The period 1990-1994 saw a "changing of the guard", as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna faded (and the latter tragically died in 1994), and the main stars of the late 1990s, Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen, increasingly started to make headlines. In the interim, Nigel Mansell took an emphatic world championship win in 1992 in that year's dominant Williams.
The 1990s saw a change to a system where all race results count, instead of drivers counting only their best X results, and the number of points for a win increased from 9 to 10. Refuelling was controversially added in 1994. This period saw Formula One come under growing criticism for the growing difficulty of overtaking, and the 1994 season was disastrous with a long series of incidents and two deaths. Nonetheless, there was still some good racing at times.
There were two questionable championship-deciding incidents during this period - Ayrton Senna deliberately taking out Alain Prost at the first corner at Suzuka 1990, and Michael Schumacher veering his stricken Benetton into the path of Damon Hill at Adelaide 1994. The second incident wasn't quite as clear-cut as the first, but the suspicion that Schumacher deliberately took Hill out was heightened when he deliberately tried (and failed) to take out Jacques Villeneuve under similar circumstances at Jerez 1997. Both drivers thus got heavily penalised for their unsporting conduct in my driver ratings.
Driver ratings for 1990
Ayrton Senna got his revenge this year, winning the championship after losing out to Alain Prost under controversial circumstances the previous year. However, his win was tarnished by blatantly and dangerously taking Prost out at the first corner at Suzuka, which resulted in him being penalised with a rating of only 2 for that race.
A great irony behind this is that at the end of 1989 Ayrton had been severely punished despite not doing much wrong, having his superlicence suspended and being denoted a "dangerous driver", but what he subsequently did at Suzuka 1990 was probably deserving of that level of punishment, so it kind of evened out in the end, but ultimately it was somewhat farcical.
So, although Ayrton won the championship this year, and could and should have ranked no. 1 again in my driver rankings, that incident saw him drop to 3rd, behind Ferrari team-mates Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. There wasn't a huge amount in it between Prost and Mansell, with Prost's much better reliability accounting for much (but not all) of the difference, but Alain ultimately made fewer mistakes, and Nigel's performances became more erratic in the second half of the season as he got frustrated by being treated very much as a number two. Gerhard Berger was a bit of a disappointment this year after close-matching Nigel Mansell for pace in the Ferrari in 1989, but by most standards was still pretty good.
Some may be surprised at me ranking Pierluigi Martini and Martin Donnelly as high as 5th and 6th, neither of whom scored any points, but Patrick O'Brien's purely speed-based rating system yielded similar conclusions, as per his 2014 blog post which had Martini peak-rating at 100.4 (4 tenths off the ultimate pace over a 1m 40s lap) and Donnelly at 100.5, both in 1990. Martin Donnelly generally had the edge over his very competent team-mate Derek Warwick, who I ranked 10th, but his chances of going on to achieve great things were sadly scuppered by a near-fatal accident in qualifying at Jerez. Having Martin Donnelly a place ahead of Jean Alesi also feels right, as Martin tended to have a slight edge over Jean when they were racing in Formula 3000. Pierluigi Martini continued to be outstandingly quick in qualifying, but the Minardi's Pirelli tyres contributed to him dropping back during the races.
Jean Alesi was one of the big revelations of the 1990 season, starting with an exceptional performance at the USA where he famously duelled with Ayrton Senna. The rest of his season was not quite as strong, although he was again excellent at Monaco (a track where he usually excelled in subsequent years). He thus got offered drives at Williams and Ferrari, and chose Ferrari. Once again, team mate Satoru Nakajima was hopelessly outclassed.
In the Williams team Thierry Boutsen tended to have the edge over Riccardo Patrese and they picked up occasional wins, but there was always a sense that they weren't as good as Nigel Mansell, who was to return to Williams in 1991 after falling out with Ferrari. In the Benetton team Nelson Piquet did alright, salvaging what would otherwise have been an ordinary season with two race wins at the end, but was edged by Alessandro Nannini, who sadly had to quit F1 after suffering a severe helicopter accident before the Japanese Grand Prix. This gave Roberto Moreno his big chance, moving to a competitive team after having been saddled with slow cars for much of his career.
Stefano Modena and Ivan Capelli both again showed flashes of speed, but lacked consistency.
Driver ratings for 1991
This time there was no doubt that Ayrton Senna was the best, winning the world title fairly comfortably despite the McLaren increasingly being outpaced by the Williams mid to late season. Gerhard Berger, although falling one place in the rankings to 5th, close-matched Ayrton towards the end of the season, but sometimes looked ordinary early on.
Nigel Mansell did well in the increasingly fast Williams but his world title challenge was undone by repeated gearbox problems as well as sporadic driver errors. Early in the season he was close-matched by a rejuvenated Riccardo Patrese, who won superbly at Mexico and was unlucky not to also win at Monza, but Nigel got the upper hand in the second half of the season.
The Ferraris dropped back somewhat and although Alain Prost fought valiantly, he became increasingly disillusioned and got sacked after calling his Ferrari "a truck" (I wasn't a fan of many of Alain's political dealings in 1990, but I think a lot of what he said in 1991 was spot on). Jean Alesi compared reasonably well, being comprehensively outqualified by Alain but often close-matching him during the races, but he also made sporadic errors. My rankings suggest that had Jean gone to Williams he might well have been beaten by Riccardo Patrese this year. Gianni Morbidelli got a shot in the number 27 Ferrari after Alain Prost's departure, and he did alright, but he went on to spend the next few seasons in uncompetitive cars. Stefano Modena was a revelation in the first half of the season, putting in some stunning performances in the Tyrrell, but he got increasingly fed up in the second half of the season, which was reflected in a drop-off in his performances, but the first half of his season was so strong that he ranked 6th. Another big revelation was Michael Schumacher, who did superbly in the Jordan at Spa, and then moved to Benetton and made Nelson Piquet, and the drivers that he replaced, Roberto Moreno and Bertrand Gachot, look ordinary. However, Nelson Piquet was coming to the end of his career - don't forget how good he was in the early to mid-1980s. Pierluigi Martini was very fast once again, but made more errors than in the previous two seasons.
Following the tragic departure of the ultra-promising Martin Donnelly, the Lotus team found two other promising newcomers in Johnny Herbert and Mika Häkkinen and both did very well considering that they were lumbered with a slow car in their first full seasons in F1.
Driver ratings for 1992
1992 was Nigel Mansell's year, who won the title by a long way in an exceptionally dominant Williams, although I still don't think he was quite as quick as Ayrton Senna, whose results were hindered by the McLaren being much, much slower than the Williams. Thus, Ayrton ranked as number one again, with Nigel a fairly close second. Gerhard Berger did pretty well, very occasionally getting the better of Ayrton Senna but most often being a few tenths per lap short of him. Riccardo Patrese had quite a disappointing season, performing decently but rarely getting close to Nigel Mansell, in contrast to 1991 when he sometimes outperformed Nigel in the first half of the season. There were suggestions that 1992's "active" Williams didn't suit Riccardo's driving style, although it may just have been that he was coming towards the end of his career (considering how far his performances dropped in 1993).
Michael Schumacher was again outstanding in the Benetton, making relatively few mistakes for a rookie and proving very fast, and he fittingly won his first Grand Prix at Spa. He was cited in Autosport magazine as "the most promising new driver since Senna arrived on the scene, the man for whom German motor racing has waited so long" - and he emphatically went on to live up to that potential. Team mate Martin Brundle was well behind in qualifying but often close-matched Michael in the races, and he was unlucky to lose his place at the end of the season.
Jean Alesi, although a bit inconsistent, performed heroics at times in the dreadful 1992 Ferrari, particularly with his wet-weather performances at Brazil and France, and I reckon that he would probably have been the world champion this year had he gone to Williams in 1991, though he probably wouldn't have won it by as big a margin as Nigel Mansell. The 1992 Ferrari effectively destroyed the career of Ivan Capelli who also succumbed to "Ferrari no. 2 driver syndrome" to some extent, although I don't think he was ever as good as Jean Alesi.
Once again Lotus were well served by Johnny Herbert and Mika Häkkinen. In the first half of the season Johnny had a slight edge over Mika, as he also did in 1991, but suffered from a lot of bad luck. In the second half of the season it tended to be Mika who had the edge. A rejuvenated Michele Alboreto did well in the Footwork, but had little to show for it, as on many occasions he finished seventh, just out of the points.
A few stars from previous years suffered this year. Pierluigi Martini's performances dropped off in the second half of the season, after finding that the 1992 Dallara was no quicker than the Minardis that he had been driving in previous years, while the disastrous 1992 Jordan destroyed the careers of Stefano Modena and Mauricio Gugelmin. Thierry Boutsen continued his descent down the rankings, becoming increasingly disheartened in a Ligier which was nowhere near as good as the Williamses that he had driven in 1989 and 1990.
Driver ratings for 1993
Alain Prost comfortably won the title this year, but he was nothing like as convincing as Nigel Mansell had been the previous year, and Nigel's autobiography noted that on several occasions he "was made to look very ordinary by Ayrton". In truth, though, Alain had the philosophy of only driving as fast as he needed to in order to win, and while team mate Damon Hill was a lot better than many people expected, Damon understandably struggled at times early in the season due to his inexperience.
I suspect that had Jean Alesi been in the other Williams, Alain would have ended up playing catch-up after the wet races early in the season and would have had to drive much closer to his limit in order to win the title. As it stood, Jean had another strong season in the Ferrari, marred by sporadic off days, and comfortably had the upper hand over Gerhard Berger, who had a very tough season and had a number of accidents. The Ferraris were again well off the pace, although the arrival of Jean Todt late in the season was matched by an improvement in form.
Ayrton Senna was phenomenal in the early part of the season, especially at Donington where he famously went from 5th to 1st on the first lap. When Alain Prost started to pull away in the championship due to his dominant Williams, Ayrton seemed to lose some of his motivation and put in some relatively ordinary performances, and he was not pushed by team mate Michael Andretti, who had a lot of bad luck admittedly, but also made a staggering number of errors. Ayrton's brilliance returned in the last three races, probably due to being pushed much, much harder by new team mate Mika Häkkinen, who outqualified him at Portugal and also close-matched him in qualifying at Japan.
Michael Schumacher was again outstanding in the Benetton, in contrast to Riccardo Patrese who was usually outpaced by a long way. Michael ranked as the best-performing driver of all in the second half of the season, winning in Portugal and coming close to doing so at Belgium for the second year running.
Martin Brundle had a shaky start to the season but came very strong in the Ligier mid to late season, generally getting the better of Mark Blundell. Johnny Herbert performed valiantly in the Lotus, but the car was too slow to give him much of a chance to shine (except at his home Grand Prix at Silverstone), and Alessandro Zanardi was a disappointment in the other Lotus.
Other honourable mentions: Derek Warwick did about as well in the Footwork as Michele Alboreto had the previous year, but Michele's performances were understandably way down this year due to being saddled with a very uncompetitive Lola. Christian Fittipaldi, after having shown inconsistent flashes of speed in 1992, was consistently fast in 1993, to a large enough extent for him to make my top 10 this year. Rubens Barrichello impressed many in his first season, with a scattering of excellent performances, but little consistency. Team mate Ivan Capelli's confidence was shot after his terrible 1992, and Thierry Boutsen also got nowhere, but Eddie Irvine compared quite well in the last two races.
Driver ratings for 1994
1994 was a very tragic season, the "centrepiece" being Imola where we saw the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Razemberger. Ayrton was very quick in the first three races but made some errors (his fatal accident at Imola might well have been partly a driver error, although Michael Schumacher noted that his Williams was bottoming out).
Thereafter Michael Schumacher was very dominant in his Benetton, but the questionable legality of the Benetton car led to him getting repeated suspensions through no fault of his own. However, his suspension following the British Grand Prix, while excessive, was significantly self-inflicted as for whatever reasons he overtook Damon Hill on the formation lap and then didn't serve his penalty. The main reason why he ranked second behind Ayrton this year was his very questionable move on Damon Hill at Adelaide. At best it was unsporting and a serious misjudgement, at worst it was a deliberate attempt to take out Damon to safeguard his world championship. His blatant move on Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez 1997 under similar circumstances fuelled suspicions that it may well have been the latter. As it's not 100% certain that he deliberately took Damon off, I rated him at 4 for that race, as opposed to 3 for Jerez 1997, but it was enough to drop him to second, so fittingly Ayrton ranked as number one in the season that he tragically died.
Damon Hill, although often lacking the out-and-out pace of Senna and Schumacher, did admirably to keep himself and the Williams team together following Ayrton Senna's death. His performances at Japan and Australia were excellent, but ultimately proved insufficient. Rookie team mate David Coulthard showed some promise, while Nigel Mansell was nothing like as good as he had been in 1992, but showed some of his old form in the last two races. In hindsight, although Nigel's performances were stronger overall than David's, the Williams team were probably right to prefer David Coulthard.
None of Michael Schumacher's team mates could get close to him, Jos Verstappen was a case of "too much, too soon" while JJ Lehto, who had showed some promise in previous seasons, sadly had his chances scuppered by a hefty accident. Johnny Herbert got closest, after another frustrating season in the Lotus.
At Ferrari, in stark contrast to 1993, Gerhard Berger often had the upper hand over Jean Alesi, putting in some very strong performances including a well-deserved win at Germany, and he was looking good at Portugal too until his car broke. Jean had a difficult season and performed inconsistently, brilliant at times (Canada, Belgium, Italy, Japan) and at other times outpaced by Gerhard and making silly errors. The Ferraris were competitive this year, but notoriously unreliable, denying both drivers chances of victory on a few occasions.
I reckon Mika Häkkinen was probably the third-quickest driver after Schumacher and Senna this year, often making the McLaren-Peugeot go much faster than it should have done, but he ranked behind Gerhard Berger due to having occasional wild moments, notably causing a big pile-up at Germany. Martin Brundle was ill-treated, having to battle with the somewhat inferior Philippe Alliot for his race seat because Peugeot wanted a French driver, but while he was thrashed by Mika Häkkinen in qualifying, he was often able to close-match him in the races. Martin also suffered badly from the unreliability of the Peugeot engine, but his performances were strong enough overall for him to make my top 10.
In the Sauber team Heinz-Harald Frentzen was very impressive in his rookie season, while Rubens Barrichello also had moments of brilliance, taking pole position at Spa. Rubens's team mate Eddie Irvine was also very fast at times, but somewhat prone to causing accidents, hence his relatively low ranking this year. Ukyo Katayama had a one-off strong season, mostly having the upper hand over Mark Blundell, but the mechanical unreliability of his Tyrrell meant that he had little to show for it. A battle with cancer in late 1994/early 1995 may have been significantly responsible for his failure to perform close to this level in subsequent seasons.
Other honourable mentions: Karl Wendlinger, in only his second season, was looking good until being ruled out by a heavy accident, and Christian Fittipaldi was again impressively fast in the Minardi, and it is a shame that he never got a chance in a competitive car. Nicola Larini did pretty well at Imola during Jean Alesi's absence due to a back injury, and David Brabham in the ailing Simtek team did a very commendable job of holding the team together after Roland Razemberger's death, and generally thrashed his team-mates. Like Christian Fittipaldi, it's a shame that David never got a crack in a decent car. Olivier Panis impressed a lot of people in his debut season, but I don't think he was really that fast this year.