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#501 1991 United States Grand Prix

2023-01-23 23:00

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#1991, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Nicola Carriero,

#501 1991 United States Grand Prix

After the controversy of the last season final, after the countless winter practices and the obvious uncertainties due to the Gulf War, Formula 1 resu

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After the controversy of the last season finale, after the countless winter practices and the obvious uncertainties due to the Gulf War, Formula 1 resumes its path. On Sunday, 10 March, 1991 the World Championship will begin. And the debut, as it has been happening for the last two years, will take place in the United States, in Phoenix, the green city of the Arizona desert. It seems that it was President George Bush himself who wanted the race to be held regularly, even before knowing the fate and the end of the conflict, as much as he had wanted the Super Bowl. This does not detract, according to Paul Johnson, 31-year-old mayor of the American city, that the Grand Prix will be under control by the authorities, with at least 500 special security agents, even if there will not be armed men in the box. It is however in an atmosphere of great tension that a season full of novelties kicks off. Many sports and technical regulations have been changed (smaller wings and tanks behind the cockpit of the single-seaters), with the adoption of a new score (10 against 9 of the past) for the winners of the race and the possibility to accumulate sixteen results on as many races to be played (before, they were eleven). This last rule, anyway, is contested by some teams, for example McLaren, and it is not excluded that there may still be some second thoughts. Two debuting teams, the Italian Modena Team and the English Jordan, while Honda provided a 12-cylinder to McLaren, the return of the Porsche always with the V12 engine entrusted to Footwork and Yamaha with another multi-fractional engine for Brabham. Judd switched to a 10-cylinder exclusive for Scuderia Italia, while Leyton House bought the Ilmor (still 10 cylinders) made by a group that has already had great success in Formula Indy preparing Chevrolet engines. And finally, in summary, Honda will supply its reliable engines from last year to Tyrrell, while Benetton has switched from Goodyear tires to Pirelli, in an attempt to find a different weapon to be more competitive. Life and Onyx teams are missing. As for the drivers, everyone knows about Alesi at Ferrari, Mansell back at Williams while some new names rise to the fore: the Finn Mika Hakkinen at Lotus (he could be the star of the 90s even if the current team does not promise much) together with the returning Julian Bayley, the Englishman Mark Blundell (Brabham), the Frenchman Eric Comas, the Portuguese Pedro Chaves (Coloni) and the Belgian Eric van de Poele (Modena Team). 

 

A rich dish, then, but perhaps the soup, even in an atmosphere of greater balance and with some extra chances of inclusion for some teams, will be the same, with a leitmotif centred on the McLaren-Ferrari duel. The Maranello team worked hard, tried to prepare in the best way, while the Anglo-Japanese arrived at the last moment with his new car, the MP4/6, which, however, immediately impressed. For Ferrari, this is almost an unqualified test: last year, they went very close to the title, they caught the same number of successes of the rivals (six each). This time, they cannot miss the appointment that has been missing since 1979. But perhaps, more than a duel of cars, the 1991 World Championship will still be a clash of men. On the one hand the reigning champion, Ayrton Senna, on the other the challenger of all time, Alain Prost. Between the two champions, so different in character and behaviour, but so equal in determination, there is a score to settle. In 1989 the Frenchman snatched the title from his opponent in Japan, with a cunning profiteering manoeuvre (putting himself on the side of reason). Last year the Brazilian returned the favour bluntly, boldly, beyond the limits of fairness, throwing him off the track 200 metres after the start. Now the FISA has promised severe and immediate punishments for those who will not respect the regulations. We will see who can be the best without the practice of bumper.  The time of waiting is over. Friday, March 8, 1991 in Phoenix, a strange city infected by the virus of golf and shelter of thousands of sprightly old men, Formula 1 premieres its annual show. And many seem to have already answered the call (1.300.000 dollars in advance of tickets). And yet here, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna are mostly illustrious strangers. But it does not matter, the United States Grand Prix - which President George Bush supported to the fullest even in the dramatic moments of the Gulf War to show everyone that America lived its normal life - has many reasons to recall. It could also be a competition under a glass bell, taken only by the cameras (perhaps the final dream of Bernie Ecclestone). A Formula 1 that becomes more and more Formula Japan: seven teams out of eighteen have owners, financiers or suppliers of engines coming from Tokyo. 

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Even Ferrari has a Japanese sponsor. But it is the Maranello team that supports the old Europe, at least on a technical and sporting level. A hard commitment, also because Ferrari this time plays the role of favourite. And that is why, perhaps, there is unusual nervousness in the pits, even for a sport that lives on tensions. Alain Pros sayst:

 

"If we had started on another track, in Brazil for example, I would be more relaxed. This is a circuit where anything can happen. We’ve worked hard, we think we’re ahead of everyone. It is important, however, to start with a clear conscience, even if we know little about rivals". 

 

The Frenchman, however, is serene and ready for the challenge. 
 

"I have a two-year contract with Ferrari. I can do a lot. But I still don’t like the F1 environment. In recent years my words have often been distorted and the relations between us drivers are bad. There is something wrong in the air: the story of sports stewards with more powers, the threat of punishment. What is the yardstick? Those who commit an infringement will be penalised. But it will take into account only what can happen from now on and not what happened in the past". 

 

Prost still grumbles with sentences full of subtext, ready to blame journalists for all the controversy, resentful towards his old team, McLaren, and Honda.
 

"Nobody let me say that in Monte-Carlo in 1982 I had a problem with the differential or that in 1988 in Suzuka the gearbox of my car did not work...". 
 

As if to seek excuses, to reveal that he lost that World Championship because of the team and not because - as it seemed to many - he had gone slowly on the wet track. Luckily, the run starts again. And luckily, Jean Alesi, fresher and more pragmatic, can also talk about the race that will start with the first day of qualifying. 
 

"I think I’m okay. I tried the car thoroughly, I like it, it’s fine. I recently simulated two Great Prizes without any inconvenience, I ran with a full tank of petrol and in qualifying trim. No, it shouldn’t be any problem. But I can’t hide being very nervous. The first day in Maranello was a party, a dream, now I face my responsibilities. I will not try to overdo it: in this track, despite being narrow and slow, there are at least three points where you can overtake. It will not be a drama even if I do not start in the front row. Here you can recover, start back and get in front". 
 

But what about the opponents? 

 

"Many are eager to impress in the first race. Unlike in previous years, when we rehearsed together in winter, we hardly ever met with the strongest teams. There are many unknowns. If I had to place a bet, I would bet on Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian with his Benetton-Ford finished well last year, winning the last two races. The car has not changed so much and the track is a city track like that of Adelaide. And then there’s my old Tyrrell, although they tell me they’re not very happy, that the setup is not perfect. I hope to start well, but I would settle for second place, behind Prost". 

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That is not a bad point. But one has to see how others feel. All eyes are on McLaren and Ferrari, on Senna and Prost. For this first round of the Formula 1 season, a United States Grand Prix that is sponsored quite humorously (since it is in the middle of a desert) by the Italian Iceberg, the dominant motif is still the one from last year. There are those who say that the Maranello team is favoured this time, there are others who say that the English team is still the one to beat. Ayrton Senna 13, Mansell 11, Prost 10, Berger 8, Piquet 5. This is not the ranking of the F1 World Championship and not even any statistics about drivers’ success. It is simply a list, in millions of dollars, of the earnings of the most paid runners in 1991. The numbers, published these days by the American magazine Inside Sports, take into account only the base salaries and do not report any prizes, personal sponsorships and other income sources that could even double them. It is known that cars and drivers' suits are sold per square inch: a brand on a shoulder can cost more than 150.000 dollars. Formula 1, in fact, is a millionaire sport. For costs and earnings, especially considering that the Circus is limited to just about thirty drivers and eighteen teams. It is talk of an annual turnover in excess of $1 trillion. He says these days Paul Johnson, Mayor of Phoenix: 

 

"They asked us if we are crazy to organise a Grand Prix. Well no: we spent about 10.000.000 dollars to set up the circuit and to hire the teams. The contract is worth six years, the cost is therefore less than 2.000.000 dollars per season harmonizing also the plants. For the city, it is a bargain: in four days of competition the volume of revenue increases by 26.000.000 dollars, a figure controlled through the payment of taxes. To this, it must be added the promotion for Phoenix who also lives on tourism and holidays: in 1990 the race was seen on television by 230.000.000 people from 85 countries around the world. I think it’s worth it". 
 

On the subject of money, even if the figures are never official, it can be said that the top teams (McLaren and Ferrari) spend over $50.000.000 a year. For the English team, sponsors and Honda pay, while for the Italian one there is a self-financing of the Maranello factory (which does not spend on direct advertising), with the contribution of Fiat and numerous sponsors. A medium-high team can reach $20.000.000 (Benetton, Williams, Leyton House, Minardi), an average of $10.000.000 but there are also those who get away with much less, like Coloni, who make one car run. As for the drivers, apart from the top ones, the salaries go from $1.000.000 for the already established drivers to $100.000 for the younger ones. But there are also those who pay to run (for example the Portuguese Chaves) bringing a personal sponsor to the team. The business, however, is incredible, also because Bernie Ecclestone, president of the FOCA, who takes care of the financial part on behalf of the Federation, does not joke. If in Italy Rai and Fininvest have invested £22.000.000.000 for live television, from this year on, anyone who wants to somehow broadcast images, radio services ($58K have been asked to a Brazilian radio station) or even just publish photographs, will have to undergo heavy taxation. Even those who want to film and print in a newspaper a television image will be forced to pay. And, in this regard, there is much excitement. It was also spoken about introducing a registration fee for journalists who follow competitions, which does not happen in any sport. A protest demonstration is not excluded in the short term. In the past, representatives of the mass media sat on the track in protest with the aim of not starting a race. Ecclestone pulls the rope, economic difficulties and excessive costs are felt, especially for small teams. And all this could make Formula 1 plunge into an irreversible crisis. Going back to talking about the predictions for the race, and going deeper into the analysis, some different names can pop up. There is Nelson Piquet loaded with victories in the last two races of 1990, driving a Benetton that on this track could assert their agility, there is Stefano Modena who under the experts’ judgement is able to provide a nice surprise in the race and perhaps already in the two qualifying rounds. In fact, looking closely, Stefano Modena could be the right man for the right race. Not only for his undoubted qualities as a driver who in an already long career has won in all the categories in which he took part: the karting world championship, the Italian and European title in Formula 3, the intercontinental Formula 3000 Championship. 

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Not for nothing Ken Tyrrell, a great talent scout, wanted him in his team instead of Jean Alesi, transferred to the Maranello team. The reasons why the young Emilian driver could challenge the more experienced rivals are simple. His Tyrrell 020 is the heir of the car that last year allowed Alesi, right in Phoenix, to race a beautiful attack race that ended in second place. On this single-seater is now mounted the reliable 10-cylinder Honda engine that won the championship and that allowed Senna to start the season with a first place in the United States Grand Prix. And finally, on the English car there are the Pirelli tyres that here in the previous race put the same Alesi, Martini with Minardi and De Cesaris with Dallara in the first positions of the starting grid. A mix that could be explosive and give Stefano Modena the first real chance of winning his first Formula 1 career race. 

 

"Talking about success seems excessive to me. We are still not one hundred percent of the tuning of the car. However, I admit that I feel ready to make a good race of attack. The track is quite dangerous, especially for the two new curves that have been introduced in the modified track. I still think I can play my cards, finally free to run to the maximum of my abilities". 

 

A likely protagonist, therefore, a candidate to fit into the fight between Senna and Prost. And it would not be bad to start with a good news, despite the team-mate says, on the eve of the US Grand Prix:

 

"This circuit seems pretty damn good for McLaren and I would not want that despite having arrived at the last moment with a new car and engine that were barely little tested, they immediately began to win. I know them well, but I never trust their appearances. And deep down, we deserve to win more here, because we’ve done a job you can’t even imagine. The car always looks like that, doesn’t it? Instead it is almost all new and many other news are in preparation".

 

Friday, March 8, 1991, after thousands of kilometres in practice, only 3670 metres to Jean Alesi to pass the most difficult test of his already quite lucky career. A lap that allows the French driver from Alcamo to conquer the provisional pole position in the United States Grand Prix, the first race of the Formula 1 World Championship. A desperate lap at the last minute that not only confirms the speed qualities of the last purchase of the Maranello team, but also saves Ferrari from an embarrassing situation. Until then, in fact, the Italian team was placed in second place with Alain Prost, but rather detached on the chronometric level (almost a second) from the McLaren of Ayrton Senna. In essence, Alesi, for this time, returns to the Brazilian what the latter was used to inflict on rivals. That is, he annihilates them in the final minutes of the test when he seemed hopelessly beaten. And the good Jean, before his feat, was far enough from the first to suggest that he could not improve much. Instead, the Frenchman, who vaguely resembles Robert De Niro, expressed the maximum of his competitiveness, as he had already done in the past, but with a less competitive car. At the end of the session, Cesare Fiorio, Ferrari’s sports director, admitted:

 

"We are very happy for many reasons. First because we have shown that the car is competitive, not only in winter practice. Second because we got the driver’s choice right, which we had no doubts about anyway and third because Patrese was ahead of Mansell". 

 

The last sentence is a joke, dictated by the fact that the British Williams driver in these days had said that he would show Ferrari that he is the fastest driver. Eleven thousandths of a second, a breath, better than the Brazilian and about a second full of advantage over the teammate, classified with the third time. 

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"It seems like a dream to me. I think I went too far. Fiorio told me not to overdo the first set of tires and so I followed the instructions. Now it’s about holding out for twenty-four hours, even if in the second round the track can improve and it will be necessary to go stronger. However, the car is perfect and we have the possibility to keep the positions".

 

In the morning, a black man had thrown himself on the track with his crutches. They took him away in time, before the gesture turned into tragedy. Anyway, the first day of the World Championship, waiting for the race, shows very good things for the Italian teams. The fifth time of Emanuele Pirro with Dallara, the tenth of Pierluigi Martini with Minardi-Ferrari, the beautiful qualifying at the debut of Nicola Larini with Lambo are considered very promising. So are the results of Riccardo Patrese, fourth with Williams-Renault, and Stefano Modena, seventh with Tyrrell-Honda. After all, it only went wrong for Ivan Capelli, who had huge problems with the new 10-cylinder Ilmor engine mounted on his Leyton House. But it is certain that the driver will recover as soon as the problems are resolved, perhaps already on Saturday, in the second qualifying round. A round from which a lot is expected, on a spectacular and competitive level. Will Jean Alesi be able to block the attacks of Ayrton Senna to take away the first place in the deployment? And, another question, what will Alain Prost do for the moment that is behind both? No one doubts that it will be a balanced and uncertain championship. And if, in the fight for the World Championship, most people bet on McLaren and Ferrari, still warning that they will have to wait a few races before talking, there are those who come out immediately. This is the case of Nigel Mansell. The English driver says: 

 

"I’ve been active since 1980. I’ve raced six years in Lotus, four in Williams and two in Ferrari. Now I’m back on my favourite team and I want the title. It is the only real motivation I have left, otherwise I would have retired as I had decided in the middle of 1990". 

 

Mansell does not mention the $11M signing that he pulled from Williams. Perhaps he believes that this is just a detail, a mandatory formality, given its recognized value. 
 

"In Ferrari I experienced one of my best times, an unforgettable experience. And I think that the Scuderia is a super favourite in the World Championship, but only because it has the most tested car. But we did everything to present ourselves with a competitive car. Williams has prepared the FW14 taking into account all its experience, but looking forward to the future with a group of good engineers". 

 

In fact, the British team has entrusted the design and construction of the new model to Patrick Head and Adrian Newey, a man of the avant-garde whose inventions have often amazed in F1. The result was a car with a fairly new shape, with the nose vaguely similar to that of Tyrrell and a very sophisticated body on the aerodynamic plane. But the most important news concerns the six-speed semi-automatic transmission, with electronic control with levers on the wheel. 

 

"So I don’t even feel like I’ve changed cars... I have maintained good relations with the Maranello team, although I have received criticisms that I did not deserve. It has been said too many times that I am not a good test driver. But we must also consider that I did not understand Italian well, the technical language. That’s why I preferred to leave the majority of the tests to Prost. Now I have taken on more responsibility". 
 

Mansell does not even explain that he asked his current team for a leading role, a habit of his own, putting Riccardo Patrese in difficulty. The Italian only says: 

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"We will see during the season, I am not afraid". 

 

In any case Mansell is proposed as the greatest rival for Ferrari, in addition to the men of McLaren. 
 

"To aim for the World Championship you will need to fight with Prost and Alesi. And I think I will be a very tough opponent for them. No hard feelings for Ferrari, but for me the best satisfaction would be to overcome the drivers of the Italian team. It is the law of this sport, individual and ruthless. I will not do favours to anyone, the only one that matters to me is Nigel Mansell. Mine will be a total commitment because I will not be able to pursue the dream of getting the title forever". 

 

Now or never, he says, with Ferrari in the crosshairs. Not a declaration of war, but a necessity. Although there is probably an undeclared desire for revenge in him. However, the World Championship starts and it is again a face to face Senna-Prost, a McLaren-Ferrari challenge. The Brazilian will start on pole position in the United States Grand Prix, after having completed in the second qualifying round one of his outstanding laps: 1'21"434, with a perfect drive, always at the limits of the walls surrounding the track. An exploit that takes away from his great rival, who was in charge, the first place of the starting grid, breaking it by more than a second. For Ayrton it is pole position number 53, an incredible record. Behind the two champions, follows Riccardo Patrese, who precedes the team-mate Nigel Mansell and the always valuable Nelson Piquet, first of the drivers with 8-cylinder engine and with Pirelli-shod car. In sixth place Jean Alesi, who, in an extreme attempt at the last minute, hits with his car some protective tires and then a wall. A shiver of fear, but fortunately no physical damage. In any case, the two Ferrari drivers are calm, aware of having done everything possible to face this first race in the best way. Says Alain Prost: 

 

"We had no problems on the cars and this, all in all, is a surprise. Although our team has done many winter tests, we can not say that this is the most suitable circuit for the characteristics of our car. It is a track that does not value work developed in the aerodynamic and chassis field. Phoenix could favour cars like McLaren and Williams that have completed their first tuning right here".

 

Then he adds:
 

"Apart from that, I am quite optimistic, although, as I said, the real values will be seen in two weeks' time in Brazil, at Interlagos, where the qualities of the cars will have a higher weight. Sunday, instead, the driveability of the chassis, the progression of the engine, the attitude of the driver and much choice and the type of tires used will count. Senna, for example, will have a better chance of remedying any deficiencies in the machine. But last year, Ferrari in this test did not behave well in qualifying, I was seventh and Mansell seventeenth, and it was disastrous in the race because we both retired after a few laps. This time you can start the championship with a much more positive result". 
 

A very serene speech, that of the three-time World Champion. But even Alesi, beyond the result of qualifying, does not go too far.

 

"On the eve of practice I was very tense, worried. The burden of the responsibility of driving a Ferrari came to me. But that record lap on Friday at the last minute completely unlocked me. I knew at that moment I was on the right track. And to think that even knowing I had a good time I did not realise I was the fastest. Now the race: I am an attacker by temperament and I can not hold back much. But my position is also that of a driver who debuts in a new team, so important, and I know that the task that awaits me is to bring home a result. Last year I had nothing to lose, now the situation is very different, also count points and placements. It is clear that, if it happens, I will not miss this golden opportunity". 

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Ayrton Senna, who had done the test very quickly at Estoril and in this circumstance compared the new Honda engine to garbage, in qualifying gave a second to Alain Prost, who managed to get the better of the two Williams-Renault, with Riccardo Patrese in front of Mansell, and over two seconds ahead of Gerhard Berger, who comments with emotion referring to his teammate:

 

"What the hell does a man need to beat him?"

 

These are the speeches before the race. A race that - needless to say - will have to relieve tensions and answer many questions. In the night between Friday and Saturday, among other things, there was a mysterious episode of sabotage: the usual strangers cut the brake circuit ducts and some electrical wiring on Leyton House cars. There is talk of a possible retaliation by American fanatics against a Japanese team, for the disengagement of Tokyo in the Gulf War. But the most likely hypothesis is that of a mafia-style warning. Given the massive presence of financiers of the Rising Sun, it is not excluded that the game of interests has also entered F1. There is, however, a climate of tension and suspicion in Formula 1. Two significant episodes. Last week, Peter Windsor, former director of the Ferrari centre in Guildford, current Williams Sports Director (and a great friend of Nigel Mansell) was kidnapped by three masked men as they left the English team’s workshop. He was taken to a deserted place and beaten for an hour. Windsor had previously won a lawsuit against the Brabham team, for a sale of the team to the Swiss Brun (owner of casinos and arcades) that had not been recognized. The court agreed to a payment of about £1.000.000. The protagonist gives no explanation and says that he does not understand the reasons for the gesture. Sunday, March 10, 1991, at the start of the United States Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna keeps the lead of the race ahead of Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese, Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet, Roberto Moreno, Stefano Modena and Emanuele Pirro. Already during the first lap, Jean Alesi, at his debut with Ferrari, overtook Riccardo Patrese, but in the meantime, Ayrton Senna built an important advantage over the pursuers; after ten laps, the Brazilian leads with 10 seconds of margin over Alain Prost. Behind Ayrton Senna, Riccardo Patrese is the driver who, after passing Jean Alesi for the fourth position in lap 16, approaches Nigel Mansell, who in turn is threatening behind Prost. 

 

On lap 22, Riccardo Patrese tries to attack his teammate, but he goes long and ends up in the escape route, finding himself in sixth place behind Gerhard Berger. Another trio is formed, which includes Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger and Riccardo Patrese; the latter has already overtaken the Austrian McLaren driver when suddenly two drivers of the leading group retire. Mansell, in fact, stops on lap 35 for gearbox problems, Berger during lap 36 for problems at the gas pump. When Riccardo Patrese overtook Jean Alesi for the second time, the Frenchman realised that he had excessively consumed the tires of his car, making a pit stop on lap 43 and returning to the track in seventh place. Three laps later, Alain Prost too, pushed by Riccardo Patrese, returns to the pits to change the tires, giving the second position to the Williams-Renault driver; the Ferrari driver’s stop is slowed down by a problem in replacing the right rear tyre and the Frenchman returns to the race in seventh position, behind Stefano Modena. On lap 48, also Ayrton Senna made his pit stop, keeping the lead of the race; in the meantime, Riccardo Patrese begins to have problems with the gearbox, which on lap 50 goes into neutral in the middle of turn 7. The Williams-Renault of the Italian stops perpendicular to the ideal direction of the track; Nelson Piquet and Mika Häkkinen (at his debut in Formula 1) avoid it for a while, but before Patrese got out of the cockpit, his car was hit by Roberto Moreno; the Brazilian driver of Benetton-Ford destroyed the nose of the Williams-Renault, losing the right front wheel. Neither driver was injured in the accident, but inexplicably the two cars will be left where they are throughout the race, so much so that later the surprising Bertrand Gachot, fighting with Satoru Nakajima, will leave the track to avoid them. With Riccardo Patrese retired, Ayrton Senna leads the race with a lead of over a minute over Nelson Piquet, who struggles to keep up with Jean Alesi. The Frenchman took second place on lap 53, while four laps later Alain Prost passed Stefano Modena. 

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During the 70th lap, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Jean Alesi gave life to an exciting duel: the Benetton-Ford Brazilian attacked Jean Alesi at turn 4, then passed him on the straight, while Alain Prost overtook his teammate at the next braking, then overtaking Nelson Piquet and taking second place. At this moment, Ayrton Senna calmly manages his lead of about 40 seconds over the pursuers, while Alain Prost only consolidates the second place. Gearbox problems put Jean Alesi back to fifth place, before the Frenchman has to retire less than ten laps before the end; this gives the third position to Nelson Piquet, who, like the two Tyrrell drivers who follow him, has not made any tyre changes. On lap 75 Pierluigi Martini, who was pressing Satoru Nakajima for the fifth position, was forced to retire due to engine problems; in the same lap Bertrand Gachot, eighth, retired for a similar reason. The retirements allowed Aguri Suzuki to move up to sixth place. The race ends with a lap early to exceed the maximum limit of two hours and Ayrton Senna comfortably wins the US Grand Prix, ahead of the finish Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Stefano Modena, Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki. Ayrton Senna doesn’t forgive. On a completely new car, tried only for a few days at Estoril, after 96 days of vacation during which he was well guarded from driving a racing car, he tore up all rivals in the first stage of the F1 World Championship. His was the United States Grand Prix, in every sense: pole position and final victory, at the end of a solitary race in the lead from the first to the last lap. A power that not only sinks the opponents but also and above all his teammate Gerhard Berger who always ends up being a non-protagonist. It almost sounds like a joke, that of the Brazilian champion. While he was on vacation, the majority of drivers were damning their souls on the European tracks, training and looking for good technical solutions to fight McLaren and its extraordinary driver. For Ferrari, winter champion, which set the best times during the tests of the last few months, however, it was not a debacle. Alain Prost’s second place is a better start than last year. But the fact remains that everyone gave the team of Maranello as a favourite, precisely because of the careful preparation carried out since the end of last season. Instead, they must immediately face a different reality, which is not too pleasant. Prost, however, does not appear too pessimistic: 

 

"I am pleased with this result. The second place is fine, if you consider that the Phoenix track has always been very difficult for Ferrari. I believe that the true values will be seen in two weeks in Brazil. There we should see the technical and aerodynamic qualities of the cars enhanced. And if it does not go too well in the next race, there is always a chance to remedy it because at the end of April for the San Marino Grand Prix we will have an even more evolved car, better, it is assumed, than the current one. Anyway, McLaren impressed me, as well as the Honda engine. The Japanese can never be trusted, they are always ready to work like crazy to stay ahead. It will be a good fight". 

 

The Frenchman knew from the beginning that Senna would be his opponent, as has been the case for four years. On the podium, among other things, three martians of Formula 1 finished, three world champions who together totaled eight world titles: Senna, Prost and Piquet. And behind them the ever more valid Stefano Modena, the two Japanese Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki. At least in the rear something changes. But the most striking result, relative to the situation, is the seventh place of Lambo with Nicola Larini. A whole new team, a car that was built by Mauro Forghieri with great sacrifices, a feared debut that ended with qualifying and a result that honestly no one could even imagine. The first race of the F1 World Championship, beyond the result, provides interesting indications and answers many questions to better frame what will be the dominant reasons of the season. Let’s analyse in every respect, teams, cars and drivers, what were the news, the confirmations, the disappointments, especially on the basis of what was seen in qualifying, taking into account that the race was on a street circuit. The characteristics of such a track can hide any defects and enhance a type of driving that could be less profitable on the classic permanent tracks. Ferrari, All in all, had a positive balance, although there remains a certain inability to make the most of timed shifts. The accident on Saturday that involved Jean Alesi did not allow, among other things, to have an exact measure of the possibilities of the Frenchman on the flying lap . However, the impression remains that the Maranello team can be satisfied with the work done in the winter because the 642 appeared generally more competitive. 

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Last year here in Phoenix had been a complete disaster, especially for the lack of reliability. Prost highlights his determination, his teammate makes it clear that he still lacks experience and will have a lot to learn from the Professor during the championship. Whoever thought McLaren was in trouble made a mistake. The new MP4/6 car, after a few days of testing at Estoril, showed that the technicians of the English team did not suffer the various defections. And the Honda engine (which the drivers had criticised because - in their opinion - still lacked power) proved certainly not inferior to the most proven rivals. For the drivers, no news: Senna always makes the difference, while Berger still seems to be struggling with physical problems and in a state of clear inferiority to the Brazilian. Williams was perhaps the greatest revelation. The Renault engine has made progress, the new FW14 has brought to debut a semi-automatic transmission with electronic management that, apart from some drawbacks of youth, was immediately effective. In the challenge between the drivers, Riccardo Patrese, the veteran, made it clear that he had no fear of Nigel Mansell who claims to be first drive and would like the team all for himself. The years go by but the Italian driver still remains one of the most regular and fastest men in the circus. Benetton is confirmed in the role of outsider, but limited by an engine, the Ford, which is exceptional for being an 8-cylinder, but evidently less powerful than the more fractional ones. A very good debut for Dallara with Judd V10 engine, positive for both drivers Pirro and Lehto. The Tyrrell-Honda was a little under the tone, from which something more is expected. Small improvements and also for Stefano Modena will come glory days. Among the debut teams, an A-plus for Jordan, immediately qualified with the good Gachot and for Lambo that Larini has carried out putting something of his. More than discreet, the Brabham with the Yamaha VI2 engine. 

 

Disappointing was the Footwork-Porsche with unbalanced cars and the new German 12-cylinder that are still in the phase of break-in. Unimpressive were also Ligier and Larrousse. No score for the Minardi-Ferrari that showed up in Arizona without having made even a lap, with the cars finished getting on track. They have potential but they have to work a lot. In conclusion, two notes on debutant drivers. The best impression was given by the Finn Mika Hakkinen, only 22 years old, who came to Lotus directly from Formula 3, without making a single Formula 3000 race. He is a very talented guy and he brought a car certainly not among the best (his teammate Bailey did not qualify) in thirteenth position on the starting grid. Another revelation is the Belgian Gachot who is not a newcomer (he had already driven for Onyx and Coloni) but immediately revalued with the Jordan-Ford. Ultimately, in Arizona, Ayrton Senna is so happy that, absurdly, he would make another useless peace with his bitter enemy Alain Prost. Never has a driver been so satisfied. An intimate and inner happiness, difficult to repress. So much so that on the podium, during the photo-op, the always joking Nelson Piquet stretches his hand behind the head of president Jean-Marie Balestre, and simulates the gesture of the horns, until the latter does not notice. It all ends in laughter between the two. But moments later, at the moment when Balestre rewards the winner of the Grand Prix with a medal instead of the classic trophy, after shaking hands for several seconds with strength, Ayrton Senna, jokingly, extends his hand towards the cheek of the president of FISA, trying to give him a pat, but the latter withdraws in order not to undergo humiliation. The curtain ends with Ayrton Senna who covers the president of FISA in champagne, with whom the Brazilian certainly does not have a special feeling, except then having to suffer the same fate a few seconds later, when both Ron Dennis and Jean-Marie Balestre take revenge on the Brazilian. The reason for this joy is obvious. New car, new engine, first race after three months of inactivity and immediately a full success, dominating. 

 

"I had a little trouble with the gearbox, and I was forced to concentrate to the maximum because the track was slippery. Overall, however, it went very well. The McLaren MP4/6 proved not only competitive but also reliable, a good weapon to still aim for the world title".

 

In truth, Senna, speaking with his Brazilian friends, outside the official interviews, confides in an even exaggerated optimism: 

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"I obviously had my doubts before. Now I can say it bluntly: with this car we went back to two years ago when my team won fifteen races out of sixteen. It’s great in all respects. If I wanted to, I could have gone much faster. And then I know very well that the Japanese Honda in a short time will make their 12 cylinders even more powerful and eclectic". 

 

But how is it possible that McLaren, who arrived apparently late for the start of the championship, has already outperformed those who, like Ferrari, have been ready for some time? A single-seater that the designer Neal Oatley, the heir of John Bamard, together with the French specialist in aerodynamics Henri Durand, former technician also for Maranello, have studied and realised in forced stages, since November, when there had been the latest amendments to the technical regulation, it was immediately put at the top of values. Alain Prost answered this first question. A realistic consideration: 

 

"For ten years, no single chassis and engine team has won a championship. Doing the two separately is an advantage. When you put them together, considering the commitment and seriousness of Honda, they are always good. And this is also a reply for those who, after the winter tests, had expressed themselves too optimistic about our possibilities". 

 

Perhaps he does not remember, Alain Prost, that he too admitted a few days earlier that he was very confident. But this is of relative importance. The French also, as mentioned, seems quite satisfied with his second place:

 

"The real values will be known on March 24 in Brazil. The Phoenix track penalises those who have more refined aerodynamic and mechanical solutions. But the Japanese engine impressed me". 

 

At this point one wonders why Ferrari performed worse than expected. Jean Alesi, who fought for second place before being forced to retire, also has an explanation: 
 

"We noticed in practice that our Ferrari was not stable in some corners. So we were forced to load more aerodynamic pressure on the rear wing. And that limited performance. In Brazil we could be faster. As for me I had to stop at the pits to change the tyres because they had deteriorated. In any case, I could never go to get Senna. I even decided not to force it when the trouble arrived at the gearbox. I still consider my test positive. We are just beginning. Let’s not forget that at Imola we should have a further evolution of the 642 and that for the French Grand Prix will probably arrive a completely new car". 

 

Finally, Cesare Fiorio speaks of a positive balance, and adds that the difference on track was made mostly by Senna. But that does not sound like a compliment to his drivers.


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