On Tuesday 3 March 1992, Lella Lombardi, the best-known female driver in Italy and perhaps the world, died in a clinic in Milan, struck down by an incurable disease. By a cruel twist of fate, her death occurred on the very anniversary of her debut in Formula 1 (3 March 1975 at Kyalami in South Africa). She was nicknamed “the tiger of Turin”, since it was difficult to look up on maps her hometown, Frugarolo (where she was born on 26 March 1943), in the province of Alessandria. And from a young age she had fought tooth and nail to become a driver. And she had not only been a great protagonist for motor sport, but also a skilled and passionate professional driver. Born into a family with no economic means, she had been able to climb all the ranks of motor racing values, conquering her place with results. Pretty, but not a femme fatale or charming, kind but not condescending, Lella had not had it easy due to her status as a woman. Quite the contrary. Yet she had involved influential people who had believed in her as they had in other drivers who had become famous, such as Ronnie Peterson. Formula 850, Formula 3, Formula 5000, also racing in the United States and Australia, Formula 1 (thirteen races with March, Brabham and Williams and only a hard-earned half a point with a sixth place in that Spanish Grand Prix broken in two by Stommelen's accident). And many victories, with the sports prototypes, at Monza, at Le Mans, on all the circuits; an overall Italian title, four European Touring Car titles with Alfa Romeo. An almost endless list. When, well into his forties, he had had to leave, he had done so part-time, becoming a driver and manager of a team bearing his name, racing men in his cars. But some time ago she was attacked by an illness, and, despite a strenuous resistance, it was her last race. The news of the death of Lella Lombardi, the first woman in the world to race in Formula 1, arouses sorrow in the village, where she was born fifty years ago. They say at the Ottoboni Café:
"We knew she was sick and had been hospitalised in Milan for a few weeks. No one, however, thought it was that serious. Her disappearance is a mourning for everyone".
And friends and acquaintances say:
"She was a woman full of life. You cannot believe that she is no longer there".
Full of life, always, and always ready to indulge her great passion for motors, racing, also fascinated by the deafening noise of racetracks. She remembers her sister-in-law:
"He felt the first signs of the disease six years ago. She underwent an initial operation, but it was not enough to dampen her enthusiasm. She had not yet had the stitches removed after the operation and wanted to leave for Spain to take part in a competition".
This was Lella Lombardi, a thoroughbred Frugarolese, even though her passion for motors and racing had often taken her far from her homeland. She often returned to Frugarolo, to visit her elderly parents and her brother Giuseppe, while her sister Giuliana, who is married, lives in Genoa. And Lella Lombardi's body will be transported to her home in Via Cavour: her parents wanted to have her by their side one more day and watch over her on the last night before the funeral scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, 5 March 1992, in the town's parish church.
"I am terribly sorry, even though we had never met. I had encountered her in 1981 in Monza. A handshake. But she remained a symbol for me. And at the very moment when I reached the pinnacle of my career, reaching Formula 1, she left us".
Giovanna Amati was joined on her return to Rome by the tragic news of Lella Lombardi's death. A long journey during which she was able to think about her first experience in the Grand Prix world.
A very tough test made difficult by the environmental conditions, by the approach with a team that is certainly not top, by a thousand internal and external tensions. But the fact of having disputed her first race on foot, moving nervously along the pit wall, did not put Giovanna off. She spent Sunday watching, some of it live and some of it on television, how Mansell, Patrese, Senna and co. drove. Shortly before, dark and drawn in the face, she had walked the thirteen lines of the grid, carefully observing the cars and drivers. The 28-year-old from Rome did not manage to qualify for the race. As was to be expected. Through no fault of her own: it would have been a miracle with that rather shabby car - the Brabham - and without ever having done a single practice lap. His team-mate Van De Poele entered the twenty-six promoted, because Stefano Modena broke the engine of his Jordan-Yamaha. The baptism, however, was positive. And Giovanna is even more determined to continue. That is, she is well determined to make her way. If she can, she will test the car before 22 March 1992, when she will appear at the second Grand Prix, in Mexico City. In the meantime, she hopes that the team will also manage to improve the single-seater, to put it at least on an equal footing with its colleagues battling to qualify. Beleaguered, or rather harassed, by the press, photographers and cameramen, Giovanna Amati suffered all the possible stress during the South African weekend. The worst situation for such an important debut. Another rookie, the young Italian-Swiss Andrea Chiesa, although much less pressured, appeared, if possible, more upset than her. The presence of a girl in Formula 1 after so many years provoked different reactions. In most cases negative. Many drivers welcomed the novelty with ambiguous smiles, some even with open criticism. Even some female representatives of the press did not have kind words for Giovanna. A French journalist says:
"What bothers me is that Amati got a steering wheel because she is a woman, because Brabham, with no money, looked for a knockout engagement to attract sponsors. So some even good drivers were left without a place".
But Amati did not steal anything from anyone. How many drivers have obtained the engagement by bringing money to the teams? The Italian girl has also been good, progressing day by day until she has achieved acceptable performances in her condition. Of course, she has her own temperament, perhaps some attitudes are also wrong, but her underlying qualities are not lacking. So much so that in the timekeeping she was just two seconds over the time that was enough for Van De Poele to take part in the race. If anything, the problems lie elsewhere: if the car is not competitive, if the sponsors do not support her, perhaps the courageous Roman girl will be forced to give up. In this case, however, it will not be a question of driving ability, but only of bad luck, of unfavourable circumstances. On Thursday, 5 March 1992, there was emotion, flowers, a sea of people and even a little curiosity at Lella Lombardi's funeral. The doorway of the parish church in Frugarolo is blocked from the inside by the crowd that wanted to pay their last respects to the first woman Formula 1 driver. Among the townspeople, gathered around the family members, a few personalities from the world of sport and the local authorities. On the wreaths of flowers, names such as Frank Williams, Italian Motor Sports Commission, and also Auto sport Europa team. In such a crowd there are a few young people. One stands out: he is Luca Canniferrari, 26, driver of the Lella Lombardi auto sport team.
"We knew about the illness, but she never talked about it. I went to see her at the clinic. In a moment of lucidity she still asked me about the races".
Everyone talks about the passion for racing and engines, even in the village. Says Giovanni Giraudi:
"As a young girl in a red Lambretta, Lella sped recklessly through the streets and country lanes. Here she was a character, even before she was known to the whole world".
Giacomo Sburati, the carpenter friend who took care of the first machine around 1960, speaks of it with emotion:
"Because mum didn't agree. And my brother Giovanni was her first manager. We always accompanied her to Morano Po to race for Formula Escort".
And Giorgio Traversa, owner of the then Tanarauto stable, remembers the early successes. Everyone speaks of them with affection. Emanuele Rini of Bosco Marengo explains:
"She was a simple girl. That is why she is surrounded by so much affection. She was never conceited or proud of what she was able to do".
Many, in addition to her human qualities, defended her sporting qualities, explicitly contrasting her with the new diva of the racetracks, Giovanna Amati. And they add that, back then, her adversaries feared her so much that they tried in every way to hinder her. Says Piercarlo Ghinzani:
"We were friends. We raced in the same years in Ford Formulas, Formula 3, Prototypes and Formula 1. Lella was good and professional. She was not a showgirl, she never sought publicity".
At the same time, fans would like to see Ferrari back at the top of the Formula 1 World Championship, but the road to get there will not be short. This is what Luca Montezemolo, president and CEO of Ferrari, said at the Geneva Motor Show. Montezemolo is realistic. Although he wants to maintain a certain confidentiality about Formula 1, he says that it would be a mistake to have too many illusions, at least in the short term. The cure must be only one, that is to work intensively, intelligently, accompanying these efforts with adequate investments in technological innovation. The Ferrari chairman recalls that the company spends 20% of its turnover on research and development. As Ferrari prepares to hit the track on Monday for a series of tests, the Prost-Ligier affair swells. Constructor and driver have set a deadline of 16 March 1992 for interested industries to join the big all-French team. In the transalpine newspapers Guy Ligier declares:
"Prost will be my successor".
"The state helped Killy and Platini, why not Prost?"
An invitation to the parastatals Elf and Renault to come forward. However, on Friday 13 March 1992, it was announced that Alain Prost would not race in Mexico with Ligier, almost certainly would not join the French team as a driver during the season and probably would not do so in 1993 either. The partners (led by Renault and Elf) , called upon to compete for a large all-national team, did not accept the financial demands made by manufacturer Guy Ligier and Prost himself. The two had stated that in order to run a competitive and winning team, at least 150.000.000 lire per year with long-term planning were needed. Too onerous of a commitment that the two big companies did not feel like signing up to. Ligier says that his negotiations with Prost will continue, but it is highly probable that the racer will take this year off, in order to make a comeback in 1993, perhaps at Williams (or with McLaren if Senna were to move to another team). And perhaps Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna could team up again. The French driver himself raised the possibility in a press conference in which he took stock of his future plans. Monday, 16 March 1992, Alain Prost confirms that, the negotiations with Ligier having failed, he will take a year's holiday.
"If I had wanted to drive this year, I could have done it but I am not a mercenary. What is important is to rest mentally. The main thing is to follow the technological development and start early, without waiting until February to train".
Irritated by what has been said and written over the past few days, Prost says that his demands were not the cause of the failure of the negotiations with Ligier, for 1993 Prost declared himself willing to race for Williams or McLaren. Alain Prost did not rule out the Ferrari hypothesis either. After numerous private tests, the second round of the World Championship will be held on Sunday 22 March 1992. After South Africa, another track at high altitude: in fact, the race will take place at the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit in Mexico City, altitude 2400 metres, in the most polluted city in the world. Problems for the cars, therefore, but also for the drivers, forced by the lack of oxygen to an extra effort. But the fatigue of the racers and the technical issues take a back seat for now. The Motor Circus is already raising a cry of alarm: stop Mansell before he kills the championship that has just begun. The superiority shown by the Englishman at Kyalami has in fact worried everyone: a one second gap in qualifying, a race always conducted in the lead with wide margins of advantage, without worries. Credit to the driver, one might say, but also to Williams. The real difference, however, was made by Mansell, as his teammate Patrese, who also finished second, appeared beatable. Now, as Senna is waiting for the new McLaren MP4/7 (which in the Silverstone tests does not seem to have fully satisfied the Brazilian) which should make its debut in the third round in Sao Paulo, he can only try to defend himself. And given that Ferrari, still struggling with a thousand problems, is unlikely to become competitive in the short term, the only one who can stop Mansell is Riccardo Patrese. A role that the Paduan gladly accepts. Not because he has anything to say against Nigel (relations between the two are currently marked by the utmost fairness) but because the Paduan intends to play all his chances in the fight for the title. Says Riccardo Patrese, jokingly:
"I feel young, but I don't want to throw away opportunities. If Williams proves to be superior in most races this year, I will look at the final standings. After all, the six points won in South Africa, given the situation, are an excellent starting point. In '91 I had zero points after the first race".
Does this mean that Mansell will have one more opponent in Mexico?
"Everyone will be free to play their own cards, as usual. It is clear that the team comes first, that we are not allowed to play madness against each other. But there are neither tactics nor strategies to follow. If I'm in front, I won't give way to anyone, that's for sure".
Is the Englishman beatable?
"It must be acknowledged that Nigel is in great shape. He rested for the whole break and came back on track recharged to the max, a fury. He is a guy who gets very charged up with results when things are going well. At Kyalami his car was extraordinary, he was always by far the fastest and that helped him psychologically. However, all things being equal, I don't feel inferior, I proved it last year, overtaking him several times even in qualifying. Of course it won't be easy, a lot will also depend on the circumstances. I will try".
And is Senna already in crisis?
"McLaren was a little bit detached. But that doesn't mean anything. Last season with a car that was by no means the best Senna won the first four races. He is a determined racer, who knows how to make the most of the potential of his single-seater and at the same time is able to prod his team in the best way. You will see that he will complain until he is able to return to victory".
"Williams, however, is well placed this time to counter all attacks. However, it is difficult to make long-term predictions in Formula 1. Let's think about the next engagement. On Friday we will already be on the track for the first practice and qualifying sessions and we will see if anyone will be able to fit in at the top".
The alarming news that has spread in recent days, according to which the Mexican metropolis of 25.000.000 inhabitants is considered the most polluted city in the world, does not seem to worry people much. The thought of dying in the street due to pollution, while the government is looking for problematic measures to remedy the situation (they are already travelling on alternate number plates and according to signs of various colours to reduce the chaotic traffic) does not faze the majority of the population, who breathe in air saturated with bacteria at the top of their lungs, without taking precautions. Into this context, with its green petrol, comes Formula 1, for the second race of the World Championship. Another proof of the absurd calendar chosen by FISA, which certainly does not take certain environmental factors into account. And it would come as no surprise if during the Grand Prix some driver had to abandon the race due to physical problems also linked to the fact that the circuit is located at an altitude of 2400 metres. An uncomfortable situation that becomes part of what is then the dominant motive of the race itself. That is, the chase after Williams. The superiority shown by the British cars equipped with active suspension at Kyalami greatly worried the adversaries. Says Ayrton Senna, his face tense with nervousness:
"If they go as strong as this even on this very undulating track, we are left with nothing but the role of side characters. The new McLaren is not ready yet. Maybe it will be for Brazil. And in any case it is not certain that it will go stronger and better than the previous model straight away. We have to run defensively".
There is also a lot of interest in finding out whether there will be the same difference between the performance of Mansell and Patrese that was highlighted during the South African race. In the environment there are whispers that the British team is betting everything on the English driver in order not to have problems of internal rivalry and not to lose precious points in the standings given that, even with a car that was suspected to be inferior, the Italian still came second. As for Ferrari, there is still a lot of caution in making predictions. Above all, it is hoped to have at least solved the reliability problems shown so far. Small changes to the cars (the oil tank, some different springs, aerodynamic solution). Only Jean Alesi seems to be more aggressive, driven by his great love for the Maranello team:
"I am confident; I think we can have a good race. By good I mean not a fifth or sixth place but at least a podium result, the minimum necessary to be considered positive. Of course, we still have some problems, especially because we don't know the basic behaviour of the new F92A very well. In any case, I am convinced that we will make progress".
The Frenchman, to give a demonstration of his good will, on Thursday morning, under the sun, makes a walking tour of the track, which is very dusty, to study the asphalt and the trajectories well. Friday 20 March 1992 then starts at 10:00 a.m. with free practice and then from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. with the first timed session. There will be no pre-qualifying as the Andrea Moda team, after announcing the sending of two new cars, sends a fax to let it be known that it has had problems with the plane that was supposed to transport the cars. A story that sounds like an excuse. On Thursday evening Nigel Mansell shows up in Mexico like a star, coming last. Tanned, serene, smiling, after a flight of just three hours from his home in Florida, Nigel Mansell arrives greeted by the flashes of photographers who have been waiting for him since the morning.
"It's useless to come here so early. I get in my Williams, do two laps, and beat them all".
A joke, of course. But perhaps it can also be reality: the British driver is living his magic moment, after his risk-free victory in the South African Grand Prix, after setting the fastest time in all practice sessions and in the race, after showing overwhelming superiority.
"The car is a bomb, it goes fast and holds the road well. The best a driver could wish for. The track here is particularly bumpy. If we can pull away from our rivals, it means that there will be no room for anyone in the next races either".
But he is asked: is McLaren, which will present its new MP4/7 in Brazil, equipped with an automatic gearbox and electronic throttle, not scary either?
"Of course. But we also have a few surprises in reserve. If necessary, we will present the new Williams. And if we send it on track, it will mean that it is better than the current single-seater...".
A confident, determined Mansell, who does not even fear injuries of the kind that stopped him in previous years when he was fighting for the world title.
"I think I have paid all my debts to fate. Now it is time for someone else to pay. I am calm and confident that I can do my part. This time the World Championship cannot escape me. It is clear that the championship is still very long, that I have to play my chances, that Senna and the rest of the drivers will do everything to stop me. But this time I have really launched myself well, in the best way".
How do you see Ferrari?
"Despite everything, I left a part of my heart at Maranello. I happened to be at Ferrari at the wrong time. I wish the Italian team grew and returned to the top and to victory. But not immediately, only when I will have brought home that title that I have been chasing for too long and that I am entitled to for what I have done in all these years in Formula 1".
And the Italian driver?
"Patrese is good, that goes without saying. Among the youngsters, many were promising, but have partially disappointed, perhaps not through their fault, due to circumstances. Now the up-and-comers in my opinion are three: the German Schumacher, a true phenomenon who has shown excellent qualities, the Austrian Wendlinger, who made himself conspicuous at Kyalami, and the Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi, probably the best among the rookies of recent years. Blood will tell. If I had my own team, I would not hesitate to option him. In fact, I'll tell you one thing: instead of chasing after uncatchable stars, Ferrari would do well to contact him. He's a serious, focused guy, very well-balanced, able to get his nails out at the right time without overdoing it. A real promise. But excuse me for being selfish: right now I'm just thinking about myself and winning the second race of the season. Then we'll see".
Last year Ayrton Senna had flown through the air in his McLaren, flipping over, but had not, by sheer miracle, even suffered a scratch. On Friday, 20 March 1992, history repeated itself: the Brazilian was again the protagonist of another spectacular accident, but he was safe, sustaining minimal damage. A strong contusion to his left leg and a few grazes. Senna, who is on a qualifying lap in the first practice session of the Mexican Grand Prix, climbs - at over 220 km/h - onto a kerb at the exit of the last of the series of S-bends before a straight.
The McLaren lifts slightly and loses grip, ending up in a sort of tarmac depression. The driver is unable to hold it and the car, spinning, violently hits a low wall with its front left side in a cloud of dust and bits flying through the air. Senna signals with his arms that he is hurt: a piece of the suspension triangle has penetrated the cockpit. But this is also a visual message that the Brazilian driver sends to his mother: a kind of code, to reassure her that all is well, as expected between the two in such cases. Meanwhile, doctors and marshals arrive on the scene (18 minutes have passed since the start of practice) within moments. They remove the helmet from the driver, who is clearly in pain, and put the oxygen mask on his face. Senna remains inside the cockpit for about ten minutes: the doctors also place a protective collar around his neck and cut his overalls to check his wounds. Then the Brazilian is lifted up and placed on a stretcher to be transported to the emergency room. X-rays fortunately show no fractures. The McLaren structure withstood the violent impact well. McLaren says that, after initial treatment, Senna will be transported to a hotel. It will only be known on Saturday morning whether he will be able to take part in the second practice session. The driver appears at first very distraught and sore. Ayrton, contusion aside, will above all have to overcome the shock of the accident, certainly one of the worst of his career. If Senna were to forfeit, McLaren would be forced to field only Gerhard Berger. The reserve test drivers (the British team has three: Allan McNish, Jonathan Palmer and Mark Blundell) cannot be used. Should the driver's recovery take longer than expected and should Senna be forced to miss, after Mexico, the Brazilian Grand Prix on 5 April 1992, he will probably be replaced by Blundell, who knows the car better than the others. Ayrton's injury could also postpone the debut of the new McLaren MP4/7. But these are all talks to be checked and further investigated in the coming days. In the morning Senna had said that he did not like this track because of the jumps due to the undulating asphalt. And he had also criticised the modification made to the banked corner that leads into the pit straight.
"They lowered it, but not enough. That is why we, going through the inner part, are in danger of being even faster than other years".
But the sporting authorities, and above all Ecclestone's FOCA, don’t consider the opinions of the drivers: just on Thursday evening the contract with the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit was renewed for five more years, which is why the risks will continue. The air in Mexico City, polluted, the state of the track (constant small earthquakes make the asphalt undulate) are not safety factors. But in the face of business everything is overcome: since the Mexican organisers are punctual in their payments, the story goes on. Until luck runs out to assist the drivers and then someone tries - too late - to make amends. It is the usual story: in Formula 1, action is only taken after tragedies. The spectacular accident that befell Ayrton Senna, which fortunately ended with a big blow to the left leg and a lot of pain in the neck and shoulders, holds sway on the first day of practice for the Mexican Grand Prix. And it overshadowed the two salient facts of the day: the provisional pole position of Nigel Mansell in the Williams-Renault ahead of the increasingly aggressive German Michael Schumacher, and the very poor performance of Ferrari, who finished twelfth with Capelli and even twenty-first with Jean Alesi. It was a very problematic situation for the Maranello team, struggling with road holding and speed performance worthy of a team at the bottom of the rankings. Now it is difficult to say whether Ferrari will be able, as is possible, to make up a little ground ahead of the race. A race that - with or without Senna, who in any case will be at least ailing or therefore not in top form - should become an easy opponent for Nigel Mansell. The Englishman knows very well that this second round of the World Championship is at his disposal, that he might just miss it because of some unforeseen event. Rather disconcerting is the difference between Nigel and his team-mate Riccardo Patrese, who recorded the third fastest time, but was almost 1.6 seconds off the pace, a margin too great not to suggest any difference between the two cars. Given how things went, Mansell will only have to watch out for Schumacher in the Benetton and Patrese, who will presumably fight for second place. The others seem to be all cut out of the fight, only able to aim in the best case for the points zone, that is, the three places following the podium. In Italy it is to be hoped that with Ferrari in crisis, it is the other Italian teams and drivers who will do themselves credit.
De Cesaris with the Tyrrell, Martini and Lehto with the Dallara of the Scuderia Italia powered by Ferrari engines, Modena with the Jordan-Yamaha or the very young son and grandson of art Christian Fittipaldi at the wheel of the Minardi-Lamborghini are the hopes not to come out completely disheartened as had happened in South Africa. As far as the Maranello team is concerned, this is certainly not where they will be able to recover. In Mexico and in the following race in Brazil, very lacklustre results are to be expected. Only with the return to Europe and the adoption of the modifications currently being studied in the Fiorano workshops can the current ailments be cured. The planned pre-qualifying session was again cancelled, as in South Africa, where the Andrea Moda team was excluded from the event due to non-payment of the $100.000 guarantee required for new teams. With the guarantee now paid, FISA made it clear that if Andrea Moda showed up in Mexico with two new cars that complied with the regulations, the team would be reinstated in the championship. Therefore, team owner Andrea Sassetti abandoned the Coloni-built C4B and brought forward the introduction of the new car, the Simtek-designed Andrea Moda S921, initially scheduled for round four in Spain. The team brought two hastily built S921s for Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia, but it was not possible to prepare them in time for pre-qualifying. Sassetti therefore decided to withdraw his cars, citing transport delays as an excuse. With only four cars remaining in the pre-qualifying pool, the session was cancelled. Saturday 21 March 1992, Ayrton Senna grits his teeth and races. As he does not want to give any advantages to his rivals (according to the regulations all sixteen World Championship results can be added up), he will be at the start of the Mexican Grand Prix. The night's rest has gone up in smoke. No sedatives, no good sleep, no serenity. Only heartache, pain, and anxiety. Once the sedatives wore off, the pains gripped him. On the other hand, doctors and nurses stayed with him throughout the night. Before re-entering the track, Ayrton again underwent massages and this time bandages, then dressing, and finally, leaning on some friendly shoulders, got into the car. Then he goes down to the track, but realises that he is going slowly, very slowly. The classification monitor at that moment presents a historic situation: Ayrton Senna last, Ivan Capelli second to last, Giovanna Amati third to last. Ayrton gets out of the car and leans against a counter. In the frantic hustle and bustle of mechanics, someone almost steps on his damaged leg, but he narrowly avoids it.
It seems that Ayrton does not want to go out again. Instead, he comes out, runs only three laps and rises from last place to fifth. Not even accidents can stop him. A slight doubt remains, but most probably the Brazilian will not give up. Limping, with his left leg bruised after Friday's accident and many pains, the World Champion will try to take those points that presumably the Williams of Mansell and Patrese will allow him to win. A courageous attitude, that of the South American, but also an obligatory one: if he were to give up this race, Senna would be forced to have a handicap season to win his fourth world title. On Saturday, the São Paulo star lapped both in the morning and in qualifying, managing to finish sixth. Already quite a feat. Nigel Mansell remains in pole position and is the man to beat. At his side rises Riccardo Patrese, while on the second row are the two Benetton-Fords of Schumacher and Brundle, which could be the only real danger for the English and Italian driver. For Ferrari it is always a negative situation. Compared to Friday's disaster, the progress shown on Saturday is really minimal: Alesi is tenth, Capelli twentieth, both still with heavy gaps. And ahead of the Frenchman there are also the two Ferrari-powered Dallara of Lehto and Martini and the Jordan of Gugelmin. A situation of crisis, which nobody expected, not even the men of the Maranello team. After the unexciting debut in South Africa, the new F92A in Mexico put Ferrari in crisis with its non-performance and the technicians in Maranello were groping in the dark. Yet this was supposed to be a revolutionary car, especially in its aerodynamic concepts: in the intentions the double bottom was designed to get the best possible ground effect, without overloading the ailerons, to have the least air resistance. But the numbers don't add up, the single-seater's aerodynamic set-up and the need to stay glued to the track don't connect. The biggest problem that has emerged in recent days is certainly due to the altitude of Mexico City, 2400 metres. If the F92A had provided positive data in terms of top speed in the tests at Imola, Estoril and Mugello, there was a turnaround at Kyalami (1600 metres) and a sharp deterioration. Probably, the rarefied atmosphere makes the car float, which, instead of being squashed to the ground, rises, and opposes a higher mass to the advance, so much so that the engine on the straight cannot pick up the maximum number of revs.
These explanations are the concentrate of what could be understood in the morning from a speech made by Harvey Postlethwaite, Ferrari's technical manager. However, the English designer makes it clear that he has not yet got to the bottom of the problem and that he has doubts about the causes limiting the performance of Alesi and Capelli's cars.
"We worked a lot during the night. It is confirmed that our biggest troubles arise on the straight and at the exit of fast corners. Since we don't find anything abnormal in the functioning of the engines, apart from the fact that we can't reach the maximum revs, it's clear that it's the car's resistance to the air. We are 12-13 km/h short of the theoretical speed we should be reaching. It is therefore something that is most likely related to the environmental factor, namely altitude. But we have no clear explanation as to why this happens. That is why we will be at the Nardò track next Sunday to check the top speeds".
So, one should not expect much from the race. Ferrari might recover a little in Sao Paulo in a fortnight' time at a track that is only 600 metres above sea level. However, it is a painful day for everyone except the Williams, with many going off the track. Even Senna in the finale runs into a spin, fortunately without consequences. His team-mate Berger, on the other hand, makes three spectacular excursions into the grass and against the barriers, one in the morning and two in the afternoon. Hard knocks and two damaged McLarens. The Austrian suffers the blows, after the last impact he walks with difficulty. Returning to Senna, before making his painful decision, Ayrton had spoken at length about the accident, about the condition of the drivers, about his claims against a Formula 1 that does not satisfy him at the moment.
"The Mexican circuit is too dangerous. Every year there is at least one serious accident and if there have been no tragedies we owe it to luck and the fact that the cars are safe. I've been saying for a long time that we shouldn't race here because the asphalt is too undulating, full of jumps and potholes. It's not their fault: the asphalt settles due to micro-earthquakes and even the work carried out on the Peraltada curve has not yielded positive results. Does some driver have to die to make the sporting authorities realise that it will be better to go and race somewhere else?"
The Brazilian also talks about tyres. This year, being in a monopoly regime, Goodyear has abolished the qualifying tyres, those that lasted a couple of laps at most, in order to reduce costs. And it provides each team with two sets of race tyres for time trials. Thus, all drivers can make a much higher number of attempts.
"It's a mistake, because these tyres have very poor grip, and you can easily end up off the track. In addition, there is always a lot of traffic. When a driver makes a mistake, the car slides out of control, whereas with the soft tyres the grip was better. The McLaren team will appeal to FISA and Goodyear to return to the previous solutions for safety reasons".
But Senna, as far as this last topic is concerned, is also looking for a small advantage. He is the king of pole positions also because being more talented and sensitive, he was certainly the racer who knew how to make better use of the qualifying tyres. Now he finds himself in the pack and is in danger of starting at the back of the grid. But this is talk for the future: today Senna's goal is to limit the damage. Sunday, 22 March 1992, bright sunshine, a lot of heat and, consequently, a lot of pollution await the drivers on the starting line. Immediately problems for Modena: just before the start, the engine of his Jordan catches fire and Stefano has to take off from the pit lane with the reserve car. Sparks at the green light: Mansell and Patrese start well, imitated by Senna, who manages to surprise the two Benettons of Brundle and Schumacher. But it is behind the leaders that the mess happens: Wendlinger's March, perhaps touched by another car, crashes into Capelli's Ferrari. The Italian ends up spinning against the wall. Race ended in 300 metres.
The accident at the start and a collision between De Cesaris and Herbert at the first corner lead the race director to think that the red flag was shown (and the Ferrari team was already preparing the spare car for the Italian), but the race continued as normal. And at the top the usual Williams carousel begins: Mansell in the lead, at a furious pace, followed by Patrese and, at a fair distance, Senna, Brundle, Schumacher, Alesi and Hakkinen. The Williams really had a different pace compared to their opponents: this was demonstrated by the fast times that both Mansell and Patrese racked up lap after lap. Senna tries to maintain the pace but on lap 12 he gives up: a transmission failure stops his McLaren. Ayrton raises his hand to warn those following him and stops in a quiet part of the circuit, gets out and follows the race as a spectator. Almost monotonous, this Mexican Grand Prix: the Williams, thanks to their active suspension, seem to arrive from another planet. To get an idea of the gap, just look at the times on lap 28: Mansell continues in the lead, followed by Patrese, 5 seconds behind. Third is Schumacher with the first of the Benettons: but the German is 15 seconds behind, Brundle (Benetton) is fourth at 20 seconds, Berger (McLaren) at 21 seconds and Alesi sixth at 39 seconds, an abyss. It is difficult to oppose the electronic superiority of Williams, especially difficult for Alesi and the last Ferrari left in the race. The Frenchman tried to maintain an acceptable rhythm but on lap 30 his engine began to stutter, he was overtaken by an unrestrained Andrea De Cesaris, recovering after the initial spin and two laps later, a big smoke just in front of the pits made it clear that the race was over for Jean too. Alesi gets out of the car, hurries into the Ferrari pit while the mechanics begin to dismantle the equipment. The adventure in Mexico comes to an end halfway through the race. In comparison with the South African Grand Prix, the race, without surprises, is revived in the back rows thanks to the duel that Berger and Brundle engage for the fourth place from lap 45: a series of overtaking each other until the Austrian gets the better of it.
Brundle was forced to abandon on lap 48: a plastic visor thrown by Berger ended up in the radiator, the temperature rose and the engine broke down. Mansell, in the meantime, increased his pace: Patrese could not keep up with his mate and gradually detached himself but both of them, always, did not give the idea of squeezing the cars too hard. Berger, with the only McLaren left in the race, meanwhile, takes some satisfaction by recording the fastest time, but his gap from the first ones is too large. Mansell finishes quietly, Patrese follows him: the Williams festival is over. And two: Nigel Mansell wins the Mexican Grand Prix with Williams-Renault, not only collecting his second win of the season, but number 23 in his career, equalling Nelson Piquet in terms of successes and bringing himself within one of Juan Manuel Fangio and two of Niki Lauda and Jim Clark. A victory achieved with great confidence ahead of team-mate Riccardo Patrese. In third place came Michael Schumacher (Benetton), then Berger (McLaren), an excellent De Cesaris (Tyrrell) and Hakkinen (Lotus). Another knockout for Ferrari. Capelli eliminated by an accident at the start, Alesi forced to abandon the race because of an engine failure, when he was in seventh position after being overtaken in the middle of the straight by the Tyrrell-Ilmor of Andrea De Cesaris and after having hardly resisted the attack of the Lotus-Ford of Hakkinen. No one expected a miracle, but disappointment is always bitter, also because in the short term there is no way out of the crisis. The F92A showed limits in all fields: aerodynamic, mechanical and engine. It could not have gone worse. Says Ivan Capelli:
"I was making my safe start on the right, because I was caught up in the pack when I felt Wendlinger's March hit me from behind. The car caromed into the middle of the track and I ended up violently against the shunting wall. Just a big bump, but what a scare. I didn't expect much from this race, but at least it would have been useful to do a few laps".
Shortly afterwards Jean Alesi also arrived in the pits, visibly upset:
"I did everything I could to fight. A good start, I was trying to at least keep the pace to get into the points zone, but it was short-lived, because some smoke behind me warned me that it was over. What can I say? All we can do now is work on trying to at least find reliability".
For the Maranello team, a total debacle. One wonders now why, with such haste, the new and theoretically revolutionary car, the F92A, was sent to the brink. Was it not better to wait, to continue with the previous model, perhaps updated, until the current single-seater was certainly more competitive? There was probably a desire to make a clean break with the past, but perhaps it was a step too far. McLaren and Williams teach: they have always presented new single-seaters when they are certain they have increased performance. At the root of Ferrari's difficulties is certainly the instability that the team has experienced in recent years. How many people have come and gone at the helm and in key technical positions in the racing team? Let us recall just a few names: Forghieri, Piero Ferrari, Fiorio, Capelli, Barnard, Scalabroni, Durano, Brunner, Castelli, His, Nichols. Postlethwaite and Migeot themselves, the current technical and aerodynamic managers, left and returned a couple of times. And let's not forget the passing of Enzo Ferrari, who, although elderly, was always a great point of reference. Then the whole undergrowth of minor technicians, of mechanics, an endless revolution that could not fail to cause damage. Then the arrival of Claudio Lombardi, a man of considerable racing experience, but completely inexperienced in Formula 1, a field in which specific expertise is indispensable. Changes, replacements, grafts are not always easy. So today, for example, the team finds itself with two track engineers, those who have to work with the drivers to fine-tune the cars during races, who are practically beginners. In short, the ideal condition for not understanding anything anymore. Now, to return to the F92A, the chassis and aerodynamics are the main issue and they probably need to be at least partly modified.
The new engine has revealed enormous difficulties due to an internal lubrication circuit that does not work properly. In the last few hours, the engineers seem to have identified the cause of the altitude-related problem. A problem that cannot be solved on the spot and not even in the very short term. What will happen now? Luca Montezemolo has telephoned and, as far as we know, he has reprimanded his team. If by the time they return to Europe (after the Brazilian Grand Prix) at least some of the problems have not been resolved, it is very likely that we will have to witness another upheaval within the team. While the mechanics pack their tools to head to Brazil, where the third race of the Formula 1 World Championship will be held on Sunday 5 April 1992, managers and technicians rush to the airport to fly to Italy. On Monday, 23 March 1992, in Maranello, in front of Luca Montezemolo, irritated - to put it mildly - by the negative results, an important meeting is held. Not the usual post-race meeting, to draw up balance sheets and programmes, but a real self-process to discover the causes of the defeat and seek solutions to the crisis. Solutions to resolve the many technical problems and also the human ones, perhaps by reviewing the team organisation chart. Because it is clear that something is not working in the mechanism of a team that was once an example of organisation. Before the judge, i.e. Montezemolo, who represents not only the Ferrari company, but also millions of disappointed fans, the trial will try to establish faults and culprits, and to issue sentences that can put the Maranello team back on the right track. Sunday evening sees what is both a defence and a policy statement from Harvey Postlethwaite, the team's technical director.
"First of all, it must be made clear that the engine failure was different from the one in South Africa. Here we had no problems with high temperatures due to oil leaking from the tank, but as engineer Lombardi has already explained, it was a malfunction in the lubrication system. Already last night at Fiorano some engines were being tested to solve the problem. However, it is not possible to know how long it will take to eliminate it".
No remedy before Brazil?
"It is difficult. We are thinking of using the 1991 engines, which did not have these problems, for the necessary period. But I don't know now whether we will succeed. That opportunity is also being worked on at home".
Does the F92A's lack of performance, and in particular its poor top speed, have any relation to the engine woes?
"They are strongly connected".
Since the new car also showed difficulties in road holding, due to either mechanical or aerodynamic problems, is it still worth working on fine-tuning this single-seater or would it not be better to come up with another design?
"I should split up: try to optimise the current car and prepare another one. But you must know that you need at least a year between design and realisation. These are the talks we will have in Maranello, behind closed doors".
So, as far as we can tell, Ferrari will be forced to work on several fronts: adapting the 1991 engine on the current car to solve the contingent problem for the next races; studying the mechanics and aerodynamics of the F92A to understand if it is possible to optimally use the revolutionary “double-flat bottom” floor (to this end, a test should be carried out at the end of the week on the Nardò speed ring with the car driven by Jean Alesi, while Ivan Capelli is on holiday); to completely overhaul the 12-cylinder engine; to continue testing the active suspension, which is now necessary to be competitive, and other electronic solutions under study concerning transmission, gearbox and accelerator; to give the team a better, more agile and operational set-up, dividing up the tasks more precisely. A broad task, but one that is indispensable to remedy the mistakes that have been made. Because many have been made. Of presumption, sending out a car that had not yet been well tested. Of judgement, by revolutionising the team's ranks too much, with young and good people, but lacking experience. And the same goes for the drivers: the talent and commitment of Alesi and Capelli are beyond question, but both certainly don't have the car tuning skills of Prost, Senna or Mansell. The iron fist that the head of Sports Management, Claudio Lombardi, has adopted since his arrival in Maranello last spring has not offered positive results. It is true that it is necessary to create a school for the future, but one cannot forget the present either. In doing so, Ferrari has plunged into a crisis that reflects neither the team's always remarkable technical and human values, nor the company's financial commitment; time runs fast, let's hope that the Maranello process identifies evils and remedies. Two races, two en-pleins. Two races, two disasters. Therein lies the difference between Williams and Ferrari. First and second place at Kyalami and Mexican encore for Mansell and Patrese, four retirements for the Alesi-Capelli pair. It had happened before for the Maranello team, but rarely in such a peremptory and unapologetic way.
The new car, the F92A, at the second round of the Formula 1 World Championship seems to have already failed, even if the Maranello team's technicians hope to bring it to the reparations with appropriate modifications. But the path is fraught with obstacles, the Ferrari looks like a ship in the grip of the waves of a gale that risks having destructive results. The team is groping in the dark, new problems are cropping up every day, so much so that they are thinking of going back to old technical solutions in order to remedy the situation. With Ferrari in crisis, there are two facts to be recorded in the Mexican Grand Prix, apart from the confirmed domination of the Williams equipped with active suspension and the magic moment of Mansell who continues to keep his team-mate Riccardo Patrese behind him with some ease. The first concerns an emerging driver: Michael Schumacher in his eighth race finished on the podium with a third place that validates his reputation as a great talent, as a driver of the future. Twenty-three years of age and a career that could bring him considerable satisfaction. Credit also goes to Benetton who, with Nigel Mansell, the winner in a car designed last year and with a less powerful engine, can work miracles. The second fact of the day concerns the relatively negative performance of McLaren, which had to be content with a fourth place grabbed after a good battle with Martin Brundle by Gerhard Berger. Ayrton Senna, who had also taken to the track stoically after Friday's accident, just to try to pick up a few points and not offer too great an advantage in the standings to his title rival Mansell, did not make it to the finish line. He was betrayed by the breakdown of the transmission of his single-seater. A failure that may well have been expected, but which is a warning sign for McLaren. The debut of the new MP4/7 has now become a necessity if the Brazilian is to counter the Williams men.
But it has to be said that the British single-seater designed by Neil Oatley, equipped with a semi-automatic gearbox and electronic accelerator (no cable, then), is not yet perfectly tuned. Now it remains to be seen whether Senna will try to force the situation in order to have the car in Brazil in a fortnight's time, and whether the team manager, Ron Dennis, will see fit to risk abandoning his usual prudence. They say that the MP4/7 still has some problems to solve (but it also seems that the new Honda engine is very powerful) and that the Brazilian still has doubts especially about the use of this computer-controlled accelerator that takes away sensitivity from the driver.
Two Ferrari men say, as Patrese returns from the prize-giving podium. The Paduan, dark in the face, guesses:
"For second place?"
The others retort:
"But no, for the luck of not being caught by us...".
These are jokes, of course, just to relieve tension. Patrese, however, is not so satisfied. You can see that there is something nagging at him, as if the podium in Mexico City (and the one at Kyalami) behind Mansell was a tight squeeze for him.
"It's OK. I did everything I could to win, but to chase Mansell I deteriorated the front left tyre, which forced me to slow down just at the right moment".
The Italian then praised the Englishman, saying that he was very strong. All true, but Patrese - even if he doesn't admit it - has a car that so far has been slightly inferior to Mansell's, preventing him from fighting on equal terms with his teammate. And the situation will not change in Brazil for the third round of the World Championship. So, when this triptych of races ends, Mansell will in all likelihood have three wins under his belt and many points to his credit. A balance that could crystallise within the team: Williams will bet for the title on the driver best placed in the standings, namely the Englishman. These speeches, however, do not detract in the slightest from the value of Williams, on the contrary, they exalt it because the team is so superior that it can even afford certain evaluations. A strong and fast car, an engine, the Renault, reliable and powerful, the right petrol, the Elf, suitable for every need, the active suspension, the automatic gearbox, the anti-skid system of the wheels, the electronic differential and clutch: a winning cocktail of ingredients also in relation to McLaren, which will be forced to debut the new MP4/7 in a fortnight' time, taking a few risks, if it wants to get back on track. Explains Patrick Head, the team's co-owner designer, who has another valuable engineer, Adrian Newey, at his command:
"There are no secrets. We have always worked in the same way, advancing in small steps. Only when we are sure do we bring to the race the modifications studied in practice. So much so that if it were necessary we could accelerate the debut of a new car. But we won't do it until it is indispensable".
Two hours after the end of the race, a Mediaset crew, consisting of two Mexican cameramen and the journalist Antonella Delprino, arrived at the site of the accident to shoot a television report, filming all the details of Senna's accident, including the marks left on the wall by Ayrton Senna's car during Friday practice. This, however, evidently does not please two agents of the security service of Mr Abed, who presides over the security of each circuit on behalf of Bernie Ecclestone. Therefore, a couple of Mexican agents reach the TV crew, and in a few moments a heated argument begins, as the fact that the two cameramen were Mexican paradoxically complicates the situation, since the two respond with bad words to the agents' insistent requests to stop filming. A brawl ensues, in which the Italian journalist is also involved, consisting of violent shoving and a few slaps, while the tape in which the images were recorded is trampled on and destroyed by the two agents. The one who comes off worse is one of the two cameramen, who is treated in the circuit's emergency room and must remain under observation for hours. Fortunately, the Italian journalist suffered no consequences - apart from a few scratches - and a few hours later she left for Italy with the entire Mediaset staff who had overseen broadcasting the Grand Prix:
"We were not doing anything illegal; it is inexplicable behaviour. But there were, fortunately, no major consequences".
And in the meantime, Mansell is satisfied: Ferrari is sailing in bad waters, Patrese is under control, Senna is hurt and wobbly. While he, waiting to race (and win) in São Paulo, has gone back to his home in Florida to play golf. If he doesn't win the world championship this year, he will really have to go to Lourdes to get blessed. Ferrari's recovery attempt, Williams' desire to continue its triumphant march and Senna's desire to return to the top. These are the three reasons that will be the main theme of the next race, in São Paulo, Brazil.