Report by Rob Walker
This report appeared in the January 1992 issue of Road & Track - January 1992
Long before the race at Portugal had begun, the Williams-Renault team had carefully choreographed its drivers' moves. "Our plan was to pull away from the McLarens," Riccardo Patrese said afterward, "then as Nigel came up, I was to let him go." Unfortunately, fate had a plan of its own and it didn't favor Nigel Mansell.
Qualifying turned out to be an exciting struggle between Williams and McLaren with, surprisingly, the No. 2 drivers, Patrese and Gerhard Berger, as the stars. On a track washed clean by an overnight thunderstorm, Ayrton Senna and Mansell, in their first attempts, tried and failed to better their Friday times and to displace Berger. Patrese tried too but blew his engine , creating a problem for his second run as the spare car belonged to Mansell.
Nigel took his last run and put himself on the front row, ousting Senna, whereupon Ayrton went out and put himself back on the front row displacing Nigel. With 5 minutes remaining, there was still no Williams on the front row, so Frank Williams gave Mansell's spare car to Patrese. "I didn't think I could do it in the T-car," said Riccardo, "but the track was improving all the time and the car reacted well." Patrese, very unexpectedly, found himself on pole.
One would think that having Senna pushed to the second row was excellent for Nigel. But instead of being pleased , Mansell was furious with Williams for giving Patrese his car. He then asked that the spare car's engine, one of the old series Renaults, be put in his race car! I have always stated that Mansell was one racing driver difficult to figure out, and this was one instance where he confounded me even more.
On race day, Ferrari may have taken the term "morning warmup" literally. In a session that showed the two Williams to be fastest, Alain Prost's Ferrari caught fire because of a leaking fuel pipe. He had to bail out before the car had come to a standstill.
There was betting among the journalists as to how many starts we would have because the straight went immediately into a sharp corner. In fact, all cars came through the first corner without incident, but only just. Patrese was nicely away, but Mansell, coming from the second row, was dodging all over the place and eventually cut straight across Senna, who had to back off to miss him. "If I hadn't slowed down," Ayrton said afterward, "we would have had a big accident." Berger said, "if I hadn't opened the door to Nigel we would have crashed." What I can't understand is why the stewards don't give a big penalty when dangerous driving like this occurs.
With Patrese a startling 1.5 seconds ahead of Mansell at the end of the 1st lap, the two Williams zoomed off into the distance, leaving the McLarens of Berger and Senna way behind. Even further back, the Ferraris were having their own battle as Jean Alesi squeezed ahead of Prost. On each lap either Patrese or Mansell made the fastest time. Then on lap 18, as the two Williams went past the pits dead-level, Mansell overtook Patrese. So far, it was all going as planned.
On lap 30, as most front-runners were beginning to make their tire stops, the Williams plan went awry. Mansell made what was a very fast (7.75 sec.) pit stop. The mechanic who put on the right rear wheel watched his partner put the nut on with the air gun, and then raised his hand to signify their job was completed. However, what the wheel man didn't know was that the nut had been cross-threaded and that the mechanic had removed it. He was about to replace it with another nut, when the man working the rear jack assumed all was in order and let the car down. Seeing the car resting on its wheels, Team Manager Peter Windsor waved Mansell away. No sooner had the Williams got up to speed in the fast lane than the wheel shot into the pits, hitting (but not seriously injuring) two of the Tyrrell team's crewmen.
Nigel's own crewmen rushed to the car, which had stopped in the Jordan pit (a rules infraction) with its left rear wheel jutting into the access lane. They replaced the wheel - which took considerable time - and Mansell rejoined the race in 17th place, over a lap down.
Patrese, knowing there was a problem, delayed his very quick tire change and came back out onto the circuit 10 sec. ahead of Senna. Berger was not pursuing Ayrton, so the Brazilian let him by, only to be slowed by his team-mate whose Honda engine blew on the following lap. Two laps later Prost's Ferrari suffered a similar fate.
Mansell was going like the clappers, setting the fastest lap of the race and unlapping himself. Although still only a distant 6th , I calculated that at the rate he was going he could finish 3rd.
He needn't have bothered. The McLaren team had filed a protest, stating that Mansell had contravened Article 133 of the FIA World Championship regulations by pitting in the acceleration and deceleration lane instead of the inner lane, the only area where any work can be carried out on a car. On lap 50 Mansell was shown the black flag by no less than Jean-Marie Balestre, ending his race.
After this, Patrese and Senna eased off as they knew there was no way they could be caught. But Alesi and Pierluigi Martini fought on to the end with the Minardi driver harrying Alesi to the finish. Nelson Piquet finished 5th, one place ahead of team-mate Michael Schumacher, who has amazingly placed in the points in the last two races of his three-race GP career.
Patrese's prediction that the race might be won in the pits came true, but not in the way he envisioned it. Yet, few would disagree that Riccardo's victory - which also marked Williams' 50th Grand Prix win - was well deserved. Not only did it come on the heels of an excellent qualifying attempt, but it showed as well his unselfish willingness to give up his lead position to Nigel Mansell for the overall good of the team.
- Riccardo Patrese (Williams)
- Ayrton Senna (McLaren)
- Jean Alesi (Ferrari)
- Pierluigi Martini (Minardi)
- Nelson Piquet (Benetton)
- Michael Schumacher (Benetton)