1 March 1992
The 1992 season began amid the usual frenzy of speculation as every scrap of pre-season testing data was analysed and rumours swirled around whether Prost would drive for Ligier. In the end, he didn’t: Erik Comas arrived with the team having hardly sat in the car all winter. The Andrea Moda team arrived too – only to get turned away by the FISA officials for not having paid their new team registration fee. Team owner Andrea Sassetti insisted that he didn’t need to pay the fee as it wasn’t a new team, just a renaming of the Coloni team and that Footwork, Leyton House and Fondmetal to name but three hadn’t had to pay the fee. The officials were unmoved though, and the transporters were packed up again after only having done a few Thursday reconnaisance laps while the arguments went on.
For everyone else, there was a new track to learn: the new Kyalami circuit was shorter than the original and much, much tighter – even harder to pass on than Monaco was the general opinion, though the journalists, fans and teams alike all appreciated the state-of-the-art facilities. With no Andrea Moda team, pre-qualifying was cancelled and the teams were thankful for some extra time to get familiar with the new circuit or fettle the car. The Williams cars had looked good in pre-season and Nigel Mansell, fresh and looking confident, took a dominant pole position, 0.7s ahead of second-placed Senna. Berger was third and then a curiously out-of-sorts looking Patrese was fourth, a full 1.5s behind Mansell. Fifth and sixth were Alesi and Schumacher and an astonishing seventh in the underfunded March was Karl Wendlinger. Brundle and Capelli started their new “big team” careers from 8th and 9th respectively with Andrea de Cesaris 10th in the Tyrrell. Only two of the five debutants made the race, though, with Ukyo Katayama 18th and Christian Fittipaldi 20th: Belmondo, Chiesa and Amati would sit out the race, as would Stefano Modena whose Jordan blew several engines in the heat. So did Gugelmin’s – he only managed 23rd.
Sunday was cooler and when the lights went green Mansell leaped away into the lead but it was Patrese who got the best start, passing both McLarens to take second, while Berger also dropped back behind Alesi and Schumacher. Many assumed that the Mansell and Patrese had been using the new launch control system but in fact it hadn’t been installed yet: Patrese’s start was all his own doing.
Wendlinger’s great grid position was wasted when halfway round lap 1 he collided with Brundle, putting the Benetton out immediately and damaging the March’s radiators sufficiently to put it out some laps later with overheating. Meanwhile, the Williams pairing were rapidly pulling out a lead – and Mansell in particular was disappearing away from Patrese at quite a rate. Such a rate, in fact that some began to speculate that there was something wrong with the number 6 Williams and James Hunt on the BBC – never Patrese’s biggest fan – to suggest that the Italian was lacking in motivation, having arrived for the weigh-in much heavier than Mansell.
Whatever the reason, Mansell was disappearing off into the distance while Patrese did just enough to keep ahead of Senna who was driving the spoilers off his 1991 McLaren just to keep pace at all and was being chased by an Alesi-Schumacher-Berger-Capelli train, all seeking a way past each other, but in vain on this tight, twisting circuit. It was entertaining to watch but nothing changed until lap 29 when Ivan Capelli’s Ferrari engine expired in a cloud of smoke. Eleven laps later Alesi’s followed suit in exactly the same fashion. More work to do at Maranello. So Schumacher was up to fourth and Berger fifth, with Herbert moving up into the points in the elderly Lotus.
And that’s where they finished, some thirty laps later, with no-one able to pass, and no-one able to get even a little bit close to the Williams duo. Fifteen fastest laps were set during the race: fourteen by Mansell and one by Patrese. Senna was a distant third and even then the McLaren was flattered by his driving. Berger was a much more ordinary looking fifth behind Schumacher, with Herbert bringing home a welcome point for Lotus. Comas came in seventh, with the Ligiers looking much livelier than last year with Eric van de Poele last of the classified finishers, 13th and four laps down but still running in the Brabham.
Not a classic race, and it was clear that the other teams had a lot of catching up to do. McLaren in particular would need to decide whether to bring in that new car earlier, or stick to the original plan and wait until it was ready.