Question: What do all the wet F1 races since Monaco 1984 have in common? Answer: Ayrton Senna.

Others have had their moments. Who could forget the rate at which Stefan Bellof was teaching both Alain Prost and Senna at that Monaco race, for example? But the man who has dominated each wet Grand Prix since he came into F1 five years ago is Senna, and at the Spa he did it yet again with a beautifully judged victory.

Ayrton Senna in Spa Francorchamps 1989

Pole, of course, was his. Nowadays it takes a very special effort by Prost, or unusual circumstances such as we had in Hungary, to place anyone else fastest in qualifying. The Brazilian waxed almost lyrical after his Saturday afternoon efforts on a dry track netted him the 1m 50.867s lap that earned him the right to start from the front for a record-increasing 35th time.

“I had two clear laps and the car was much better on the second. On such a fast circuit it takes a lot of commitment. In the corners you have to guess how much you can push and commit yourself. It’s very exciting; a special feeling.”

-Ayrton Senna

After rain on Friday the dry Saturday assumed even greater importance as everyone rushed to make up for lost time. Senna rushed more than anyone else, as usual. For once at a pole position press conference, he seemed keen to talk, almost anxious to share his experience. This is a deeply sensitive man whose thick outer shell often offends, but in Belgium, with his parents watching his exploits, he seemed more relaxed than for several months. The information almost bubbled from him.

“Down to the Bus Stop chicane, for example, we are pulling 300kmh. To do that you have to get the chassis and tyres just right, and you have to be driving well. You must be neither under or above the limit, but right on it. That’s where machine and men are pushed to their very limits. And that’s why it is such a great challenge to me.”

The race proved equally as challenging. Friday’s rain returned, but by the scheduled 2.30 start had intensified. The race was delayed half an hour, amid increasing speculation of cancellation. It did go ahead, of course, as it was always going to, but as indication of just how bad things were, and how unsuitable were their special hand-grooved ‘wet’ slicks, both Brabham drivers damaged their cars in the original formation lap. “They were just totally gripless,” Martin Bundle winced. Earlier that day, in less wet conditions, Pier-Luigi Martini had used the same tyres to salvage Pirelli pride with fastest time in the morning warm-up.

The race, all 44 laps of it, was Senna’s all the way.

“The problem is to judge how hard you can push early on,” he explained later of his opening charge. In those conditions it is so easy to make a mistake, believe me. You always want to push, push, push, but you must take care.”

What made it trickier still for him was a mismatch in his tyre temperatures, and therefore, their pressures, during the initial laps. On the grid everyone had wrapped their rubber in electric blankets, but on McLaren number one the rear blankets had warmed the Goodyears faster than had the fronts. The difference in pressures changed the intended ride height until the fronts reached their working temperature, and Senna struggled with the twitchy MP4/5 for the first five laps.

You wouldn’t have known it from the way he pulled clear of Prost.

With the benefit of a clear track, he made the most of it and pulled out a 12 second cushion by half distance, as the weather finally began to show signs of abating marginally. He should have won at Monaco in ’84, he did win in Estoril ’85. He won at Silverstone and Hockenheim last year, and he was the moral victor in Montreal in June. Spa, deservedly, belonged to him.

By the end Prost had closed to within a second and a half, but that was more a case of Senna slackening his pace than the Frenchman making any real inroads, although both he and Nigel Mansell indulged in a gripping battle which saw each continuously improving the fastest lap.

Prost racing in the rain? Remember all that furore last year, after his withdrawal from the British GP? Hockenheim at the next race, Canada this year and now Spa simply endorsed what he has always maintained; when he can see it’s fine. And at Spa, unlike Silverstone, where he was struggling with a recalcitrant car way down the field amid all the spray, he could see once he’d dropped back from his team-mate. Berger and Mansell initially did likewise in the opening stages, as did most other leading drivers as they let the race fall into a pattern.

Berger had been quick all weekend, buoyed by the promise of a more powerful Ferrari V12 for Monza and impressed by it testing at the Italian venue the previous week. And for the first nine laps he pushed Prost, hard. Eleven races is a long spell without a single point, and Gerhard was desperate for a result on his 30th birthday. He wasn’t to get one, though. He had had his ride heights set at fraction lower than Mansell’s, and when he hit a particularly large puddle at Les Combes on lap 10 the Ferrari simply slithered across it on its belly, wheels off the deck, and skated into his 11th straight retirement.

The way was thus clear for Mansell to take up the cudgels. As Prost was trapped for three laps behind Eddie Cheever, he drew closer to the McLaren.

Cheever had already visited the pits after a first lap moment, and a loose wheel nut was found on his Arrows. As he chased after Michele Alboreto’s Larrousse Lola, he delayed Prost. When the latter finally nipped past at the sprayless La Source hairpin, it was Mansell’s turn, and the unfortunate Briton lost the best part off 19 seconds over the next five or six laps as the American’s wide car blocked him. It got so bad that race official Roland Bruynseraede showed him the black and white flat which indicates ‘unsporting behaviour’, and eventually Mansell was through. In Eddie’s defence, it should be said he was racing blind in Alboreto’s spray, but the moment Senna lapped him, he should have realised others would follow. He was not the only driver who failed to see waved blue flags in the appalling conditions, though.

Clear of Cheever, Mansell got this head down charged, and by lap 34 he and Prost were together again. Time and again the Ferrari jinked around in the McLaren’s mirrors – “I was trying to say hello!” –yet Prost never looked ruffled and Mansell never got quite close enough to pose a real threat. This wasn’t so much about an all-out attempt to overtake. Sure, Nigel would have loved to, but he knew in his heart that Alain isn’t the type to make mistake under pressure, and the Honda V10 had the legs of the Ferrari V12 where it mattered even if the Italian chassis could outhandle the McLaren.

What it was really about was a warning shot across the Frenchman’s bows. Only days after Spa it was finally revealed officially that the two will be team partners at Maranello next year, and this was Mansell’s way of reminding his new team-mate that he needn’t expect life at Ferrari to be a sinecure.

Thankfully, that duel at least injected some excitement into the event, at least as far as the bedraggled spectators were concerned. In the cockpits there was excitement enough simply keeping cars on the track.
On his home ground Thierry Boutsen put in another of those curiously characterless drives of his, racing under the shadow of the knowledge that team owner Frank Williams would be quite happy to put his contract up for grabs should Prost become available for Williams.

He took fourth at the start and held it throughout, and any threat from close-following team-mate Riccardo Patrese was nullified when the latter tangled with Alberto. Michele moved aside to let Boutsen pass, and cut back on to his line before realising that Riccardo was following through. Exit both, the Williams minus its right rear wheel. “He apologised, so what could I say?” asked the aggrieved Hungarian race leader.

That left Sandro Nannini and Derek Warwick with clear runs to the remaining points. The Italian was again feeling unsettled in the mercurial Benetton environment, from which manager Peter Collins had been expunged in the week following the race in Budapest, and though he pushed early on, the slightly drying track soon began to take its toll on his front Goodyears.

Warwick, too, had a similar problem. In his own quiet way the likable Briton always excels in the wet, and sixth behind all those multi-cylinders and the new Ford V8 was the product of a super drive. Thirty five on the day, he had been in particularly ebullient mode all weekend, and within a fortnight would officially be confirmed as Lotus number one for 1990.

If Mauricio Gugelmin had a relatively trouble-free run to seventh, and a much-needed finish for the beleaguered Leyton House Racing team (which that weekend confirmed both its drivers had re-signed for 1990), Ivan Capelli had a real spray bath for the first 27 laps. From the start he steadfastly remained glued to Martini’s gearbox, in a display of tenacity that reminded one why he went so well this time last year, and his persistence paid when the Minardi pilot pitted for new tyres.

Piero, like Andrea de Cesaris, felt conditions were more suited to the hand-grooved slicks, and both launched impressive charges. Where the Dallara driver’s enthusiasm got the better of him on three occasions, when he spun as had team-mate Caffi, Martini kept his car on the island and ripped back through his rivals to snatch a worthy ninth. By the flag he was only two seconds adrift of Stefan Johansson, who had helped Moneytron Onyx’s chances of avoiding 1990 prequalification with a solid eighth. If it was a dull result, with team-mate Bertrand Gachot departing the fray with yet another cooked wheel bearing following yet another seal failure, team patron Jean-Pierre van Rossem more than made up for it with his off-track outbursts about Porsche’s V12 engine and the unfairness of the manner in which F1 is run. It was, after all, his home race, and he had to make some impression…

Behind Martini, Emanuele Pirro diligently steered his Benetton round the one strip of grass at the back of the Stavelot gravel bed, after negotiating the latter backwards, and was thus able to re-join the race to take 10th, while the troubled Jonathan Palmer was an uninspired 14th in his Camel Tyrrell ahead of the equally lacklustre Luis Sala.

The Doctor yet again had to watch as a new team-mate outqualified him. This time it was the recovering Johnny Herbert as Jean Alesi was away winning the Birmingham Super Prix for Eddie Jordan. In fairness, JP tried a new set-up which didn’t work, and thus fell behind, but Herbert impressed on his return to F1. Three visits to gravel beds on Friday and Sunday morning left smudges on his copybook, but he was eighth fastest on Saturday morning, and only dropped to 16th on the grid after an engine failure. Unfortunately, he pushed too hard in the blind early stages, as he chased Johansson, and skated off at the top of Eau Rouge (scene of his 1987 F3 shunt with Gachot) on lap four.

For Lola the qualifying promise of a revised Chrysler Lamborghini V12 evaporated when Alliot had a first lap moment and then was hit by Arnoux’s Ligier when he spun at La Source fumbling with a sticking gear shift, and he joined his compatriot and his team-mate in retirement when his oil pressure sagged. Olivier Grouillard struggled on for 13th, but that was a poor reward from an event in which Ligier at one stage seemed destined to take rather more. After all, the good Rene had been fourth in Friday morning’s session…

For the gripless Brabhams the Belgian GP was even more of a nightmare, since team owner Joachim Luethi had had his collar felt by Swiss banking authorities the previous week, but by far the worst off was Lotus. For the first time in history neither of its cars qualified, and this in front of Hazel Chapman and her family, and in Camel’s most important European market. Both should have made it, but Satoru Nakajima couldn’t balance his car in the dry having been an excellent eighth in Friday’s wet, and Piquet fell off on Saturday afternoon after letting Grouillard flummox him.

The Brazilian former champion then headed for the Ford motorhome meeting which cemented his 1990 tenancy of a Benetton cockpit, as Lotus waved good riddance and prepared for a year of Chrysler Lamborghini power for a pair of fully motivated chargers, Warwick and Martin Donnelly.

Time was when F1 was a reasonably settled formula, with few major personality moves. The way things are these days you’re lucky if you recognise your own face when you shave in the mornings.


Belgian Grand Prix 1989 Results

Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna McLaren MP4/5-Honda 1h:40m:54.196
2. Alain Prost McLaren MP4/5-Honda + 1.304
3. Nigel Mansell Ferrari 640 + 1.824
4. Thierry Boutsen Williams FW12C-Renault + 54.408
5. Alessandro Nannini Benetton B189-Ford + 1:08.805
6. Derek Warwick Arrows A11-Ford + 1:18.316