Date: 25 August 1991
Place: Spa Circuit, Francorchamps
Winner: Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is still widely considered the greatest driver of all time for reasons that are self evident.
His risk-taking and entertaining driving style gripped audiences across the world at a time when racing was a much riskier proposition. It was, poignantly, Senna’s death in 1994 that prompted the increased rate of evolution for safety standards.
As the final decade of the twentieth century dawned, Senna was the man to beat and Spa was his undisputed kingdom.
Prior to this race, McLaren had lost considerable ground to rival teams Ferrari and Williams, but a new engine from Honda gave fresh hope to reigning champion Senna’s cause.
True to recent Spa form, Ayrton Senna took pole position in qualifying, but a Ferrari-fuelled Alain Prost ran him close, with the Frenchman earning second place after a demotion for Riccardo Patrese. Predictably, Nigel Mansell filled third position on the grid to set up another epic three-way battle between the titanic trio.
As expected, the long-term rivals Senna and Prost were instantly locked in a close battle for supremacy, with Mansell in hot pursuit. Further down the grid a certain young driver called Michael Schumacher, replacing the incarcerated Bertrand Gachot, was enjoying a fine race until a clutch failure forced an early retirement.
The aforementioned battle between Senna and Prost was to last only three laps however, with the latter driver’s car catching fire, allowing Mansell to move into second and close in on Senna. Mansell’s overtake came much sooner than expected, after a poor pit stop from Senna conceded the lead to Mansell.
Mansell’s lead would only survive a few more laps however, with a retirement on lap 22 after electrical problems immobilised his car. This allowed Jean Alesi to become Senna’s closest threat, and soon after Mansell’s retirement, the Brazilian titan would himself experience gearbox problems, losing vital seconds to Alesi and allowing Riccardo Patrese to join the fray for victory.
The race then swung significantly in Senna’s favour once more on lap 30, when Alesi’s engine expired. With just 14 laps remaining, it was a straight duel between Ayrton Senna and the chasing pack of Gerhard Berger, Andrea de Cesaris and Nelson Piquet. As the race came to a close, Berger was the only contender for victory, continually bearing down on Senna.
Senna’s gearbox problems persisted, but his natural skill as a driver prevailed against mitigating circumstances that would have seen a lesser driver retire. Berger ran out of time, eventually finishing 1.9s behind Senna, who claimed his fifth win at the circuit in laboured (but exhilarating) fashion.
This success was followed up by four more podium finishes for Senna – a run which included a victory in the season finale at Melbourne. Ultimately, the Brazilian legend defended his title with ease thanks to Honda’s upgraded package, finishing fourteen points ahead of Nigel Mansell in the final standings.
Senna’s victory at the circuit in 1991 was his fourth in succession, taking his Belgian win total to a then-record five. That record would stand for another ten years until Michael Schumacher became a fully-fledged powerhouse at the turn of the century.
by Tamhas Woods
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