Autosport 70: How Mansell bested Senna in the greatest F1 Hungarian GP ever – F1

The 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix is remembered as one of the epic Formula 1 races, with Ferrari star Nigel Mansell taking a dramatic and unlikely win. It also topped our recent list of the top 10 Hungarian GPs. Here’s our report, which first appeared in the 17 August 1989 issue of Autosport magazine

For the first time in two years, McLaren-Honda was outpaced. And by a league this was the best race of the season, maybe of several.

Nigel Mansell always thought he and the Ferrari would be on the pace in Hungary. On qualifying tyres, though, the car was a disaster – so much so that he spent the session on race rubber, concentrating on a race set-up. It was a sound gamble, time well spent.

Qualifying only 12th, he took the lead from Ayrton Senna with 20 laps to go. Senna was cheerful in defeat. The man in tears was Riccardo Patrese, who took pole and led for 52 laps before a radiator burst. According to Nigel this was the best race of his life. He won by passing people – beating them.


‘Mansell, Palmer’ seemed an unlikely pair to find at the top of the morning warm-up times. Jonathan, only 19th on the grid after two very troubled qualifying days, had the Tyrrell set up like team-mate Jean Alesi’s, and found the handling transformed.

Nigel may have been disconsolate about qualifying only 12th, but had thought his predicament through with the kind of calm logic we associate with Alain Prost. It takes discipline and self-confidence effectively to throw away the last session, to give it over to work on a race set-up, but Mansell figured he had little to lose. He didn’t touch qualifying tyres on Saturday afternoon.

“It was frustrating, sliding further and further down the list,” he said, “but I couldn’t get the car to work on qualifiers, anyway. Over the two days, I’m quite sure I did more running on race tyres than anyone else, and I had the set-up pretty good on both B compound tyres and Cs.

“I got stuck a bit behind Boutsen and Alessandro Nannini, but I didn’t want to push. It was important to keep the tyres in good shape” Nigel Mansell

“I felt pretty happy the night before the race; the big problem was starting so far back.”

Team-mate Gerhard Berger, fourth in the warm-up, was less content. The handling was reasonably good, but there was a gearbox problem, and Gerhard – who has yet to score a point in 1989 – requested it be changed for the race. It was not. And later in the day that would make him very angry.

The McLaren drivers were also in different frames of mind. Handling was better than in qualifying, but Prost’s engine wasn’t picking up properly, and the same problem afflicted Thierry Boutsen’s Williams-Renault. The Renault engine was changed for the race, but then an electrical glitch meant taking the spare, and it was set up for Patrese. Thierry, a man unusually finicky about set-up, wasn’t thrilled. Riccardo, troublefree in the morning, was relaxed.

In the paddock people said that qualifying was one thing, the race quite another. Just wait, they said; Senna (starting second) will get poleman Patrese by the first turn; end of story. Well, perhaps. But at least there were wild cards in the pack for once (Alex Caffi’s Dallara had qualified third). And another was in the elements. After two days of sun, race morning was hazy and overcast, and spots of rain intermittently fell right up to start time.

Patrese got it right. Into the first corner Senna, as predicted, jinked to the inside, trying to claim the line. But Riccardo confidently chopped across, and Ayrton decided discretion was the better part. Caffi followed them through, then Berger, Prost and Boutsen.

In the course of the first lap Martin Brundle spun after making smart contact with Alesi’s Tyrrell, which pitted for attention to a damaged undertray.

Patrese’s first lap was one of which Senna might have been proud. At the end of it, Ayrton trailed the Williams by more than a second, and already a discernible gap was opening up between these two and the rest, who were led – and held up – by Caffi, Dallara and Pirelli.

Already, Mansell was up from 12th to eighth: “I knew I had to get a good start, make up a lot of places early, and I got around four cars at the first corner. Right, I thought, I’ve survived that; don’t blow it.

“I got stuck a bit behind Boutsen and Alessandro Nannini, but I didn’t want to push. It was important to keep the tyres in good shape.”

Nigel, in the end, had opted for Goodyear Cs, whereas Patrese, Senna and Prost had gone for Bs. There wasn’t a great difference in wear; it was a matter of what worked on which: Ferrari had a little too much oversteer on Bs, McLaren too much push on Cs. Hence their decisions were made for them.

Pirelli’s race rubber wasn’t wonderful.

“There’s no grip, whatever you run,” Brundle had said before the race. “So, that being the case, we may as well run the tyre with no grip that’s going to last the distance…”

Caffi’s Dallara was similarly shod, which explained why he needed a fairly brutal technique to keep Berger and Prost behind him. On lap four, Gerhard made it by, but Alain was twice blocked into the first turn, and it was a surprise that the Honda couldn’t more decisively deal with the Cosworth earlier in the pitstraight.

Waiting has never been Senna’s game; if he could have passed Patrese, he would have done. On the straights he gained a little, but no grip, he said, Riccardo’s car had a definite edge

“From the start,” Prost said, “I had engine problems. The pick-up problem I had in the warm-up was still there, and also the engine was cutting out intermittently. I was slow getting off the corner onto the straight, which made overtaking more difficult.”

On lap eight, though, the No 2 McLaren was past, and into fourth place, albeit now a long way back of Patrese, Senna and Berger. And Caffi bent himself to the task of holding up Boutsen, Nannini and Mansell, which he managed with some efficiency.

The Senna believers were now beginning to have doubts. Ayrton had seriously threatened Patrese’s lead for a couple of laps, but now the Williams had pulled clear again, never less than a second ahead, sometimes more than two.

Waiting has never been Senna’s game; if he could have passed, he would have done. On the straights he gained a little, but no grip, he said, Riccardo’s car had a definite edge. He knew he was in a race this time; Berger was even moving in on his second place. And Prost, with a clear track before him, was catching everyone. The afternoon promised well.

Lap 12 saw Nannini into the pits for tyres. He had no desperate need of new ones, but had grown frustrated with sitting in the queue behind Caffi. Now, he reasoned, might be a smart time to stop. But it dropped him to 19th, gave him a lot to do.

By the end of lap 16 we had a four-car train at the head of the field, for Prost had hitched himself to Patrese, Senna and Berger. And at this point we also had spots of rain; not sufficient to make anyone think of a change to wets, but perhaps a portent of worse to come. For now, though, it made little difference to the pace at the front.

By now Mansell had tired of sitting behind Caffi and Boutsen, and in short order dealt with each: “Basically I had a quiet Sunday afternoon for 20 laps or so, until I got a bit annoyed, and started to push. The fuel load had lightened, and my tyres were perfect.”

It was lap 22, and the Ferrari was nearly 18 seconds adrift of Prost, last man in the leading quartet. A quintet it would soon be. That much was obvious from the speed at which Nigel closed – around a second a lap.

Boutsen, still stuck behind Caffi, followed Nannini’s example, and stopped for tyres on lap 22. “I was having to adapt to the handling of the spare car, which I didn’t like very much. But on new tyres it was much better – I made the right choice.”

We might have expected a spate of tyre changes now, but they didn’t come. Most of the frontrunners were still in good shape, although Berger wasn’t sure, and came in on lap 30. The Ferrari mechanics did their work swiftly, sending him out in sixth place, but Gerhard’s original set had been quite intact. And this piece of information they radioed to Mansell…

In the space of two laps the Marches disappeared. Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin had run strongly from the start, both in the first 10. But Ivan lost his left-rear wheel when the drive pegs sheared, and Mauricio retired with something straight out of Peter Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” grimaced designer Adrian Newey, “but he asked for an electric pump to be fitted to his drinks bottle. And the bloody thing shorted out against the seat belts.”

Autosport 70: The lost F1 team that launched Newey

Both Arrows drivers played a prominent part at the Hungaroring, their cars much better balanced on race day. Derek Warwick had run in the first 10 from the beginning, but came in after 33 laps to have the rear of the car checked over; he felt it was beginning to take over the steering from him. The stop was a long one.

Lap 38 of 77: now Patrese, Senna, Prost and Mansell were circulating as a tight bunch, and we wondered who, if anyone, would emerge as the man to take charge

“It wasn’t that I needed new tyres,” Derek said. “What worried me was the possibility of broken suspension, and they had to check it over carefully. Nothing was found, and probably it was a wheel coming loose, because when they changed my tyres the car was perfect again.”

That dropped him from a competitive seventh to a frustrated 17th. Warwick exited the pits quickly, gunned the car down to the first turn. As one would.

But at the same moment Satoru Nakajima arrived with his Lotus, and instead of backing off he tried to go around the Arrows. They hit. Warwick continued without damage, but Nakajima spun away into the guardrail extremely hard.

Lap 38 of 77: now Patrese, Senna, Prost and Mansell were circulating as a tight bunch, and we wondered who, if anyone, would emerge as the man to take charge. Riccardo, it had to be said, looked very composed, but Senna and Prost were still right there, and Mansell… well, we knew how much time he had made up on them after his earlier delays.

Not too far away, either, was the re-tyred Berger. Indeed, if the others were to need fresh rubber late in the proceedings, Gerhard was looking a sound bet. Perhaps, unknowingly, he had done the right thing at the right time.

The picture changed fundamentally on lap 41, began to take its ultimate shape. Patrese was still ahead of Senna, but now Mansell was up to third, and Prost was falling sharply back.

“It was hopeless just then,” he said. “Cutting out all the time. And the Ferrari was handling much better than we were. I just hoped the engine would make it to the finish. After a few laps the problem disappeared for a bit, then came back, then went…”

Gradually Prost slipped back into Berger’s clutches, but Alain had an ally in the shape of Warwick, whose Arrows, while lapped by the leaders after its pitstop, was now working well – well enough to keep Gerhard’s Ferrari from passing.

Afterwards the Austrian was extremely angry. Not only was he being delayed in his pursuit of Prost, he said, but also being reeled in for fifth place – by Warwick’s team-mate, Eddie Cheever, who as ever was coming truly alive on race day. Warwick, unimpressed, felt Berger should have been able to find a way by if he were that much quicker. He, after all, was running every bit as fast as the leaders, had a point to make.

Patrese’s dream began to evaporate on lap 51: the water temperature was starting to go up; the power to go down. Down the long pitstraight Senna aimed to the right of the Williams, and at last the familiar red-and-white was in front. So that was that. Here came Senna’s fifth win of the season.

Next time around Mansell, too, was past Patrese, and at the start of lap 55 Riccardo pulled off abruptly. The spectators’ applause he probably never heard as he walked back to the pits, tears of rage in his eyes.

“I felt quite happy and confident in the lead,” he said, “until the temperature began to go up. But eventually I radioed the pits that the engine seemed about to blow, and what should I do? But before they answered, I told them, ‘I think I stop’.”

Something solid had punched a hole through the water radiator. It was as simple as that. As in Montreal, the unfortunate man had perhaps lost a race through no fault of his own.

“When I passed Prost, he was very fair about it, and gave me room. But Senna was a different matter. I knew I’d have to grab any opportunity that came up” Nigel Mansell

Senna and Mansell were half a second apart. The two most uncompromising racers in Formula 1. This, someone said, might end in tears, leaving nine points for the troubled Prost. At all events, Nigel would not quietly follow Ayrton over the line.

Now we saw that the work of the previous afternoon had been well done. The Hungaroring essentially has just one passing spot, into the first turn, at the end of the pitstraight. But all day Mansell had been going by other cars in places off limits to everyone else. The Ferrari was that sharp, that deft. It didn’t have the straightline speed of Senna’s McLaren-Honda, but certainly it came off the corners better.

“When I passed Prost,” Nigel said, “he was very fair about it, and gave me room. I think he was in trouble, anyway. But Senna was a different matter. I knew I’d have to grab any opportunity that came up.”

One came up on lap 58. Out of the new right-hander (bypassing the old chicane), the two had Stefan Johansson’s Onyx in front of them. Stefan had made several stops for attention to his gear linkage, and wasn’t going terribly quickly. But he kept over to the left, out of the way.

Ayrton, untypically, hesitated just a fraction before flicking right to go by. And it cost him dear, for by now Nigel was right there, going for the gap. They nearly touched, but didn’t. And Mansell’s additional momentum was enough to keep him in front along the straight, into the next corner.

Putting the Ferrari’s superior handling and grip to work, he pulled out enough of a lead to be safe from attack on the pitstraight. Senna, astonishingly, had led for only six laps. McLarens sometimes fail; rarely are they passed.

Joy in the Ferrari pit was tempered by the realisation that Berger’s car was missing. Gearbox again, as Gerhard had feared after the warm-up, when the pressure in the hydraulic system had been low. His love affair with Maranello is clearly at an end.

As Mansell pulled away in the lead, the focal point of the closing laps was Cheever’s energetic pursuit of Prost. On lap 62, to general amazement, the Frenchman was into the pits.

“It was nothing to do with my engine problems,” Alain reported. “Just before Patrese blew up, my visor was covered in oil haze from his car – in fact, I had to drive off line to keep away from it, and my tyres picked up all kinds of debris. So I came in for a new set.”

The stop went well, but now Prost was 17s behind the Arrows. He reduced the gap swiftly, but Cheever made it clear he wasn’t about to offer his place to Alain, on one occasion obliging the McLaren driver to stand on his brakes at the first turn. Eventually Prost made it by on the last lap, but fourth didn’t cheer him too much.

“Not such a good weekend,” he commented. “And the worst thing, I think, is that I feel more and more alone in this team…”

Senna made no attempt to get on terms with Mansell in the dying laps; indeed could not. “I had a bad tyre vibration towards the end,” he said, and there were suggestions, too, that the Honda V10 had proved unexpectedly thirsty on this occasion.

“I think maybe it was the best of my life. On a par with Silverstone 1987, anyway” Nigel Mansell

Boutsen’s third place was consolation for Williams, but hardly the consequence of a distinguished drive – not in the context of Patrese’s performance. Behind Prost there were Cheever, deservedly in the points, and Nelson Piquet, who ran alone for most of the afternoon.

It hadn’t looked like Mansell’s day – not even when he’d set fastest time in the warm-up. People don’t win grands prix from the sixth row, after all. But Nigel’s drive was perfectly paced, supremely aggressive only when it needed to be.

“I think maybe it was the best of my life,” he said. “On a par with Silverstone 1987, anyway.”

Race of my life: Nigel Mansell on the 1986 British Grand Prix

Then he dedicated the win to Enzo Ferrari, almost a year after the Old Man’s death. Monza will be something else.

2020 vision

Before Monza, Senna would win a hard-fought Belgian GP in tricky conditions, Prost and Mansell finishing within 1.824s of the Brazilian.

At Monza for the Italian GP, Mansell and Berger put their Ferraris second and third on the grid, but it was McLaren’s race – Senna leading until hitting engine problems, leaving Prost to win. By then, Prost knew he was on his way to Ferrari as the relationship within McLaren with Senna became more and more strained.

At the penultimate round at Suzuka, with Senna needing to win to keep the title fight alive, the two clashed at the chicane. Senna resumed, pitted for a new nose, and charged back to win. But he was then thrown out for not rejoining at the correct spot at the chicane, handing Benetton’s Nannini his only F1 victory. McLaren appealed the decision but lost, resulting in Prost taking his third world crown – and the number 1 to Ferrari for 1990.

Apart from his third place at Spa, Mansell didn’t finish another race after his Hungaroring triumph, while team-mate Berger’s luck went the other way. He finally took his first finish of the season with second place at Monza (round 12!) and then won the Portuguese GP, Berger’s fourth and final victory in his first stint with Ferrari before he joined McLaren.

Such had been Ferrari’s poor reliability, however, that Patrese – the driver who could have won in Hungary – took third in the drivers’ standings behind the McLaren duo. Team-mate Boutsen took his second win of the year in the wet Australian GP finale (below) but still had his best day in Hungary to come…

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