Autodromo Nazionale di Monza
9 September 1990
Italy’s other national sport – football – had had a slightly disappointing summer. The hosts of the World Cup had made it to the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Argentina and labouring past England to finish third. The tournament had been criticised for its dull, defensive play, though Schillachi had saved some Italian honour by being top scorer. So Italian sports fans descended on Monza in September keen to see Ferrari and in particular Prost get one over on the hated McLarens. Mansell wasn’t flavour of the month at Maranello but if he could pull off a win here then all would be forgiven, by the Tifosi at least. And the Monza circuit itself was looking good too – a programme of improvements had been carried out since the 1989 race with modernised facilities for spectators and teams alike.
Prospects looked good for a ding-dong battle between McLaren and Ferrari. The Woking team had been working on fixing their handling problems at high speed, while Maranello was further improving their new engine. Senna was reportedly not happy with the latest iteration of the Honda engine, though. Lotus had been testing too, and hoped to do better, but news came through that Lamborghini would be joining sponsors Camel in departing the team – in this case for Ligier – in 1991. In fact, the Italian manufacturer had also withdrawn from the Larrousse-Lola team to supply the new Modena team, with rumour abounding that this would be converted into a factory effort.
Pre-qualifying had the same results as previously, with the EuroBrun and Life teams packing up early. Saturday’s session saw Senna continue to be unhappy with his engine until it was replaced by his engineers. The replacement engine only lasted one lap until it developed a misfire and had to be changed. So Prost sat confidently at the top of the timings while Senna tried through the afternoon to find a clear lap. Finally, with seconds left on the clock, he went out and put in a scintillating lap to snatch his 49th pole position by 0.4s. The two “number twos”, Berger and Mansell, filled the second row. In a fantastic fifth place was Jean Alesi – as in Belgium, going far better on a power circuit than most expected. Next up were the Williams cars of Boutsen and Patrese, using the next evolution of the Renault engine, followed by the two Benettons of Nannini and Piquet – disappointed after strong testing times. Mauricio Gugelmin was tenth in the Leyton House, just ahead of Donnelly and Warwick, pleased with their progress. The four non-qualifiers were Tarquini (AGS), Barilla (Minardi), Brabam (Brabham) and Gachot (Coloni).
So the great rivals, Prost and Senna, lined up side-by-side for the start, one vital to any chance Prost had of retaining his title. And he blew it – while Senna streaked off into the distance, Prost dropped behind Berger. At the second chicane, it got worse as Jean Alesi also muscled past having already disposed of Mansell. Down to fourth, Prost had it all to do – but not for long. Derek Warwick lost downforce chasing Gugelmin and came off at the exit of Parabolica, leaving the track at 150mph and smacking hard into the armco. Shedding pieces, the car bounced back onto the track, miraculously missing everyone, and flipped over before coming to a stop. For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happened, then Warwick climbed out, waved to the crowd and started running back to the pits. The race would clearly have to be stopped and he fully intended to take the restart.
Half an hour later, and with Warwick having been passed fit by Dr Sid Watkins and allowed to start (with a new helmet as his old one had a severe case of road rash), they tried again. Once again, Senna got away well, Prost got away badly and Alesi rocketed up into third. In fact, the Tyrrell was looking great and Alesi was driving his heart out – with an eye to a Williams or Ferrari contract? – to set fastest lap on his second trip around the circuit. He was trying a bit too hard, though, and at the first chicane on lap 5, the back of the Tyrrell stepped out and he was in the gravel. This promoted Prost back to third and Mansell fourth, with Nannini up to fifth.
Lotus’ promise (and the sheer guts of Derek Warwick in starting again after his horrific crash) went unfulfilled as Donnelly had an engine failure on lap 14 and Warwick a clutch problem the following lap. The race was starting to become processional, but there were tactics at work: Senna was not pulling away hugely but was on semi-hard B compound tyres, while Berger and Prost were chasing on hard A compounds. Under normal circumstances, both could go the distance, but if they could push Senna hard enough, he would wear out his tyres quicker and have to stop. Mansell was dropping back rapidly – it turned out his accelerator pedal was sticking down, and he had to lever it up with his foot whenever he wanted to brake!
Senna was pushing hard, forcing Berger and Prost to push just as hard to keep up, and setting a series of fastest laps in the meantime. Berger was having a brake problem and on lap 21 he ran wide at a chicane and Prost got through, setting off in pursuit of Senna while a handicapped Mansell started closing on an also-handicapped Berger. Ten laps later, Nannini, who was running fifth at the time, came in for a pit-stop. Neither Benetton had intended to stop – they were also running Bs – but both were finding wear a problem. As Nannini swept in, Piquet (in seventh) found he had a puncture and also came in. The result was chaos as both cars arrived together. To make matters worse, Nannini’s clutch was sticking and he was slow getting away, so Nelson was stationary for a full 80 seconds in total; both races ruined.
Senna continued at the front untroubled. On lap 36 he set the fastest lap with a new course record – beating his own 1987 time in the turbocharged Lotus-Renault – and was now leading Prost by 8 seconds with 17 laps to go. Prost wasn’t giving up and, despite now suffering extreme vibration at high speed caused by blistering tyres, tried desperately to keep the pressure on. He went faster than Senna, who responded by going faster again, but Prost was catching, slowly but surely. But as had been the case so often in the past, it was Senna’s skill in traffic that was the difference. Where Senna carved through easily, Prost was balked by Andrea de Cesaris (who was trying so hard to get past Alboreto he’d apparently forgotten he had mirrors) and the gap was back up to 8 seconds.
Senna cruised to a dominant, even crushing win: a lights-to-flag victory from Pole Position, setting fastest lap along the way – his third “Grand Slam”. Prost was second and Berger third – an identical podium to the previous race – with Mansell a distant fourth, Patrese fifth and Nakajima driving a steady race to pick up the last point for Tyrrell. Senna’s lead was 16 points with four races to go – the biggest lead so far this year but far from unassailable. Likewise, McLaren now led the constructors’ standings by 37 points; a bigger ask for Ferrari, especially if Mansell’s luck didn’t improve any – and it was showing no signs of doing so.
It hadn’t been a classic race, but at the press conference at the end, Senna and Prost appeared in good spirits, before publicly shaking hands, embracing and smiling together for the cameras, announcing an “official” end to their spat.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.