In the heat and the cold
There was a time when Formula One seemed very simple, almost too simple in fact; when nearly everyone had a Cosworth powered “kit-car” and the big technical break-through was when a team actually made its own gearbox casing. There were some “renegades” like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, and Matra for a time, but the whole set-up seemed very uncomplicated. Practice took place on the two days before the race, from 10am to 11.30am and again from 1 pm to 2pm, and the times from the afternoon sessions counted for your place on the starting grid. Nobody talked of Qualifying or Q-engines or Q-tyres, or dangers, or cheating and there seemed to be very few rules and regulations to worry about.
Any team worthy of the name ‘Grand Prix’ would have been to the circuit already and done all the testing to find out about gear ratios, tyre choice, aerodynamic settings and so on, so that official practice seemed almost a routine formality. As long as you paid your money you got your race-prepared Cosworth engine and a suitable Hewland gearbox and there was very little to worry about. Apart from minor details the basic rules looked very settled, mainly because nobody could think of a better rule than 3-litre normally-aspirated engines. In a very short time all ths peace and boring tranquility was gone Renault appeared with a turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre V6 and things really took off.
The paddock became hysterical with people like Ken Tyrrell parading about the place saying. “Ban the turbo-charger” with others saying, “quite right” but the smart ones sneaked off and drummed up support from serious engine manufacturers to produce turbo-charged litre engines. Before we knew where we were the Cosworth DFV was dead and buried and there was uninanimous agrement that Formula One should be for turbo-charged 1 1/2 litre engines only, It being impossible to arrive at an equivalency factor for the two types of engine. For the last three years it has been marvellous; engine development got left behind. Engines became the heart of the Grand Prix car, something that Enzo Ferrari has maintained all his life. A Grand Prix car without an engine will just sit there fatly and lifeless; an engine can be put on a test-bed and you can watch the dials and think “now if we build a chassis to put it in…” At the moment the chassis designers are running the engine people a close second in the research and development stakes, but only just, while the tyre people are running a poor third. If a driver is any good at all he can earn his keep by using everything that the three branches of engineering can supply, and there are not many of them that can do that We have been back in the higher echelons of Grand Prix racing and everyone has been so busy that there hasn’t been much time for wittering and nattering in the paddock, apart from little skirmishes among sponsors trying to get their moneysworth of advertising, and PR firms trying to explain why last year’s hero is worth less this year.
The productionisation of the Cosworth DFV, with just enough power to keep ahead of the poor opposition, lulled everyone into the belief that they were living in a real world. When Renault, Ferrari, BMW, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Honda got down to the bhp question things really took off and power outputs rose rapidly from 550 bhp to 950 bhp with the accompanying technology to keep it all inside the tiny little crankcases. It was really exciting stuff, with development of combustion control, electronic control of fuel injection and spark initiation, and some very subtle mixing of synthetic fuels to represent 102 Octane petrol. Once again Grand Prix racing was providing a serious test scene for research and development. Firms like Porsche, Ferrari, Renault, BMW and Honda were revelling in it, and this year Ford joined in. Unfortunately the media got wind of a little that was going on and became hysterical about the only figure they could understand, and that was horsepower, so figures of 900, 1000, 1100 even 1200 horsepower were bandied about and the rule-makers in Paris heard all this and decided they must put a stop to it. I cannot recall hearing a driver complaining of too much horsepower, though they did complain if they could not use it all, due to deficiencies in chassis and tyres. Most of them revelled in it. To try and curb horsepower the quantity of fuel allowed for the race was limited, and this developed some remarkably sophisticated fuel measuring systems and caused races to be run on fuel-gauges rather than rev-counters. Saturday aftermoon qualifying took on a new importance as not only did it determine the starting grid order, but it was the last chance for the driver, engine, tyres, aerodynamics, chassis, brakes and so on to show just how good they all were, especially if they could all be coordinated to be “on song” at the same moment. This was, and at the moment still is, the last fling, where everyone gives everything they have got and some heroic deeds are done. Most of the races themselves have been dull and tame by comparison, with drivers knowing they could have won if only their fuel consumption gauge had been more accurate etc. etc.
Back in May there was an unfortunate accident at the Paul Ricard circuit during private testing by the Brabham team, in which Elio de Angelis lost his life. Whether he made a driving error or something went wrong with the car is not for me to say, but it escalated the official hysteria about speed and power, and qualifying and danger, and this and that. The result was that the rule makers in Paris came out with some pretty sweeping statements, decribed officially as “irrevocable” and when the teams began to assemble for the 72nd French Grand Prix (so-called, though the title is incorrect!) there was clot more to worry about than this week’s development programme.
Anyone doing a serious engine development programme must be budgeted and organised for at least five years ahead, and everyone is happy with what they are doing with 1 1/2 litre turbo-charged engines. The rule-makers have warned that any minute now a decision will be made (arbitarily it would seem) to make Formula One either for 1100cc turbo-charged, or 3 1/2 litre unturbocharged (I.e. normally aspirated). The Instant response was that BMW said “we are opting for OUT” though they had already made their decision before the official FISA announcment. Suddenly Brabham, Arrows and Benetton are in a turmoil, for BMW have said, quite fairly, that they will continue until the end of this season and then it is all finished for them. The fuel companies have been warned that they are considered to have been cheating with their special synthetic 102 Octane fuels, which is totally wrong, for they have complied exactly with the letter of the law as it was written, and that “pump petrol” would be insisted upon. You can imagine how pleased the R & D departments of ELF, Shell, AGIP, BASF and BP were when they heard that. The drivers have been told that they no longer need risk their lives with qualifying engines, chassis and tyres, for qualifying will consist of a short sprint race on Saturday afternoon. Every racing driver will tell you that the worst part of a Grand Prix race is the start and the first lap. Now they are going to have two starts and two first laps each weekend. Not surprisingly most of them have made their feelings well known. On top of all this the owners of the Paul Ricard circuit had cut it in half, so that everyone was going to have to start all over again and begin practice with no prior knowledge of what the circuit was all about. This now makes five Grand Prix races on the trot at which there has been no prior testing allowed.
My question is a simple one If you have a very dull and uninteresting circuit and you cut it in half, do you end up with a circuit half as dull or twice as dull? Some people think that Silverstone is flat, but you should see the Paul Ricard circuit. You could leave a racing car in neutral anywhere on the circuit and it would not roll away. The two features it had that were of some small interest were a 150 mph ess-bend after the pits straight and a mile long back straight on which an engine really had to work hard and cars could reach their terminal velocity A link road has been made between the outward leg of the circuit and the return leg, which cuts out the fast ess-bend and halves the length of the straight, this link road starting with a 30 mph hairpin and an 80 mph ‘twitch’ onto the back straight. Not very exciting but slow enough to be safe. Add to all this the sort of hot sunshine that only appears every ten years and you can see why the Friday before the French GP was not one of the best days.
Saturday was even hotter and just when qualifying was getting interesting the Minardl team screwed it all up by one of their cars spreading oil everywhere, and then the organisation made an even worse mess of things by having marshals all over the road sweeping the course, when the teams had been told the track was clear. Quite a lot of drivers were not amused, nor for that matter were the marshals who were merely doing what they were told. Friday had been a bad day for the French organisers as well, for practice had to be delayed for half-an-hour because a television company had left a mobile crane on the circuit, except that it was not mobile, being locked up and nobody could find the key. A stewards meeting fined the French equivalent of our RACMSA $20.000 for this little nonsense, and when it was mentioned that because of the great god television the organisers had forgotten to provide for all the radio commentators, another $15,000 fine was added. And just to keep their attention they were told they had to deposit $30,000 to put right various deficiencies before they would be granted a permit for the French Grand Prix of 1987. However, it was also mentioned that the French Grand Prix would be held at the Paul Ricard Circuit for the next five years, It makes you wonder why anyone bothers to be a Formula One race organiser, or perhaps there is more in it than meets the eye.
With the intense heat of the two practice days the Pirelli tyres on the Ligier cars were performing well, and Arnoux was driving with all that brio that showed he was out to have a good go at winning. With their Renault engines the Ligier team have been making very steady progress up towards the front, and this “scratchy” little circuit that Paul Ricard has become was obviously suited to Arnoux’s driving. He was fourth on the grid and only a fraction off the “ace” times of Senna, Mansell and Piquet. The two Brazilian drivers have a pretty confident air about them, not in the least surprised to be at the front, but both of them keep a very wary eye on Nigel Mansell, because at the moment he is on terrific form and working so well with Patrick Head and the Williams team and the Honda engineers. If Senna goes out to put in a quick lap and does not do so, you tend to raise an eyebrow and think “what happened?”. If Mansell goes out to give it all he has got, and makes the fastest lap, you think “By God, he’s done it again,” He didn’t quite “do it again” at the French GP, but there was only a flicker of an eyelid in it.
Having spent two days almost overcome by the heat, and watching in wonderment at the way the mechanics and team personal and the tyre mechanics and carriers of this and that all worked away out on the hot tarmac, to say nothing of the drivers sitting in their cramped cockpits waiting to go out on the track, it was something of a shock to wake up on Sunday morning to find the sky completely clouded over with the smell of rain in the air and such a sudden drop in temperature that anyone without a jersey was likely to catch cold. This sudden change in the weather spoilt all the Ligier hopes, for they knew that their Pirellis were not as good as the Goodyears in cool conditions.
Tyre wear was to play an important part in this race and Patrick Head made the drastic decision to stop Mansell and Piquet twice in the race for new tyres, while other teams were going through with one stop. He had to know that his drivers would not fumble their racing-rythm by making two stops, that his mechanics would not fumble the tyre changes, that nothing would go wrong with the wheel nuts, the wheel nut spanners, the jacks and so on, and that the Honda engines would not baulk at being taken off “full noise” twice during the race. In consultation with the Goodyear engineer assigned to the team, the drivers and his own engineers it seemed like being a good gamble. Other teams who knew about the idea thought he was crazy.
Mansell was on superb form. He out-dragged Senna down to the first corner, slid round the hairpin, squirted down onto the Mistral Straight and as the Honda engine pushed him way out ahead he shouted joyfully over the radio to Patrick Head “Here we go”. And he was gone. The Honda engine sounded so hard and purposeful as it took him up to over 190 mph on the short straight, that it was difficult to see how anyone was going to catch him. Everything went perfectly to plan; he lost the lead briefly to Prost when he made his first stop for tyres, caught him up and took the lead again, lost it again even less briefly at his second stop and then powered past the McLaren and won as he pleased. Both tyre stops went perfectly, each taking around 8 seconds, while slowing down and speeding up again only lost 13 seconds, adding a total of 21 seconds to his regular lap time on both occasions.
Of his chief rivals Senna only lasted in second place for less than four laps, for de Cesaris blew up his Minardi engine, as he had done in practice, and coated the track with oil. Many of the drivers had lurid moments as they hit the oil, including Mansell, but Senna lost it completely and sailed into the barriers, crunching the left front suspension of his Lotus back into the monocoque. Although Prost led for a couple of times, while Mansell was tyre changing, there was nothing he could do about the flying Englishman. His Porsche engine seemed to be consurning more fuel than had been estimated, so he had to pussy-foot with the boost, and he had run over a large stone thrown onto the track when Senna went off and this had damaged the underside of the McLaren and was causing a vibration which worried him. Add to this the fact that the Williams team had proved that over 80 laps of this little “Mickey Mouse” circuit it was better to do three short sprint races, rather than two careful and Prost was fortunate to be second. Rosberg In the other McLaren was just not a serious contender to Mansell and all you can say is that he finished 4th Piquet in the second Williams. Honda ran the same tactics as Mansell, with two tyre stops, but was overcautious in the opening stage of the race and never made up the ground lost. He was sure there was going to be mayhem on the first corner and decided to be wise and keep out of it. There wasn’t any mayhem as it turned out and he kept himself out of the front-running bunch, but managed to snatch third place from Rosberg near the end.
The two Ligiers had a satisfactory result, with 5th and 6th places, but they had hopec for much better until the sun disappeared and left Sunday overcast and cloudy. It was another black weekend for Ferrari. They were miles an hour faster than anyone else on the back straight, presumably because they were not applying so much aerodynamic downforce as their rivals, but were never in the picture on lap times. In the race Alboreto arrived on the grid from the parade lap with his clutch dragging and he stalled the engine. Although he threw both arms up to warn the starter it was not deemed justification for aborting the start and the green light was given, all those behind the Ferrari finding enough room to dodge around it, though “Albert” said afterwards that he has never been so frightened, just sitting there waiting for someone to hit him up the back. After a push start by the marshals he drove consistently but not very fast, to finish 8th two laps behind Mansell. His Ferrari team-mate Stefan Johansson was little better off, his engine going on the blink quite early on and retiring.
The Lola-Ford team had another bad weekend as well, the Ford part looking good as usual but being let down by the Lola part and the driver part. Alan Jones was near the back of the grid after qualifying and went off the course almost before the race had settled down, while Tambay won himself quite a good starting grid position, and ran well in the race until the brakes gave trouble and after an excursion up an escape road he stopped at the pits to find a brake caliper almost seized up solid.
When it was all over there was not so much a feeling of relief at a job done well or badly, as the case may be, but one of panic to get back home re-equip and be ready or the British Grand Prix practice starting in five days time at Brands Hatch. What happened to the “good old days” when we had a Grand Prix once a month and the teams could arrive in good order after a well earned rest. Most of them still arrive in good order, but there is no rest, even though it is earned a thousand times over. And Mr Ecclestone wants to add Grand Prix races in California, China, Japan, Eqcuador, Chile, the USSR, Mombassa and Stepney Green! And FISA has now decreed that there will be additional races on Saturday afternoon. Anyone involved in Formula One has to be mad.