Alain Prost moved to Ferrari to escape the bitterness of his McLaren partnership with Ayrton Senna. But the penultimate race in the 1990 championship would be a case of “deja vu.” At the Japanese Grand Prix, the roles of the previous year’s event were reversed. Prost, who needed to score points to remain in the championship, made the better start. But in a clear act of retribution, Senna drove his former team-mate off the road at the first corner. The championship was Senna’s, but the circumstances tainted that success.
Tyrrell’s Jean Alesi continued his impressive Formula 1 graduation, nearly defeating Senna in the opening race on the streets of Phoenix, and scoring another second-place finish at Monaco. Alesi was such a hot property that at one point during the season, three teams (Tyrrell, Williams and Ferrari) all believed that they had signed him for 1991. His eventual choice of Ferrari would prove fateful: had he moved to Williams instead, Alesi might have retired from F1 with a World Championship or more, rather than a solitary race win.
Senna and Prost overshadowed their respective team-mates, Gerhard Berger and Nigel Mansell, throughout the year. Berger should have won in Japan but spun out of the lead while passing the aftermath of the Senna/Prost contretemps. After failing to finish the British GP, an emotional Mansell announced he was quitting the sport. But when Williams failed to sign Alesi, the team tempted Mansell out of retirement before he had even stopped racing. Mansell scored the sole victory of a disappointing year in Portugal despite nearly crashing into his team-mate at the start.
After struggling early in the season, Leyton House (formerly March) surprised the Grand Prix circus at Paul Ricard by nearly finishing first and second. Unfortunately for the team, Mauricio Gugelmin retired and Prost just caught Ivan Capelli to score Ferrari’s 100th Grand Prix victory.
Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen both won a race for Williams as Renault developed its V10 engine. Patrese was successful at Imola while Boutsen won in Hungary by holding off a train of quicker cars for the whole race. Meanwhile, Nelson Piquet resurrected his career at Benetton – winning the final two races to finish third in the championship. Team-mate Alessandro Nannini suffered a helicopter accident in which his right arm was severed. Despite successful surgery, his F1 career was over.
Lotus, now using Lamborghini engines, suffered another frustrating year. The season nearly ended in tragedy for the team’s promising newcomer, Martin Donnelly, who was critically injured during practice at Jerez. Initial fears for his life proved ill founded, but he too would not race at this level again. Sponsor Camel announced they would withdraw their support of Lotus at the end of the year, forcing the team to the brink of extinction.