During last winter we had a long spell with no Formula One racing, but even so there was a lot of activity in the re-structuring of teams, both mechanically and in personnel and there was a lot of building and designing of new cars as well as a lot of testing. So much so, in fact, that it was a very busy off-season and when racing eventually started in March there were many things to look forward to. Now, at just over the half-way point in the season, it is worthwhile taking stock of what has happened and to review the answers to all those questions we were asking ourselves during the winter months.
The end of the 1983 season saw a lot of writing on the wall, particularly at the South African GP which was the last race of the season. Nelson Piquet showed that given the right car there was no-one who could really match him at racing and race-craft, and the Brabham-BMW looked to be in a class of its own. But when it was all over there was some embarrassing muttering about the petrol used by BMW being over the permitted Octane rating. Be that as it may, it is not for me, or any other unqualified journalist to argue the point, so Brabham finished the season as the pace-setters and Nelson Piquet as the man to beat.
That race in South Africa saw two other teams giving notice of intent to win, namely McLaren International and Frank Williams Racing, the former with Porsche power and the latter with Honda power. The presence of these two automotive firms in Formula One, both known for their immensely strong Research and Development departments and their ability to design and produce racing engines, and both allied to accepted front-runners in the chassis world, meant that the accepted leaders in Formula One were going to have to look to their laurels. Although many factors are important in a winning car there is no getting away from the fact that the engine is the ultimate factor, and engines mean horsepower and horsepower is synonymous with anything that Porsche or Honda do. Tentative forays were made by Honda with the Spirit chassis, driven by Stefan Johansson, but nothing conclusive could be drawn by the casual onlooker.
During the winter months there were many changes to the scene which made the potential even more exciting to contemplate, principally on the driver scene. Alain Prost had proved himself a race-winner with Renault and he left and joined Niki Lauda at McLaren. Lauda had shown the potential of the Porsche-powered car from Woking, and if it was Prost who won races rather than the Renault, then Ron Dennis had a very powerful team. As all of Prost’s serious racing had been done with Renault one could not be absolutely sure about his ability, so it was going to be very interesting to see the dour little Frenchman in another car with another power plant. It was just possible that the Renault was a really good car and it made Prost’s job easy, and that he was not as good as it seemed.
Of Lauda’s ability there was no doubt, and though he could drive like an old woman at times, when there was nothing to gain, South Africa had shown that the real lion-hearted Lauda was still there. Give him an incentive and he could match anyone. The first half of 1984 has shown conclusively that Prost is a natural race-winner and every bit the equal of Lauda, in spite of fewer years at the top. The Renault may have been a good car, but undoubtedly it was Alain Prost who won the races and he used the McLaren-Porsche to similar effect. Lauda continues to win and add to his ever growing total of Grand Prix victories (21 at the time of writing). The portents of the marriage between McLaren and Porsche, with the TAG firm and Marlboro cigarettes applying the money, that we saw last year have been well and truly confirmed at this half-way point. With two Number One drivers in the team Ron Dennis could hardly ask for more.
With Prost leaving Renault the French firm had a complete reshuffle and took on Patrick Tambay and Derek Warwick, while the engineers came up with a totally new car of carbon-fibre composite construction and a revised V6 turbocharged engine. Basically the Renault cars have been as good as the opposition, certainly not lagging behind, so their new scene was totally dependent on drivers. Tambay had shown his true ability with the Ferrari team, a potential winner at all times, with the ability to rise to the occasion when the going was hard. If he could win races with a Ferrari then there was no reason why he should not win races with a Renault. 1984 was going to show if the Renault was lacking anything or whether the Ferrari had been flattering Tambay’s ability. At this halfway point we still don’t know as the French team seem to have been reeling about from one disaster to another with the overall results very confusing. In Derek Warwick they were taking a gamble, but one that anyone in Formula One would be happy to take. We had only seen Warwick driving a Toleman with Hart power, but all the signs were good and his move to Renault meant that 1984 would be his make-or-break season. On sheer driving ability Warwick has more than proved himself and he is always amongst the first six runners, but he has stumbled and fallen a number of times through inexperience at being up near the front. He literally fell over another car at Dijon and threw the race away at Dallas, but equally Renault have let him down a number of times when success looked certain. A natural winner needs to win one race in 10 to get his name in my “Aces Book” and though Warwick has looked like winning a number of times, he reached our halfway point without a win. While Renault have a good compatible team you cannot put their drivers in the Number One category, but both are much better than Number Two drivers.
The Williams-Honda partnership has not given the results that were expected, though not for want of trying on the part of their Number One driver Keijo (Keke) Rosberg. If anyone ever had a lionheart it is the stocky little driver from Finland. It is beginning to look as if Patrick Head’s chassis knowledge gained with 500 bhp Cosworth power has its limitations and cannot deal with 650 bhp Honda power, but that is putting it very simply. Rosberg’s driving has always been unorthodox and it jars with some engineers who appreciate the delicate touch and knowledge of a Lauda, a Prost or a Piquet. It would be interesting to see one of those three in the Williams-Honda before we condemn it out of hand. Although it won in Dallas that was Rosberg winning, rather than the Williams-Honda. Rosberg’s Number Two driver, Jacques Laffite, is nothing more than that. He may have been the Number One driver in the Ligier team for many years, but that did not make him a true Number One driver, and as a real supporter for Rosberg he is of little use.
The Brabham team have the same problem, in that they have an undisputed Number One in Nelson Piquet, but he has little or no support from his Number Two driver Teo Fabi. Things have not been helped by Fabi having to miss a race or two due to other contracts, and his younger brother Corrado standing in for him. If both Fabis were in the car it would be doubtful if Piquet could rely on much support. However, Brabham’s biggest problem in this first half-season has been BMW. The Munich firm did wonders last year with their iron-block four-cylinder engine, but the end of the season saw a cloud in the air brought about by the suggestion that the Brabham team were running on petrol that was more than the legal 102 Octane limit. This accusation was never successfully resolved either way, the FISA officials say it was legal, but the French ELF petroleum chemists, who helped FISA to draw up the original specifications, published a paper that did not specifically say that the Brabham petrol was illegal, but it did not conform to the specification published by ELF. Nothing came of this end-of-season hoo-ha, but BMW engines went through a disastrous period of unreliability and the first half of the season was nearly over before Piquet could win a race. This Brabham-BMW disaster rather confused the overall issue, for Piquet should have been the pace setter and the man to beat, but while he kept retiring there was nothing against which to match-up other people’s performances. All along Piquet has been a “loner” never having a really strong second driver to back him up, and while it does not worry him, for he has only one idea and that is to win, when a team has a strong pair like Lauda and Prost, it must be an advantage.
By the end of 1983 the Ferrari team were beginning to struggle a bit, not due to lacking in anything, but the opposition was getting stronger and stronger, and this year has seen them fluctuating up and down, always well up and never far down. Like Renault with Derek Warwick, Ferrari took on a new driver with obvious but unproven potential. This was Michele Alboreto who had been driving for Tyrrell and doing an excellent job. Since joining the Ferrari team Alboreto has done all that was expected of him, but nothing more, and has not been outstanding in the way that Prost has been with McLaren. He has got results, but his performances have fluctuated, sometimes through his own limitations and sometimes through Ferrari’s limitations. Ferrari’s regular driver, Rene Arnoux, seems to have reached his peak. When he was with Renault he seemed to have great potential which was being stifled. With the Ferrari team it has been given a free rein, but the results have been disappointing. Undoubtedly a Number One driver Arnoux suffers from being erratic, which is accentuated by the performances of others like Lauda or Rosberg. Ferrari is always there or thereabouts, and never far from the front, but so far their season has been very inconclusive.
Of the supporting teams, Renault have had by far the strongest back-up, Particularly with Lotus. The Lotus 95T has shown that it lacks nothing as a potential race winner, but more than a year ago I suggested that the only factor lacking in Team Lotus was in the cockpit. I still maintain that feeling, and rate de Angelis and Mansell as good Number Two drivers, even if it does mean that the Italian will knock me over again! When McLaren have a strong driver pairing like Lauda and Prost, and Brabham have the best there is in Piquet, you have to rate de Angelis and Mansell as good Number Two drivers. They are both long past the time for regular race winning and when you look back to the end of last season when the Team Lotus management was trying to replace both of them, it speaks for itself. They both have talent, obviously, but not enough of it. Mansell is brave and forceful, but makes the most awful mistakes and seems to be a born loser. His Italian team-mate is moody and inconsistent, sometimes going very fast, other times whingeing away with feeble excuses, and can be seen virtually giving up at times. The Lotus-Renault seems so good at times that it embarrasses the Regie Renault’s own team. Renault have a third string to their bow in the shape of the Ligier team who use Renault engines, but frankly, as a supporter it seems to be more trouble than it is worth.
The BMW support teams are little better, the lone ATS giving sporadic support to the M-Power cause, but the Arrows team would have probably done just as well to have stuck with Cosworth DFY engines.
Another interest this season has been the newcomers to Formula One in the shape of drivers starting their first season in the top league. Before it all started we heard far too much about some and nothing at all about others, and the media were suggesting that there were many potential World Champions among the new boys. Being thrown into Formula One is a daunting experience for any newcomer, and it has been interesting to watch how they coped with the situation. There may be some “has-beens” or “never-was” drivers in the midfield, but don’t underestimate the front runners. The top six places are filled by very hard men of tremendous ability, and right behind them are four more who are their equal. If you can get into the top 10 you are doing very well, if you can get into the top six you are on your way to the top. I am not referring to race finishes, but to the overall running, especially qualifying and the opening stages of the races. The list of new boys is really very impressive and reads: Martin Brundle, Stefan Bellof, Philippe Alliot, Jonathan Palmer, Ayrton Senna and Francois Hesnault. Three of them have stood out by any standards, namely Brundle, Bellof and Senna. The English driver Brundle, from Norfolk, has shown splendid spirit and the urge to get on with the job and give of his best at all times, regardless of equipment or conditions. His learning-curve has been satisfactorily steep, but two bad accidents have blotted his book and at the time of writing he is out of racing with ankle injuries following an accident in Dallas. Had he not shown such good form in his first half of the season, we would not have forgiven him his accidents, but on his showing right from the start we say “Get well quickly, and come back fighting”. His Tyrrell team-mate Stefan Bellof already had his accidents due to over-exuberance with Porsche sports cars, but he still has them in between fits of first-rate driving. He has not disgraced himself in this first half-season. The third driver, Senna, has been on a steeply inclined learning-curve, and it looks like going on into the far distance. The fact that his driving of the Toleman has been inconspicuous in the overall scene may be the truth behind his performances. His positions on the starting grids have been the real pointer to his ability. From the word go he was right in the thick of things and is now well into the front half of the field. Everyone who watched him in lesser Formulae said he was a “natural” and it is beginning to look as if they are right. He comes from Brazil, which must have some bearing on things.
Of the other three newcomers nobody seemed to have heard of Francois Hesnault (pronounced Hay-No) when he appeared on the Formula One scene, having come from Formula 3 in France, and many people derided him and complained that he was not good enough for Formula One. In actual fact he has done a very neat and tidy job with the rather chaotic Ligier team and has invariably qualified for the grid quite comfortably, without being outstanding. He hasn’t made any waves or undue noise and has quietly got on with the job in quite a fair manner. His compatriot Philippe Allot was equally unknown when he joined the Formula One scene, but whether he is out of his depth or whether the RAM team are really as bad as they look, we have yet to decide. His RAM team-mate Jonathan Palmer we knew all about long before he joined the Formula One scene, for he won the Formula Two championship very convincingly with the Ralt-Honda works car, and his PR firm never failed to grasp an opportunity to tell us about the future World Champion. So far all that Palmer has achieved in Formula One is precisely nothing, but like Alliot this may be down to RAM, though I don’t think so really. Brundle and Bellof had nothing in the way of material, on paper anyway, but both have shown their true ability without question. We all recall Nelson Piquet’s performance with an Ensign and an obsolete McLaren M23. True talent will shine through the thickest fog.
Many of the questions of last winter have been answered, many have not, and in the first half of the season new questions have arisen. There may be times when Grand Prix racing looks dull on Television, thanks to poor direction, bad commentary, or inadequate viewing, but out there in the fields (or concrete cities) it is seldom dull and the potential for the rest of 1984 looks as good as ever. — D.S.J.