On Wednesday, 27 March, 1991, while Ferrari's men are gathered in Maranello to study an anti-crisis plan, two pieces of news, which reinforce the rivals of the Italian team, arrive from Britain. Benetton presents the revolutionary new car of John Barnard: extremely rigid chassis, raised shark-type nose, provision for active suspension and Ford engine. While McLaren hires Osamu Goto, the Japanese technician that for two years managed Honda's engines. He is going to be head of development and of the electronic field. In the following days, in small steps, Ferrari carries on its work of vivisection of the 642, the car that disappointed in the beginning of the season. The technicians of the Maranello's team explore different solutions in aerodynamic adjustments, of the engine and chassis, maybe finding some interesting change. Alain Prost, who on Thursday 4 of April, 1991, in Imola, does the tests of more immediate evaluation, increases lap times, moving closer to the Williams-Renault and to McLaren-Honda that are still the fastest cars in this series of tests. The sports director of the Scuderia Ferrari, Cesare Fiorio, admits:
"We are quite satisfied, even if there still are a lot of things to do and to verify".
The programme will continue also on Friday (and maybe also Saturday morning) with the arrival of a car with active suspension entrusted to the tester Montermini. However, it is Riccardo Patrese to obtain the best time with the Williams-Renault: 1'25"273 in the morning, ahead of Senna (McLaren-Honda) with 1'25"508, while Alain Prost registers the fastest lap driving in 1'26"067. The day ends with another accident: this time Pierluigi Martin with Minardi goes off the track, always after the Variante Bassa, because he slipped on the oil left before by Mark Blundell who breaks the gearbox of the third Williams-Renault. The car reports serious damages. But the team manages to save the chassis, while the Italian driver gets by with a shiver of fear. For what concerns the next Grand Prix of San Marino, the organisers report having sold all the tickets (29,000) of the grandstands: as usual, a great audience invasion is announced. On Friday, 5 April, 1991, without writing a book of confessions, Alain Prost, finally, speaks with an open heart. And with a low voice he explains, confessional indeed, the Ferrari moment, the work done in those days, the results obtained.
"It has been a tough week for us. Because everyone expects a rapid recovery of our cars.Instead we don't have to be overwhelmed by the huge pressures that we receive and we have to try working calmly. It was crucial understanding what had happened in the two races that started the World Championship. Sadly the rain didn't allow us to finish the test in a good way, at the end of which I should have tested a new front suspension and Alesi simulates a race to try the engine that we will use in the San Marino Grand Prix. We'll do it in the next few weeks. In each case we tried to find the origins of the troubles we had in Brazil, that were about the chassis and the engine".
Basically, Alain Prost reiterates that at San Paolo there have been inconveniences only for road holding. But also a malfunction of the 12 cylinders engine:
"For what concerns the engine, the problem was already found last week in Fiorano. It was about a wrong mapping, meaning electronic device adjustments that were wrong. And this is already a really positive aspect, encouraging. With regard to the chassis, it is clear that there has been a mechanical problem that also challenged the mechanics. It is possible to run for cover: this car can still be competitive. There are a lot of new things to test. It's a race against time, but it is possible to get there. I don't want to say that I'm optimistic, because I don't like to use that word. Now we are behind the fastest by 0.5 or a second, let's hope to improve. The most important thing in this moment is having understood. We will also try at Mugello, but the tests of 17-19 April will be crucial on this track".
How is it possible to get all the assessments wrong in winter testing?
"We are not crazy. Obviously something has changed in the evolution of the car. I repeat: we now know that the front suspension and part of the chassis were putting our Ferraris in crisis. We will prepare the appropriate solutions”.
As for Jean Alesi, the young French driver recites a kind of mea culpa:
"I'm pretty young, I understand enough about set-ups, adjustments. But I couldn't understand that also the engine was not perfect. Between me and Alain there are no divergences, we work well".
So some positive news for Ferrari, even if there is the need to wait for counter-evidence. From these 3 days on the Imola circuit, Riccardo Patrese, with Williams-Renault, comes out with the best time: 1'24"517, ahead of Ayrton Senna (1'25"372) and Alain Prost (1'26"067). But the stopwatch counts relatively on these occasions. The Italian driver is the only one to use qualifying tyres. However, it looks like that Williams found the cause of the problems with the electronic gearbox and they made further progress .Meanwhile, Lambo changes its organisation chart: Gianfranco Silecchia, former sports director of Fiat in the Rally, is appointed sports director, while Mauro Forghieri takes the technical head of the team. Tests continue for Ferrari and on Wednesday, 10 April, 1991, on the Mugello track, Andrea Montermini, the young test driver of Ferrari busy with the 641/2 with active suspension, gets off track. The car reports serious damages, and the driver reports a heel strike: the prognosis is 5 days. It is not certain whether he is going to take part in the first race of the Formula 3000 championship at Vallelunga. On track, also Alain Prost is present, busy with the car that he will drive in Imola. At the end of two days of tests for Ferrari at Mugello, Alain Prost shows himself confident:
"Now we are more optimistic".
Thursday, 11 April 1991, the former World Champion runs in the afternoon, as it rains in the morning. Jean Alesi tests above all the engine; Prost devotes himself to the 641's suspension problem, the car's sore point, which leads to heavy tyre wear, making road-holding less stable and driving more demanding. At the end of the two days of testing, Jean Alesi's best time was 1'29"4, Prost's 1'29"5, still a long way from the times of the single-seaters' first outing at Mugello, before the start of the World Championship. The following week, the Formula 1 Circus returned to Imola for testing. However, on Wednesday, 17 April 1991, the awaited novelties were missing on the Romagna circuit (the new Benetton did not test, as John Barnard was working on his car armed with pliers; the Footwork-Porsche only made a couple of laps with Michele Alboreto, as did the Fondmetal-Ford with Olivier Grouillard; the Brabham-Yamaha just did not show up) and a storm in the early afternoon blocked the tests. Best time, however, for the usually tough Riccardo Patrese in the Williams-Renault (1'26"082), just to celebrate his 37th birthday on the track. Then followed Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. Ferrari manages to test the new front suspension, and the results seem to be moderately encouraging, as Prost himself explains:
"We are not here to look for exciting results for the fans or to advertise ourselves. We have programmes that unfortunately are hampered by the bad weather. For me the car has already improved, comparing it to last week, but I cannot say by how much, also because we don't know what the others have been doing. I repeat that we found out our different problems, but one thing is to understand, the other is to solve them. It will be crucial to carry out the programmes with certain continuity".
Cesare Fiorio, who denies the rumours spread in these days that him and other members of the team are about to lose their job, says:
"After having tried the suspension, we will mount aerodynamic novelties that will also be visible, while we are still working on gearbox and engine. If it is going to be the case, we'll try to extend our stay here until Saturday".
In short, only at the end of this pre-Grand Prix of San Marino will something certain be known. Even if only the race will be able to clarify the true state of health of the Scuderia Ferrari, which on Saturday 20 April 1991 ended practice with the two best overall times. Alain Prost laps in 1'22"412, setting the unofficial record (the record is held by Senna with 1'23"220), followed by Jean Alesi, 1'22"895, and Gerhard Berger (McLaren-Honda), 1'22"918. The modifications made to the cars (aerodynamics, suspension and engine) seem to have given good results, but drivers and technicians are cautious in their predictions for the San Marino Grand Prix. In the meantime, Alessandro Nannini makes his first official appearance before the general public at the Monza circuit after his accident last year. The Italian driver shows journalists and photographers his injured hands and even lets loose with a few jokes. Among other things, about the Benetton-Ford, he says:
"Barnard made a really good car but I will wait until he has an automatic gearbox, so I will be back racing in Formula 1".
On Sunday 21 April, 1991, when shortly after 6:00 p.m., Jean Alesi is dismissed with a Happy birthday chant during the Italian TV show Domenica In, the French driver has to make a huge effort to stay put and composed on the armchair. But a flash of dismay is clearly visible in his blue pupils. He would probably have answered with a classic gesture that in these occasions leads to looking for a piece of iron to touch or other classic amulets used also against bad luck. Jokes aside, it is clear that this time, waiting for the San Marino Grand Prix, scheduled in Imola from Friday 26 of April to Sunday 28 April, 1991, in front of the usual 100.000 and more spectators, Ferrari has to also resort to superstition, to avoid proposing itself as the favourite for the third race of the World Championship. The story is now known: the Maranello team has dominated the winter tests and has started at the beginning of the season with a surge of enthusiasm that then proved to be unjustified. The same thing can happen now, seeing that Ferrari has come out from three days of tests at Imola with a series of records on lap and with the best times. However, on this occasion, the rivals were almost all there (except for Williams-Renault, who preferred to look for the sun at Le Castellet in France): the two McLaren-Honda of Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna were separated by 0.5 and a second on lap. What matters the most, however, is that the Italian team seems to have found back the competitiveness of their cars. The change on the front suspension, the works on the aerodynamics (now the car with a redesigned bodywork by Jean Claude Migeot, longer, looks like a bottle) and to the engine have apparently given the hoped results. So much so that the two drivers, Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, seem satisfied and optimistic, together with the technicians. To say, however, that Ferrari will win at Imola, is far-fetched. But it is probable that Alain Prost and Jean Alesi will have the possibility of fighting with better chances than they had at Phoenix and in Brazil. Also because Ayrton Senna, usually very careful, lets slip a few remarks that have to be recorded.
"I didn't test on qualifying tyres and never completely emptied the petrol tank. I am still not happy with the power of the Honda engine, but for Imola there should be some news in this area too".
In short, Ayrton Senna, winner of the first two races, still puts McLaren-Honda and himself in the role of favourites. Which, all things considered, should also suit Ferrari, always ready to deny. Possibly later. Alain Prost however, as dictated, seems happy with the progress made:
"We have made plans and we have respected them. The car is going well now, even with a full tank of fuel, and that makes me confident, also because we still have a little something to try. Solutions that could bring further improvements. However, it was important for us to get back on the right track and this is already an achievement".
The San Marino Grand Prix will presumably host a close race, also because the Williams-Renault is also a candidate for a leading role. In the race there will also be Michele Alboreto, who on Saturday, 20 April 1991, with the new Footwork-Porsche, was the protagonist of a frightful accident. The Milanese driver had crashed at about 270 km/h against the wall after the pits, more or less in the same place where, two years ago, Gerhard Berger had left the track with the consequences that everyone knows. The car caught fire, but Alboreto was luckier than his Austrian colleague and managed to get out of the single-seater on his own, suffering only a wound to his left thigh, which was sutured in the infirmary with about fifteen stitches. The reasons that caused the accident are still a mystery. Some claim that the front wing came off. It must be stressed that these attempts to exploit increasingly exaggerated aerodynamics are dangerous. Much more rigorous endurance tests should be carried out. Otherwise, there is a risk of making Formula 1 cars safer on the one hand (chassis) and making them into undriveable missiles on the other. On Thursday, 25 April 1991, on the eve of the San Marino Grand Prix, Ferrari tackled the third round of the World Championship like a boat sailing through rough waters. Even if, officially, the latest episode is dismissed with a “no comment” or with a “now let's think about racing, then we'll see”. Certainly, a brilliant result in qualifying, or, even better, a success in the race, could serve to regain a minimum of serenity. But the situation in the medium term appears irreversible, given the behaviour of Alain Prost. To summarise the latest controversy triggered by the French driver, it must be said that in the most recent interviews given to French press organs, the three-time World Champion once again attacked Ferrari. In his accusation, the French driver implicates a bit everyone, even if he never names names: from the presidency to the managers, from the technicians to the mechanics. And, in a certain sense, he does not even spare Fiat's top management, claiming that they have a direct privileged relationship that in some way undermines the image of independence that Cesare Romiti himself has repeatedly assigned to the Maranello factory.
Lack of organisation, approximation, internal disagreements and so on and so forth. A series of serious notes that creates quite a few discontents within the team. On Thursday, Alain Prost prefers not to be seen at the circuit, to avoid any more talk. In the morning, the French driver telephoned the sporting director Cesare Fiorio, telling him that he had not been able to get in touch over the past few days, and asking him if they had heard about the interviews published in France, supporting the thesis of who, once again, had been misinterpreted. One would have to wonder whether Alain Prost is too clever. But, at this point, since the interested parties are not talking, the Italian journalists propose some hypotheses on the intentions of the French racer, who - it must not be forgotten - got everything he wanted from Ferrari: a contract until 1992 and full support in the fight for the world title. The first, the simplest, concerns Alain Prost's never hidden intention to prepare a future as sports director. In this case, the object of his accusations would be Cesare Fiorio. But perhaps there is a second, more subtle design: Alain simply wants to undermine Ayrton Senna's path, to block the McLaren driver's eventual move to Ferrari. The Brazilian would never accept to go to a torn, divided, destabilised team. This serious issue will certainly be discussed in the coming days. On Friday, meanwhile, the cars will take to the track for the third round of the World Championship. Weather permitting (threat of rain until Sunday) the battle should be uncertain and exciting, with two teams - McLaren and Williams - in the fight and Ferrari in the role of possible and probable outsider. The changes made to the Maranello cars (different front suspension, modified bodywork and updated engine) have signalled good progress in recent tests. So much so that Jean Alesi, who is prudently keeping himself aloof from the controversy, is betting with the owner of the hotel that is hosting him the sum of his entire stay that he will be able to conquer pole position. The Sicilian-born Frenchman is certain:
"Our car is very fast on the single lap, it will be hard to beat us".
But in the race it will be something different, seeing that there are many, starting with Senna, who will count on Imola's points. Between the news of the day, the arrival in Formula 1 of another Italian. It is Fabrizio Barbazza, 28 years old, from Monza, known for a third place in Indianapolis. He joins Gabriele Tarquini's side at AGS, who pushed the Swedish Stefan Johansson away, after the team has been taken over by Gabriele Rafanelli, president of the consortium Il Moro Di Venezia in the sailing challenge of America’s Cup, a man close to Raul Gardini. Then, the official debut of many new cars: Fondmetal, Benetton, Brabham-Yamaha and Footwork-Porsche. With the last one, Michele Alboreto, victim of a dangerous accident last week, will see if his physical conditions will allow him to try a difficult pre-qualifying with an Anglo-Nippon-German car. There is definitely something magical and mysterious about Ayrton Senna. Otherwise, certain performances of his would not be explained. Other drivers grind their way through a thousand difficulties and give the impression of risking everything. And when they fail to hit the target, they make all kinds of excuses. Not him: one lap is enough for him to put his rivals in line, with a disarming simplicity, with the extraordinary ability to make everything look easy. It also happened on Friday, 26 April 1991, in the first qualifying session of the San Marino Grand Prix. Leading the time list was Riccardo Patrese in the Williams.
The Brazilian only had one set of tyres left. The McLaren driver brought his McLaren-Honda out of the pits, took to the track and put in his usual lightning-fast lap: 1'21"877, a new circuit record, 0.008 seconds less than the Italian driver, the minimum needed to take the lead. A warning also and above all for Ferrari, who would like to boost morale here at Imola. Leaving the controversy aside, the Maranello team is focused on the race. And the result, at the end of a rather troubled day, was not very satisfactory: Alain Prost third, after Senna and Patrese, Jean Alesi seventh, preceded by Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger and Stefano Modena. There was no shortage of problems. Working in forced stages, seeking competitiveness at the limits, it is normal to lose something in reliability. Thus, an engine failure occurs on Alain Prost's racing car. And, in the afternoon, on Jean Alesi's Ferrari, a petrol circuit duct breaks, almost starting a fire. Jean is forced to qualify with only one set of tyres, using his teammate's single-seater and seat, because on the spare there are none of the special engines that are only fitted for qualifying In the end, the Franco-Sicilian apologises, and says he has no comment to make. Instead, in an impromptu press conference, Cesare Fiorio and Alain Prost appeared, side by side, while a scrum worthy of a rugby match was ignited between journalists, cameramen and photographers. On the premise that they would not talk about problems defined as environmental, i.e. the recent controversy, the sporting director and driver explain what is, after all, obvious. Alain Prost begins, saying:
"It is not bad, because without any doubts we made some progress. And I think that we could go faster in the second round. The race? It is an uncertainty like all the races, not just for us but for everyone who aims for the victory. The effort made at Maranello has given some results".
A sentence, this last one, that finds Florio obviously consenting. The two Thursdays night they had a meeting during which the driver must have somehow justified his behaviour. The impression is that a temporary pax has been, then we'll see. So much so that Prost end by saying:
"We can argue and discuss, but our goals are common: win, beat McLaren and Williams".
It is what is going to be established, while waiting for what is going to happen on Saturday. Maybe Prost has understood that he overreacted. To those who point out to him a tent that Ferrari set up to receive guests or friends, so not to disturb the men of the team in the motorhome, the French driver bitterly answers:
"I have no friends anymore".
At the same time, a few years ago, Michele Alboreto was a star in Formula 1, now he struggles in qualifying. But the Footwork-Porsche driver still has the same drive, the desire to race. So, in his old model car, he still runs a few laps, despite the severe pain in his ribs and the injury to his left leg that has plagued him since the terrible accident in free practice, when he crashed into a wall at 270 km/h. Alboreto set the last time, behind team-mate Caffi, who was driving the new car. And Caffi too, for the moment, is off the grid for the race.
"I don't know what will happen on Saturday, but I will try. It will be very hard. In any case we will try again in Monte Carlo. We started uphill with the 12-cylinder Porsche because we didn't have time to do the necessary tests. It is only a matter of time, we will catch up".
The rain is a precious ally for Ayrton Senna, as on Saturday it saves him from possible attacks on his pole position; and on Sunday it could guarantee him a race-walk, given his skills as a tightrope walker on wet tracks. The Brazilian is the favourite for the San Marino Grand Prix, which will be attended - it is said - by 150.000 people, also orphaned by great football. And at Imola, they will probably find spectacle and certainly mud: the ground is soaked with water. But Senna in pole position is not news, it is within the norm (it is his 55th pole, the third out of three in 1991). Above all, people are waiting for Ferrari's redemption, a victory to drive away the crisis. And to comfort the Maranello team, Cesare Romiti also arrives. A visit is almost a duty after the controversy triggered by Alain Prost. Perhaps an earful for the Frenchman, who has lunch with the CEO of Fiat and Piero Fusaro, president of Ferrari.
'There is too much chatter in sports. And not only in sports, where anyway timing and goals should count above all. I'm not just referring to Ferrari and Juve, I’m just making a point. You have to learn to keep quiet, even him".
The man, of course, is Prost. And for the Frenchman, who had hinted at frequent telephone contacts with Giovanni Agnelli and Romiti himself, there was also a denial.
"I don't remember well, but I think I heard him once or not. We said little or nothing to each other. But palace affairs are of little interest to people who want results. We have to give them those. But don't ask me for a prediction for the race, I'm a Ferrari fan. Between Turin and Maranello there is an absolute identity of views".
Full stop. After that Cesare Romiti leaves in the early afternoon, leaving room for the usual meetings between drivers, technicians and sports directors to prepare for the race. With the grid unchanged, Ayrton Senna starts with Riccardo Patrese alongside him and Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger, Stefano Modena and Jean Alesi behind him. During the morning, the French-Sicilian driver breaks an engine and this is not a positive sign. The fact of having to make up in a month the lack of competitiveness recorded at the start of the season, in all sectors (chassis, aerodynamics, engines) forced the Maranello team's technicians to look for riskier solutions and this could have a negative effect on reliability and the type of performance. Jean Alesi explains:
"The engine is very powerful, but also quite brutal. It is therefore more difficult to drive the car in normal conditions and very difficult in the wet. We will do everything we can".
Meanwhile, Alain Prost takes up the controversial topic of these days, saying:
"I have full confidence in Ferrari's technical possibilities. But the truth must be told. I have never stated that Ron Dennis could solve all our problems. But you have to recognise that Honda and McLaren together work perfectly well and this would not be possible with Ferrari".
Returning to the race, logic speaks in favour of Ayrton Senna and the McLaren-Honda (with a probable inclusion of Gerhard Berger), Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese with the Williams-Renault cars lurking, and Scuderia Ferrari in the role of possible outsider, given that on Friday the cars of Jean Alesi and Alain Prost had been the best in top speed and acceleration. Scuderia Ferrari's sporting director, Cesare Fiorio, dejectedly admits:
"In the wet, the one who starts in front almost always wins. Even if he was less good than Senna".
Only the 100.000 loyal spectators remain under the red flag, the outpost of a people of millions, who continue to display a pathetic banner in the stands:
"Senna, enough now, the hooves of the Cavallino will crush you".
A bit truculent. But they have to be thanked, because without their blind passion, this World Championship would already have faded into boredom. Is it possible to oppose Ayrton's domination in any way? The answer will perhaps come on Sunday. If the new Honda engine mounted only on the Brazilian's car responds as the Japanese engineers expect, the season can be said to be almost over. With Senna turning Formula 1 into what cycling was in the days of Merckx, boxing in the Tyson era, tennis in the prime Bjorn Borg era. Anyone else in Senna's place, who at 31 still has six or seven seasons of domination left, would thank heaven. But winning is not enough for him. He wants perfection. Later in the afternoon, after shredding his rivals in practice, the Brazilian goes to the press room for the conference. He seems calm. Yet, in the placid tone of a salon conversation, he slams the McLaren staff.
"I didn't like the way they worked. I couldn't test this morning because of a serious strategic error by my team. My car had problems when there were just ten minutes to go. I asked for the spare car, but they had already set it up for Berger. Yet Berger had already tested last week on the wet track. I didn't. It's a question of safety".
Then he makes it clear:
"This is not the first time things like this have happened at McLaren. I hope it will be the last".
For saying something like that about Ferrari, Alain Prost was called quarrelsome, if not psychotic, by half the world's press. To Ayrton Senna, on the other hand, anything goes. Market rumours experts insinuate that this is a manoeuvre, studied in time, in order to arrive at the coup of blows in the summer: the passage of Ayrton Senna to Ferrari. The Brazilian does very little to deny it. For months he has been repeating that for a driver to go down in history he must have driven Maranello cars for at least a year. And even in the days leading up to the San Marino Grand Prix, the Brazilian driver seems unusually tender and discreet towards his troubled enemy. Ayrton Senna does not utter a word about Ferrari's playacting, and indeed expresses much consideration:
" Ferrari have done a good job, they seem to me more reliable and more competitive than Williams".
He even proposes an attempt at an armistice with the fans:
“They used to just insult me here. Now, while continuing to hope that I lose, I notice a greater respect for me. Italians still know how to appreciate those who put on a show".
But perhaps there is a simpler explanation for the Brazilian's criticism. Ayrton Senna, like Alain Prost, is a success paranoid. A much tougher man than the image built around him in his early days. That, to be clear, of the rich, cultured, courteous and good-looking good guy: a gentleman from the uptown districts of São Paulo, where the South American bourgeoisie of mostly European descent thrives. But he, the Brazilian who comes from the cold, the latest winning symbol of his country, has shown that he is capable of rough manners. Like at Suzuka, when he collided with Alain Prost's car. After all, this is also how you become number one, here in Formula 1 and elsewhere. But there is also room for a few surprises. To be seen is Stefano Modena in the Tyrrell-Honda (he starts on the third row), there are the two Minardi-Ferraris of Gianni Morbidelli and Pierluigi Martini in the first positions, there is a rampant Andrea De Cesaris in the Jordan-Ford. It will be a tough race for drivers and cars because this circuit puts everything and everyone to the test. Later in the day, the return to the Formula 1 circus, after seven months, for Alessandro Nannini, comes from afar.
"I left my car at the car park, as I was walking I heard the sound of the track. I was pleased. And a little melancholy. It was raining, too".
Alessandro Nannini had not heard the sounds of the track since the Sunday of 30 September 1990, at Jerez, his last race before the helicopter crash on 12 October 1990, of which he retains the conspicuous sign: a sheepskin glove protecting his right arm, still semi-immobilised, from the unseasonable cold.
"It's no use hiding it though".
The great thing about Nannini is that he does not run the risk of being pathetic. Under the multicoloured Benetton marquee, jeans and light jumper, the former driver recounts his special day in normal words.
"I didn't go straight to the pits because I didn't want to disturb the mechanics who were working. I stayed here, exchanging a few jokes with Piquet and heartening Moreno: I won't be back racing so soon. Then I went around to see the friends, Ecclestone, Patrese. What a guy, Riccardo. He's gassed up like a kid. I hope he wins, but Senna is the man to beat".
About Ferrari, he does not speak: not everything passes. He resumes recounting:
'The impression? The circus is always the same, Imola is the usual big mess. Being here as a tourist gives me a strange effect. Today I had a lot of people around, maybe I'll see the Grand Prix at the hotel".
He says no to Rai, who would have liked him to intervene in the transmission.
"But you want to talk about the recovery...".
Nannini anticipates :
"Well, in about ten days time I'll get the car with the automatic gearbox and I'll start driving around again. To tell the truth, I've already driven a few times at night. Then in the summer I'll do all the checks".
Then he takes off his glove and smiles.
"Yes, the hand is always here, it doesn't move. I barely squeeze my fingers. It will take six months to regain full use of the muscles. I don't give appointments, but in September I will have a definitive answer".
One question: so, Sandro, when are you going to run again? Silence falls. Then Nannini breaks the embarrassment.
"You know that, we talk about a miracle".
On Sunday 28 April 1991, a quarter of an hour before the start, the clouds parted on a beautiful day. It had rained the past few days, without respite. But never with such violence. It rains in bursts, in waves, when the cars have just lined up on the starting grid. Everyone is on wet tyres, some think that the start can be postponed due to the precarious track conditions. Instead, race director Roland Bruynseraede, interpreting the rules to the letter, brings out the Wet race sign and gives the signal for the reconnaissance lap. The cars take off, in the prearranged order, raising clouds of spray. One can clearly see that the difficulties are considerable. They arrive at the Rivazza corner, a fairly sharp left turn downhill. Ayrton Senna passes, Riccardo Patrese passes, Alain Prost does not. The Frenchman's car rolls on the tarmac, ends up in the green meadow and stops here with the engine off. A breathtaking scene. Gerhard Berger repeats it almost simultaneously, but the Austrian keeps his foot on the accelerator and manages to return to the track. Immediately afterwards the clouds dissipate and the sun shines again. At the start of the San Marino Grand Prix, Riccardo Patrese takes the lead, followed by Ayrton Senna; Nigel Mansell, who had a bad start due to a gearbox problem, withdraws at the end of the first lap after a collision with Martin Brundle. One lap later Nelson Piquet went off the track and retired, while on lap three it was Jean Alesi who had to abandon after going off the track after attempting an improbable overtaking move on Stefano Modena. Leading with no problems, Riccardo Patrese stops in the pits with electrical problems; the Italian driver returns to the track last only to retire permanently on lap 17.
Patrese's retirement left the way clear for Senna, who, however, suffered the comeback of team-mate Berger who, by lapping on average 1.5 seconds faster than the Brazilian, took him to within five seconds. Behind the two McLaren drivers follow the two Tyrrell-Hondas of Stefano Modena and Satoru Nakajima and the two Minardi-Ferraris of Pierluigi Martini and Gianni Morbidelli. Both McLaren-Honda drivers returned to the pits to change their tyres; Ayrton Senna kept the lead, while Gerhard Berger was delayed behind a small group of lapped drivers formed by Mauricio Gugelmin, Julian Bailey and Thierry Boutsen; Bailey himself moved up to sixth position after overtaking Andrea De Cesaris and after Satoru Nakajima retired due to transmission problems. On lap 24, Ivan Capelli, who had climbed up to fourth position, left the track and retired; Stefano Modena was also forced to retire by transmission problems on lap 41. The retirements meant that behind the two McLaren drivers came, in order, Roberto Moreno with Benetton, J.J. Lehto with Scuderia Italia, Eric van de Poele with Lambo and Pierluigi Martini with Minardi-Ferrari. On lap 55, Roberto Moreno retired due to engine problems; Ayrton Senna resisted his teammate's comeback despite problems with the oil pressure and won his third consecutive race, preceding Gerhard Berger, J.J. Lehto, Pierluigi Martini, Mika Häkkinen and Julian Bailey across the line. Eric van de Poele, with Lambo, stopped on lap 57 due to a fuel pump failure. The Belgian driver could have finished the race in fifth place, earning the first points for the Modena Team. Meanwhile, at 2:10 p.m., in the Scuderia Ferrari pit box, the air is hot. A mechanic fends off the wave of reporters by twirling a spanner with the spectacular skill of Conan the Barbarian.
"Go away, nobody passes by anyway".
One runs towards the marquee. Only Ezio Zermiani remains, interviewing the looms. The tam-tam spreads in an instant and at 2:15 p.m., at the entrance to the burning tent, the crowd is indescribable. In half an hour a big chunk of the world parades by.
While even René Arnoux defends the team saying:
"Don't shoot at the drivers".
The Scuderia Ferrari canteen fills up. People eat to ease the mute pain, while the ignored race provides the warlike background. Later, the first to leave, at 2:50 p.m., is Steve Nichols, chassis designer. The American engineer provides a peculiar comment:
"We cannot accept that a champion like Prost goes out like that on the practice lap. We don't know why, we have to check the gearbox. Alesi? Things happen to a young man".
But really, is it the car's fault or Prost's? At 3:25 p.m. the drivers finally emerge, together. Jean Alesi confesses:
"It's my fault. I was trying to pass Modena, but a spray of water clouded my vision and I put my two wheels on the grass. It's a very black week".
While Alain Prost rambles on, twisting his alibis.
"I was climbing down from fourth when my right rear wheel locked. Blame the water or the gearbox, I don't know yet. In any case I went smoothly on the wet grass. I tried to get out, but the more I accelerated, the more I sank into the puddles. Until the engine died. It was a pity because, then, in good weather, I could have chased Senna".
Could the formation lap have been repeated?
"Yes, it could and it should. But the regulations don't dictate and the race director decided as much. I’m angry. I had never been off the track in a Ferrari. Except at Monza, but in practice. Let's hope that everything works out well at Monte-Carlo".
But later comes the sharp denial of engineer Piero Fusaro:
"I don't want to blame it on Prost, but let it be clear that the car was perfect".
Alain Prost also takes it out on the sporting authorities: in essence, the Frenchman accuses the race director, the Belgian Roland Bruynseraede, of not having acted prudently, of having triggered the cars for the formation lap before the start at a moment of extreme danger.
"What happened was the fault of the circumstances and perhaps of the organisers who, even though the regulations do not provide for it, should have allowed a few extra warm-up laps given the violent rain, much more violent than that which fell during qualifying on Saturday, which flooded the track. This opinion of mine can in no way compensate Ferrari for the disaster it suffered, but I think it would have been the right decision".
The transalpine driver, who in recent years has never liked racing in the wet ( in 1988 he lost the World Championship at Suzuka, losing a twenty-second lead to Senna because of a few drops of rain, and the following year he refused to race in Australia in similar conditions), also talks about his sensational off-track crash, without however providing any other details that might help us to understand the exact causes and mechanics of the accident that excluded him from such an important and delicate race for Ferrari without covering a single kilometre. But it is still a different version from the one given on his return to the pits.
"On a gear shift in third, the car got out of my control. I found myself in the grass reduced to a slush and could not get back on the tarmac. I learned later that Piero Fusaro, the president of Ferrari, said that the gearbox was perfect, but that he didn't feel like blaming the drivers because these things happen in racing".
A diplomatic attitude from Prost, who reiterates that one must set a strategy and follow it:
"According to the best examples, like that of Ron Dennis who runs McLaren".
And he states that:
"Ferrari has achieved a genuine exploit in about twenty days of work by bringing the car back to being competitive".
Heaven does not like Ferrari. Up there, evidently, only Ayrton Senna counts, and he must have the right backing. The Brazilian paved the way for his third consecutive victory since the start of the season in a San Marino Grand Prix that was, for McLaren's rivals, just an elimination race. A malignant thunderstorm a quarter of an hour from the start flooded the track and dampened the hopes of the rivals: Alain Prost out on the formation lap, Nigel Mansell in the grass on the first lap, Nelson Piquet also in the grass on the next, Jean Alesi in the mud on the third lap, Riccardo Patrese blocked by a trivial breakdown after having been in the lead for nine laps. And so the race was immediately over, at least as far as the podium was concerned: Ayrton Senna at the top enjoying applause and a great intimate satisfaction, then his team-mate Gerhard Berger and, in third place, a small gratification for the more than one hundred thousand fans present, the Finnish J.J. Lehto with the Dallara of the Scuderia Italia. Then the Minardi-Ferrari of Pierluigi Martini and Mika Hakkinen and Julian Bailey with the two Lotus-Judd. But the real protagonist of the day, in a negative way, was Ferrari. It is true that fortune favours the bold and normally comes against those who are already in trouble. But this time it was not the team but the drivers that failed. An error by Jean Alesi, who is young and inexperienced, may pass. Alain Prost's going off the track, on the other hand, is incredible. A mockery that almost tastes like spite from the gods. Not least because at the limit - the premature exit of the two Maranello single-seaters not only accentuated the crisis of the moment, but did not even allow the progress made on the performance front in recent days to be assessed. In short, a black Sunday, for Ferrari fans a catastrophe. However, one fact remains: this is one of the most bitter pages in the history of a great champion and consequently also in that of his current team, Ferrari. All aggravated by Jean Alesi's subsequent off-track on lap three, as mentioned. But at least Petit-Jean has, if not the excuse, at least the extenuating circumstance of having followed his attacking temperament. He overtook Stefano Modena's Tyrrell-Honda on the outside, put two wheels off the asphalt and sank into the sand amidst the cheers and screams of fans exasperated by the rapid double retirement. At this point, after the elimination of Nigel Mansell who, suddenly closing a corner, was rammed by Martin Brundle, after the mistake of another World Champion, Nelson Piquet, who went off the track like a beginner, after the unfortunate race of Riccardo Patrese, betrayed by the complicated electronic devices of his Williams-Renault, Ayrton Senna took off without too many problems towards the finish line.
A hat-trick, an en-plein, which already weighs heavily on the World Championship. Thirty points and a 21-point lead over Alain Prost, who was overtaken by Gerhard Berger: an abyss in the standings. Riccardo Patrese did not manage to repeat last year's feat, but the Italian racer still left a mark of courage. Patrese was the only one to attack Senna, to overtake him at the start in the downpour, to impose a pace that could have given the Brazilian no small amount of trouble. But good luck was not on the Paduan's side at Imola. After nine laps in the lead during which he gave a driving lesson, as he returned to the pits to change his tyres, Patrese had to retire due to a very trivial problem. On his Williams, a sensor that controls the timing of the Renault engine broke, a part that can be worth about 30 dollars. In any case, Riccardo Patrese once again showed the British team that he did not deserve to be treated as a second driver, i.e. subordinate to Nigel Mansell. He was faster in qualifying and very good in the race. In recent days the Italian driver, who usually does not start controversies, had complained to Williams. The English team had mounted a more powerful engine on his teammate's car.
"I am bitter, but also pleased with myself. I couldn't do more. Another positive note comes from the realisation that our car is competitive. That's why I'm archiving this race with the conviction that the continuation of the championship will give me some chances to win. Senna is strong, the McLaren is very fast, but I am convinced that I am in a good position to cause the Brazilian some trouble in the future".
It is almost infuriating how good he is. No one knows how to tune cars like him, no one is faster in qualifying, no one now beats him when it comes to tactics. And no driver now has a direct conversation with Heaven, as he himself has repeatedly proclaimed. This time, however, Ayrton Senna, exemplary for his helpfulness and kindness even in press conferences, does not speak of his divine relationships. He admits, however, that when everything goes well, it is easier to grasp luck and that sometimes it is not only talent that gives a decisive hand.
"It was an incredible victory, because I thought I would not finish the race. About 20 laps from the end, the engine oil pressure light came on and I had to ease off the throttle. I was also lucky not to have any rivals, because otherwise it would have been much, much more difficult. Now I have a good lead in the classification and the results so far have been exceptional. We have shown that we have progressed a lot, but we still need to work. On a psychological level, however, we are very charged up".
But how was the race?
"We didn't need the rain. It made everything more complicated, it is always dangerous to race in certain conditions. I had decided to keep the set-up of the car prepared for the dry asphalt because I thought the weather would change. At the beginning I almost spun too. Already in the formation lap I was looking in the rear view mirrors expecting someone to run off the track. And I saw Prost go into the grass. Patrese made a very strong start. But I didn't want to take unnecessary risks. I waited for the situation to stabilise so that I could regain contact with the Williams, who seemed to be in trouble".
"Then I took the lead. Berger was pushing hard, but I could control him. When the engine problem came I became very worried. I reduced the number of laps and kept a certain pace. My partner obviously had some trouble too. I still can't believe I was able to finish the race like that. It was mainly a tactical test".
For Gerhard Berger the result, i.e. second place, is positive. However, the Austrian does not fail to point out that he also had to bow down, once again, to team play, leaving space for the Brazilian. Senna, by the way, received from Honda, exclusively for him, a special, more powerful engine.
"In the first few laps it was tough. Prost ended up outside practically in front of my eyes and I flew into the grass at the same spot, but I managed to save myself. So I realised I didn't have to force it. Until lap 20 I also had brake problems. After that I could have gone faster, but I had to slow down. I was shown a sign from the pits asking me not to press Ayrton, we couldn't get in each other's way. If I had pushed him too hard the risk would have been great...".
Ferrari has long been used to swinging between ups and downs. It goes from exalting triumphs to resounding failures. But unfortunately in this early season, after three races in the Formula 1 World Championship, the team from Maranello has experienced only disappointing days. First the disappointment at the debut at the Phoenix circuit, when it was discovered, despite Alain Prost's second place, that the cars were not competitive against the McLaren-Honda; then the unpleasant confirmation in Brazil on a theoretically favourable track; finally the incredible accident at Imola, with Alain Prost off the track on the formation lap and Jean Alesi immediately out of the race due to a mistake in an overtaking move. It is true that there is always enormous, sometimes damaging pressure around Ferrari. The Maranello team represents the flag of a sport that in Italy is experienced with more passion than elsewhere and it is inevitable that any backlash provokes immediate reactions. But if up to now the negative results had been accepted by the fans thanks to an unshakeable faith, now something seems to have cracked. At Imola, that public that has elected the Maranello team as a myth, feels betrayed, quickly leaving the circuit with feelings ranging from melancholy to anger. So many questions. Why can the most prestigious team in the world not get out of its crisis? Why, with the considerable means at its disposal, does it not find a way to counter McLaren and its other rivals more effectively? Why are so many promises not kept? It is difficult to answer. It must be recognised that McLaren, already very strong in past years, has now found in Ayrton Senna an almost unbeatable champion, capable of single-handedly thwarting all the efforts of his rivals. Without the Brazilian, the British team would probably be much more vulnerable, so much so that some would argue that Ferrari would do well to sign him in order to dispose of his talent but above all to weaken the competition.
Ayrton Senna's talent is not mentioned by chance, because it was precisely at Imola that another worrying flaw opened up in Ferrari. While the cars seemed to have finally regained competitiveness, the drivers contributed to increasing the general disconcert and thwarting the progress (still to be demonstrated, however). How is it possible that a champion of Alain Prost's calibre made such a serious mistake? Was he too nervous and afraid of the rain? Or was it the car that was difficult to drive in those conditions that caused the off-track, given that Jean Alesi later also ran into a similar mishap? Or did the tensions caused by the bad results take away the drivers' lucidity? The only certain fact is that Ferrari is going through a tormented period. Last year they fought for the title and lost it in practice also because of Nigel Mansell's inability to control his mood. Now it is grappling with an impressive series of problems. It is clear at this point that the sporting director Cesare Fiorio has delicate role that cannot be filled by just anyone; experience, competence and diplomatic skills are required. In the environment there has long been talk of possible changes. And it was precisely at Imola that the latest news emerged. Ferrari has reportedly asked Niki Lauda to take over responsibility for sports management. Not just a rumour but a circumstantial description of facts. The former Austrian champion (let us remember that he won two world titles with Ferrari and one with McLaren) was allegedly contacted at Imola by Piero Fusaro, president of Ferrari. And he would have declined the offer, although he was flattered, because of the pressing commitments to which he is obliged by his airline. Ferrari neither denies nor confirms. It simply remains silent:
"We have nothing to say, let's try to work".
But there is no hiding the fact that Cesare Fiorio is no longer the president of the Mugello circuit company, a position taken over by Piero Ferrari, son of the Modenese constructor. Is this a sign? We shall see. It is not the fans' job to call for revolutions. But in these cases it is precisely the latter who demand a change, whatever it may be. Above all, a change of course. But if great Italy disappointed at Imola, little Italy at least partly makes up for Ferrari's disaster and Riccardo Patrese's misfortune. There are three protagonists in the limelight to sweeten a bitter Sunday. First, the 25-year-old Finnish driver Jirki Jarvileto, known simply as J.J. Lehto, who took Dallara to the third step of the podium for the second time in its young history. Second was Pierluigi Martini, in fourth position with the Minardi: he managed on this negative day to achieve the only positive result for the Maranello team, namely crossing the finish line with the 12-cylinder engine produced in the Fiorano workshops. The third celebrant could have been Belgian rookie Eric Van De Poele. But he stopped, out of petrol, on the last lap in the Modena Team's Lambo, leaving his technical director Mauro Forghieri speechless, who had shortly before explained on live television how the calculations had been made to measure the fuel needed to finish the race. Nevertheless, the concrete fact remains of an encouraging performance, which ended in ninth place for Carlo Patrucco's team. Great emotion then at the Scuderia Italia where wine was poured in quantity. Owner Beppe Lucchini with stomach cramps from the tension cannot hold back a tear of joy.
"This is the reward for our efforts. We worked hard, we took big risks by deciding on the new ten-cylinder Judd engines that cost us several billion. But now we are satisfied and serene, we can look to the future with peace of mind, ready to hit other targets. For the moment, we have also removed ourselves from the hell of pre-qualifying, because with the points taken we will enter by right from mid-season among the chosen ones who participate directly in the trials".
Enthusiasm also at Minardi, because Martini's fourth place comes at a difficult moment of the team's growth and after having solved quite a few technical problems on a car that two months ago seemed to be not up to the situation.
"It was a great satisfaction, because I had quite a few problems with the clutch that broke at one point. I couldn't stop to change the tyres. The dashboard display didn't work either and I had to drive by ear, without seeing the rev counter. But I am happy anyway".
The day ended with a confession from Alain Prost, to a journalist from the French newspaper Le Figaro, in which the French driver said clearly about Ferrari:
"The environment is unhealthy and I think they want to destroy me. My mistake at Imola ended up drawing all the attention by hiding the rest. It was a bit like aiming at a tree without realising the forest behind it. Let me be clear, I am not angry with Cesare Fiorio, otherwise I would have mentioned his name explicitly. I’m mad at the whole internal system. I think things at Ferrari will change from within. I am paying dearly for my sincerity but I think it is necessary to move forward and improve. And the Italian press? They speak badly of me to sell more. It always happens like that, when you win everyone speaks well of you, when you lose everyone turns their back...".