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#472 1989 Mexican Grand Prix

2021-10-17 00:00

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#1989,

#472 1989 Mexican Grand Prix

Anche la Ferrari prende parte, domenica 7 Maggio 1989, al Gala offerto dal principe Ranieri, in onore di Senna e Prost. Tanti complimenti e auguri di

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On Sunday, May 7, 1989, Ferrari attends the Gala held by Prince Ranieri in honour of Senna and Prost. Many compliments and wishes for a speed recovery, the latter for Gerhard Berger. The overall result is positive for Ferrari, even after the third round of the Formula 1 World Championship where the team and the driver, Nigel Mansell, accepted the defeat in the best way possible, so as a sign of recovery. However, on a more concrete level, there is a sense of fear towards McLaren in this first part of the season which is exactly the opposite for Ferrari. After the season opening in Brazil, the British team only got better, with two consecutive en plein at the San Marino and Monaco Grand Prix. Not only have they got first and second place, but they have also lapped everyone else. The amazing talent of the Brazilian driver should not make us forget the technical supremacy of the car: the combination of the car and the engine allows the driver to do what he wants.

 

Now, after three races, there is a worrying fact: Senna won on a high-speed track (Imola) and dominated on a low-speed track (Monte Carlo). This means that McLaren, without even racing with their definitive car - which should have the transverse gearbox - , seems to be heading to repeat the same result as last year, when they got 15 wins out of 16 races. The question that everyone is asking themselves is this: will Ferrari stop this? Taking into account that probably Williams-Renault, Benetton-Ford and March-Judd will become stronger throughout the season, it seems that Maranello is likely to become their number one rival. The only one that can have a clearer idea of this situation is Cesare Fiorio, Ferrari’s team manager.

 

"Considering that in this sport it is always hard to make any prediction, I think that 1989 will be another difficult year for Ferrari. We want to be back on top and we have the right means to do it. However, we don’t have much time: McLaren is ahead in terms of tests and upgrades, so it will be difficult to close the gap. We will try our best to do it".

 

Could Ferrari’s team manager tell what are the plans and the strategies?

 

"We don’t have secrets in this sense. We have some plans and we will carry them on. The first is to carry on two work teams at the same time: one for the present and the other for the future. Unfortunately, now we have many problems to solve immediately. We said that the Monte Carlo race had some positive sides too for the fact that it helped us to find out and solve one of our biggest problems. I’m referring to the front spoiler failure that, at this point, we believe to have caused Berger’s incident in Imola".

 

What exactly happened?

 

"It was due to side skirts, those sort of wings that are below the big wing and that often touch the ground. Regulations said that they had to be rigid and honestly Barnard has always been against this solution. Now we’ve rebuilt them with a soft material and the problem should be solved".

 

What will Ferrari do in the next few days?

 

"On Thursday and Friday we’ll try in Imola a new aerodynamic solution with Mansell. We have discovered that the engine, as it is fitted, doesn’t work at its best. The available power is less than what we see during bench tests".

 

Fiorio doesn’t say anything more for obvious reasons. Someone inside the team of Maranello states that some attachments should change and that they are building a new and big air intake to be fitted in the roll-bars area in order to allow the 12-cylinder engine to breathe more. This solution should reduce the temperatures and provide an output of 20-30 horsepower more. In addition, Ferrari’s team manager would like the drivers to be driving more during tests, at least three days a week when possible. For this reason, the Mugello circuit should be used to get more data. The team of Maranello is ready for the challenge but, as Fiorio says, the road to success is still long. Concerning the possibility for Berger to race in Mexico, a decision will be made in the next few days.

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On Wednesday, May 9, 1989, Stefano Modena is back on track to do some tests with his Brabham at Le Castellet, as other drivers do, McLaren included. Modena is happy because driving a racing car is the thing that he likes most. Someone tells him that, like Senna does, he considers the racing activity as a job. Others, instead, claim that the young driver feels like he has some mission to accomplish, like the faith for a priest or the medicine for certain doctors. In fact, Stefano Modena is a fundamentalist of Formula 1 - if we can call it like that - , one of those young guys that completely dedicates himself to it. He has a reserved character, he is sometimes strange, shy, in some occasions even aggressive and doesn’t joke much. On Sunday, he was on the podium with Senna and Prost, but he never felt as if he had made it. On the contrary, he feels like he is learning, despite the important title of the 1987 Formula 3000 intercontinental championship.

 

"Experience is what matters in this job. I’m 26 and I don’t have enough experience. There are so many things that I still have to learn. Mistakes help me, like those of Imola, when I went off track. I made a mistake in braking, now I will never do it again. This could be my strength, don't repeat errors".

 

Modena was lucky enough to be born in Modena, where motorsport is bread and butter. His father works with tyres. Since he was a child, Stefano was spending a lot of his time on racing cars: karts first and then cars.

 

"I’m happy with this result. Maybe one of these mornings I will do a somersault".

 

A few months have passed since the departure of Michele Alboreto and another Italian, Nicola Larini, is offered - for a series of circumstances - the possibility to drive the most prestigious car in the world of Formula 1: Ferrari. The test held on Wednesday, May 17, 1989, with the 25-year-old driver is disturbed by a series of storms, so further tests will be held on Thursday and Friday. Larini has to test the cars that will be carried to Mexico. This job allows us to understand his concrete possibilities of replacing the injured Gerhard Berger in the next race of the championship.

 

On Wednesday, May 17, 1989, the Austrian will be in Maranello to pick up his beautiful Ferrari F40 at the price of £ 340,000,000 and to invite to lunch Cea’s workers that helped him to escape almost unharmed by his scary incident. Berger will know on May 23, 1989, if he will be able to come back racing, when he will undergo a definitive test. But he himself has some doubts. As things stand, he wouldn’t be able to race, but the biggest problem is the burned palm of his hand that is not fully recovered. Meanwhile, Nicola Larini admits:

 

"I still don’t know if I will be driving the Ferrari in Mexico. However, I take this test as a great experience and as a recognition".

 

The driver from Camaiore shows an incredible coldness, at least in appearance, hiding emotions and fears as a veteran. In fact, when he was racing in Formula 3 he was called Rambo. As already said, his work on track is disturbed by rain. He tests first a 640 that has to be carried to Mexico (doing 7-8 laps), then does thirty laps with a laboratory 639 before stopping due to another storm.

 

"I know that making it to Ferrari is the dream of every driver. I’m trying to focus on my job, convincing myself that this is only a racing car. The real problem is the electronically controlled gearbox and I’m focusing on that. I have some problems with the start, I made a little mistake at turn one, then I got into the right mindset, even if sometimes my foot searches for a clutch that is not there or, better, that doesn’t have to be pressed. Of course, the car is extraordinary, but I’m having troubles with the engine too because it has to be kept revved up. I think that I will get used to it in a few days".

 

Sixty laps, 180 kilometers without pushing or searching lap times, because the track is wet:

 

"I’m not here to show off, even if I will race in Mexico, I will have to learn from Mansell".

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On Wednesday, May 17, 1989, there is the meeting between Gerhard Berger and his Imola rescue team, who are professionals that have done their job well. No crying or sweet speeches, only honest words and some souvenir photos, given that the driver can’t shake hands because they are still injured from the terrible crash of the San Marino Grand Prix. The meeting, wanted by Berger himself and organised by Ferrari and the Cavallino restaurant in Maranello, takes place at lunch: everyone is there, with the surprising coming of Fusaro, Ferrari’s president, and Fiorio. There are the heads of the Imola circuit, led by president Luciano Conti, and Ermete Amadesi, Cea’s owner - the fire services society. Then there are the first six men who ran to rescue Berger: Bruno Miniati, Paolo Verdi, Gabriele Vivoli, and the three men from Borgo San Lorenzo; and the other four: Natalino Tugnoli, Franco Pifferi, Gian Carlo Ricci Lucerli and Walter Celli. They are sitting in front of the Ferrari driver.

 

"I am happy to be with you all. When I saw the crash from the tv I asked myself how did you manage to be so quick. It wasn’t a normal crash, it was almost an explosion of a bomb. Imola has been fantastic on every level: the rescue team, the clinic of the autodrome and the services. I hope that the other circuits in which we’ll be racing take this as an example. Now I also have one more aim as a driver: raise awareness on safety among my colleagues. I’m already working on suites and gloves. I thank you with all of my heart and I tell you: if something like this ever happens to me again, I would hope it is in Imola".

 

He says this trying to play down. His rescuers applaud and the tortellini-based lunch begins. The driver doesn’t forget to point out that, unlike what someone says, a reward was never requested, least of all an ambulance. Berger has never made this promise. Later on, he talks privately about the present and the future, without making any clamorous statements but talking sincerely. He shows his right hand, where a wide scar is still open:

 

"This is the biggest problem about racing in Mexico. I really want to go back on track, but I will do what doctors want me to".

 

His immediate recovery seems quite unlikely, even if next Tuesday he will have to undergo a test in Fiorano that will decide his future. However, the Austrian driver makes some interesting declarations:

 

"It’s true that I had contacts with McLaren. It always happens for drivers to speak with other teams before the expiring of the contract. Other teams have contacted me, too. I haven’t signed anything with anybody yet. I can say that I would be happy to stay at Ferrari if there are the conditions to carry on our collaboration".

 

Berger meets Nicola Larini, the young Tuscan driver who has to replace him for the next two races.

 

"Is he this fast?"

 

He asks. Then, he speaks with him, asking him his opinion on the electronically controlled gearbox. Larini answers:

 

"I think that it is a very interesting solution".

 

One week later, every doubt disappears: Gerhard Berger will race in Mexico, on Sunday, May 28, 1989, with the Ferrari #28. The test that he undergoes on Tuesday, May 23, on the Fiorano circuit is positive: 45 laps with the 639 car at a high pace, without any physical problem. At the end, the physiotherapist Willy Dungl and Scuderia Ferrari’s doctor Benigno Bartoletti state that the right hand, burned by the fire of the Imola incident, the one that was worrying the most, doesn’t suffer long drivings. After a little consultation and the consent of Cesare Fiorio, Berger goes back to Austria because on Wednesday, May 24, 1989, he will undergo the last treatment. Then, in the afternoon, he will fly from Frankfurt to Mexico City, where on Friday he will be driving for the first round of qualifying.

 

"I’m happy because I don’t want to miss races. When I put on my suit I was excited. After two laps I relaxed. We are lucky to have the gearshift control at the steering wheel because with the traditional one the palm of my hand would have probably suffered more. What do I expect now? A better Ferrari, thanks to the periscope air intake over the roll-bar. I’m physically well. These days I trained, I did a lot of exercise, so I shouldn’t have any problem with practices and the race".

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Berger comes back just over a month after the incident, which happened on Sunday, April 23, 1989, after having missed one race. In 1976, his compatriot Niki Lauda, who at the Nurburgring suffered greater harm, had to miss two races, coming back 45 days later. Berger’s best lap time, set after three rounds of 15 laps each, is 1’05"6: a very good lap time, if we consider that the engine had done over 200 laps. Ferrari immediately informs Nicola Larini, who was supposed to replace the Austrian driver in Mexico and in Phoenix. So, the Tuscan driver, who is already in the North American metropolis, will race with his Osella. Larini is psychologically prepared for both solutions. However, it is a positive experience for him that could lead to future possibilities with Ferrari, should Mansell or Berger change team.

 

Milan, et campeon, is the title of the entire front page of the sport newspaper of Mexico City. The United States too, until Patagonia, praise the match of Gullit, Van Basten and the team. These are also the front pages of Venezuelan, Brazilian and Panama newspapers. TV channels broadcast the images of the goals of the two Dutch players. Now it is up to Formula 1 to make people forget football. The next race is on Friday, May 26, 1989, on the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit. A difficult and flat track, but with a wavy and brittle asphalt, large and quick turns. And it is this, the track, to be the unknown of this fourth race of the season which starts at 8:00 a.m. with pre-qualifying.

 

The Mexican Grand Prix is a puzzle, especially for technicians. But the race is exciting even on a human level. There is the Senna/Prost fight: the Frenchman, beaten two times - in Imola among many protests and in Monte Carlo without excuses - has to stop his teammate and there is also the return of Gerhard Berger, who must not be underestimated. The Austrian driver arrives from Frankfurt late in the afternoon. He seems calm and relaxed, ready to drive after the positive test in Fiorano which gave him the charge.

 

"I had some secret concerns. I was afraid, more than the physical problems, of being psychologically blocked after that kind of incident. It has already happened to other drivers. On the contrary, when I got in the car, I understood that nothing had changed, that I was like before and that I wanted to drive".

 

Berger will undergo a check-up with Doctor Watkins, Fisa’s doctor: this is just a formality. Let’s go back to the technical difficulties of the track that is located at 2200 metres above sea level. The problem concerns mostly the engines: rarefaction of air, pressure difference and humidity could cause power losses around 25%, that means 150 horsepower less for an engine of 600. It comes down to find the best electronic management and an air-fuel combination that suits the needs. Honda, as always, seems ready since they have altitude chambers where they can simulate altitude, while the others will have to find the right setup on track. However, thin air doesn’t only cause troubles to the engines, but also to the aerodynamics, which has to be studied again. Despite the power loss, the cars will be quicker on the straight because there is less drag, but less quick into corners due to a less aerodynamic support. For these reasons, it is important to find a compromise.

 

Some might wonder why everything is to be discovered yet, if the data is known and Formula 1 has already been here before. Actually, the cars are different every year and even from race to race. Plus, Mexico City never helds private tests as other tracks do, so there can always be some surprises. We must not forget that in 1988 there were turbo engines on which the teams could work, by increasing the size of turbines to pump more air, while now there are aspirated engines. Ferrari introduces 640-type cars largely modified in the body, not only for the environmental situation but also for what they observed on other tracks.

 

The big air intake, called airscope, on the upper part of the roll-bar, has been already tested in Fiorano. Ferrari hopes that it will bring some positive results here. The engine should breathe more and lose less horsepower. Another key point concerns the tyres: in 1986 Pirelli, before retiring, got in Mexico a surprising success with Berger’s Benetton. After its return, the third place with Modena’s Brabhman at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix could be the sign of another success. However, it is difficult to believe that someone can caught McLaren and Goodyear unprepared.

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So, Berger is back racing, only a month later from the incident in which it seemed unlikely for him to be rescued. Thirteen years ago, another Austrian driver, Niki Lauda, with the same car, Ferrari, took the same decision and in the same circumstances. Lauda’s eye didn’t shut very well, but he also had lost a part of his ear and had his face scarred by the flames. Berger still has some articulation difficulties with his right hand. Both, going back racing, became the symbol of an era, before becoming a symbol of the sport: an era in which action and wins are the only things that matter and there’s no excuse for who doesn’t make it.

 

Someone’s memory remembers only the winners: no matter how heroic the driver who arrives second is, they will only remember the one who came first. Lauda, to be back racing, postponed an eye intervention when everything was ready at the clinic, while Berger makes himself a bandage at the right hand. Luckily, his car doesn’t use a lever gearbox; this allows him to not work with the palm of his hand.

 

A replacement for Berger was ready: however, they didn’t look for a choice based on medical or psychological criteria, but on sporting criteria. Thus, they apply a principle according to which the only task of the champion is to win, like being in government for politicians and writing for writers. It is the principle of our times. Whoever loses is guilty of having lost and this is not correct at all for the reasons why he lost. Berger races to win: that there may be death in between is irrelevant. If it becomes relevant to him, he no longer wins. As it is for poets and artists, even for the champions the death is an event of life: one of many, and not the most memorable. From Sunday on, Berger will have what the race gave him. What Imola took away from him doesn’t exist anymore for anyone.

 

Meanwhile, Ayrton Senna has maybe decided to make all his rivals retire from racing: he doesn’t give anything to anyone and extends the gap enormously, more than a second to Prost, too. After having set the best lap time of 1’19"112 at the first round of qualifying of the Mexican Grand Prix on Saturday, May 27, 1989, he tries to win his thirty-third pole position, equalling the absolute record of Jim Clark and establishing the record of consecutive poles, seven, beating Moss and Lauda.

 

Ferrari behaves well and doesn’t have reliability problems, with Mansell third and Berger sixth, behind Palmer and Boutsen. Patrese, Nannini and Alboreto are among the first ten. The good behaviour of the cars of Maranello makes Berger even happier and Larini feeling worse who, not only can’t drive the Ferrari, but doesn’t even qualify with Osella. Berger seems in great shape, smiling and radiant. He arrived on Thursday, then he underwent a medical test straightaway, which is common when a driver comes back racing after an incident:

 

"It is one of the most hilarious experiences of my life. Not even when I got my driving license at eighteen had they asked me so many and stupid questions. The test was also in Woody Allen’s style: they checked my head, the only part of my body where I didn’t have anything. Then, they asked me to recognise the colours and to bring my right hand to my left shoulder and vice versa. At the end, they looked at my hand which, honestly, doesn’t give me troubles but is still slightly injured. They told me: after the race you have to get plastic surgery. I answered: surely, immediately after the race".

 

Then, Berger speaks about his inactivity month:

 

"I had time to think, to evaluate the risks that we take with this job. At the end, after an in-depth analysis, I realised that I like racing too much, I have fun. So, I decided to continue. The only problem is that I would like to win and fight for the championship. So, I’ve not decided if I want to stay at Ferrari yet: I would like to know what Barnard will do".

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Rumours say that Fiorio gave Barnard an ultimatum: he has to say if he wants to stay at Maranello or not by Saturday. Some technicians are interested in taking his place if he chooses to end his collaboration with Ferrari. Rumours talk about Brabham’s Rinland (former Ram, Williams and Scuderia Italia) and Ross Brown (Arrows), who should be free at the end of the season. Back to Nicola Larini, the Italian driver doesn’t complain about not driving the Ferrari, but is disappointed with pre-qualifying elimination, where two Brabhams (Brundle and Modena), Caffi’s Dallara and for the first time Stefan Johansson’s Onyx got through.

 

"The car is undrivable and I think that, from now on, we won’t have many chances to change the situation. From now on, on Friday mornings we will have to sit back and watch. We don’t have the means, we arrive at the track with the cars that have to be set up completely, we don’t have computers or sophistications of this sort. Passion and self-sacrifice are not enough to race in Formula 1 anymore".

 

Larini and Osella’s drama is not the only one. Regulations are inhuman. Thirteen drivers fight for four places in one hour of pre-qualifying, the others leave the track. What sponsor does spend hundreds of millions per race and risk to go back home without even making an apparition on track? There is excitement inside the small teams, a controversy against the rule that allows teams that have scored points in the previous half season to be qualified automatically. It is difficult to predict how this will end, if there will be some rule changes or if in some time there will be the first failures and someone will be obliged to abandon the Formula 1 dream. In addition to this, if Senna wins on Sunday too, there is the risk that the Formula 1 world championship will become boring and Prost will have to search for allies.

 

Not Ferrari anyway, which is the outsider during qualifying on Saturday, May 27, 1989: Mansell third, Berger sixth. However, it has to be said that Ron Dennis himself, McLaren’s manager, defends the French driver claiming that Prost’s car has some problems and Alain can’t use the qualifying tyres. The fact remains that Senna isn’t beaten by anyone. The others always have something to say, something to complain about: first of all, they complain about the traffic on their best lap. Ayrton, instead, always does the right lap, so much so that he improves four times his lap time. And when he gets out of the car he also says he made two small mistakes. Otherwise, he would have been faster.

 

Even Ferrari tries to justify themselves. The two cars of Maranello can’t use the qualifying tyres at the end of the session due to three incidents (of Warwick, De Cesaris and Brundle, who went off the track but luckily without any damages) that caused as many stops. But Cesare Fiorio, even if he claims that the two seconds gap between Mansell and Senna is not the real gap between McLaren and Ferrari, admits that it will be difficult. Moreover, the weight of the Ferraris must be decreased because their weight is over 500 kilos, which is the maximum. Finding more horsepower is useless if the car weighs too much. At this point, the race seems to follow the usual pattern: Senna that seems likely to go away and Prost that has to reach him.

 

Formula 1 has become like a successful play. People have fun, there are emotions, but in the end it is always the same, without variations, as if the subject cannot be changed. Prost overtakes Senna halfway through the second round of qualifying. Then the Brazilian driver goes back on track, does a great lap and wins the pole position. Not even the Mexican Grand Prix mixes things up, the altitude doesn’t change anything. Thus, the World Champion in charge gets for the thirty-third time in his career the best lap time in qualifying equalling the legendary Jim Clark.

 

"I always try to be competitive, I like challenges and I always accept them with everyone. Records come later, they are the consequences of this mentality, of this philosophy that I have since I was a child".

 

In addition, the Sudamerican driver beats all the records for consecutive poles, seven, having also beaten the records of Lauda and Moss. Senna runs in 1'17"876, 204.371km/h on average, really close to the track record, just four tenths under the record that he did with a supercharged car that, at 2200 metres above the sea level of this autodrome, could have made up for the shortage of air by increasing the pressure of the turbines. Senna detaches his teammate by far: nine tenths, the evidence of his supremacy. And Prost admits:

 

"My car was really good, but there’s nothing to do against Ayrton in qualifying. I hope to do better in the race".

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On Sunday, May 28, 1989, Nigel Mansell starts the race in third place, while Berger is in third row in sixth place. Overall, Ferrari has made some progress compared to Friday, reducing the gap to McLaren, but there still are some problems. The British driver had some troubles with the clutch, otherwise he could have been a little bit faster. On the Austrian driver’s car a warning light came on, but then it was a false alarm. However, it is a positive result for Berger, after the crash in Imola and his forced inactivity. Behind Mansell and ahead of Berger there are Capelli with his new March and Patrese with his Williams. A success for the Italians, if we consider that Michele Alboreto is seventh and Stefano Modena nineth, especially considering that Tyrrell is on the verge of bankruptcy due to the lack of sponsors and adequate funding. As Michele admits:

 

"It’s a shame because we have a competitive car".

 

These positions, March’s recovery and tyre issues has everyone hoping for a close race, even if the McLarens seem to be out of reach for their rivals. Anyway, today it will be difficult for Senna and Prost to lap everyone, even if their cars’ potential has yet to be tested in this rarefied atmosphere. Ron Dennis, McLaren’s manager, says that maybe in the race something will be sacrificed to the speed in order to have more cornering grip and to save tyres, without doing pit stops to change them. Among the surprises of the day, in a qualifying round that ended ten minutes earlier due to heavy rain, there is the qualification of the three times World Champion Piquet. Lotus’ driver comes twenty-sixth, the last place available, after having broken the engine of his racing car and gotten into the backup car which was wrongly setup. Rain plays tricks on a lot of drivers who were waiting for the last minutes to do their best lap.

 

For Ferrari, it is time for analysis. The team of Maranello, who is in the eye of the cyclone for every move they make, is trying to get back on top. A difficult task due to a recent past with thousands of problems that obliges the team to work on two sides: that of the recovery and that of the future. Thus, on one hand, they would like some results immediately; on the other hand, they can’t focus entirely on the present and ignore the plans for the next few years. This is a difficult puzzle on which Cesare Fiorio is working hard. The topic of the day is John Barnard, the British design engineer that since November 1st, 1986, with a three-years contract (which expires on October 30, 1989), technically manages the Modena team.

 

These days, rumours talk about a sort of ultimatum that Ferrari gave to Barnard to know what his intentions are as soon as possible. Actually, they are in talks to reach an agreement. Fiorio would like to keep the collaboration with the ill-tempered design engineer from Guildford. Not only for his well-known skills, but also to have enough time to rebuild a team which is capable of working autonomously. The project is to keep the collaboration with Barnard for a certain period of time (four or five years) just for Formula 1, leaving him free to work in England in other motorsport sectors.

 

"It’s true, we are in talks with Barnard. We would like to continue our collaboration with him even if we could have different points of views on how and where to carry on the work. We have to find an acceptable solution for both parties. This means that if Ferrari won’t reach its aims, it will have to look for other technicians with whom I already have some contacts".

 

Cesare Fiorio makes also an in-depth analysis of the technical situation, speaking about the 640, the car designed by Barnard which is driven by Mansell and Berger:

 

"We’re still behind compared to McLaren, even if we made some progress. There are many components that justify our gap from Prost and Senna’s cars. One of them is the car weight which is over the limit of 500 kilos. Every extra kilo affects the performance, from the braking to the acceleration, the consumptions, the engine performance. We’re working on these problems and we should halve our gap by the French Grand Prix".

 

Then, Fiorio speaks about his opposition to an eventual change of the regulations to introduce, from next year on, a smaller fuel tank and the return to refueling during the race; the rest of the technicians of all the teams with Fisa agree with him. Jean Marie Balestre, Federation’s president, would like to impose this for safety reasons but the design engineers don’t agree. Meanwhile, on Monday and Tuesday the third driver Jarvi Lehto, who is currently driving in Formula 3000, will be on track in Fiorano to set up the cars. A huge program of tests awaits him to find more competitiveness.

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On Sunday, May 28, 1989, the race starts with excitement: sun, heat, packed grandstands inside the circuit named after the brothers Rodriguez and Brazil and Ferrari flags. Red lights go green and the two Ferraris get a flying start. Senna with his McLaren-Honda is in the lead followed by Mansell, Prost and Berger, who moved up from third row. One lap and Nakajima spins with his Lotus and makes De Cesaris with his Dallara spin in turn. Then Modena, trying to overtake Grouillard’s Ligier, makes contact with the Frenchman and they go off the track on the outside of a fast corner. The stewards aren’t able to pick up the cars and the race is red-flagged. The red flag lasts thirty minutes to allow the mechanics to pick up the cars and clear the track. And since the drivers didn’t even do two laps, the Grand Prix starts all over again.

 

Prost thinks that the tyre choice is the key for this race. Of course, the choice between Goodyear’s B compound, which is hardest, and the C compound, which is softer, is a big unknown until just before the race. Senna follows what his team suggests: B for the left tyres and C for the right tyres. Prost is recommended to do the same choice, but he chooses the C compound for each tyre. Before the red flag, Prost manages to be in second place behind his teammate/rival Senna, who already has a two seconds advantage. Mansell is third, Berger fourth, followed by Patrese with his Williams-Renault and Alboreto with his Tyrrell. At the second restart, Senna and Prost are still one-two, followed by the two Ferraris with Berger and Mansell and by Patrese and Boutsen’s Williams-Renault. The Brazilian driver and the Frenchman start fighting but, in a few laps, Senna manages to come out on top and goes away. Meanwhile during the first lap, Capelli, with his March powered by Judd, retires.

 

After ten laps, the World Champion has over four seconds advantage on Prost. Mansell’s pace is good, while Berger is slightly behind. During the fifteenth lap Boutsen retires due to a problem with the engine electrical system. Just before, Palmer, who was ninth with his Tyrrell, had to retire too due to throttle problems (during the ninth lap). After a few laps, Berger retires, too. During the sixteenth lap, the Austrian driver goes back to the pits with the electronically controlled gearbox that doesn’t work. Even the former Ferrari’s driver, Stefan Johansson, has to retire due to some transmission problems on his Onyx. On the twentieth lap, Prost pits: the Frenchman changes tyres (the front left is deteriorated) and loses twenty seconds, restarting fifth. The worse part, however, is that during the tyre change his mechanics puts on softs instead of the hard compound of the strategy.

 

Meanwhile, Mansell is in second place, 7-seconds away from Senna and followed by Patrese and Alboreto, while De Cesaris retires due to a suspension problem. With the new tyres, Prost tries to catch Senna, but the latter does fastest lap after fastest lap and keeps his advantage on Mansell. At the thirty-fourth lap, Prost pits again for another tyre change. However, his car doesn't perform very well, so the Frenchman loses all chances of a podium. Nannini with his Benetton and Tarquini with his Ags are fifth and sixth, while on the thirty-fifth lap Nakajima spins and Warwick retires due to a problem with the electrical system.

 

Halfway through the race, Mansell does a record lap time of 1'20"859. After that, the British driver, who is ten-seconds behind Senna, lowers his lap time again: 1’20"420. However, on the forty-third lap, the Ferrari #27 emits smoke from the rear axle and Mansell retires once again due to a gearbox failure. Senna is leading undisturbed, followed by Patrese (39 seconds behind), Alboreto (44 seconds behind), Nannini (1’07"0 behind) and Prost, who overtakes Tarquini. Meanwhile, Martini has to retire on the fifty-third lap due to an engine failure.

 

In the following laps, there is an intense fight between Patrese and Alboreto: however, the Milan-based driver loses ground to the compatriot, who has a more competitive car. Positions are now set and the Mexican Grand Prix doesn’t reserve surprises anymore. At the end of the sixty-ninth lap, Brazilian flags are being waved: Ayrton Senna is the winner of the Mexican Grand Prix, the fourth race of the 1989 World Championship, followed by Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto, Alessandro Nannini, Alain Prost and Gabriele Tarquini. The Brazilian driver is the undisputed leader of the championship: the great revenge is done. The year before, Ayrton was defeated by Prost precisely on this track. Today, instead, the Brazilian driver doesn’t make his teammate look good, proving to be - in this situation - the best test driver, too, given that the Frenchman made a wrong tyre choice.

 

"Actually, the race was decided before the start with the tyre choice. Prost chose the softest which were obviously the quickest, but also slippery. I made a safe choice and it paid off".

 

Alain Prost doesn’t respond and says:

 

"It was a race which started badly, I couldn’t do anything more with these types of tyres".

 

And Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team manager, comments:

 

"Alain made a risky choice with the softest tyres. But we made a mistake when he pitted, changing just the front left with the hards. We should’ve done it with the rear, too. This mistake caused a second pit stop. It’s a shame that this time we didn’t make a one-two".

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In Ferrari, the new defeat is taken calmly, even among the drivers. The reason is simple: gearbox failures aside, the cars have shown to be more competitive than they were in Imola and Monte-Carlo.

 

"Performances were good, after all. When Mansell retired was nine seconds behind Senna and was making a series of fastest laps that the Brazilian driver wasn’t able to do. We didn’t change tyres and if the Englishman had remained in the race until the end he would have probably reached Senna. We should also consider that the advantage that Senna had at the thirtieth lap was thanks to some unsuccessful lapping from our driver".

 

Gerhard Berger, the first one to retire, faces the journalists with a black and white checkered shirt.

 

"An auspicious sign because I haven’t seen the chequered flag for some time. The hand didn’t give me any trouble. My car wasn’t set up perfectly. But now I need to drive, so I will ask Fiorio to do a lot of tests to get back into shape. We are closer to the McLarens, but we’re still lacking reliability".

 

Nigel Mansell doesn’t seem much disappointed either:

 

"It’s a real shame that I didn’t finish the race because I could have reached Senna. Anyway, I’m happy because the Ferrari was fantastic. It was really good and the engine has gained more power, too. I’m confident about the next races".

 

Concerning the Italians, is a feast for the second place of Patrese, the third place of Alboreto, the fourth of Nannini and the sixth of Tarquini. The Paudan driver had not been on the podium for two years, since the 1987 Mexican Grand Prix.

 

"We’re not yet at our best because we don’t have the new car yet. I tried to control the race and to keep my position. I saved my tyres at the end to respond to Alboreto’s attacks. I’m very satisfied with second place and it is also an important achievement for the team and for Renault".

 

Michele Alboreto is happy, too. He was sure of getting a good result but was not thinking about third place.

 

"The car is very good, even if we have done just a few kilometers. This isn’t a reply to someone, it is just a personal satisfaction. Fighting for these positions is like being reborn. Now we just have to find someone who will help us on an economical level because we don’t have money".

 

Nannini complains about the understeer that ruined his tyres. A very important point for Gabriele Tarquini who, with this placement, will not get among the unlucky pre-qualifying drivers.

 

"I got scared because, trying to push to the limit, I’ve almost slipped on an oil spot".

 

Besides the contingent results, this could be considered as a transition year for Scuderia Ferrari. The long crisis of Maranello can’t be deleted in a moment. For the first time after many years, the team is trying to work differently. First of all, Cesare Fiorio, who since March 10, 1989, is leading the Formula 1 team.

 

"We’ve dreamed at the beginning, winning the first race in Rio, but we knew that it would have been difficult. We have to work in-depth and close the gap to our rivals. We have to prepare for our future. We have to lay the foundation for a total rebuild, to set a method that allows us to be prepared for a sport that becomes more and more difficult and competitive".

 

Fiorio is trying to coordinate every sector, from the technicians to the drivers and the organisation. The key point is John Barnard. His contract expires on October 30, 1989, and it is important to know immediately if his collaboration will continue. On this matter, Fiorio is very clear:

 

"We’re trying to find an agreement, but there are many possibilities. Anyway, we also have some alternatives to not be surprised. We’re seeing, step by step, how our strategy could be developed for the future".

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It is unlikely that Barnard, instead, stays at Ferrari as technical director. He could leave or sign an exclusive contract, for Formula 1 only, as a consultant in England. If he chooses to leave everything, he could carry out his project to build a team with Alain Prost, even if the Frenchman’s excitement seems to have decreased in recent times. However, the research for a design engineer is the most important topic because the market doesn’t offer much. A collective solution would probably be well seen, with more than one expert working together, as McLaren does after Barnard’s departure.

 

Concerning the drivers, at the moment, Berger and Mansell are among the quickest. The Austrian driver would like to stay but asks for some guarantees. Some say that he has already signed for McLaren, but he denies and admits to be just in contact with other teams. Ferrari would like to renew Mansell, but the Englishman is looking around and has many offers. However, in the long term, it could be likely to have two Italian drivers as Nicola Larini and Stefano Modena. Rumours even talk about Prost, who proposed himself at Ferrari for next year. Although it is a champion, it is difficult for the Maranello team to count on a driver at the end of his career.

 

The internal organisation with the technicians has not been completed yet. However, the intent is to strengthen every sector: mechanical, motoring, aerodynamic and electronic. Ferrari should recreate that school of experts that they had before, even to avoid this type of situation in the future when, to save what can be saved, wrong choices have been made. On a technical level, at the moment they can’t change their electronically controlled gearbox that is considered to be a good and cutting-edge solution anyway. However, it is not certain that this solution will be kept as it is in future cars. As concerns the engine, a modified version - lighter and more powerful - is being prepared and should be used by mid-season.

 

Concerning the 1990 cars, everything is being studied and it is unknown if the regulations will be kept. If Balestre should impose a tank with a maximum capacity of 120 litres, maybe the projects should be restudied and even the engine could change from 12 cylinder to 10. In short, the next few weeks will be very important for Ferrari because drastic decisions could be made, perhaps even in the short term. Meanwhile today, Monday, May 29, 1989, Jarvi Letho - a young Finnish driver who is driving in Formula 3000 - is on track in Fiorano and will begin his test driver job with a wide test program.

 

On one hand, this is the third consecutive success of Ayrton Senna and McLaren. On the other hand, the Maranello team, looking at the data, has realised that they have lost a big opportunity: if not a win, at least to fight with the strongest rivals until the end of the race. A record lap time of Mansell and the slowing down of the Brazilian at the end convince Cesare Fiorio and the team that the 640 might as well have made it, if it hadn’t been for a trivial failure: one of those little pipes where the electronically controlled gearbox oil flows under pressure broke. The leakage of that liquid causes a smoke that makes everyone think - wrongly - of an engine failure, the driver doesn’t control the car and has to retire from the race.

 

"On Sunday in Phoenix it will be more difficult because in terms of acceleration the McLaren is still better than us. In a street circuit the power of the low-revs engine could be crucial".

 

The manager of the Maranello team seems to be determined but also worried. Late in the afternoon he has a long talk with Barnard - who then leaves for London - speaking about the present but also about the design engineer’s intentions. Actually, besides a double retirement, Ferrari has also to take into account that they have a driver, Berger, who is not in a perfect physical condition. It has to be said that Berger did two exceptional starts, but there are some doubts on his overall performance both in qualifying and in the race, especially on his physical endurance. On Friday and Saturday the Austrian driver did a few laps, on Sunday he retired at the sixteenth lap, stopping into the pits with a gearbox that didn’t have the fifth gear. But there is also the doubt that his retirement was caused by his lack of physical endurance, which is totally understandable after his incident. So, what are Ferrari’s objectives in the short term? Surely Berger’s physical recovery and a series of tests.

 

Ferrari is not the only team that has to solve some problems inside the complex world of Formula 1. After what happened in Imola, during the briefings with Gordon Murray and the two engineers, Steve Nichols and Neil Oatley, the conversations between the two McLaren drivers have started to become quite strange: Senna asks Oatley, Prost’s engineer, some information on their car and Alain only speaks to Nichols; from now on, between them there will be just a formal greeting and nothing more. As Honda did some time ago, even Ron Dennis defends Senna and minimises what happened in Imola and in the following days. The day following the Mexican Grand Prix and after having thought about what happened, Prost accuses Honda of favouritism towards his teammate:

 

"I realised that since the beginning of the year the Japanese team fits on different and more powerful engines on Senna’s car. There’s nothing to do: Ayrton overtakes me every time even on the straight and in these types of races in which I chose softest tyres, so with better performances. He is very good, but an important help also comes from his engine".

 

Meanwhile, inside the paddock there are some doubts on Ayrton’s personality. He, despite being a very quick driver, is seen as a touchy, vindictive and daring person. The common thought is that he has learnt a lot of lessons that made him mature, but many drivers still consider him a guy to be kept away from, not to be frequented, even one to be wary of, which not even being with a mild and experienced driver like Prost made him change.

 

Arianna Mezzanotte

 

Translated by Monica Bessi

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