Number Two Is Number One

The Williams team scored a dominant one-two in Mexico, to make up for the disappointment of Montreal. But it was a fight all the way to the flag

by Joe Saward

Mexico City is no bland pre-packaged and sugar-coated, ‘Have a nice day’ kind of place. From the moment your plane bounces down the runway everything is Latin American. This place is at the same time exciting, terrifying and very sad. ‘Mexico City is the most chaotic city in. the world, Oscar Mauro Ramirez, a former member of the Chamber of Deputies, told a newspaper in the week of the Grand Prix. ‘Corruption, violence, together with economic and political problems have completely changed the image of the Federal District, formerly a safe, clean and pleasant place to live.

Ramirez went on to suggest that the police are responsible and involved in 15% of all the crime in the city.

There is none of the romantic Mexico of which DH Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry and Gabriele Garcia Marquez wrote. Perhaps away beyond the volcanoes which ring the city, Mexico is a beautiful country. But as you cannot even see the mountains through the smog, it is hard to image what may lie beyond.

The city, now claimed to be the largest in the world, spreads out in all directions across the flat valley — once the bed of a great lake. The city growth is only restricted by the mountains. It is bewitching, bothersome and bewildering, and yet beneath all the stress and ugliness, there is a rage to live life to the full.

Once this place was the cradle of the Mayan civilization, but today it is a wannabe Los Angeles. The colonial splendor of past empires is everywhere - but it is crumbling. So too is the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. ‘The track is in a bad state, explained Formula 1's man of the moment Riccardo Patrese. ‘It is very bumpy with poor grip. It’s like no other circuit. It is so difficult to predict if the car can go well. But worse still the air is thin and polluted, making breathing difficult and your eyes sting.’

Actually, the pollution was not as bad as normal, but this was caused by rain cleaning the air, so in exchange for better air, everyone had to accept getting wet.

As the pre-qualifiers headed out on Friday morning it was damp. It was clear that the final minutes of the session, with the track drying, would be important.

They were also very exciting, with the last two minutes seeing four separate changes in the fastest time: one moment there was Bertrand Gachot, the next it was JJ Lehto, then Andrea de Cesaris and suddenly Lehto again.

Missing from this tombola of a timesheet was Emanuele Pirro, who had spun his race car early on. He switched to the spare and then spun again, coming to rest, perched on a kerb, unable to go anywhere. Emanuele’s weekend was over. Almost everyone had a moment or two in the top four slots, but when the flag came out the order was Lehto, an impressive Olivier Grouillard, de Cesaris and Larini. Gachot was fifth and distraught.

Moments later, word began to filter from the weigh-in that Larini’s car had failed its rear wing test. He would be excluded and Gachot would be back in the action. The track was still drying as the main field came out for the first time and there were spins here and there as drivers tip-toed their way around. At the very end of the session Ayrton Senna’s Mclaren went quickest. We were back to 1991 business as usual - after the Williams-Renault domination in Canada.

Or were we? Nigel Mansell was second fastest and Patrese third. The Italian was not having a lot of fun for he was suffering from one of Mexico City’s less pleasant side-effects: Montezuma’s Revenge, explosive stomach upsets.

On Friday morning he was in serious trouble, doubled up in pain and rushing at irregular intervals to what the Mexicans mistakenly refer to as ‘the rest room’. But like a rhinoceros in full flight, Riccardo takes a lot of stopping. In Montreal he took pole, despite a sore neck. In Mexico, with his troubles located in other bodily regions, Riccardo was just as quick. ‘I was feeling fine when I left the hotel,’ he explained, ‘but then in practice it turned into a nightmare.’ He had minimal running time in the morning.

The top runners were much as normal: Senna, Mansell, Patrese, Jean Alesi in his Ferrari, Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno in their Benettons and Gerhard Berger’s McLaren.

The top 10 was rounded out by de Cesaris, Ivan Capelli and Gianni Morbidelli. Alain Prost was nowhere, way down in 15th position having suffered engine problems and an oil leak. By the time the afternoon session began the weather had warmed up but the track was still overcast. Everyone was being cautious for they were sure the track would improve as the session went on and there was very little action in the first 10 minutes. Then Olivier Grouillard went fastest in his Fondmetal. It was a lap of 1m19.617s — which was a very good time. Was the track a lot quicker than the morning? Five minutes later Roberto came out for his first run. He failed to beat Grouillard. There was a sharp intake of breath in the pitlane; what was happening?

Nelson Piquet was next out, but he didn’t beat the Fondmetal either...

After 11 minutes as ‘PI’ Grouillard’s moment of glory ended as Alesi swept through to take the mark down to 1m18.653s. Then Berger went even quicker. After 23 minutes Senna emerged from the pits - on schedule as always. The McLaren looked very twitchy and the lap really didn’t look that good. But it was: 1m17.264s. The track was getting quicker and, as half-time approached, many of the heavy-hitters came out in Senna’s wake: Patrese went second, Mansell fifth, Frost fourth. And then Grouillard improved again...

Olivier was now fifth behind Senna, Patrese, Berger and Frost. It was most bizarre. With 15 minutes to go Patrese went again and this time it was faster than Senna - a 1m16.696s lap. Six minutes later Mansell went second fastest, three 10ths shy of his number two. The pattern of the season so far was repeated once again. Most of the top men still had .a second set of tyres, which is just as well because the performance of the tiny Fondmetal team was embarrassing to the major combines...

The denouement was to be delayed, however, for Bertrand Gachot went steaming into the daunting Peraltada Curve - still F1’s best corner of the year - and lost control. ‘I don’t know what happened,’ he said. ‘The tyres suddenly went off. I could do nothing. The Jordan spun around in a cloud of sand and hit the barrier backwards with great force. Out came the red flag and for 15 minutes the pitlane was quiet. Eager for action the top men lined up for their last runs: Senna, Piquet, Moreno, Prost. As soon as the green flag was shown they were off: five minutes to go and everything to play for.

Three minutes later the red flag was out again. There had been another big shunt at Peraltada. This time it was Senna - and his McLaren was upside down in the sand. ‘I went in too wide and too fast,’ he explained. ‘The problem was that my fifth gear was too short and I was changing to sixth, with one hand on the wheel, when I hit a bump and lost control. I got onto the dusty track and I couldn’t control it. The McLaren spun through 180-degrees and hit the wall with the right front tyre, pivoting round and hitting again with the right rear. The tyres, compressed against the wall, launched the McLaren up and over.

Ayrton was quickly back in the pits and ready for action again. ‘I’m ready for another one tomorrow,’ he joked. The session had ground to a halt now with the two Williams’ once again monopolising the front row. Senna, despite his accident, was third with Alesi fourth, Berger fifth and Piquet sixth. Then came Prost and Grouillard. I’m sorry I’ll type that again. Prost was just ahead of Grouillard’s incredible Fondmetal. Moreno and Stefano Modena’s Tyrrell completed the top 10. There was an impressive performance from Mark Blundell, who put his Brabham-Yamaha 11th, while the rest were much as one would expect, although Aguri Suzuki was an overnight non-qualifier, having spun his own car and being forced to share Eric Bernard’s. He would probably get onto the grid on Saturday... if the weather was kind.

Aguri must have been a little upset when he woke up on Saturday, for Mexico City was in the midst of a huge rain storm. Roads were flooding. It looked like it was going to be a wasted day for everyone.

The Mexico track has very little grip in the dry and in the wet it is way beyond treacherous. By the time unofficial practice began the rain had stopped and the track was dried by the cars: there were spins for Alesi and Mansell, but Nigel was quickest, with Modena second ahead of the two McLarens. The two Jordans, the two Larrousses and Olivier Grouillard (who else?) were all in the top 10. It was spitting with rain as the final session began and it looked like being a waste of time.

A few drivers ventured out, but the track was at least two seconds slower than on Friday. Alesi had another spin as he pushed to the maximum. After 10 minutes the track fell completely silent. After 25 minutes Ayrton ventured out to have a look and moments later Berger went off and removed his nose against a barrier. The track was now drying and a few minor improvements came in the lower order.

Then the rains came again it was ‘skate city’ out at the back; it was dry in the pits, soaking at the top of the circuit. The order was set. The top seven remained as before, although Patrese had done a 1m17.192s lap to be fastest in the session. Modena and Moreno leap-frogged Grouillard to snatch eighth and ninth and de Cesaris took 11th, with Thierry Boutsen’s Ligier grabbing 14th.

Michele Alboreto did a good job for Footwork to snatch the final place on the grid, while Suzuki, the whites of his eyes showing and his teeth clamped tightly together, jumped up to 19th as the rains began to fall. Taking pole was all very well - and Patrese was delighted to do so - but one lap was OK. Could he, in his weakened state, survive 69? ‘It is the same as Montreal,’ explained Riccardo. ‘I can do a lap, but I don’t know about a race. I don’t have any more stomach troubles, but I have to strength back.

‘I think my pole was because of the perfection of the car. Yesterday I was carried by the car because I didn’t feel so well, the car did the work.’

It was Ayrton Senna who summed up everyone’s feelings after practice was over. ‘The Williams would have been very hard to beat here,’ he said. Would Sunday be the same?

RACE: It was no great surprise that the Williams-Renaults dominated the warm-up, but it was not without problems. Mansell was unhappy his car handling oddly and his engine feeling down on power. He would use his spare car for the race.

Jean Alesi was in trouble too, for his warm-up had ended up in the wall, with Jean hopping away from his damaged car with a bruised left foot. Martin Brundle too was in the wars following a shunt which left him with a sore neck. Much of the late morning was spent pondering tyre cocktails which were varied and various. The Goodyear men were mainly on Cs with the odd B thrown in, while the Pirelli runners had a weird and wonderful selection.

All this faded as, armed and primed, the grid revved to ear-splitting levels and then, with everyone ready, suddenly there were yellow flags everywhere. On the parade laps JJ Lehto’s Dallara was on fire. The Finn did not seem concerned - or perhaps did not notice - for he lined up on the grid as normal.

As the engines were straining to be released by the green light, a fire marshal appeared over the pitwall to put out the fire. Whether he reacted to the yellow flags being waved or was the cause of them is unclear. JJ merely switched off his engine. He would take the next start in the same car.

A second attempt to start was similarly confused. The official version is that Olivier Grouillard stalled and held up his hand, causing the yellow flags to be waved again and the start was aborted. Olivier said he switched off his engine when he saw the flags waving and raised a hand to indicate that he had done this. As a result Olivier was sent to the back of the classroom for the third start.

There were suggestions that the Mexicans simply liked waving yellow flags to add to the spectacle at the start...

The delays meant that mechanics were able to tinker away with the cars for a little longer before the off, Patrese, in particular receiving much attention. Finally they lined up on the grid, Grouillard at the back in place of Michele Alboreto’s Footwork which had been pushed into the pitlane exit, having failed to fire up for the third parade lap.

This time they made it away and it was a spectacular start with Mansell getting the drop on Patrese. The rest were left weaving in Nigel’s wake as they streamed down to the first comer, jockeying for position.

‘I didn’t have a brilliant start, said Riccardo later. ‘I was fourth into the first corner!’

Mansell was in the lead with Alesi second and Senna third. Berger, Piquet, Modena and de Cesaris followed while Alain Prost found himself stuck back in ninth. Thierry Boutsen, on the other hand, had made a storming start, from 14th on the grid to 11th at the end of the first lap. Grouillard, at the tail of the field, steamed up by the official decision to smack his wrist made up three places.

Senna was quickly past Alesi, while Modena made short work of Piquet to take seventh. As Senna chased after Mansell, so Riccardo Patrese was getting himself up to speed and it was Riccardo who quickly became the man to watch as he threaded his way past Alesi and then, hooked up with Senna, he chased after Mansell.

In those frantic early laps we lost Berger in dramatic fashion. ‘Although my engine temperature was normal at the third start it didn’t feel right from lap one,’ he explained. After five laps the Honda V12 blew up mightily as Gerhard went past the pits. On the same lap Pierluigi Martini disappeared in a cloud of sand with a hefty off.

Up at the front there was much ducking and diving as the pack hauled in Mansell.

‘The problem,’ explained Nigel, ‘was that my engine was overheating a little bit at the beginning and... I don’t know why, but it wasn’t very fast down the straight.

On lap 11 it was clear that Nigel was holding up the pack for everyone had closed in and in the scramble Patrese emerged in second. Now he set about catching and passing his team mate.

On lap 13 the pair went past the pits side-by-side and lined up for a braking contest at the end of the straight. Both locked up and Nigel stayed ahead. They were side-by-side again on the following lap when Nigel slammed the door shut again. In the pits Frank Williams was looking distinctly nervous.

Side-by-side was the order of the day now and out in the fast wiggles at the back of the track neither would give way. It was a fabulous moment, which saw Riccardo finally force Nigel into a small error and he was ahead. Then he just opened up the throttle and let the FW14 have its head. On laps 16, 17, 18 and 19 Riccardo set consecutive fastest laps as he pushed his lead out to a sudden six seconds. Behind him Nigel was having to worry about Senna, who in turn had Piquet breathing down his neck. Modena had dropped back now, his tyres shot and Alesi departed the pack with a big spin on lap 15. Jean rejoined in ninth and charged back.

Riccardo had left the interest in the race behind him as he progressively built up his lead.

‘The car was really perfect all through the race and I didn’t have any problems at all. When you drive at this level of concentration, you forget any physical troubles.’

As Riccardo disappeared away, the chasers were left to fight their own battles, Senna holding off a determined Piquet. De Cesaris, Moreno and the recovering Alesi kept interest high while further back there were battles down through the field.

The field, though was thinning out: Grouillard’ s race was short-lived because of an oil-pipe leak which deprived his engine of lubricant. Prost disappeared after 16 laps with a misfire. And both Leyton Houses were quickly out of the picture with engine failures.

On lap 20 Martin Brundle’s Brabham left the race in spectacular fashion. After a pit stop for new rubber Martin lost his right rear wheel. We had reached lap 30 in what seemed like just a few short minutes. Patrese was 20 seconds ahead with Nigel being shadowed by Ayrton, de Cesaris, Alesi and Modena. Nelson Piquet had been in among them, fighting strongly when he pitted for new rubber. Further back Bertrand Gacho and JJ Lehto had disputed seventh place enthusiastically, although the Finn would disappear with engine failure. Behind them Eric Bernard and Mark Blundell fought a spirited duel while Gianni Morbidelli and Aguri Suzuki supplied another dynamic duo and Thierry Boutsen found himself playing with the two Lotuses. And the Tyrrells? A disastrous choice of tyres saw the pair popping in an out of the pits a long way back from the action.

Senna’s attacks on Mansell increased.

‘I tried very hard,’ said Ayrton. ‘I was able to maintain the same pace as Nigel, but I could not overtake. I tried but I realised it was not possible. It was very exciting for me because we were very close with Nigel. He made life very hard for me. My temperatures were a little bit high because of the altitude and also being behind Nigel and other cars, so the engine lost a little bit of performance. It was a battle which was to continue for 15 laps before Mansell’s Williams suddenly speeded up. All the while the pair had to watch their mirrors for Alesi, de Cesaris and Moreno, while Piquet was coming back up at speed.

Alesi soon disappeared with a clutch failure and then, after 44 laps Piquet disappeared, heading smokily to the pits with a wheel-bearing failure. He was out, four laps later Moreno dropped from the pack, his tyres shot. He radioed his pit, but they did not hear the call and he arrived unexpectedly. This left the two Jordans running fourth and fifth and an excited Eddie Jordan. Further back Bernard, Blundell, Morbidelli and Boutsen were were now leading solitary races, while the two Lotuses continued to run in tandem.

Mansell’s sudden burst of speed came when Patrese was 25 seconds ahead. ‘About a third of the way through the race we richened up the mixture,’ explained Nigel.

‘It took 15 to 20 laps then I decided to go for it. I was driving 110%. I couldn’t go quicker.’ Senna dropped away, realising he could not compete. ‘My engine was on the limit with the temperature, and I realised that the main thing was to finish with no problems, to make points in the championship,’ he explained. The gap came down dramatically. Nigel set fastest lap after fastest lap - seven consecutive improvements which saw him take the lap record down into the 1m16s bracket - a remarkable achievement. But Riccardo still had the upper hand.

‘Nigel was pushing me very hard,’ he explained, ‘I was 98% flat.’ The closing stages were breathtaking and as they headed off on the final lap Mansell was right with Patrese — could he achieve the impossible?

Everyone else had been forgotten, which was a shame for there were some fine showings: Gachot’s race ended in disappointment when he selected neutral and spun out of fifth. Moments later Blundell, running seventh (a vital position for Brabham which would have seen the team move away from the threat of pre-qualifying) stopped with engine failure. Bernard too drove up to sixth which must help the Larrousse team in its hour of need. In those final fingernail-nibbling moments, the memory of Nigel’s passing manoeuvre on Berger in 1990 came to mind, round the outside of the Peraltada Corner on the penultimate lap. But this time there was nothing he could do. The race was Riccardo’s - and rightly so for the Italian has driven well all season. As the celebrations began there was drama for both Thierry Boutsen who crossed the finish line as his car cut out and for Andrea de Cesaris.

‘After Ayrton won the first four races, I said to myself that I don’t want to think anymore about the championship,’ said a delighted Riccardo. ’I think today something changed, because it looks like we have a competitive car, and Ayrton is a little in trouble with his car, although he has a big advantage.’ Ayrton agreed. ‘I think this shows the championship is open. Unless we change our equipment pretty fast, we are going to have problems later in the season.’ Nigel Mansell, however, should have the last word. ‘It was a great race.’ Indeed it was.

©Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission

Race Results

  1. Riccardo Patrese (Williams)
  2. Nigel Mansell (Williams)
  3. Ayrton Senna (McLaren)
  4. Andrea de Cesaris (Jordan)
  5. Roberto Moreno (Benetton)
  6. Eric Bernard (Lola)