In the Beginning
Just when the 1991 season looked settled FISA reared its ugly head and threw a handful of spanners into the Formula One works. A number of constructional details that were thought to be mandatory for 1991 were postponed, and the decision for 14 of the 16 races to count for a driver’s collection of points for the title of World Champion, was suddenly changed to all 16 to count. This was something that was so logical, and supported by most people in Formula, that it was difficult to understand the mentality of those who opted for 14 out of 16. It is also rather hazy as to why the original idea of 11 out of 16 races to count ever came into being. Everyone who is entered for the FIA Drivers World Championship is contracted to compete in all 16 events, so finally common sense has prevailed in Paris and apart from anything else it will encourage drivers to race all the time at all the races and we won’t have the mathematicians amongst them doing their sums as they gives up trying and cruise home to a pointless finish.
No longer will we have the nonsensical situation as the season draws to a close of the media with calculating machines hypothesizing on who could, should, or might be World Champion from mathematical calculation. With the winner getting 10 points this year instead of the previous nine, the more wins the better. As the Bruce McLaren team used to say before Ron Dennis took his overalls off to move to higher management, “Winning isn’t everything, but it is a lot better than being second.”
One thing about FISA, who organise the FIA World Championships, that no-one will dispute is that they are consistent in their unpredictability. After the entries for the Grand Prix season had closed a full list of drivers and numbers was issued, the major change from last year being that Senna became Number 1 (and Berger Number 2) and Prost became Number 27 and Alesi Number 28, as a result of Senna winning last year’s World Champion title. In spite of the official list being published there were two distinct factions as regards the racing numbers of the Brazilian Benetton drivers. Some magazines had Piquet as 19 and Moreno as 20, while others had Piquet as 20 and Moreno as 19, as they were last year. Nobody was really convinced either way until practice for the first race at Phoenix began. There are times when you could have misgivings about Formula One being a multi-million dollar professional business, as many people refer to it. Multi-million dollar — yes. Professional. . . !
In spite of any misgivings the enthusiasm for Formula One and for becoming part of it never seems to diminish; as fast as one team withdraws for whatever reason, there is always another ready to take its place, and there is a virtual waiting-list of drivers on the edge waiting for the opportunity to join the act. At the opening round at Phoenix, for the United States Grand Prix, there were five new drivers to the scene, Mark Blundell, Pedro Chaves (from Portugal), Erik Comas (spelt with a K unlike the other French driver Eric Bernard, who spells his Christian name with a C), the Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen, and the Belgian Eric van de Poele. Formula One is indeed truly international, for the established drivers come from Brazil (4), France (4), Great Britain (3), Italy (11), Japan (2) and singletons from Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden and Austria. It is not surprising that occasionally one driver does not really understand what another driver is saying, let alone what he thinking!
One of the interesting things last season was the progress made by Gerard Larrousse’s team with their Lola-Lamborghini’s, to most onlookers’ delight, though it was an embarrassment to Team Lotus who were using identical engines in the Frank Dernie-designed Lotus 102, and to other French teams who were trying to be “Top Poodle” in the national eye. With little warning and no explanation Lamborghini withdrew their support at the end of the season and then the team’s major Japanese sponsor withdrew before he got into financial difficulties. All this resulted in Larrousse having a bad time during the winter months, but enthusiasm and determination kept him and his supporters going and new Lola 91 cars were built with Cosworth DFR power units and two entries were registered for the 1991 season, and accepted. FISA (here we go again!) apparently suddenly discovered that on the Larrousse entry forms for the previous year it had stated that the cars were built by Larrousse, and no mention was made of Lola Cars. Everyone in Formula One, even the man on the gate, knew that the cars were Lola built, though Larrousse was planning to eventually build the cars ‘in house’. It took FISA a whole year to wake up to the fact that Larrousse had made a false statement on his 1990 entry! (Did I say FISA was unpredictable?). They cancelled the Larrousse Team from their sixth place in the Constructors Championship, which had been a well-earned position, which had made them “Top Frog”. Who needs enemies when FISA are in charge?
I cannot believe that Ayrton Senna took a correspondence course in Gamesmanship with the Stephen Potter College in Yeovil, but had he done so he would have graduated with the highest honours. At the end of last season he briefly tested the new Honda V12 engine in a “mock-up” chassis and then went home to Brazil, leaving the routine development to other drivers. He returned to Europe a week or two before the recent United States GP and tried the brand new McLaren MP4/6 in race-ready form with the first 1991 version of the Honda RA121E engine. This was at the Estoril circuit, and he expressed satisfaction with the new McLaren car, but said he thought the V12 Honda did not have enough power and did not seem to be much improvement on last year’s V10. Naturally the scaremongers in the press/media world jumped on this and we were given the impression that Ferrari, and others, were going to annihilate the McLaren team this year. Honda themselves quietly pointed out that the engine Senna had used at Estoril was to “Phoenix specification” and was not really suited to the Estoril circuit, and he was not doing an Estoril test, he was doing a pre-Phoenix test.
Nobody seemed to be listening or asking Honda what the difference in engines was all about. Naive people still seem to think a Honda engine is merely a Honda engine, and a V12 Honda is simply a V12 Honda, even though Honda themselves published a very interesting report on the development of the V10 engine, with details of the six different versions used by McLaren last year. Honda Research & Development never stops and this year they could have seven or even eight versions of the V12 engine, each one suited to a different set of requirements, though all looking the same outwardly, but the power and torque characteristics being very different, though how they will achieve this is hardly likely to be revealed. The suggestion that the Honda V12 was not much improvement over the V10 was most likely, for you cannot imagine Honda starting the V12 project if it was not going to start where the V10 finished, at the very least.
When Senna and the brand new and un-raced Mclaren MP4/6 with Honda RA121E engine appeared at Phoenix there were those who thought Ferrari would trounce team McLaren, and some who thought that Williams-Renault and Benetton-Cosworth were also going to give them a hard time. People close to the scene voiced the opinion that Senna would be “stale”, having not driven a Formula One car for nearly three months, while all the other drivers had been testing, practising, testing and keeping their hand in.
What happened in Phoenix, Arizona? A full race-report appears elsewhere in this issue of Motor Sport with all the details, but put simply, it was Ayrton Senna and the brand new McLaren MP4/6 with Honda V12 power all the way with nobody even looking like challenging him. In fact, for a lot of the 26 drivers in the race the only time they saw Senna was when he lapped them. From pole position (his 53rd) he led from start to finish to score his 27th Grand Prix victory.
So, were the happenings at Estoril just bluff, because if so, they worked perfectly. Was Senna applying a little gentle “Gamesmanship” to the Press to create a false impression for his opposition, because no one will deny that Prost and the Ferrari are serious opposition, nor that as Jean Alesi matures and gains experience he will be serious opposition. Nelson Piquet must never be under estimated, and given the right car Nigel Mansell is opposition to anyone, though most of all to himself. While Mansell was trying to be philosophical about retirement, explaining that the Williams FW14 was brand new and “teething” troubles had to be accepted, he seemed to overlook the fact that the McLaren MP4/6 was also brand new, including the engine, and it had won its first race. Not many teams can claim that accomplishment, but with Ferrari and McLaren virtually sharing the 16 races in a season between them it doesn’t leave much scope for other cars, new or old, to even claim a single victory. 1991 may prove to be different, we shall have to wait and see. Before the Phoenix race Alain Prost expressed the view that he thought there were only three drivers capable of being 1991 World Champion and they were Prost, Senna and Piquet. Looking at the winner’s rostrum after the race he looked to be resumably accurate in his predictions!
Of course, by the time these words are being read the Brazilian GP will be about to take place and there could be an entirely different story to tell. Be that as it may, McLaren-Honda won the first race of the 1991 season with their new car and it had enough of everything for Senna to give a perfect demonstration of his remarkable talent. I know the anti-Senna Brigade will throw this copy of Motor Sport away in fury, and one regular reader will have his breakfast spoilt again, while some may even cancel their monthly subscription. But like Senna or not, no-one can deny he has remarkable driving talent. As I remarked to a friend, after the race, “if Senna took things more seriously, and spent the winter practising and testing, like everyone else, rather than going home to spend his time with his family and friends, he could become quite good.”
One final thought, could it be that Ayrton Senna is not that good, he only looks good because the rest are so bad? — DSJ