THE NINETIES by Luca Dal Monte

The 1990s in Formula 1 open and close with McLaren, although in fact, the McLaren of 1990 and 1991 and that of 1998 and 1999 are two profoundly different teams. In between, there's plenty of Williams and two seasons of Benetton. The notable absentee is the perennially announced but never present protagonist, Ferrari, which only at the end of the decade will return to win a title – although it will have to make do with the Constructor's title.

Ayrton Senna is the first world champion of the new decade. The second personal title comes amidst heated controversies. The duel with Alain Prost, who in the meantime has left McLaren and joined Ferrari, continues – hotter than before; more heated than ever. The 1990 season lives on their rivalry. The Ferrari 641 and the McLaren MP4/5B powered by Honda are evenly matched. The drivers are in exceptional form. When they arrive in Japan for the penultimate act, Senna has won six races, Prost five. The title is within reach for both. But the Ferrari driver is at a disadvantage and must make up ground. At the start, the Brazilian hits the Frenchman. The race ends there for both of them. Senna is the world champion. But that evening, many think that Formula 1 did not experience its finest day.

Senna is also the world champion the following year – this time with ease. McLaren flies, Ferrari struggles. Prost argues with the team. The season for the Frenchman doesn't take off. With his MP4/6, Senna instead wins seven Grand Prix races, the first five of the year one after the other. The fight is only for the runner-up title. Englishman Nigel Mansell prevails over teammate Riccardo Patrese. Their Williams FW14 is a gem. Together they share seven victories.

Mansell fulfils his world championship ambitions the following season. His Williams FW14B powered by Renault, an evolution of the previous year's car, is fast and super reliable. The Englishman wins nine out of sixteen races. Like Senna the previous season, the first five victories are consecutive. The runner-up in the world championship is teammate Patrese. Third in the championship is a young German who debuted the previous year and is rapidly growing. The name is naturally Michael Schumacher, and he's driving the Benetton-Ford B192. Senna is only fourth. Prost preferred to watch and will return next year.

In 1993, Prost wins his fourth world title. His Williams-Renault FW15C is unreachable for the competition. Yet, in the first part of the season, driving a certainly not irresistible McLaren MP4/8, Senna gives him a hard time. Class, as we know, is permanent. But in the end, there's nothing to be done even though it's Senna who achieves success in the last two races of the season.

Williams' dominance is interrupted in 1994. The rules change, but above all, Senna is killed. A great champion is lost, and fans are deprived of a fantastic Senna-Schumacher rivalry. The German wins his first world title at the expense of Damon Hill and a Williams without Ayrton. Despite neither Senna nor Prost being present anymore, this season also ends with a clash and a sea of controversies. The German ace-in-the-making repeats himself the following season. This time the duel with Hill is only virtual. At the wheel of his Benetton-Renault B195, Michael is unstoppable – nine wins, four pole positions, eight fastest laps. At the end of the year, Schumacher quits Benetton and moves to Maranello. He wants to win the title with Ferrari, which hasn't done so since the by now distant 1979. But it won't be that simple.

The next two seasons are in some ways a dive into Formula 1's past. In 1996, Damon Hill, son of two-time champion Graham, is crowned champion. In 1997, the title is won by Jacques Villeneuve, the son of Gilles. The common denominator is the car they drive, the Williams with a Renault engine – in Damon's case the FW18, in Jacques' the FW19. In his first two seasons in Maranello, Schumacher does well, but the car is not yet up to his level. With the Ferrari F310, in '96 Michael wins three races. At the wheel of the F310 B, in '97, he wins five, against Villeneuve's seven. At the final event, the fight for the title is not yet over. Schumacher is leading the race, Villeneuve is catching up behind him. The German's Ferrari hits the Canadian's Williams. Michael comes off worse and has to retire. But this is nothing compared to the controversies that immediately arise. He is disqualified from the championship. He keeps the results achieved on the track, but his points are nullified. Everything is postponed to 1998.

The Ferrari F300 is competitive. Schumacher seems not to have been affected by the controversies. Not too much, at least. He wins six races, but in the end, he can do nothing against Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes MP4/13, who becomes world champion for the first time. The good year could be the following one. But after a brilliant first part of the season, at Silverstone Schumacher has a crash, is injured, and forced to skip too many races to aim for the title. The world champion in 1999 is again Hakkinen. At the wheel of his McLaren-Mercedes MP4/14, he wins five Grand Prix races and establishes eleven pole positions. Ferrari's Eddie Irvine is the runner-up. Ferrari consoles itself with the Constructors' World Championship title, the first since the two consecutive ones in 1982 and 1983.