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It was in 1987, the sole Williams exception to the string of seven straight McLaren drivers championships from 1984-91 (and the season that witnessed Piquet’s 3rd World Championship when Mansell broke his back in a qualifying crash at Suzuka), that the seeds for the fifth major technical revolution in Formula One were laid. Although their struggle to remain competitive would be doomed, in the ’87 season Team Lotus unveiled the first F1 car with a computer-controlled “active suspension” system. Active suspension — later joined by the semi-automatic gearbox, traction control, “black box” controlled starting programs and anti-lock brakes — would produce fabulously complex and fast cars, but would also give lie to Niki Lauda’s prediction, after ground effects were banned in 1983, that the new rules “create a purer sense of racing for the driver.”
At the start of the post-turbo era, McLaren remained supremely dominant, but it’s two stars — Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost — would begin a personal battle that never came to an end. Given their cars’ technical superiority, both drivers agreed in 1988 that it made little sense (particularly since they usually qualified 1-2) to fight over the first corner of a race. Yet that gentlemen’s agreement was broken at the 1989 San Marino GP, where Senna overtook Prost during the restart (after a flaming accident at Tamburello when Gerhard Berger hit the wall, a shunt that would have killed the driver a decade before) by taking the racing line from behind. Prost was furious, finding Senna’s adversarial approach to racing impossible to deal with, commenting that “I no longer wish to have any business with him. I appreciate honesty and he is not honest.” (Senna, for his part, complained that fighting for the racing line before the braking zone was legitimate.)
With the 1989 title on the line at Suzuka, the feud came to a head. Prost led by 1.7 seconds at the start, but Senna slowly reeled him in, moving alongside at the chicane, putting two wheels on the grass to go for the inside line. As Prost turned in, he held firm — he had given way previously, but not now. Both cars collided and went off. Prost got out of the cockpit in disgust, but Senna insisted on a push start from the track marshals, stopped for a new nose in the pits, and passed Alessandro Nannini to cross the line first. Yet FISA declared Nannini the winner, disqualified Senna (revoking his superlicense as well) and effectively awarded the championship to Prost. Senna remarked, “What we see today is the true manipulation of the World Championship.”
The two would do the same thing again in 1990 — different corner, same result — except that Prost by now had moved on to Ferrari, no longer content to take a back seat to Senna, and complaining that McLaren was giving preferential treatment in car set-up to the Brazilian. But in 1990, Senna was leading the World Championship when the shunt occurred, and many observers feel, to this day, that Senna deliberately drove Prost off the road as a measure of revenge for the prior year. (Senna admitted as much in 1991, without remorse.)
Some will say, perhaps, that the 1991 World Championship was settled by the events at Montréal or Spa or Estoril, where apparently certain victories gave Nigel Mansell the slip. It was not. In reality, the World Championship was won — and lost — in the first four races, all won by Ayrton Sennna. Won, moreover, by a car which should not have been winning.
Autosport Grand Prix Review ’91 – Nigel Roebuck
It was in 1991 that the active era in Formula One truly began, as Team Williams introduced the FW14, designed by Patrick Head. As the first F1 car combining a semi-automatic gearbox (originally debuted by Ferrari in 1989) with traction control, the FW14 was revolutionary, but broke the old dictum that “To finish first, first you have to finish.” Thus Senna, driving a plainly inferior McLaren-Honda MP4/6, after four races had recorded four pole positions and four wins. No one had ever started a Formula One World Championship campaign with four straight victories, and for the rest it was more than demoralizing. With an increase in the points for a win from 9 to 10 (and all races counting for the championship for the first time in F1) Senna had 40 points, his nearest challenger 11, and Nigel Mansell of Williams just six.
The Williams began to improve at Monaco, where Mansell took second to Senna, and at the Canadian GP on 2 June it looked like Williams were finally ready to make their move. Mansell qualified second, took the lead in the first corner, and ended the penultimate lap with a commanding lead of more than a minute. Waving to the crowd, Mansell turned into the final hairpin, and the engine cut dead, the car coasting to a slow stop, a victim of electronic gremlins. Nelson Piquet pushed forward to take the checkered flag for Benetton — for what would be his last F1 win. The balance of the 1991 season would see a fruitless quest by Mansell and Williams to catch Senna, including a disqualification while leading at Estoril after a wheel fell off in the middle of pit road. Mansell won three in a row in France, England and Germany, and came into Suzuka needing two more victories (and no more than a 4th from Senna) to take the title. But Mansell went off into the sand chasing the Brazilian on lap 10, and Aryton Senna had clinched his 3rd Formula One championship in four years.
But Williams got the bugs worked out of their gearbox and, adding traction control and a host of other computer-controlled wonders, ran off a tremendous streak over the 1992-93 seasons. In 1992, Nigel Mansell finally rode the Williams wave to the World Championship, winning the first five races and a total of nine overall — breaking Senna’s 1988 record — to cruise to the F1 crown. Mansell retired from Williams after
Mansell enjoyed enormously the best car and had reached the point in his career when he had could exploit it enormously. He seized the 1992 season and held it tight. In the end, the simplicity was all beguiling. After 13 years, after the nightmare of Adelaide in 1986, the pain of Suzuka in 1987 and 1991, Mansell would achieve the World Championship with five races to spare. That simple.
Grand Prix Showdown – Christopher Hilton
team owner Frank Williams announced that he had hired Alain Prost (who took the ’92 season off) for 1993, but headed “over the pond” to IndyCar, where he won the 1993 PPG Cup championship, teaming with Mario Andretti (and ironically with victories mainly on the ovals). The prodigal Prost returned to claim his seat — promoting test driver Damon Hill, son of Graham and driving number “0,” to the second spot at Williams — and in 1993 in turn won his 4th and last World Championship, putting him 2nd on the all-tome Formula One list only to Juan Manuel Fangio.
Yet in some respects, 1993 was the end of another era — in fact, of two eras — in Formula One. Again fretting over the perceived absence of driver skill as a delimiter of success, and concerned about the impact a long series of “runaway” seasons on worldwide viewership and sponsor money, FIA declared an end to “driver’s aids,” banning active suspension, traction control and other automatic car adjustment mechanisms. While the reaction was typical (recall 1981 and 1983), it was slightly overdone, as Aryton Senna had put on a spectacular show, once again in an outmatched McLaren MP 4/8, to win five GPs. The most impressive of these, and perhaps the finest victory of his career, was at the European GP at Donnington Park, where Senna won after picking up five places in the rain on the first lap, cementing his place in history as the rainmeister. (1993 was also the season in which American Michael Andretti tried to master a difficult McLaren without testing and while commuting on the Concorde, crashed in his first four outings, and was sent limping home after a single podium finish.) And so, with a final victory at Adelaide in the last race of the 1993 season, Ayrton Senna prepared to move on to Team Williams, at long last striking a $20 million per-year deal with the team, and owner, who had given him his first test ride in an F1 car more than a decade before.