For Ayrton Senna fans, and there are a lot of them among the paying public, in spite of the anti-Senna lobby among the English press, the 48th Monaco Grand Prix was sheer delight. Fastest time in both qualifying sessions, claiming pole position on the grid without question, led the race from start to finish and made fastest race lap. It is difficult to improve on that, and at no time during the weekend did anyone look like presenting a challenge to the Brazilian and the McLaren-Honda.

Ayrton Senna in 1990

The Monte Carlo circuit continues in its enigmatic role of being the best loved (or most hated) street circuit of all time, everyone putting up with all manner of bad things because it only happens once a year, and it is the father-and-mother of all street circuits, and has been since 1929 (but don’t tell the Marlboro World Championship Team, or their disciples, who think it all started in 1950!). It is not the sort of circuit around which any self respecting Grand Prix driver would want to race every weekend, but most drivers are prepared to accept its challenge once a year as part of the overall scene that makes ‘complete’ Grand Prix drivers.

While it is not fast by real Grand Prix circuits, its 85-90mph lap speed is shatteringly quick for the confined conditions and hair-raising hazards, and for the drivers it presents a great challenge in accuracy, judgement, consistency and concentration. Most of the drivers seem to view it as a personal challenge to their faculties rather than a test of motor racing. For the engineers, designers and mechanics it is an equally daunting test for nobody gets to run on the circuit until official practice begins. There is no ‘testing’, no pre-practice acclimatization, no hard and fast technical data to go on, and nowhere else like it where you can simulate the conditions. But it is the same for everyone.

By Thursday morning the weeks of preparation were complete, with more nuts and bolts and scaffold pole clamps having been tightened than you can imagine. Grandstands, bridges, crash barriers, pit counters, wire netting, escape roads, marshals posts, circuit television surveillance systems, radio and TV stations, medical equipment all had to be brought in and assembled on the spot, because once the Monaco Grand Prix has been run all signs of this 20th Century manifestation have to be erased from the home of the rich and notorious.

The Thursday before the Monaco Grand Prix is Ascension Day and a public holiday, so what better day to start practice and qualifying and then have Friday off to recover, continuing the normal process again on Saturday. The pre-qualifiers sorted themselves out between 8am and 9am on Thursday morning, . the most encouraging thing being that Bruno Giacomelli coaxed the Life Racing Engines car with its 12-cylinder engine round for nine whole laps. It was still the slowest of the pre-qualifiers but at least it kept going for a bit. The Gerard Larrousse team have to take this part of the proceedings pretty seriously, for it is only misfortune, rather than lack of ability, that relegated them to the pre-qualifying category. Consequently both the drivers have a pair of LolaLamborghini V12 cars to use because only one hour after this early morning session they have to be out again for the serious business of the weekend. The other two to join the seeded 26 drivers were Roberto Moreno and Olivier Grouillard.

The morning hour and a half of testing has no bearing on qualifying or the starting grid, and though the Longines-Olivetti system is working and the times are published, they are meaningless as far as winning the race are concerned. However, everyone wants to be in front, no matter how important it might be, so towards the end of the testing time there is usually a bit of a scramble to establish a ‘pecking order’. At the end of the Thursday session the paddock and pits had a distinct air of having been shell-shocked. Fastest lap was down to Jean Alesi in a Tyrrell 019 with a Brian Hart-tuned Cosworth DFR, a normal Cosworth production unit breathed on by Hartpower, not one of the super tweaked-up special Ford-sponsored EXP engines as used in the Benettons. While Monaco may not be about high speed and maximum horsepower, engines need ‘grunt’ which can be described as a combination of horsepower, torque, weight and the shape of the power curve; and then you need a chassis that can use it and even more important, a driver that can use everything he is given. In Jean Alesi the Tyrrell team obviously has a driver who can use the right amount of everything.

This was Alesi’s first drive at Monaco, though not his first visit, for living in Avignon he had been a regular spectator for many years, even before he took up racing in the lesser categories. If his initial performance round the streets of Monte Carlo was a surprise to anyone, then all I can say is that they haven’t been paying attention since the middle of last year. Much had been expected, but this much seemed a bit of an exaggeration! At 1pm, when qualifying began, it was Alesi who was first out to set a ‘bench mark’ and it was a good one, at 1 min 24.162 secs. He was soon followed by the fast and the famous at around the same sort of lap times, and all the regular front-runners began vying with each other to be the first to get below 1 min 24 secs, breaking into the 1 min 23 sec bracket. Then Senna went out; did a ‘cruising lap’ to weigh up the situation as to who was there on the circuit, while his pit radio told him where the important contestants were, all in 1 min 29 secs, and then . . . The disbelief along the length of the pit lane could be felt. 1 min 21.877 secs. Two whole seconds faster than anyone else. When Senna says it needs total cornmittment, total confidence, total concentration and total anything else you can think of, he is not joking. These are the occasions when you simply have to be there to experience it all first hand.

This first effort by the fastest man in motor racing today, spurred everyone on to some heroic efforts. Alesi responded with 1.23.372, then Berger gave the McLaren team full support with a lap 1.23.001, Prost revived the sagging Ferrari hopes, with 1.23.449 and Thierry Boutsen did an excellent 1.23.936 to give the Williams-Renault team good hopes of staying near the front. In the 1.24 bracket were seven drivers, heroes all, for a 1 min 24 secs lap is no mean feat round Monte Carlo, but being 3 seconds away from Senna’s pace was very depressing for some of them, particularly Patrese and Mansell, though Warwick and Donnelly in the Lotus-Lamborghinis were pleased to be that close, as were Pierluigi Martini, still limping a bit from his Imola accident, Nicola Larini in a Ligier and Pirro in a Dallara.

A group of eight drivers ended up in the 1 min 25 sec bracket, which really was slow by comparison with the Senna standard, and not happy to be there were Piquet and Nannini with the Benettons. There was no real need for Senna to make another run on his second set of qualifying tyres, but he did anyway, and went even quicker; 1 min 21.797 sec just to show everyone that the first quick lap had not been a lucky one. This sort of performance really does make the excuses by others about ‘traffic’, ‘tyres’, ‘engines’, ‘adhesion’, ‘grip’, ‘understeer’, `oversteer’ all very boring. Few will admit to being inferior drivers, but you can’t blame them. If nobody thought they could be World Champion we wouldn’t get much racing!

Qualifying had only lasted for one hour, but it had the adrenalin flowing in a lot of people, like the ‘good old days’ of free turbo boost qualifying. They really were good old days. With no Formula One activity on Friday there was time to have a leisurely lunch and discuss what might happen on Saturday in qualifying, when conditions could be even better than Thursday. Already the race itself was beginning to lose interest!

Saturday did not disappoint us, the weather was not very good for the beautiful people lounging about on the decks of their rented yachts and motor cruisers, but it was ideal for the racing drivers, who really are the most important people in Monaco at this time of the year. Mind you, it would be easy to overlook the drivers in the Monte Carlo festival that occupies a whole week, and if the sun was shining and the auction sales and gambling emporia were in full flood, you could probably quietly remove the Formula 1 cars and drivers, and no one would notice!

The money-spinning extravaganza would probably go on unabated.

But the serious business for us was 1 pm to 2 pm on Saturday afternoon, after the usual hectic hour and a half of testing in the morning.

Everyone had had their last chance to fiddle about with all the settings on the racing cars and try and settle for an optimum that would keep everything going for 78 laps on Sunday. The great joy about qualifying is that there is no need to compromise; apart from each driver being limited to two (marked) sets of tyres, and random weight checks and rear aerofoil heights being checked, it is a glorious engineers’ and drivers’ free-for-all. Everything has to hang together for just one fast lap and if nothing breaks or the driver does not hit a barrier, there is the opportunity for a second fast lap, the best one of the pair counting for the all-important grid position. Not everyone watches a whole race, but you can be sure that nobody misses the start, and all eyes are on the car on pole position. Apart from being good for the driver’s ego, he has a clear road ahead of him and there are twenty-five cars behind him and if any of the drivers have thoughts of winning they have got to get past the man on pole-position.

Conditions were excellent, with hazy sunshine which removed the glare and sharp contrasts in the shadows of the buildings, while the track had taken on a satisfactory coating of sticky rubber. The ‘bench-mark’ was loud and clear, a time below 1 min 22 secs was necessary, while times in the 1.23 bracket, which had been good on Thursday, would now be very mediocre. Prost, Alesi, Mansell, Berger and Patrese all got into the 1.22 bracket, which was exciting stuff if you overlooked Senna’s 1.21.797 of Thursday. Then, about one third of the way through the hour McLaren number 27 headed off down the crowded pit lane with that remarkable Brazilian brain at work under the yellow helmet.

Senna did a gentle lap in 1.36.920 and then went through the start-line speed trap at 150 mph with the Honda V10 really on full song and 1 min 21.314 seconds later he broke it again at 153mph! Hardly had he finished this virtuoso display than Alesi really stirred things up with a lap in 1 min 21.801 secs, and this got everyone on their toes, even more than Senna’s time, bearing in mind it was the young Frenchman’s first F1 race at Monaco and comparing the quality of the equipment used by him and Senna. This really got Alain Prost wound up and he came alive with a searing lap in 1.21.776, to take second place on the grid, these three being the only ones to get below 1.22, though Patrese came mighty close with 1 min 22.026 secs.

But it was not over, for Senna still had his second set of tyres to use. Everyone held their breath when he was seen heading down the pit lane once more and just as before it needed one warm-up lap and then 150 mph over the start-line, and 153 mph next time round. Lap time 1 min 21.544 secs, just two-tenths of a second lost as he passed a slower car towards the end of the lap, and this was the second fastest lap of the whole qualifying period, so he could justifiably claim first and second places on the grid.

This excitement among the front runners completely overshadowed the rest of the field even though there were some valiant efforts being made. A study of the starting grid on the statistics page tells it all, for the end result of two days of testing and qualifying is seen by your position on the grid. Pierluigi Martini in the Minardi M190 continues to be near the front, in spite of still limping a bit, Emanuele Pirro in the Dallara BMS was just behind him, and Martin Donnelly was well up. The Benettons were right off the pace, being surrounded by some lesser machinery and lesser drivers, while at the back David Brabham took the penultimate grid position, and Lehto was at the back convinced that his Onyx Monteverdi was much inferior to his team-mate Gregor Foitek’s car. It must be said that Foitek did a good job, compared with his efforts last season when he vied with de Cesaris for the number of accidents that he had.

Left to watch from the sidelines were Alboreto (Arrows), which is becoming a habit, Grouillard (Osella), Gugelmin (Leyton House) which is difficult to accept when his performance is compared to the same car when it was called a March, and Moreno (EuroBrun). It had been an exciting two days and it was hard to believe that Sunday was going to be better, but the whole point of the Monaco Grand Prix is the Sunday race, so we just had to look forward in anticipation.

Sunday was another day for racing drivers, not for beautiful people, as the sky was grey and overcast with wet looking clouds hovering around the tops of the mountains behind the Principality, and all the craft in the harbour were bobbing about as the ruffled sea came in through the entrance, spoiling quite a few Sunday lunches no doubt! Late on Saturday afternoon it had rained on the Formula 3 race, and there was every chance of it doing the same on the Grand Prix, with the start scheduled for 3.30pm. In the morning warm-up half-hour the McLaren team was pretty confident, but remarkably so was Prost, there being nothing to whinge about with the Ferrari. Alesi blotted his copybook by bending the left-rear corner of his Tyrrell 019 against the guard rails, but such was his standing with the Tyrrell team that he could have thrown the whole thing in the harbour and Uncle Ken and his lads would have smiled and said “Don’t worry, we’ll make another one.” As it was they set to with vigour and rebuilt the left-rear corner of the damaged 019.

Watching in the Casino Square everything looked to be in fair order as Senna led the field on the opening lap, but down the hill to the Mirabeau hairpin it all went wrong. While everyone in the Square craned to see what had happened, television viewers wallowed in the excitement of a silent accident, and when the dust had settled there was a Ferrari and a McLaren hors de combat, as they say, with Alain Prost running down the hill, and Gerhard Berger running up the hill, while the red flag was being shown at the start and the race was stopped. Prost, in second place, had looked in his mirrors and seen Alesi’s Tyrrell hell-bent on overtaking down the inside into the hairpin, and discretion being the Prost watchword, the World Champion had moved aside to the left, to let the hard-charging newcomer through, Berger was hard-charging after Alesi and was unprepared for Prost to move back onto his line for the corner and the McLaren rammed the back of the Ferrari.

While Berger was running across Casino Square and down the hill to the pits, Prost got a lift back in the course car which had come out, and McLaren and Ferrari mechanics were frantically preparing their spare car. The McLaren was all set up for Senna, and the Ferrari for Mansell, so there was some hasty readjustment of pedals and controls and the various aerodynamic and suspension setting to suit the change of driver. The big problem was for Prost, as his own car was using a specially programmed gearbox that only used six speeds, whereas the Mansell spare car was using standard seven speed layout, and nothing could be done about that, so Prost had a quick word with his team-mate to get an idea of the different driving technique required. The lanky Berger was being squeezed into Senna’s spare McLaren as best as could be managed, but both drivers were going to re-start the race with a handicap. CapeIli’s turquoise car set itself on fire at the start, so he took the team’s spare car for the re-start.

Some twenty-five minutes later the re-start was given and this time all went well, but as a race it was virtually over before it started. However, there were 78 laps to run and anything could happen, but if the McLaren-Honda kept going and Senna did not put a wheel wrong, he was assured victory. Thus it was. Senna drove away from everyone to lead from start to finish, running the whole race at his own pace, and having sufficient margin in hand to be able to ease right off towards the end. This was most fortunate as his Honda engine began to show signs of distress towards the end of the 78 laps, so he was able to be very gentle with it and not aggravate any impending trouble.

Behind him there was a very different story and a lot of racing was going on, not only for places near the front, but also at the back and a lot of drivers were enjoying themselves. Like most drivers, Alesi knew there was nothing to be done about Senna, but he was very determined to annexe second place and was totally unimpressed by the drivers all around him, even the reigning World Champion! He was safely sandwiched between Prost’s Ferrari and Berger’s McLaren while the two drivers were getting used to the T-cars. Behind this trio were the Williams pair in fifth and sixth places, though Boutsen was having a difficult time keeping up as the throttles on his Renault V10 were not shutting properly. Mansell’s poor grid position, due to various problems, meant that he got a bit bogged down in the opening laps, and could not really get his teeth into the race until he got past Martini’s Minardi, but once by he motored in typical Mansell aggressive style and closed up on the two Williams cars. Not realising that Boutsen had a sticking throttle problem he closed up too close on lap 21 and bent the Ferrari nose, which meant a pit stop for a replacement. Undeterred he then started a charge back through the field.

By sheer chance Mansell rejoined the race in the midst of the group who were in the running for second place, actually being between Alesi and Berger, though a lap in arrears. He made the most of this situation as it meant that all the cars around him were going at his pace, so there was no time wasted being stuck behind slow cars. The attrition rate was very high as engines, gearboxes and transmissions gave up the ghost among the back end of the field, but on lap 31 disaster struck at the front. Prost had been running in a fairly secure second place right from the start, being unruffled by Alesi’s attempts to challenge with the Tyrrell 019, while Berger was holding station in fourth place unable to do anything about the blue and white car.

The first thing Prost knew of impending trouble was a strange smell in the cockpit of the Ferrari. There was a systems failure in the Ferrari battery charging circuit, and the battery was being desperately overcharged, giving off acid fumes, and on lap 31 the battery burst asunder spraying the driver with acid. It also meant that the whole electrical system died, including control of the gearbox, and Prost was lucky to be able to get back to the pits, where he was quickly attended to by the Ferrari team doctor before there were any bad effects.

This left Alesi in a comfortable second place, which was where he had been aiming to be, and Berger in trouble behind him as first gear had ceased to function on the McLaren and he was having to re-adjust his driving pattern to make do without it. Once he had got this sorted out he closed up on Alesi again, but there was no way he was going to get by, and Alesi was not going to help, nor was the young Frenchman looking like making any mistakes, his driving being impressively constant and sure. This stalemate between the Tyrrell and the McLaren went right through to the finish at unabated pace, so much so that it looked as though they were gaining on Senna, but Senna was slowing down in a totally controlled manner and knew exactly what was going on behind him. The battling pair were 1.1 seconds behind the winner at the finish, which got a lot of people excited, but they clearly did not know Senna. As he said afterwards, when someone excitedly said what a close finish it had been, “It was enough”. Very cool is our Mr. Senna, and it was interesting to see that Jean Alesi was equally cool at the finish.

Back in the race fortunes were still wavering as the leaders had their little dramas. Piquet had a spin when trying to get by Boutsen and was pushed back onto the track by marshals, but this meant instant exclusion under a new 1990 rule, and to really confuse things the LonginesOlivetti computer programme had the DELETE button pressed for car number 20, and Piquet was erased from all (or nearly all) the time-sheets and the official lap chart! A very strange happening.

Mansell’s heroic charge back after his pit stop got him up to a fine fourth place, but then the Ferrari electrical system had a failure and he was left with no way to operate the gearbox, so both Ferraris were out with what many people loosely described as ‘gearbox trouble’ which was not very accurate. Derek Warwick was having a good race with the Lotus-Lamborghini V12, the engine looking like lasting the race, but the Lotus brakes gave trouble and he eventually spun into retirement, nearly being collected by Senna’s McLaren when the leader arrived on the scene amid confusing marshal signals. Patrese’s run came to an end when his Renault V10 engine broke something in the valve gear, but Boutsen managed to bring his Williams-Renault home into fourth place, though a lap behind the leader.

With so many cars breaking down, there being only six cars still running at the end, the tail-enders scooped up the last two places, which scored some important points for the Footwork-Arrows team and the Larrousse team. For Senna, McLaren and Honda it had been a real tour de force and a highly satisfactory Monaco Grand Prix, and for Alesi and Team Tyrrell it had been more than they could have realistically hoped for, but for most others it had been an unmitigated disaster, with a few crumbs of satisfaction scattered here and there. Although there was a general air of enjoyment about the place everyone was very glad that they do not have to do it all over again in a fortnight’s time, Monte Carlo itself could get on with the enormous task of undoing all the nuts and bolts, clearing up the unholy mess left by the public and getting everything back into some semblance of order.


Monaco Grand Prix 1990 Results

Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna McLaren MP4/5B-Honda 1:52:46.982
2. Jean Alesi Tyrrell 019-Ford  +1.087
3. Gerhard Berger McLaren MP4/5B-Honda  +2.073
4. Thierry Boutsen Williams FW13B-Renaul  +1 Lap
5. Alex Caffi Arrows A11B-Ford  +2 Laps
6. Eric Bernard Lola 90-Lamborghini  +2 Laps