1990 French Grand Prix

By on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

By Swca92

In my bedroom there are only two posters. There’s a Tottenham Hotspur poster on one wall, and on the opposite wall a poster of Alain Prost’s Ferrari being followed by Ivan Capelli’s Leyton House at the Paul Ricard circuit in France. This starts the story of the 1990 French Grand Prix, an astonishing race which nearly saw one of biggest shocks in F1 history, and astounded every F1 fan across the world. The F1 paddock before that race laughed in despair at Leyton House. By the end of the race, they were laughing in joyous, stunned delight.

In the run up to the 1990 French GP weekend, all the talk was about the previous race in Mexico, where Alain Prost had qualified 13th, fallen to 15th by the first corner and gone on to win by half a minute in a fantastic race, where the Prof performed like the strategic genius he was in utilizing his tyres beautifully to steam through the field. Ayrton Senna’s retirement from that race meant that there was only eight points between him and Prost. There was talk of a Ferrari resurgence. Nigel Mansell’s astonishing overtaking move on Gerhard Berger, passing him on the outside of the Pereltada corner seemed to encapsulate this. Prost’s brilliant record in France (he had won there five times before) increased the expectation. They had a new V12 engine ready to go, these being the days when teams built new engines, gearboxes and chassis with the regularity of a barman pulling a pint. Halcyon days for F1 purists. Other talk was about the recent awarding of the 1991 French GP to Magny Cours, and about the recent firing the Adrian Newey at Leyton House.

The designer of many a future F1 championship winner had been blamed for the team’s abysmal performances and been fired, only employed long enough for Leyton House to bolt his proposed design changes on to the car. Their team manager Ian Philipps had been out of action with meningitis since the Brazilian GP in March. Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin, who had been seen as so promising two years before, were being seen as yesterday’s men. Abysmal performances had resulted in both cars failing to qualify in Mexico, three consecutive DNQ’s for Gugelmin, added to another DNQ for Capelli in Brazil. The embarrassment of pre-qualifying and racing alongside such luminaries as Coloni (with their 112 kg overweight Subaru engine) and Life (with their W12 engine which produced around 100 brake horsepower) was a possibility. A team that’s failed to qualify five times out of ten, sacked the chief designer and have a team manager is recovering from illness in hospital sounds like a tale from Super Aguri, not a tale of prospective winners of the upcoming GP.

Qualifying threw up a few surprises. Senna wasn’t on pole for once, in the days when you had two hour long qualifying sessions. He used most of the time available to find a race set-up, meaning he did few of the gung-ho, all-out laps that would win him 65 career pole positions. Nigel Mansell’s moustache twitch gave him enough power for pole position, culminating in the scenario of Nigel Mansell, the man with “A chip on both shoulders” finding nothing to moan about. Berger was next to him on the front row, with Senna and Prost on the second row. This wouldn’t be an occasion for those two to collide, as they had done so acrimoniously in Japan less than a year before. Further back was the surprising performance of Leyton House. Capelli was 7th, and Gugelmin was 10th. Progress, indeed.

Race day dawned hot and sunny, typical of a French GP held in June. The Paul Ricard track was renowned for being smoother than a lingerie models, well, lingerie but was also known for being extremely abrasive, and on being one of the toughest tracks in F1 for tyre wear. One pit stop was certain, and two a possibility. When the Leyton House drivers told their Lotus counterparts Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly that they weren’t planning to change tyres, the Lotus drivers laughed. Seeing as Mansell had won in 1987 by making three tyre stops in a dry race, this wasn’t an unreasonable reply.

At the green, Mansell led from the two McLarens. By Lap 3, Mansell had been demoted to 3rd, with Berger leading from Senna. Behind them Sandro Nannini tottered round in 4th place, while two seconds behind him was a group consisting of Riccardo Patrese, Prost, Thierry Boutsen, Nelson Piquet, Jean Alesi and Capelli. Boutsen retired on lap eight, but aside from that the positions stayed the same until lap 20, when Piquet was the first to stop for tyres. On lap 27, Prost made his move, pitting for tyres in a 7.4s stop. Nannini and Berger pitted next lap, with Berger’s left rear wheel sticking and causing his very long 12.7s stop. Prost got out ahead of both. Two laps, race leader Senna came in for a disastrous 16 second stop, the left rear on the McLaren proving harder to dislodge than Alastair Cook in an Ashes test match.

By lap 34, the two Leyton Houses were the only cars not to have stopped, and were first and second, with Capelli leading by seven seconds over Gugelmin, who had Prost on his tail. After Prost came Nannini, Mansell, Piquet and the McLarens who were still recovering from those rotten pitstops. The two Leyton Houses then kept on tramping on, being lambasted by James Hunt in his inimitable way on the BBC commentary for “Going for glory” and not making best use of their sets of tyres. The thought of not stopping for tyres was anathema to orthodox strategic thinking. By lap 40 though of this 80 lap race, with no tyres ready for the two leaders, the F1 establishment realizes what it was seeing. Murray Walker mentions a “Rumour” he heard pre-race, that Leyton House were not planning to stop. He discounted it, thinking it impossible. By lap 50, with Leyton House still first and second, with Prost unable to pass Gugelmin, there was no doubt about what was happening. The Leyton House was renowned for its aerodynamic efficiency and its impressive straight line speeds (ala the 2000 Arrows chassis) and this meant Prost with his glorious, hellzapoppin V12 was unable to get by.

On lap 54, Prost finally got by Gugelmin, and by lap 60 was on Capelli’s tail, having made up almost 10 seconds in those six laps. While all this was happening Senna had been on the comeback trail, recovering from 7th place to overtake Piquet and Mansell. He was 4th by lap 58, as Gugelmin retired on that kap from 3rd place with an engine failure. This left Prost battling with Capelli, with Nannini a few seconds behind him holding off Senna. Piquet and Berger followed, with Mansell battling engine problems and being forced to pit for a third set of tyres before retiring late on with an engine blow up. Plenty of post-race moaning for our Nige then,

For 23 laps, Prost was in 2nd place behind Capelli and try as he might, he could not find a way past. He ducked, dived, twisted and turned but could not pass the Miami blue car. On lap 75, Nannini retired from 3rd to hand his position to Senna but by now few were looking at anything but the battle for the lead. At the first corner that lap, Prost took his first serious stab at passing but couldn’t finish off the move. By lap 77, there were three laps left and Capelli still holding the lead, and keeping Prost behind on tyres that had long been badly worn. It was the archetypal hare v tortoise race, Prost blitzing the rest of the field on fresh tyres while Capelli kept on going on tyres that can’t have been just worn but virtually down to the canvas. On lap 77, though Capelli not only had old tyres but an engine that was cutting-out. At the first corner, Prost pulled alongside him, out braked him and finally was through. He serenely completed the last three laps for another win on home soil, and closed in on Senna in the title race. Capelli was in trouble with a sick engine, and was close to breaking down on the final lap. He kept going and crawled home in 2nd, a miraculous performance. Senna finished a lucky 3rd after Nannini’s retirement, with Piquet, Berger and Patrese completing the top six.

Capelli never scored another point for Leyton House, and only scored three more points in his whole career, in a disastrous season at Ferrari in 1992, when Ferrari was at its nadir. Gugelmin got only two more 6th places, while Leyton House folded at the end of 1991 when its owner was arrested for fraud, became March in 1992 and then went bankrupt. Adrian Newey merely became the greatest designer in modern day F1.

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