Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese will stay at Williams in 1992. Frank Williams and Patrick Faure, president of Renault Sport, announce it on Tuesday, August 13, 1991, in a joint statement. Williams declares:
"I believe in continuity. Our two drivers, who have worked so hard this season, will be able to achieve even more success next year".
The announcement puts an end to the rumours that wanted Ayrton Senna at the English team. Meanwhile, from Wednesday, August 14, to Friday, August 16, 1991, the majority of the teams competing in the World Championship will be on track in Monza for a series of tests. Ferrari, which examined the problems in Budapest, will arrive on Thursday. Scuderia Ferrari denies, in the meantime, that the former sports director Daniele Audetto and Mario Vecchi (the manager who had played an important role in Scuderia Italia and in Modena Team) have been contacted for a reinforcement of the sports management. It is also specified that the announced presence of Marco Piccinini at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix is not due to an emergency, but had already been planned for some time: it is part of the tasks that the former sports director still have with Ferrari. Wednesday, August 14, 1991 the climate is the usual one of these summer tests. Sweltering heat interrupted by thunderstorms (a lightning also blew up the power plant of the circuit) and people, 5,000 paying people, gathered around the Formula 1 champions. The cars go on track, but in the environment, inside the paddock, it is all about the driver market. Of course Ayrton Senna, who is eating pasta with the men of the Minardi team, is the centre of attention. But he warns:
"I already did it last year".
Around him, there is the usual plethora of young girls.
A blonde girl murmurs.
"How handsome you are".
A brunette girl echoes. Senna does not reply. And when asked, he answers:
"We are here to test the engine and the automatic transmission. The victory in Budapest has bothered someone. We won and we’re happy. But we’re not the best. The truth will come out after Spa and Monza. We still have a lot of work to do. Williams was stronger at the Hungaroring".
Well, Williams. Mansell and Patrese have signed. The driver is limited…
"They did the right thing. Great team. I don’t think about it: I only care about the World Championship. For me it’s more important. Then, when the time comes, I’ll look to the future. Now I want to stay focused on the championship".
However, Mansell and Patrese have a seat, Prost and Alesi are confirmed at Ferrari in 1992, the only possibility left is to stay at McLaren…
"Contracts? In Formula 1 nothing is certain and nothing is impossible. You just have to agree with the team and you fix anything, it would not be the first time. One can always reconsider... If the interested parties find a solution. Anyway, I’ll sit back and watch. I don’t think I will have problems finding a team".
Senna is not worried. In any case, the renewal of Mansell and Patrese ("I am satisfied, but I was not worried, as far as I am concerned. I can still fight for the title this year, but in 1992 it will be different and when I need the reserve car they will give it to me") closed the doors to Williams. So, in theory, Senna should stay at McLaren. But the Brazilian is too smart to admit that he has no alternative, because it would reduce the possibility of dealing with a fabulous signing. And then there is always that sibylline statement of Prost that speaks of great changes. Unless the Frenchman was referring to Ferrari, and not to the drivers, given also the fact that the Maranello team, it seems, is ready to give up the engines for 1992 to Scuderia Italia of Beppe Lucchini. Meanwhile, at the Modena cemetery of San Cataldo, in Modena, Enzo Ferrari is remembered three years after his death with a short ceremony that takes place at 11:00 a.m.. Piero Ferrari, the son of the great constructor who passed away, accompanied by his wife, daughter and son-in-law, lays a wreath of flowers in front of the family tomb together with the representatives of the municipal and provincial administrations. A hundred people attend the ceremony. There are also Piero Fusaro, president of Ferrari, and the power supply industrialist Giorgio Fini, personal friend of Ferrari. Many anonymous athletes, including a group of French fans, representatives of the Ferrari Club, and family friends, who at the end of the ceremony leave wreaths of flowers and gadgets with the Prancing Horse. Friday, August 16, 1991, during the tests held in Monza, the McLaren of Senna catches fire, but thanks to his quick reflexes the Brazilian driver gets away only with some moment of fear. Senna noticed that his car was losing fuel and went back to the pits: the McLaren is wrapped by a big white smoke and some flames already envelop the rear.
The fire quickly reaches the cockpit, but Senna jumps down in extremis. After this scary moment, the Brazilian takes a few days of vacation in Pescara. Senna arrives on Friday evening by private plane: it is the fifth time that Ayrton is a guest in this city. After a walk through the streets of the centre, the Brazilian watches the friendly match Pescara-Napoli. Meanwhile, during the morning the Jordan team was waiting for Bertrand Gachot to alternate him in the Monza tests with Andrea De Cesaris. But the wait is useless: the driver, 28, is in prison in England. The news shocks Formula 1. It was known that Gachot should have been tried for an episode that happened in 1990, but no one thought that the court hearing would have such an outcome. The driver is sentenced to a year and a half in prison, without parole, and associated with the penal institute of Brixton. What happened? Monday, December 10, 1990, a rainy day, in London, the 27-year-old son of a diplomat, Bertrand Gachot, gets in his car because he has a business appointment. He is stressed. London rush hour is very chaotic. At Hyde Park, a taxi tries to get in the queue in front of him. The Luxembourg driver does not want to let him in, but even if he does not leave an inch of space between himself and the bumper of the other car, the taxi finds a non-existent gap. Bertrand Gachot gets even angrier. The situation does not improve when the taxi driver slightly touches the brakes several times triumphantly, forcing the Jordan driver to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. The fourth time he sees the red of the rear lights, the 27-year-old loses his patience, and starts yelling at the taxi. The taxi driver gets out, opens the man’s door and grabs him by the tie screaming:
"I will kill you".
Bertrand Gachot, frightened, takes the pepper spray from the glove compartment in the driver’s door - his girlfriend’s car - and sprays it in the aggressor’s face. For a moment they both remain blinded. Attracted by the confusion, other taxi drivers rush to help the colleague. Believing that the angry crowd wants to lynch him, Gachot takes refuge in a nearby police station. The diplomat’s son conscientiously puts the incident on record and, as he wants to ensure that the incident receives proper attention, gives his name and profession: Bertrand Gachot, Formula 1 driver.
As far as it is known, called to court in recent days, Gachot would have irritated the judge with an irreverent attitude. So the magistrate would have asked for a day to investigate the accused and would have discovered that the Belgian, despite having had work contracts for years in England, had never paid the relative taxes. Thus, the sentence. Now Gachot is in prison waiting for the appeal: it is not excluded that he can get out by paying a bail. On Friday, the drivers in Monza send a telegram of solidarity. Prost and Alesi signed it, too. For the Belgian, however, the situation becomes difficult. Jordan is renewing the contract to De Cesaris and could opt for another driver (apparently Pierluigi Martini). In the meantime, as anticipated, the tests are concluded. Among the facts to report there is a race simulation of Ferrari with Alesi, interrupted 5 laps from the end due to a gearbox problem. On August 15th, Prost was noted for a long conversation with engineer Dudot (Renault) and the designer Gerard Ducarouge, new technical manager of Ligier. After the rumours of recent days (there has been talk of a possible move of the Frenchman to Ligier), Prost’s behaviour is puzzling. A Ferrari spokesman, however, says:
"We confirmed to Prost and Alesi our trust and they confirmed it to Ferrari".
English law is hard: the news is not official, but it seems certain. Bertrand Gachot, the Belgian-licensed French driver racing for Jordan (this year he also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Mazda), will remain in prison. He will not be able to race either the Belgian Grand Prix nor the Italian Grand Prix. In the hearing held on Tuesday, August 20, 1991 at the London High Court (after which no statements were published), the court would have refused the racer’s request for bail, who was sentenced to 18 months without parole last week for assaulting a taxi driver with a gas can. The court would have postponed every decision to the appeal process of September 19, 1991. Mark Gallagher is in the Jordan factory, in Silverstone, in the former Formula 3 and F3000 factory, when the phone rings. Fred Rodgers, lawyer and member of the Eddie Jordan Management, calls to warn them that their driver has just been convicted of causing physical damage to London taxi driver Eric Court. Furthermore, Bertrand will not be in Monza. He has to serve an 18-month sentence. The shock is total, and then there is the need to notify the main sponsors Pepsi Cola (owner of 7Up) and FujiFilm. A press release is published: first, however, Mark Gallagher talks to Elizabeth Wright of 7Up, trying to determine which was the best word to describe the driver; incarcerated or simply imprisoned. There is also the problem of finding a replacement driver for the Belgian Grand Prix, Bertrand’s home race. Stefan Johansson is Eddie Jordan’s favourite choice, but he wants to get paid. Another option would be Keke Rosberg. The 1982 World Champion had retired from Formula 1 in 1986, but was still racing for Peugeot in the World Sportscars. In this regard, Eddie Jordan asks advice from Trevor Foster, Jordan’s team manager and Bertrand’s race engineer, and Chief Designer Gary Anderson; both say that the mere fact that Keke was even willing to consider this option was a fair acknowledgement of the team’s strength, but they had always done their best when there were had young and talented drivers who could shape. As the conversation about Rosberg dies down, the deal to get Michael Schumacher to sign takes place quickly. Meanwhile, in fact, Friday, August 16, 1991, on the Nurburgring circuit, while preparations are underway for the next round of the World Sportscar Championship Group C, a journalist runs to Willi Weber, German manager and entrepreneur.
"Mr. Weber, Mr. Weber, did you hear the news? Gachot is in prison, he assaulted a taxi driver in London, he can’t race in Spa".
Thus, the German manager understands that it is time to pick up the phone and call a friend, Eddie Jordan, to offer him the signing of his driver, Michael Schumacher.
"Who the hell is Michael Schumacher? Do I know him? Should I know him?"
Eddie Jordan grumbles as soon as he is told the idea.
"Come on, Eddie, he’s the one who won Macau. You were there too".
The Irish manager thinks about it, then exclaims:
"Oh yeah, yeah... Now I remember him... Is he good?"
Willi Weber replies:
"Are you asking me if he’s good? Are you kidding? Michael is the best".
Eddie Jordan reflects out loud:
"Well, Peter Miller called me. He says I should sign Bernd Schneider".
The German manager replies:
"But Eddie, what do you think you’re getting out of him? He just qualified for several Grands Prix".
Eddie Jordan thinks about it, then asks:
"But does Michael know the track? Willi, you have to keep one thing in mind. For me it’s a big risk to take a driver who doesn’t understand anything about Formula 1, who has never raced at Spa, one of the most dangerous tracks in the world".
Willi Weber, at this point, tells a small lie to win the argument:
"But Michael knows the track inside out. It’s his second home. He lives a hundred miles away. Please give me a chance. Sign him. Either he will be good, or amen".
Eddie Jordan is convinced:
"Well, well. Very well... Okay, Willi. I will call you".
Willi Weber keeps calling Eddie Jordan insistently, at least twenty more times.
"When are you going to decide, Eddie?"
But the answer is always the same:
"They’ve recommended other drivers to me".
Two more days go by and there is not much time left.
"Give me a chance. We’ve known each other since forever. I wouldn’t recommend a driver who’s not up to scratch".
All of a sudden, Eddie Jordan gives up. The phone inside Willi Weber’s office rings. Trevor Foster, Eddie Jordan’s team manager, is on the line.
"Willi, tell Michael to come to the factory tomorrow. Let’s set up a meeting".
The Jordan team books the Silverstone circuit for Tuesday, August 20, 1991. That is where Michael will make his first test. It is not the main layout, just a smaller one, but it does not matter. Michael Schumacher reacts to this news as he usually does. One moment is the happiest person in the world, but the next moment is again totally focused on his goal. First, however, Willi Weber must arrange a transfer of money to Eddie Jordan to have his driver carry out the test. How much is it?
"Between 70,000 and 80,000 pounds".
The German manager is surprised, then tries to find a compromise:
"Come on, my friend. Let’s make it 70,000 pounds. We will have fun in Silverstone".
Eddie agrees. After that, Willi Weber informs Jochen Neerpasch, head of the Sauber-Mercedes project, that the German driver has an ongoing contract with Mercedes. Neerpasch responds by telling something in confidence to Willi Weber. Mercedes entrusted him with the task of secretly creating a Formula 1 team. That is why Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen race together in Group C. The intention is to prepare the guys and then insert one or two of them in the future Formula 1 team as soon as the details are defined. It is essential to avoid the press becoming aware of the project too early. Willi Weber, in these moments, thinks:
"It’s over. We can forget about the test. Michael Schumacher joining Jordan would damage Mercedes’ plans for Formula 1".
However, Neerpasch first remains silent for an endless moment, then says:
"Do you know what, Mr Weber? We still have a long way to go to build our Formula 1 team. And until we do it, Michael can grow a lot with Jordan. Basically, it doesn’t matter which one of us is at the helm and who’s rowing, or does it, Mr. Weber? As for Michael, we both want him to grow, and he will only succeed by seizing the opportunities that arise. Anyway, I won’t stop him from trying. He’s free".
Willi Weber is speechless. So, at London Heathrow Airport, a driver waits for Weber and Schumacher aboard a Ford, equipped with mineral water and refreshing towels in the central console. During the journey of about an hour to Silverstone, Weber and Schumacher talk about this and that, but for most of the time they follow their train of thoughts. The driver even dozes off, while Willi continues to think about the future of his client. At Silverstone, in addition to the team manager of Jordan, Trevor Foster, Ian Phillips, the head of public relations, and three mechanics, there is also Jochen Neerpasch, curious to see how Schumacher is doing.
Monday, August 19, 1991, Michael Schumacher goes with Willi Weber to the humble headquarters of Jordan, Silverstone, the day after his race with the prototypes at the Nurburgring, and prepares for his seat fit in the Jordan-Ford 191. This is the car that Alain Prost had defined as the most impressive to follow in a fast curve. Its design is the result of the technical art of Gary Anderson, supported by Andrew Green and Mark Smith. The morning after the assembly of his seat, Tuesday, August 20, 1991, Michael Schumacher joins the team at the Silverstone South circuit, to carry out a test. The weather is dry and the team gathers on the concrete slabs that serve as temporary pits. In the minutes before the debut, Michael Schumacher tries to learn everything he needs to know about the various controls on a Formula 1 car, then it is time to get dressed. In the hurry to leave, Michael has forgotten the suit, and now he has to wear the one of John Watson, even if it is worn out and too big for him. Without the slightest hesitation, the German racer puts on his helmet, gets on board and lowers his visor; two mechanics fix his seat belts around his shoulders and waist. So they hook the helmet microphone to the back of his head. All this takes only a few seconds. Michael quietly moves his lips.
"One, two, three...".
He does the radio check: during the test he will always be in contact with the pits. Michael’s car is started, with the recommendation to go slowly until he receives the approval via radio to do some quick laps. The German gives them a thumbs up.
"Okay, now you can push to the limit and accelerate".
Trevor says on the microphone. After an out lap, Michael Schumacher is invited to complete a series of three laps, but the German driver seems to have other ideas. Arriving at the chicane directly in front of the team at the end of his first lap, Schumacher misses the first apex and then makes a large drift, but keeps the throttle open and restarts the car towards the Chapel bend and along the Hangar straight . Lap after lap, Trevor is worried about a possible mistake of his rookie driver with the manual H-shift overloading the Ford HB V8 Series IV engine. The cost of 30,000 pounds for reconstruction is something that Jordan cannot afford. But Michael keeps running, and at the end the team sends a mechanic to the track to greet him. Already on the second lap, Michael does the chicane with incandescent brake discs. After four or five laps in the box a strange commotion breaks out. Since he is without headphones, Willi Weber is on the sidelines, and he cannot understand the reason for all this excitement.
"Hey, man. What is happening?"
The German manager asks Trevor, who walks back and forth.
"Wow, Willi. This guy is really fast, fuck".
Willi Weber is delighted.
"Is he good or not?"
"If he is good? This guy is a bomb".
After that, Trevor rushes to the wall phone and dials Eddie Jordan’s number.
"Eddie... where did you find him? He’s crazy as hell... he runs like a rocketship... faster than De Cesaris or Bertrand ever were...".
After that, Trevor listens carefully. Then he makes an energetic gesture shouting:
"No, Eddie, we’re definitely not wrong. Not even on the track. We checked everything".
Shortly after, they call Michael Schumacher back into the box, and Ford engineers ask Willi Weber to invite his driver not to push so hard on the throttle. Both the German manager and Michael are perplexed.
"What do you mean, Willi? I have to run slowly? I haven’t even started to push hard. I haven’t reached the limit yet...".
As soon as he is out of the box again, Michael Schumacher makes another fast lap, until the Ford technician loses his patience and the test is interrupted. As Michael returns, Willi Weber’s phone rings. At the other side of the line, after a series of crackles and rustles, Eddie Jordan wastes no time with formalities, and goes straight to the point:
"Willi, if you send me 450.000 dollars (at the time, the currency value of the dollar and the German mark was almost the same, Ed.), Michael can race".
The German manager accepts, without even thinking about it.
Meanwhile, Trevor repeats at least ten times to Michael Schumacher:
"Great job, man. Fuck, it was excellent".
Even the mechanics seem to have seen an alien. Only Michael does not know whether to be happy or blame his fate. He wanted to give further proof of his abilities. The first time in the cockpit of a real Formula 1 car upsets him. It is like he is on drugs. Willi Weber asks him:
"Is everything okay?"
He grabs him by the arm and pulls him aside.
"At first, I was afraid that it would go wrong, that I wouldn’t make it. It was a lot harder than I expected. A giant step. I was terrified. And now I can’t believe it".
But Willi gives him an elbow of encouragement, and says to him:
"Now you know you can make it".
Evidently, Eddie’s decision has not yet spread through to the team, because Trevor keeps saying Michael:
"I’ll talk to Eddie, he has to let you race. Absolutely. And if it’s up to me, you’re with us".
Willi Weber, too, decides not to say anything to Michael who, arrived at the airport check-in, asks:
"So? Has Eddie contacted you?"
The German manager answers, pretending to study a huge billboard of United Colours of Benetton:
Michael looks at him.
"Say it, Willi. What did he say?"
"He said yes, crazy".
Michael gives a big smile and, clenching his fist, exults through gritted teeth. Then he regains control of himself and looks at his manager questioningly, amazed by his silence.
"But there is a problem, right?"
"Actually, there’s still a little problem to overcome. Eddie wants half a million marks".
But Schumacher has no doubts:
"You’ll find them, Willi".
A few moments later, Willi Weber confesses to Michael:
"Let’s keep it between us: I lied to Eddie. I told him that you knew the Spa track very well, that you’ve raced there many times before".
The German driver looks at his manager without understanding:
"But why did you do it? Why did you tell him that?"
"Because he asked me. For him it was crucial that you knew the track. It doesn’t really matter. Remember: For Eddie, it’s a prerequisite that the drivers of his cars know the circuit. You had to know it. Don’t mention it to anyone. If anyone asks you this, send them to me".
For the next 24 hours, Willi Weber wonders how to scrape together 450,000 marks without having to empty his bank account or rob a bank. So he picks up the phone and dials the number of Dekra, the German organisation that deals with testing and certification in the automotive industry, where an old friend of his works; he is Rolf Moll, CEO and person of respect, who is always wearing suit and tie but has his soul burning of passion for the races.
"That’s a bombshell, Mr. Weber. That’s fantastic. It’s great that the guy has this chance".
And he invests 200,000 marks. He also has a crazy idea:
"Ask Jochen Neerpasch. Maybe he will add something".
But Willi Weber is not sure that this is a viable option.
"You know what, Mr. Weber? Let me do this. I’m on good terms with Jochen".
Said and done, the next day the wonderful news that Mercedes will invest another 250,000 marks comes.
The Belgians come up with a trick to give more importance to their race. And they say:
"From 1950, the year in which the Formula 1 World Championship was first organised, to 1960 the Indy 500 was raced eleven times, which should not be counted as a world championship. And so the anniversary of the 500th Grand Prix was not last year in Adelaide, but it can be celebrated on Sunday on our track in La Sarthe".
In fact, the American race was never a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but a separate chapter in which almost exclusively local drivers participated. But apart from the eventual anniversaries, the race scheduled for Sunday, the eleventh of the World Championship, is of great importance for the weight it will have on the entire course of the season. A race on an authentic, demanding and spectacular track, in which there will be many tests, especially by McLaren, Williams and Ferrari, for different reasons. For the Senna team it is a question of testing if the victory in Budapest was only an isolated episode, determined by the characteristics of the Hungarian circuit. Williams, on the other hand, must show that it has kept the minimum of superiority that could allow it to continue fighting for the title. On the other hand, Ferrari carries the risk of an ultimatum. If the 643 and the new evolution 4 engine were to betray all expectations here, it would be a disaster. Ayrton Senna, who shows great calm, says:
"I am curious to see what will happen. I am ready to attack, but I will have to see where the rivals, namely Williams and Ferrari, are. If McLaren confirms the progress we have made in the Monza tests, then it will be hard for the others. I will not be forced to make a tactical race. If I can, I run to win. We have an engine that performs well in qualifying and in the race, a fuel suitable for the two different situations and an improved chassis. If the others have not made progress, we will be there. In any case, there will no longer be the huge differences that we’ve seen in Hockenheim. Concerning fuel consumption, there will be no problems. Unfortunately, I lost two placings not because of the excessive thirst of the engine, but for a mistake in the calculations: we had put little fuel in the tank".
A charge of inefficiency against McLaren and Honda technicians. However, it seems that the British team and the Japanese engine designers have taken action and Thursday, August 22, 1991 around the cars there is also engineer Osamu Goto, the engine genius that McLaren has signed from Honda. Senna does not make controversies, but is clear. After all, he seems determined not to change teams, even if as usual he repeats that everything can happen, that nothing will be decided until the end of the season. Senna and Mansell are now rivals, but at the same time great friends. Hugs and kisses and an endless mutual esteem. And yet five years ago, right here in Belgium, they punched each other. Nigel Mansell had gone to the pits of Ayrton Senna and grabbed him by the suit, pushing him. The Brazilian had responded with a direct punch and someone had split the two drivers before it became a real fight. What had happened: the two had thrown each other out in the second chicane. At that time Senna was racing with Lotus-Renault and was only the king of pole positions: in the race the car was not too competitive and so Ayrton was forced to defend himself as much as possible, without too many compliments. This is what the English driver still does today, when the opportunity presents itself. Remembering this episode is not only malice. Nothing has happened between the two drivers fighting for the world title this year. Never a disagreement, never a misunderstanding. But if during the Belgian Grand Prix for the first time Senna and Mansell find themselves in a situation of losing the victory with a reckless overtaking, with a thrilling manoeuvre, what will happen? Will they still compliment each other and then shake hands on the podium after watering themselves with champagne? One thing is certain: if McLaren and Williams are on equal terms, there will be a good race. Of course, it is easy to be teammates when a driver wins races with a minute of gap to the other as it has happened so far, alternately. But if already in Hungary the Englishman had managed to approach the Brazilian before having to hold back in the attack due to brake problems, almost certainly we would have seen fighting scenes, perhaps with the subsequent intervention of the sports commissioners to punish one or the other. After all, this is what people would like. A good duel like those of the past, without holding back. And it is not difficult to foresee a similar solution, even if we still have to wait to see if McLaren has effectively cancelled the inferiority state that had tormented it before Budapest. Jean Alesi, who - unlike Prost - believes in a surprise from Ferrari, says:
"We hope that things will go just like this: a challenge between Senna and Mansell that ends up with the two cars off the track... No, seriously, I am convinced that this time we will be in the fight, if not to win, at least to have a minimum of chance. Now our new engine should be more reliable and this is a track that I really like, on which a driver can express himself to the maximum. Until now we have talked a lot and achieved very little results, although I want to emphasise that the fault is not always of us drivers. A positive result, indeed brilliant, would be the best cure for Ferrari. And I am convinced that before the end of the season, starting from Francorchamps, we will have some satisfaction. The important thing is to be focused and not think about anything else".
Therefore, the intentions are good: it remains to be seen whether they will be maintained. It has been too long now - as far as Ferrari is concerned - that on the eve they hope and on Sunday they despair. On Thursday, August 22, 1991 Willi Weber and Michael Schumacher arrive at Spa, and discover that they do not have a hotel to stay in. Jordan’s office cancelled the reservation on behalf of Bertrand Gachot and did not make another one. Thus, Willi and Michael wander around the city looking for a place to sleep.
As if that was not enough, while the two walk through the streets, they even discover that the Jordan trucks were seized by the bailiff immediately after their arrival: the funding of Jordan to Formula 1 seems uncertain. There are some rumours that say that Eddie owes 5.000.000 dollars.
"Je suis désolé, on est complet". ["I’m sorry. We’re fully booked", TN]
The receptionists tell them in every hotel they walk into. Then there are the pitying looks that mean: who is the fool that thinks we have free rooms on the most important weekend of the year? The two also try their luck at Auberge de Jeunesse, the local youth hostel. Willi and Michael book a room about three metres by three, with two beds separated by a small wall. The furniture is completed by a tiny wardrobe and a common sink in the hallway. But it does not matter, the important thing is to be in Spa. But as soon as one problem is solved, another one comes along. Willi Weber has to tell Eddie Jordan the truth. So he picks up the phone, and calls Eddie:
"Eddie, I have a confession to make. I’m afraid I misunderstood. The track Michael has always run on is not Spa: it’s Zolder".
The Irish manager replies:
"Zolder? What the hell do we do now?”
"Nothing, let the guy run and everything will be fine".
The following day, Willi Weber and Michael Schumacher arrive early at the circuit. The German manager did not sleep, there is so much adrenaline in his body. Michael Schumacher, however, has an exceptional calm. Just hours before, the bailiff seized Jordan’s trucks. Before that, Bernie Ecclestone collected money to help Eddie Jordan. And when he realised that it was not enough, he also added money out of his own pocket. Meanwhile, Trevor Foster, Michael Schumacher’s first race engineer in Formula 1, is concerned that the team faces a lack of circuit information, including attempts to give the German driver some useful indications. Fortunately, there are some times when you can bring a road car on the circuit, so Trevor talks to Andrea De Cesaris:
"Look, we have this young guy named Michael, could you show him the track?"
"Sure, no problem".
The problem is that De Cesaris is constantly tormenting Eddie Jordan to get a contract for the following year, so he is always in some meetings and never available. Therefore, when Trevor explains to Michael Schumacher that Andrea is stuck in the meeting, the German driver says:
"Don’t worry, I’ve got a bike in the boot of my Mercedes, so I’m just going to do a lap with that".
Later, with Andrea still unavailable, Michael opts for a second bike lap. The German driver seems calm. He has no thoughts like:
"Well, if I get to the back of the grid I’ll be happy".
Friday, August 23, 1991, Belgium gives a rare sunny day and new confidence to Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian sets the fastest time in the first round of practice. This is the new circuit record: 1'49"100, at an average speed of 229.001 km/h, about 1.2 seconds less than the record that Senna himself held since 1990. But even this extraordinary performance of Senna, author of an excellent performance on a track among the most challenging and spectacular of the year, this time takes second place compared to the achievement of McLaren-Honda. The Anglo-Japanese team, which also has second place with Gerhard Berger, confirmed - at least in terms of speed - the recovery against Williams. Three challenging months, some crushing defeat, and Ron Dennis’ team offers Senna a competitive car again. In this regard, the British manager says:
"If we want to keep our champion, we have to do this and more".
No contract offer can be more attractive for the Brazilian than having a winning car. Now all that is left is to find the economic agreement. That is the reason why Ayrton is still hesitant.
"I’ll decide later on".
McLaren is back to the top thanks to a slimming treatment: lightened chassis, less heavy engine, maybe thinner body, even the old electric cables were replaced with smaller ones. The result: 15 kg less, which were overweight, over the minimum of 540 kg imposed by the regulations. Honda obviously did its part. In addition to taking some weight off its 12 cylinders, it has also found horsepower and torque, which Senna had wanted for a long time. And by the way, the Japanese, with great ingenuity, also let it be known that they have a fuel system with variable length trumpets. The same sophisticated device that Ferrari has not yet officially admitted to be using. Now the qualifying results may not even mean success in Sunday’s race. But it is already a good step forward, because Williams seems to have a bit of a shortness of breath, struggling with some small trouble (brakes, gearbox, setups), and perhaps is uncertain by seeing that the others have already reached their level. And Ferrari does not improve as everyone would expect. Even though behind Senna, Berger and Mansell there are Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, the gaps are too large (2.2 seconds) to offer reasons to hope. Prost had problems with the tyres that do not last one lap, he will have to change the set-up: his car is not balanced. Alesi appears more unhappy than disappointed. During the first day of practice there are also three bad accidents. In the morning, Tarquini went off track at full speed, and the same happened to Morbidelli (due to a misunderstanding with Alesi who cut his trajectory: the Frenchman apologised) and to Van De Poele. All without consequences for the drivers, even if the latter had to go to the hospital in Liège to get a CT scan in order to verify his condition. The track is beautiful but very fast. And in case of an accident, the consequences can be serious. Since the beginning of the season Riccardo Patrese has preceded his teammate Nigel Mansell eight times in qualifying, out of ten races. The victory in Mexico, the magic moment, the ambitions in the challenge for the world title. And now, instead, another fogging, a kind of step back. Behind the unreachable Senna and Berger there is Mansell, then the two Ferraris and then the Paduan. There are some excuses: Riccardo has done a few laps, he has had problems, but all this does not justify this strange involution. Should we give up seeing an Italian driver in the running for the world title?
"It’s not my fault if something doesn’t work. Unfortunately, I am always struggling with some small trouble that prevents me from practising enough, and then to properly set up my car. But that doesn’t mean I gave up all hope. It’s become very hard, in practice I should win at least two races in a row, the Belgian Grand Prix and the next race in Monza to get me back on track. It is not impossible, but neither easy. I am always the same, determined, in full shape. But it is necessary that many things coincide to achieve full success".
But now the road is uphill: Mansell dominating the scene at Williams, McLaren that is back at the top and scary...
"We’re not finding out Nigel’s driving skills now. He is a combative driver, aggressive, with a lot of experience, also matured through a series of misadventures. He had never driven so well as this year. But it was the same at the beginning of the championship, when I was regularly in front of him in practice and, when I could, also in the race. Nothing has changed. The chances for us are fifty percent. As for Senna and Berger, they recovered really quickly. Honestly we did not expect it. In this fast-paced world of Formula 1 you can never relax. You have to work day and night, and never stop for a moment. In the race, however, I think we can play our cards even if McLaren now is scary again".
Is it just a head-to-head between the two British teams?
"Theoretically yes. In theory the victory will be a matter between Williams and McLaren. But interference cannot be ruled out, even if I see only one team able to get in the fight, Ferrari. This is a long circuit that puts a strain on the driver, the engine, and the tyres. Anything can happen, even Prost and Alesi fighting at the top. But, honestly, I would be very surprised to see one of the two Frenchmen on the top step of the podium tomorrow. Here it is difficult to improvise. It will be important to prepare well, find valid technical solutions for overtaking, and balance the aerodynamics of the cars well. The favourites are Senna, Berger, Patrese and Mansell while Prost and Alesi can take the role of the outsiders. It is clear, however, that I must bet on myself, otherwise I will be forced to start all over again. I have strength and tenacity, but it would be a shame to waste a good opportunity".
During the first practice session, in some laps the young German driver Michael Schumacher managed to enter the top ten. The bad luck of one person, even in Formula 1, can be the luck of another. This is precisely the case of Michael Schumacher, 22 years old from Karpen (Cologne) who took the place of Bertrand Gachot at Jordan. While the Belgian, as it is known, is in prison in England, sentenced to 18 months for a fight with a taxi driver, the young German debuted excellently: he set the eighth fastest lap time. Schumacher, who already has a good career behind him in Formula 3, is supported by Mercedes, with whom he competes in sports car races. But no one could expect such a debut. Therefore, Trevor calls him, and tells him:
"Michael, are you okay? Remember that this is a practice day for your first Grand Prix, you have time. Tell me you’re not over the limit".
But Michael answers:
"No, no, I’m not over the limit, just at the limit".
Trevor is really impressed by the calm of the young German driver, by his control. The two sit at the briefing after the first morning of practice. Andrea De Cesaris is the number one driver and works with Gary Anderson, who is assisted by Andy Green. Andrea talks about the fast double left turn at Pouhon and complains that the sixth gear is too high, the fifth not enough. He has to change gears in the middle, and also in Blanchimont there is a bump that makes the car lift, destabilising it. After listening to the Italian driver, Gary Anderson turns to Michael and asks if he is experiencing similar problems. Michael Schumacher answers:
"I had them for the first four or five laps, but then I realised it’s better to go through Pouhon in sixth gear by slightly pressing the brake, and even going through Blanchimont I don’t lift my foot from the throttle, I brake to the left and keep the exhaust flow constant".
No one has explained to Michael Schumacher how aerodynamics works, but it seems that the German driver figured it out by himself. Keep your foot on the gas, and if you are too fast, just put your foot on the brake. Given the exceptional lap time marked by Michael Schumacher, suddenly the microphones reach out to Willi Weber. Journalists of all tendencies and nationalities want to know: Who is Michael? Where is he from? What does he do? Who is the German who finished seventh in qualifying? And since they cannot ask this question to Michael - he has already disappeared back into the box for what seems like the 17th briefing of the day - they give the torment to his manager, who shows maximum availability, distributing business cards.
"Hey, Willi, you’ve got a visitor. Somebody wants to talk to you".
A Jordan mechanic taps the German manager on the shoulder and points at the entrance of the pits, where a security guard lets him through, to meet a man wearing a suit. The mechanic explains:
"He says he’s Eddie’s lawyer".
It is strange that Eddie’s lawyer cannot get into the box, but has to wait outside.
"Nice to meet you. How can I help you?"
Willi Weber says, holding out his hand.
"I’m here on behalf of Eddie Jordan. I’m his lawyer. There are some things to talk about".
After that, he takes out a 60-page file. As soon as the German manager opens the cover, a word in bold catches his attention: Deal. Weber quickly turns the first pages, but it takes him a moment to extricate himself in the complex English legal jargon and to understand what Eddie Jordan has been up to. In the coming years Michael will have to drive exclusively for the Jordan team. In return, Eddie demands annual payments from his sponsor, Mercedes.
"Mr Jordan would like you to sign it on the spot".
The German manager does not want to believe what is happening.
"Are you kidding me? I’m sure you understand I can’t sign it".
But the lawyer says:
"In this case, I am sorry to inform you that Mr Schumacher will not be running tomorrow".
Willi Weber, angry, picks up the phone and calls Eddie Jordan, who answers after the first ring:
“What is happening?”
"Hey, man, take it easy. I’m the one taking the risk. I’m the one who lets your Michael run. It is only fair that you sign the contract".
The German manager stops Jordan’s team principal:
"But we have a deal. I gave you 450,000 dollars".
But Eddie Jordan does not want to change his mind and goes on saying:
"I’m really sorry, Willi. As my lawyer explained, no signature, no grid. Unfortunately, I can’t let Michael run".
Willi Weber tries to breathe, but the situation gets more and more difficult:
"Are you crazy? This is blackmail. Even if I wanted to, I can’t sign something I don’t understand! Is it clear?"
Eddie Jordan goes on:
"Yes, very clear, but a deal is a deal. No contract, no race. Period".
Willi Weber then tries to bring up the Mercedes topic:
"And what about the contract with Mercedes?"
The Irish manager’s answer is peremptory:
"Stop bothering me, Willi".
Willi Weber, at this point, gives in:
"Okay, okay. Listen up. I’m gonna listen to your lawyer, and I’m gonna meet you at your motorhome and we’re gonna figure this out. Okay?"
Fortunately, the German manager is right, and Michael is free to race the Belgian Grand Prix, without any kind of blackmail. If on the one hand the exploit of Michael Schumacher surprises, on the other side of the box the other driver of Jordan, Andrea De Cesaris, who during the evening, when it starts to get dark in the paddock, is joined by a group of journalists, almost all Italians, who ask him many questions about his new teammate, from whom he has just been beaten.
"Ahò, ma a chi la vojjono raccontà questi?" ["Oh, do you think we’re going to believe this?", TN]
A Roman one says holding a bundle of sheets with Jordan’s telemetry data.
"This guy arrives, it is his first time driving a Formula 1 car on this circuit, and does the Eau Rouge at full speed? Who would believe it?"
Saturday, August 24, 1991, the sun never sets in the sky of Ayrton Senna, the king of speed. But a bit of light also illuminates Ferrari for a Belgian Grand Prix that presents itself with the greatest uncertainty. A race theoretically open to any solution. The Brazilian took yet another pole position, the sixth of the season, the fourth consecutive on this fantastic Ardennes track, the fifty-eighth in total. A record lap time: 1'47"811, at an average speed of 231.739 km/h, about 2.5 seconds less than 1990. An abyss. But the race could be something else, as it has been said: McLaren will have to face the Williams of Mansell and the Ferraris of Prost and Alesi. The Italian team this time also had an involuntary ally in Riccardo Patrese, the unluckiest driver of the season. The practices had ended with Senna in first place, followed in the order by the Paduan, separated by 0.8 seconds and by Prost in 1 second. Then, Berger (whose engine broke), Alesi, Piquet and the surprising rookie Michael Schumacher with Jordan. But the end is a surprise: the stewards in the usual checks discover that on Patrese’s car the reverse gear does not work. The regulation provides, for safety reasons, that a driver is able to use it if necessary. This is why Williams’ #6 driver sees his beautiful lap time deleted: from the first to the ninth row, as he ends up counting the result obtained on Friday (P17). And so all those who were behind him go one place up. Prost can thank him. During the checks there are moments of tension: the usually malicious people first raise the suspicion that Williams, in order to have more space to fit larger and therefore more robust gears, ran for a long time without the reverse gear. Then it turns out that it is just an electrical problem, a trivial failure (the Williams has a semi-automatic gearbox with electronic control), and that everything is regular, even if the disqualification is inevitable. What is unusual is the reaction of Frank Williams who, commenting on the story, says:
"Tonight I’ll sleep anyway for a story like that".
A statement that is not very diplomatic. Maybe he would not have said it if the protagonist of the case had been Nigel Mansell. Patrese, as usual, is a gentleman:
"It’s not my fault, you should ask Williams".
The unfortunate story of Patrese, however, is not the only strange story of the day. Senna in a press conference, questioned about his future, attacks Frank Williams hardly.
"I don’t understand why Williams communicated so quickly the confirmation of Mansell and Patrese. This blocks the whole driver market".
A disarming statement: if the Brazilian had had an official contact with the British team, perhaps he would have been right. But since he has not revealed any of this, the constructor will have the right to do what he thinks is right. Basically, Senna only complained because, with Williams and Ferrari out of the market, he loses bargaining power with McLaren and this means for him, maybe, a few million dollars less in 1992. On the race, however, Ayrton admits to be very worried about Williams and Ferrari. In fact, the Maranello cars were quick (and in the race they will use a new type of fuel) and maybe they could have set even better lap times if Alesi (which at the last intermediate was 0.02 seconds faster than Senna) had not found traffic and if Prost had not taken his foot off the throttle, deceived by some marshals who exposed him, for no reason, three flags of different colour. However, Alain Prost confesses:
"For the race I am confident, if we lose a second in qualifying from Senna, it means that we are very close".
During the morning of Sunday, August 25, 1991, 15,.000 German Formula 1 fans spontaneously go to Spa. Everyone wants to see the young driver who overtook the veterans in qualifying. Meanwhile, Willi Weber and Michael Schumacher arrive at the circuit at 7:00 a.m., despite having gone to bed only at midnight. On Friday, in qualifying Michael Schumacher ran almost 0.9 seconds faster than Andrea De Cesaris, while in the final session on Saturday the gap was reduced to 0.7 seconds, placing the rookie in seventh place on the grid, while Andrea - at his 160th Grand Prix - will start eleventh. The Jordan team is euphoric. The emphasis around Eddie Jordan shifts from the imprisoned Bertrand to the impressive Michael Schumacher. Despite this, the team was disappointed, as Michael was even faster on his last lap and was running fifth, but Alesi spun at the Bus Stop chicane and ruined his lap. In the warm-up lap Schumacher manages to be so fast that even Ayrton Senna is surprised:
"He did a great job and his place on the grid is something special. I don’t know much about his background... yet".
A few hours later the race starts without accidents for the first time in many years. Both Senna and Prost, who keep the lead of the race in front of Mansell, Berger, Piquet and Schumacher, get off well; however, the latter is forced to retire after a few hundred metres due to a clutch failure. At the start Michael slipped between Nelson Piquet’s Benetton and Alesi’s Ferrari, thus bringing himself in fifth position at the La Source hairpin bend, but his debut ended ingloriously shortly after, with the clutch in pieces and his car stopped at Les Combes. The standard clutch for Formula 1 consists of three carbon discs. Cosworth had some concerns, and would not allow its teams to use more than one two-disc clutch due to the weight of the mass at the end of the fly-wheel; basically, if a driver wanted to use it with only two discs, he has to take care of it, especially in the first two laps with full tank. The Jordan team had fitted a new clutch for the race, and Schumacher, whose thought was to make the best start possible and be fifth or fourth at the first corner, had made a test from the grid, then another one at the back of the circuit, and then another one arriving at the Bus Stop, before the start of the Belgian Grand Prix. Therefore, when the German driver arrived on the grid the clutch had already suffered a lot of stress. Then he did another test and once the race started, Schumacher tried to tackle La Source as quickly as possible, which is a tight hairpin turn that is faced in first gear, and to make the car spin faster inside he had pushed the clutch again, causing it to burst. As Michael Schumacher returns to the pits, and is consoled by his manager, Willi Weber ("Cheer up, you have given enough proof of your skills. You have to wait and see what happens"), the race continues. Senna continues to lead, while during the second lap Mansell overtakes Prost: the Frenchman (like his teammate) chose to use harder tyres in an attempt not to make a pit-stop, and therefore has a lower chance of being fast at the beginning. But shortly after, for poor Alain the race is already over: at the beginning of the third lap he is forced to park to the side of the track with his Ferrari on fire:
"I already had smoke in my cockpit, and I knew I should retire".
A fuel sleeve breaks, and the fuel pours into the engine, igniting. The retirement of the Frenchman allows Mansell to reach Senna and the two fight until lap 15, when the Brazilian makes his tyre change. A slightly prolonged pit stop due to the difficulty of reassembling a tyre, but enough to allow the Englishman to become the leader of the race, having in turn made a very fast tyre change, during lap 17. Senna is back on track in fifth place, behind Berger and Piquet, who have yet to stop. The Benetton driver did it on lap 18, after leading the race for a lap. Mansell quickly recovers on Berger and overtakes him at the Fagnes corner; the Austrian returns to the pits to change tyres, but he has problems too and returns to the track just ahead of Modena, risking an accident with the Tyrrell driver. Meanwhile, on lap 22 Mansell is forced to retire due to an electrical problem. The retirement of the Englishman allows Alesi to take the lead of the race, pressed by Senna; the McLaren driver, however, makes a mistake that costs him about ten seconds, allowing him to be chased by Piquet.
The two Brazilians begin to fight for second place and are quickly joined by Patrese and De Cesaris; so a quartet of drivers is formed fighting for second, third, fourth and fifth place, with Senna unable to detach his rivals for gearbox problems. Meanwhile Alesi, who had planned a race without stops, continues to lead until lap 30, when the engine of his Ferrari fails, perhaps due to an over-revving caused by a mistake in entering a gear, so much so that Jean risked getting hit by Senna behind him. The Frenchman’s retirement gives first place to Senna, who preceded Piquet, De Cesaris and Patrese, who went off track in an attempt to overtake the Benetton driver. On lap 31, De Cesaris overtakes Piquet at Les Combes; later on, the Brazilian driver is also overtaken by Patrese and Berger. The Austrian then moves to third place when Patrese begins to have gearbox problems, then climbs up to second place when, three laps from the end, the engine of the Jordan of De Cesaris breaks, being left without oil, ending the beautiful race of the Italian driver. Despite the gearbox problems that slowed him considerably in the last part of the race, Senna crosses the finish line in first place ahead of Berger, Piquet, Moreno, Patrese and Blundell, Brabham’s first point since the previous year’s US Grand Prix.
Finally Grouillard brings his Fondmetal to the finish line for the first time this season, ending the race in tenth place. Put a frying of engines, a mixture of gearbox failures, a pinch of electrical problems, add some off-tracks and burnt oil. The cocktail has always the same taste: the unmistakable one of victory. For Ayrton Senna. The Belgian Grand Prix gave the sixth win of the season to the Brazilian champion. Indeed, it probably marked his decisive step towards the third Formula 1 world title, in a race that, honestly, more than won by the talented McLaren driver was lost by his opponents. Not only did the Paulista champion bring home another 10 points, but he knocked out all rivals. Out of the classification there is Nigel Mansell, betrayed by the Renault engine of his Williams, following a control unit failure; Alain Prost was also stopped by a banal failure, the rupture of a pipeline that carries fuel; the extraordinary comeback of Riccardo Patrese from the seventeenth place was useless, because even the Paduan had to deal with a transmission problem at the end. As if struck by a curse, all the drivers who had somehow thought or tried to undermine the success of Senna have had their wings clipped. It happened to Alesi who had dared to bring Ferrari to first place for nine laps, to the brave Andrea De Cesaris who allowed himself to get to second place. An hecatomb. Ayrton Senna, while from the circuit comes a deafening samba of his fans, admits:
"I was lucky, because I saw everything, including a serious problem with the gear selector that could have cost me dearly and that made me fear retirement. Now I am 22 points ahead and there are five races left until the end of the season. I can be a little more relaxed. But Williams is even faster than McLaren and we have to work a lot".
The usual thing: the others are good, have competitive cars, while his team succeeds among a thousand problems. Imagine if everything goes well. Ayrton Senna even takes the opportunity to avoid the post-race celebrations. Already in the race he had begun to shout, remembering that this is a lucky victory, that he was suffering from the beginning of the year a lack of engine power and other deficiencies of the car, that Ferrari had not proposed any solution to the problems. Despite being right, the McLaren mechanics are astounded by the aggressive tone expressed by the Brazilian driver. At the end of the race, McLaren sports director Jo Ramirez tries to suggest to Ayrton Senna a calmer tone, but he gets the opposite effect:
"We agree, but the team worked hard anyway and the car gets to the finish line. Can’t we just have a drink, say well done, guys, and get back to work?"
McLaren, however, got a 1-2 thanks to the second place of Gerhard Berger, and behind him even came the two Benetton-Ford of Piquet and Moreno who would have had no chance to get on the podium if there had not been so many retired cars. Patrese collected only the two points for fifth place. And sixth came the Brabham of Marc Blundell powered by the Yamaha 12-cylinder engine. It is the first time in the history of this Japanese company that it gets some points. Another warning from Japan, since from next year it is likely that Yamaha will supply the extraordinary Irish team, Jordan. While the rivals of Senna are invited to go and be blessed in some sanctuary, the first consideration is the following: the eleventh race of the World Championship confirmed that McLaren is always the great dominant team, that Williams is able to fight at the top but still lacks reliability and that Ferrari, unfortunately, has yet to be born in the 1991 World Championship. When you are chasing other cars and teams, problems, even small ones, become huge. Senna has 32 race wins, continuing his climb towards the World Championship and towards the Olympus of the multiple winners of races. He is dangerously approaching his enemy Alain Prost, who has been stuck at 44 for a year. But right now it is not the figures that interest the Brazilian.
"Now I only think about the title, at most I can count the points in the standings, where honestly I am well placed. If I win the next race or finish second, in Monza, I can think seriously about the World Championship. Other than that, this time I was really lucky. In the early laps I don’t think Mansell could have overtaken me. But, after a long pit-stop, I wouldn’t have been able to get him back. He was going too fast. In addition I had a problem with the gear selector: I didn’t know where the gears were anymore and in the last laps I preferred not to use the first and the second. And then in the last laps the tyres were at the limit of wear".
Berger, instead, complains about the engine, as well as for the pit stop:
"There was a problem with the left front tyre. I was furious, so much so that at the exit from the pits I had a resounding spin. Anyway I didn’t have enough power from the beginning to fight for the victory".
These are the comments of the other protagonists. Nelson Piquet says:
"We are lacking horsepower. This podium happened by chance, thanks to the retirements of the others".
Nigel Mansell comments on his retirement:
"Everything was going fine when an electrical failure blocked the gearbox and the engine. Bad luck. I won't give up. But it has become very hard. If I lose even the races I could win, what hope can I have? Senna came first in Hungary where his car was slower thanks to the pole position he had obtained. At Francorchamps he had incredible luck. He is very good, hats off, but the wind always blows in his favour".
Riccardo Patrese adds:
"I had a slow start because I found myself in front of a wall of cars. I was no longer used to it. Then I made countless overtakings. In vain, because the gearbox betrayed me at the crucial moment".
And Andrea De Cesaris concludes:
"When the car does not work and I am at the back I always get to the finish line. If I manage to reach the first places, retirement is inevitable. Patrese is kissed by the blindfolded goddess of luck compared to me".
Piloti, che gente (Drivers, what people, TN), said and wrote Enzo Ferrari. And he was perfectly right. Born and raised for a sport that is the quintessence of individualism and therefore selfishness, the champions of the steering wheel think only and always to themselves, trying also to defend themselves against the constructors who, on the contrary, would always like to take credit for a victory and place the blame of a failure. It is a perverse game that has been going on for forever, from Nuvolari to Fangio, from Villeneuve to Senna. The Brazilian McLaren driver leaves Belgium after winning the luckiest race of his career with three-quarters of the world title in his pocket. Mansell will have to work wonders to recover 22 points in the standings. And maybe those will not be enough. But before leaving he says once again - essentially - that the car is trash, that the Honda engine is not powerful enough, that the gearbox was broken, that the tyres were about to flake apart. If he was not here, they could only dream about this first place. But, at the same time, Senna these days has repeated several times that he has not yet decided for his future, that everything can happen, that it is true that Williams and Ferrari have confirmed their drivers, but contracts today are just pieces of paper. After all, Ayrton is right. With money, theoretically one is free to do whatever he wants. Besides, a team cannot force a driver to run if he does not want to. But it seems very strange that the behaviour of the Brazilian is, in a sense, parallel to that of Prost, even if in a different situation. The Frenchman in fact continues to tell the Ferrari managers that there are no problems for 1992 and at the same time not only continues to deal with Ligier, but also sends transversal messages, implying that next season he might not even stay in Maranello. So on the one hand Senna keeps McLaren on pins and needles, claiming he still has a chance to leave.
On the other hand, Prost indirectly threatens Ferrari, aiming - as said - to increase his pay or at least to get what he wants. Alain Prost is certainly interested in the Ligier-Renault project of the great all-French team. Extraordinary offers, perhaps a little national-chauvinistic appeal. But it is not excluded that the three-time World Champion is undecided for opportunism: Guy Ligier’s political friendships could also provide him with a fiscal amnesty, since Prost, despite having many properties in France, is resident in Switzerland and tax agents are always on his trail. Meanwhile, the position of Ferrari is always the same: they confirmed the driver, he never said anything different to them. However, the French driver after the race admitted confidently that it is true that he is interested in the Ligier project for an all-French team; that he is still negotiating with this team for a five-year program that would see him engaged first as a driver, and then as manager; that before the Italian Grand Prix in Monza he will decide his future, that is whether to move to Ligier in 1992 or 1993. But Wednesday in Monza (two days of testing with Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton) Prost should be put under pressure. Maranello has the right and the duty to know the truth. While Jean Alesi, for better or worse, is in love with his team and is not distracted, from Alain at least a minimum of professional seriousness is expected. Not only for the commitment on the track but also in the general behaviour, which is no longer acceptable. That said, speaking of the Belgian Grand Prix, Alain Prost’s comment is laconic:
"I chose harder tyres because I didn’t want to pit. But my races are getting shorter and shorter".
Jean Alesi is disappointed but not completely dissatisfied:
"I had studied well the possible developments of the race and the facts were proving me right. The car’s set-up was good and improved as the tank became lighter. I didn’t even realise I was in the lead, I was just reading the first line of the pit board exposed. Only after two laps in the lead, I understood the situation. I had a lot of bad luck, but at least I showed that if the car allows it, I can fight at the top. I know I can win for Ferrari and I hope to do it soon. In Monza we will have new solutions and that one will be a decisive race for us".
Engineer Claudio Lombardi says:
"We had a novelty for the engines. For the start and for the first laps the drivers could remove the rev limiter. Maybe that’s what caused the problem of Prost. The excessive vibrations probably broke a fuel line. As for Alesi, he had a piston problem. The result is negative, but we are in the role of the challenger, we must recover and then risk to find the performance. But sooner or later we will get the result, hopefully in Monza".
A small curious note, at the end of the Belgian Grand Prix, concerns the Leopold III SM Cup, delivered to the McLaren team by the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium. The agreement would be that the winning team would keep it for a year and bring it back the following year, to deliver it to the new winner. In 1991, however, McLaren won it for the fourth consecutive year, but the organisers will forget to ask for the cup, which is now held at McLaren. Not only that: at the end of the podium ceremony, Jo Ramirez, McLaren’s sports director, in collecting the trophies realises that the cup reserved for the team is missing, so he demands Roberto Nosetto, organiser of the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, explanations:
"Hey, Roberto, what about our cup?"
"Oh, hell. I forgot about it. I’ll send it to you next week".
But Jo Ramirez replies:
"No, no, thank you. I’m happy with this [the Leopoldo III SM cup, Ed.]. We keep it, we have already won so many times...".
But Nosetto insists that the McLaren sports director should have brought it back the following year, and a couple of weeks later a bad, old and small, cheap cup is delivered to the factory. Jo Ramirez - who, since when the McLaren team was robbed of a trophy at a German Grand Prix in the eighties, immediately after the award ceremony, is always doing everything to make sure that the trophies can get there - is so disgusted that he sends it back, saying to stick it where the sun doesn't shine, and that they would hold the Leopold III SM trophy. Later, Jo Ramirez writes a letter to Bernie Ecclestone, complaining about the quality of the trophies, considering how difficult and expensive it is to win a Grand Prix. Since 1990 the standard of trophies is defined by the FIA regulations and they are very expensive and attractive. The Belgian Grand Prix trophy, which is a silver cup of hexagonal shape mounted on an ebony base, bears the names of all previous winners, since 1950, when the Formula 1 World Championship was born. The list includes some of the most charismatic names in the history of our sport: Nuvolari, Brooks, Fangio, Ascari, Brabham, Clark, Surtees, Gurney, McLaren, Rodriguez, Fittipaldi, Stewart, Lauda, Andretti, Reutemann, Scheckter and Prost, to name a few, besides of course Senna, which is there four times. Ron is so delighted by this trophy that he commissions his brother Michael, an appreciated silversmith, the most fantastic replica. As Ron Dennis says, trophies are something tangible that testifies the successes of a team. He cares so much that, since he is head of McLaren, it is written in the drivers’ contract that the trophies belong to the team. Drivers usually ask to have a replica. Only Ayrton Senna has changed this rule since his second year in the team, keeping the original and leaving the copy to McLaren. The following year Roberto Nosetto will no longer be in charge of organising the Belgian Grand Prix and the new managers will not be interested in the old trophies.