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Flashback: Spain ‘91 - Mansell defeats Senna to stay in title hunt 06 May 2013

1991 Spanish Grand Prix. Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. 27-29 September 1991. Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 Renault) battles wheel to wheel with Ayrton Senna (McLaren MP4/6 Honda) down the full length of the start/finish straight before overtaking him into turn 1 for 2nd place. They finished in 1st and 5th positions respectively. Nigel Mansell receives treatment after twisting his ankle in a charity football game. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 Renault) focuses ahead of the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix. Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. Gerhard Berger(McLaren MP4/6 Honda) leads the field into the first corner. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. Ayrton Senna (McLaren MP4/6 Honda) tries his best to keep Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 Renault) behind him. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. The action was close all through the field during the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix. Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. Ayrton Senna(McLaren MP4/6 Honda) comes under pressure from Jean Alesi's Ferrari. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991. Nigel Mansell appeared to still be feeling discomfort from his injured ankle on the podium. 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 27-29 September 1991.

The 1991 Spanish Grand Prix gave us one of the most memorable sequences in the history of Formula One racing - Nigel Mansell’s Williams running wheel-to-wheel with Ayrton Senna’s McLaren along Barcelona’s 300km/h pit straight, sparks flying spectacularly from underneath both cars and barely a hair’s breadth between them.

It was an electrifying slice of action between two of the sport’s greatest drivers, but it was significant too: if Mansell was to keep his world championship challenge alive he had to beat Senna and, with just three races of the season to go, it was a case of now or never.

The moustachioed Brit had come into the race weekend at Barcelona’s brand-new, state-of-the-art Circuit de Catalunya 24 points behind the Brazilian in the standings, with a maximum of 30 points remaining to be won. Mansell might have been closer had he not been black-flagged at the previous round in Portugal after a tyre had disastrously parted company with his Williams in the pit lane.

For Senna, the maths was simple: win in Spain and a second consecutive drivers’ title was assured, regardless of where Mansell finished. However, he would start the race on the back foot - in third - after a huge engine failure in qualifying left him unable to challenge either Mansell for second or team mate Gerhard Berger for pole. But whilst he was to start ahead of his rival, it wasn’t all good news in the Mansell camp as the Williams man was still suffering from a nasty ankle sprain he’d picked up playing football on the Friday night...

After two days of bright, warm weather, race day morning dawned damp and left a greasy sheen on the already slippery new track surface. The rain had stopped by race time but the stewards had declared a wet race and so the cars lined up on the grid fitted with treaded tyres, much to the chagrin of Ferrari’s Alain Prost who’d wanted to try his luck on slicks.

As he lined up on pole, Berger was no doubt mindful of the aggressively fast - and somewhat controversial - getaway that Mansell had made at the previous round. But when the lights turned green it was the Briton who was looking in his mirrors as first Senna passed him and then Michael Schumacher’s threw his Benetton by at Turn 5.

After composing himself, Mansell quickly got back past the German and before long was swarming all over the rear of Senna’s McLaren, with Berger leading fairly comfortably up front. By the end of lap 4 the track had dried somewhat, but both Senna and Mansell resisted the urge to pit and instead hurtled out of the final turn with the Williams glued to the McLaren’s gearbox.

Then came the moment that for many fans remains one of the defining images of early-nineties F1 racing, as Mansell swept out of Senna’s slipstream and alongside the McLaren, only edging ahead as the pair turned in to the first corner.

Soon after, Berger suffered a long pit stop for dry tyres and handed Mansell the lead, but Senna refused to drop back and the pair were nose-to-tail as they entered the pits at the end of lap 9. This time, though, McLaren produced a slick tyre change to get their man back out ahead of the Williams.

"It was a bit frustrating, of course, because I'd got past Senna once and now I had to do it again," Mansell revealed afterwards. "But it didn’t worry me too much. I just thought, 'we've had a great pit stop, I've come out of the pits with all four wheels!'”

Senna managed to come back out ahead of Berger, but the Austrian was soon in front of his team mate once more, to leave the order at Berger, Senna, Mansell, Schumacher and Prost. With all the leaders now on slicks, it was somewhat predictable that the drizzle would return and steadily begin to moisten the track surface again.

Suddenly, and to everyone’s surprise, Senna had a wild spin coming out of the final turn and only just managed to keep his pirouetting car out of the path of the onrushing Mansell and Schumacher.

In an instant Mansell’s championship charge was back on and over the next few laps he hunted down Berger. Once again he tried his ‘Senna move’ down the main straight, but Berger’s McLaren had just enough grunt to keep the Williams at bay. Then, on lap 21, Mansell boldy forced his Williams up the inside at Turn 4. Both men ran incredibly deep into the corner and slithered for traction on the greasy track, but Mansell was through.

“It was pretty close,” Mansell said later, “we just missed making contact."

Once in the lead, the Williams driver calmly maintained the gap to Berger until the Austrian was cruelly forced to retire with engine trouble. Senna, meanwhile, was struggling after choosing the harder Goodyear tyres at his stop rather than the more preferable softs, and soon lost out to the other Williams of Riccardo Patrese, who moved into third behind Mansell and Prost.

The action now centred on the efforts of two young drivers charging through the field - Ferrari’s Jean Alesi, who’d been slowed by stop-go penalty, and Schumacher, who had spun out of a potential podium position earlier on.

Soon enough, Alesi charged decisively past Senna into Turn 1 for fourth, compounding a miserable day for the Brazilian in which he’d eventually finish fifth, just ahead of Schumacher but behind Alesi, Patrese in third, Prost in second and a delighted Mansell in first.

Ultimately, Mansell’s challenge for the 1991 drivers’ title would falter, but on a damp day in Spain, the Williams man had done exactly what he’d set out to do and kept his championship hopes alive.

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