1991 Mexican Grand Prix
: 1991 Mexican Grand Prix: Amidst The Turmoil, Patrese Emerges Supreme By Jeremy McMullen
In the previous race, Williams-Renault had come up about a mile short. And, after having served the team well from 1987 onwards, Patrese had come up short in his bid to be Williams' number one driver. However, in a city that, at least at that point in time, was turned upside-down with crime and corruption, Patrese would demonstrate he had more than enough in hand to challenge the Formula One field, and his teammate.
Back during the 1987 season Nigel Mansell would be driving with Williams when he was injured during qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix. After some negotiations, it would be decided that Riccardo Patrese should take over his seat for the final race of the season.
The performance by Patrese would be enough to secure him a seat at Williams the following season. Nelson Piquet would be leaving the team at the end of the 1987 season, especially since the team would lose the use of the Honda engines.
Hampered by the underpowered Judd V8 engines, Patrese and Mansell would both struggle throughout the 1988 season and this would prompt Mansell to depart for Ferrari the following season leaving Patrese as the only returning driver for the upcoming '89 season.
Williams would see their fortunes change when they changed to Renault V10 engines for 1989. Patrese would also benefit finishing the year 3rd in the Drivers' Championship. What would be remarkable about this performance would be the fact he would finish 3rd without having scored a victory all season long.
In 1990, Patrese would finally win his first race since 1983. In addition, the Italian would put together some truly impressive performances, perhaps none more impressive than the race at San Marino where he would finally break the long run of starts without a victory. Sadly, the 1990 season would prove difficult up against the McLaren-Hondas and Ferraris that dominated the season.
In spite of the drop-off in the standings, Patrese would be the driver with the most experience at Williams considering Thierry Boutsen only drove for the team throughout 1989 and 1990. There would have been every reason to believe the Italian could have been the number one driver within the team for the 1991 season. However, the man coming to occupy the 'other' seat would be the man Patrese had substituted for back in 1987—Nigel Mansell.
Patrese's career had been in something of a decline before people like Bernie Ecclestone went to bat for him and helped him to secure his ride with Williams. Therefore, he was not so quick as to upset the apple cart. However, after Mansell had left the team for Ferrari, it was clear Patrese was the man within the team.
Sadly, for Patrese, Mansell had been the man with Williams before, and at a time when the team was amongst the best. Mansell had scored his first Formula One victory while with Williams and had gone on to earn no less than 13 victories during his time with the team. Patrese, on the other hand, came to Williams when its days of dominance had already waned. He had scored victory at San Marino in 1990 while with Williams, but it had been his only victory with the team over the course of three seasons with the team. So, while Patrese had been the leader while Mansell was gone, his return certainly meant the famed red '5' on Mansell's car was actually number '1'.
Despite accepting his role as number two within the team, Patrese wasn't about to give up the fight and go quietly into the night. He needed to pick and choose his moments carefully to ensure greatest effect. What better place to do that than in a place that itself would not go quietly into the night, that was, by no means a tranquil, pastoral setting.
Riccardo would have an opportunity presented him. On the 2nd of June, Nigel Mansell entered the final lap of the Canadian Grand Prix with what was considered an unassailable lead. Even Mansell recognized this as he flashed a quick wave to the crowd going carefully through the first turn of that final lap. Things were well in hand until he rounded the Casino hairpin. Suddenly, the FW14 had no power coming out. Just like that, the simple gesture of a wave to the crowd would be beyond premature, it would be embarrassing, as the gearbox and engine brought certain victory to a grinding halt. As a result of the failed last lap, not only would Mansell look the bit of a goat, but it would promote Patrese to the podium and it would provide the Italian an opportunity.
Throughout the first few races of the season the advanced FW14 had its teething problems and neither driver could really regularly count on finishing a race, let along fight for victory. Patrese had been the first to show what the car could do by finishing 2nd in the Brazilian Grand Prix, the second round of the championship that year. But then Mansell would follow that performance up with a 2nd place on the difficult streets of Monaco. The 3rd place scored as a result of Mansell's embarrassment, meant Patrese was actually the better-placed Williams driver in the championship fight, but it was clear who was the favorite. However, the favorite had had his confidence dinged a little by Montreal. Mansell was left open for another strike if Patrese could deliver, and he would do just that.
Mexico City would serve as the perfect backdrop to the intrigue at Williams. Certainly Patrese assumed his duties and got on with his job, but the Italian was still a racer and, at the end of the day, still wanted to prove himself against his favored teammate. Mexico City then, was the ideal setting in which to pull it off.
At the time, riddled with crime and corruption, smog and less than ideal conditions, Mexico City was a chaotic city with really no order. On the face of it, Mexico City has a splendor to it. However, upon further inspection there is a deterioration that explains that not all is as it would seem. This thinness of character would only be matched by the thinness of the air. Besides the polluted nature of the air, at more than 7,000 feet, the air has the thinnest density of any site ever in Formula One history.
The thin density of the air would be one issue the drivers, the cars and the teams would have to deal with as they arrived for the race on the 16th of June. Like the city itself, the circuit, the Autodromo Hermano Rodriguez, would look fine on the surface. However, upon further inspection it too was falling apart. Patrese himself would declare a driver didn't know what to expect upon coming to the circuit. Furthermore, it was bumpy and slippery. The polluted thin air only added to the difficulty everyone faced. But while these conditions would be difficult, they were ideal for Patrese to take advantage of for his benefit.
Patrese had earned the pole for the Canadian Grand Prix and had been quicker than Mansell in qualifying in each of the first five rounds of the championship that year. And, in spite of the tough track conditions, the Italian would come through to add a sixth in Mexico. But Patrese wouldn't just out-qualify his teammate. Riccardo would end up on pole having been a little more than two-tenths of a second quicker than Mansell over the course of qualifying. Furthermore, he had been one of the only ones to negotiate the bump the drivers encountered when entering the fast, banked Peraltada. This bump would catch a number of drivers out, including Ayrton Senna, who would end up Friday with his McLaren parked on its top with him trapped underneath fighting to get out.
Friday had been a difficult day as the rains had come and made the circuit damp. It would help with the smog conditions but it made the track extremely difficult due to the dampness and the conditions of the circuit as it was. The timesheets would be filled with usual backmarkers up near the front as all of the top teams and drivers waited until the circuit dried out. Patrese would be waiting for more than that. He would be waiting for his stomach to settle down as well as he would be more acquainted with the bathroom throughout the weekend then he would be his own car. This distraction would not help him. Even still, he would end Friday practice third-fastest and would eventually take the pole on Saturday. Patrese would remark, 'I was feeling fine when I left the hotel, but then in practice it turned into a nightmare.' Despite being in terrible pain and having to make numerous trips to the bathroom, Patrese would come through it all to be on pole.
Still feeling the effects of the stomach cramps, Patrese prepared for the start of the 67 lap race on the 16th of June. It was not going to be an easy day by far as Mansell lined up on the front row with him and Ayrton Senna was right behind in the 3rd slot. A good start was going to be vital. Unfortunately, Riccardo would not get that message.
Coasting up to his pole-position on the grid, the heat would be up and the skies would be filled with the usual smog and darkness. It was going to be a tough day physically and none of the drivers would want to make things more difficult for themselves. However, as the lights were supposed to turn green, J.J. Lehto's Dallara would be smoking and the whole start would be called off. Another attempt at a start would be aborted when the driver of the Fondmetal car would be seen waving. Confusion would reign as to what exactly was the problem, but, nevertheless, the cars would be sent around on another reconnaissance lap. It was appearing as if the Grand Prix of Mexico would be the race that never started.
Lining up for the third attempt amidst a record crowd, everything and everybody would be getting hot waiting for the race to finally start. Then, when the light did finally turn green, it would be Mansell that would get away from the grid the best. Patrese, however, would soon find himself side-by-side with Ayrton Senna and Jean Alesi. Turning in at the first turn, Patrese would be pushed well back. It would be Mansell leading the way followed by Alesi and then Senna. Patrese would be in 4th place and having to fend off Gerhard Berger. This was not the start Patrese wanted and he would now have to overcome the 85 degree temperatures, overheating engine and three other, very fast, drivers if he wanted to take the win. Patrese's will was being tested, and right at the very beginning.
At the end of the first lap it would be Mansell leading the way while Senna would be dueling side-by-side with Alesi for 2nd place. Patrese would stretch out his advantage over Berger and would be solidly in 4th place, but he would need to move up quickly if he was to have any chance of catching his teammate who was already beginning to pull out a margin.
Riccardo would realize he needed to make his move if he was to keep in touch with Mansell and Senna. After only three laps, Patrese would be slip-streaming behind the Ferrari of Alesi heading into the first turn. The Williams would pull out and would make its way by the Ferrari for 3rd place. Riccardo was on the move. Senna would be his next target.
Senna had his sights set on Mansell. He had been reducing the gap after he made his way by the Ferrari as well. Ayrton would be within a few car lengths of Mansell, but it would be Patrese that would draw in the two in very short order. On the very same lap he passed Alesi, Riccardo would be within a couple of car lengths of Senna, who had Mansell just ahead of him. It was a tight battle up at the front and Patrese was showing he was, by far, the faster man of the three. By the end of the lap, Riccardo would be in Senna's slip-stream coming down the long front stretch. He would have a chance to go from 4th to 2nd within just a couple of laps.
Then, as Riccardo battled with Senna, trouble really started to rear its ugly head just a little ways back. Coming through the Peraltada, Berger's engine would blow putting oil down on the fast corner. This would catch out Pierluigi Martini who would spin off the circuit and into the tire barrier. Both Berger and Martini would be out and they would be just the first of many that would come up short over the course of the race.
Patrese would overcome his bad start and would be all over Senna's backside. The McLaren driver could do nothing to hold back the faster Williams. Patrese would be now in 2nd place looking to attack his teammate. Through the esses for the first time since getting by Senna, Riccardo would be quickly drawing away from the McLaren and would be inching, ever so steadily, closer to the number 5 Williams. And, by the end of the 10th lap, Patrese would be within the slip-stream of Mansell coming down the front-stretch. It would be a gamble to try and make a move, but Mansell would realize his teammate was coming. The fastest lap turned by Riccardo would prove just who was the faster of the two Williams drivers.
Through the esses, Riccardo would be all over Mansell, but he would remain tucked in behind. Patrese had come on fire and would be directly behind Mansell coming down the straight. Mansell would move over to the inside to try and block Riccardo. He realized his teammate was faster, but red number five wasn't about to give in that easily. Heading into the first turn, Mansell would brake just that little bit later and the two teammates would go into the corner side-by-side. They would remain side-by-side heading into the next corner. However, this time it would be Riccardo that would be on the inside. There was nothing Nigel could do and the Italian was through into the lead after having had to fight back through the first 15 laps of the race.
Despite Mansell's best efforts to hold off Riccardo, it was clear the Italian was the faster of the two. However, Mansell would have reason to believe he could still win the race. The year before, Senna had absolutely dominated but had a tire go down on him when the victory was within grasp. There was still a long way to go in 1991, but still, Riccardo would power his way by his teammate as though they were in entirely different cars.
While Patrese began to draw away from Mansell, Nigel would come under a brief attack by Jean Alesi in the Ferrari. Sadly, the Ferrari driver would go too deep into one of the corners and would end up spinning the Ferrari. Mansell would hold onto 2nd place and Senna would now be promoted up to 3rd. Further back, Alain Prost would drive his Ferrari into the pits with the engine turned off. The car would be pushed back into the garage to become yet another retiree.
A little more than a third into the race Patrese's pace would continue to increase. He would turn what would be, at least at that time, the fastest lap of the race and was beginning to open up a truly insurmountable lead over his teammate driving the very same type of car. It was a remarkable performance the Italian was putting in behind the wheel of the FW14 and it had to make some wonder just who, among the two Williams drivers, was the faster.
Those further down in the field continued to struggle. Nine entries would be out of the race by the halfway mark. A further five would falter before reaching the finish line. But Riccardo would not falter. Despite his own discomfort and the oppressive conditions around the circuit, the Italian only increased his lead over his teammate. In fact, the gap between the two would be around 20 seconds at the halfway mark and Mansell would look thoroughly defeated having to fend off, at nearly every moment, Senna from taking 2nd place.
It appeared at the start of the race that it would have to be Patrese that would have to expend himself over the whole of the race just to have a chance at victory. Twenty laps remaining in the race, it would be Mansell that would have to do all of the work just to hold onto 2nd place as Senna would relentlessly pressure the Englishman while the Italian strode off into the distance. But then, Mansell would determine he had had enough of being hounded by the Brazilian. He would break away from the McLaren and would set sail himself. He too realized that if he were to regain his confidence and championship form he needed to go and reel in his teammate for the victory.
Mansell would suddenly turn fastest lap after fastest lap. He would begin hauling in Patrese with around 10 laps remaining in the race. Patrese's lead would be comfortable, but the Italian could not take things too easily. The mixture in Mansell's car would be enriched and that meant the power came up. While Patrese was cruising, Mansell was thrashing in an effort to maximize his potential points score.
Riccardo, the man everyone believed would have to fight tooth-and-nail throughout the race after his poor start would actually be on cruise control while Mansell would reset the lap record down to 1:16.788. This meant Mansell, driving at 110 percent, would be right behind Patrese heading into the final lap of the race. Patrese, who had been driving at about 98 percent suddenly needed to pick it up. He had had the distance on his teammate at nearly every turn over the course of the weekend. He couldn't lose the advantage now.
Riccardo had been in control for nearly the whole of the race. But now he had the fired-up Mansell breathing down his neck on the final lap of the race. But while Nigel had to drive over the limit for some 20 laps, Riccardo would have to pick it up for just one. And, despite his teammate's best efforts, Riccardo would hold his teammate in check throughout the last lap and throughout the majority of the race.
In spite of all the illness, the terrible conditions around the city, in spite of the number two status within the team and in spite of all chaos and the poor start to the race, Riccardo Patrese would demonstrate he had his teammate's number in Mexico crossing the line a little more than a second ahead of Mansell to take the first victory for Williams in 1991. Patrese had led some 53 laps of the race and would actually come away from the race leading his teammate in the championship by 7 points.
And, in that brief moment in time, Riccardo Patrese would appear Williams' greatest hope for a championship. Standing on the podium, Mansell would be absolutely spent physically. His body language expressed a man having had to drive the last 20 laps on the limit every single lap. Patrese, on the other hand, the man who should have been completely destroyed physically as a result of his stomach illness over the course of the weekend, would look as if he had been out for a pleasant drive in the country, never bothered in any way. Just who was Williams' best hope in 1991?
Riccardo would earn just his fourth victory in 215 starts. It had been a little more than a year since he had scored his third Formula One victory, but he was in an entirely different car in 1991. He would have a chance. He had turned his teammate away from victory. He had done what he could do. And, he would prove that on some of the worst days, and in some of the worst conditions, he was among the best.