10 February 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 69 - A year for the new boys

In 1989 Formula 1 found itself in a period of change. Many of the F1 drivers had been around for a few years. Things seemed rather stable. The big guns were Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Gerhard Berger scored the occasional victory. Things seemed rather stable. 

And then the F1 circus headed off to Brazil for the first race of 1989. Ferrari was in trouble, as the new 640 was so advanced that it was completely unreliable. The team could only run a few laps at a time before something went wrong. Qualifying in Rio produced a few surprises. Senna was on pole for McLaren-Honda but it was a surprise to see Riccardo Patrese second in his Williams-Renault. Berger was third for Ferrari with Thierry Boutsen fourth in the second Williams-Renault, Prost was fifth in his McLaren-Honda and Mansell was sixth in his Ferrari. It was all a little odd.

The race started with a bang, Berger made a great start and tried to go Senna and Patrese into the first turn. Senna refused to give room. There was a collision and Patrese found himself in the lead. Mansell had expected to be out early but as the afternoon went on he found himself leading the race with the 640 running faultlessly. Everyone remembers Johnny Herbert’s performance that day. He could barely walk, yet this pale, pained, figure not only out-qualified his more experienced Benetton team mate Alessandro Nannini but went on to finish fourth in the race. It was a great day for Mansell – although he cut his hands on the trophy – but it was Herbert who grabbed much of the attention. Fourth on his F1 debut, barely able to walk. It was astonishing.

It was sad because no-on ever remembers who finished second and third that day. Prost was second but perhaps poor Mauricio Gugelmin deserved a little more recognition for his third place for Leyton House. He had a decent debut season in 1988 but no-one paid much attention to his first podium. There were just too many good storylines. There were a number of similar stories that year. In Monaco Stefano Modena took his Brabham to third place. Alex Caffi finished fourth in a Dallara. In Montreal Nicola Larini took the hopeless Osella to third place in the wet.

But the French GP was the race that revealed the new generation more than anywhere. Five drivers made their F1 debuts that day: Jean Alesi was called up by Tyrrell as Michele Alboreto could not stay on after the team did a deal with Camel. Eric Bernard replaced Yannick Dalmas at Larrousse, Martin Donnelly stepped in to replace Derek Warwick at Lotus after the latter crashed a kart (rather unwisely), while politics at Benetton saw Herbert dropped and Emanuele Pirro given the job. Finally, Bertrand Gachot made it through pre-qualifying for the first time with his Onyx.  Bernard, Alesi and Gachot had already met at the track, six years earlier when all three were finalists in the Paul Ricard Elf Winfield racing school competition. Bernard had won that day. Two seasons later Bernard had won the French Formule Renault title with Alesi fifth. Two years after that the rivals fought over the French F3 title - Alesi had won. On the day of their F1 debuts, Alesi ran second and finished fourth. The others all impressed. In Germany a few weeks later, Pirro ran in third and so it went on. It was a year for the youngsters…

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