It’s usually an ominous sign when sun shines on Spa. Rain usually means we’re going to be in for some good racing but the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix proved you don’t need a smattering of the wet stuff to get some classic action in that part of the world.
Ayrton Senna secured pole, not an unusual occurrence in 1991, so it was little surprise that all the talk in the paddock post-qualifying was about a young German debutant who had managed to park his car on the fourth row of the grid.
Future seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher was given the opportunity to take up a race seat at Jordan after Bertrand Gachot had decided to creatively resolve a dispute with a London cab driver by spraying him with tear gas, landing him a two month prison sentence and ultimately losing him his race seat. Schumacher had only been round Spa once- and that was on a bicycle- yet he still managed to qualify 7th, beating his eminently more experienced team mate Andrea de Cesaris who was back in 11th. Ahead of Schumi were the aforementioned Senna, Prost, Mansell, Berger, Alesi and Piquet.
Come race day though his beginners luck soon ran dry. At the start Senna and Prost sprinted into the distance and Schumacher limped out of his first Grand Prix having barely turned a wheel in anger, a clutch problem blamed for his less than spectacular exit.
Back at the front it looked like it was going to be another titanic battle between Senna, the now second Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost but a blown engine only a couple of laps into the 44 lap contest put pay to the latter’s chances, leaving the Frenchman with his fifth retirement of a disappointing season.
The sight of Prost’s slightly singed Ferrari in his rear view mirror gave Nigel Mansell the kick up the backside he needed and the man from Upton was quickly battling with Senna for the lead. Further down the field the almost geriatric Riccardo Patrese, who had been penalised after qualifying when his car was found to lack the all important reverse gear, had kicked off his slippers and decided to put a move on Ivan Capelli for ninth. It looked like F1’s elder statesman was in for an interesting race.
Senna and Mansell held station, exchanging the occasional tenth or two, until lap 15, when the defending World Champion came in for some fresh rubber. A poor stop caused by a problem with his back right tyre allowed Mansell to pull out enough of a lead to come back out in front of him when he himself came into the pits two laps later. Senna’s team mate and male pattern baldness sufferer Gerhard Berger wasn’t having a particularly stellar drive either. The Austrian was overtaken by Mansell on his out lap and then almost ruined his race weekend completely when coming out of the pits after he came within a hair’s breadth of collecting Stefano Modena’s Tyrrell.
If things were bad for Berger then things soon became positively horrendous for Mansell. On lap 21 his electronics gave up the ghost and dealt his slim championship hopes a dent Takuma Sato would be proud of making. Much to everyone’s surprise this put Jean Alesi, whose gamble of not stopping seemed to be paying off, in the lead, and when second place Senna found his car struggling with gearbox problems it suddenly looked like the man in the number twenty-eight Ferrari might just nab his first ever victory. However on lap 30 his engine went pop in a fashion not too dissimilar to that of his team mate meaning that Jean would have to wait another four years before he would get his solitary F1 victory.
This put the struggling Senna in the lead, although just barely. By this time he’d been caught by Nelson Piquet, Andrea de Cesaris and Riccardo Patrese. The battle between second, third and fourth was fierce with de Cesaris and Patrese managing to pass Piquet. Berger, who had managed to stop himself from spinning long enough to rejoin the race not too far behind the chasing pack also caught and passed the Benetton of Piquet.
Soon it seemed Senna’s reliability woes were contagious. Patrese in third started to suffer from remarkably similar gearbox problems but unlike the Brazilian he wasn’t able to hold his position and fell through the field to fifth. Then, only a few laps from the end, engine problems put pay to de Cesaris’ bid for a podium finish forcing him to retire. Berger found himself in second and Piquet, who had spent the latter part of the race seeing his rivals sail past him, was third.
Senna’s ill MP4/6 limped over the line and past the chequered flag in first, followed by Gerhard Berger, helping deliver what earlier looked like an extremely unlikely 1-2 for the McLaren team. Piquet managed to cling onto the final podium position without giving in to the urge to drop another place or two in the final laps and was followed home by his team mate Roberto Moreno, the spluttering Williams of Riccardo Patrese and Mark Blundell, who secured his first ever championship point.
After the race the focus was on Jordan and Benetton as a tug of war for the services of one Michael Schumacher ensued. A large pay off to Roberto Moreno and one court case later it was decided the German would spend the rest of 1991 and beyond at Briatore’s Benetton. In the race for the championship the ability of Senna to struggle to a victory when everything, even his own car, was against him dealt a hammer blow to Mansell’s title aspirations. Even though he managed to steer the Red 5 to two wins in the remaining Grand Prix retirements both here and in Japan, as well as disqualification for an unconventional pit stop in Portugal saw Senna win his final World Drivers’ Championship.
While it lacked the sodden attritional qualities of Belgian Grand Prix’s that came before and went after it 1991 had enough to mark itself out as one of the all time greats – a new star being born, unreliability, overtaking and a master of his craft using every ounce of his skill to nurse an ailing car home in first place. Is it slightly too much to ask for something similar in 2010?