Thursday, 18 June 1991, Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, back from Mexico, hoped to find the new Ferrari 643 ready for the test at Silverstone from Monday 24 to Wednesday 26 June 1991. But the work is still in progress and the car will be able to debut later in Fiorano, then in a circuit between Imola, Mugello and Monza. The hope is that, however, it is possible to see it deployed at the French Grand Prix of the 7 July 1991, and especially that the new single-seater is more competitive than the old one. The Modena Team, meanwhile, given the lacklustre results and the organisational difficulties encountered, is looking for a partner to reinforce themselves also on the technical level. There are contacts for a fusion with Larousse (almost failed) and there are talks with Brabham and Reynard. A decision that seems imminent. Few days later, Sunday, 23 June 1991, David R. Jones with one lucky shot shoves the 17 holes, a par three and puts in his pocket the keys to a flaming Lancia Delta. John Bland, South-African, not so young and a bit plump, conquered at the end of four laps on the court of the Golf Club Padova, the third Martini International Trophy. Riccardo Patrese presents the ball on the starting tee and splints clamorously. But no one dares even smile. Indeed, the looks of his team-mates, Zoppas, Mazzuccato and the trader Ugo Scafa, are of pure understanding. To a Formula 1 driver, a mistake can be forgiven. Then, the driver of Padova is working hard, as always: he left by motorboat early in the morning at the Lido of Venezia, he continued with the helicopter to participate at the Pro-Am Saima and with the same helicopter he flew to Linate where the plane was waiting for him to go in England, since, from Monday 24 June 1991, in Silverstone, three days of practice are scheduled.
Patrese, a magic moment, after the victory in Mexico?
"No, not really. There’s no secret or off the charts. I think that I just collected the result of my job. I finally happened at the right moment with the right car".
But, after so many years, after 214 races, why did it take so long to get to the top?
"It’s not easy in F1. It goes on in cycles, which concern the drivers and the team. If you don’t enter the wheel with the right pitch, you risk stumbling. I have tried many times, but it is clear that I have managed so far a few times".
After the last victory and the second place in the World Championship ranking behind Senna, what is the dream of Patrese?
"There’s little to sleep. Other than dreams, here you have to stand with your feet firmly planted on the ground. I’m going to try in Silverstone to test the new engine and aerodynamics of Williams. In our sport if you stay still one day to enjoy the glory, you are screwed. Let’s say I took a nice satisfaction right now".
No thought about the World Championship?
"I already said it: I live in the moment. Some say that I'm an unlucky driver. But I'm happy, I'm happy with what I've done. I’m 37 years old, I’m physically fine, I’m motivated, I still have fun. A recurring speech".
Are young drivers or old drivers better?
"No kidding. In Formula 1, drivers younger than 30, except in sensational cases, rarely stand out. Experience counts for a lot, perhaps more than anything else. Look at Senna: he is 33 years old, Mansell is 37, like Prost, Piquet is 39. They are the best".
Yet there are those who have said, in the past, that Patrese was too old to go to Ferrari…
"Apart from the fact that I’m perfectly fine where I am right now, you can see for yourself how things are going. They did crazy things for Jean Alesi. Maybe he is strong, maybe he will become World Champion. But in three years, he may no longer be in Maranello".
But was there a love story between Ferrari and Patrese?
"In 1978 I had a letter of intent signed by Enzo Ferrari. Then they preferred not to change formation, and I went my own way. In the last two years there was a reconciliation. For political reasons, I believe, nothing has happened. I don’t know what Ferrari will do in the future and at this point I confess that I don’t even care much. I have enough to do to keep my team in line. If Nelson Piquet said that ours is not a true job, I answer to him that for me I consider it a full-time profession".
Back to the drivers. Why can't Italians, even if they are many, break through in F1?
"Because our teams, and in particular Ferrari, have often preferred to aim abroad. But it is also a matter of opportunity, not only of skill. Look at me: I've been driving for fourteen years and they took me for finished. Now I have a competitive car and I became a phenomenon. I’m always the same. A guy that loves races and wants to win".
No gull wing. And no stretch. The new Ferrari 643, apparently, was born well, but there is no revolutionary concept: it is unknown if the team of Maranello will send it to the track in the next race, the French Grand Prix. That is what emerges after the first day of practice, Friday, 28 June 1991, on the circuit of Imola, and two words with technicians and drivers. The car had already made nine laps, a test, on Wednesday evening in Fiorano, but on Friday Jean Alesi pushed it to the limit, as befits a rookie. The 643, even if it presents no innovations and it follows the current trends (last year’s Tyrrell and Williams, Jordan and few other cars), it is greatly different from the last one. In fact, the technicians have kept only the chassis of the previous car, with the group engine and gearbox and the tank of oil. The noise is longer and raised, the type of bird-beaked, even if the front wing is very similar to the old one, simple and linear, without folds and swelling. The body is a single-body, more enveloping, with shorter sidepods. Modified suspensions (but it has the same pattern already used). It is a radically revised car and made in only three months, since - from the start of the championship - Ferrari understood that they had misjudged the possibilities of the 642 towards the McLaren and of the Williams that showed totally new models. The technical director of the team, Claudio Lombardi, says:
"It was a hard job. A job that engaged everyone. This is not a Ferrari of someone, does not take names, but the result is the effort of our équipe. Under the technical management of Pier Guido Castelli, they used Massai for the engines, Migeot for the aerodynamics, Nichols for the chassis, Ciampolini for the electronics, Silvestri for the gearboxes, everyone with the collaboration of a big group of young people of Scuderia Ferrari".
What are you expecting from this car?
"It’s clear that we look forward to the improvements, of the progress, we hope to fill the second and a half gap that separates us, at this moment, from Williams. But we don’t want, at the same time, to be optimistic. We have plans and we respect them. The car will lap again on Saturday, maybe Monday morning. In the meanwhile, we will continue to try the engine on the 642 until Thursday. And we will decide if to compete or not with the new car in the next two races, France and England. It all depends on what the drivers will give us, from the practical and theory results, from the possibility that we will have to prepare the necessary spare parts in the next few days. If the answer is positive, we will be in Magny-Cours with two single-seaters of the new type and one old as backup".
At the launch of the new Ferrari, there are also Alain Prost, who will try the car on Saturday, and the general manager of the team, Piero Ferrari. Alesi makes 21 laps with the 642 (best lap with 1'21"49) and 24 with the 643 (1'25"46). The timing is not really important (1'21"877 is the pole position lap of Senna for the San Marino Grand Prix), since all the adjustments were still to be made and qualifying tyres have not been used yet. Alesi is moderately satisfied:
"The car seems good because it works better with the front suspension. There are no more of those annoying jumps that put us in crisis. The position of the cockpit is slightly different, but there are no problems and, moreover, the lateral visibility is improved. It's soon to draw any conclusion. We could make some when we will try the two cars with a full tank of gas. For the 642 it was the most valid configuration".
So, it is not ready yet. As Enzo Ferrari said, a car is beautiful when it wins. That is why the 643 will be great only when it will beat Williams and McLaren. For the record, also the Minardi were turning (Martini, 1'28"43) and the Lambo (Van de Poele, 1'29"36). But the usual rumours go around in the paddock: Ayrton Senna may also leave McLaren. Williams and Ferrari would be interested (but after the statements of the Lawyer Giovanni Agnelli, the door for the Brazilian will stay closed). On Saturday, 29 June 1991 Alain Prost makes 51 laps with the new Ferrari 643 (best lap in 1'24"86) and 46 with the old 642. The Frenchman, before he interrupts the work in the evening for a predictable drop of the clutch, talks about the single-seater modified:
"I already feel better than with the previous car, it has a greater grip in corners and it’s more precise. But it’s too soon to decide if we are gonna use this one on Friday for the French Grand Prix. We need to check the reliability again".
The decision will be made on Thursday 2 July 1991, after another two days of tests in Imola. The program of the team of Maranello goes on with tests on the engine, unless they decide to take the 643 again on track, on Monday. Martini (Minardi, 1'27"33) and Van De Poele (Lambo, 1'28"81) also tested. After six consecutive years of races in the beautiful and functional circuit of Le Castellet, in Provence, the French Grand Prix is located on a new track. It will take place in Magny-Cours. No one has anything against this change, because innovation is always inspiring. But there is some fact that is worrying. And for many reasons. First of all, the choice: a track that was defined, for years, exemplary, has been abandoned for another one that for the moment has the credit for being near the operating area of Guy Ligier, patron of the homonymous team, known for being friend of the president of the French Republic, François Mitterrand. And Magny-Cours is located in the area of Nevers, in the middle of France, in the beautiful region of the Loire with their castles and sweet landscapes. But the streets to get into it are tight, and long lines are expected.
Also, the situation of the hotels is not the best and there is the impression that someone has speculated about the event before it was assigned, buying reservations to play on prices. It is a million dollar business. About the track, already tested twice by most of the teams, there is united praise on the road surface, defined smooth and perfect. About the track, the judgements are conflicting. The French drivers do not appreciate it, for obvious reasons. Many drivers consider its design interesting, very technical, funny, and challenging. But there is someone who does not spare fierce criticism. One of them is Ayrton Senna:
"You can only overtake on a couple of points, risking a lot. Two turns are very dangerous because you can’t see anything past the walls, I don’t really like the entrance and the exit from the pit lane and on average the track is quite narrow".
Usually, on tracks like this, the races are quite uncertain. Groups are formed in the lead and the gaps are very low. If someone wants to put on a show with thrilling overtaking, success could also be ensured. But it is clear that, in any case, it is a political choice and if any accident happens, it means that someone has to take their responsibilities.Senna comes to France targeted by competitors. The Brazilian is first in the World Championship ranking, has four victories and 24 points of advantage on the nearest of the pursuers, Riccardo Patrese. But in the last two races, the McLaren-Honda has given signs of weakness, by being overcome, in terms of competitiveness by the Williams-Renault. One of the main aspects of the race, the seventh of the season, is the following: the attempt of Williams to ultimately dethrone McLaren and the eventual answer of the team of Ron Dennis supported by the men of Honda for the engine. If Patrese and Mansell are confirmed to be the fastest, for Senna, the climb to the World Championship will be harder, as the races are close to each other there is not much time to solve problems: after only seven days, the British Grand Prix will take place in Silverstone. The duel at the top could also feature the Ferrari, because they will join the seventh race of the World Championship of F1 with the new 643. This was announced by the engineer Claudio Lombardi, sports manager, during the last day of tests.
"We consulted and we decided on the use of the new car. Because no major mechanical problems have come out. In Maranello, they kept working to complete the second car and to prepare the spare parts needed to face the French commitment. We show up at the race conscious to take a risk. On the other hand, if we want to improve quickly it is better to race with the new one".
Thursday 2 July 1991, in Imola, Jean Alesi completes twenty consecutive laps without finding problems with the temperature of the engine. The only trouble that the new car has is that more air gets into the cockpit.
"We are making up for it with a new windshield".
The French driver says, before leaving for Avignon, that he is treating an annoying toothache. In the afternoon, in Fiorano, Prost tests the second 643 and the 642. Right after the French race, the two cars will go to England where, on Sunday 14 July 1991, the eighth race of the World Championship will take place. For the race in Hockenheim on Sunday, 28 July 1991, a third car of the new model will be available. From Friday, 5 July 1991, also Formula 1 will have its Palace. The circuit that hosts the French Grand Prix is a memorial to bureaucracy, grandeur, futility, politics and business. Nothing to do with the sport. A huge system, which costs 60.000.000 dollars (half divided between the state and the region), a bad showcase of the worst exhibition. In Magny-Cours stands an impressive building for offices (even those for bags) and boxes, reminiscent of the futuristic Pompidou centre in Paris, a series of fences for VIP, guests and professionals very similar to those for barnyard animals, modern grandstands, scattered around.
It is a shame that the track (apart from the really perfect asphalt) is dangerous, narrow and with many blind curves. But so it is: as long as Jean-Marie Balestre and the inexpressible Bernie Ecclestone will have carte blanche and will be supported in good and evil (and among the guilty also the Italian CSAI and the constructors in block) we will continue to see a Formula 1 sacrificed to private interests and transformed into a real circus of acrobats. With all the respect for these honest workers. A small detail, few funny episodes that pay off to those who believe in technical and sporting values of the car. As the one which stars Jean-Marie Balestre. The president of the FIA, seeing a gorgeous and luxurious room, with panoramic windows on the most beautiful part of the track, asks:
"And whose is this?"
He was told:
And Jean-Marie replies:
"So, it’s mine".
But the answer is straight:
"No, it belongs to the President of the Republic".
It seems that Mitterrand came here on Sunday (in his office, with Balestre maybe confined to the near room, the copy room) to watch the race, to give prestige to the inauguration of the circuit that he himself wanted for the friendship with Guy Ligier. And because the land, bought cheaply, belonged to - as far as they say - a friend of his. We can only hope that on Friday, for the first day of qualification, everything is good. Not everyone thinks the same, obviously. And others who, for obvious reasons, can’t tell the truth and who, instead, are forced to put a good face on it. This is the case of Jean Alesi, who, says about the new circuit :
"It is a beautiful track, the safety is great, except for the turns at the exit of the box".
Thierry Boutsen, a driver that drives for the Ligier, the team that has the headquarter right here in Magny-Cours, by this judgement:
"A complete circuit, that requires a lot in terms of road holding. There's only a part where you can take a breath. You need to drive always by keeping a high pace".
For Nigel Mansell, instead, there are no half measures:
"It is a track where it is forbidden to try to overtake and even more forbidden to go off the track".
But most of all, usually, is Nelson Piquet to tell the absolute truth:
"It’s terrible. They madea circuit like the Hungaroring in Budapest where overtaking is impossible, with the difference that here you may risk a bad accident in a few points".
The wait for the race is vivid. The fans are waiting for another attack from the Williams-Renault towards McLaren-Honda, but especially there is a lot of curiosity to see, during the race, the new Ferrari 643. So, meanwhile, engineer Claudio Lombardi says:
"I have nothing more to add to what I already stated in Imola, we can only wait for the results of the practices and of the races. We worked a lot, we hope to reap the benefits".
The drivers are speculating a little more. Jean Alesi says:
"It was useless to delay it. It's true that we take some risk with loads of new material, but we squeezed the 642 the maximum. This one is better,more handy, we hope to be the pain in the ass of the situation".
In the meantime, Alain Prost releases a long interview to his favourite newspaper, L’Equipe. After he said he want to win, once again, a World Championship ("With Ferrari, if it’s possible") and he would like to handle, personally, a team that is all French (but without risking money, with the one of the Peugeot or of the Renault...), the Professor make it known that the team of Maranello is in progress:
"Now the car is more agile, more easy to drive. And the engine should help us, which, thanks to the different rules, is more progressive. But I don’t want to make predictions: Williams is the great favourite, without forgetting McLaren and any outsider that on this track, so tight, that can jump out, thanks to the tires or rules particularly well-aimed. Only one thing is certain: we need to start in front, since the overtakes are prohibitive. As far as we are concerned, I do not want to make predictions, it’s better to wait until Sunday night. In any case I’d rather race as a lion, battle with the best, challenging reliability and not waiting, hoping that it goes badly for others. If the car will be competitive, soon we will arrive at the victory, maybe soon of what you think".
Friday, 5 July 1991, Ayrton Senna and McLaren rebelled against the supremacy of the Williams-Renault, but Ferrari is scary again. This is what arises from the first day of practice of the French Grand Prix that inaugurates the lavish circuit of Magny-Cours. If the Brazilian driver in a tropical climate (46 °C on track) gives the impression to have become the protagonist of one of its efforts to have driven a better car than the others, the team of Maranello shows real signs of progress. The third fastest time set by Jean Alesi and the fourth by Alain Prost (in second position is Nigel Mansell) confirm that they are hanging up at the top. The hopes born from the launch of the 643 are strengthened, therefore, and precisely on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the triumph of Giancarlo Baghetti, who in 1961 he won with the Reims (where then they raced the French Grand Prix), setting a new unusual record. The Italian driver won his first F1 race but this one was also the last (and only) victory out of 21 races held. Baghetti, here as journalist, is living the day on the Ferrari box (even if it was invited by Benetton…), admiring the current commitment of the team. A lot of work to adjust the new 643 (the old car, here as stock, not even touched) but also confidence and serenity. Jean Alesi says:
"My car was perfect. It’s all about finding the right solutions".
Alain Prost is also quite confident, concentrated as in the best days:
"I stayed in the lead for a long time during qualifying and I thought I’d get under 1’16”5 with the second set of tires, close to the time set by Senna. Unfortunately, I had to overtake two cars and the tires were not as good as the previous ones. In any case I'm satisfied, we are on the good way".
Impressions confirmed, with the usual peace, by the engineer Claudio Lombardi:
"Until now no insurmountable problems have arisen. It's clear there are still things to discover, but I think that the conditions are interesting. We know that the 643 is better than the previous car, but we have yet to see if it will be enough to beat our opponents".
Also Senna highlights the performances of the Italian team:
"I set the fastest lap, but we are not at the same level of Williams and Ferrari. We will have a car and an engine from Germany, deeply modified, on Sunday 28 July. For now we defend ourselves. Maybe Maranello has solved its technical problems, McLaren has not yet".
There is an explanation also for the exploit with which the Brazilian (1'16"557, with an average speed of 200.837 km/h) beat the Williams-Renault: Nigel Mansell makes a couple of mistakes, while on the engine of Riccardo Patrese (P5) there are issues with the tires system that manages the engine valves. The Italian says that he never found the right lap. On Saturday (rain permitting, since the weather forecast predicts storms), the battle for the starting grid resumes. A place, more or less, means a lot, because overtakes are prohibitive. Ayrton Senna says:
"Starting ahead here could be crucial. A good advantage, since the overtakings points are only a couple and, however, they are always a problem. The race can be won at the start or with a cautious tactic, hoping that the rivals have issues, and it will be important to try to save the tires, since, after a few laps, the cars will become almost undriveable due to the asphalt being too smooth. But I think it will be very difficult for my McLaren to beat Williams and Ferrari. At this moment they are superior, I have to try to minimise the damage".
The Brazilian has got enough leverage against his rivals, but maybe he hides his intentions. Ayrton is not the type who quits easily. Mansell and Patrese are not intimidated, who say:
"The important thing is not to have trouble during the race".
The role of the outsider is up to Alain Prost and Jean Alesi with Ferrari. The first feedback with the 643 was positive, but quite rightly the manager for the team of Maranello, the engineer Claudio Lombardi, highlights the doubts still existing:
"The new car is so far better than the old one. But we don’t know if it can beat Williams and McLaren".
But the drivers seem quite confident. Prost, who won five times the French Grand Prix (including the last three, two with the McLaren and one with the Ferrari, last year, while Ayrton Senna need won this race), barely conceals a certain optimism:
"The single-seater is very good, it seems to have regained the competitiveness of the end of last season. Now it’s about confirming it, to see if the problems of reliability that blocked us in Canada and in Mexico have been resolved. If they have, during tomorrow’s race, we could try to recover. It's a difficult time and it could be important to gain a victory, to permanently delete our past and to rethink our future".
But the show is guaranteed: 53.000 tickets already sold, at least 20.000 people attended for Sunday, when François Mitterrand, the president of the Republic with the ministers, will come. The famous people will see paired flags wave on the stands: the French tricolour and the red drapes of the Ferrari. Here the fans, unable to point on the national teams, for the moment they hang on Alain Prost, Jean Alesi and the team of Maranello. Not to mention that so many Italians are there. The stewards have already played a joke in Magny-Cours: 20.000 dollars fine because the rescue services have delayed the start of the qualifying by an hour since the organisers forgot to provide food and beverages. Behind the big business, little tricks always hide. And a mechanic of the Lotus, Peter Vale, was hit sideways by a Minardi, with a broken left ankle. On Saturday, 6 July 1991, an insatiable Riccardo Patrese, who now is racing with a big smile under the helmet, manages to get the pole position on the French Grand Prix. It is the third consecutive time that an Italian driver manages to put the wheels of his Williams-Renault ahead of one of the rival cars, the sixth of his career. And on this track, it is a good advantage, half the race is won. But it will not be an easy task to win the race: at least four drivers can win it, considering the minimum gaps between them in qualifying. If Patrese confirms to live a magic moment, the opponents do not raise white flag. Even double the effort not to be beaten. So, also Alain Prost, exalted by the rediscovered Ferrari on front row and Ayrton Senna on second row next to Nigel Mansell, forced yet to meditate a revenge against his team-mate who has always overtaken him from the start on the timed laps. So, Italy in motorsports now is standing out. On one side, on the human level, a driver like Riccardo, already recognized among the best; on the other side, the technical one, a Ferrari that apparently regained vitality and point, making fans dream, to a recovery of their values at the highest level. In fact, the qualifying result of the team of Maranello is the best of the year (Alesi is sixth) not only for the positions - which are the same as the debut in Phoenix - but for the limited gap of only 0.2 seconds from the Williams-Renault. Alain Prost says:
"I’m happy for many reasons. Because we have a competitive car, because we are working on the right way, because the perspective is favourable. But I don't want to create easy illusions. We prepared well for the practices, but for the race there still have questions to be answered. Anything can happen".
Someone replies to him, playing on the words, that when it’s about to make the stopper (for his height...), he is great. Alain answers:
"This is about making all the right moves, from the choice of the tires, to the settings of the car, to the race strategy. It will be difficult".
Alain Prost looks peaceful, ready to joke with Jean Alesi, when (before the last round of qualifying) tells him that he is already old and that he should make way for the young ones. Alain answers bursting out laughing on Florence, his teammate’s blonde girlfriend, with a scream:
"I’ll show you if I'm a pensioner".
The happiness of Jean disappears at the end of the last timed session when, from the third place that he had on Friday, falls behind Alain Prost, on the third row.
"During the morning I had a problem with the gearbox, I made only seven laps, I didn’t get the right setup of the car, there was understeer".
But we need to highlight that Alesi is conditioned by an impulsive character: his drive, even if it is spectacular and aggressive, is not yet mature and often leads him to make mistakes, with at least irregular trajectory, as if it is the car to decide where to go and not the driver. For engineer Lombardi, however, Ferrari hit a first small goal, front row.
"We need to analyse the 643 during the race and we haven’t even had the time to try the car with a full tank of gas. We don’t hide the ambition to win and we hope to make further progress".
A race with a considerable tension, as already proven by the practice sessions, because Ayrton Senna makes a spin right after the finish line during his second attempt, putting sideways his McLaren-Honda after risking twice to get out of the track for few oil spots. Gerhard Berger at the box hits a Japanese photographer with a wheel, pushed and unbalanced by other people, fortunately without causing fractures. Everyone can be nerve-wracking for someone who looks for a good result against his rivals, or against their teammates. The only one who does not care too much is the federal President Jean-Marie Balestre, who watches at the box with a beautiful Brazilian miss. On Sunday, he will host the President of the Republic Mitterrand, half government and a vast crowd, which is already a success. Thanks also to Alain Prost and to Ferrari who warm up the spirits and to Riccardo Patrese who has become the symbol of Williams powered byRenault. Two more reasons, which add to the battle to Senna and the long-awaited freak show of Nigel Mansell. On Sunday, 7 July 1991, at the start of the French Grand Prix, Riccardo Patrese stands still, betrayed by the gearbox in neutral when the Italian driver shifts into second gear. Riccardo slides down in ninth position and then, despite a good chase that takes him to fifth place, he never bothers the first, always for problems with the transmission system. During the first lap, Bertrand Gachot retires because of a spin. Then, during the sixth lap, the Honda engine of Gerhard Berger’s car breaks down while he is in fourth position. It could be a coincidence, but since the Italian magazine Autosprint wrote that Honda may use a tank and an oil recovery system that are out of order, some faults have already occurred, so McLaren-Honda has become beatable. Alain Prost, with a great start, gave the impression to be able to leave a gap from Nigel Mansell slowly and progressively, hunting for Ferrari and the French driver. At the first lapping - coincidentally - the English approaches him and, on lap 22, taking advantage of a mistake of the Frenchman while lapping De Cesaris, overtook him on the inside before the corner. He is followed by Ayrton Senna and Jean Alesi.
During the pit window, the Ferrari mechanics prove to be more skilled than those of Williams and Prost is back in charge. But on lap 54, Nigel Mansell does something between a mistake and a heroic gesture, he goes outside and he wins the French Grand Prix. A big help was given by Riccardo Patrese, who, lapped, let him pass without problems and set the fastest lap holding Alain Prost behind. With a minimal gap, but unbridgeable - five seconds - the French had to give up, even if he had a chance to win, in order not to ruin the day for Ferrari. Ayrton Senna ended the race in third place, followed by Jean Alesi, Riccardo Patrese and Andrea De Cesaris. After Patrese came Mansell. But it is always the Williams-Renault to win. In seven races until now held, four victories for Ayrton Senna, one for Nelson Piquet and now the two wins in a row of the Italian driver and of the English team. Elementary, Watson, as Sherlock Holmes would say, in fact, Williams-Renault was the favourite for the French Grand Prix. But the victory of the extravagant driver from the Isle of Man was opposed, until the end, by the Ferrari of Alain Prost. A tight race, tense until the end. Even if everyone agreed that a narrow circuit like this maybe guarantees the show, it alters the playing field. Alain Prost, not for his fault, felt that he missed a possible first place. The talent and the bravery of Nigel Mansell prevailed, but this probably would not have happened on a different track. A race that has not had moments of pause, no lack of interesting moments. The battle was beautiful and exciting in the lead and in the midfield and even in different situations the protagonists were the same, such as the great performance of Andrea De Cesaris (another Italian driver, as Riccardo Patrese, who is living a second youth) finishing in sixth place with Jordan-Ford, a competitive car but with a not so powerful engine. The driver from Rome was forced to spin in order to avoid Pierluigi Martini, he had s his race from P23. Maybe Minardi could have achieved a good result. Gianni Morbidelli, feverish because of the flu, but got himself pulled out by Nelson Piquet while Pierluigi Martini had problems with the brakes and he engaged in an unnecessary, personal duel with Stefano Modena (they touched a couple of times) so he had to step down in ninth position. Modena, by the way, during all the weekend performed below the expectations.
It is clear that it does not depend on his commitment: Tyrrell-Honda in a short time lost two designers who had made the car, Migeot and Postlethwaite. The new track, which before was used only for tests, caused problems for Pirelli, who failed to prepare valid tires for this race. The eight place of Nelson Piquet, by the way, with a Benetton-Ford that was not in top condition (also due to a technician who left, John Barnard) is a symptom of discomfort, even if the Brazilian was the last to pit. In terms of news, not less episodes to remember. As sensitive and delicate as he is, Nigel Mansell cried on the podium. In front of the French president François Mitterrand, maybe the Williams driver was thinking about his life, his family that he loves, his career, the joy and the pain, crying heavily while the speakers play the national anthem: God Save the Queen.
"It was a difficult victory. The first of the season. I think I have earned it. The car was fantastic, it was so good that, especially during the end, I had problems with the brakes, the pedal had a very long run. But earlier I risked a lot for this problem. So it is true that when he overtook Prost on the inside on lap 22, I didn’t want to. I was forced because otherwise I would have gone off track".
The victory of Mansell did not worry Patrese too much, who helped his team-mate a lot, when he was lapped by the Englishman and by Prost.
"Nigel was lucky, he came after me at the most favourable moment to pass. But I continued to stay in my line and Prost stayed behind. At the start I put the second gear but I stayed in neutral and that’s why I went down to ninth position on the first lap. Then everything went well and I was recovering. The pit-stop was particularly brilliant and I found myself, again, close to Alesi. Since that moment, the gearbox began to have problems, alternately running well or bad. That’s a shame. But I already said it: I live in the moment. No drama".
Not even Ayrton Senna complains so much:
"I haven’t earned positions at the start, as I had intended. So, knowing that with Williams and Ferrari there was nothing to do, I tried to limit the damage. A third place is ok for the standings. It's a breath of fresh air while we are waiting for our technicians and the Honda ones to solve the problems and take us back to the top in terms of performance".
In fact, McLaren is working for the future. But Ron Dennis denies the rumours according to which for Sunday 28 July 1991, at Hockenheim, a new car would be ready:
"We made only a few changes".
But Honda will bring to Silverstone a new evolution of the 12 cylinders engine, the third in a few months. And now, what about poor Ayrton Senna? The World Champion has only 25 points of advantage on Mansell, 26 points on Patrese and 31 points on Prost... Seriously, the Brazilian champion is in crisis. After the four victories in a row at the start of the season, the McLaren driver had to stay and watch. During the French Grand Prix he conquered a third place that did not suit him, behind the winner, Nigel Mansell and also behind his eternal enemy, Alain Prost on Ferrari. It may not be a disastrous result for someone else, but for Senna it is kind of a debacle, a confirmation of its current state of impotence against his rivals.
"On the standings I have a fair margin of advantage, but the season is very long. I can’t be happy only with placements. What is making me angry is that the cars of the other teams are much stronger. In Canada and in Mexico, only the Williams prevailed, now also the Ferrari. I can’t stand it. The men of McLaren and Honda need to work. There is not so much to do, there are novelties already in the garage, I hope that they will arrive soon and put me in a position to beat them on equal terms".
But what makes the champion of Sao Paulo angry is that he must make an appearance without a winning car. In Magny-Cours, Senna was always on third place and in the end he also had to repel the attacks of the unleashed Jean Alesi. Instead, in front of him, Mansell and Prost were the masters. The Maranello team is back and now it can be a problem. But Alain Prost says:
"I don’t really care about Ayrton; what matters is to see Ferrari again at the top. We did wrong right from the start, we are now at the sixth race with a condition of absolute inferiority. In only one race we greatly recovered with the 643. Now we have to proceed on the same path and to arrive, if not in England the next Sunday, at least in Germany at the end of July, in the real conditions and also specific to get to first place. Yesterday I have been in the lead for more than 40 laps but this is not enough. It takes much more to beat Williams".
As for Williams, it is obvious that by now they especially aim at the Constructors’ World Championship, without being too much interested in the drivers, Patrese and Mansell. In fact, with a victory for both, in Mexico and in France, they shared points, so they favoured Senna, who, instead of finding an opponent very close on the points, he finds two enough far. In any case, Ayrton has no doubt:
"The battle for the title is still open, I think that in the title race, beyond me obviously, there are also Mansell, Patrese and Prost".
This is one of the few times that the Brazilian pronounces the name of the Frenchman. That is the sign that all these defeats begin to bother him and they remind him of the duels of the last years. But in the Ferrari box there is no party for the placements obtained. The joy is held back, the faces are quiet, the statements are cautions. Despite this, the second place of Prost and the fourth of Alesi have repaid the work done and the effort of the last few days that can clearly be seen on the red eyes of Lombardi, Castelli, of the other technicians and of the mechanics. Also the drivers seem to be happy, as if they got rid of a burden. Especially Alain Prost who, whether you like him or not, with his controversies, with his criticism, has provoked the well-known mess at the top of the team of Maranello and maybe this has accelerated the rival of the new car, the 643. About this, just Alain Prost, during the press conference, says:
"I’m actually very happy with this second place. I want to thank Ferrari, because this time they gave me a good car. In a few weeks the situation has been improved and this is already a result. I can’t claim that everything is perfect. The set-up of the car was not so good, but it’s understandable. On the fast corners, Mansell gained so much on me. Also the engine needs additional fine tuning. But we are almost there. It was a hard race, especially for the overtakes, a couple of times I risked going off track. The important thing is that, for the first time since the start of the season, I fought to win, for first place".
Someone is asking for an opinion of the track.
“No comment. We can talk about the difference between the 642 and 643. The new car is much better. The aerodynamics are more stable and the front suspension is working well. The championship? I don’t think about it and I don’t believe that I can fight for the title. The difference of points from Senna is big. I hope to win some races. So, anyway, I have the urge to fight. Unfortunately, we lost time at the start of the season when we never deserved to beat McLaren and Williams. Now we continue to work on the engine and on the gearbox".
Two overtakes from Mansell. Why?
"He was stronger. The first time, I couldn’t resist. The second time, I wanted to avoid it, but we could have risked a collision. And Ferrari needed results and to test the car for an entire race, and so did I. I repeat, the placement was positive".
For Jean Alesi, surrounded by the Sicilian clan, that is family and friends, plus the girlfriend Laurence, a fourth place is a good prize:
"I tried to overtake Senna on the last few laps but it wasn’t possible. He has been correct, as always, towards me. The car? Unfortunately I had some trouble in the last days, I didn’t adjust it well. But I think that in Silverstone I can make a different race, an offensive one. We need to work for a few days, even if now we are forced to go immediately to Silverstone. Maybe these days we will still find valid solutions. During the race I had some problems with a loss of power. I don’t care, however, I’m satisfied".
After the drivers, engineer Lombardi, who allegedly just had a telephone interview with Piero Ferrari and with engineer Fusaro, president of Ferrari, a bit scared and with the usual notebook in his hands, where he marks everything, even the smallest details with precision, he starts to make a report, also forgetting that Prost in the morning made, during the warm-up, the best time, a thing that had not happened for a long time.
"A positive weekend, because we regained competitiveness and during the race the cars were efficient. Prost has been great for 10-15 laps. He gave the impression of being able to leave a gap from Williams. Then things have changed and we settled down".
The review of Lombardi is even more precise:
"There are three problems yet to be solved, which didn’t let us win. The first was about the whole gearbox-engine. In the gear shift there is always a little empty space that reduces power. The second one: the driveability gets progressively worse because of the tire wear and this is what we need to avoid with a better set-up. The third one: maybe the brake efficiency of the car of Prost was below the one of Mansell’s Williams. Another problem that we need to solve".
"We are going to Silverstone, where we will have the two 643 and one 642 as a reserve at our disposal. Because of limited time, from Thursday the technicians and the mechanics will be at work in England to find other improvements. I believe that in England the Williams will still be the cars to beat. We don’t have to face big trouble but the work we need to do is still a lot".
One of the most valuable comments to the Ferrari is the one of Senna that affirms, paraphrasing the speech of Prost:
"I want to thank McLaren and Honda... Seriously, you all see it. We are lower, we need to recover. Now also the Ferrari overtook us".
Now all the teams of the Formula 1 are going to England, since on Sunday 14 July 1991, on the circuit of Silverstone, a totally different track than Magny-Cours, very fast and stringy, they will join the eighth race of the season. Will there still be Williams-Renault as the absolute protagonist, or will Ferrari try to beat them, right in their house? That is the question of the fans of the Maranello team, already delighted by the sudden return to the top of the cars driven by Alain Prost and Jean Alesi.