Suspended animation

Active suspension made a triumphant return at Kyalami, where Nigel Mansell ran away and hid

As the dust settles once more on the parched Kyalami and the South African GP, we shall look back in the months to come and truly appreciate just how crushingly superior the Williams FW14Bs were.

When Nigel Mansell spoke afterwards of his plan "to build a cushion of 20 seconds" you realised just how much he believed he had to play with as the two highest-tech cars went to the line. It's not often the case that the team which has set the pace during winter testing actually conies out and repeats that form in the first race - who can forget Ferrari's debacle in 1991? - but this time Patrick Head's two evolutionary machines snatched back the advantage they had lost to McLaren, Honda and Shell in the final two races of 1991, and simply walked away.

It's an interesting point, that, the need these days to mention not just the team and the engine manufacturer, but also the fuel company. Since The Independent took the lid off the incredible development taking place with F1 fuels as far back as the 1990 British GP, the contents of a car's tank have become every bit as important as the other major factors in the package. Said Jackie Stewart of Kyalami: "Today, the right fuel can be every bit as advantageous as the right tyres used to be."

F1 today is all about packaging, and in South Africa everything in the Williams package worked to perfection - chassis, engine, fuel, driver, team. At least, in Nigel Mansell's case it did. Back in 1989 he won the opening championship race for Ferrari, but this was altogether much more convincing and owed nothing to anyone else's misfortune. From the moment he weighed in significantly lighter than ever before, the man simply oozed confidence, although as usual the sustained high effort took an emotional toll. His one mistake was to push a little too hard too soon in the final qualifying session, but he put that to rights by reducing his overnight pole time, and who knows just how quickly he could have gone had he really had to screw himself up. In the end, he qualified fastest in 1m 15.486s to Senna's 1m 16.227s, but the general feeling was that the Briton could have dipped into the 1m 14s should the necessity have arisen. The fact that it didn't and it didn't despite Ayrton Senna pressing on in his usual heroic qualifying manner speaks volumes for the Williams package.

As far as any battle for the lead was concerned, the start was the most interesting aspect of the whole race, as Mansell lagged very slightly and Riccardo Patrese came blasting through from the second row of the grid. Now, such is the pace of technical development in F1 that the top teams are becoming ever more like military plane manufacturers, both in terms of technology and secrecy. Trying to find out just which driver is running which specification is akin to calling Edwards Air Force Base on October 14 1947 and trying to get a straight answer whether Chuck Yeager had just become the first man through the Sound Barrier.

Angered by the way in which his cars lost some 1991 races simply because they were beaten off the line on circuits such as Hungaroring where overtaking is impossible, Head came up with a novel wheelspin sensor allied to a development of his electronic clutch, the idea being to enable his drivers to get off the line faster than Sammy Miller. Mansell, it is said, didn't use it on his car, ostensibly because it was just another potential source of unreliability on an already complex car. The less charitable put other interpretations on that decision. Patrese, however, was believed to have used it. There were times in 1991 when even the most ardent of his fans must have blanched when they saw his starts, but this time he got a flier and scythed right between the two McLarens. Senna had to make room for him as he was edged to the right and the grass, and felt sufficiently moved to raise the matter again later. Riccardo smiled and shrugged - Who, me? - and quietly reminded him of Hungary last year...

What was the technical truth behind the start? Did he use the wheelspin sensor and the push-button clutch? "He used part of it, but not all," grinned Patrick. Which part? "I'm not saying! But it was 99 per cent down to Riccardo making a good start." Most observers believe the wheelspin sensor was used.

The Italian spent the afternoon in second place, fending off Senna whenever Ayrton attacked, and must then have spent the night screaming whenever he watched the television replay with James Hunt's scathing cornmentary.

"Riccardo really isn't up to scratch," quoth the former British champion. "In qualifying there was absolutely nothing wrong with his car. I would have expected him to go home spending the winter thinking of the World Championship, but he hasn't been fired up. He's been substantially slower than Mansell all weekend." There was more in this vein. as many of you will know, and a tide of anti-Hunt feeling swept through the ranks of F1 fans. But did he have a point? When I spoke to a senior team member on Thursday, when Mansell had convincingly dominated the acclimatisation runs, he expressed disappointment that Riccardo was significantly slower than him through the quick corners. On Saturday, however, another team insider admitted that the calibration for the front ride height on his active suspension had been a whopping two centimetres out, which accounted for a series of lacklustre laps. These days, two millimetres can make a huge difference, let alone 10 times that.

Yet in the race, though he dutifully supported Mansell and never tried to push him, Riccardo did lack sparkle. Yes, he did his job; he kept Senna from launching any kind of attack on his team leader. But you do have to consider other arguments that he could have established a cushion to Senna, to allow for any subsequent problem that might arise on his Williams. In the early going he was routinely lapping a second slower than Mansell and Hunt's anger was no doubt aroused by what he deemed to be a 'waste' of a car whose superiority was so outstanding.

At the end of the day Williams took home maximum points in the Constructors' Championship, and Mansell a 22nd victory that moves him ever closer to Piquet, Fangio, Lauda, Clark and Stewart in the list of all-time highest winners. Coincidentally, it took him halfway to the score of Alain Prost, who was remarkable for his absence as he considered the tangled ramifications of driving for Ligier. The saddest part of the weekend was the very few appeared to miss him.

For Senna and McLaren Kyalami was something to be endured, a total defeat from which the maximum realistic points were won. As early as Friday Ron Dennis was quietly accepting that third place was the best they could hope for if the Williamses were reliable. Senna, as ever, drove beautifully, and his sheer aggression ensured that second place was never a totally foregone conclusion, but if Patrese disappointed for Williams so Berger did for McLaren. Why Hunt did not drench him in quite the same vitriol for a lacklustre afternoon's work did not become apparent until the Austrian coasted across the line in a dull fifth place, with no more Shell in his tank. The McLarens had been very marginal — even Senna backed off on the last lap — and all afternoon Gerhard had been driving on his fuel gauge.

The Williams domination apart, Kyalami was a weekend notable for its lack of 'beginning of term' atmosphere. In Australia every year there is a feeling that school is breaking up. Even the dull Phoenix made one feel as if the new season was really beginning. But Kyalami felt like just another race in the mid-season grind. Much of that, I suspect, was because of the new circuit. Apart from the real lack of an overtaking area it wasn't bad, with some quick corners and lots of good elevation changes, it was just that Kyalami has come to mean something much more exciting. As a first time visitor I had never experienced firsthand the thrill of an unseen field being unleashed, before popping into view over the brow on the pit straight before plunging flat out down to Crowthorne. But I listen well and I remember how even television made Keke Rosberg's dramatic recovery drive look so sensational back in 1985.

I thought about the old straight a lot as I watched the race, partly for Tom Pryce but also as Jean Alesi, Michael Schumacher, Berger and Ivan CapeIli chased one another for lap after lap. Chased was the operative word. Ah, with the old straight surely they would have been swapping and re-swapping places until the two Italian cars suffered identical oil starvation and broke their engines!

Ferrari's two young lions had unhappy meetings. CapeIli looked as if he was struggling to settle in all weekend, shadowing Alesi's times without ever looking like beating them. Jean, for his part, drove with smooth maturity, but had to surrender fourth to the irrepressible Schumacher two laps before his engine failure, when the young German thrust his untidy Benetton up the inside going into the first corner. That, and the fact that the Ferrari was clearly holding him up, was yet another indication of an extraordinary talent.

Ask Martin Brundle. After all the 'will Prost replace him?' nonsense he had settled into the team with some quick test times, yet Kyalami was an unmitigated disaster. Schumacher blew him off in every session bar the first acclimatisation run, and after a spin trying to pass Karl Wendlinger's March on the first lap, Martin broke the clutch rejoining in a spin-turn. Things could only get better for the Briton.

Wherever you looked in the pit lane, there were teams with one happy pilot and a correspondingly glum team-mate. One of the happiest was Johnny Herbert, one of the glummest Mika Hakkinen. As he had in Australia, the Briton had the Finn tucked up, partly because the latter had to revert to the spare Lotus 102D in final qualifying and the race and couldn't get on with ratios chosen by the former. But Herbert was in simply stunning form, yet again underlining his long-term potential but this time doing it in a car that allowed him to qualify high enough to attract real attention. Sixth place in the race had Peter Collins in post-race tears and Hunt raving about the consistency of his lap times. And consistent they were, too, rarely varying by more than a couple of tenths. Those who remember Rio 1989 were not in the least bit surprised by Johnny's polished performance, but it was nice to see him getting the sort of recognition that has long been overdue, and to see Collins' unwavering faith rewarded with a point. When you consider that the now Ford-powered 102D is effectively a four-year-old concept, and that Herbert was at one stage only two seconds behind the fourth place battle, you can understand the team's optimism. Last year it was Jordan that embarrassed Benetton; this year it could well be Lotus when the new 107 comes on stream.

For Jordan, now in Sasol blue livery and propelled by Yamaha's V12s, the race was an unmitigated disaster, a worrying fight against overheating and engine failure. The muchvaunted Stefano Modena didn't even qualify, compounding his mechanical problems with two spins in practice, while Mauricio Gugelmin soldiered home an unimpressive 11th well adrift of the brace of Ligiers that chased Herbert, and the brace of Footworks which Hakkinen split on the last lap.

If Jordan plumbed the depths, Tyrrell bounced back as only Ken Tyrrell can. At one stage in the winter he came within a fraction of selling at least part of his team, but when the deal fell apart he pulled things together around the Ilmor engine, Olivier Grouillard and Andrea de Cesaris and in South Africa they qualified 10th and 12th. While Grouillard ultimately distinguished himself with his selfishness while being lapped, de Cesaris was mighty as he passed eight cars and latched on to the chase after Herbert having become embroiled in the Brundle/Wendlinger contretemps. Like Tyrrell, March had dragged itself up by its bootstraps and the Austrian was the sensation of qualifying as he lined up an excellent seventh between Schumacher and Brundle. It was the sort of performance that made one mak mental notes about the guy, but his race was sadly curtailed as a result of damaged sustained in the Brundle incident.

The smoothness of the new track undoubtedly flattered the March, a car known to dislike bumps, but by the same token it also helped many others. Last year the Williamses annihilated the McLarens over the bumps of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, and that was without the active suspension that made such a triumphant return in South Africa. McLaren had the sleek new MP4/7A up its sleeve for future races as it headed for central America, but that point cannot have made Senna or Ron Dennis feel any more sanguine about their chances there as they conducted their post-mortem. If the Williamses had been that good on a billiard table, just how far ahead would they be over the corrugations of Mexico City?

"Mexico in 1988 was positively our worst race that year with reactive," said a cautious Head. "It was doing 'orrible things." But hadn't all the effort since been aimed at taming it? "Yes. In all seriousness, with the development work we've done, it should be quite good there." As always, a master of understatement.

South African GP, Kyalami, March 1
72 laps of 2.663 mile (4.825 km) circuit (191.727 miles; 308.50 km)

1st: Nigel Mansell - Williams FW14B-Renault V10 - 1hr 36m 45.320s
2nd: Riccardo Patrese - Williams FW14B-Renault V10 - 1hr 37m 09.680s
3rd: Ayrton Senna - McLaren MP4/6B-Honda V12 - 1hr 37m 19.995s
4th: Michael Schumacher - Benneton 191B-Ford HB V8 - 1hr 37m 33.183s
5th: Gerhard Berger - McLaren MP4/6B-Honda V12 - 1hr 37m 58.594s
6th: Johnny Herbert - Lotus 102D-Ford HB V8 - 71 laps