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NOVEMBER 1, 1991

The Mansell-Senna showdown


Ayrton versus Nigel. It as been the story of the 1991 Formula 1 season, with the Brazilian and the Englishman dominating the year. Each, of course, is supported by massive organisations: McLaren International, Williams Grand Prix Engineering, Honda and Renault. But whn it comes down to it, at the 16 Grands Prix this year, everything boils down to the men behind the steering wheels - and each is handsomely financially rewarded for their skills.

Grand Prix drivers are all exceptionally talented men, but the extra tenth of second which can be found in a driver is worth considerable money.

Curiously, at the start of the season, neither outfit was favourite for the World Championship. Ferrari had spent the winter going very quickly in testing and the pundits reckoned that 1991 would be a Ferrari year. McLaren was going into the year with an unproven Honda V12 engine and a new MP4/6 chassis and Williams had taken a risk on its new semi-automatic gearbox.

Ferrari, on the other hand, had a proven semi-automatic 'box, good engines and the fastest chassis at the end of the 1990 season.

McLaren, which specialises in proiducing new chassis very late, did not run the first MP4/6 until a matter of days before the first race in Phoenix, Arizona and after testing both Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger reckoned that the new Honda engine needed a great deal more work to be competitive.

At Phoenix, however, McLaren dominated with Senna taking pole position by more than a second and winning by 16seconds. Both the Williams-Renaults retired. In Brazil Senna was again on pole and won again. In Sao Paulo, however, the Williams-Renaults began to show their pace.

'Nigel was quicker than me in Brazil,' explains Senna, 'but he dropped out. I finished the race one gear, but I won.

'At Imola Nigel was leading the race. At that stage we could fight, but they were better than us already, and they were driving well. Riccardo (Patrese) was driving better that he ever had before and so was Nigel. It was a difficult combination to beat, but we still won. Everything was so new for them that they still had problems and we were able to capitalise on that and get the right results early on.'

The 'right results' continued in Monaco, where Senna scored his fourth consecutive win. It was a startling beginning to a season: four out of four.

'I kept saying that "we're not there, it is not possible to do it",' saays Ayrton, 'but it was hard to convince everyone because we were winning.

'As soon as we got to a proper circuit in proper conditions with nothing abnormal, the Williamses were far ahead. At a different level and they were still progressing. We were stopped, not progressing hardly at all.'

The revelation came in Montreal where Mansell led from the first corner to the last lap, only to stop with the chequered flag in sight. Nelson Piquet's Benetton inherited the victory.

It was a similar story in Mexico but at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues it was Patrese who outdrove his team leader to score the Williams team's first win of the year.

Back in Europe for the French, British and Germany GPs, Mansell was unbeatable, winning three race in a row. Senna could only hope to pick up points and wait for McLaren, Honda and Shell to react to his cries for help.

'Honda did react very quick. They made a new engine after Canada. It's a 12-cylinder engine but that's the only thing that's the same. It is completely new inside. Completely different parts. Ee were still struggling and I ran out of fuel in two races.'

As things turned out, Hungary would be an important turning point in the championship. The Williams-Renaults were dominant but in qualifying trim the McLarens were faster. At the Hungaroring this was vital. Senna took pole position and despite pressure in the race from both Patrese and Mansell, he was able to hold them off to win the race. Williams still had the faster car. It was a similar story at Spa where Mansell retired and Senna was able to win again, despite an ailing car, because the rest of the opposition was falling over itself to try to catch him up.

The two victories in Hungary and Belgium had not been expected and suddenly the pressure which had been on McLaren was on the Williams team. They had to keep the championship open. Ayrton could race for points, knowing that he still had a sizeable points advantage.

Mansell fought back in Italy, winning dominantly, but Senna was there in second place, picking up points.

In Portugal Nigel had the lead but when he pitted for new tyres, there was a mistake in the pits and he was sent off without his right rear properly attached. It fell off. He rejoined when a new wheel was fitted but was later disqualified. Patrese was able to pick up points for Williams with a win, but Senna was second again, adding more points to his score.

Heading to Spain, Mansell had to win to keep the championship open, which he did on a weekend where Senna was not at all his usual self, off the pace and a disappointing fifth.

Really Mansell's hopes for the title were at best slim and in Japan when he spun out of the race on the 10th lap, it was all over. Senna had won the title.

It was the Brazilian's third World Championship, and at 31 he became the youngest man to join the exclusive club of triple champions, alongside Sir Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost.

Conversely, Mansell has yet to win a World Championship, despite having come close on several occasions in the last six years.

Statistics rarely prove a great deal: Senna has scored 32 victories to Mansell's 21 but out on the circuits the difference between the two of them is often just a matter of hundredths. The style, however, is completely different. Senna is smooth and flowing, he is rarely seen struggling with the steering wheel, hurling the car from corner to corner -- but he can do it if he has to, he prefers to let the car drive itself. Perhaps this is best reflected in the fact that Ayrton has started from pole poisition in almost half the races he has competed in in his career. His qualifying laps are magical. Often they do not look quick but you sense that the limit of adhesion of the car is right there. The judgement and skill involved to do that, time and again, is breath-taking.

Mansell's talents are equally breath-taking but very different. He is a racer through and through. He isn't always neat and tidy, but he is usually fast - very fast. In a split-second he can perform a manouevre which looked impossible, he is at his best for split-second moments of inspiration. A showman in and out of the car. Both are exciting drivers, something which has added to the thrills during 1991.

You could call it good fortune that Senna won another title but perhaps, if anything, this year proved - once again - that you had to have the best package to win consistently. Williams had a great package, but there was a weakness - the semi-automatic gearbox. The team took a risk and paid for that decision with unreliablity. There was the mistake during the pit stop in Estoril.

When everything is analysed McLaren were more perfect than Williams, but they still were not perfect...

As Ayrton kept saying early on in the year.