Thank goodness for Jean Alesi and Pirelli. Thanks to that combination, the US GP in Phoenix had a modicum of interest for half its length, even if it was an interest the overall format of the event barely deserved. F1 in America is in a parlous state, as it has been since Watkins Glen was kicked into touch, and it was a sparse crowd which watched spellbound as the Frenchman pushed his Tyrrell into the lead at the start and, incredibly, held it for the first 34 laps.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren cocpit in 1990

We know Alesi is good. He’s spent pretty much every race since Ricard last year showing us. But in Phoenix he was able to demonstrate just how good, and in doing so fired a warning shot across the bows of none other than Ayrton Senna, the eventual and expected victor. It wasn’t so much the manner in which he slammed into the lead from the first corner, although that was impressive enough as he took full advantage of polesifter Gerhard Berger’s dramatic move left across the bows of fellow front row man Martini, and worked up sufficient momentum to outdrag the McLaren Honda into the turn.

It wasn’t so much the manner in which he piled in the fast laps and built himself a Senna-like cushion of four seconds by the time Senna had found the way by de Cesaris and into third place. He set the fourth fastest lap behind Berger, Senna and Martini (the Austrian and the Italian benefiting from fresh tyres); what made it all the more intriguing was his ability to set It on the fourth lap. It wasn’t even the manner in which he nursed the thin black stripe that appeared shortly afterwards across the centre of his left rear Pirelli.

All of that was impressive, but the best was yet to come.

Senna himself was also in sparkling form, driving with an impressive calm and calculating everything wonderfully well. If he felt any of the lack of motivation he had spoken of at the McLaren press conference on Thursday, it never showed. He took his time assessing the relative strength of de Cesaris, then pounced on the Dallara on lap four. Then he reeled in team-mate Berger with similar precision. Berger had accidentally taken a sleeping tablet instead of a sinus pill just before Thursday’s McLaren press conference, but had recovered his faculties in time to take the pole on Friday with a smooth performance that had the troubled Senna raging inwardly.

He had made it clear just prior to the start that he would give way to Senna if Ayrton pushed him really hard (to the disappointment of those who regard him as a charger), but in the event he made it even easier for his team-mate. It all went wrong for him on lap nine. Under pressure from the Brazilian, he left his braking too late, got crossed up, and smote the turn six tyres with his right-hand wheels. For agonising moments the MP4/5B sat immobile, until those switched-on SCCA marshals (hot on credential checks all through, less adapt at moving bits of Olivier Grouillard’s wing from the track after his Friday morning shunt) finally got around to pushing him away. He lost two laps there, and another two in the pits having the tyres changed. Right at the end, Neil Trundle spotted that the rear wing was loose, and it too was changed.

Apologising to the team, Gerhard was at least frank. “I lost it, plain and simple. I was a little bit between the brake and the throttle, already braking to the limit, and I just caught the throttle. My fault.”

Round one, and an attack of stage fright meant that an important psychological battle had just gone to Senna. The Brazilian, however, was getting a psychological lesson all his own, courtesy of the ebullient Alesi. You might have expected the gap to start shrinking the moment Senna took second place, but that wasn’t quite the way it happened in Phoenix. True, it was 8.3s on lap 10, and 7.8s on 11, but by 14 it was out to 9.41s!

Thereafter it began to come down again, to 6.4s on lap 17 and 2.88s on lap 22, but you could sense Senna weighing up the unusual situation, rather as Mike Tyson must have pondered Buster Douglas’ punches. All the while Jean had that Tyrrell flowing through the streets, just as much in control as he had been in Birmingham last year. It couldn’t last, but giving Senna the slightest chance was the furthest thing from his mind.

By lap 31 they were nose to tail, yet it was far from over, and Senna was shrewd enough to appreciate that Alesi would be no pushover, regardless of the discrepancy in horsepower. For two laps he sniffed cautiously, seeking the gap. As they came up to lap Gregor Foitek’s Brabham on lap 33 it seemed imminent, but again Alesi used the traffic and won another little breather. Then on 34, going into turn one, Senna finally saw his opportunity and dived down the inside. It still wasn’t over. As Senna headed for turn two on a slightly awkward line, Jean had no hesitation in slamming round the outside so he had the inner line for the left-hander. The two came to a virtual standstill, but he had the lead back to cheers of admiration. It was the moment in which Jean truly won his Fl spurs. You just don’t do that to Senna!

He held the advantage, too, until Ayrton made another turn one move stick on lap 35, and this time kept the turn two door closed, yet still Jean tried to come at him going into three as they edged through wheel to wheel.

“I certainly didn’t expect him to go round the outside of me when I got inside him!” said Ayrton afterwards, although he had confided to his team that Jean and Berger were his only opposition. “It was a very exciting battle and he drove really well; very clean and precise, the sort of motor racing I like.”

Jean dropped back once Senna had finally cemented his lead, but the point had definitely been made, and few would argue with Senna’s post-race contention that he could be a future champion. It was refreshing, exciting, heartening. And in the land where NASCAR is king it turned yet another dull US GP into something memorable. Alesi settled for a smooth second that brought delight to Ken Tyrrell, especially with Satoru Nakajima bringing the sister 018 home sixth, and seven points thus put Ron Dennis’ second’ team right behind his first in the Constructors’ Championship.

As the in-car camera on Boutsen’s Williams revealed, both he and Nelson Piquet made several mistakes in the course of their fight for third. Thierry lost out to an opportunist Prost when the latter dived by for what was then fourth as Berger inadvertently trapped the Williams after rejoining the race on lap 15. That presented the Belgian with a faceful of oil smoke, as the champion’s F1/90 had been smoking virtually from the start. Ferrari’s telemetry equipment indicated that the Frenchman’s falling oil pressure would be terminal, but it was scant consolation to Boutsen as he struggled in the red car’s wake.

At the start Alain had been in the same sort of unnerving gear selection trouble that had hampered both Ferraris in qualifying, had missed a shift off the line as a result, and had lost places. Doomed though he was, he kept fighting until lap 22, when he finally retired. Boutsen disposed of de Cesaris, whose valiant run would end with engine failure on lap 26 after his Pirellis had helped him so much in qualifying, and set back out after the inconsistent Piquet. The Brazilian ran into understeer in the early stages and finally elected to stop for fresh Goodyears on lap 28 in the hope that they might effect a cure. They didn’t, and he soldiered on to fourth, well out of touch with the Williams.

Boutsen, likewise, was satisfied with his four, especially as his otherwise reliable Renault RS2 V10 was tending to cut out at times, but both were thoroughly upstaged by Alesi’s aggressive performance. After their winter test times, much was expected of the Ferraris, yet Mansell’s also failed, in dramatic style. Like Prost, Nigel was spooked by the unpredictability of the semi-automatic gearbox’s functioning, and judging by the amount of road he had left most of the time, had elected to play a cautious game and hope for reliability. Bit by bit he worked his way up. By lap 46 he was fifth, eyeing former enemy Nelson Piquet, but his progress was to halt spectacularly four laps later. Going down the back straight the Ferrari suddenly plumed a cloud of smoke which immediately became a flash fire. It snapped sideways, then slid backwards to a halt. Mansell is fast losing any enthusiasm he might have had for the F1/90’s magic box.

Steve Nichols suspected that an explosive clutch failure had ended an ignominious start to Ferrari’s 1990 campaign. Phoenix demonstrated that Pirelli really has made some serious progress through the winter on its qualifying and wet tyres, and also its race rubber. For the race all of the Pirelli runners opted for the harder 88s, just as Goodyear’s runners chose Cs instead of the harder Bs. Of the Goodyear drivers, only Piquet stopped specifically for tyres.

Despite its unfamiliarity with the Pirellis, Tyrrell got it absolutely right, running just enough downforce to get sufficient heat into them. Minardi didn’t manage quite so well, hence Martini’s seventh with a stop. Stefano Modena drove very sensibly and aggressively, hounding Prost and Martini for a long time. He couldn’t quite summon the speed necessary to challenge Piquet, but his fifth was a significant fillip for Brabham, the team nobody had expected to race less than a fortnight before.

Eric Bernard’s beautiful smoothness, and team-mate Aguri Suzuki’s aggression are worthy of mention. The two kept one another on their toes all weekend. Bernard was a joy to watch as he worked the Lola through the last turn on the throttle. A brake problem prompted a brief spin that dropped him a place to Aguri, who finally had some reward for his patience last year with an excellent showing in only his second GP. Eighth place only escaped him when he left his braking a trifle too late and went up to an escape road from which he couldn’t reverse.

Riccardo Patrese’s ambitious move on Grouillard on the second corner resulted In the Williams’ nose being kicked skyward and a pit stop that prevented him from finishing in the points. Sandro Nannini, too, had reason to regret his opening lap, having run wide and then clobbered a wall and Schneider as he edged back on. As usual, luck deserted Derek Warwick, who had gear selection problems from the start, a misfire in the slow corners, and then lasted only seven laps before the same rear suspension problem that had affected him in qualifying brought him to a halt in the turn one escape road. Nannini was luckier, surviving a second stop for nose repairs after running over debris, to finish 11th. Schneider, also a first lap victim thanks to Nannini, had to stop for a fresh Goodyear. He finally recovered to take 12th, two places adrift of oversteering teammate Alboreto.

Gregor Foitek had kept himself out of trouble in his GP debut and worked up to 10th by lap 40, but then he tangled with Olivier Grouillard, whose qualifying promise had been negated by Patrese on the opening lap. The Brabham was left tattered in the middle of the track, while the Osella limped into the pits to retire. Nicola Larini, too, hit the scenery, losing 13th place when his Ligier’s throttle stuck open and pitched him at a tyre wall. He pitted but retired immediately on his return when the problem persisted.

The Leyton Houses proved dead losses again, CapeIli retiring with an oil pressure sender unit which, it transpired, was lying to the driver, while Gugelmin staggered round enduring awful vibrations created by an unidentified suspension problem. He followed Moreno’s gripless Euro Brun home after his fellow countryman had had a stop for a fresh battery and another for new tyres. It was, at least, a new start for Walter Brun’s team.

Phoenix was a bitter sweet second GP for Martin Donnelly, so accomplished in the wet on Saturday afternoon. Alesi’s team-mate in 3000 last year, and capable of beating him, he was denied a start when his Lotus jammed its gearbox after the formation lap and refused to fire up. To his disappointment it was wheeled off the grid, leaving him to watch Alesi and ponder what might have been.

Towards the end, Senna’s clutch began to exhibit the same symptoms which halted Berger, but the McLaren made it home to an emphatic victory, marking the first time Ayrton has got his championship campaign off to such a good start. He said It rekindled his motivation, but he also praised Jean. In 1984 he himself had made his point to Prost and Lauda at Monaco. In Phoenix it was Alesi who was making the point, and Senna who took it on board.


United States Grand Prix Results

Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna McLaren MP4/5B-Honda 1h:52m:32.829
2. Jean Alesi Tyrrell 018-Ford +8.685
3. Thierry Boutsen Williams FW13B-Renault +54.080
4. Nelson Piquet Benetton B189B-Ford +1:08.358
5. Stefano Modena Brabham BT58-Judd +1:09.503
6. Satoru Nakajima Tyrrell 018-Ford +1 Lap