Senna and Honda Marlboro McLaren wrote themselves another slice of F1 history in Phoenix with a faultless performance which netted the Brazilian his 27th Grand Prix victory and, in the process, brought him level with Jackie Stewart’s tally.

To the consternation of its rivals, the new MP4/6 maintained the Woking team’s already enviable record of success first time out, regardless of how late its new cars might be. Anyone who had hoped that the delay in the new car’s introduction, or the fact that Senna had barely driven since Adelaide, might affect the combination’s level of competitiveness, had their preciously held illusions shattered. An effective, pretty car, Senna’s magic and a perfect pit stop proved utterly unbeatable. He started from the 53rd pole of his career and simply walked away with the event, winning by 16 secs from archrival Alain Prost who found his Ferrari reliable but a poor match for the car that might well take Senna to a third world title and McLaren to its fourth on the trot.

Winner of the Phoenix GP 1991

Senna it was who edged ahead at the start, while Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, who had qualified their new Williams FW14s on the second row behind the two principal protagonists, fanned left, right, left across the track in an unsuccessful effort to oust Prost. The Frenchman’s young team-mate Jean Alesi, the star of Friday qualifying in his first race meeting for Ferrari, grabbed fifth spot ahead of Gerhard Berger and tucked right in behind the Italian’s Williams. Going down Washington Street towards the right/left complex at the end of the straight Jean neatly outbraked Riccardo to move up to fourth.

At the end of the first lap the order thus read: Senna, Prost, Mansell, Alesi, Patrese, Berger, with Piquet leading Moreno and Modena, all three on the fancied Pirelli rubber. Martin Brundle was a good tenth in the new Yamaha-powered Brabham, from Emanuele Pirro and teammate JJ Lehto who had both qualified well for Scuderia Italia in their Judd V10-powered Dallaras. Bertrand Gachot, a strong qualifier in the impressive new 7UP Jordan came next, just ahead of the sensational rookie Mika Hakkinen who had taken to the heavily revised Lotus 102B like a duck to water to take 15th place on the grid. He was followed by Capelli, Nakajima, Martini, Bernard, Larini, Suzuki, Boutsen, Gugelmin, Tarquini, Morbidelli, Alboreto and Blundell. Hakkinen lost places to Capelli and Naka next time round as Boutsen passed Suzuki, and then on lap five Bernard pulled in to post the first retirement with engine failure in his Larrousse Lola.

Up front Senna quickly opened a lead of four seconds and it was clear that Prost had his hands full more with the challenging Mansell than with trying to catch his former McLaren team-mate. With most runners opting for soft rubber, but not anticipating having to pit for fresh tyres, many were taking things relatively gently on full tanks, but by lap 10 Senna was ten seconds ahead of Prost, who had momentarily shaken off Mansell. Patrese, as he had all weekend, was charging very hard and threatening Alesi again, while Berger had edged clear of the Piquet, Moreno, Modena trio. Suzuki had dropped to the tail with a very fast stop with a puncture on lap seven, but would stage an excellent recovery to sixth and a vital point for Gerard Larrousse’s beleaguered team by the finish which came at the two hour mark rather than after the scheduled 82 laps. Brundle came in on lap nine with a broken toe link in the right rear suspension, possibly after tapping a wall, although he thought he might have hit the wall because of the breakage. He lost a lot of ground, but after repairs would resume and actually make the finish despite a fuel pressure-induced misfire and then suspected differential failure with 10 laps to go. Above anything, the name of the game in Phoenix was to go for mileage on the new cars, and to try to get them to the finish at all costs.

Hakkinen, perfectly calm on his GP debut, had a real test of nerve and character on lap eight when his steering wheel worked loose while he was flat in fifth down the back straight. By sheer good fortune he managed not to hit anything and jammed the wheel back on, but then came a long stop for a replacement as his confidence had been dented. “I mean, I just couldn’t trust it not to do the same again. That number eight corner on to Washington Street is flat in fourth. You go off there and it’s hospital, definitely.”

He recovered and resumed racing with total composure, but he lost a lot of ground and rejoined ahead only of Brundle. Lehto’s run in 18th place ended with total clutch failure on lap 13, and after Morbidelli had called it a day when he couldn’t get third gear on his Minardi by lap 18, Pirro made it a disappointing day for Scuderia Italia when he too retired with a broken gearbox on lap 17.

By then it was quite clear that Senna could not be challenged, but Mansell hadn’t given up on Prost and Patrese was charging into the picture after disposing of Alesi in turn nine on lap 16. Bit by bit the Italian closed on his team-mate until the Ferrari and the two Williams were nose to tail on lap 20. He had a little look down the inside into nine on lap 21, and then made his move on 22. Perhaps Nigel should have given way earlier, given that Riccardo’s car was clearly better set up, but Riccardo’s move down the inside was certainly optimistic. He came in too fast and just as Nigel was about to turn in from a wider entry he sensed his team-mate’s presence, kept his car straight, and thereby avoided Patrese as his Williams speared straight down the escape road. Nigel just got turned into the right-hander, and when Riccardo recovered he was down to sixth. Head down, he set about regaining lost ground.

Four laps later he was right behind Berger, who was pressuring Alesi very hard, and the three circulated nose to tail, ducking and weaving, until lap 30 when Riccardo pulled a successful version of his Mansell move on the Austrian. He really was driving very well, and when Nigel’s gearbox finally cried enough exiting the final turn to begin its 36th lap, he was elevated to fourth.

Three laps earlier Blundell’s satisfactory debut for Brabham had ended in the final turn after he’d worked himself up to 18th place ahead of Tarquini and Alboreto, who’d pitted earlier with a brake problem. “There was an excessive amount of oil on the undertray,” he summarised, “so perhaps I spun on my own oil, I don’t really know.” As the Brabham kissed the wall gently, backwards, Hakkinen arrived on the scene and was obliged to spin to miss it. “I was going backwards trying to help him avoid me,” said Mark. “I didn’t know which way he’d spin,” said Mika.

Unnoticed in the excitement of Patrese’s gallant chase of Alesi, Gugelmin’s outing in the Ilmor-engined Leyton House ended on lap 35. Thirsting after Boutsen’s Ligier, which had lost its clutch on lap 29 after bearing failure, and then started misfiring on lap 34, Mauricio finally pulled in with second gear broken. As the CG911 was wheeled away, a punctured radiator was also identified as the cause of overheating. Capelli in the sister car worked up to eighth place by lap 40 and was a contender for the final point, but would succumb to an overheated gearbox after oil pump failure. After both cars had been sabotaged in qualifying, the Italian’s race performance at least brought a glimmer of hope for the team.

Having survived a trip down the turn nine escape road Boutsen soldiered on for as long as the 41st lap when his Lamborghini cut out exiting the hairpin due to suspected ECU failure.

Patrese was meanwhile driving his heart out in chase of Senna, Prost and Alesi, and Berger lay fifth as Piquet continued to fend off Moreno and Modena, who looked as if he might stay glued to the second Benetton’s tail all day. A bad weekend got worse for the Austrian on lap 37, however, as his MP4/6 coasted to a halt. “My water temperature had been high for some time, losing me power,” he explained, “and then the fuel warning light came on and the engine stopped.” The lack of fuel pressure was later traced to a failure in the fuel pumps which live in the tank.

If Gerhard’s demise from his 100th GP did not exactly alter the face of the battle for second place it did elevate Piquet’s little trio, and then when Alesi stopped for tyres on lap 43, against Goodyear’s initial expectations, Riccardo began to haul in Prost. The older Frenchman was also in trouble with his rubber, pitting on lap 46 and dropping to seventh. Alain was experiencing a recurrence of clutch trouble which had afflicted his car in the morning warm-up and was loathe to risk a stop if he could help it, but in the end he had little choice. “The problem made the car unsure under braking and on the straights because I couldn’t be sure to get each gear,” he revealed, and then his stop took an agonizing 15.8 secs as the right rear wheel was reluctant to come off.

By contrast, Senna’s stop on lap 48 was pure perfection as the McLaren lads despatched their charge with so little delay that Ayrton still had 14.9 secs of his original 31.5 secs lead left when he resumed. Riccardo never even got a whiff of the lead, and in any case, his race was about to end in abrupt manner.

Like Mansell, he had been experiencing gear trouble, and going into the famous flat-in-fourth turn eight where Alesi had come to grief in qualifying while trying to better Senna’s time on Saturday afternoon, the Williams gearbox clicked into neutral. “Then suddenly, as I coasted round, it took second!” He spun, and ended up facing the traffic in the blind bend. “I had complained about the corner’s sharp edge after qualifying,” said Senna, who only just missed the Williams. “There were just normal yellows waved, which made you just think that something was wrong. I had real surprise when I saw a car right in the middle of the track. You need better indication when something is so serious. I slowed a lot, and I still came close to hitting him. Had I slowed down only a bit I would have. I knew as I looked in my mirrors that somebody would hit. I’m not happy about the way they cleared the car,” — it was stuck in gear so it was left for the rest of the race — “or how long they took to move the bits.”

“I saw the yellows but no message which side to go,” said Piquet. “I just missed him, and then in my mirrors I saw Moreno. Bingo! I couldn’t believe it. It was very, very close.”

Fortunately, Moreno struck the nose of the Williams rather than its flanks, and while both cars were severely damaged, both drivers were able to escape, even if Patrese did sustain a nasty blow to his leg.

Prost slammed hard into a piece of debris but did not sustain damage to the Ferrari, but his avoidance was neatly captured by the in-car camera.

With Riccardo and Roberto out, it was left to Alesi to hunt down Piquet, who had moved up to second in the Camel Benetton but was regretting his choice of relatively hard Pirellis. “I could have run a softer compound without trouble.” he shrugged. “I guess today we were just a bit too conservative with our choice.” By lap 53 the Ferrari was back ahead, but while Alesi had no chance of catching the majestic Senna, Piquet was still capable of sticking close as he came under pressure from Prost when the Frenchman finally found a way by Modena on lap 57. The three contenders got nose to tail by lap 65 after Nakajima had sportingly run wide in the last turn to aid Alain’s progress, and then on lap 69 Alesi hove into view with Nelson trying the outside line into the last double-apex left. The Ferrari driver had slowed momentarily but refused to concede his line — “Ah, the exuberance of youth,” said a spectating Jackie Stewart — and that was all Prost needed just as it seemed he had no answer to either of them. Nelson passed Jean on the straight as the latter lost momentum, and then Prost got them both before turn one.

It was really over bar the shouting then, but right near the end Alesi’s engine began smoking and on lap 73 Jean ground to a halt in turn nine. As he climbed out he threw his gloves to the fans, Mansell-style.

The impressive Gachot took over Capelli’s eighth place ahead of Martini and Nakajima, who’d lost time with a trip up the turn nine escape road, but a miserable weekend for Alboreto’s Footwork was concluded a lap later when Michele retired with a broken gearbox. Hakkinen was the final retirement on his 60th lap when his Judd EV blew, but the young Finn had made a very, very impressive debut.

Nakajima’s progress eventually took him back past the duelling Gachot and Martini by lap 45, but by lap 50 Bert had the 7UP Jordan in an excellent seventh place, tantalisingly close to the point that might help the team escape pre-qualifying. Shortly afterwards, though, he spun when his tyres lost grip without warning. During his ensuing tyre stop he was passed by Martini and Suzuki, but as the luckless Italian ground to a halt on lap 75 with a blown Ferrari engine, it seemed the Jordan equipe might just grab a deserved point first time out until the Ford HB quit a lap after Martini went out. “It just suddenly went flat, no warning. No over-rev light, nothing,” said the Belgian, who had driven a very good race for the fledgeling team.

As Suzuki thus scooped that point, Nicola Larini once again used his remarkable talent for bringing a car to the finish to reward Modena Team with seventh place first time out. Considering that the little Italian had lost a long time with a Fred Karno pit stop in which the right rear wheel stubbornly refused to come off, it was a very good performance. Tarquini survived a misfire in right-handers to give AGS a valuable eighth place finish, with Minardi and Jordan’s broken runners classified ninth and tenth. Brundle was 11th, cheered to finish and thus put miles on the Yamaha V12.

“I’m very impressed by it, chassis and engine,” admitted the candid Prost. “But the Ferrari we have seen this weekend is not the Ferrari we have used in the winter. I want to wait for Brazil to get an idea of the performance of our car.”

Nevertheless, the feeling as the teams headed for South America and Senna’s homeland was that if the McLaren is already this good straight out of the box, the red cars are going to be very hard-pressed to stop the red and whites keeping these championship trophies.


United States Grand Prix Results

Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna McLaren-Honda  2h:00m.47.828
2. Alain Prost Ferrari  + 16.322
3. Nelson Piquet Benetton-Ford  + 17.376
4. Stefano Modena Tyrrell-Honda  + 25.409
5. Satoru Nakajima Tyrrell-Honda  + 1 Lap
6. Aguri Suzuki Lola-Ford  + 2 Laps