Plus ca change
Suddenly, things weren’t looking so rosy for Ayrton Senna.
The rot had started with that electronics problem in Phoenix, but even as he retired on lap 44 of the depopulated American round of the World Championship, the Brazilian had no way of knowing just what a bad hand of cards Fate would deal him over the succeeding two races.
In Canada he so nearly got to the flag first after one of the outstanding drives in recent history. In France, he didn’t manage a lap.
He even got two chances to do so. From second slot on the grid for the second year running, he got the jump on pole-sitting team-mate Alain Prost, which no doubt gave him a sense of satisfaction since the Frenchman had announced only days before that the reason he is leaving McLaren is because he can’t stand working with Senna any more, nor the way in which, as he sees it, Ayrton has curdled the once comfortable atmosphere.
His lead lasted as long as it took Mauricio Gugelmin to lock his front wheels, have the Leyton House March veer left, and then spectacularly vault the cars of Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen. His compatriot’s involuntary aerobatics brought an immediate red flag, and once the debris had been scooped up (in remarkable quick time) the two McLarens again headed the field off the line.
This time, however, Prost made the most of his second pole in two races and Senna’s car jumped forward and then slowed suddenly as he shifted into second. The differential had failed, and he rolled off to the left.
Another race, another retirement. All he needed after that was castigation from race director Roland Bruynseraede, who felt he had pulled off dangerously and should have tried moving from the left of the track to park on the right. No doubt Ayrton politely explained that this was a mite difficult to achieve without drive, not to say dangerous given the presence of a whole batch of other cars travelling well over 100mph, before walking out of the officials’ enclosure with two metaphorical fingers raised.
His ill fortune, of course, was Prost’s gain, and the Frenchman was perfectly placed to exploit the upper hand he had shown all weekend.
He had finally communicated his decision to leave McLaren to team boss Ron Dennis the previous Thursday evening, right after the final day of testing at Silverstone. The Press had been informed on the morning of first qualifying. Since testing at Jerez in February, Alain had known the relationship with Senna was doomed, but the decision to quit the team for which he had won 27 victories was anything but easy. Talking to him, you sensed that had Senna been going, he would never have left.
Prost put all that behind him as he built up his lead. In the early stages Gerhard Berger made himself a nuisance until a minor off from which he recovered, with Sandro Nannini in tow in the promising new Benetton, and Thierry Boutsen’s Williams and Ivan Capelli’s March keeping a watching brief.
Prost’s principal threat, however, had started from the pit road, on Saturday morning Nigel Mansell had been fastest, and in the second official session he was down in the 1 min 7 sec bracket with the McLarens, only two tenth off the pole. The Ferrari had a lighter engine and was handling better with a new rear anti-roll bar, but the greatest improvement of all was in its reliability. Moving the alternators to a site in which they didn’t overheat and thus affect the electronics or the semi-automatic gearbox–something John Barnard had wanted done for Phoenix but which didn’t get carried out the way he intended–had transformed the F1/89s’ longevity. Bar a small problem for Berger in the Sunday morning warm-up, the cars were paragons of reliability, and Mansell loved it.
“Everything we do to this car now takes us further forward,” he enthused, delighted with progress.
Then came the Great Irony. Before the start, sixth-fastest Berger found his car had developed an oil leak – “something we have never experienced before,” assured Cesare Fiorio. He thus took over the spare.
When Nigel was struck by Gugelmin’s aviating March, he lost his rear wing and received a mighty blow on the head as it was jerked back against the rollhoop. Dazed, he cruised back to the pits, whereupon a screaming match ensured as frantic mechanics tried to get Berger’s now repaired race car mobile. They just failed to make the grid and Mansell, adrenalin now well and truly flowing, would begin a brilliant charge from the pit lane.
It would take him past Riccardo Patrese on lap 61, and thereafter he ran home behind only Prost. Naturally, he felt he might have won, might have been able to pressure the McLaren more had he started from his rightful grid slot. Chances are though, since Gerhard later retired with an oil leak on the spare, that his own race car would have developed the same fault. As it was, his bad luck might have been a blessing in disguise. Whatever, he left France brimful of optimism for Silverstone . . .
Neither of the Williams drivers was able to run with Prost or Mansell, but yet again Patrese made it to the flag in the points. On the first warm-up lap his FW12C had ground to a halt with a repeat of a morning electrical sensor problem, but the restart got him out in the spare, which was fitted with the standard Renault RS01 V10. With that he soldiered home third.
Boutsen, meanwhile had raced with the Phase Two development of Bernard Dudot’s engine, and looked good in the early stages until he began losing gears and eventually dropped out on lap 51. Nannini was within 7.6 seconds of Prost on lap 41, revelling in the power of the new Ford V8 once an initial misfire had cleared itself, but his race ended dramatically when the left rear suspension sagged heading towards the first corner and he just managed to stop in the escape road.
There was thus to be no repeat of the Cosworth DFV’s debut win, but the compact new unit certainly impressed, and proved reliable after the initial teething problems when the crankshaft proved too light and too fragile for the unit’s rumoured 640-plus bhp.
Emanuele Pirro, meanwhile, McLaren-Honda’s test driver substituting for the “rested” Johnny Herbert at Ford’s and Benetton’s behest, struggled in the slow B188 for ninth, which wasn’t bad all things considered.
Emanuele wasn’t the top rookie, however. That honour befell Sicilian-born Frenchman Jean Alesi, who came to be driving the second Tyrrell 018 by a roundabout route. The previous week Tyrrell and Michele Alboreto had fallen out, partly because Michele was quite keen to jump into the vacant Benetton, and with Camel now supporting his equipe, Uncle Ken found Alesi pushed at him. If he wondered just who the Formula 3000 man was before Friday, he knew within minutes of untimed practice beginning that he had a potential star on his hands. At one stage Jean was fifth quickest and ended up seventh, then was 10th in the first official session despite having to share his car with team-mate Jonathan Palmer, whose own had caught fire. Traffic gave him trouble on Saturday and he dropped to 16th, but by the end of the first lap he was ninth.
The first corner shunt in the initial start had seen Rene Arnoux’s Ligier savage the back of Palmer’s sister Tyrrell. The rear wing was repaired, but undertray damage couldn’t be rectified in time and the doctor was consigned to struggle throughout with erratic handling. Alesi moved ahead on lap 19 and never looked back. At one stage he was as high as second –behind only Prost on his debut! –until Patrese and Mansell passed him just before he made his overdue tyre stop. Thereafter he maintained a smooth fourth to the flag, emulating Herbert’s Rio debut and putting himself in the company of Prost who also scored a point in his first GP.
Palmer, still fighting gamely, had to be satisfied with tenth, holding off another French debutant throughout: After all the rumpus over threatened sackings at Team Larrousse, Yannick Dalmas duly got his marching orders and was replaced by Jerez F3000 victor Eric Bernard.
Philippe Alliot, also under threat of the axe, qualified his Larrousse Lola seventh and ran as high as fifth before his Chrysler-Lamborghini blew a piston, whereafter Bernard was left to fly the flag. This he did smoothly and quickly, and only a smoky piston failure right near the end denied him a final crack at Palmer.
Ahead of the Briton, in the points, were Stefan Johansson and Olivier Grouillard. The Swede drove a canny race, mindful of wheel bearing problems in qualifying and troubled at times by sticking a throttle, but nevertheless won the Moneytron Onyx team its first valuable points. while Grouillard kept him honest throughout despite a sticking gearshift and proved just what a strong force of newcomers France is developing with is first point for sixth.
Ahead of both, however, were there any justice, should have been Johansson’s teammate Bertrand Gachot. All season the Belgian has struggled to pre-qualify, and failed, but he dominated the Friday morning session this time out and was a fine 11th-fastest when he too was taking it easy because of the bearing problem, but thereafter he was consistent and quick and looked set for a deserved fifth when his battery lost its charge.
In his Formula Three days, one of Gachot’s sparring partners was Martin Donnelly, and when Derek Warwick injured himself a week before the race in a kart accident at Bouley Bay, the Ulsterman was released from his Lotus test contract to stand in. Once he had his Arrows A11 set up to his liking he qualified 14th, but damage in the Gugelmin shunt obliged him so start Eddie Cheever’s spare car from the pit road. That was set to the American’s taste for oversteer, which Martin hates, but he struggled manfully with it to finish 12th despite the lack of a drink bottle on a blisteringly hot day. Circumstances might not have allowed him to shine particularly, but he did a good job in difficult conditions.
For some time Donnelly raced hard with team-mate Cheever and Nelson Piquet (his team-mate at Lotus, although you wouldn’t know it if the way he appropriated a special wing Donnelly had had made during Silverstone testing was anything to go by), but a trip up the escape road lost him ground.
The Pirelli runners had an awful time in Richard, whose abrasive surface and high ambient temperature proved anathema to the Italian rubber. Stefano Modena and Piero Martini were the best of that bunch, but both succumbed to engine problems without ever having run higher than 11th. Even the Dallaras were so far off the pace that Caffi damaged his over a kerb and de Cesaris failed to qualify.
If that was a downturn in fortune, March at least saw its form pick up – at least as far as Capelli was concerned, Ivan qualified 12th but leaped up to an impressive second for three laps after Nannini’s suspension breakage, though just as he seemed set for points his new Judd EV V8 blew spectacularly.
Gugelmin, none the worse for his mighty accident, raced strongly after an early stop to trace a misfire and then loss of his clutch, and actually set fastest lap after a brave and uncharacteristically aggressive performance.
However, his accident was but one of several worrying aspects at the meeting, where there was continued evidenced of poor safety standards at the French track.
There were the marshals in the first corner, clad in only the flimsiest protective overalls, and more intent on shifting those in safe places to places of greater danger. It transpired the “safe” were standing in front of advertising hoardings that might thus be obscured from the television cameras. There is, of course, nothing like getting priorities right.
That spread to the hangers-on who peppered turn one for the first ten minutes before they became bored and drifted away. The girl in the skimpy shorts and top wore a pass declaring her to be a track marshal; the guy with the donkey bag on his shoulder and the Gauloise in the side of his mouth, apparently, was a fireman . . . DJT