The 2012 season has got off to an exciting start, as demonstrated by the fact that the first four races produced four different winners.
It’s all very different from 20 years ago, when Nigel Mansell and Williams-Renault won the first five races, setting up the Englishman’s successful World Championship campaign.
The fourth of those successes came on a soaking wet day in Barcelona. Mansell had already proved the class of the field by winning from pole seemingly as he pleased in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. The high-tech Williams FW14B proved to be the class of the field, and Mansell was the master of it.
Rival teams hoped that the return to Europe – and the addition of updates to their cars – would help to close the gap to the flying Williams. However in Barcelona Mansell was on pole once more, this time over a second clear of the Benetton of rising star Michael Schumacher. Ayrton Senna was third for McLaren, while Mansell’s team mate Riccardo Patrese was only fourth, the Italian still struggling to fully come to terms with the feel of the FW14B’s active suspension.
Williams clearly had the best package, and Renault was also playing its part and continuing to develop its V10. Over the weekend Mansell and Patrese tried an improved RS4 engine, although the team’s advantage was such it was decided to stay with the proven RS3C for the race itself.
The qualifying times were set in the first session as rain stopped anyone from improving in the second. When the rain returned on Sunday morning rivals hoped that it had made the race a little more open – it was a question now of whether the Williams advantage extended into the wet.
Everyone soon learned that it did. The Williams traction control was clearly a useful boost off the line, and Mansell got away well. But so too did Patrese on the second row. Nigel thus had to make an aggressive move in order to keep his team mate safely behind into Turn One.
Meanwhile from eighth on the grid Ferrari’s Jean Alesi made a flying start, and slotted into third place, although Schumacher soon passed the Frenchman.
Mansell and Patrese were in a class of their own, and they soon began to pull away from the field, trading fastest laps as the rain eased off. After a while everyone had to start looking for puddles in order to keep their wet tyres in good shape, but any prospects of a switch to slicks ended when the rain returned at the lap 15 mark.
The Williams drivers made it look easy, but it wasn’t. That was demonstrated when Patrese lost downforce behind a backmarker and spun into the barrier, leaving his team mate alone out front. At this stage Mansell was some 21.7s ahead of Schumacher with 46 laps left to run.
It was a secure advantage, but the conditions remained tricky and the leader had to stay focussed and not make any mistakes. Still a few months away from his first Grand Prix win, Schumacher had nothing to lose. He continued to push, and gradually the gap came down.
By lap 48 the gap had fallen to around five seconds when Mansell appeared to find another gear, and began to push to the limit once again. Meanwhile other drivers continued to slide off the road, including Senna, who was struggling in sixth place when he lost control with three laps to go.
As the rain became heavier Mansell stayed safely in front, eventually extending his lead on Schumacher to over 23s. Four races, four poles, four wins – it was a remarkable start to the season for the Englishman. And there was more to come...