The following teams and drivers competed in the 1990 FIA Formula One World Championship.
McLaren retained Ayrton Senna, who had won the title in 1988, now partnered by Gerhard Berger. Ferrari signed Alain Prost, Senna's great rival and former teammate, to partner Nigel Mansell. The other main team, Williams, retained their 1989 pairing of Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese. Benetton completed the signing of triple world champion Nelson Piquet, on a rumored incentive based contract of $100,000 per point scored following 2 disappointing years at Lotus in 1988 and 1989. meaning he had to score points to actually be paid. His teammate was Alessandro Nannini who was now entering his third year with the team.
Lotus, having lost Piquet, and experienced Japanese driver Satoru Nakajima to Tyrrell, signed Derek Warwick and young Irish driver Martin Donnelly and the cars would be powered by the V12 Lamborghini engine. Tyrrell retained Jean Alesi for his first full season of Formula 1, whilst Nakajima replaced the retired Jonathan Palmer. Brabham kept Italian Stefano Modena, but Martin Brundle left Formula 1 and returned to Sportscar racing with TWR and was replaced by Gregor Foitek, who lost his seat to David Brabham after Brazil. Brabham, the youngest son of Australia's triple World Champion Sir Jack Brabham would make his Formula One debut for the team his father founded in 1962. Arrows boss Jackie Oliver had sold the majority of the team to the Japanese Footwork company while Italians Michele Alboreto and Alex Caffi replaced Warwick (Lotus) and Eddie Cheever who retired from F1 and returned home to America to embark on a successful career in Indy car racing.
During the off-season, German teams Zakspeed and Rial left Formula One. Zakspeed had withdrawn after 5 unsuccessful seasons in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989 and returned to sports car racing, while Rial had folded after just two seasons in 1988 and 1989.
New team Life appeared on the grid, powered by their own unconventional W12 engine design and piloted David Brabham's older brother Gary (who left the team after the second round of the season in Brazil), and Bruno Giacomelli, returning to F1 for the first time since the 1983 South African Grand Prix.
At the start of the season, six teams needed to pre-qualify: two-car teams of Larrousse, AGS and EuroBrun along with single-car teams of Osella, Coloni and Life.
The first race of the year was held on an angular street circuit in Phoenix, Arizona, USA; this race became the season opener to race in cooler weather and avoid the 104F+ (40C) degree heat that made conditions very difficult in June of the previous year. Unexpected rain in qualifying led to a grid with Gerhard Berger on pole position with Pierluigi Martini second in the Minardi, Andrea de Cesaris third in the Dallara, Jean Alesi fourth in the Tyrrell, Ayrton Senna down in fifth and Nelson Piquet sixth. Alesi took the lead at the start ahead of Berger, de Cesaris, Senna, Martini and Piquet.
Alesi pulled away and Berger was dropping back. Senna passed de Cesaris and Berger hit a wall on lap 9, forcing him to pit. He charged back but retired with clutch problems. Alesi was 8.2 seconds ahead but Senna started to reel him in. Senna attacked on lap 34 but Alesi defended and kept the lead. Senna did the job properly one lap later and pulled away to win. Behind, Thierry Boutsen passed Piquet to take third with Stefano Modena's Brabham and Satoru Nakajima's Tyrrell getting the final points.
The Brazilian Grand Prix had returned to the Interlagos Autodrome in São Paulo for the first time since 1980, having been at the Jacarepagua Riocentro Autodrome in Rio de Janeiro for 9 previous seasons consecutively, and 1978. The circuit had been shortened from 4.9 mi (7.9 km) to 2.6 mi (4.2 km).
During qualifying, Senna and Berger were 1–2 with Boutsen and Patrese 3–4 and the Ferraris of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost behind them. At the start, Senna led Berger, Boutsen, Prost, Patrese and Mansell. Boutsen passed Berger early on but could not keep up with Senna.
At the stops, Boutsen ran into a tyre and had to change his nose cone, dropping back to 11th and some good work from the Ferrari crew got Prost ahead of Berger and Mansell ahead of Patrese. Senna was ahead of Prost, Berger, Mansell, Patrese and Alesi. Senna, 10 seconds ahead hit backmarker Nakajima, forcing him to pit and drop back to third. With just a few laps to go, Patrese retired with a broken oil cooler. Prost duly won from Berger, Senna, Mansell, the recovering Boutsen and Piquet.
A 6-week gap between the Brazilian and San Marino round at the Enzo and Dino Ferrari Imola Autodrome near Bologna in Italy saw a number of changes on most of the cars. An almost identical grid to Brazil saw Senna, Berger, Patrese, Boutsen, Mansell and Prost line up after qualifying. At the start, Senna and Berger got away well but Boutsen sliced ahead of Patrese to take third with Mansell and Prost behind. Boutsen passed Berger on lap 2. On the next lap, a stone sliced through Senna's wheelrim, spinning him into a sandtrap and out of the race. Boutsen pulled away from Berger but his engine blew on lap 18.
Soon Mansell passed Patrese and then attacked Berger. Berger closed the door and Mansell spun without hitting anything nor losing a place. He set off after Berger again but retired with engine problems. At the second stops, Nannini got ahead of Prost. Patrese closed in on Berger and passed him on lap 51. Patrese pulled away and won from Berger, Nannini, Prost, Piquet and Alesi.
In Monaco, Senna took pole but Prost was second with Alesi third ahead of Patrese, Berger and Boutsen. At the start, Berger collided with Prost, blocking the track and stopping the race. The second was all right and Senna led from Prost, Alesi, Berger, Patrese and Boutsen.
The race settled down and nothing changed until lap 30 when Prost retired with a battery failure. Then Mansell hit the back of Boutsen and was forced to pit and changed his front wing. Patrese's distributor failed on lap 42. Behind, Mansell was charging through the field and passed Boutsen to take fourth. But then he was sidelined with the same problem as Prost. At the front, Senna won from Alesi, Berger, Boutsen, Alex Caffi in the Arrows and Éric Bernard's Larrousse.
Canada was next and at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal the McLarens were 1–2 in qualifying with Senna ahead of Berger with Prost third, Nannini fourth, Piquet fifth and Boutsen sixth. The track was damp on race day and Berger jumped the start and then hesitated. He got a 1-minute time penalty as well as allowing Senna to lead on the road. Senna led Nannini, Alesi, Prost, Boutsen and Piquet.
The track began to dry and everyone pitted. But when Nannini rejoined, he hit a groundhog and had to pit again for repairs. He spun off on lap 22. Berger took the lead on the road but he needed a minute to stay ahead at the end. He charged and was a second quicker than the others as Boutsen spun off while battling Prost. Senna now led from Prost, Piquet, Mansell, Patrese and Derek Warwick.
Piquet after many laps finally passed Prost who was then attacked by Mansell. Patrese retired putting Berger to fifth (he got ahead of Warwick before). Mansell passed Prost and slowly pulled away. With two laps to go, Berger got past Prost on aggregate but could not get ahead of Mansell. Senna won from Piquet, Mansell, Berger, Prost and Warwick.
After Canada came the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City and Berger qualified on pole position with Patrese beside him and Senna third, Mansell fourth, Boutsen fifth and Alesi sixth. At the start, Patrese and Berger jumped Senna while Piquet got ahead of Boutsen and Mansell. Early on, Senna passed Patrese and Berger followed him through. Patrese was dropping back and Piquet got by him as well. Boutsen was the next to go through but at the same time Berger had a problem with his tyre and was forced to stop and dropped to 12th position. Senna lead from Piquet, Boutsen, Patrese, Mansell and Prost.
Soon, Mansell passed Patrese and got Boutsen four laps later as Prost did the same to Patrese. Prost sneaked ahead of Boutsen as Mansell closed in on Piquet. Mansell got ahead on lap 36 and Prost followed him through six laps later. Piquet soon stopped and dropped behind Nannini, Boutsen (who already stopped) and Berger. Berger passed Boutsen on lap 47 and Nannini four laps later. Prost passed Mansell on lap 55 and they began to close in on Senna. Prost, passed Senna followed by Mansell. Then Mansell spun but at the same time Senna got a puncture that let to him retiring in the pits 4 laps before the end and allowing Berger to get third and close in to Mansell. With a daring move Berger passed Mansell but Mansell charged back and attacked taking back second place after making an even more daring pass around the outside of Berger at the fastest corner on the track, the 180-degree Peraltada corner. Prost won with Mansell second making it a Ferrari 1–2 ahead of Berger, Nannini, Boutsen and Piquet.
France was next, being held at the Paul Ricard circuit near the coastal city of Marseille. The fans were wearing red and a Ferrari did take pole position. However, it was not their hero Prost but Mansell who was ahead of Berger, Senna, Prost, Nannini and Patrese. At the start, Berger got past Mansell while Prost lost out as well. Berger led with Mansell, Senna, Nannini, Patrese and Prost behind. On lap 2, Senna passed Mansell for second and the order stayed like that until Senna passed Berger whose tyres were destroyed.
Nannini and Piquet pitted early while Berger and Senna went too late. Mansell and Prost's tyres lasted longer and thus they pitted late. Riccardo Patrese went too late and was the big loser. This left the two Leyton Houses (they planned the race without a stop) ahead with a totally shuffled order behind them. Ivan Capelli led Maurício Gugelmin, Prost, Nannini, Mansell and Senna. Prost then caught and passed Gugelmin who then went out with engine trouble.
As Prost closed in on Capelli, Mansell in 8th place could not get by Berger, Piquet and Senna. Capelli defended from Prost on each an every attempt as Mansell went out with engine trouble. Nannini took third but he then had electrical trouble and was forced to retire while Prost passed Capelli with three laps to go. Prost won ahead of Capelli, Senna, Piquet, Berger and Patrese.
Britain was next and Mansell, roared on by his home fans at the incredibly fast Silverstone airfield circuit, took pole with Senna second, Berger third, Boutsen fourth, Prost fifth and Alesi sixth. At the start Senna outdragged Mansell while Alesi also got bogged back. Senna led from Mansell, Berger, Boutsen, Prost and Patrese. But Mansell then passed Senna on lap 2 and Senna spun on the next lap, dropping down to fifth.
Soon Prost passed Boutsen for third as Mansell began to have troubles with his gearbox. Berger passed him to lead but then Mansell's car seemed to improve again. He repassed Berger but Prost was right behind them by now. Soon Prost sneaked by Berger and chased off after Mansell who had gearbox issues again. Prost got ahead of Mansell on lap 44 and pulled away.
However, Berger was unable to catch Mansell as he in turn had handling issues. Behind them Piquet, who had tyre trouble (he did not stop) spun, giving fifth to Senna. Mansell then suddenly slowed down on lap 55 as his gearbox troubles became serious, ending hopes of a Ferrari 1–2. Berger took second but he went out with throttle failure five laps later. In between, Bernard had passed Piquet as well. Prost won again from Boutsen, Senna, Bernard, Piquet and Aguri Suzuki.
Thus, at the halfway stage, Prost led with 41 points with Senna second with 39, Berger third with 25, Piquet fourth with 18, Boutsen fifth with 17, Alesi and Mansell sharing sixth with 13 with Patrese eighth with 10. In the constructors, McLaren with 64 points led Ferrari who were second with 54, Williams who were third with 27 and Benetton who were fourth with 25.
At the start of second half of the season, there was minor shake-up in pre-qualifying. Lola escaped due to their points, while two Ligiers needed pre-qualifying.
At the very fast, forested Hockenheimring, McLaren's were 1–2 in qualifying, Senna ahead of Berger. Ferrari were 3–4 with Prost ahead of Mansell and Williams were 5–6 to complete the "Noah's Ark" (two-by-two) formation, Patrese ahead of Boutsen. At the start, Berger took off better than Senna but Senna just stayed ahead with Berger second, Prost third, Mansell fourth with Patrese fifth and Piquet sixth.
There were no changes until lap 11 when Piquet tried to pass Patrese and went through an escape road, allowing Nannini to get ahead. Three laps later Mansell went through the grass at Ostkurve without losing a place but damaging his car. It proved crucial as he retired two laps later, the damage being too much. Meanwhile, Nannini passed Patrese as the top three stopped for tyres, the Williamses and Benettons planning to go without a stop. Piquet retired with engine trouble.
Thus, Nannini led Senna, Patrese, Piquet, Berger and Prost. Patrese's tyres were too badly damaged and he was forced to pit. Prost then passed Boutsen for fourth with Patrese following him two laps later. On lap 34, Senna passed Nannini for the lead and pulled away. Senna won from Nannini, Berger, Prost, Patrese and Boutsen.
Hungary was next and at the Hungaroring near Budapest, the Williamses qualified ahead of the McLarens, Boutsen taking pole ahead of Patrese, Berger, Senna, Mansell and Alesi. At the start, Boutsen kept the lead but it was Berger went away best and passed Patrese while Senna was worst and lost out to both Mansell and Alesi. Thus, it was Boutsen, Berger, Patrese, Mansell, Alesi and Senna.
It stayed like that on lap 21 when Senna passed Alesi for fifth but he was forced to pit on the next lap with a slow puncture. Nannini soon passed Alesi to take fifth. The leaders stopped and Berger was the big loser with Nannini and Senna the big gainers, rising directly behind the Williams men. The order was: Boutsen, Patrese, Nannini, Senna, Mansell and Berger. Boutsen then pulled away while Patrese held up the others until Nannini streamed by with Senna following him.
Patrese then pitted and dropped behind Piquet as Berger passed Mansell only for Mansell to get back at him. Senna tried to pass Nannini on lap 64 and tipped Nannini into a spin and retirement. Berger tried to do the same thing on Mansell on lap 72 at the same corner with the same result – a collision but with both cars out. Boutsen won ahead of Senna, Piquet, Patrese, Warwick and Bernard.
Before Belgium, it was announced that the Monteverdi team had pulled out of F1, meaning that two Ligiers escaped from pre-qualifying again. At the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, McLaren were 1–2 with Senna on pole ahead of Berger, Prost, Boutsen, Mansell and Patrese. At the first start, Piquet pushed Mansell off the road and soon Nakajima and Modena collided as well, resulting in start No.2.
Once again, Senna took the lead while Boutsen sliced into second and Prost dropped to fifth position. However, Paolo Barilla smashed into a wall in his Minardi, blocking the track as well as bringing out the red flags.
Start No.3 was clean and Senna took the lead ahead of Berger, Prost, Boutsen, Patrese and Nannini. On lap 11, Mansell was into the pits with handling problems. He went out but retired eight laps later as the problems became serious. On lap 14, Prost sliced ahead of Berger who then pitted for tyres. Senna and Prost, separated by 2 seconds stopped at the same time but then Nannini who was planning to go without stopping came in between them. Then both Patrese and Boutsen went out with gearbox troubles. Prost passed Nannini and Berger tried the same but this time Nannini came back at him to keep the place. On lap 41, Nannini went wide and Berger sailed through to take third. Senna duly won from Prost, Berger, Nannini, Piquet and Gugelmin.
With five more races to go, Senna now had 63 points, 13 points ahead of Prost with 50. Berger was third with 33, Boutsen fourth with 27, Piquet fifth with 24, Nannini sixth with 16, Patrese seventh with 15 with Alesi eighth with 13. In the constructors, McLaren led with 96 with Ferrari second with 63, Williams third with 42 and Benetton fourth with 40.
After Belgium came Italy and at the historic Monza Autodrome near Milan, Senna took pole again with Prost second, Berger third, Mansell fourth, Alesi fifth and Boutsen sixth. At the start, Berger raced past Prost while Alesi jumped by both the Ferraris. But Warwick crashed at the Parabolica, bringing out the red flags. In the restart, Berger got past Prost and Alesi got by Mansell immediately. Alesi then passed Prost into the second corner and so we had Senna leading Berger, Alesi, Prost, Mansell and Boutsen.
On lap 5, Alesi spun off and retired. Nothing changed until lap 18 when Boutsen retired with a suspension failure and Berger's tyres began to fade. Prost then passed Berger and the stops did not change anything. The top three then began to battle for the lead but none was able to close in on the other while Mansell continued to drop back, fighting a faulty throttle return spring. Senna won from Prost, Berger, Mansell, Patrese and Nakajima.
In Portugal, at the Estoril circuit near Lisbon the Ferraris took 1–2 in qualifying with Mansell ahead of Prost, Senna, Berger, Patrese and Piquet. At the start, Mansell's snaky start almost took Prost out and the McLarens blasted by them with Piquet getting by Prost as well. The order was: Senna, Berger, Mansell, Piquet, Prost and Boutsen.
On lap 13, Prost took Piquet for fourth and later Mansell went to the grass, allowing Prost to take third. Mansell and Berger pitted soon as Prost passed Senna at the same time to lead. These two soon pitted as well with a shuffled order: Senna, Mansell, Berger, Prost, Nannini and Piquet. The Ferraris started to close in on the McLarens in front of them by now. Behind them, Piquet passed Nannini to take fifth.
On lap 50, Mansell was close to Senna and passed him to lead. He pulled away fast but then hit Phillipe Alliot while lapping him, pushing the Ligier into a wall while Mansell got away with no damage. Prost then passed Berger on lap 59. Two laps later, Suzuki and Caffi collided and with the latter stuck in the cockpit on a zone with the wall next to the track, the race was stopped. Thus Mansell won from Senna, Prost, Berger, Piquet and Nannini.
In Spain, at the Jerez circuit near Seville, Senna took his 50th career pole position ahead of Prost, Mansell, Alesi, Berger and Patrese. Briton Martin Donnelly crashed horrifically during a hot lap, hitting a solid Armco barrier at one of the fastest corners on the track. He was thrown out of his Lotus-Lamborghini and landed on the track, lying like a mangled puppet with his molded seat still strapped to his body. Donnelly survived, with severely broken legs and other injuries, but he expected to make a full recovery. However, the Northern Irishman unfortunately never raced in Formula One again but did compete in other disciplines of motorsport in England.
At the start, Senna took off into the lead but behind them Patrese hit Alesi, spinning him into the gravel trap and into retirement. Lap 1 and Senna led Prost, Mansell, Berger, Boutsen and Patrese.Berger was holding up a train of four cars behind him, none of them able to pass on the twisty Jerez circuit. At the stops, Mansell got ahead of Prost but waved Prost through to help his championship hopes just as Senna was coming out of the pits. He split the two Ferraris. The order was Piquet (he and Nannini were planning to go without stopping), Prost, Senna, Mansell, Nannini and Boutsen.
Prost started to attack Piquet who succumbed to the pressure and went wide, dropping down to fourth. Then, Mansell attacked and passed Senna to make it a 1–2 for Ferrari as Piquet retired with battery problems. Senna pitted for tyres but retired when his radiator failed soon after. Three laps later, Berger attacked Boutsen for fourth and two collided, Berger spinning out. Prost won with Mansell making it a Ferrari 1–2 ahead of Nannini, Boutsen, Patrese and Suzuki.
With two races to go, Senna had 78 points to Prost's 69 and with both having 11 results in the points, it was clear that they would have to drop points. However, Senna would have had to drop two third places unlike Prost who would only have to drop a fourth and a fifth (if they both finish in the top 3). Berger was third with 40, Mansell was fourth with 31, Boutsen was fifth with 30, Piquet was sixth with 26, Nannini seventh with 21 and Patrese eighth with 19. In the constructors, McLaren led with 118 points with Ferrari second with 100. Williams was third with 49 and Benetton was fourth with 47.
Before the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Nannini was involved in a helicopter crash and sustained career-ending injuries (though he would later return to touring car racing). He was replaced by Roberto Moreno for the rest of the season. Moreno had been free since EuroBrun had withdrawn from Formula One, along with Life. As a result, pre-qualifying was not needed.
In qualifying, Senna took pole ahead of Prost, Mansell, Berger, Boutsen and Piquet. However, Senna was unhappy at the pole being located on the dirty side of the track and thus the second place being on the racing line which should give the second-placed driver the advantage into the first corner. He went to FISA president Jean Marie Balestre to change the side on which pole was located, but was refused. After this, he decided that he would go for any gap into the first corner if Prost had the advantage. At the start, Prost did have the advantage and Senna went for the gap. Prost did not know it and drove the normal racing line. Senna's left front touched Prost's rear wing, spinning both of them into the gravel trap. The world championship was sealed.
Although Senna led by 9 points and there were 9 points for a win, if Prost won the last race he would have had to drop his fifth place in Canada which meant that he would be two points behind Senna even if Senna retired. Senna was the new world champion. Back to the race now and Berger was leading Mansell, Piquet, Moreno, Boutsen and Patrese. At the start of the second lap, Berger spun off into retirement after hitting debris from the Senna-Prost collision. This left Mansell who was under pressure by the Benettons leading.
Mansell then began to pull away from Piquet and Moreno as Suzuki passed Warwick for sixth. Mansell pitted with a 15-second lead on lap 27 for tyres but his driveshaft snapped as he went out of his garage. He retired giving the Constructors title to McLaren as they were 18 points ahead and a 1–2 can get only 15 points. The Benettons and Suzuki did not stop but Patrese and Boutsen did with Patrese getting ahead at the stops but both rejoined behind Suzuki. Then Nakajima passed Warwick to take sixth as Warwick then retired with gearbox trouble. Piquet won with Moreno making it a Benetton 1–2. Suzuki was third, Patrese fourth, Boutsen fifth and Nakajima sixth.
The last race of the year was in Australia, and at the Adelaide City street circuit the McLarens took 1–2 in qualifying ahead of the Ferraris, Senna ahead of Berger, Mansell, Prost, Alesi and Patrese. At the start, Senna took off into the lead with Berger defending from the Ferraris and Piquet getting by Alesi and Patrese. The order was: Senna, Berger, Mansell, Prost, Piquet and Alesi.
On lap 2, Berger missed a gear selection allowing Mansell to get ahead. While defending from Prost, he held up Prost allowing Piquet to get ahead of him. Piquet soon passed Berger for third and the order settled down. Senna and Mansell continued to pull away from the rest, none of them able to keep up. Soon Patrese got past Alesi with Boutsen following suit.
Then, on lap 43, Mansell went up an escape road, giving Senna a good lead. Mansell was caught and passed by Piquet and pitted for tyres soon after. At the stops, Boutsen got ahead of Patrese. Berger then ran wide entering the Brabham straight, allowing Prost to take third. Mansell passed Berger on lap 57 and soon passed Prost on his new tyres. Senna had a gearbox glitch on lap 62 and went straight on into the wall and retired. Mansell closed in on Piquet, breaking the lap record 3 times towards the finish, taking 2 seconds a lap out of his lead. Piquet made an error with 4 laps to go, allowing Mansell to close right up. Mansell attacked on the last lap with a desperate passing attempt at the end of the straight, was too far behind to make the pass. Thus, Piquet won from Mansell, Prost, Berger, Boutsen and Patrese.
At the end of the season, Senna was world champion with 78 points with Prost second with 71 (he got 73 but had to drop 2 points), Piquet third with 43 (he got 44 but had to drop 1 point), Berger fourth with 43 (he was behind Piquet because Piquet had more wins), Mansell fifth with 37, Boutsen sixth with 34, Patrese seventh with 23 and Nannini eighth with 21. In the constructors, McLaren were champions with 121 points with Ferrari second with 110, Benetton third with 71 and Williams fourth with 55.
Points towards the 1990 FIA Formula One World Championship for Drivers were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis for the first six places at each round. Only the best eleven round results were retained, any other points being discarded.
† Drivers did not finish the Grand Prix, but were classified as they completed over 90% of the race distance.
Points towards the 1990 FIA Formula One World Championship for Constructors were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis for the first six places at each round.