1989 British Grand Prix race report - The price of progress

The Price of Progress

Ayrton Senna must be wondering who he’s offended these days. Since Phoenix nothing has gone right for him. In Canada the engine blew a big hole in itself with mere laps to run. In France the differential broke at the restart. And in England it was the new transverse gearbox –and perhaps a touch too much brio –which proved his downfall. Worse, from his point of view, Alain Prost took yet another win, to build a 20-point lead in the World Championship.

Prost and Senna don’t get on. In the week leading up to the British GP, the Frenchman had made that abundantly clear in two specialist publication features. As ever, he didn’t mince his words nor hide behind lies. He doesn’t like Ayrton, and he said so.

He also spoke out against Honda, and what he feels is occasionally inequitable treatment. At Silverstone’s post-race conference Nigel Mansell attributed Prost’s recent run of success to the power of the Press in highlighting his complaints. Be that as it may, Prost had been on the pole twice in succession as qualifying got underway round the high-speed sweeps of the 2.9-mile British track, and Ayrton had something to prove.

All three McLaren MP4/5s were in “transverse trim” following extensive testing, but even that didn’t pinpoint an oil leak problem that stemmed from the production version of the new integral oil tank. Hasty modifications were made over the course of the weekend, and while Prost complained of a stiff down-change between third and second, and then a soft clutch pedal, Ayrton had to contend with an engine failure in free practice, and continued oil leaks. Neither man thus had an ideal crack at qualifying, yet once again they shared the front row, with Senna annexing the 35th pole of his career.

It was Prost who surged into the lead, but they were side by side as they went into Copse and with the inside line and the greater hunger, Ayrton asserted himself. On past performances he might have been expected to blast away, but there he was with not only Prost, but Mansell, glued to his new transmission.

The Englishman always goes well on his home ground, but to suggest that his top form was due simply to geographical considerations would be to do him an injustice. These days he is driving at the very peak of his form – Keke Rosberg’s theory is that he is much more relaxed, “whereas before he was always millions behind the others” –and it shows. Round Silverstone the Ferrari’s low-speed power deficit was less marked and, having dominated the morning warm-up after qualifying third, Mansell was in the mood for a fight.

For eleven glorious laps we had one, the three multi-cylinders wailing round nose to tail as Mansell piled on the pressure, determined to break his rivals. For the first time in a long while, there was somebody who could actually take the fight to the McLarens, and the crowd was going berserk.

It went madder still halfway round lap 12. By then Prost had let Senna build a five-car lead, sitting back just out of the worst of his turbulence and pondering the number of times he’d seen his rival nearly go off the road. Shrewd as ever, Prost had guessed that Ayrton was having the same shifting problem that he’d experienced in the previous days and was giving himself the right amount of room for manoeuvre.

Going into Becketts for the12th time, it happened. Just as Ayrton shifted down to third the selection baulked momentarily. In that instant the McLaren snapped sideways as he was unable to balance it with the application of power, and slithered backwards into the gravel trap. At other times in the day, the beds didn’t perform as they should, but this time the McLaren was struck firmly and that was that. For the fourth race in succession the pacesetter was not going to score.

Senna took philosophically what might well have cost him the championship, ignoring the crowd’s unfair catcalls and accepting that development is part and parcel of the job. If he felt that prudence might have been recommended in the circumstances, he gave no indication of it. All he could do was follow his racer’s instincts, and they told him to stay out front at all costs.

With the lead McLaren gone, Mansell’s fans prepared for their man to surge to the fore, but though he piled in the quick laps, Prost stayed just out of reach before easing out a cushion. After qualifying, Nigel had feared that the Honda’s bottom-end punch would be too strong, even though the Ferrari was faster through Stowe and Club, and though he’d been faster in the warm-up, race-day was his worst fears realised.

The two played a game of cat and mouse, Mansell never letting up and occasionally taking slices out of Prost’s lead, but the writing was on the wall: bar a miracle, the Ferrari wasn’t quite going to be good enough.

Then, as it headed down to Stowe for the 43rd time, came the deciding factor. Mansell felt the steering go heavy as the right front Goodyear deflated, and just managed to cruise back to the pits as the tortured rubber began to deform. The Ferrari team serviced him in less than ten seconds and he was back into the fray, and then four laps later the imbalance to Prost was restored when the Frenchman was delayed a good 12 seconds longer than he should have been during his tyre stop, when the right rear wheel proved troublesome.

The race climaxed in a battle to the line, with Mansell squeezing within 12 seconds of Prost but never quite able to get closer. The professor thus capitalised fully on his teammate’s misfortune, and no doubt smiled all the way back to Yens. Mansell’s had been an honourable defeat, with a car that isn’t quite up to McLaren standard. The portents are good, however. The F1/89 is now reliable and almost fast enough. All it needs now is less engine weight and more bottom-end power and torque. Don’t write off its chances of some further wins before the season is over.

There were also encouraging signs for Benetton, with Sandro Nannini emerging form an initial fight over third place with the two Williams, a revitalised (at last) Piquet and Ivan Capelli in the Leyton House March. The B189 had consumed its front Goodyears at an unhealthy rate, so Sandro came in early, and then flew on his replacement rubber. As Boutsen fell back Piquet moved up to fourth in the Camel Lotus 101, and a good fourth it was, too, not an inheritance like Montreal.

He was chasing after a fast disappearing Riccardo Patrese when the Italian’s Williams suddenly snapped sideways at Club before vaulting the gravel bed and landing in the wall with a hefty impact. The cool Patrese stepped out unhurt, and it transpired a punctured water radiator had ejected the cooling system’s contents over the nearside rear wheel.

Nannini’s relentless pursuit of the Lotus was made slightly easier when Piquet encountered high temperatures and the red oil light began winking at him for many laps, but once he’d taken the decision to carry on until the bitter end it went out, and left him to revel in his 101’s aerodynamic excellence and stability under braking. It was a timely vindication of Frank Dernie’s design and a fillip for a team very much in the doldrums at present.

Ultimately, he could contain Nannini no longer and the Benetton swept by on lap 56 and pulled away to a strong result that suggests the compact Ford V8 might yet get on terms with its multi-cylinder rivals despite its lateness. Interestingly, while Mansell set fastest lap with 1 min 12. 017 sec, Prost did 1 min 12.193 sec and Nannini 1 min 12.397 . . .

Of the other third place protagonists, Boutsen soldiered on to finish an undistinguished 10th after losing his clutch early on, while Capelli ground to a halt with transmission failure on lap 16. Team-mate Maruicio Gugelmin had overshadowed him in qualifying, to line up sixth and best V8, but for the second race running he started from the pit road after his CG891 sprang a last-moment water leak. He had driven diligently through the field to fifth when he, too, suffered transmission failure of a different nature on lap 55. It was thus a miserable race for March, but one which at least proved Gugelmin’s assertion that Adrian Newey’s car is now becoming sorted and should be as efficient as the 881 eventually was.

Gerhard Berger should have run with the three leaders, and did so for the first three laps before diving into the pits for a new engine-management box. By the time he got racing again his cause was a lost one, and when his gearbox redeveloped the leak that had dogged him in the raceday warm-up, he rolled to a halt at Woodcote on lap 50. Now that he has made the decision to move to McLaren in 1990, he must desperately be hoping for some Prost-like reliability.

One team which went to Silverstone hoping against hope was SCM Minardi, which faced the grisly prospect of prequalifying if it failed to score its first points of the season. From the word go it was obvious that Aldo Costa and Nigel Couperthwaite had produced a car well suited to the high-speed circuit, and despite lack of testing Pierluigi Martini was flying, eventually qualifying a respectable 11th. In the race he was ninth on the opening lap before demoting Martin Brundle’s Brabham, but when he spied his water temperature needle sliding up the gauge he pitted for inspection. The car has had a history of overheating, but this time the reading was spurious, and he tore back out to begin a remarkable recovery drive which finally netted him a vital fifth by the flag.

To make matters even better for the Italian team, Spaniard Luis Sala fended off a strong challenge from Olivier Grouillard to grab the final point, the first of his career, and the total of three was sufficient to keep the team in the respectable part of the paddock.

That, however, was bad news for Moneytron Onyx, which looked as if it had escaped pre-qualifying with Stefan Johansson’s fifth in France, but slipped back into it when Stefan failed to get through Friday’s session and then Bertrand Gachot, who had been fastest in it, crashed his 21st-quickest ORE-1 in the raceday morning warm-up. He would only manage 12th in the ill-sorted spare.

Elsewhere, trouble went in twos at Silverstone. Once again Jean Alesi proved faster than Camel Tyrrell partner Jonathan Palmer, partly through tyre-choice and partly because Palmer’s handling had deteriorated badly since he ran ninth fastest in the morning. Alesi once again impressed as he sprinted up to sixth on lap 22, but as he was tailing Philippe Alliot’s Larrousse Lola through Club on lap 29 he got a little too close and lost it in the latter’s dirty air. The Tyrrell looped into a spin that came dangerously close to wiping out Nakajima and Brundle, and came to rest stalled and immobile on the infield near Abbey. Four laps later Palmer was also out, dropping his 018 as he rounded Stowe. The doctor had been wrestling with an ungainly transition from understeer to oversteer, as well as overheating, and the Tyrrell looked a sorry mess minus its right front wheel.

The Larrousse duo of Alliot and Eric Bernard might also have been points contenders – they certainly needed to be to avoid pre-qualifying – but Philippe became more ragged as he battled with fading power and a recalcitrant gearbox before the engine blew, and the impressive Bernard suffered similar problems. The Brabhams, too, were unlucky, both Modena and Brundle going out with engine failure. The Italian was poised for points in seventh place on lap 32, but an early stop cost the Englishman dear and he was still only 14th at the time of his demise. The team’s sold consolidation was that, after Silverstone, it would no longer have to pre-qualify.

Dallara, likewise, escapes from Hockenheim onwards, which is a relief to Alex Caffi who failed to make it through this time after fuel pressure problems. In all, it was a disastrous weekend for the team, with de Cesaris just scraping in and then retiring early with engine failure after a near collision with Moreno’s stumbling Coloni, which qualified well but retired after only three laps with faulty transmission.

Few seriously expected Derek Warwick to race at Silverstone, but against predictions he qualified 19th, which was just as well since a mortified Eddie Cheever failed to make it. The USF&G Arrows was a hopeless handful, but the fourth Briton in the race hauled it home a worthy ninth in a triumph of mind over matter.

The British Grand Prix promised much for Osella, with Nicola Larini impressing in testing and then qualifying a respectable 17th, but it all fell apart for him at the end of the warm-up lap when he pitted to have a loose mirror removed. It wasn’t rearward vision that was to trouble him prior to retirement with engine failure, through, but what he saw as he exited Woodcote at the end of his first, delayed lap. Smack in front of him were FISA’s President Jean-Marie Balestre and Chief Safety Officer Roland Bruynserade who had started to cross the track in leisurely style from the starting gantry, having forgotten the Osella, and ended up making safety with only feet to spare . . .

The British GP never quite developed into the needle match everyone had hoped for, but the pointers are there. Given a few more races, Ferrari should be in a position to offer a serious threat to McLaren, and that’s exactly what Formula One needs right now. DJT