Tuesday, 12 February 2019

1990 San Marino Grand Prix - Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari

May 13, 1990

By his own admission it was not a story that Riccardo Patrese liked much to remember.  It was a certain race victory, lost due to a lack of concentration and a simple mistake. “Imola in 1983 was a race I should have won. I led, then my pitstop was slow and Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari went ahead. Six laps to go, I get the lead back. And then I relax a little, I say to myself, OK, I have won this Grand Prix. At the Aqua Minerale corner the surface was breaking up, I put a wheel a few centimetres off-line, and I crash. There were many races when I was in the lead, when the car broke down.  But in this case I had a crash that was purely my mistake. You were going to win …… and then you lose and you know that it’s all on your shoulders. You made a mistake.  It’s even harder to accept.”

1983 San Marino GP: Patrese crashes shortly after assuming the lead.
As difficult as this was to face his mistake, there was another element of this failure that twisted the knife a little deeper into Patrese’s heart.

“The tifosi cheered: they prefer a Frenchman to win in a Ferrari than an Italian to win in any other car. I was so angry with myself I didn’t hear them cheering.  But I saw it on TV when I got home, and it made me feel even worse.”

And while the Italian was able to secure a victory later that season in South Africa, the loss in Imola was a wound that Patrese would carry for seven years.  He spent two seasons driving the hopeless Euroracing Alfa Romeo followed by another stint with Brabham.  Towards the end of the 1987 season, when Bernie Ecclestone decided to give up being a team boss, he recommended Patrese to Frank Williams. “When I went to Williams it was like a camera which had finally come into focus.”  He was very well liked within the team and had an excellent rapport with Patrick Head.  His cause was also aided by the fact that he was much easier to live with then Nigel Mansell and more of a team player as well. “You’d call Riccardo up,” Head would recall “ask him to test at a moment’s notice, and he’d say, ‘Fine. No problem. I’ll be there’. He’s not a selfish man, that’s the point, which is quite rare in a racing driver. His ego’s under control, too. Which is also quite rare.”  The relationship with the Williams team was to be the most productive of the Italian’s career.

Riccardo Patrese 1990:  At home in the Williams team.
The 1990 Formula One season was the second season in which the Williams was powered by the first pneumatic valved Renault V10 engine.  It was a mixed year for the Williams team.  When the cars were running reliably they were able to show well.  However, there were problems with the engine and gearbox which restricted good results on several occasions.  The San Marino Grand Prix was a high point.

The dominant cars at the time were the McLarens and the Ferraris, however at Imola, there was some doubt about the staying power of the McLarens, for on this demanding circuit they were on the limit of their fuel consumption. But if the McLarens were not up to their usual immaculate level of performance. the Ferraris seemed set to have it all their own way after dominating recent testing at Imola. As it turned out the Italian cars flattered to deceive.  In qualifying their times were effortlessly beaten by both the McLarens and the Williams.  Ayrton Senna (McLaren) captured the pole position with a time of 1:23.220, with Gerhard Berger (McLaren) second, Patrese third, Thierry Boutsen (Williams) fourth and then the Ferraris of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost.

Sunday's warm-up showed that the McLarens had much less of an advantage with race tyres and fuel than they had enjoyed in qualifying.  At the lights, Berger made a tremendous start, but unfortunately missed a shift which allowed first Senna, and then Boutsen to move in front of him.  But just as he did so, Mansell's Ferrari darted on to the grass and sent up such a thick dustcloud that confusion broke out behind him. At the end of the first lap Senna led Boutsen by 1.5 seconds, with Berger third, Patrese fourth, Jean Alesi (Tyrrell) holding an aggressive but short lived fifth ahead of Mansell and Prost.

1990 San Marino GP: Berger fighting hard to maintain his lead.
Senna held on in front for only three laps before he suffered a freak wheel failure which caused his tyre to go flat.  As a result he wobbled out of the lead and into a sand trap.  Berger was already chasing Boutsen hard, but the Belgian seemed capable of holding the McLaren until a missed shift damaged the Renault engine, which gave up on lap 17. Berger was 1.6 seconds ahead of Patrese when he moved into the lead and he was able to increase this only slightly. But Patrese had his hands full with Mansell, who had started the race on the softer  Goodyear "C" tyres that the Ferrari's well-balanced chassis could use most effectively.  Prost, on the harder "B" compound tyres, was also trying to catch Patrese, but it would only be Mansell, in a brave move, who would be able to put a Ferrari in front of a Williams at Imola.  The Frenchman was complaining over the radio of oversteer and on lap 28 he made an unexpected stop for "C" tyres.  This allowed Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) to slip by into fourth place.

With close duels being waged up and down the field, the leading cars were losing time in traffic.  As the race started its second half, though, Mansell had carved Berger's lead down to half a second, with Patrese four seconds behind, followed by Nannini and Prost.  On lap 36, at the fastest point on the circuit, the notorious Tamburello curve, Mansell made his move on Berger with frighteningly spectacular results.  As the Briton came alongside he put two wheels on the grass and almost immediately spun wildly.  Despite raising dust and spreading rubber all over the road, Mansell remarkably managed to regain control of the car and carried on.  Almost four precious seconds were lost, but the Brit was quickly shaving down the gap again.  He had reduced it to just over two seconds when the engine, which had been trailing smoke almost since the beginning, blew up to the disappointment of the tifosi.  

With one Ferrari retired and the other languishing in fourth place one would expect that there was little to hold the attention of the Italian crowd.  It was then that Patrese began to close on Berger. The Italian had been driving an savvy race, holding back after a slow start and saving his big effort for the end.  With 16 laps remaining he was close enough to challenge Berger.

1990 San Marino GP: No mistakes this time. Patrese takes his third F1 victory. 
And this time, unlike 1983, the tifosi were cheering him on .....  

As chance would have it Berger was experiencing a technical issue.  As the team had feared he was having fuel consumption issues, made all the worse by a damaged engine piston and this meant that he was unable to richen the mixture to compensate for the loss of power.  Patrese made his first attempt to get past the Austrian at Rivazza, but the tight nature of the corner allowed Berger to defend and it took him half a dozen laps to recover.  However, on lap 51, with 10 remaining, he sailed past the leading McLaren, which was being driven on the limit with brakes and tyres obviously past their best.  Ironically the overtake seemed oddly familiar.  "In fact, when I overtook Gerhard today it was exactly the same place where I overtook Tambay in 1983" he recalled.  "And because of that, when I  overtook Gerhard my first thought was about 1983. I said 'OK, that year I made a mistake - this year I cannot make a mistake.'"  He didn't.  Once past the McLaren he was able to open a gap and took the chequered flag four seconds to the good.  It was the 36 year-old Italian's third victory in a career that then spanned 195 Grand Prix starts.

"It's difficult for me to find the words to express my happiness about this win," he grinned as he spoke in the press conference. "It is a race I really wanted, ever since 1983 when I lost here with four laps to go."  Patrese drove with commendable intelligence, however after the race, surely the least complaining and most gracious of that era's racing drivers typically gave credit  to his team.  A day when something lost had been regained in the finest of fashion.  A ghost vanquished.  A wound healed.  And unlike 1983, the Imola crowd cheered their countryman to the echo.  He deserved nothing less.

1990 San Marino GP: For Patrese, it was lost spoils reclaimed.