After a winter full of tests, news, changes, Formula 1 is back on track. The torrid Jacarepaguá circuit awaits for the first winner of the 1989 world championship (the fortieth in modern history) with the Brazilian Grand Prix that will be held on Friday, March 24, 1989, with qualifying on the opening day. Unfortunately, an accident that occurred the previous week on this track has reminded everyone that, despite all the effort, this is a risky sport: good, fascinating, spectacular, but also dangerous. Philippe Streiff was carried to Paris. His conditions are still serious, the future of the French driver is on the line. Everyone hopes that he will be okay, that one day - not far away - he will go back on track, even just to see some friends, walking on his own two feet.
No choice but to plunge into the usual predictions. Regulations have changed: lighter cars (500 kilos), naturally aspirated engines of 3,500 cubic centimeters. It is this change, the disappearance of turbo engines, that should guarantee an exciting and balanced season, with a more closed fight. McLaren supremacy in 1988 - with fifteen races won by the British team that gave everyone the hard fight between Senna and Prost, in favour of the Brazilian driver - had decreased cheering and interest taking them to the minimum level. McLaren is still the favourite for many reasons. Two exceptional drivers, first-class technical stuff, a perfect organisation, unlimited resources and the direct interested support of a big car manufacturer, Honda. Over the last few days, the new car of the British team, the MP4/5 designed by Neal Oatley, had aroused some concerns during the tests in Rio de Janeiro.
A precarious road holding, immediately reported by Prost rather than by Senna. In fact, on Sunday, March 19, 1989, the world champion in charge with a qualifying setup did a lap time of 1'26"34, 0.026 seconds more than the record done by Mansell with the new Ferrari earlier this month. That type of problems were just contingent and caused by a setup made too quickly. Williams, now linked with Renault, Benetton allied with Ford and March-Judd who had felt fantastic, haven’t got any smiles of hope in the pits as on Thursday and Friday. Ferrari deserves a separate discussion.
Barnard has done a car, the 640, that has undoubtedly the great advantages of the chassis and the aerodynamics. But the British technician has imposed an electronically controlled gearbox, a sophisticated mystery that unfortunately has limited the new 12-cylinder engine. A few days from the start of the season, the team of Maranello underwent a reorganisation, with Cesare Fiorio as its director. The new director will have a difficult task: he has to get together all the strengths but, as he said, he has no magic wand. What do we have to expect from Ferrari then? Maybe a good qualifying. The race is still a question mark, given all the reliability problems pointed out until now. An outsider role with the hope that Ferrari will grow in a short time. This is why, if we have to make a prediction, we will say that McLaren-Honda will win again because it is the strongest alliance. With the hope of being proved wrong by facts, even if in recent times motorsport has become an exact science.
The flight that Ferrari’s staff face on the Alitalia jumbo to arrive in Brazil doesn’t seem like a flight of hope. No complaints, but a crude realism and much hope into the future. That’s already an improvement. The designation of Cesare Fiorio as the team director has had a good effect, at least concerning their spirits. At this point, they are certain to have done what they could to be back at the top. After a week of work in Maranello, it is Fiorio who takes stock of the situation in a very calm way, but without taking a position on the result of the race that on Sunday, March 26, 1989, will open the world championship at the Jacarepaguá circuit.
"Seven days are not enough to understand everything, but are enough to understand that the human and technical available material is very good. I had the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the car, I’m aware of all the problems it has. The overall result is positive, even if we’ll have much work to do".
The conversation moves on to John Barnard, the most difficult element to handle in Ferrari.
"With the British technician I had a three-hour meeting. It seems like he’s available. We will discuss further here in Rio de Janeiro. The basic design of the car is excellent. And even the engine design is not bad as someone says. I think that is really advanced. The problems we had were caused by the fact that these are two sophisticated and difficult programs to set-up, linked one to another. The biggest problem is to put them together, make them work together to reach the maximum performance. And this is our main objective".
Rumours talked about the electronically controlled gearbox and its problems. Could a classic gearbox be used?
"To be honest, no. Developing a mechanical gearbox at this point would be negative. We would probably lose the same time that we need to fix the new one. We move forward with our project. Anyway, I think that the electronics sector is the one in which there are the greatest weaknesses. If there is a sector in which we are stronger is this. So we will look for some available professionals".
However, time is running out and on Friday you will be on track for the first round of qualifying of the Brazilian Grand Prix. What do you expect from this race?
"I’ve found Ferrari’s staff very excited, with the desire to be back at the top. But the emotions are not enough to win and we have to be concrete. I hope that Ferrari will be in a good position for the race start. For the race, any great illusions are useless: we have to find reliability yet and we will work on this during these last few days and hours. If we were to finish the test it would already be a result. Anyway, we will try and see what our rivals will do".
Speaking about rivals, even if on Sunday Senna made an excellent lap time, rumours say that McLaren could be a bit more vulnerable, at least in the beginning of the season. Prost clearly said that the new MP4/5 is yet to be balanced.
"I wasn’t there so I can’t judge. I know from experience that when a new car is made there are always some problems. Everything depends on the team and how quickly it reacts. I think that McLaren is capable of turning around a difficult situation in a short period of time, especially when we consider that the car is new. I heard however that the British team has broadened its horizons, moving the design engineer Gordon Murray on a program to develop a super grand tourer car. Who knows, maybe by increasing the work, they could lose some concentration on Formula 1. We hope so".
Some few more words: how about the Ferrari’s drivers?
"I saw both Berger and Mansell. I had a long talk with the British driver. We saw the unfortunate match of Juventus vs Napoli together on television. I don’t think there is any problem with them. They go fast, it should be almost necessary to calm their spirits. We hope to give them the right equipment to show their potential, they deserve it. However, Ferrari is always appealing to other drivers. There’s always been a queue outside Maranello. And if our cars are competitive there will be a crowd outside our door. By the way, that guy called Stefano Modena is fast".
It is said that a bit of poison, if taken in small doses, is good for the body. If this is true also for the sport, the Formula 1 championship that will begin at the Jacarepaguá circuit, near to the fascinating Rio, will be fantastic. In fact, the season starts among many controversies and discussions. Safety discussions and drivers’ protests apart, McLaren is the one in the spotlight. The team that won the championship last year was challenged because the new car, the MP4/5, didn’t reach the expectations during the tests. And this would be normal because a winning team could expect some critics, but they were a bit too much. However, let’s not forget that McLaren had everyone used to the absolute perfection, so all the problems during tests were a surprise. Nevertheless, the hysterical reaction of McLaren itself and its staff is even more surprising and shows how high the pressure is.
Emanuele Pirro, the third driver for the Anglo-Japanese team, continues to do some tests to try and solve the problems of the new car. Senna calls him every two or three hours to ask him how it is going. Engineer Goto lists all the achievements made by the Honda engine in the last few months; he speaks Japanese because he always pretends to not know any other languages. But whenever he listens to the English translation he gets angry because his thoughts are not interpreted correctly. Ron Dennis replies to him, while Goto - who only speaks Japanese - nods while listening to him saying in English that it is true, the engine is good.
"You don’t have to write that the car isn’t good. Let’s suppose that it is not set up yet, that there are some problems to solve".
Says Ayrton Senna to the journalists, together with Prost and the manager Ron Dennis during Thursday, March 23, 1989.
"But we will solve them".
"There were some rumours. We are always the same and we’re not in a crisis. There is just one truth: the car was designed to have a transverse gearbox that is not ready yet. We’ve had to use the old one, which is longitudinal, and the rear and front suspensions don’t work well with it. Aerodynamics is a little compromised too. But I can assure you that in Imola we will be okay".
A good explanation that at the same time is a confirmation of all the difficulties they had in these days. In fact, Senna, Prost and all the McLaren team are very careful with predictions, stating that the gap of two seconds a lap of last year is now impossibile. The
French driver, which is wise as always, specifies:
"In 1988 we raced one against the other, now we have one more reason to work together against our rivals".
Anyway, McLaren is still the team to beat, but it isn’t certain to win everything immediately anymore as last season. Nelson Piquet, the main rival of the champion in charge, has immediately took the opportunity to declare:
"O carro do Senna é uma droga". [Senna’s car sucks, N.d.T.]
Then he smiles and continues:
"No, I’m exaggerating, but it isn’t good. It has some chassis problems".
On the contrary, in Ferrari the situation is apparently calm. Everyone seems to be aware of the real possibilities of Maranello’s cars.
"We hope that McLaren really has some problems, otherwise who would stop them?"
Cesare Fiorio, who on Thursday has some discussions to do with the heads of the legalist teams, then with the heads of Foca and with Ecclestone, is still very cautious at the moment.
"John Barnard is here. There is an agreement on the direction to take. There aren’t any major changes. The car is essentially good, but the reliability is still unknown. We have made little changes based on recent tests, but we have to go on track to see if the work we have done has paid off. The atmosphere is calm. We don’t have to forget that we debut with the first car that has a naturally aspirated engine, after many years of turbo. And with a revolutionary gearbox".
In Ferrari too there are some sources of tension, especially concerning the drivers. They are very different, but they have the same desire to excel. Gerhard Berger said that he thinks that his British teammate is difficult to beat. And, as a matter of fact, Nigel Mansell doesn’t like to be behind, not even for one lap. For this reason, the first day of qualifying will be an important test for the two of them, the first real confrontation, officially timed, in the absolute same condition. This is another reason that makes the opening of the fortieth Formula 1 championship even more interesting. After nine seasons of Formula 1, 118 Grand Prix completed, 13 wins and 12 pole positions, Nigel Mansell starts all over again. And he does it driving his Ferrari at the Jacarepaguá circuit, in the Brazilian Grand Prix, which starts with the first round of qualifying. Before going on track, the British driver seems to be excited.
"It doesn’t look like it, but I’m feeling almost moved. I’m here driving a Maranello car. The one that I always dreamed of when I was a child and then when I was a young guy while I watched the races in Brands Hatch. When I got the job I didn’t realize how important it was. I understood that Ferrari’s tifosi are exceptional, full of emotions, that just with them a driver could be satisfied. And honestly I have to admit that I’m not very loved in my country. So I think I have almost been adopted".
What do you expect from Ferrari?
"A competitive car, nothing more. We as drivers can do the rest. The start has been encouraging in terms of performance. John Barnard has designed a good car, we can reach the first or second row at the start. The race - and this is the problem - is unknown yet because reliability is still quite poor. We’ve had many little problems that all together didn’t allow us to test the car as we wanted and so we didn’t find the right solutions for them. Anyway, I’m quite confident that we will do all we can to be back at the top".
Will McLaren still be the one to beat?
"I don’t know. There are some doubts, at least for this first race. I’ve been praying all nights for it to be exactly like this".
However, it is the italian driver Riccardo Patrese to come out on top in the first days of practices in the Brazilian Grand Prix, that on Sunday will kick off the Formula 1 championship. The Paduan driver makes everyone agree. In this race he reaches an enviable number of 177 Grand Prix completed, an all-time record, ahead of Jacques Laffite and Graham Hill with 176. A surprise? Maybe, but not too much. Everyone knows how good he is, the qualities of Williams and Renault, that goes back on track with a ten-cylinder naturally aspirated engine. Behind Patrese there are Senna, Berger, Prost, Mansell and Boutsen. Two confirmations: McLaren is always good but not like before, at least for now. And Ferrari starts with brio. Maybe it could have done more, but there is still time to improve.
While in the pits the mechanics are sweating to set up the cars that on Easter day will start the first Grand Prix of the season, the drivers relax under the sun of Rio - a sun that will cause them some problems during the race. Sea, pools, beaches, tennis and great sleep until Friday, when the track will be open for practices. The finest drivers meet on the green of Gavea Golf Club, an exclusive club of the Brazilian high society. It is here that Mansell, Warwick and Prost himself relax. Meanwhile, inside the Calígula there is Benetton’s gala, at Ippopotamus there are Lotus’ guests and at Columbus there is an Italian party attended by all the Italian drivers who, for the occasion, act as panel of judges to elect the Miss of the Grand Prix of Rio. Mauricio Gugelmin is constantly inside the pool, Piquet practices footing in Ipanema and Senna plays with an airplane model given by Honda. There is just one driver missing that is surprisingly found inside the pits of Jacarepaguá by the journalists: lying under his March, Ivan Capelli is fixing something, after having cleaned the radiators and the farining of his car.
Friday, March 24, 1989 is a day full of suspense: practices are very close, uncertain, exciting, even if Patrese is the fastest. The 34-year old Italian driver sets a lap time of 1'26"172, at 210.180 km/h on average. This lap time is not the track record (Senna did a lap time of 1'25"601 in 1987), but shows anyway how continuous the progress of these cars is, thanks to the reuse of the qualifying tyres that lowers the limits of almost 3 seconds than the race tyres. Last year, by the way, Senna was on pole with a lap time of 1'28"096. The other drivers, not at all worried for the start of Patrese, go back on track to try and do a better lap. In the end, Senna and Berger couldn’t make it to the top for less than one tenth of a second. The Brazilian driver is almost driven by the support of his country, but Formula 1 is not football, while the Austrian driver didn’t make it due to a little mistake, as he said during an interview after practices. Mansell was caught in traffic: too many cars on track, it was impossible to do a lap time. Prost has to settle for fourth place, but he doesn’t seem happy. Both the McLaren drivers don’t criticize their cars but it is clear that there is some problem in the road holding, with understeer and oversteer.
Behind there are different rookies: Boutsen (who has to deal with a terrible back pain caused when he went off the track last week), Capelli (who still hasn’t set up his March yet), Nannini, who was really angry after being overtaken by the rookie Herbert and after having made a mistake with the setup of his Benetton. Nelson Piquet (twelfth) debuted with his new Lotus-Judd which seems to be as slow as a camel - just as the main sponsor logo. With his chest bandaged, the three-times world champion Brazilian driver - who is still recovering from the broken rib on the boat - is trying to set up his car, which has some aerodynamics problems. But he says that it is much better than the year before and that he can fight with the first drivers.
A good performance by Stefano Modena, thirteenth, after a quick debut with his Brabham in pre-qualifying. The Modena-based driver, even if he was dealing with the clutch that was skipping gears, shows how good he is - and he had never used the qualifying tyres. And concerning the tyres, it must be said that the first fight between Goodyear and Pirelli, which ended in favour of the American multinational, is really unequal because the teams supplied by Pirelli are not at the maximum of their possibilities. Anyway, this will be an important matter during the race on Sunday.
As regards the Italian drivers, De Cesaris wasn’t bad (fourteenth) with his Dallara of the Scuderia Italia, almost a tragedy for Minardi who is excluded with Pier Luigi Martini, who was sixteenth. Martini is disqualified for safety reasons: his helmet has to be under the ideal line of the two roll-bars and this rule was not respected. For the same reason, even Arnoux gets his lap time deleted, but he was last in the provisional classification. Martini’s disqualifying makes the unlucky Michele Alboreto gain a position, who had obtained the twenty-sixth time. A broken gearbox in the morning, the skipping gears on his black Tyrrell in the afternoon makes the effort of the Milan-based driver even more difficult and he will have to grit his teeth to not allow these misadventures to let him down. On Saturday there will be more practices, waiting for race day.
It is 38 °C and this sweltering heat makes the first day of the Formula 1 championship harder. But Riccardo Patrese, after practices, is happy and ready, and declares:
"I thought I was among the best, but not the fastest. The engine is great and you all know the car. Patrick Head is a guarantee in this sector, he rarely makes mistakes, even if it was about adjusting the old chassis to Renault’s ten-cylinder. I did a good and clean lap, I can go half a second lower. I don’t know if it would be enough to be on top, but I will try to do it".
However, inside the McLaren box the atmosphere is less happy. Senna declares that he could have been faster:
"I made a mistake in the trajectory at the turn that brings you on the main straight. In the second round I will do better".
Prost, with a dark face, explains that he was slowed down by the not-ideal setup of his McLaren-Honda.
"I had understeer, I changed the settings and I restarted. But I think I have made a mistake. I will look for some compromise solutions".
On the contrary, in Ferrari there is a cautious optimism and satisfaction. Fiorio is clear:
"The 640 is competitive. Reliability is getting better, even if there is still much work to do. Anyway, the first result is quite positive".
The drivers confirm this statement, despite Mansell having a go at Piquet and accusing him to have slowed him down at the turn:
"If I hadn’t found you-know-who, I would have been in a higher position. Anyway, I’m calm. The car is good. I had some problems with the gearbox in the morning because it was stuck in neutral. But nothing broke so this is positive. With the first set of tyres I didn’t go too fast and with the second one, despite the traffic, I did many laps around 1'27"0".
Gerhard Berger - who is rumoured to be going through a psychological crisis because he left his partner Rosi, from which he had a daughter, for a portuguese woman - shows to be focused just on the race as always:
"It is good. I can do better. I made a mistake with a gear at the turn that goes from the pits to the track and I was caught up in traffic. I think that I can do a 1'25"5. A part of it will depend on the temperature. Williams was a surprise but we’re also on the right way. I didn’t have problems concerning the engine nor the gearbox. I just had an oil leak at the end, but nothing serious. On this track the pole position will be very important. And I will try to win it".
So, Ferrari is looking good and ready to fight. However, someone hopes to make up positions during the race of the following day, despite being excluded from the fight for the first places. It is Ivan Capelli’s case:
"We can’t do anything more on a single lap, but in the race we will be stronger. I’m just focusing on the setup of the car. We’ll see".
An uncertain race, a sort of roulette in which the terrible heat, the tyre game, the surprises and the effort of the drivers will be crucial. Such is the Brazilian Grand Prix, the first race of the Formula 1 championship, that on the Jacarepaguá circuit will open a season in which there are ancient and new fights. Who will be the winner? Will it still be the Brazilian Ayrton Senna or the Italian Riccardo Patrese? Will Ferrari surprise everyone or there will be a McLaren supremacy? There are many questions to answer and rebuses to solve. But the season starts with a wonderful balance, without favorites, announced or almost certain winners. Nobody wants to make predictions, especially since everyone knows the reaction times of drivers like Senna and Prost and other candidates’ ambitions. Not even Alain Prost, the man of Rio, the driver who won this race five times, wants to make a prediction.
"Everythings is new and has to be tested. We start from a very solid basis, from a winning tradition over the last few years. This gives me hope because our rivals could make mistakes. I think that tyres will be the crucial factor. In fact, I’m not worried about the fact that our cars haven’t got the best stability, but there is the possibility that we will have to box many times to change tyres because they degrade quickly. In this case, if we have to box many times, then the outsider could come out. Plus, I have to admit that Williams surprised me. They improved quickly thanks to the Renault engine. Ferrari? I don’t know: I think they will have some reliability problems but they will surely fight against us in the next races".
Ferrari is still the mystery of this race. The performance is there, but the gearbox and the engine are still under examination. Cesare Fiorio, head of the Maranello team, is cautious:
"We haven’t tested an entire Grand Prix yet. Something is improved, but it is yet to be tested during a difficult race, in extreme conditions due to temperatures. If we were in Imola, I would have been more optimistic".
Riccardo Patrese’s dream lasts only twenty-four hours. The Italian driver, at his 177th race in Formula 1, isn’t in pole position for the Brazilian Grand Prix with his Williams-Renault. At the second round of qualifying, Ayrton Senna takes the pole position. And the scream of the Brazilian fans echoes across the circuit - a scream which reminds the Maracanã stadium. So it all begins again: the championship seems to be the same as last year, with the combination Senna-McLaren as the favourites. At the moment, the Brazilian driver and the British team are stronger than the controversies of the previous days. The amazing Ayrton does two incredible laps: one of 1’25"570, then of 1"25"302, 212.323 km/h of average, the absolute limit of the track.
He is quicker than three years ago, when he did - with the qualifying tyres and a 1200 horsepower turbo engine - a lap time of 1'25"601, which seemed unreachable. Now the cars are lighter (500 kilos compared to 540 kilos of the previous year), but overall they improved in the road holding, aerodynamics and engine application. However, it has to be said that the World Champion has been facilitated by Patrese’s problems. In fact, Patrese’s car stopped after his engine broke 500 meters later. Then he returned on track with some problems at the end of qualifying. Williams and Renault’s technicians are very good at changing the engine in thirty-two minutes, but it is not enough. Radiant as never before, it is a portrait of a happy man. Ayrton Senna doesn’t know how to contain his happiness. He won a pole position under the eyes of his fans, after all the criticisms that were made on the competitiveness of McLaren.
"I didn’t think that I could do this lap time. I knew that the car was good, but there were still the problems of the traffic on track and the sweltering heat. Instead, everything went perfectly. I think that I’ve done two very good laps. And there is no way you can go this fast if the car isn’t good. I can’t say that this McLaren is at its best yet: I feel that the chassis and the engine aren’t perfectly matched yet. But when the transverse gearbox will be ready, we will be good. Now we have to think about the race. I really think that I have a good chance of winning. Williams and Ferrari could fight us, especially at the start of the Grand Prix. But I’m confident. However, at the end of the race we could have to deal with March and Benetton. So I think that the fans will enjoy this one, it will be an exciting race".
Ayrton Senna’s performance is not matched by Alain Prost. The French driver continues to talk about setup problems, that the car is not as he wanted and that there is too much understeer. Alain has to settle for fifth place, before the Brazilian driver, Patrese, Berger and Boutsen, but ahead of Mansell. However, it is unclear how in two days Senna was able to adjust his car and why his friend/rival is continuing to deal with the same problems. Prost, with a lower grid position, doesn’t take part in the happiness of the Brazilian driver. But even the French driver wants to succeed.
"A good part will depend on the tyres choice and on the setup of the car for the race. I’m not feeling excluded. I know that I will have to face some difficulties, but at the same time I’m confident in my skills".
Even Riccardo Patrese feels like he can fight for first place:
"I haven't started the race in the front row since 1983. A good satisfaction. Unfortunately I had some problems. The engine failed for an unknown issue but it has already been solved. Unfortunately, technicians didn’t have time to change all the available engine components. But for the race we will have the right ones. I could have done better. I don’t know if I could have beaten Senna but I would have liked to try and do it. I will try to catch up in the race".
Even Ferrari takes a step back. While Berger maintains his third place, Mansell - despite improving his performance - drops back to sixth place. The two drivers of Maranello aren’t lucky. They are slowed down by two events in a crucial moment: Mansell, while he’s doing a flying lap, is blocked by Foitek’s Eurobrun with a broken engine, while the Austrian driver goes on an oil trail left by Alliot’s Lola. Berger and Mansell could have done better, maybe even fight for first row. However, it must be recognized that the reliability of the new 640 designed by John Barnard is still far away to reach. The electronically controlled gearbox works at times and doesn’t allow the two drivers to drive consistently and to set up the car. Ferrari’s reliability is still one of the unknown of the race. On paper, it is uncertain for a lot of reasons. Gerhard Berger admits that:
"On Friday, the gearbox hadn't caused me too much trouble. On the contrary, during the second round the problems increased. The situation is still the same: the car has great potential, is competitive in terms of performance but is still lacking reliability. For this reason, it’s hard to make predictions. If we won’t have problems, we’ll be fighting at the top. Otherwise, we’ll have to focus our ambitions on the next race".
After that, Nigel Mansell intervenes and declares:
"I also couldn't express myself at my best. In the morning, I spun because I was stuck in neutral. It’s not easy to give your all when there are troubles like this. But it’s useless to talk now, we have to wait for the race. However, it’s clear that we have to work. Much".
Cesare Fiorio totally agrees with the British driver:
"We’re still at the beginning. Troubles are there, we can’t deny them. But this is motorsport. The race? I’ll say it again: we don’t have to delude ourselves, if a positive result comes, it will be a good surprise for us".
Capelli and Nannini are very careful. The Milan-based driver knows that he has a March that is not up there with McLaren, Williams and Ferrari.
"We just have to race intelligently, focusing on seizing opportunities. We’re on the edge".
While Nannini is still complaining about the non-perfect road holding of his Benetton:
"This is a difficult track from all points of view. Every time something changes, especially the grip. I will fight as always, but with few hopes".
Between the qualified drivers there is also Michele Alboreto, twentieth. The Milan-based driver has had just one good lap, after having broken the gearbox of his old Tyrrell two times.
"I’m happy after seeing how things have turned out. But it is always an ordeal".
The same problem of Michele Alboreto, concerning an extremely little cockpit, also affects Eddie Cheever:
"Arrows is a sort of Chinese boot. It fits too tight. If I will be able to do ten laps, it will be a miracle".
Hopes, disappointments, problems. All this is going on during this multifaceted Grand Prix where there are just two certainties: Senna’s talent and McLaren’s strength. Apart from the ambient temperature that will make everything difficult, there are the tyre problems that wear out quickly and the pit stops to change them (just one, or even two or three pit stops? Which tyres are better between Goodyears and Pirellis?). However, the fact that there are three teams (McLaren, Williams and Ferrari) all close to each other is a factor of uncertainty and open fight. And neither the ones that are racing a little bit behind are excluded a priori from the win. It is Ivan Capelli’s case with his March, seventh, the first driver to have the car of the year before. He has less power, but more certainty about the functioning of the mechanical components.
From the outsider group there are also Nannini and Herbert’s Benetton, Piquet’s Lotus, Brunelle and Modena’s Brabham, but with fewer chances. Among Rio’s news there is the introduction of two new engines: the eight-cylinder Yamaha on Schneider’s Zakspeed and the twelfth-cylinder engine designed by Mauro Forghieri which is provisionally fitted on the old chassis of Philippe Alliot’s Lola. Roberto Moreno with his Coloni, Yannik Dalmas with his Lola Lamborghini, Renè Arnoux with his Ligier Ford and Gregor Foitek with his Eurobrun didn’t manage to qualify.
So, this race should be really exciting. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the very high temperature (always around 38 °C) will cause troubles not only to the cars but also to the physical endurance of the drivers. To be honest, however, knowing what happened in the recent past, a McLaren one-two can’t be excluded. Prost wants his sixth win on this track, Senna wants to confirm his title of the year before in front of a crowd that have never seen him winning the home Grand Prix. But it is easier to believe that the Brazilian driver will make the first step that could lead him to win his second title.
Sunday, March 26, 1989, thirty minutes before the start, the alternator belt on Mansell’s car breaks down while Berger’s fails for some gearbox issues. The Austrian driver takes the spare car but even that one stops. Inside the Ferrari box there is resignation. John Barnard suggests putting a few liters of gas inside the tank in order to do a few laps before stopping the cars along the way, but Ferrari sport director Cesare Fiorio refuses to do it and makes the cars start with the full tank.
Senna’s start is quite bad. After having shifted gears too quickly, he loses the lead to Patrese and then collides with Berger: both drivers go off track, compromising their race definitively. Senna, in particular, will have to pit to change the front wing, losing some laps compared to the first drivers. Behind Patrese, who leads a race for the first time after the South African Grand Prix of 1983, there are Mansell and Prost. When he goes back to the box, Gerhard Berger comments the accident at the start:
"I’m tired of Ayrton’s habit to think that, when two cars are fighting for a position, that position is his and the other driver has to move out of the way. If we have to fight, we’ll do it".
Meanwhile Ayrton, really disappointed, explains the accident with Berger:
"Actually, I made a mistake with the gearbox. I put the second gear too early, I found myself with the engine in high revs and the car slowed down. So Berger and Patrese pulled up alongside me, one on the right and the other on the left. When we started to make the turn at the end of the start straight, I was in between them. I couldn’t move. I also tried to slow down, but the carbon discs were too cold and didn’t react promptly. What was I supposed to do? I can’t fly. After having lost three laps to the necessary changes, I went back on track trying to focus and to not think about the fact that I had to catch up. I did my race. At the end I realized that I could have won this".
Ayrton, as a consolation, after the race goes to the birthday party of Xuxa, his beautiful girlfriend, a Brazilian television star. So he leaves to go to Brasília where, invited by the Fuerza Area, will fly on a Minge fighter jet. Meanwhile, even the first race of Boutsen isn’t a success for Williams: picking up some debris from the Senna and Berger collision, his engine stops during the third lap, letting Mansell go and take second place. In a few minutes, some of the new cars shows signs of failures. Martini’s Minardi stops during the third lap due to a chassis problem, Modena’s Brabham stops during the ninth lap due to a driveshaft failure and Piquet’s Lotus stops during the tenth lap with the fuel pump that wasn’t working anymore. Meanwhile, Nicola Larini is disqualified for irregular start.
During the sixteenth lap, Mansell overtakes Patrese and goes in the lead; despite the little confidence on the new cars of Maranello, at the twentieth lap Mansell is still in the lead, when he pits to change tyres, followed by Patrese one lap later, leaving the race lead to Alain Prost. Mansell goes back on track behind Prost and, among the whispers of spectators, the British driver gets him and overtakes him easily at the twenty-eighth lap, taking the race lead back. Around the half of the race, Mansell is first, ahead of Prost, Derek Warwick with his new Arrows and Johnny Herbert. Gugelmin is fifth, while Patrese is sixth. The Italian driver will reach third place, before a non-planned pit stop will put a definitive end to his race at the fifty-first lap.
Even Warwick has a non-perfect pit stop and goes back on track in seventh place. His teammate Cheever, who is struggling, during the thirty-seventh lap collides with Bernd Schneider’s Zakspeed and both have to retire the car. The pit stop drama isn’t over yet: during the forty-fifth lap, Mansell pits to change both tyres and steering wheel because the gearshift paddles are loose and the British driver runs the risk of losing the fifth gear. Nigel, having changed everything, goes back on track with Prost ahead of him.
In the midfield, before retiring the car for some alternator problems, Patrese breaks the record at the forty-seventh lap; he will stop five laps later. Prost, who apparently is on a non-stop strategy, starts to slow down, also because of the excessive tyre consumption. This allows Mansell to catch up with him, overtake him and get away. The Ferrari driver remains in the lead for all the remaining fifteen laps, getting a famous win. Mansell is the first driver - after Mario Andretti in 1971 - to win on his race debut for Ferrari. The British driver goes on the podium with Alain Prost and Mauricio Gugelmin, ahead of Herbert and ends the race just 1,6 seconds ahead of the McLaren of the French driver.
Fourth place for Johnny Herbert - not bad considering that he is still struggling to walk - with Warwick that reaches the fifth place and broods for having lost 25 seconds during his pit stop; especially thinking that the Arrows’ British driver ended 18 seconds behind Mansell. Nannini takes the last point available with his Benetton. While Mansell celebrates his win cutting his hands while taking the trophy - which was really sharpened - , Prost says that he wasn’t on a non-stop strategy. Instead, a gearbox link broke and he realized that if he had stopped, he would have never been able to restart, so he never pitted and ended the race with just one set of tyres.
The most beautiful wins are the unexpected ones. This is the story of an unpredicted success, of a surprising Ferrari, even for itself. For Maranello it is a joy shared by everyone in the team. They celebrate with a sort of big toast as they do in Modena, sprays of water, lambrusco, beer and champagne. It is a way of blowing off the steam accumulated during long and difficult months. It all started in the morning, during the warm-up, that is the 30-minutes test before the race. Three cars stopped by problems that seemed unsolvables, with electronically controlled gearboxes that weren’t working very well. Berger and Mansell were perplexed, the technicians disconcerted and the mechanics desperate. Then the concentration, the calm before the storm. At the start, the team director Cesare Fiorio, surrounded by his employees, was trying to encourage them, showing off a calm that he couldn’t have.
"We did our calculations, our tactics. Unfortunately, at the start, the first problem: Berger’s elimination. Without considering that the Austrian driver had to change car, taking the mule car, because during the formation lap he had an engine problem".
However, after the first lap, the situation was already under control. Firm orders, attentive waiting. In the headphones came Mansell’s agitated voice, who was aiming at the first place. Everyone noticed that Ferrari was quick, competitive. Fiorio explains:
"The race management wasn’t difficult. Datas come very precisely. I think that the decisive move was the tyre change. We got a bit scared when at the second pit stop the English driver was asking for a steering wheel change. We have fitted one of Berger, a little bit different. All went well. Mansell was really good, especially towards the end of the race when he understood which was the right pace without risking too much".
Lap after lap, the win became more and more certain. All the team was holding their breath until the end. Then the big celebration. With a bitter comment by Ron Dennis, McLaren’s manager. A joke as:
"One swallow doesn’t make a summer".
Fiorio, who everyone appointed as a good omen for the team with a success in his first race as the team director, replies calmly:
"We know very well that we have many other problems to solve. But we believe that we deserved it because in this sport everything has to go well. An unforgettable win. We don’t want to create any illusions or excessive expectations. But it is a good result. I know from experience that a defeat is always good to learn something while a statement could deceive. We go back home with many datas to look at. Tomorrow we’ll be already at work".
Then he precises:
"I can be lucky, but the credit for this win goes to Barnard who designed this car and to Mansell who has driven like a champion".
The German technician Ralph Hahn - who works on the electric components of the engine - has played an important role in the success of the team. He was the one who, in the morning, imposed to fit two old alternators which during the practices on Friday had worked well, despite some contrary opinions. Maybe it was the best choice. Even John Barnard - design engineer of the new 640 - is moved and promoted in action.
"My heart was pounding. I didn’t expect to win. But I’m here for it and I’m happy when something that I’ve done is proven to be good. Criticism didn’t bother me too much because I knew that my project was good and that the car concept was right. The competitiveness of the engine impressed me. The problems we had were little and stupid, nothing on the basis. Now we have to work on reliability".
Barnard also accepts some jokes and replies with humour.
"We overtook McLaren, an old car after all. I know very well that at least ten percent of that car - as the transmission, for example - comes from the work that I did with them. Never mind. The electronically controlled gearbox has shown to be really good. Have you seen the start? This is only the first step. I’ve already got other revolutionary solutions on my mind. When we’ll be good I’ll think about it. Now we have to check the spare parts’ quality and deepen our knowledge of the car. I hope we have a strong season. You ask me if I will renovate my contract with Ferrari that will expire at the end of the season? I don’t have time to think about it. We’ll see, one step at a time".
Who would have thought that Nigel Mansell - after all the problems he had in the last few days and at his debut at Ferrari - would have won the home Grand Prix of the World Champion Ayrton Senna, the man of the super McLaren? But it happened. It wasn’t just a coincidence. A desired win at the end of a wonderful race, full of surprises, emotions, exciting until the last metre. So much so that, at the end, the Brazilian crowd stopped their infernal samba rhythm they had made since the beginning of the Grand Prix to dedicate a long applause to Ferrari, managed by Cesare Fiorio, and to Mansell. It was him, Nigel Mansell, the hero of the day. Mansell who in his country is considered an antihero - not much considered because in his last years he lost two championships. But is it really the driver’s fault if, for example, a tyre blows up during the final race?
The British driver has been perfect in the race. No mistakes: he has raced with braveness and as an expert driver, he has shown that he can measure his strength and the strength of the car. Anything but brainless and with a lot of courage, as they said about him in the past. Actually, Mansell has two sides. Gentle, domestic, family-attached, calming sports (golfing and fishing) in his private life, brave, combative, reckless in his public life. A driver who is capable of fighting on track until the last metre and battling with teammates or very good rivals on equal terms. And, maybe, determined to defend his opinions to the point of punching some incorrect colleagues, as happened two years before with Senna in Belgium. Mansell, 34-years old, married to Rosanne ("...she is my strength: Piquet says that she isn’t beautiful but a woman so smart would never marry someone like him…"), with three children from one to six years old, Greg, Leo and Cloe, lives in a beautiful house in the Isle of Man, where he is also an honorary police officer. He is a man that has come a long way overcoming difficult times. For example when, at the beginning of his career, he had to sell his apartment to keep racing.
"Is it true that I won?"
He asks Rosanne while getting off the podium, with a certain British humour.
"It is fantastic, a success for Ferrari at my first race. I had thirteen wins until now, I finally got over that ugly number. I have to dedicate this statement to Enzo Ferrari and to all the people that have worked to make it possible".
Limping because of a cramp that he had during the entirety of the race ("With this automatic gearbox, without the clutch, I don’t know where to put my left foot, but my leg was hurting because I have a new seat"), with both hands bleeding ("Look at these fools! They gave me a sharpened trophy, it hurts!"), but he is happier than ever. The difficult moments of the past are forgotten. Some years before he ran the risk of be paralyzed for an accident at his spine (he ran away from the clinic to go back racing) and in 1987 he got stuck for five months after getting off the track in Japan.
Even the last negative experience of his career is forgotten, when three seasons ago he didn’t respect the contract signed with Ferrari, staying at Williams. But he was naive and he gave up to the pressures of the British team. He got away with paying a substantial sum to the association for the research of muscular dystrophy to which Enzo Ferrari was deeply invested. Now Mansell has definitely won the heart of the tifosi. A record on the Fiorano track when he first got to Italy and a brilliant win at his first race. So the Ferrari number 27, which was Gilles Villenueve’s, is back at the top. With good chances to keep it up. To think that John Barnard, having seen the difficulties of the morning, wanted to start the race with less fuel…
The exciting and unexpected win of Ferrari in Rio de Janeiro could overshadow an important technical aspect that cannot be forgotten: it was the first success in Formula 1 of a car with an electronically controlled gearbox. Mansell’s triumph happened thanks to several elements. The competitiveness of the car, the driver’s skill, the perfect strategy and the rivals’ problems. Thus, all of the things that normally affect the results of every race. But the importance that the use of the new command system has cannot be underestimated. Many people have noticed how, at the start, Mansell and Berger (but especially the Austrian driver) went off better than their rivals. It was thanks to their exceptional reflexes, but also to the gearbox, who gives them many advantages. As John Barnard himself explains.
"There are many reasons why I chose this solution. First of all the driver, when the lights go out, can be more focused on the driving, with both hands on the steering wheel. Whoever doesn’t have the electronically controlled gearbox has to shift gears through the gear lever".
There is still no exact countercheck that shows a substantial difference in acceleration between a traditional start and a start with an electronically controlled gearbox. The fact remains that the cars of Maranello are the only ones to have 7 gears (the other cars have 6), this is why the start could be more progressive and measured. And this applies also for the rest of the race.
"In addition, we’ll have more advantages in the slow tracks as Monte Carlo thanks to the possibility to have a variety of gear trains. Without considering that the driver is less tired. Berger and Mansell will be more clear-headed during the entirety of the race".
However, it is necessary to clarify that it is not an automatic gearbox yet. It is an electronically controlled one because the gearshift paddles behind the steering wheel and used by the driver send pulses to a control unit (made with Magneti Marelli) which acts on a hydraulic system that shifts gears upon request. But Barnard obtained other results too: the gear box is smaller even containing one more gear train. And its selection is quicker because it is non-mechanical, so levers-free. At the moment, the weakest point of this system is still reliability because every component is subjected to terrible stress.
But Barnard, according to what he said, has already some more sophisticated and cutting-edge solutions on his mind. It is easy to say that, in a couple of years, all the cars have to have similar systems if they want to win. Meanwhile, yesterday in Ferrari there was the usual post-race debriefing. Cesare Fiorio listened to everyone in the team, Barnard included. They talked a lot, certainly to prepare the strategy for the San Marino Grand Prix, in Imola, on April 23, 1989, but maybe also to set a series of future programs. A total dedication that has postponed the debut of the test driver Jarvi Letho in Fiorano, who could be on track on Friday, March 31, 1989. Repeating the achievement of Brazil once again will not be easy, but at this point it is clear that Ferrari will do everything to meet the expectations.
Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna were the protagonists of the Brazilian Grand Prix negatively. According to spectators, the biggest fault for the accident that happened at the start (which could have had serious consequences because behind the Ferrari and the McLaren-Honda all of the group was coming) is on the Brazilian driver. Senna, with all his impulsiveness, does not seem capable of driving with his head. However, the World Champion denies every accusation and blames the circumstances, maybe for a mistake he has made, but before the collision.
Perfectly logical. In addition, Senna says that, at the end of the race, he realized that he could have won. Senna’s declaration is confirmed by the chronometric datas. If we consider only the regular laps done by Senna (57) in the total sum of the lap times, the Brazilian driver would have covered the distance with 28,4 seconds less than Mansell. The British driver of Ferrari, on the waves of the fight with his biggest rival, could have risked more and, above all, gone quicker at the end, in which he spared - rightly - his Ferrari. Surely Senna was affected by his disastrous start. On the contrary, the accident at the start didn’t bother Berger very much, who accurately avoided to make any controversial declaration:
"It was a normal racing incident. No one is to blame. We were three and neither of us wanted to let go. I’m sorry for how things went. But I’m happy, very happy, that Ferrari won. It gives us confidence, after many problems. Now we’ll work with more conviction because we know that we are heading in the right direction, even if I think that the team was already motivated before".
Prost has never been so happy. Is it just because his friend-rival Senna didn’t get a single point? Apparently not.
"I think I’ve done the best race of my life. From the first tyre change I’ve been almost without the clutch and so I didn’t stop again. If I hadn’t had this problem, I could have won. I’ve driven very well, resisting Gugelmin and Herbert’s attacks at the end. The McLaren isn’t perfect yet, but it will improve. I’ve got six important points because this year the differences between the teams will be minimal. Every position counts".
The Brazilian driver Gugelmin is happy too:
"I hope to have at least in part cheered up the spectators for the mistakes made by Senna and Piquet. A third place with an old March is not bad, the new one will allow us to grow and fight among the best".
Patrese couldn’t celebrate his 177th Grand Prix with a good result, but he was one of the protagonists. But still, the Paduan driver does not complain:
"I too could have won. I was eliminated by a banal failure. However, our Williams is very competitive and the engine is one of the most powerful. It is always pleasant to drive when you are in the lead and this was an emotion that I hadn’t felt for six years. We had decided to do one pit stop to change the tyres: it was a mistake. I’ve gone back on track too late and I lost a lot of time. The Ferrari? I’ve always known that Cesare Fiorio is not only intelligent, but he also brings good luck. However, if I have to be honest, when I saw Mansell driving this quickly, I thought that they were only trying to put on a show, starting low on gas. And then… Speaking of the British driver, I was told that he is angry at me, saying that I impeded him when he was trying to overtake me. I’m sorry, but I was struggling with the tyres".
On the contrary, Alessandro Nannini is furious. He finished the race sixth, but two places behind his young teammate Herbert:
"I had to stop four times because the tyres were degrading so much, I lost a lot of time in the pits due to an air intake that got off and a front tie rod flew away".
It seems like the Tuscan driver was very angry at the Benetton’s technicians. There is the impression that the team is starting to explicitly favour the very good Herbert. But why would they want to get rid of a driver like Nannini? Besides, isn’t the team Italian? Arrows was good but not without problems. Cheever, after having been hit by Schneider’s Zakspeed, has had a few little collapses, even due to his big nose hit. But actually he was already exhausted: the car is too narrow, he can’t drive. And Warwick, who did an amazing race, couldn’t fight for the first places because his mechanics messed up his pit stop. But there is the impression that we will hear about Arrows again.
In conclusion, the Formula 1 championship has had a brilliant start. Ferrari’s surprising win (who was among the favourites) apart, the first race in Brazil showed clearly that the new technical regulations, with the elimination of the turbo engines in favour of the naturally aspirated ones, will be the crucial point of the season that will offer to some teams a chance to succeed. Everyone knew that the car designed by John Barnard was competitive, but there were some doubts around its reliability. Mansell’s success showed the technicians of Maranello that they are heading in the right direction. Now, three weeks before the San Marino Grand Prix, everyone will try to fix all the problems they had in Rio, working on the details that are still uncertain.
Prost’s second place isn’t enough for McLaren. The car designed by Neal Oatley is not perfect yet. Starting from Monday, the British team will be in Imola to continue the tests at the transverse gearbox, considered necessary to the definitive set up of the new car. According to Williams, it was the fitting of the new Renault engine on the old car that led Patrese and Boutsen to the top. However, an alternator failure took the Paduan driver away from a good place and maybe even from chances of win. But it is clear that it will be one of the teams to beat in the next races.
Benetton and March were considered to be the outsider and this is how it was. Fourth and sixth Hebert and Nannini, third Gugelmin. But to grow further the two teams will have to wait. The first will have a new car and the official Ford engine in a very short time, the second will have a more powerful Judd engine in a few weeks. Then, they could be more dangerous. Nelson Piquet said that the Lotus designed by Frank Dernie is good. But during the race he was stopped by an engine failure. He will have to show up for some tests in Imola.
The true surprises were Arrows and Brabham. Warwick and Cheever’s team has a very quick and good-balanced car. The British driver could have even been in the fight for the win if it wasn’t slowed down by a messy pit stop for the tyre change. But potentially the Arrows is to be put at the top, unless in the next races doesn’t show the contrary. Same for Brunelle and Modena’s Brabham, just a step behind. Good potential too for Minardi and Osella: the first didn’t have a good result because of the engine failure, the second one because of Larini’s disqualification who, at the start, aligned in the wrong place. But the two Italian teams will have their possibility of redemption.
Flavia Sara de Simone
Translated by Monica Bessi