It all started off quite well. The big transport planes delivered all the cars and equipment to Canada, the airlines delivered all the personnel safely and by 8 am on Friday morning the nine drivers who had to battle for the four places available in official practice and qualifying were ready to go. The result of this brief hour of competition, with no prior practice, was the same as in Monte Carlo; Moreno (EuroBrun), Grouillard (Osella), Suzuki and Bernard (Lola-Lamborghini) were in with a chance of qualifying for the actual race, while the rest had made a long and fruitless journey.

Ayrton Senna in Canada 1990

At 10 am the big boys came out to play, and like Monte Carlo the circuit on the Notre Dame island in the St Lawrence river at the lower end of Montreal suffered from being used only once a year. There was a lot of surface dust to be blown away, much of it having come from construction work around the edge of the lake in the centre of the circuit which had nothing to do with the racing scene. The track surface was `green’ in as much as it had no layer of racing rubber on it on the racing line and with no pre-race test sessions the drivers had forgotten where the bumps were, until they found out the hard way. On all the ‘once-a-year’ circuits it needs the first day of official practice to get the circuit bedded in for serious use.

Twelve months of development with the new 3 1/2-litre Formula has seen huge strides being made on engines, suspensions, aerodynamics and handling, offering a new set of parameters, which some drivers overlooked, or did not appreciate, when they started to complain about the circuit conditions. However, it did not deter them from getting on with the job and anyway they had something much more important to worry about. That was the weather forecast.

The day was warm and dry but communications said that it was raining in Detroit, southwest of Montreal, and by known weather patterns it was predicted that the rain would reach the circuit by Saturday. Consequently all along the pit lane practice and testing programmes were speeded up or modified and the afternoon qualifying session was viewed more seriously than normal, as everyone became conscious of the fact that it might be the only chance to claim a good grid position. Under normal conditions there is time to spend the morning practice session on Friday experimenting with different tyres and aerodynamic settings to arrive at a suitable compromise for qualifying on Friday afternoon, and then on Saturday morning to arrive at a compromise suitable for the race, all the time bearing in mind that gear ratios, suspension settings, fuel consumption and engine management systems have to be experimented with as well, to find the best settings for all-out qualifying laps and the best for the race distance, also dependent on race tactics and whether you view the first half of the race more important than the second half.

In other words there is more than enough to do during the two morning test sessions and the two afternoon qualifying sessions, always assuming that the track conditions are stable and remain so for the race. When Friday is getting oppressively warm and ‘heavy’ and you are guaranteed rain for Saturday, with race day predicted as being ‘unsettled’ it is easy to see how careful preplanning can go wrong. If you introduce some engine or gearbox problems into the work progamme, or worse still, your driver has an accident, it tries the team management and control pretty severely.

With the sure knowledge that Friday was the end of the good weather there was no question of the qualifying hour seeing the front runners doing only two fast laps on their chosen qualifying tyres. Every moment of track-time was needed to fit two days work into one and a lot of the drivers spent time out on the circuit on race tyres working at their problems, restricting themselves to one fast lap in qualifying tyres. Those with spare cars were at an advantage here, being able to swap quickly from one car to the other, each car having its own particular characteristics as part of the test programme. In actual fact many of the drivers made their best lap times running on relatively hard racing tyres, rather than softer qualifying tyres, simply because they were not really sufficiently far advanced with their experiments to get the best out of the softer rubber. Apart from the impending rain the total lack of pre-race testing on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve meant there was no information in the memory-tank to assist them.

The end result of this rather muddled first day of qualifying was not a lot different from normal, with Senna and Berger dominating the scene with the McLaren-Hondas and Prost a challenging third, but the two Benettons of Nannini and Piquet in fourth and fifth places surprised a lot of people as the Montreal circuit is pretty fast, with a-lap speed average around the 120mph mark. On the other hand there are a lot of fairly slow corners which call for good torque and low speed response, which is where a V8 engine can have an advantage over a V10 or a V12. The ‘wonder boy of Monte Carlo’, Jean Alesi, was still well up with a Tyrrell 019, holding eighth place, while Stefano Modena was going well in tenth place with a Brabham-Judd V8, ahead of the two Lamborghini-powered Lotus cars of Warwick and Donnelly. When the qualifying hour ended the atmosphere was getting very ‘heavy’ suggesting the approaching rain and it was generally accepted that only a freak of circumstance was going to alter the qualifying pattern, so anyone who had failed to get into the select twenty-six for the grid on this first afternoon hadn’t got much hope for improvement on Saturday. Friday evening confirmed everyone’s worst fears as the rain started, and it was still raining on Saturday morning with little hope of a bright future for the rest of the day or even for Sunday.

When the Saturday morning test session began there was little point in worrying about the afternoon qualifying hour, for even if the rain stopped the track was never going to be in a condition to improve on the times established on Friday afternoon, so everyone concentrated on learning to go as fast as possible in the wet. Some found the limit the hard way, by spinning off the track, and Eric Bernard crashed his Larrousse Lamborghini-Lola very heavily bringing out the red flag and a stop to proceedings while the wreckage was cleared away, the driver escaping unhurt and transferring to a spare car. Some thirty minutes were lost removing the crashed car and the race Stewards made the unusual decision not to extend practice to make up for lost time, making it clear to everyone that the morning session would terminate at 11.30 am as scheduled.

What most drivers were trying to learn was ‘throttle control’ on the slippery surface, for though the rain was consistent it was not heavy and rather than flooding the track it covered it with a slippery coating on which the cars skated about, even with heavily treaded rain tyres, either Goodyear or Pirelli. Those teams with strong factory-backed engines, like Honda and Renault, had their electronic experts working on the management systems and ‘chips’ to give the engines more `driveability’ as the Honda engineers describe it, altering the torque spread, the usable power band and the response to throttle openings.

For those drivers who had failed to get into the top twenty-six on Friday afternoon, namely Moreno, Gugelmin, BariIla and Brabham, Saturday was a complete loss for there was no hope of improving their times and if any of them had made fastest time in wet it would still not have got them on the grid. For those who had already staked their place on the grid the day was frustrating if they felt they hadn’t achieved their best on Friday, and the two Williams-Renault drivers came into this category. The Benetton drivers were very happy with their places near the front, but Mansell was less happy about being so far behind Prost.

Although the rain had stopped by the time the qualifying hour began everything was still dripping wet and the track was being slow to dry out so that times were all a bit meaningless, the only people benefitting from the conditions being the marshals at the pit-lane exit who were checking competitors’ tyres. Under normal dry conditions each driver chooses two sets of tyres at the end of morning testing for his use in the afternoon qualifying hour, and these are marked with his racing number by FIA officials. Each time that a competitor goes out of the pit lane he has to stop at the exit where four marshals check the stencilled number on each tyre. When all four have given a ‘thumbs up’ to the flag man, he gives the driver the signal to proceed. This is very simple, a speedy operation and more often than not a driver need not come to a complete stop. If he does not slow down or has the wrong number on a tyre, or no number at all, he is immediately eliminated from the lap time list and there have been instances of a driver trying to get away with using team-mate’s tyres or unmarked tyres, but they have never got away with it as the marshalling at all the circuits is very efficient.

If conditions are wet a driver can use rain tyres without restriction and they do not have to be marked, so under the wet conditions of Saturday afternoon the marshals had a simple job; it was easy to see if a car was on heavily-treaded rain tyres as it came down the pit-lane, and if it was it was waved straight through.

Towards the end of the ‘hour’ a dry line began to appear and it was worth trying ‘slicks’ to establish a Saturday afternoon benchmark, but it was still a long way off the Friday pace. Nelson Piquet was fastest with the Benetton B190, driving with all his old enthusiasm and flair, feeling that the car justified maximum input from the driver, but even so his fastest time of the afternoon was slower than the time of the last non-qualifier on the previous day, which explains the conditions adequately.

Sunday morning saw rain and yet more rain over Montreal with clouds down to skyscraper level and with the start due at 1 pm the morning warm-up half-hour was at 8.30 am so everyone was resigned to a wet race and cars were set up for wet conditions, or at best a compromise between wet and dry, and brake ducts were taped over to try and get the discs up to a working temperature. It was still raining when the cars went out to the grid in preparation for the parade lap led by Senna in the leading McLaren-Honda, and as they set off the official sign reading WET RACE was displayed, indicating that the race would run its 70 laps come what may, and any tyre changes, if the condition improved, would be down to the individual teams.

It seemed to take longer than usual to get the back of the grid lined up correctly at the end of the parade lap, but eventually the red light came on and before the green light shone Berger had let his McLaren roll forward from his number two position on the grid. Senna led away, followed by Berger, while Nannini made a super start and shot into third place, followed by Alesi who had got the jump on Prost, Piquet, Boutsen and Mansell, showing total disregard for his elders and betters(!). In the general pushing and shoving around the first hairpin bend just after the start Martini’s Minardi got elbowed into a spin and stalled on the bend as the rest weaved their way by. The organisation seemed to have nothing in the way of large cranes or mechanical grabs or tow-lines to remove the car from the vulnerable position, while marshals made no progress on the wet grass. Eventually a course car was sent out from the pits to tow the Minardi out of harm’s way while the race was still in progress. Not exactly 1990 standards of Formula One!

The rain had stopped almost as the race had started and the track began to dry very quickly on the racing line, although off-line was still very slippery for anyone who made a mistake. The stewards announced that Berger was to be penalised one minute for jumping the start and ‘Radio McLaren’ were soon on to their drivers to tell them the situation. Senna was leading Berger in a solid 1-2, with Nannini hanging on and leading the rest in the order Alesi, Piquet, Boutsen, Prost, Mansell, Patrese and Warwick with Capelli and Suzuki bringing up the rear. At the end of lap 10 Berger’s McLaren was heading into the pits for a change on to ‘dry’ tyres and he was followed by Patrese on the same lap. Pit stops then came thick and fast as everyone changed on to ‘slicks’ and for three glorious laps Nannini enjoyed leading the race for Benetton and Ford (Cosworth), but then it was his turn to stop. By lap 17 everyone had been in and out and the race order on the track was Berger (McLaren), Senna (McLaren), Prost (Ferrari), Boutsen (Williams), Piquet (Benetton), Mansell (Ferrari) and Warwick (Lotus); missing from their rightful places were Nannini and Alesi, both having mishaps and delays unrelated to their tyre stops.

The Benetton driver was halfway round his first lap on dry tyres when he hit a large animal (a beaver?) that had come up out of the St Lawrence river to see what all the noise was about, or maybe it was on his way back into the river for a bit of peace and quiet; either way it got neither and the Benetton got a deflated tyre and a bent nose and by the time Nannini got round to the pit for attention he was down to 21st position and somewhat excited, having lost a certain 2nd place. Alesi had brought his Tyrrell 019 in for a new nose as the ‘droopy’ front fins were pointing in the wrong direction, the little French charger having charged into the back of the Dallara of de Cesaris, so he rejoined in 11th place.

For anyone not paying attention or relying on television coverage to follow the race the situation could have become confused, for Berger was pressing on really hard, pulling away from Senna, to try and overcome his one minute handicap and the automatic Olivetti/Longines timing programme was ignoring the penalty, printing out the order on the track, not the corrected order. After the tyre stops and knowing the situation, Senna had let Berger go by, knowing that all he had to do was to keep his team-mate in sight and not let him get more than 60 seconds ahead. Berger had a clear run ahead of him and made the most of it, gradually passing the slower cars on time, and creeping up on those behind Senna, though none of them could actually see him. As Senna had nearly half a minute lead over the rest he had the whole situation well in hand, but behind him all manner of dramas were being enacted.

Prost was not happy with the feel of the brakes on his Ferrari and Boutsen was trying desperately to get by, while Piquet and Mansell were effectively in the Williams’ shadow. As the Ferrari and Williams came up to lap Larini’s Ligier Boutsen made a desperate move to dive down the inside of Prost under braking but he got on the slippery stuff, went sideways across the bows of the Ferrari and punted the innocent Larini’s Ligier into the barriers. Prost avoided it all and Boutsen limped into retirement with the front of his car bent beyond repair.

Hardly had this happened than a rather angry Nannini chose to outbrake Nakajima’s Tyrrell, got sideways, rode over some bumps which made the Benetton just airborne and it skimmed backwards across the gravel and grass totally out of control and thumped into the tyre wall at the end of the run-off area. Nannini scrambled out unhurt and five laps later Alesi did exactly the same thing in the same place, out-braking a slower car, and the Tyrrell followed an identical trajectory to the Benefton’s and crashed backwards into it, finishing up on top of it, the rather chastened driver climbing out and being helped down to ground level.

Meanwhile the two McLarens were still way out in front on the track, with Berger driving his brilliant best, moving steadily up through the field after his 1 minute penalty was taken into account. Senna was his normal self, leading the race at his own pace and had only the Ferrari/Benetton/ Ferrari sandwich on the same lap as himself once he had lapped Warwick and Patrese, which he did on lap 34. Warwick felt no remorse over the situation, but Patrese was piqued, as his brakes were overheating and becoming erratic and he finally gave up the unequal struggle on lap 45. Berger was still ahead of Senna on the road, but his 1 minute penalty meant that he was on the same lap, but nearly a lap behind on time. More important was the fact that he was on the same lap as the Prost, Piquet, Mansell battle and only half a minute behind them, which spurred him on to even greater efforts, his pit keeping him abreast of the situation.

The battle for second place between Prost, Piquet and Mansell really enlivened the grey day, for although it was dry over the St Lawrence river rain was still falling over the centre of Montreal. Prost was still unhappy with the brakes on his Ferrari, or so he said after the race was over, and Mansell was just unhappy, but most people have stopped listening to his tales of woe for they never end.

Piquet on the other hand was really enjoying himself as he played the ‘meat’ in the Ferrari sandwich; this was ‘vintage’ Piquet, putting to rest all those who had been saying he could no longer drive fast and aggressively. His out-braking manouevre at the major hairpin to snatch second place from Prost was brilliant on lap 49 and demoralized Prost, while a lap later Mansell did the same thing on his team-mate and Prost dropped from 2nd to 4th just like that.

In the closing stages Berger’s time deficit to Prost began to get close to one minute, which meant the Frenchman’s fourth place was in danger, even though he could not see Berger’s McLaren, which made him get a hustle on, brake problems or no brakes problems. On lap 63, with seven to go, he made his fastest lap of the race in 1.23.078, on lap 67 he recorded 1.23.781 and on 69 he did 1.23.753 but it was to no avail and he could not fend off the unseen McLaren. The Austrian was going faster and faster all the time, with laps in the 1.22 bracket and his last lap of all was his fastest of all in the race, in a time of 1 min 22.077 secs to end ‘the drive of the day’.

He was still half a lap ahead of Senna on the track, so naturally was given the chequered flag as he completed his 70 laps before anyone else, at which point Senna was leaving the far hairpin to start his last half a lap having led the race for all but three laps, when he relinquished the lead to Nannini during the tyre stops. Piquet, Mansell and Prost finished with six seconds covering them, but when Berger’s time was corrected by adding the 1 minute penalty he had beaten Prost by one second, even though the Ferrari driver had never seen him throughout the race! Confused? You are not alone.

So the final order was Senna (McLaren), Piquet (Benefton), Mansell (Ferrari), Berger (McLaren), Prost (Ferrari) all on the same lap. Warwick, Modena and Caffi were all two laps behind, Bernard, CapeIli and Nakajima were three laps behind, followed by Suzuki and Grouillard. Three different makes of car in the first three places, three different engines, and two Brazilian drivers at the front with the lonely Brit on the winner’s podium with them. Gerhard Berger was the unsung hero of the day for the sporting public, but not for the McLaren team or Honda, for his proper place should have been second to Senna and once again he had failed; heroics do not count for much in Woking and Tokyo. Piquet’s fans, and there are still a lot of them, were cheering the swarthy Brazilian loudly and he was more than satisfied with his result, having really enjoyed himself all day.

A somewhat confusing race, but a good race nevertheless, and lots of lessons to be learned. As these words are being read the results of the next Grand Prix will be known, for even as this report is being written a vast armada of giant transporters are on their way to Mexico City for the next race, some 2000 miles away.


Canadian Grand Prix 1990 Results

Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna McLaren-Honda 1h:42m:56.400
2. Nelson Piquet Benetton-Ford +10.497
3. Nigel Mansell Ferrari +13.385
4. Gerhard Berger McLaren-Honda +14.854
5. Alain Prost Ferrari +15.820
6. Derek Warwick Lotus-Lamborghini + 2 Laps