith, though they made the usual noises about being back next year. This bumped a grateful Ligier team back out of pre-qualifying, leaving just seven cars fighting over four places in qualifying proper. Predictably enough, those failing to make the cut were Giacomelli’s Life (“only” 20 seconds off Grouillard’s best time) and the two EuroBrun cars, meaning that Bertrand Gachot’s Coloni would see a qualifying session for the first time in 1990. Normal service, however was resumed in the main session, with Senna and Berger taking the front row ahead of Prost and Boutsen. Mansell was fifth, Nannini sixth, Patrese seventh and Piquet eighth, with the two Tyrrells of Alesi and Nakajima rounding off the top ten (impressively at this power-hungry circuit). Bertrand Gachot would sadly miss his home race after blowing an engine with no available spares, and he would be joined on the sidelines by both AGSes and Alliot, whose Ligier was disqualified on Friday for an infraction of the wing size rules.
Senna made his customary rocket start but – as is so often the case – there was chaos behind him. Suzuki (starting a delighted 11th) got sideways and hit Piquet, who nudged Mansell nose-first into the barrier. As everyone squeezed around the stricken Ferrari, the two Loti came together compounding the problems. As the rest of the field threaded their way through, Nakajima and Modena collided further round the lap, which was the last straw and out came the red flags.
24 cars lined up to take the restart (Martin Donnelly was left carless after Warwick took the spare, while Suzuki was already in the spare Lola after a warm-up shunt), and off they went again. Senna got away ahead again but this time Boutsen got a cracker, leaping from fourth to second, but it wasn’t to last: Paolo Barilla had a big off at Raidillon and demolished his car comprehensively- he was miraculously unhurt but there was Minardi bodywork all over the road so out came the reds once again.
For the first time since Austria 1987, a third start was needed and this time, finally, the race got underway – almost an hour since the first attempt. In the interim, Lotus had managed to fix up Warwick’s race car, so Donnelly hopped in and took the third start. Once again, Senna got into the lead, with Berger slotting in behind chased by Prost, Boutsen, Patrese, Nannini, Piquet and Mansell. However, Nigel was in trouble again – after his trip into the barrier, he was in the spare Ferrari, which was set up for Prost (who liked a bit of oversteer), so he was not enjoying the experience and soon dropped behind Alesi and continued slipping back, even after a tyre change, before finally retiring in disgust from 14th on lap 20. On the same lap, Prost was up to second ahead of Berger and was closing on his championship rival. Tyres were beginning to wear and four laps later Berger peeled in for new Goodyears, leaving Boutsen third as Patrese disappeared with a broken gearbox.
Senna was now being held up by the mobile chicane known as Olivier Grouillard, so he decided now was as good a time as any to make a pitstop and on lap 22 – half distance – he shot into the pits for a change, closely followed by Prost. The following pit stop would clearly decide the race, and it was the McLaren boys who got it right and the Ferrari ragazzi who got it very wrong. Senna’s stop was a full four seconds faster than Prost’s, which seemed to seal it for the Brazilian. While everyone was watching this, Thierry Boutsen swept through into the lead of his home race – except he didn’t, expiring on the start-finish straight with a broken CV joint and allowing Senna to rejoin in the lead, a mere fraction ahead of a non-stopping Nannini and using all his skill to keep the flying Benetton behind him until his new tyres could warm up. Prost had more catching up to do and it was lap 27 before he could get past himself. By then, Berger was fourth, Gugelmin an excellent fifth and Piquet down to sixth after his own stop.
Prost had to once again set about catching and passing Senna, reducing the lead from eight seconds to six and a half by lap 35, but was baulked by a recalcitrant Alboreto in the Footwork Arrows car and the gap was soon back to an insurmountable eight seconds. He didn’t give up, setting more fastest laps including a circuit record, but Senna held on to win his 25th Grand Prix – equal to he records of Niki Lauda and Jim Clark, with only Jackie Stewart (27) and Prost himself (43) with more.
The battle for third was still very much on, though, with Berger steadily reeling in Nannini and on lap 37 he was right behind and snuck through while Sandro lapped Alex Caffi’s Arrows. Not to be denied, Sandro fought back, banging wheels with Berger and taking the place back. With ragged tyres, Nannini kept Berger behind him for five laps until he slid on lap 41 and the Austrian got past, for good this time. So it was Senna, Prost and Berger on the podium mirroring their championship position, stretching Senna’s lead another three points, with Nannini, Piquet and Gugelmin picking up the minor points.
With the Ferrari team reportedly unhappy with Mansell after he retired what they considered a perfectly fine car, Nigel himself reopened speculation on his future with comments that, if offered a 1991 drive with unchallenged number 1 status and a package capable of challenging for the title, he might reconsider his retirement.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.