Words: Matt Master
On the eve of the Mexican Grand Prix, a look back to a legendary race in 1990
At over 2,000m above sea level, the air in Mexico City is conspicuously thin. Around the 4.3km Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, cars are starved of power on the long straights and denied vital downforce through its fast, unforgiving corners; a prodigious challenge for engineers and drivers alike.
In late June of 1990, round six of the Formula One season found its way back to Mexico, with the now legendary pairing of Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell front of house for Ferrari.
Prost was reigning World Champion, albeit with erstwhile team McLaren, and had one win under his belt already for the Scuderia. Mansell, in his second season for the team, had yet to trouble the scorer.
Sunday was set fair, and after the customary chaos as the lights went out, Ayrton Senna and team-mate Gerhard Berger quickly stamped McLaren’s authority on the race, pulling away from the field together by the end of the second lap.
However, Prost was on a charge. Within a few laps he had cleared himself of middle-order traffic and was reeling in the front runners.
He dispatched the Williams of Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen in quick succession, and with Berger pitting for a tyre change, was suddenly in real contention. With 15 laps remaining, Prost passed Mansell and set his sights on Senna, who suddenly appeared to be slowing.
Prost would pass him with unlikely ease on lap 60 of 69, Senna’s tyre exploding three laps later and ending his race in the cruellest of circumstances.
The show, however, was far from over. With just three laps left, a resurgent Berger had dived past Mansell and the pair were now involved in a breakneck battle for second, Mansell weaving in the Austrian’s wake, piling on pressure and looking for the narrowest window.
There was none. Berger was driving faultlessly on reasonable rubber and had nothing to do but defend his line for the few remaining minutes.
What followed is still considered one of the greatest single racing manoeuvres in F1 history, for sheer bravery if nothing else. On the penultimate lap, his chances rapidly evaporating, the headstrong Mansell slipstreamed Berger into turn 14, the infamous, perilous Peraltada on which Ricardo Rodríguez had died some three decades earlier.
A stunningly fast and banked 180-degree right-hander before the main straight, it was considered the most dangerous corner on the circuit, perhaps of the season, and one Berger could justifiably control on the racing line.
Berger had reckoned without the temperament of his former team-mate, or Mansell’s faith in his Goodyear-shod Ferrari. At the last moment he hurled the 641-F1 wide into the banking and, in a move that prompted an explosion of noise and elated energy from the nearby stands, drove round the outside of the McLaren to clinch a Ferrari one-two.
Prost took the top step of the podium that day, but it was Mansell who stole the show. He dryly remarked after the race that he had closed his eyes through Peraltada, but his status in Mexico was cemented.
Twenty-five years later, when the circuit was rebuilt to modern racing standards, the final turn was renamed in his honour.