F1 Blast From the Past: Wet Imola Produces Chaotic Results
The first European race of 1991 took place at the Imola circuit in the Romagna region of Italy. Ayrton Senna led the championship coming into the event, after winning the opening two races of the season in Phoenix and a memorable victory in his hometown of Sao Paulo.
The Brazilian maestro maintained his form in qualifying, taking his sixth consecutive pole position, although it was not without a fight. Ferrari’s Alain Prost set the pulses of the Tifosi racing by setting the fastest time in Friday’s qualifying session.
Riccardo Patrese in the Williams then bettered the Frenchman’s time, only for Senna to pull off his trademark qualifying lap and snatch pole position by a mere eight hundredths of a second. Patrese was not too disgruntled with his second consecutive front row start ahead of Prost, Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger.
Rain on Saturday meant that the grid was determined by Friday’s qualifying times.
On Sunday, the rain returned half an hour before the start of the race. On the formation lap, Alain Prost spun off at Rivazza. The McLaren of Gerhard Berger followed in sympathy, but the Austrian was able to recover, but the unfortunate Prost had stalled his engine and was out of the race before it had even started, much to the dismay of the Italian fans.
At the start of the 61-lap race, it was Riccardo Patrese who made the better get away to leap ahead of Senna’s McLaren, with Stefano Modena’s Tyrrell moving up from sixth to third. Mansell had been slow off the line due to a gearbox glitch and at the end of Lap 1, he was hit from behind by Martin Brundle’s Brabham and the furious Englishman retired for the third time in as many races.
On Lap 2, three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet was the next casualty when he slid off the circuit at Tosa. One lap later, Jean Alesi, in the sole remaining Ferrari, made an optimistic move on Modena, and just like Piquet found the gravel trap at the Tosa hairpin. Both Ferrari’s were out after just three laps.
With the rain having stopped, Senna began to close in on Patrese. On lap nine the Italian began to slow coming through the Variente Bassa and Senna took the lead while the Williams headed for the pits with a misfiring Renault engine. The team sent him back out but after 18 laps Patrese stopped for good with a terminal engine problem.
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After the first round of tyre stops to change to slicks, Senna led a McLaren-Honda 1-2 with Berger in second. The Austrian was running at strong pace, but problems with traffic halted his progress in catching his teammate. The Tyrrell-Honda’s of Stefano Modena and Satoru Nakajima were running third and fourth only for both cars to succumb to transmission failure.
Ivan Capelli in the Leyton House had been running a strong fourth until he spun into retirement after 24 laps. For the new Jordan team, a possible debut points finish was lost when Andrea de Cesaris retired on Lap 38, another gearbox-related retirement. Behind the McLaren’s was Roberto Moreno’s Benetton, but after 52 laps the Brazilian’s gearbox gave up the ghost and allowed the Dallara of JJ Lehto up into third.
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Up at the front, Senna reeled off a dominant performance to take his third victory in a row ahead of his teammate Berger who set the fastest lap of the race. The ecstatic JJ Lehto scored his and Dallara’s best ever result with third while the Minardi Ferrari of Pierluigi Martini finished a great fourth.
It was heartbreak for the small Modena Lamborghini team when Belgian Eric van de Poele lost fifth place within sight of the chequered flag. His demise allowed the young Finn Mika Hakkinen to take his maiden points finish ahead of his Lotus teammate Julian Bailey.
Senna had asserted his authority with typical dominance in difficult conditions, despite his early reservations about the Honda V12 engine, the Brazilian had enjoyed a perfect start to 1991.
Grid Talk Podcast
If you want to learn more about the brilliant 1991 Formula 1 season, the Grid Talk crew have you covered! George Howson hosted Alex Booth, Henrico Marks and Owain Medford to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s final championship: