1988 British Grand Prix race report - Hero time

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Hero time
Silverstone, July 10

The whole weekend, and in fact the whole British Grand Prix affair, was full of disappointments punctuated by flashes of joy.

Through the first seven races of the Formula One season, fluctuating from extremes of heat and cold, confusion and muddle, good circuits and bad, there were those among us who were really looking forward to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. One of the greatest topics of discussion was what the outcome would be of a straight fight between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, armed with the invincible McLaren MP4/4 cars powered by Honda’s powerful turbocharged V6 engine. As we went from race to race in the early part of the season, we never saw a straight fight – there was always some unforeseen variable spoiling the scene.

Silverstone had to be the scene of a clear-cut decision between the two McLaren drivers, not that it was necessary, or that it was important, but curiosity had to be satisfied. At previous races one or other of them got “boxed in” at the start, had some mechanical ailment or was hamstrung by a niggling little circuit. Silverstone, with its wide and spacious bends, very fast corners and 150 mph race average, was going to show us which of the McLaren drivers was the greatest. With the two red-and-white cars at the front of the grid, we were going to see a good clean battle between the most successful driver of today and the fastest driver of today.

But it didn’t turn out like that at all, and for many reasons.

It all started to go wrong two weeks before the Grand Prix, when wet weather spoiled a two-day session of tyre-testing for many of the teams. Quite often these special test-sessions throw up pointers for the race to come, but now we had no real idea of how fast the turbocharged cars were going to be able to go with their 2.5-bar boost-limit. Last year’s race lap record on the revised circuit was 1min 09.832sec, and by the signs seen so far this season qualifying laps should have improved on this, and there was no reason why last year’s pole position time of 1min 07.110sec should not be beaten, with just a chance of a lap at 160 mph average.

The two days of official practice and qualifying on Friday July 8 and Saturday July 9 not only proved a great disappointment as far as speed was concerned, but completely upset the current form-book. No one got within sight of last year’s lap record, let alone last year’s pole position time, so all thoughts of seeing a lap at 160 mph were gone.

It was dry, but grey and dull, and there was a strong wind blowing across the circuit, so conditions were not ideal, but more important was the fact that Silverstone was the first real “power circuit” to be visited by the F1 cars this year with the reduced turbo power, and this fact soon became apparent through the speed-traps operated by Longines-Olivetti, especially the one at the start/finish line. The front running cars were some 20 mph down on recorded speed, which meant they hadn’t got the high speed acceleration they had last year coming out of the new Woodcote corner. Down Hanger Straight they were simply running out of breath at 180 mph, whereas on 4-bar boost last year they still had enormous “grunt” at that speed, which could take them comfortably over 200 mph. This year they were only lapping at around 150 mph, and it seemed dull by comparison.

Although the McLaren-Hondas have ruled the roost all season, so far, the red cars from Marancello have never been far away during qualifying and the Ferrari team has known that if, one day, the Woking “steamroller” has a slight hiccup, it will be the red cars that will be in there. And this is what happened.

In the endless quest for more speed and continued perfection, McLaren made some alteration to the aerodynamics of its cars, but had to start the first day of practice without any previous testing due to the rained-off test session two weeks before. The hoped-for improvement did not materialise so it had to go back to the previous set-up, and though this “hiccup” was only visible in terms of decimal points of a second on lap times, this was enough for Ferrari to snatch the advantage. Added to the McLaren problem was the fact that Silverstone suited the Ferrari engine power characteristics as much as it did Honda power so the red cars were at no disadvantage on that front.

The end result of the two practice days was Ferrari first and second (Berger and Alboreto), McLaren third and fourth (Senna and Prost) with three-quarters of a second covering the four cars. This looked good on paper for the battle royal, but it was not reality. “Good for the sport,” said the media man, whatever that means. The McLaren team was more realistic. “Won’t do us any harm, and keeps everyone on their toes,” said the chief engineer Gordon Murray, smiling confidently.

So much for the four front-runners, from which the winner was likely to appear, but there were 27 other cars droning round and round; some like the March-Judd cars were impressive, others were unimpressive, and the Coloni-Cosworth was short-lived as it was eliminated after the Friday morning session for not being fast enough, thus reducing the number of qualifiers to the regulation 30.

The two “likely lads” in the Leyton House-sponsored March cars were doing everything expected of them, and more, filling the third row of the grid with their purposeful-looking turquoise cars from nearby Bicester. Mauricio Gugelmin from Brazil was particularly impressive on the high-speed corners such as Stowe and Club, his “line” being the perfection associated with Senna, Prost or Berger.

The other English Judd-powered team was in desperate trouble, not with the engines, for a change, but with the Williams “reactive” suspension that was making all the wrong moves at the wrong time. While Mansell was moaning openly about it, and having worrying moments as the car took over control from him, poor Patrese looked as if he was not going to qualify. At the end of Friday qualifying the rain came down and he still had not completed a flying lap, so he bravely went out in the pouring rain to record an official time, even though it was the slowest time of the day.

After much soul-searching by Patrick Head and his engineers, the drastic decision was taken to abandon the “reactive” hydraulic suspension and revert to normal coil-spring damper units at the back, and insert some special steel springs into the front suspension system. This made Mansell feel a lot more confident and he began to get going properly; Patrese regained a more sensible place on the grid.

One feels that the Ligier team would be no better off if it replaced its Judd engines with Honda engines, poor Johansson despairing “down among the dead men”, while Arnoux just scraped onto the grid. For once the Benetton team, with the works Cosworth DFR engines, was not dominating the non-turbo category, having to sit behind the March cars, even though everything seemed to be going well.

On the face of it, these were the makings of a really good race with two Ferraris and two McLarens covered by less than a second, but Formula One isn’t as simple as that. The Ferraris had achieved the front row in qualifying specification, especially as regards fuel-consumption figures, whereas the McLarens, or rather the Hondas, knew exactly the pace at which they could race. Even so, the opening laps were going to be fun, for Berger wasn’t going to waste the opportunity of being on pole position.

But one factor had been overlooked, and that was the weather: on Sunday morning it was awful. The clouds were almost at ground level and the rain drizzled down; it was wet, and was going to stay wet for the rest of the day. While the crowd wallowed in mud and water and the supporting events and demonstrations did their best to keep the fun of the fair going, the whole scene was a pretty gloomy and soggy affair.

Everyone prepared themselves for the unknown, a race on treaded “wet-weather” tyres which might or might not last the distance if the conditions stayed the same, and would certainly call for a pit-stop if conditions improved, and possibly a decision to change to treadles “dry weather” tyres. As the cars went out to the grid for the 2.30pm start, “Jabby” Crombac, editor of the French Sport-Auto magazine, made an interesting remark. He said: “Today we shall see this race won by a great driver or a lucky driver.” I don’t know who he had in mind, but he was to be proved right.

Slipping and sliding away from the grid, the field followed Berger on the parade lap, Alain Prost fumbling his getaway and falling behind the two March cars, and quite illegally he regained his position on the way round to the grid. Very carefully they all got away on the green light, and once again Prost made a bad start and was immediately engulfed by the midfield runners. Out in front, Berger made the most of the clear road ahead of him, but the rest were driving blind in spray, with Senna splitting the two Ferraris. He Spaniard Perez Sala spun off on the opening lap, and Palmer did one misfiring lap before returning to the pits.

Senna watched Berger ahead of him and decided the Ferrari would not run at that pace for the whole 65 laps, so with no one to worry about behind him, he was content to bide his time.

Prost was really bogged down in the middle of the spray, very unhappy with the conditions and unwilling to take any risks, his car slipping and sliding about the place as was everybody else. He simply gave up. Dropping from eleventh on lap one to fifteenth on lap six saw him passed by Cheever, Boutsen, Patrese and Modena. When he was passed by Alex Caffi in the Dallara it was too much; the Championship leader headed for the pits and openly gave up, making no complicated or pathetic excuses, for Prost is not like that. You cannot admire a driver for giving up in foul conditions, but you have to respect him.

Out in front there was no “giving up”, Berger and Senna were in a class of their own, handling the conditions superbly and running away from everyone else. The circuit commentators had predicted that “turbo-lag”, that hoary old media chestnut from a few years ago, was going to make life difficult in the foul conditions, giving the non-turbo cars a chance, but nobody told Berger and Senna.

Category B was having quite a good time, Gugelmin leading Nannini, Mansell and Capelli in a race for fourth place. The March “new-boy” was doing a fine job until he got “outfumbled” during a busy moment when this group lapped a slower car, but it was no disgrace, just a lack of experience.

By this time Senna decided he had had enough of Berger’s spray and went by into the lead, while the Austrian knew his moment of glory was over, as he had been overstepping the mark on fuel-consumption and was forced to ease up or he wouldn’t make the finish.

We now settled down in the intermittent rain to watch a real artist at work, Senna’s delicate touch on steering and throttle being a joy to see. He was completely unchallenged and in total command of the conditions, the race situation and strategy. Even though parts of the circuit dried out occasionally, especially on the racing line, he decided to control his speed to conserve the tyres and make them last the race, rather than build up a big enough lead to be able to afford a pit-stop. Relentlessly he lapped the field until he passed Piquet in the Lotus 100T (who was running sixth behind Gugelmin), whereupon he eased up and allowed the World Champion to stay with him, and eventually to go by and unlap himself!

By now the McLaren tyres were not affording much grip, especially on the front wheels, and watching Senna through Copse Corner the understeer propensities of the situation were mind-boggling. Velvet finger tips and delicacy of control were beautiful to watch, and people who could not see this or appreciate it must want their eyes tested.

Behind Senna it was real “hero time”, Mansell was in a dominant mood, charging hard and keeping his tyres cool by deliberately running on wet parts of the track when the rain relented occasionally. He effectively dealt with Nannini, who helped the Williams situation by having two spins, yet kept the engine going on both occasions without losing much time.

Berger’s fuel read-out was screaming “emergency” at him, at one point having been five laps in deficit, so all he could do was go slower and slower, and in the dying stages of the race he was passed by Mansell (to enormous cheers and waving of flags by the British supporters), then by Nannini, Gugelmin and Piquet, dropping from the lead in the opening stages to sixth in the closing stages; but better to have raced and led…

It looked as though Mansell was catching Senna, but of course it was the other way round, Senna had everything beautifully under control. Alboreto was effectively eliminated from the race when Ferrari, thinking conditions were improving and the track was going to dry out, called him in to change onto “slick” tyres. But that was a big mistake and he had to stop again to go back onto “wets”, all of which dropped him three laps behind and right out of the picture.

Among the rest there was a happy little scrap going on between Warwick and Cheever in their Arrows, and Patrese in the second Williams, with Nakajima in amongst them in the second Lotus. Seventh place was all they had in view but that didn’t stop them racing.

But as they went into the last lap there was a red Ferrari ahead of them. It was Berger, with emergency fuel-bells ringing in his ears, and as he left the Woodcote chicane and headed for the finishing line his engine died. Before he could coast over the line, Warwick, Cheever and Patrese zapped by on the inside, and in less than 100 yards Berger was relegated from sixth place to ninth place. He really didn’t deserve that.

Crombac had been absolutely right, and the winner wasn’t lucky. We saw just such a demonstration of greatness when Senna won his first Grand Prix in the rain in Portugal with a Lotus-Renault. In similar conditions he won his fourth Grand Prix for McLaren Honda; he’s also pretty good in the dry, and on slow circuits, medium-speed circuits and high-speed circuits.

But let us keep our sense of proportion, Alain Prost has won 32 Grand Prix races, and winning is the name of the game. Bruce McLaren, whose name Ron Dennis still keeps to the fore, once had a motto: “Winning isn’t everything, but it’s a lot better than finishing second.” DSJ

Silverstone sidelines

The appalling conditions meant that no one could use the full potential of their car or their engine, so reliability was impressive and only seven cars fell by the wayside.

Everyone was impressed with Mauricio Gugelmin in the March-Judd, whose driving was smooth and forceful, especially in the dry in qualifying. A driver worth watching, and remember the fuss when Senna wanted him as his number two at Lotus a while back.

The Benetton team has always had ups and downs, but now it has lost Thierry Boutsen for next year. He has signed for Williams, to replace Mansell who is going to Ferrari, to replace Alboreto who is going to Tyrrell to replace… When the music stops, the last one to sit down will be out of work, or will have sensibly already have decided to go to CART racing in America, or to sports-car racing.

Judd engines seem to have become reliable and fast, or is it an illusion? Could early season troubles have been caused by the chassis designers?

With its assured five-year continuous span of the British Grand Prix, Silverstone put a lot of extra effort into this year’s event, and the objectors who stayed away were not noticeable. A pity that the weather tried its best to ruin the event of the year. It didn’t really succeed, for enthusiasm shone through the gloom.

Spare a thought for the organisers, the marshals, the police, the security men, the gate-guardians and the hundreds of people who keep a big event like the British Grand Prix under control. Late on Sunday evening, ten miles from the circuit, police were standing out in the pouring rain directing cars on their homeward way, the occupants snug and dry. DSJ