Kyalami marked Alain Prost's first F1 race since Suzuka 1991. If anybody thought a short sabbatical might take the edge of his racecraft, the Frenchman's polished performance in South Africa quickly set the record straight...
"I was very demotivated over the last few weeks. There were a lot of things: the big crash in Estoril, then I was sick for two or three weeks. With this FISA case hanging over my head, I really wondered why I was coming back to Formula One! But now I am hoping that everything will be OK on the 18th."
Just 24 hours after saying those words at the conference to discuss his 21st pole position, Alain Prost was savouring the fruits of his first Grand Prix victory since Spain 1990, and had pushed his outright win record a little higher still, to 45. He had just driven a perfect race, to lead the South African GP from lap 24, and to open his World Championship campaign with the best possible score.
In doing so he had also cleared a vital psychological hurdle: overtaking old nemesis Ayrton Senna.
Writing this it's almost easy to forget just how late in the day the Brazilian made his decision to compete in the 1993 series, but Prost knew long before we got to Kyalami that McLaren was going to be trouble. He had seen Senna at the wheel of the new MP4/8 during testing at Silverstone. And though he was only present on the day on which his old rival had initially been acclimatising himself to it, and not when he began to go really quickly, he had seen enough to know that Neil Oatley's car was going to be very good.
"Once I tried the car I knew it had tremendous potential," Senna said in South Africa "I don't know - and no one on the team can know yet - what is the full potential of this car. It looks like it can go really fast, around one lap. We don't know about reliability, it's too early and the mileage has not been enough, and we don't know about its consistency over a race distance. We don't know how it will perform on different types of circuit - on street circuits or very high-speed circuits with light wing settings and so on - because it is all new.
"Normally, when you drive a racing car for the first time, your instincts will tell you whether it is good. Of course, this is providing you have got some experience and some reference on which to base your judgment, but it is your instincts which tell you whether the car is good, just half-good - or real trouble. Now I may be proved wrong - I hope not - but this one feels good, just the same way I thought last year's MP4/7 was not a great car when I first tested it. On that occasion I thought I could be proved wrong and, unfortunately, I wasn't wrong. So I hope this time again the feelings are correct, because if they are, I know that the potential is there."
All this was said prior to the controversially shortened practice and qualifying sessions, but all through Senna also kept re-iterating a theme: the push to get the pneumatic valve Ford HB - and full parity with Benetton - as soon as possible.
Within the MP4/8 lies the hope for a proper World Championship this year, and from what we saw in Kyalami we will have one. Prost and Williams-Renault took the pole as expected, and duly won the race, but Senna and the McLaren-Ford signalled - especially in qualifying - that there won't be a repeat of 1992's Williams walkaway.
Watching the two in qualifying action on Saturday, when they were so far ahead of the rest to make it seem ridiculous, was to see the contrast in their styles at its sharpest. Prost had taken the overnight pole, lost it to Senna early in the final session and then regained it, when Ayrton came out for his second attempt. Then, the Brazilian had bent that McLaren to his will, squeezing out every second of its potential as it twitched and darted around to record 1m 15.784s. Then out came Prost, and he seemed merely to float around, as if the track unfolded itself to accommodate the Williams' trajectory. It was absolute economy of effort, and the result was 1m 15.696s for Alain's first pole since Paul Ricard 1989. It didn't matter which style was better, they were both breathtaking to observe.
The start should have highlighted the differences in the two cars' semi-automatic transmissions, for where McLaren's drivers had to use their clutches the Williams pilots could let the system do all the work. Things went wrong for Prost though as he bogged down, but after team-mate Damon Hill's brief moment of glory running second to Senna had evaporated into a first-lap spin, Prost settled down to catch and pass Michael Schumacher's Benetton and to set himself up to attack.
Exiting the final corner on lap 21 Senna got a wheel in the dirt, and Prost was able to dive alongside going into the first turn, but though Alain had the inside line for the right-hander, Ayrton kept his foot down and stayed alongside, to take the inside line for the left-hander that follows immediately. Both were wise enough to know that they cannot afford another controversial clash (at least, not this early in the season), and when Prost tried the same move two laps later he was successful. Thereafter, the race was his.
By this time Senna's car was no longer fully au point, suffering from a glitch in its active ride software that, he said, made it "very undriveable". Nevertheless, after all the horror stories about the MP4/8's reliability in initial testing at Silverstone, McLaren must have been mightily encouraged when he brought it home a worthy second. It was a very good team effort.
Benetton left South Africa in confused state, aware that in a short space of time McLaren had overhauled it as the leading Ford-powered runner despite doing a fraction of the testing. In qualifying Schumacher was pushing as hard as ever, but the team reached a plateau around the low 1m 17s mark, discovering along the way that the heat of competition - as opposed to testing - had highlighted a shortcoming in its software. Ferrari, by contrast, found that working at a race meeting actually improved its development process, as if some members of the set-up needed the stimulus. It brought along two active systems, the old one which had been so disastrous in testing at Estoril, the other a new development based on the resultant post-mortem. Alesi had the former, qualifying an amazing fifth, while Berger was determined to develop the latter further since it is clearly the direction the team should take. Ironically, though Alesi ran quicker in the race, he would retire from fourth place when the hydraulic drive belt snapped, whereas Berger soldiered on with the system that nobody else seemed to want him to race, and picked up sixth. It didn't even matter that he stopped two laps from home when his V12 finally expired because newspapers had clogged its radiators and overheated it. A point was an unexpected bonus.
If Ferrari had something to cheer, though, Benetton very definitely did not. Schumacher was faster in the race than the hampered Senna, but not fast enough for the latter to feel inclined to let him get after Prost. They finally clashed on lap 40 as the German attempted to slide down the inside going into a corner, and though Senna carried on Michael spun into retirement. Clearly, this was an afternoon when, having run with the lions, he learned a great deal, not the least of which is just how tough to pass the Brazilian can be. When only laps later a lacklustre Patrese spun under pressure from Mark Blundell in the Ligier, the Enstone team's aspirations to repeat its 1992 performance of finishing every race were dashed first time out.
Lotus, the fifth-best team of '92, came to South Africa with tremendous optimism, only to find it crushed in qualifying. What transpired to be a fuel mix problem was initially diagnosed as an engine mapping fault on Friday, and compromises to offset this wrong-footed the team from the start. By Sunday Zanardi's car was running an awful lot better, but on a circuit where overtaking is well-nigh impossible grid positions were everything. The Italian tried very hard, passing the recovered Hill on four occasions only to be out-accelerated, and their fight for 11th place ended in tears on lap 17 when they tangled. Herbert's car never ran as well, and expired with auxiliary drive belt failure when he was challenging Christian Fittipaldi's very well driven Minardi-Ford for sixth place.
For newly-owned Ligier, however, there was no disillusionment. The JS39s looked good all through, and Blundell ran strongly in sixth place virtually from the start. He chased energetically after Alesi, then had the judgment to consolidate third place after pushing Patrese into his error. For a man who hadn't been in an F1 race since Adelaide '91, and who had only raced at Le Mans — where he won — last year, it was an impressive return that eclipsed team-mate Brundle, who spun twice.
Fifth place on a team's F1 debut is nothing to be ashamed of, but Peter Sauber could be forgiven for feeling a trifle disappointed with JJ Lehto's result. At Kyalami the C12s proved that their testing pace had been kosher when Lehto qualified an excellent sixth and Karl Wendlinger 10th. They ran fourth and fifth early on, too, in the sort of performance most well established teams can only dream of. Lehto lost time when his gearbox's electronic control malfunctioned and selected third gear only, but he fought back tremendously from 22nd at one stage to grab fifth from Derek Warwick's Footwork in the closing stages, when a late downpour rendered the track surface as slippery as a skating rink. This was car and driver in perfect harmony, and though Wendlinger had a 10s stop-and-go penalty for creeping at the start because of a clutch problem, and then dropped out of seventh place with electronic trouble, the team had given clear indication of the seriousness of its challenge.
Naturally, being the first race of the year, the South African GP boasted many novelties. Most people seemed to think that the shortened practice and qualifying sessions were mere cosmetic surgery that served little purpose, and a meeting on the Saturday night between teams agreed that from Brazil free practice would revert to an hour and a half and qualifying to an hour. The limitation of seven sets of tyres per driver was well received by the smaller teams - some thought it a luxury to have so many! - and the idea of giving a 'free' evaluation set to each driver worked well. So, for that matter, did the narrower Goodyears. Fears about their longevity proved unfounded, and in this respect precious little had changed since 1992 despite the revised technical regulations. The ban on the use of spare cars in qualifying, however, angered many, and Senna, Barbazza and Brundle were to become the first victims. Then there were the debutants. Hill and Michael Andretti had the highest profiles, and the latter the toughest task, but he adapted well and looked confident. Various technical problems prevented him from comparing himself wholly with Senna in qualifying, and his race was a disaster after a clutch problem left him on the line and then traffic caught him out and saw him remove a wheel after striking Warwick's Footwork. Rubens Barrichello likewise looked totally confident qualifying his Jordan Hart 14th and racing as high as seventh before its gearbox broke, while Barbazza was taken out by Suzuki and reigning F3000 champion Luca Badoer struggled throughout with a Lola T93/30 that was desperately in need of further testing and a lot more downforce. The sister car driven by Alboreto, however, surprised many by lasting until lap 56, in view of its teething problems in practice, and Michele entertained everyone in a spirited race with Warwick, who was driving his old car. Derek even finished in Michele's usual '92 seventh place, after spinning out of a possible sixth on his last lap.
As far as pointers go, it's too early to say much about the likely levels that Lotus, Ferrari, Sauber and Ligier will establish, but McLaren made it quite clear that it will challenge Williams all the way, and signalled to Benetton that the fight for the works Ford deal is going to be just as bloody. For Prost, the South African GP was a dream start to his reborn career, even if the threat of suspension by the World Council of Motorsport the following Thursday (for disparaging remarks that he allegedly made about FISA to a French magazine) hung over him like the Sword of Damocles. It was also a good start for enthusiasts across the world. Commentating on Australian television, Nigel Mansell was moved to suggest it was so boring that he felt like going back to bed, but if we have a three-way fight for the title, and have several potential 'spoilers' waiting in the wings, the 1993 World Championship is going to be an awful lot more stimulating than the current world champion's total domination rendered last year's.
D J T