After four wins in five races in the 1991 season, Ayrton Senna was in Mexico determined to keep his comfortable lead in the standings. Ayrton had 40 points, while Nelson Piquet trailed behind him with just 16, in which was Senna’s best start to an F1 season ever. On Friday, during the first qualifying session, Ayrton Senna was in for quite a shock, as he later recounted, after ending up on the gravel trap of the Peraltada corner, with his McLaren turned upside-down:
“It was terrifying. I was upside down trapped in the wreckage of my McLaren car. I felt panic just thinking that the gasoline spilling on my back might catch on fire. I was squeezed, unable to move and I was having trouble breathing. Enormous effort was required to remove the steering wheel and seat belts to get out from underneath the car – like getting a rabbit out of its burrow.”
Ayrton Senna tried to catch his breath as he recounted the details of the accident. He relived those moments of tension while giving a detailed account of each maneuver he made before rolling over. Fans were worried not only with the accident in Mexico, but also because Senna had injured himself a few days earlier, in Brazil, when he hit his head after losing control of his jet-ski in Angra dos Reis. In both instances, Senna was seen by F1’s medic, Dr. Sid Watkins, who cleared Senna to race on Sunday.
“I went really fast into the corner, the car hit a roughness on the track surface and, as I was switching from sixth to fifth gear, I had only my left hand on the wheel. I lost control. I went flying, spun out and rolled over.”
On Saturday, the Brazilian secured the third place on the starting grid. His best lap during the qualifying rounds, at 1min17s264, was 0s568 slower than Wiliams’ Riccardo Patrese, who took the pole position. Nigel Mansell would be starting beside his Italian teammate, on the first row. Ayrton would have Ferrari’s Jean Alesi next to him, in fourth place. Frank William’s team was already making great strides that year – in 1992, they’d be unbeatable.
On Sunday, the race was off to a very messy start. Drivers had to take three warm-up laps. Only when they were lined up on the grid for the third time, the race’s authorities decided to give them the green flag. Frenchman Jean Alesi had the best start. The Ferrari driver went from fourth to second place right after the first corner, while Senna held on to his position and Nigel Mansell kept the lead. Patrese didn’t fare so well and fell down to fourth place.
At the end of the third lap, the first with a green flag, Ayrton was all over Alesi. He drafted behind him on Peraltada’s exit and overtook him midway through the straight. The Frenchman tried to take the position back, but Senna cut him off with a beautiful maneuver. On the following lap, Patrese took a page from Senna’s book to overtake the Ferrari. Gaining momentum on the straight, he overtook Alesi from the inside and secured the third place. At the end of lap five, Gerhrd Berger, Senna’s teammate who had started the race in fifth place, saw his Honda engine blow up on the main straight.
Thanks to the yellow flags waved in that section, Senna could breathe a little easier and hold Patrese back for a few more laps, which was proving almost impossible, given the Williams’ superiority. On lap 10, Patrese finally overtook Senna and, one lap later, was already putting pressure on Mansell. He was doing better than the Britton in the early stages of the race. The “Lion” was finally passed on lap 14. At the end of the long straight, Patrese braked a little later. Mansell burned a lot of rubber, but the Italian took the inside lane and came out on top after two corners side-by-side with his teammate.
While the Italian took the lead, Alesi managed to overtake Senna and, right after that, spin out on his own ad fall to sixth place with his Ferrari. Realizing he couldn’t match Williams’ firepower, Senna started sparing his tires to make sure he would at least be on the podium. Nelson Piquet, in fourth place with his Benetton, had to change tires and wasn’t able to score. Alain Prost was never among the first six drivers throughout the race. In a disastrous weekend, the Frenchman started in 7th place and was forced to retire in the 16th lap, due to an alternator problem in his Ferrari.
On lap 33, Mansell’s tires began wearing out and Senna got closer. The Brazilian tried to overtake, but decided to avoid a possible collision. With his eyes on the title, Senna knew that a third-place finish was good enough after such a tough weekend. After 45 laps, Mansell decided to go after Patrese, who was 25 seconds ahead of him and had an all but assured victory. The “Lion” started taking faster and faster laps, closing the gap between him and the Italian. On lap 61, the Britton posted the race’s quickest lap: 1min16s788 – faster than his own time in the qualifying sessions, 1 min16s978.
The British driver was able to reach Patrese in the 67th and final lap, but it was too little, too late, and the Italian beat him for 1s336. Senna finished in third and had trouble getting out of his McLaren’s cockpit. Andrea De Cesaris (Jordan) in fourth, Brazilian Roberto Moreno (Benetton) in fifth and Èric Bernard (Lola) in sixth also scored points.
Now, Senna had 44 points overall, keeping the tournament’s lead 24 points ahead of Riccardo Patrese, in second place. Piquet fell to third place, still with 16 points, and Mansell jumped to fourth, with 13.