F1 Blast from the Past: Alesi upsets the odds as Senna triumphs

Shock Qualifying

The streets of Phoenix, Arizona played host to the opening round of the 1990 Formula 1 World Championship. Phoenix was the fifth American street circuit to host an F1 Grand Prix and had hosted its debut race in June the previous year. To beat the scorching heat of the Arizona desert, the race was moved to March and became the curtain-raiser for 1990.

Friday Qualifying brought numerous surprises, but there was nothing strange about a McLaren-Honda setting the fastest time. It was Austrian Gerhard Berger in his debut for the Woking outfit who topped the timing pages.

During Pirelli’s 1989-1991 stint in Formula One, the Italian company had become known for the remarkable performance from their qualifying tyres. That was demonstrated in Phoenix with Pierluigi Martini recording the second-fastest time in the Minardi.

Third quickest was fellow Italian Andrea de Cesaris in the Dallara. Another Pirelli user shone in Friday’s session, young Frenchman Jean Alesi ending the day fourth fastest in the nimble Tyrrell-Ford.

Ayrton Senna, whose participation in the 1990 season had been doubt just weeks earlier following the fallout from the climax of the previous year, was an uncharacteristic fifth. The Brazilian’s day was hampered by electrical problems, compatriot Nelson Piquet was sixth in his Benetton-Ford.

Ferrari had been billed as favourites after a highly successful winter testing programme, but qualifying was a disaster. World Champion Alain Prost was in seventh place, and teammate Nigel Mansell languishing down in 17th.

Saturday’s qualifying session was wet, leaving no one with a chance to improve their times and the grid was decided on Friday’s results.

Shook up grid makes an exciting race

Race day was cloudy but dry and 72 laps of Pheonix got underway with Berger immediately moving across the track to cover Martini. The Austrian didn’t anticipate the lightning start from Jean Alesi though, who dived inside the McLaren into the first corner to take the lead.

There was trouble further down the field as Riccardo Patrese found the nosecone of his Williams ripped off after colliding with Olivier Grouillard’s Osella. Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton also had to make a stop for repairs after contact with the Arrows of Bernd Schneider, which left the Italian with a puncture.

Incredibly, Alesi started to ease away from Berger, with Senna in third place ahead of De Cesaris, Boutsen and Martini. On Lap 9, Berger made a mistake and ended up in the barriers, damaging the McLaren’s rear wing. He would rejoin the race, but any hopes of a good result were lost. He did manage to set the fastest lap of the race, but the Austrian would later retire with clutch failure.

Also having a disappointing debut for a new team was Alain Prost. After a poor start, the champion had progressed to fourth place. but an oil leak resulted in an early exit from the race at the end of Lap 21. While Andrea de Cesaris was out after 25 laps with engine failure, a disappointing end to a strong weekend for the Italian.

Senna began to charge on Alesi, on Lap 34 he made his move going into the first corner. He took the inside line and moved ahead of the Tyrrell but to the Brazilian’s astonishment, Alesi snatched the lead straight back going into the second corner.

The inevitable happened on the next lap though, as the pair approached Gregor Foitek’s Brabham to lap him. Senna again passed the Tyrrell in Turn 1 and this time he remembered to cover the inside line for T2. Alesi would not give up and was climbing all over the McLaren in a bid to regain the lead.

They were side-by-side as they negotiated the opening sequence of 90-degree bends, but Senna eventually won this exciting battle. Foitek’s afternoon on the other hand came to an end on Lap 40 when he collided with Grouillard, leaving the Brabham strewn across the track.

Nigel Mansell had come from 17th on the grid to fifth and was closing on his archnemesis Nelson Piquet. However, on Lap 50 the Ferrari’s clutch disintegrated and Mansell did well to keep the car out of the barriers as it swept sideways with a dramatic flash fire. The only casualty was some Italian pride, after an ignominious start to the season for Ferrari.

Senna had built up a healthy lead until the clutch on his McLaren began to run into problems and the Brazilian backed off. He managed to nurse his car home to take the victory and assume the early lead in the World Championship.

Jean Alesi was ecstatic with his first podium finish in second place and Thierry Boutsen was third after a steady drive in the Williams. Three-time champion Nelson Piquet was fourth despite flat-spotting his tyres earlier in the race and making a pit stop.

While Stefano Modena finished a fine fifth, a great result for Brabham given the fact the team had only just made it to Phoenix in time. Ken Tyrrell’s brilliant start to the season was completed with Satoru Nakajima scoring the final point for sixth.

After the race, the two protagonists praised one another with Senna acknowledging Alesi’s talent and the latter ratifying his respect for the Brazilian. The stage had been set for an action-packed year.

Grid Talk Podcast

Want more content to preview this weekend’s United States Grand Prix? The Grid Talk crew have you covered with their USGP preview. Ruby Price hosted Tom Horrox, Tom Downey and Aaron Harper in their latest podcast. Both audio and video versions of the show are linked below:

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