Formula One scene: Rio testing
With the first Grand Prix of 1987 only a few days off, the line-up has been announced officially by FISA. There are two cars each from McLaren, Williams, Lotus, Ferrari, Ligier, Benetton, Brabham, Arrows, Zakspeed and Minardi, and one Osella all with turbocharged 11/2-litre engines, making a total of twenty-one drivers competing for the FIA Drivers and Constructors Championships.
The remaining five places will be filled by cars complying with the new category of 31/2 litres without turbochargers or superchargers.
These will represent the beginnings of the new Formula due to come into effect in 1989, in which turbochargers will be banned and engines limited to 31/2 litres. They will comprise two Tyrrells, one March, one Larrousse and one AGS, all using 31/2-litre versions of the long-in-the-tooth Cosworth V8, known as the DFZ. They will compete among themselves for their own Championships (the Jim Clark Cup for drivers and the Colin Chapman Cup for constructors), and will race concurrently with the turbocharged cars. Most front-running turbocharged 11/2-litre engines have 800-900bhp in race trim, and with the best will in the world a DFZ will not have more than 580bhp, so we must just keep our fingers crossed that nobody gets run into.
The turbocharged engines will be fitted with a boost-control valve supplied by FISA and set at a maximum of 4 bar (58.8 psi), this limit being enforced in qualifying and in the race. It is all a bit academic as few teams have exceeded 4 bar, and certainly not in race trim.
The media erroneously refer to these control units as "pop-off valves", which is precisely what they are not, as they do not suddenly "pop-off" at 4 bar and release all the pressure. They fade the pressure progressively, in the same way that a rev-limiter fades the ignition, rather than cutting it off. These units are manufactured in the USA and will be issued to the teams at random; they must not be tampered with, it says!
Having banned two-stage turbocharger layouts, and now having put a limit on boost pressure, FISA feels it has controlled the power outputs of Formula One engines. With Goodyear imposing a one-specification tyre on everyone, and fuel tanks being left at 195 litres, it looks as though Formula One is going to be slowly strangled during 1987. I hope the engineering concerns behind Formula One do not get bored and leave the sport.
Although it looks a bit gloomy on the face of it, I suspect the team engineers will find ways of improving things so that their drivers can lap the circuits faster than last year. If you cannot go faster than you did last year, it may seem a bit pointless to go at all.
With Goodyear reducing its involvement in Formula One, the extravagant winter testing sessions have been drastically reduced, though teams like Lotus and Williams have been pretty active, spending their own money.
For what it is worth, for you never know exactly what teams are up to in private testing, the Williams team looks like carrying on where it left off in 1986, and has the big advantage of not having been forced to make any major changes throughout the team. The FW11B is a logical development of last year's successful cars, in the same way that McLaren is continuing with a further development of John Barnard's brilliant MP4 design.
Barnard himself is now at Ferrari trying to sort out an interim car, with a new 90-degree V6 engine in place of the 120-degree unit used previously, and an in-line gearbox rather than the transverse gearbox used for so long by Ferrari.
Lotus' new 99T will have Honda power of equal potential to the Williams power plants, and Benetton is starting an exciting new phase as it starts racing with the Cosworth designed Ford V6 turbocharged engine which showed good promise in the Carl Haas Lolas last year.
While the tail of the Grand Prix fields may be a little dull this year, there will certainly be no shortage of excitement up at the front. Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell will continue the Williams-Honda attack, Ayrton Senna will spearhead the Lotus-Honda force, Alain Prost and Stefan Johansson will have Porsche power in their McLarens, Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger will have the best of Ferrari, and Teo Fabi and Thierry Boutson will have the Ford-powered Benettons, and any one of them could be on pole position for the Brazilian GP on April 12. We may be in for some stifling of technical progress in the immediate future, but there is no stifling of driver talent up at the front.
There is an old saying "If you can't beat them, join them", and it looks as if Bernie Ecclestone has applied it. A few years ago he thought that he and his Formula One Constructors Association could go it alone and break away from FISA and the FIA.
Ecclestone and Mosley actually drew up and printed regulations for their own World Championship. It fell flat on its face and was a non-starter. Ecclestone ran the FOCA part of the FIA World Championship entry, and FISA looked after the manufacturers' teams.
By a mutual trust/distrust situation, FISA and FOCA buried the hatchet (in each other's heads, some would say) and worked together to everyone's benefit, with the result that Formula One World Championship racing has maintained its position as the premier branch of motor racing, regardless of what some American enthusiasts like to believe.
Now the FlA has invited little Bernie to join it in an official capacity, that of Vice-President of Promotional Affairs of the FIA, and he has accepted. His job is to promote, sell, publicise and push the various FIA Championships, among his list being Formula One, Formula 3000, World Championship rallying, World Championship sports car racing, and the newly inaugurated World Championship for Group A touring cars.
Some are in the game for business, not sport. I suppose we can view Ecclestone's new position as marketing managing for the FIA, and they certainly have plenty to market.
Bernie marketed Formula One to the world, in spite of the FIA; now he has joined it (or has it joined him?), the sky will be the limit. A Grand Prix on the moon next? After all, we now have a Grand Prix behind the Iron Curtain, and who thought that was possible? Our Mr Ecclestone, bless his little heart. DSJ