King of the Streets
It is no secret that the Ayrton Senna loved a street circuit. Just take his record of six victories in Monaco as an example, a Formula 1 record that still stands today. The streets of Phoenix were no different. In the previous two iterations of the Grand Prix in 1989 and 1990, Senna was extremely quick. He took pole in 1989 with a 1.4 second gap to his teammate and championship rival, Alain Prost but after taking a commanding lead up until the 44th lap, the Brazilian was forced to retire with electrical problems in his V10 Honda engine unit. The following year, Senna qualified in 5th position and ended up taking the chequered flag in the first race of his second Championship winning seasons.
Senna’s second Championship was one that didn’t come easy, and the dramatics at the end of the 1990 season which sealed it for the Brazilian was fuel for the fire of the 1991 season which saw another fierce battle between Senna and Prost for the top spot. Qualifying on the opening round of the new season saw Senna and McLaren on pole, over a second faster than his former teammate Prost in the Ferrari 642, powered by a V12 engine and a very early version of the semi-automatic gearbox that has been adopted by most F1 constructors since. McLaren had used a version of this gearbox in pre-season testing on the MP4/6 but they instead opted for the traditional manual H-patterned gearbox instead, regarding it as not good enough for racing.
One of the most breath-taking things about the Phoenix Street Circuit is the grandstand for the fans on the right-hand side of the start/finish straight, or West Jefferson Street as it is more commonly known to the residents of the Scottsdale area. From the television footage of the start of the race, you can see the fans trying to get an angle of the grid, which featured three World Champions of Senna, La Professeur, Nelson Piquet and a future World Champion in Nigel Mansell, who lined up on the second row in his Williams FW14.
As the lights went out, Senna showed that his pace on Friday and Saturday was no fluke, beating Prost to the first corner, a 90-degree right hander down 1st Avenue before another 90-degree turn down East Jackson Street. They approach turn 1 at around 180mph, breaking and downshifting which for most of the drivers on the grid, except the Williams’ and Ferrari’s, meant you would only have one hand on the steering wheel, with the other hand downshifting. Then putting both hands back onto the wheel to help guide and angle the car into the apex, before getting straight back onto the gearbox while still turning with one hand to maximise traction and get a fast exit out of the corner.
After those first few corners, Senna was gone, and that was the last anybody else saw of him except for the times he appeared in the back markers wing mirrors while lapping them. After the first ten laps, he had built a gap of around ten seconds to Alain Prost’s Ferrari behind him and he had no plans of slowing down. With Senna in the clear, all the action was happening behind him with a three-way battle for second place between Prost and the two Williams’, Patrese and Mansell. The Brit was hot on Prost’s gearbox up until lap 35, when Mansell had to pull over on the start/finish straight due to problems with his own gearbox.
Health & Safety Heart Attacks
Similar to his heroics seven years earlier at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, Mansell jumped out of the car and still had the strength the push the FW14 backwards down the straight for ten to fifteen metres with the rest of the drivers speeding straight past him. In terms of how far the sport has come for health and safety of the driver’s and track marshal’s, there are a number of incidents you would find shocking in today’s standards, including Mansell’s efforts. A few laps later, Thierry Boutson racing for Ligier pulled up on the apex of turn 6 with engine issues in his V12 developed by Lamborghini. To the disapproval of the commentators, we then see a track marshal attach a tow rope to the front left suspension of the Ligier JS35 and starts to yank on it with comedic effect.
Nine laps later, more issues with the Williams semi-automatic gearbox meant that Riccardo Patrese spun out on the exit of turn seven after putting itself into neutral. Just before Patrese had time to get out of the retired car, Roberto Moreno in the second Benetton collided with the static Williams which was unfortunately positioned on the racing line. Marshal’s fought to clear the debris from the track but was unable to clear the two cars, meaning that Patrese’s Williams and Moreno’s Benetton stayed there for the remainder of the race.
With both Williams retired from the season opener, Senna now had over a minute lead on Nelson Piquet due to Prost pitting for fresh tyres some laps before putting him behind his teammate, Jean Alesi. The battle for second place ensued, with Prost finally taking it in an excellent show of precision at turn 1 on the 70th lap. Alesi had ran into similar gearbox issues to the Williams, which actually helped Prost catch up to Piquet heading into the start/finish straight. He cut past his teammate and got a tow from the three-time Champion ahead of him and took a very acute line into the first turn, finishing off the move and placing himself back into P2.
After two hours of racing and 81 laps, Senna took the chequered flag after leading every single lap in his first of four consecutive wins to kick off the 1991 season. The final few laps saw Senna take a backseat and slow down slightly, allowing Prost to cut his minute lead into just 16 seconds. However, this was all intentional by the Brazilian, as he was slightly worried about his own gearbox so his main intentions for the latter stages of the race was to get it back home. Senna also went on to win his third and final World Championship, with his McLaren MP4/6 being the final World Championship winning car with manual transmission and a V12 Engine.
Unfortunately, as the streets reopened again in Phoenix, they were never closed again for a Formula 1 race. The 1991 US Grand Prix was the last time it was held in the state of Arizona, with Bernie Ecclestone giving no explanation as to why the paddock wouldn’t be returning. Fans theorised that the Phoenix Street Circuit was dropped in favour of a return to the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Gauteng, South Africa after the end of apartheid in the country. During the opener of the 1992 season in South Africa, when asked about the cancellation of the previous year’s opener, Ecclestone stated that he wanted to build a grandstand for 20,000 fans at the street circuit but was unable to do so because of the surrounding city.
[This was originally posted in September 2020 on DriveTribe.com]