The period 1988 to 1990 saw a fierce battle and rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
All three years had some controversy over the title result. In 1988, Prost actually outscored Senna, but Senna took the title because of a system where only the 11 best results counted, which disadvantaged Prost (as his performances tended to emphasise consistency over exceptional speed over one lap). In 1989, Prost took the title, but only after a controversial collision at Japan, where there was strong evidence for him having deliberately driven into Ayrton in order to deny him the title. In 1990, Prost went to Ferrari, unhappy with being increasingly out of favour with the bosses at Honda, and still mounted a serious world championship challenge. Senna won the title, but only after blatantly shoving Prost off at the first corner at around 180mph, partly out of revenge for what happened the previous year.
But were they really the two best drivers of the era or did they just win because they generally had the best cars? Clearly the McLarens were the class of the field in 1988. I decided to take a close look at how the drivers performed, and came up with the following results...
Driver ratings for 1988
The Top Ten for 1988
1.(=) Ayrton Senna Ayrton may have been in the best car this year, but he also made great use of it and was a very worthy world champion. He had the upper hand over team mate Alain Prost in qualifying and put in some very strong performances in the races too, and from Canada through to Belgium he was almost error-free as well as extremely quick. He also came out on top on the Driver of the Day count, with 6 races out of 16. His main low points were crashing out at Monaco after dominating that weekend, and a dangerous move on Alain Prost at Portugal where he came close to pushing him into the pit wall at over 170mph.
1.(=) Alain Prost Given that my system includes entertainment value as a factor, it surprised me that these two ended up level at the season's end, as I thought Ayrton would come out on top due to his greater raw speed and his greater entertainment value. However, Alain made up for it by being almost as quick in the races, making fewer mistakes and in particular not making any dangerous moves on his rivals. He was also a more assertive racer in wheel-to-wheel combat than his reputation. However, his emphasis on consistency resulted in him only being Driver of the Day on three occasions. This season cements Alain's status as one of the all-time greats, as Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton are the only other drivers to have achieved season ratings of 8.6 (rounded to 1 decimal place) on my system.
3. Gerhard Berger Gerhard Berger was in the Ferrari #28 this year, and he comfortably beat his team mate Michele Alboreto, who had mounted a serious world championship challenge back in 1985 but was not at his best in 1988. Combining strong pace, consistency and few mistakes, Gerhard finished third in the drivers' championship after the dominant McLarens, and he memorably won the Italian Grand Prix in front of the tifosi, albeit only after the McLarens had encountered mechanical problems. He was also my Driver of the Day on four occasions this season, and achieved a fine season average rating of 8.16.
4. Nigel Mansell After having narrowly missed out on the drivers' championship in 1986 and having somehow lost to an underperforming Nelson Piquet in 1987, Nigel had no real chances of winning the championship this year as his Williams was somewhat down on power and also extremely unreliable - he only finished two races! However, it also says a lot that the two races that he did finish were both strong second places. He was consistently fast and he comfortably beat his team mate Riccardo Patrese. As was so often the case, he was especially strong at his home Grand Prix at Britain, one of his two second places. He had to miss a couple of races due to chickenpox, and he made some errors at the Portuguese and Japanese Grands Prix afterwards.
5. Derek Warwick Derek was in an underpowered Arrows-Megatron this year, mainly due to the slow Megatron engine, but they were good enough to score points. Although team mate Eddie Cheever got the best result for the team (3rd at Italy), Derek Warwick generally had the upper hand over his team mate, especially in the second half of the season when he had a very strong run of form. 7.66 was the highest season rating I have given Derek, though he might have performed better earlier in the 1980s.
6. Thierry Boutsen Although Thierry didn't put in any particularly outstanding performances in his Benetton (unlike Gerhard Berger's heroics in the mid-1980s), he was generally close to the pace and notched up a number of good points finishes. Overall he had a slight edge over his team mate Alessandro Nannini.
7. Ivan Capelli Ivan had a rather mediocre first half of the season, the lowest points being Monaco where he was well off the pace, and Detroit, where he was a second slower than team mate Mauricio Gugelmin in Friday qualifying and then injured himself in a hefty crash on Saturday. He more than made up for it, though, with a series of strong performances in the second half of the season, highlights being 3rd place at Belgium and 2nd place at Portugal. Indeed, at Portugal he pushed the dominant McLarens hard. At 7.28, this was to be Ivan Capelli's highest season rating, and he only showed flashes of this kind of form in subsequent seasons.
8. Alessandro Nannini Although Thierry Boutsen had the edge overall and heavily outscored him in the drivers' championship, Alessandro Nannini performed quite well this year, and had the majority of the unreliability at Benetton this year. 3rd places at Britain and Spain were the highlights.
9. Nelson Piquet Nelson went down in history as one of the all-time greats due to his strong performances in the early to mid-1980s, and he won the drivers' championship in 1987 despite not being at his best, but in 1988 his form dropped further, not helped by the decline of Lotus (for which he was driving in 1988). His performances were consistently good but nothing spectacular, but he did get three third places at Brazil, San Marino and Australia, and he thrashed team mate Saturo Nakajima, being on average just under a second per lap faster than him, and scoring 22 points to his team mate's one.
10.(=) Jonathan Palmer Jonathan is probably better known these days for having done commentary for the BBC in 1994-1996. However, he had been an F1 driver before that, and he made my Top Ten in 1988 due to some strong performances early in the season, with strong 5th places at the street circuits at Monaco and Detroit, and he thrashed his team mate Julian Bailey who sadly appeared to be rather out of his depth in F1.
10.(=) Mauricio Gugelmin Solid but unspectacular for much of the season, and overshadowed by team mate Ivan Capelli in the second half, but he finished a strong 4th at Britain and 5th at Hungary, and showed some good speed at times.
1988's also rans
Michele Alboreto was well beaten by team mate Gerhard Berger this year, typically by around half a second per lap, although he did match Gerhard well at the Italian Grand Prix when the Ferraris finished 1-2. Overall he scored 24 points to his team mate's 41. His performances weren't that bad, but apart from the Italian Grand Prix they were unspectacular and did not do Gilles Villeueuve's iconic Ferrari #27 justice, so Ferrari were well justified in replacing him with Nigel Mansell for 1989.
Riccardo Patrese had a disappointing season where he was well beaten by Nigel Mansell, possibly ground down by the inferiority of his Williams.
Pierluigi Martini was quite impressive for a rookie, showing some good speed at times, but as yet not much consistency. This was to change in 1989.
Driver ratings for 1989
The Top Ten for 1989
1. Ayrton Senna Ayrton was generally superb this year, achieving a season average rating of 8.59, but unreliability cost him the title. The Japanese GP was decidedly controversial, as he tried to pass team mate Alain Prost but Alain turned in on him. He then went on to win the race after all, keeping himself in contention for the title, only to be disqualified controversially for missing the chicane after his collision with Prost. He was then dealt with remarkably harshly by the FIA, his Superlicence hung in the balance for a while and he was labelled a "dangerous driver". One could argue that it evened out in the end, as this would ironically have been a fair punishment for what he did to Alain Prost at Japan 1990, but being treated this harshly in 1989 probably contributed to his very dangerous move the following year.
2. Nigel Mansell Nigel revived the spirit of the Ferrari #27 as established by Gilles Villeneuve and became affectionately known by the tifosi as "Il Leone" (The Lion). His performance at Hungary was particularly stunning, winning from 12th on the grid at a track that is notoriously hard to overtake on, and thus got the full 10 rating. As usual, he was also very strong at the British Grand Prix, finishing a fine second behind Alain Prost. He did have two disqualifications this season, but the one at Canada was his team's fault for not guiding him as to the timing of the start line procedure. The one at Portugal, though, was partly his fault for reversing in the pitlane despite his team indicating that he shouldn't. Overall, though, with a season rating of 8.33, an improvement over his already impressive 1988 season.
3. Gerhard Berger Before I embarked on this driver rating system, I had assumed that Gerhard Berger's crash at San Marino, hitting the wall at 180mph and having his Ferrari catch fire, leaving him miraculously with nothing more than two broken ribs and burns, shaved a tenth or two off his pace. However, this wasn't the case, as Gerhard proved to be about as quick as his team mate Nigel Mansell, even after that accident. His chances of getting strong results were scuppered by very poor reliability, but the three races that he did finish saw two second places and a win. This turned out to be Gerhard's highest season rating, at 8.20.
4. Alain Prost Only 4th for Alain Prost? The main reason is his performances in the last two races of the season - there is strong (though not 100% conclusive) evidence that he deliberately took out team mate Ayrton Senna at Japan (but because it's not conclusive, I gave him a 5 rating rather than a 2 or 3). Then in the wet at Australia he chose to retire the car out of protest. But over the first 14 races there wasn't much in it - Senna averaged 8.71, Prost 8.57. Ayrton had a large advantage in qualifying this year, but there were strong suspicions that Honda were giving Ayrton the better engine because of his better relationship with Honda (though this may ironically also have contributed to his worse reliability), and I have taken this into account when assessing their respective performances.
5. Pierluigi Martini Saddled with a relatively slow and unreliable Minardi, Pierluigi Martini was consistently very quick this year, especially in qualifying, and he thrashed his team mate Luis Perez-Sala, being about a second per lap faster than him on average. There were strong 5th places at Britain and Portugal (and he also qualified 5th at Portugal), and a 6th at Australia. He could have rated even higher than 7.57 had he not spun off on several occasions, indicating that his impressive speed wasn't matched by a comparably impressive ability to keep the car on the road.
6. Riccardo Patrese A much stronger season for Riccardo, probably aided by having a somewhat more competitive Williams this year, who had the edge over team mate Thierry Boutsen, though there was still a general sense that Nigel Mansell would have outpaced him had he still been at Williams. Four second places, two third places, a pole and a fastest lap underlined a strong season in which he was "Best of the Rest" in the World Championship between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
7. Alessandro Nannini Alessandro was elevated to the role of team leader at Benetton this year after the departure of Thierry Boutsen to Williams, and he settled into the role well, easily beating team mates Johnny Herbert and Emanuele Pirro (although Johnny Herbert was badly compromised by a serious accident that he had in 1988 and maybe arrived in F1 a bit too soon afterwards). He famously won the controversial Japanese Grand Prix, albeit only after Ayrton Senna was disqualified, and had two other third place finishes.
8. Derek Warwick Derek continued from where he left off at the end of 1988 with some fine performances early in the 1989 season, but his form dropped off a bit in the second half of the season. The uncompetitive Arrows that he was saddled with could have been a contributory factor, as even in his strong run early in the season he could only manage two 5th place finishes. Despite team mate Eddie Cheever having Arrows's best result (a 3rd place at the USA) Derek Warwick comfortably outpaced him for the vast majority of the season. He was unlucky not to get a good shot of victory at the Canadian Grand Prix, when his engine failed on lap 40.
9. Thierry Boutsen Thierry did a commendable job in the Williams, but overall was slightly outshone by Riccardo Patrese. He won the Canadian and Australian Grands Prix, but only on occasion did he display very strong pace, and he placed fifth in the drivers' championship.
10. Jean Alesi Jean made his debut for Tyrrell at France and was immediately very impressive for a rookie, placing 4th and finishing on the lead lap. A further 5th and 4th followed, although his form during the remainder of the season was inconsistent, with some further flashes of brilliance but also some elementary mistakes. He was about half a second per lap quicker on average than team mate Jonathan Palmer.
1989's also rans
Both Martin Brundle and Stefano Modena had good seasons in the Brabham team, although they fell marginally short of making it into my Top Ten. Martin Brundle was the more consistent of the two, while Modena was at times very quick, but lacked consistency. The team's best result was a 3rd place for Stefano Modena at Monaco, a track where he often went particularly well. Martin Brundle had to make do with three 6th places.
Martin Donnelly put in a very commendable performance in the one race where he stood in for Derek Warwick, and was rewarded with a full-time drive at Lotus (also alongside Derek Warwick!) for 1990. Ivan Capelli occasionally recaptured the brilliance that he showed for much of the second half of the 1988 season, but was unable to consistently find that kind of pace. The unreliability of his March, which meant that he only finished one race, and it was team mate Mauricio Gugelmin who picked up the team's only points, a fine 3rd at Brazil.
1989 - a season to forget for...
Michele Alboreto, who had performed competently at Ferrari but was beaten by Gerhard Berger in 1987 and 1988, did quite well in the Tyrrell early on but saw a big drop off in his performances in the second half of the season, saddled with an uncompetitive Lola. And Oscar Larrauri was so compromised by his uncompetitive EuroBrun that I couldn't assess his performances and refrained from giving him a rating.
Driver ratings for 1990
My Top Ten
1. Alain Prost Alain went to Ferrari this year, and he once again mounted a serious world championship challenge and managed to build the Ferrari team around himself. Again, as in 1989, there was very little in it between himself and Ayrton Senna in the first 14 races (Prost rated at 8.50, Senna 8.61), but the championship - and the number one on my driver rating list - was decided very controversially at Japan. This time it was clear cut: as an act of revenge on the FIA, Ayrton rammed Alain off the road at around 180mph and he was fortunate that neither driver got seriously injured. Alain Prost perhaps lacked a little of the "edge" that he showed in 1988 and 1989, being more conservative at times when lapping backmarkers for example, but it was still a very strong season overall for "the Professor", who, unlike in 1988 and 1989, also came out on top in the "Driver of the Day" stats with 6 races out of 16.
2. Nigel Mansell Nigel was compromised this year by "number two Ferrari driver syndrome" (when the Ferrari team gets built around its lead driver, as infamously happened a lot with Michael Schumacher in 1996-2006), including an instance at the British Grand Prix where the team swapped the cars round, and he had a lot of unreliability this season. I don't think there was much in it between the two Ferrari drivers in terms of pace, but Nigel made more errors, especially in the second half of the season, and so ended up ranking second, his score of 8.22 being slightly down on the previous season. He did, though, win from pole position at Portugal.
3. Ayrton Senna Ayrton had another very strong season in 1990, and could and should have been a worthy world champion and the driver of the year. However, his world title was badly tarnished by his reckless "revenge" move on Alain Prost at Japan. Due to how dangerous it was, I chose to penalise him heavily with a rating of 2 for that race, which, rather like Alain Prost in 1989, resulted in him not only losing his number one spot in my Top Ten to his main rival, but also dropped him behind Nigel Mansell. He was Driver of the Day on 5 occasions, narrowly edged out by arch-rival Prost.
4. Gerhard Berger In the first half of the season, Gerhard continued from where he left off in 1989 (when he matched Nigel Mansell's pace). He was quite often able to match his team mate Ayrton Senna's searing pace, especially in qualifying where he outqualified him at 3 of the first 7 races. After two strong second places at Brazil and San Marino, though, his pace wasn't matched by his race results, not helped by a 1 minute penalty at Canada for a jumped start. In the second half of the season, though, he was disappointingly anonymous, often about half a second per lap slower than Senna, and seemingly content just to get third and fourth place finishes. It would appear to be sometime around the middle of the 1990 season, rather than after the Imola 1989 accident as I originally suspected, that Gerhard lost a couple of tenths per lap.
5. Pierluigi Martini Once again Martini was very fast, especially in qualifying, despite being in an uncompetitive Minardi, and he thrashed his team mates. However, the Pirelli tyres were not as strong in the races as they were in qualifying, and so he often struggled to gain positions in the races. A mix of mechanical unreliability and his proneness to spinning off stopped him from scoring any points this year.
6. Martin Donnelly Martin proved to be very quick in his first (and, sadly, only) full time season in F1. Despite not scoring any points, he generally had the upper hand over his very competent team mate Derek Warwick. A near-fatal crash at Spain scuppered his chances of making anything of this early promise as an F1 driver, though as Martin himself has acknowledged in interviews, he was fortunate that he wasn't killed on the spot.
7. Jean Alesi Jean Alesi performed heroics on occasion in the Tyrrell, which led to Williams and Ferrari showing interest in him: he eventually chose Ferrari, but it wasn't purely due to his childhood dream of driving for Ferrari, he also had a less "concrete" offer from Williams than from Ferrari. He was outstanding at the USA, duelling with Ayrton Senna for the lead, and also at Monaco - throughout his career he often went particularly well at such street circuits. He also thrashed Satoru Nakajima. At many of the other races he wasn't able to quite recapture the stunning speed that he showed at the USA and Monaco, often qualifying well but dropping away during the races, not helped by the Pirelli tyres. Nonetheless, this was very impressive stuff for a rookie, and well worthy of his opportunity at Ferrari for 1991.
8. Thierry Boutsen Thierry had a stronger season in the Williams this year, getting the better of his team mate Riccardo Patrese, and achieved his highest season rating of 7.50. He had a good win at Hungary and a second place at Britain, and finished sixth in the drivers' championship. There was still a nagging sense that he didn't quite have the speed of Nigel Mansell though, and so Williams hoped for better results in 1991 with the return of Mansell.
9. Alessandro Nannini Alessandro did well again in the Benetton after being rather off the pace at the USA, and overall he had a slight edge overall over his team mate Nelson Piquet. However, a helicopter accident prior to the Japanese Grand Prix, after a particularly strong performance and third pace finish at Spain, ended his F1 career. The second half of his 1990 season, with a 7.9 rating, suggested that had it not been for this accident, he might have progressed to a higher performance level in subsequent seasons.
10. Derek Warwick Derek, like Martin Donnelly, suffered from the decline of Lotus this year, only getting a 5th and a 6th place finish this year. He was competent as usual, often showing good pace, but overall he was slightly outpaced by his team mate Martin Donnelly.
Further notes on my Top Ten for 1990
Three of my Top Ten, two of whom might seem surprisingly high up the list, are backed up by the results ofPatrick O'Brien's rating system. Although I don't have Patrick's books, which give an in-depth assessment, the blog post that I linked to has Martin Donnelly peaking at a speed of 100.5 in 1990 (half a second off the pace of the fastest driver over a 1m 40s lap), Thierry Boutsen also peaking at 100.5 this year, and Pierluigi Martini slightly faster still at 100.4. Of the three, I have highest confidence in my (and Patrick's) rating of Martin Donnelly, as his team mate Derek Warwick was a very good yardstick for comparison. Having Donnelly a place ahead of Alesi also "feels" right because he was very slightly quicker than Jean Alesi when they were team mates in Formula 3000. Pierluigi Martini might well have been vying with Gerhard Berger for fourth spot on my system had he not been prone to spinning off in the races.
1990's also rans
Nelson Piquet fell just short of my Top Ten this year and finished with two victories. While his Japan victory was inherited due to the misfortunes and collisions of those in front of him, his Australian victory was a great performance and well deserved, but it also raised the question, where was this sort of form earlier in the season? Overall, Alessandro Nannini had the edge over him up until that point. Stefano Modena was very quick at times in the early part of the season in the Brabham, but his form dropped later in the season. Riccardo Patrese was beaten by Thierry Boutsen and overall was about as disappointing as he had been in the `1988 season. Ivan Capelli was superb at France, taking a strong 2nd and coming close to winning, and followed it up with another excellent performance at Britain, but for most of the season he was unable to come close to recapturing that form.
1990 - a season to forget for...
David Brabham, who fittingly drove for Brabham, seemed rather out of his depth this year, though he was much better when he returned to F1 with Simtek in 1994. Paolo Barilla was well over a second per lap slower than Pierluigi Martini. But Claudio Langes particularly stood out for being well out of his depth - his run of zero ratings early in the season indicate that at times he was over five (!) seconds per lap slower than his team mate Roberto Moreno. It's worth mentioning that Roberto Moreno did well considering how bad his EuroBrun was, and was rewarded with a drive in a competitive Benetton in 1991. The formerly competitive Michele Alboreto had a very disappointing season, as did Philippe Alliot who got himself a reputation as an obstructive backmarker.
Three drivers didn't get ratings from me this year because of how bad their cars were. TheLife team was a shocker, the cars were regularly over 30 seconds off the pace of the next slowest car. I can imagine the puns/jokes: Driver: "It's really unfair that I've been burdened with a car that is this ridiculously slow! I'm afraid of being hit from behind!" Response: "That's Life!".
Although they had the best cars, it's also fair to say that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost really were the two best drivers of the period 1988-1990 (and probably also the earlier period 1985-1987, but I don't cover that period). Nigel Mansell was a close contender and produced some brilliant and spectacular performances, but overall he was not quite as quick as Senna nor as consistent as Prost. There wasn't much in it, but it was enough to result in Nigel's season ratings coming out in the low 8s rather than the mid 8s. The other close rival was Gerhard Berger, who closely matched Nigel Mansell in 1989 when they were team mates at Ferrari. Gerhard is perhaps underrated by some because he was beaten by Ayrton Senna and to a lesser extent Jean Alesi in the 1990s, but in the late 1980s he was very fast.