The 1991 Formula 1 Season: 30th Anniversary Special

1991 Formula 1 Season
1991 Formula 1 Season

It’s hard to believe that the 1991 FORMULA 1 season, Ayrton Senna’s third and final championship-winning season, was some 30 years ago.

As we celebrate that stunning season in F1 history, we thought it would be exciting to take a walk down memory lane and relive every twist and turn from all 16 races on the F1 calendar, as well as the protagonists who helped make history.

Listen: Grid Talk Podcast Remembering 1991 – Ayrton Senna’s Final Championship


The 1991 Formula 1 Season

The 1991 FORMULA 1 season was the 45th season of F1 racing, and the 42nd running of the F1 World Championship.

The season was raced over 16 races, and saw McLaren do the double by winning the Constructor’s Championship for the fourth consecutive season, with Ayrton Senna winning the 1991 Driver’s Championship.

Nigel Mansell, in his first season back with Williams, was Senna’s biggest challenger, finishing the season in second place in the Driver’s Championship.

The 1991 FORMULA 1 season helped set the stage for battles in the late 90s, as both Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen made their F1 debuts.

How The 1991 Formula 1 Season Started

Defending champions McLaren started the 1991 FORMULA 1 season by retaining their driver duo of Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger.

After several seasons as the number two driver behind Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell returned to Williams where he was partnered by Riccardo Patrese.

Ferrari retained the services of Alain Prost, and replaced the departing Mansell with Frenchman Jean Alesi, the youngster having impressed at the Tyrrell team in 1990.

Michael Schumacher made his f1 debut with Team 7Up Jordan, before controversially replacing Brazilian Roberto Moreno for the final five races of the season.

Mika Hakkinen made his debut in 1991, racing for Team Lotus and scoring two points in his maiden season thanks to a fifth place finish at the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix.

There were several changes and new faces amongst the constructors too.

Three constructors from 1990 didn’t make it to the grid in 1991; EuroBrun didn’t complete the 1990 F1 season, Onyx Grand Prix designed a car for 1991 before folding, and Life (who failed to pre-qualify for every race in 1990) didn’t come back for a repeat performance in 1991.

Osella changed their name to Fondmetal, and Arrows changed their name to Footwork after investment in the team from Wataru Ohashi, President of Footwork Express Co., Ltd.

Jordan Grand Prix made the step up from International Formula 3000 to F1, piloted by Bertrand Gachot and Andrea de Cesaris. Gachot was suspended for two months during the year, and was replaced by the trio of Michael Schumacher, Alessandro Zanardi and Roberto Moreno.

The second new team for the 1991 FORMULA 1 season was the Modena Team. They started life as GLAS and had investors from Mexico backing the team. They were using Lamborghini V12 engines, and also had further technical support from Lamborghini.

Before the season could even begin in earnest, the Mexican backers pulled out, and Lamborghini stepped in to offer financial support, changing the name to Modena Team.

The season was a struggle, with both drivers regularly failing to qualify, and 1991 was the only year the team participated in F1.

1991 also saw a change to the points system, with 10 points being awarded for a race win, and the previous system where only points from a drivers top eleven finishes counting being replaced with every points finish counting towards the championship.

1991 United States Grand Prix

Defending champion Ayrton Senna got his 1991 Formula 1 season title defence off to the best possible start, qualifying on pole for the 1991 United States Grand Prix, with his bitter rival Alain Prost qualifying in second.

Senna pulled away at the start of the race, and was rarely troubled throughout.

Prost had more of a battle on his hands, and was involved in a scrap for fourth and fifth spots with Stefano Modena, Ricardo Patrese, Nelson Piquet, and Jean Alesi.

On Lap 70 of the Piquet passed Alesi, with Prost slipping through as well, before overtaking Piquet to finish second behind Senna.

The 1991 United States Grand Prix was the last race on the streets of Phoenix, and the last race in the USA, before F1 returned in 2000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1991 United States Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Brazilian Grand Prix

The F1 circus moved from the US to Brazil for the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, where Ayrton Senna thrilled his home fans by taking pole ahead of the Williams duo of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell.

Senna got away quickly again, and Mansell, who passed Patrese at the start, was hunting him down.

A slow pit stop on lap 22 left the Brit seven seconds down on the hometown hero, but Mansell continued his pursuit. He had another setback when he suffered a puncture on lap 50.

Senna was experiencing gearbox issues, and was being pursued relentlessly once again by Mansell. However, on lap 60 Mansell’s gearbox gave way, putting him out of the race.

Wet weather was wreaking havoc on the field, making conditions especially difficult for Senna, who was battling a car that was stuck in 6th gear.

The Brazilian would hold on to record one of his most famous victories, and was both physically and emotionally exhausted after wrestling his car to a fine first place finish.

1991 Brazilian Grand Prix Highlights

1991 San Marino Grand Prix

At the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix Ayrton Senna took his third consecutive pole position of the 1991 Formula 1 season, ahead of Riccardo Patrese and Alain Prost.

Arguably the most dramatic moment of the race occurred before the actual race, when rain caused Prost to spin off on the parade lap, forcing the Frenchman out of the race.

Senna would go on to take his third consecutive win to start the 1991 season, leading Gerhard Berger home in a McLaren 1-2 finish. Notably Finn Mika Häkkinen finished fifth, scoring the first of many points in F1.

1991 San Marino Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Monaco Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna stormed to pole at the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix, his fourth in a row to start the season, ahead of the surprising Stefano Modena in the Tyrrell-Honda.

With overtaking notoriously difficult around the streets of Monaco, it was a case of ‘as you were’ until lap 30, when Alain Prost got past Nigel Mansell.

Until that point Senna had been building a commanding lead, with the rest of the field being held up by Modena in second place.

Modena’s engine blew on lap 43, which sparked a furious chase from Prost and Mansell.

Prost, struggling with a loose wheel, was passed by Mansell on lap 63, with Mansell going on to set fastest lap after fastest lap in his pursuit of Senna.

It wasn’t to be though, with Senna taking his fourth win from four attempts. Mansell had to settle for second, while Prost finished fifth after pitting late to change his troublesome wheel.

1991 Monaco Grand Prix Highlights

YouTube video

1991 Canadian Grand Prix

At the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix the Williams team finally managed to break Senna’s dominance, qualifying 1-2 with Riccardo Patrese on pole ahead of Nigel Mansell.

Mansell managed to get ahead of Patrese at the start, and the duo pulled away from Senna who was in third. The Brazilian ended the race in the garage, retiring on lap 26.

In the closing stages Mansell was leading his teammate Patrese, but the latter had to pit with a puncture, allowing Nelson Piquet to move up to second.

The ending of the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix is one of the most bizarre finishes in F1 history.

Mansell, leading on the final lap, began waving to the crowd. The revs dropped too low, and his Renault engine stalled, allowing Piquet through to what would be his final win in F1. A dejected Mansell finished sixth.

1991 Canadian Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Mexican Grand Prix

The notoriously treacherous Hermanos Rodriguez Autodrome claimed several victims in practice for the 1991 Mexican Grand Prix, most notably Brazilian Ayrton Senna whose car overturned when he hit a tyre barrier.

In qualifying Williams proved Canada was no fluke, finishing 1-2 with Patrese on pole ahead of Mansell once again.

The 1991 Mexican Grand Prix kicked off a period of dominance for Williams, who would finish 1-2 as Patrese won ahead of Mansell, to start a four race winning streak for the Oxfordshire-based outfit.

1991 Mexican Grand Prix Highlights

1991 French Grand Prix

The 1991 French Grand Prix was held at Magny-Cours, having moved from the southern French circuit of Paul Ricard.

For Williams driver Riccardo Patrese it didn’t seem to matter where races were held, as he took his third pole position in a row, this time ahead of local favourite Alain Prost.

Come race day Patrese was slow to get away at the start, as he had difficulty selecting a gear. He was swamped on the line, and could only watch as Prost sped into the lead, followed closely by Nigel Mansell.

Prost and Mansell duked it out at the front, then on lap 54 Mansell made a daring move as the duo were weaving through traffic, and took the lead ahead of Prost.

Mansell pulled away from Prost to take the race win, with Senna finishing third.

1991 French Grand Prix Highlights

YouTube video

1991 British Grand Prix

The 1991 British Grand Prix saw a modified Silverstone circuit that would challenge the cars and drivers more technically, rather than in a pure race of speed that had been a feature of previous instalments.

Nigel Mansell thrilled the British crowd by putting his Williams on pole ahead of Ayrton Senna, and had them on their feet at the start of the race.

Senna took the lead from Mansell when the lights went out, but approaching the Hangar straight Mansell turned off his rev-limiter, flying past Senna and back into the lead.

After the first round of pit stops Mansell was 10 seconds ahead of Senna, but with a lighter fuel load Senna attacked, closing the gap to Mansell to seven seconds.

This would prove costly however, as the Brazilian ran out of fuel on the final lap, while Mansell would go on to claim his second win in a row.

While it was a bad moment for Senna, it provided one of the most iconic moments in F1, as Mansell stopped to pick up his stricken rival during his victory lap, and drove him back to the pits.

As the 1991 Formula 1 season reached the halfway point, the reliability problems that had plagued Williams early on were being ironed out, and the stage was set for a thrilling second half.

Senna led the Driver’s Championship with 51 points, while Mansell was second with 33.

The Constructor’s Championship was even closer, with McLaren on 67 points, just 12 points ahead of Williams in second.

1991 British Grand Prix Highlights

1991 German Grand Prix

Picking up where he left off, Nigel Mansell took pole at Hockenheim, and the Brit was rarely troubled in the race.

Jean Alesi did take the lead briefly, deciding to stay out while the leaders pitted, but Mansell made short work of him before pulling away from second placed Ayrton Senna.

Alain Prost and Senna were having a titanic battle for third, before Prost spun off and had to retire. The skirmish cost Senna greatly, who once again ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Out front nobody could touch Mansell, who led home a Williams 1-2 finish.

1991 German Grand Prix Highlights

YouTube video

1991 Hungarian Grand Prix

After a run of five races without a pole position, Ayrton Senna broke the Williams spell, taking pole for the 1991 Hungarian Grand Prix ahead of Riccardo Patrese, Nigel Mansell, and Alain Prost.

The race was rather uneventful, as Senna got away fastest, and was pursued around the Hungaroring by Patrese, Mansell, and Prost, who stayed in the starting order.

In the closing stages Patrese let his teammate past to see if he could take the fight to Senna, but he could not, the Brazilian going on to win with Mansell second and Patrese third.

1991 Hungarian Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Belgian Grand Prix

Relatively unknown German driver Michael Schumacher made his FORMULA 1 debut at the 1991 Hungarian Grand Prix in rather unusual circumstances…

Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot would miss his home race, as he was languishing in a British prison having sprayed tear gas at a taxi driver in London.

Up stepped Schumacher, and the rest is history…

At Spa-Francorchamps Senna took pole, his sixth of the season, ahead of Riccardo Patrese, Alain Prost, and Nigel Mansell.

Patrese would start from 17th however, as his car was found to not meet safety regulations.

After qualifying in seventh, it was a debut to forget for Schumacher, who retire in the opening exchanges with a clutch problem heading into Eau Rouge.

The first round of pit stops saw Mansell take the lead from Senna, and his title charge was on.

Excitement soon turned to despair, as an electric failure on lap 22 put Mansell out of the race.

To compound his misery, Senna took the win ahead of Gerhard Berger, giving McLaren a 1-2 finish.

1991 Belgian Grand Prix Highlights

YouTube video

1991 Italian Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher was never far from controversy throughout the early years of his F1 career, and his joining Benetton ahead of the 1991 Italian Grand Prix threatened to overshadow the race.

Schumacher had signed a contract to join Benetton, which angered Jordan, who believed the German was their driver.

However, the courts decided that as Jordan had no signed contract with Schumacher, the rookie was free to race with Benetton, and as such, Roberto Moreno vacated his Benetton seat and moved to Jordan.

Ayrton Senna took pole once again, his third in three rounds, and led his title rival Nigel Mansell at the end of the first lap.

Senna and Mansell then had a titanic battle, with Mansell finally passing Senna on lap 34.

The Brazilian immediately pitted for fresh tires, and found himself back in fifth place, trailing Schumacher.

Senna went on a charge, but it wasn’t enough, as Mansell held on to take the win, cutting Senna’s lead in the championship to 18 points with four races remaining.

1991 Italian Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Portuguese Grand Prix

The 1991 Portuguese Grand Prix was a pivotal moment in the 1991 FORMULA 1 season’s Drivers Championship battle, playing a big part in Ayrton Senna sealing his third title triumph.

Riccardo Patrese had taken pole, and the teams launched off as if boarding Noah’s Ark, with the two Williams pulling away from the two McLaren’s, who pulled away from the two Ferrari’s.

Mansell was charging away at the front, but on lap 29 his pit crew had difficulty fixing the nut on his right rear wheel. Unaware of the issue, Mansell was released from the pit box, where the wheel fell off immediately, leaving Mansell stranded in pit lane.

The team fixed the issue, and Mansell re-joined the race in 17th place.

Mansell charged through the field, moving up to sixth place. However, on lap 49 he was shown a black flag for the pit lane issue.

Riccardo Patrese went on to win the race ahead of Ayrton Senna, with just three races remaining to settle the championship.

1991 Portuguese Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Spanish Grand Prix

The F1 paddock moved from Portugal to Spain for the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, a race that would go down as a titanic battle between Senna and Mansell for the driver’s title.

McLaren’s Gerhard Berger had taken pole, his first of the season, and got away from the line well, with teammate Ayrton Senna just behind him.

Berger, Senna, Schumacher, Mansell, Prost and Patrese diced and skirmished in the opening laps, setting up an enthralling first round of pit stops.

Senna benefited the most, moving into the lead, but it was Mansell who was fastest, overtaking then pulling away from Senna.

As Senna struggled for pace, he was passed by Prost, Patrese, and Alesi.

Mansell took a crucial win, while Senna could only manage fourth. While Senna was still the favourite for the championship, the gap was now just 16 points, with a maximum of 20 available in the final two races.

1991 Spanish Grand Prix Highlights

1991 Japanese Grand Prix

The 1991 Japanese Grand Prix was set for an epic title showdown between Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell.

Mansell had to win to keep his title hopes alive, but it was Gerhard Berger who threatened to spoil the party, taking pole position.

At the start of the race, Berger got away fastest, while Senna set about frustrating Mansell’s attempts to challenge the race leader.

Frustrated, Mansell made an unforced error on lap 10, spinning off the Suzuka circuit, out of the race and out of the championship.

Berger and Senna cruised to the finish, where the Austrian would claim his one and only win of the 1991 FORMULA 1 season.

1991 Japanese Grand Prix Highlights

YouTube video

1991 Australian Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna had been crowned World Champion in Japan, but news of Alain Prost being fired by Ferrari threatened to overshadow his coronation.

A frustrated Prost had labelled his car a ‘truck’, and suggested at a press conference in Japan that the Ferrari team were unwilling to work with him. Ferrari subsequently fired him before the final race of the season, replacing him with Gianni Morbidelli.

The Driver’s Championship had already been won by Senna, but the Constructor’s Championship was still up for grabs, with McLaren 11 points ahead of Williams.

Senna took pole, his eighth from sixteen races in 1991, ahead of teammate Gerhard Burger.The Williams duo of Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese hot on their heels.

Drivers woke on race day to torrential rain, and the race got underway in horrendous conditions.

The opening laps were marred by drivers spinning off and crashing, culminating in Mansell crashing into a wall, handing the Constructor’s Championship to McLaren.

Senna and Patrese gestured for the race to be stopped, and officials duly obliged, ending the race on lap16.

They did however count the results from lap 14, meaning Senna was declared the winner ahead of Mansell.

Senna was World Champion with 96 points, Mansell second with 72, and Patrese third with 53 points.

In the battle of the constructors, McLaren topped the standings with 139 points, 14 points ahead of Williams in second.

The 1991 Australian Grand Prix, at just 14 laps, set the record for the shortest ever Grand Prix in F1 history.

1991 Australian Grand Prix Highlights


The 1991 Formula 1 Season: The End Of An Era

Although nobody knew it at the time, the 1991 Formula 1 season would prove to be Ayrton Senna’s third and final championship win.

It was also the last time Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet would all compete together.

After his firing from Ferrari, Prost took a one year sabbatical, while Piquet announced his retirement from F1.


1991 Formula 1 Season Books

The following books cover parts of the 1991 FORMULA 1 season, and are fascinating reads.

Senna Versus Prost: The Story of the Most Deadly Rivalry in Formula One
  • New
  • Mint Condition
  • Dispatch same day for order received before 12 noon
  • Guaranteed packaging
  • No quibbles returns

Read: Senna vs Prost Book Review

Staying on Track: The Autobiography
  • Hardcover Book
  • Nigel Mansell (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 361 Pages - 09/24/2015 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)
The Power and The Glory: Senna, Prost and F1's Golden Era
  • Hardcover Book
  • Sedgwick, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 09/20/2018 (Publication Date) - Pitch Publishing (Publisher)

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