There might have been a hint of post-race tiredness in Nigel Mansell’s voice, but there was no disappointment. Just admiration. Jerez, scene of the Tio Pepe Spanish Grand Prix, should have given the normally aspirated cars their best crack at the turbos since Hungaroring, yet nothing could stop Prost’s Honda Marlboro McLaren advance. Mansell tried as hard as he could — which means nobody could have tried harder — but even he had to give second-best.
At Spa, following his fourth consecutive defeat at Ayrton Senna’s hands, Alain had all but conceded the championship to his team-mate. His last win had been at Ricard, just before his controversial withdrawal from Silverstone, and he had played definite second fiddle ever since. True, he’d led in Hungary — albeit only for yards — and again at Spa and Monza, but each time Senna had dispensed with him in less than a lap.
Estoril proved a vital turning point, as Alain received a new chassis to replace the one Senna had raced earlier in the season. Though the Brazilian doesn’t feel there is any difference between any of the tubs in current service, Prost was much happier with the behaviour of his, and that held over to Jerez too.
On Friday morning, in free practice, it seemed as if the non-turbos really did have a chance as Mansell headed Williams teammate Riccardo Patrese by a healthy 1.5 seconds, and Prost in third place by two. As others got their set-ups sorted, and also found the clear laps Mansell had on a circuit on which there is only one clean line, the two McLarens eventually took over on Saturday. Senna, predictably, sat on pole with 1min 24.067sec, but to Mansell’s credit that wasn’t that much quicker than his Friday morning 1min 24.722sec.
Prost trimmed down to 1min 24.134sec to ease Nigel off the front row, but the tenacious Briton was right behind, figuratively and literally, with 1min 24.269sec. The only other ace below 1min 25sec was Thierry Boutsen, who put in a particularly worthy 1min 24.904sec for fourth slot in the Benetton. He’d actually been second on Friday afternoon, only to have his times disallowed when a front wing end-plate infringement was discovered by FISA’s scrutineers.
On a track where a trip off line resulted in tyres picking up debris which then took a good two laps to clean off, the start was always going to be vitally important. Senna, on the pole to the right, should have had an advantage but didn’t. The racing line is more to the left, where Prost sat quite happily. As the lights turned green, Senna lagged and, as Prost led, Mansell burst to the left round car No12 before squeezing Senna even further to the right. As he then grabbed a better line to Turn One, the Williams driver had second place by inches, and all the effort that had gone into Senna’s pole had been wasted.
Undaunted, the Brazilian speared neatly up the inside of Mansell into Turn One as they began lap two, gaining a place on turn-in. Mansell was ready for that, though, and resumed the position as they ran down to Turn Two. The battle for second was over.
In its place, however, came a battle for the lead. For the first time this year it seemed a normally-aspirated car was about to pass the leading turbo.
Just as in Estoril, Prost had cunningly juggled the optimum chassis set-up. While Senna struggled, his fuel read-out already telling him the same depressing story it had in Portugal, his team-mate stormed into the distance in the opening laps as Mansell conserved his tyres while running on full tanks. That done, by lap 15 he had begun to close markedly on the McLaren; it was Hungary all over again.
By lap 22 Prost was under real pressure. Mansell was only 0.9 seconds behind and had his head down, and the largest crowd Jerez has ever accommodated was going wild. Lap by lap the Williams dogged the McLaren, shadowing its every move. Sadly, though, that was to be all Nigel could do. Prost had the situation weighed up, was preserving his tyres and fuel as well, and gradually began to ease away again after that critical point. Both men were lapping in the 1min 29sec bracket by that stage,but even on this tight track, the McLaren had that scant advantage it needed.
Disappointing though the lack of a wheel-to-wheel fight was, Prost’s perfection was spellbinding, as he took the same line every lap, driving like an automaton such was his incredible precision. A few tantalising feet adrift, Mansell was perfectly placed to appreciate the show, and was the first verbally to applaud it.
The Briton stopped for fresh Goodyears on lap 46, and was slightly delayed by a sticking wheel-nut. Such was his margin over Senna, however, that he never looked remotely like losing second place.
Prost made his call on lap 50, emerging smoothly still with a 13-second lead which was to grow, despite Mansell’s efforts, as the Williams’ clutch pedal began intermittently to stick on the floor. The challenge was thus effectively over, but Mansell had gone down fighting, and his second runner-up slot in a disastrous year doubled his points score and was a triumph in itself.
Prost was pleased with a victory that brought the 1988 score with Senna to 7-6, and agreed with suggestions that it was one of his finest. When you have 34, though, the choice is wide. . .
Senna himself remained under pressure throughout the 72 laps. Initially it was Patrese who provided it, and after a mid-race spell by Ivan Capelli and Alessandro Nannini he resumed it again in the closing stages.
In qualifying Patrese had disgraced himself by brake-testing Julian Bailey (after the Tyrrell driver had unintentionally hampered one of his fast laps) and for his trouble had been fined $10,000 by FISA. Bailey failed to qualify, and the incident did little to cement harmonious relations with either Bailey or Jonathan Palmer, about whom Mansell had been scathing after Friday free practice. As Patrese was fined, the Tyrrell twins both received warnings about getting in the way, which amounted to a ridiculous witch-hunt when you think how many drivers got in one another’s way during the four sessions.
In the race Riccardo was his usual defensive self after sneaking past Capelli in Turn Two on the opening lap, but his tactics then were acceptable, if frustrating for his pursuers. Capelli and Nannini had only just failed to ease into the ace bracket in qualifying, but the March driver accounted for Boutsen in Turn Two as he turned sharply across the Benetton and damaged its nose-fins. As Ivan continued fifth, the Belgian pitted for a replacement nose and fresh rear tyres, and could only salvage ninth at the end after a strong recovery.
Capelli was obviously faster than either Patrese or Senna, but it wasn’t until lap 36 that he finally found a way past the wide Williams after a heady scrap which had seen Senna, Patrese, Capelli and Nannini circulating within inches of one another. Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto had also joined the fray in the Ferraris, but both struggled with poor throttle-response on the tight track and had to drive with their eyes on their fuel read-outs. Alboreto lasted only 15 laps before pulling off with terminal overheating.
It would have been so easy for Capelli to become ruffled in his pursuit of Patrese, but he maintained his cool and, once past, wrote another chapter in his reputation book by pulling a stunning move on Senna. Going into the hairpin behind the pits on lap 39, he slammed the turquoise March alongside the McLaren, on the inside line, and simply sat it out wheel-to-wheel until Ayrton had to concede. He was pulling away, just as he had in Portugal, when his race ended cruelly in a spectacular cloud of oil-smoke only seven laps later.
One Italian’s misfortune was another’s gain, however. After stopping early for fresh Goodyears on lap 29, Nannini had the bit between his teeth and was flying back onto Patrese’s tail, having quickly disposed of Mauricio Gugelrnin. Like Capelli’s, the Brazilian’s March was very fast in the quick corners, but unlike Ivan’s it seriously lacked grip round the slow ones, and was no match for the Benetton.
Two laps after Capelli’s demise Sandro was back to fifth. Two laps later he had picked off Patrese and pulled a carbon-copy of Capelli’s move on Senna to run third. For a while it looked as if he might even make inroads into the troubled Mansell’s advantage, but realising the pursuit to be fruitless, he wisely settled for his second third place of the year. When he and Capelli mature fully, watch out!
Senna stopped for new tyres on lap 51 and dropped to seventh behind Gugelmin and Berger, who had pitted much earlier, but neither offered much resistance as he tore back into the points. He then repassed Patrese in Turn One on lap 65, but fourth was scarcely what he had expected at the beginning of the meeting. Having crossed the line, he then pulled up on the left side of the road just before the first corner, his fuel read-out telling him he wouldn’t last the slowing-down lap.
Although Patrese had run the full distance on one set of tyres, he managed to set his fastest lap as late as the 71st, in response to Berger setting his on the 70th as he closed in to challenge. The Austrian actually slipped ahead in Turn One right at the end, but just as Mansell had repassed Senna, so Riccardo moved back ahead. Any counter-attack was thwarted when the Ferrari spluttered short of fuel as it exited the hairpin on the last lap.
Gugelmin finally took seventh, but the place was a matter of heated debate in the closing stages as Nelson Piquet chased the March and was in turn hounded by Boutsen. “I feel as if I’ve won,” beamed the World Champion, who had been in angry mode on Friday as he struggled to 15th slot.
After a strong run in the initial stages, Alex Caffi had moved Scuderia Italia’s Dallara into a handy eighth on lap 31, but could resist neither Berger nor Piquet as they recovered from their tyre-stops. In the latter half of the race the BMS 188 again split an exhaust primary, but though he still felt unwell after a stomach-upset in qualifying. Alex came under no threat from Yannick Dalmas’ Larrousse-Calmels Lola, which the Frenchman brought home 11 th after struggling for grip throughout.
Derek Warwick had chased Caffi hard even though his Arrows wasn’t happy on a circuit which exacerbated its poor throttle response, but after a stern fight with Piquet the Englishman slid over a kerb and terminally damaged the underside of its monocoque. Team-mate Eddie Cheever had just squeezed on to the grid after countless troubles in qualifying, and was delayed badly on the first lap after Jonathan Palmer’s Tyrrell ran into the back of Stefan Johansson’s Ligier, which in turn hit Stefano Modena’s EuroBrun. Eddie recovered, only to retire when his chassis began bottoming badly on lap 61. The Milton Keynes team’s race seemed a far cry from Monza.
Like Johansson, Palmer pitted and then spun on his own water after debris thrown up by the Ligier had punctured a radiator, but Stefan was able to rejoin and eventually unlap himself on Dalmas after a determined recovery which ended on lap 63 when his left front wheel began to work loose. Modena, whose team-mate Oscar Larrauri finally managed to pre-qualify on Friday but not to qualify on Saturday, had a reliable if unspectacular race to finish 13th.
The early stages of the race witnessed a huge train of cars fighting for 12th place, with Nicola Larini keeping the Osella in front of the pack for the first lap before Satoru Nakajima powered ahead. Nicola kept up the pressure, to underline a spectacular qualifying performance which had earned him 14th place on the grid; the Japanese spun out of the race on lap 12, but Larini’s plucky run had ended on lap ten when a push-rod broke.
Philippe Streiff had also impressed by qualifying 13th, but his challenge went up in a cloud of oil-smoke on lap 17, giving Caffi a breather until a fine charge (from 23rd on the grid after struggling to adjust the ARC 01 to some new rear tyres Goodyear has produced) by Andrea de Cesaris had taken the Rial ahead, into what was by then ninth place. Unfortunately for him, his engine went the same way as Capelli’s and Streiff’s.
Despite having to rely on the spare Larrousse Calmels Lola LC88 after forgetting that his race car had new brakes and shunting it as a result, Philippe Allot took his best qualifying position on the year with 12th, and led Gugelmin for 10th until lap 10. He was feeling comfortable about his prospects when the right front wheel nearly fell off two laps later after it had machined away most of its centre, and after a frightening moment in the chicane he limped to the pits. Once the damage had been repaired he resumed four laps down, and was lapped again on his way to an eventual 14th.
With Prost suddenly bouncing back the championship looked much less of a foregone conclusion than it had after Spa. Alain, outwardly casual as ever, refused to consider his chances publicly, knowing that if Senna wins in Japan the title is the Brazilian’s. However, he left Jerez well satisfied with his last two races, and sauntered off for some relaxing golf prior to Suzuka. Senna had taken the pressure off himself in Belgium, but with only four points from his last three races, it was he who had the most to fret about during the break.