Autódromo do Estoril
23 September 1990
One piece of the 1991 jigsaw fell into place in Portugal with the announcement from Ferrari that Jean Alesi would be joining them to partner Alain Prost next year, after Sandro Nannini had reportedly turned down the drive. Alesi had been hotly tipped
to replace Boutsen at Williams, so this news gave further fuel to the strong rumours of Mansell returning to Williams. One piece of more immediate news was that the Life team had finally dumped their ineffective W12 engine and would be using Judd motors for the last few races. This would have been a more promising development for them were it not for the fact that the engine cover didn’t fit very well over the differently-sized engine. Giacomelli managed a couple of laps before it flew
off part way round the lap and that was that. At least the EuroBrun boys managed to set times, though they would again fail to make the main qualifying session.
Friday afternoon’s session saw Senna topping the times but on Saturday Nigel Mansell put in a great lap to steal pole – his first for Ferrari and first since 1987. Alongside him was Alain Prost, an unexpected Ferrari front-row with the McLarens of Senna and Berger third and fourth respectively. Patrese put his Williams fifth ahead of Piquet sixth, with Boutsen, Alesi and Nannini following. Bernard and Suzuki were a fine 10th and 11th in their Larrousse-Lolas. At the back, Dalmas was the only one of the pre-qualifiers to make it into the race, displacing Barilla’s Minardi. Satoru Nakajima, meanwhile, had been suffering with the flu all weekend and after an off in the pre-race warm-up decided that discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew from the meeting, leaving a gap where 20th on the grid had been.
With no further dramas, the lights went green and off they all went – Mansell dropped the clutch and slithered sideways, almost collecting Prost and squeezing him over to the right, allowing the two McLarens to get past, while Piquet also squeezed ahead of the number 1 Ferrari. Presumably turning the air inside his cockpit blue, Prost set about trying to make up positions to keep his championship hopes alive, but it wasn’t easy on the tight infield section, while the Benetton team had decided to run the minimum wing to make the most of the long straight. It took Prost 12 long laps to get past his fellow triple champion, and once he did, he demonstrated how badly he had been held up by putting in a series of blistering laps to catch up to the Senna-Berger-Mansell trio, all circulating close together at the front. Mansell slid wide on lap 25, allowing Prost through into third and it wasn’t long before the crucial first round of tyre stops began. Mansell was first on lap 28, losing just one place, then Senna followed a lap later, judging it just right as he came in before he caught a cluster of backmarkers. Then it was Prost’s turn but a sticking wheel nut kept him in the pit a vital couple of seconds longer and he emerged in fifth place and amid traffic, which has often been the Frenchman’s weakness. The last of the front-runners to stop was Berger, on lap 32, coming in from the lead and emerging third, behind Senna and Mansell.
On lap 33, Mansell set a new lap record as he chased Senna down and by lap 41 he was right there, stuck to the back of the McLaren as the pair moved through traffic. After nine laps where Nigel constantly harried and pressured Senna, Ayrton simply moved over and waved him through – clearly remembering last year’s altercation which had taken them both out. Nigel was clearly faster, too; released, he hared off into the distance, opening up a two-second lead. On lap 53, Mansell came to lap Alliot’s Ligier. Phillippe, intent on his own scrap with Pierluigi Martini, didn’t notice the Ferrari coming up behind and the two collided, sending Alliot hurtling into the barriers with parts coming off his car. He was unhurt, and the Ferrari almost miraculously unscathed, continued onwards.
The incident had allowed Senna to catch up, and Berger and Prost were now right behind him, with Prost setting a new lap record – and now in the closing stages of the race, with less than 20 laps to go, the top four were running nose-to-tail at the front. Could Prost get past the two McLarens, and would Mansell move over to gift him the win his title hopes needed? The latter was quite likely – Nigel had said when he announced his retirement that he would do all he could to support Alain’s title tilt, so it was just a case of Prost elbowing his way past Berger and Senna and he’d have those nine points. Berger went first, on lap 59. 12 laps to go! Could Prost get past Senna and take the win? No, he couldn’t.
Back in 9th place, Alex Caffi was holding off a hard charging Aguri Suzuki and the two collided, sending the Footwork spinning into the barriers hard. With debris across the track and Alex still in his cockpit and being attended to by the medical staff, the race organisers took the correct but anticlimactic decision to finish the race early, with 10 laps left to go. And so Nigel Mansell finally broke his Ferrari duck, with just three races of his contract left, and took an emotional win to equal Stirling Moss’s 16 career wins. Senna came in a satisfied second and Prost a dispirited third, the gap again easing out ever so slightly. Berger was fourth and the Benettons fifth and sixth.
Prost may have been depressed with the results of his weekend’s work but the Ferrari team were keen to see the positives: they were back to winning ways and had well and truly caught up to McLaren – and with only a week until the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez, the Woking Wonders weren’t going to have any development time to claw back the gap. The last three races were going to be very interesting indeed…
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.