Monaco is known as being a nigh-on impossible place for anyone to overtake. While that characteristic has turned many of its grands prix over the years into dull affairs, in 1992 it made the race one of the most exciting in F1 history as Senna pulled off a brilliant victory.
Heading in to the weekend, Senna had known that his chances were pretty slim, with the Williams of championship leader Mansell having dominated the first five races of the year.
The Brazilian’s only realistic chance of success would be if Mansell somehow hit trouble, which is why Senna knew he had to be in the right place to capitalise.
With Mansell and his teammate Riccardo Patrese locking out the front row, Senna understood that he needed to split the Williams drivers off the line if he was to hold out any hope of pouncing on Mansell.
And that is exactly what happened, as third-place starter Senna knew that he had to brake as late as possible in to Ste Devote to get ahead of Patrese. In the end, as the Williams duo played it cautiously, Senna braked so late he nearly ran into the back of Mansell.
“I went for it at the last moment going into the first corner so as not to give Riccardo any clue, because otherwise he would have closed the door, of course,” he said later.
“I got into second place that way. But the problem was to stop the car before Mansell turned in because I was coming so quickly that I thought he might not have seen me. But it worked out okay and it was a good manoeuvre, the only chance I had to make a place.”
Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/7A, Riccardo Patrese, Williams FW14B
Photo by: Sutton Images
Although Mansell was quickly gone, pulling away at around a second a lap, Senna in second place was already thinking the long game.
He knew that he needed to balance out going as quick as possible while also ensuring he didn’t burn out his tyres: because if Mansell did hit trouble then he needed to be ready to pounce.
“I knew there was no way I could beat him,” he said. “It was impossible with the superiority of his car. But you never know what can happen at Monaco. So what I tried to do was go hard enough to be in a position to benefit if anything happened to Mansell. Already early on, I was planning for the late race.”
At some point Senna knew he needed to save his car and his tyres; but it was hard for him to maintain focus and attention.
“I screamed at myself: pay attention, concentrate, don’t get distracted, you idiot,” he recalled.
Senna’s efforts all paid off on lap 71, though, when Mansell hit trouble. Going through the tunnel, the Briton had a sideways moment. Believing he had a puncture (it was later suspected to be a loose wheel nut), he radioed to the pits for a change of tyres.
Because it wasn’t expecting him to pit, Williams didn’t turn around Mansell particularly fast. Things were not helped by the Englishman stopping slightly crooked in the box because he was stopping with only three wheels working, nor by a subsequent delay changing the right rear.
Senna took the lead and Mansell’s charge began with seven laps to go. From more than five seconds adrift, the gap came down to 4.3, then 1.9 – and with three laps remaining they were nose to tail.
Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/7A, Nigel Mansell, Williams FW14B
Photo by: Motorsport Images
But despite Mansell having the luxury of the best car and fresh rubber, Senna played a blinder. He positioned his car exactly where was needed to close off any overtaking attempt, despite some theatrical lunges and alternative lines from Mansell.
There was no room for Mansell to get past and in the end the laps ran out, handing Senna a sensational fifth win on the streets.
Speaking after his first defeat of the 1992 season, Mansell said: “I must compliment Ayrton because he pretty well second guessed every move I tried to do. He was very fair and he is entitled to do what he did.”
For Senna, there was some surprise too about having managed to pull off those nerve-wracking final three laps and overcome ‘Il Leone’, as Mansell had been nicknamed during his Ferrari years.
“When I took the lead my tyres were very worn-out, and I expected Nigel, who had new tyres, to catch up to me very quickly,” he was quoted as saying by the official Senna website.
“I didn’t know how I would keep the lead. I had to use all my knowledge about Monaco, and it was really exciting. I knew Nigel was going to try everything to pass me, and he was faster everywhere in the circuit.
“So, I tried to stay on the inside at corners. On the straights, the car felt like a dragster, with the wheels spinning in second, third and fourth gear. But I won and it felt good to tame the Lion.”
Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda, 1st position with team boss Ron Dennis, podium
Photo by: Motorsport Images