The 1990 Mexican Grand Prix was one of my favorite Formula One races of all time. I wrote this look back story about the extraordinary effort by Alain “The Professor” Prost to plan his victory starting on qualifying day….In terms of style, intellect and temperament, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, Ferrari’s two Formula One drivers in 1990, could not have been more different.
Prost, a diminutive Frenchman, was nicknamed The Professor for his thinking-man’s approach to racing. He never drove faster than he needed to and he always calculated how best to approach a race rather than relying on brute driving and attacking flair. Mansell, by contrast, was a rough-hewn Englishman, known for a hardy, gutsy, act-first-calculate-later style.
At the 1990 Mexican Grand Prix, both of them made history, each in his own way. They finished first and second, with Prost leading the way after starting a distant 13th on the grid, followed by Mansell, who stormed to an exciting finish after a final-lap bravura pass on Gerhard Berger, who had started on pole in a McLaren.
In retrospect, that Mexican contest can also be viewed as a defining race of an era in which it was possible for drivers to both use strategy and extremely close wheel-to-wheel racing.
Berger had scored pole position that weekend, the 14th Mexican Grand Prix. His McLaren teammate, Ayrton Senna, who was leading the championship, started third, behind Riccardo Patrese in a Williams. Mansell started fourth.
Prost, the defending world champion and a contender for the title again, had won one of the five previous races that season in his first year at Ferrari. But now, in the sixth race, he was starting 13th, his worst qualifying position in six years.
He had spun in Friday’s qualifying session and stalled, and, according to a new rule, he could not be pushed to start again. On Saturday, however, he decided to work less on a better qualifying position than on choosing a tire that was best suited for the race.
He also set up the car with a lower down-force level to facilitate overtaking on the long straight.
The race would prove just how right he had been. He climbed his way up the pack little by little, passing one car after another, while some of his rivals, including Senna, were having problems with their tires.
At the start, Patrese passed Berger for the lead. But by the end of the first lap, Senna had passed Patrese to take the lead, and then during the second lap, Berger passed Patrese, and the two McLarens took control of the race.
Berger would later drop back briefly with a tire problem as Prost was climbing his way up the pack. By Lap 55 of the 69-lap race, Prost passed Mansell for second, with only Senna ahead of him. Then Senna began to slow down with a slow puncture. Soon Senna, Prost and Mansell were all one on top of the other. On Lap 64, with just five laps left, Mansell spun off as he attacked Prost, and then Senna’s tire exploded. He drove his McLaren back to the pits with a shredded tire, and was unable to return to the race.
With Prost in the lead on his still perfect tires, Mansell was involved in a battle with Berger, who had lunged past him for second with three laps left in the race. Mansell refused to accept this, tailing Berger closely to retake position.
Finally, on the penultimate lap of the race, swerving side to side behind Berger’s McLaren, Mansell finally floated around the outside of Berger’s car on the Peraltada corner at the end of the lap, trying to force his way past and taking Berger by surprise. It was the most dangerous corner of the track.
Later, Mansell said he had closed his eyes as he made the pass around the outside of the McLaren. It was considered one of the most beautiful passing maneuvers of the time, and it allowed the Ferrari drivers to finish the race first and second.
With his victory, Prost became only the second multiple-winner in Mexican Grand Prix history — he had also won there in 1988 — joining the British driver Jim Clark. (Mansell, who won there in 1987, would equal them with a second triumph in 1992.)
But the Ferrari would prove to be not as strong as the McLaren over the rest of the season. Senna would go on to win his second world championship.
Prost, though, had written another page of his legend. And Mansell had performed such a fabulous passing feat that in preparation for the return of the race to the same AutÛdromo Hermanos RodrÌguez in Mexico City this year, the organizers decided to name a corner after him. The Nigel Mansell Turn honors the Briton’s thrilling move on Berger. It is Turn 17, near the Peraltada corner where he had made that move.
”When I found out about the turn-naming, of course I was delighted,” said Mansell, now 62. He said the news of the honor ”instantly brought to mind my unexpected overtaking maneuver.”
”I can’t believe that was 25 years ago,” he added, ”and that it’s been 23 years since my last win at the track.”
He would go on to win the last Mexican Grand Prix that took place on the track, in 1992, when he drove for Williams and won the world driver’s title.
By the time the two Ferraris crossed the finish line that afternoon on June 24, 1990, Prost was 26 seconds ahead of Mansell. Brains had clearly beaten brawn.