The first race of the 1990 F1 world championship was held on the streets of Phoenix.
Back then the qualifying format had two days of qualifying, but with rain on the Saturday the times from Friday would decide the grid order. Gerhard Berger took pole position in his first race for McLaren after replacing Alain Prost, who had departed the team after taking the 1989 championship.
In 1990 there were two tyre suppliers, with the front runners using Goodyear (McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Lotus, Benetton, Ligier, Arrows all lined up with Goodyear), while Pirelli supplied the likes of Tyrrell, Minardi, BMS and Osella. But it was Pirelli who surprised in qualifying in Phoenix, their soft qualifying tyres proving to be the better match for the conditions, resulting in a front row slot for Pierluigi Martini for Minardi, with Andrea de Cesaris lining up 3rd in his BMS-Dallara, with Jean Alesi’s Tyrrell in 4th ahead of the Goodyear runners Ayrton Senna 5th (McLaren), Nelson Piquet 6th (Benetton) and Prost 7th (Ferrari).
At the start Berger criss-crossed down the straight on the long run down to the first corner to protect his lead, with a fast starting Alesi slotting in behind him, but as they approached the first turn Alesi was late on the brakes and dived down the inside of the McLaren to move the unfancied Tyrrell into a sensational lead!
Pierluigi Martini was the big loser at the start, the Minardi being swallowed up on the drag down to the first corner, with Alesi and Senna moving by him on the outside while de Cesaris moved by on the inside to slot in in third, with Senna in fourth.
Alesi scampered off into the distance, pulling ahead by over 2 seconds on the opening lap. The Goodyear runners were confident the Pirelli’s would not hold up for the duration of the race, but Alesi continued to pull away from Berger in the opening laps.
Senna got past de Cesaris on lap four and set after Berger, but Berger slid off the track and into a tyre wall on lap 9. Berger would be able to get back to the pits for repairs, but he was already well down and would retire eventually with a broken clutch. Senna was over 8 seconds back on Alesi, and took his time working his way up to the Tyrrell. Further back Alain Prost’s first race for Ferrari was a struggle, the reigning world champion having dropped back at the start, and was then forced to retire after working his way back up as high as fourth place as his Ferrari started leaking oil.
By lap 34 of 72 Senna was ready to pounce, and he dived up the inside of Alesi at the end of the straight into Turn 1. The right hand turn was followed after a short burst by a 90 degree left hander, and Alesi caught Senna completely by surprise, as Senna came back onto the usual racing line Alesi used his better exit from the first corner to burst past Senna, staying wide and throwing his Tyrrell up the inside into Turn 2, forcing Senna to yield or face the barriers!
The Tyrrell had claimed the lead back immediately! It was a wonderful move that would help shape Alesi’s reputation as a fearless never say never racer, but the following lap Senna made the move stick, coming passed on the inside at the end of the straight again, only this time moving wider on the exit to ensure there was no way back up the inside into Turn 2 for the Tyrrell.
Alesi wasn’t giving up though, and he again tried to cut back and ran side by side with Senna through Turn 3, but there was no room, and the Tyrrell had to tuck in behind the McLaren. He tried to hang on to Senna’s slipstream, but the lead was gone, and Senna started to pull clear, winning comfortably in the end from the impressive Alesi, a great result nonetheless for Tyrrell and Pirelli.
Ferrari’s miserable start to the season was confirmed when Nigel Mansell retired, his Ferrari spitting flames as it span dramatically on the straight, a broken clutch the culprit. Behind the leading duo Thierry Boutsen would come through to take third for Williams to round out the podium places. So it was Senna who started the campaign with a win, but Alesi had very much announced himself as a driver to be reckoned with.