Formula One scene

Wound Up Tight

The first half of the 1989 Formula One season ended on a high-speed note round the flat speedway of Silverstone with average lap speeds of well over 150mph, which puts a touch of Grand into Grand Prix racing, to remove it from an activity that any clubman or spectator can easily identify with.

After a hesitant and inconclusive start in Brazil, the form for the season seemed to be set on the excellent Grand Prix circuit at Imola. Then followed the accepted and established scratch round the streets of Monte Carlo, which, while it would not be taken very seriously, did confirm the fact that McLaren-Honda and Ayrton Senna could set the pace and win anywhere, providing all things were equal. From the glamour of Monte Carlo the Formula One “circus” headed off to the heights of Mexico City and followed that by the intense heat of Phoenix, Arizona. The “grand tour” of three races in four weeks on the North American continent ending up in Canada with what should have been a more temperate affair on a medium-fast interesting circuit in good summer weather, but which turned out to be a wet farce on a cold skating rink.

Three Grand Prix races in four weeks does not sound much, but when the teams are away from their home bases that long the strain begins to show; not in any large and obvious way but in small things, and by the time of the Canadian Grand Prix there were some justifiably jaded people about and spares and equipment were showing the strain and the total domination by McLaren-Honda was not looking so total.

Last year the McLaren team was unapproachable, as the Japanese perfected their control of the turbocharged V6 engine, but they could not perfect the human element and Senna threw away the Italian Grand Prix. As team mate Prost had already retired with mechanical problems, the race was left wide open for anyone to win. It was poetic justice that Ferrari stepped into the breech, with Gerhard Berger claiming the laurels.

Nobody complained because all season Berger and Ferrari had been doing heroic things hanging on to the tail of the red-and-white cars, so if anyone was going to “luck” into a win it just had to be Berger.

This year the same situation arose in Canada, when after practice sessions that confirmed the McLaren-Honda strength, torrential rain and bouts of sunshine on race day upset the whole affair. One local Montreal newspaper commentator summed up his Canadian Grand Prix very succinctly; “it was like trying to eat soup with fork; messy, very messy”.

As drivers slid into and out of the pit-lane, changing tyres from “wets” to “dries”, usually just at the wrong moment, and others slid off the road into retirement, it began to look as though anyone who finished might be the winner. At one point Derek Warwick was leading with his Arrows-Cosworth V8. Prost had disappeared soon after the start with suspension mounting-point failure on his McLaren MP4/5, but Senna eventually got the situation in hand and was ploughing his way through the spray to a certain victory when his Honda V10 went bang, just as he was passing the pits. There was no question of limping around the pits to see if anything could be done. The bang was terminal and even Honda itself admitted openly that “the engine had broken”.

At Monza last year there was no need to ask who was leading when the second Honda disappeared: a hundred thousand Italians told the whole of north Italy in no uncertain manner. In Montreal the dripping of the rain was all that was heard when the V10 Honda cut dead. Then we looked around and said “Oh that’s nice”, because Thierry Boutsen was leading in a Williams-Renault V10.

From the start of the season the only team that seemed capable of challenging McLaren-Honda technically, with much as-yet-untouched potential, has been the combination of Patrick Head’s car design, the Williams team’s experience, and Regie Renault’s brand new V10 engine. Lacking the driver force of Senna and Prost, Williams-Renault has never been that far behind, so this lucky victory, with the added bonus of Patrese in second place, was well deserved. What would have been intolerable would have been to have to watch a complete no hoper in a home-made car trailing in to victory because he was the only one left in the running at the end. The Canadian Grand Prix did not suffer such an ignominy.

It was typically ironic that a few hours after the Montreal race, when everyone was packing up for the last time on the Grand Tour, summer returned with blue skies and hot sunshine. There are times when you get the feeling that someone, somewhere does not approve of the Formula One World Circus! A return to England and a visit to Silverstone for a pre-Grand Prix tyre test day confirmed the feeling: it rained and rained, at the height of the English summer!

That wet day there was one delightful consolation. As soon as the track opened after the lunch break the rain had stopped briefly and Berger went out in the V12 Ferrari. There were no other cars on the track, nobody in the pit-lane was warming up an engine, nobody in the pit garages was running an engine, none of the big diesel trucks were shuffling about, no helicopters were taking off and there was not a sound form the public-address system.

All you could hear was the high-pitched scream of the Ferrari V12, and you could hear it the whole way round Silverstone. It never missed a beat; you could not measure the time interval of gear-changes, there was just this glorious sound and nothing else. As Berger came into the pits there was complete silence for a few seconds. It set the adrenalin flowing. Then someone started up a Cosworth V8 and the spell was broken.

Actually, there was quite a lot happening during those Silverstone test days. With the first public appearance of the new Benetton carrying the Ford Motor Company’s new Cosworth engine hopes; Lotus trying out its new Judd engine, with special heads by Tickford Engineering; Tyrrell trying out his car with sponsorship for the first time this year; the Larrousse team trying out new drivers’ and McLaren-Honda so busy you would have thought it was race weekend.

What was clear was that the rather jaded atmosphere in Canada was completely gone and everyone was wound up tight again in readiness for the next race, which was to be the French Grand Prix on the flat Paul Ricard circuit (or rather half of it) down on the South coast of France, almost within sight of the Mediterranean Sea, under the blazing summer skies. If it is variety you want, then the Formula One Circus provides it.

Normally the half-way point in a Grand Prix season does not mean very much. It is either viewed as a point where people are pleased to have survived, where they dread another eight races, where they start a round of musical chairs with cars, engines or designers, or they view the future as being pointless and leading to nowhere, like the last half of the 1988.

This year, even before the eighth race, there was a renewed excitement about the place. To their chagrin McLaren and Honda had revealed chinks in their armour, but only very small ones, while Ferrari and Williams-Renault were wondering whether the tips of their blades would fit the chinks. Renault in particular was bubbling over with enthusiasm for its cause, because it was much closer to Honda that it anticipated. There is no question about the Regie Renault’s aims. It did not return to Formula One to trail along behind Honda and Ferrari, but it was realistic enough to not expect to be beating them in its first season.

Both Honda and Renault have already stated their aims for the next year, and the statements are significant. Honda is making its engines available exclusively to McLaren for another year, and Renault is making its engines available exclusively to Williams again. Both industrial giants are out to win, not to disperse their efforts in supporting lame-duck teams that at best could only keep up and have little hope of winning. Ferrrari has never wavered from such an objective. Ferrari engines are for Ferrrari cars, and Ferrari cars use Ferrari engines, the aim to bring victory to Ferrari. It is all pretty simple down at Maranello on the surface; it is under the surface that things become complicated and they have been far from clear since the death of Enzo Ferrari last year.

If Fiat were to take over complete control of the Ferrari team racing team, and move the whole affair up to the Turin headquarters and Research and Development department, it would be forced to call the cars Fiat. If that was done, they would have to win. When Ferrrari is beaten there is a feeling of sympathy for “the poor little Ferrrari team, doing battle against the might of Honda and Renault, but if Fiat were beaten by French and Japanese automotive giants there would be a different atmosphere altogether.

Since Enzo Ferrari went there have been almost continuous changes among the Ferrari personnel, but as yet there are not clear signs on which direction things are moving, if they are moving. John Barnard’s engineering design connections (an association which has been fraught with “hang–ups” due to his refusal to live and work in Italy) are coming to an end. Whether the famed Scuderia Ferrari keeps its identity or becomes something else we probably will not know until it is changed. In the meantime the cars are still red, make lovely noises, and can challenge most things.

At the French Grand Prix Renault introduced its Phase Two engine, outwardly still the same V10 with rubber-belt driven camshafts, but greatly improved internally to give better performance. The test running was satisfactory enough for it to equip both the Williams race cars with these engines.

Unfortunately Patrese’s suffered a minor fault on the parade lap and while the field got away he was walking back to the pits despairing at having not even made the starting grid. Imagine his disbelief and surprise to find the race stopped, due to the multi-car shunt at the first corner, and being able to join in the re-start with the T-car, albeit with a Phase One engine. This brought him home to a totally unexpected third place, while Boutsen had to retire with the new engine.

We should remember that Honda never even raced its original V10 engine, which had rubber-belt camshaft drive. It decide it needed more control over valve-timing accuracy than toothed-belts could supply, and re-designed the engine before the first race to utilize gear-drivers to the camshafts. Since the failure in Canada, it admits to having re-designed the lubricating system, so we can now assume this is Phase Three of the development programme.

A programme is already well under way on a V12 engine, such is the pace of R & D in Japan. Nonetheless, I don’t discount Regie Renault, for at the height of the turbocharged era, with unrestricted boost, its engine was the equal of Honda, BMW and Porsche, and they were forcing the pace.

There is very distinct Second Division in the engine race in Formula One, and this is for V8 engines.

At the French Grand Prix, the new Benetton B189 appeared in Alessandro Nannini’s hands, there being two complete new cars for his use. This new car uses the new Cosworth V8 EXP, designed and built for the Ford Motor Company and exclusive to the Benetton team. Brief details of the narrower-angle V8 were released well before the season began, but some major flaws appeared when the engine was run in the chassis that had not shown up on the test-bed, and re-designing and making new components delayed progress.

Throughout practice the engines proved reliable and well able to lead Division Two, and in the race the B189 ran strongly until the Benetton rear suspension broke, so Ford could be well pleased with Cosworth’s progress, even though it is six months late. In the “production section of Division Two the Cosworth service department vies with Brian Hart and Heini Mader to produce the best DFR results.

On the other side of the V8 coin are the Judd variations, the production versions being sold and serviced for a number of teams, while the March team has exclusive use of the 1989 improved version. Alongside all this Tickford Engineering has produced its own version of the Judd V8 in conjunction with Lotus. This engine has new cylinder heads using five valves per cylinder, three inlet and two exhaust. The latter are operated by the normal Judd camshaft but the three inlet valves are operated by two inlet camshafts, one driven by the other from the opposite end to the normal Judd gear-drive from the back of the crankshaft.

Three of these new Tickford-Judd engines were in use by Team Lotus during practice and qualifying in France, but trouble intervened and it was deemed prudent not to race them just yet. With five valves in each cylinder there are an awful lot of bits to get bent if something goes wrong in the driving mechanism!

Behind the scenes in Division Two are the Zakspeed cars with Yamaha V8 engines, using Yamaha’s long proven five-valve layout. They are still behind the scenes because the drivers are not yet able to claw their way out of pre-qualifying, but no doubt Yamaha is quietly learning about Formula One.

Starting from the very bottom has been the V12 engine designed by Mauro Forghieri since he left Ferrari. This engine is clearly labelled Chrysler-Lamborghini, and in recent races it has passed through Division Two and seems well capable of hanging onto the tail of the big boys. From the start Gerard Larrousse had an agreement for the exclusive use of this engine in his cars which are designed by Lola but contain a strong Larrousse and Ducarouge influence. It has reached the point where one begins to wonder just how well the car would go if Alain Prost were driving it rather than Pilippe Alliot. In the same way one looks at the William-Renault V10 with Thierry Boutsen driving it and wonders how it would perform with Ayrton Senna in the cockpit.

On the non-mechanical front the French Grand Prix saw quite a changes in the overall scene, some serious, some a bit frivolous, but all adding to a sense of urgency for the coming second half of the 1989 season.

Ken Tyrrell announced at the Silverstone tyre test days that he now had some backing from XP Parcels Express, and made a lot of play over the fact that his cars would not be changing their colour form the nondescript Team Tyrrell blue. Hardly had the rain dried on the new decals of XP Parcels Express on the Tyrrell side-pods, than the upper surfaces of the car were painted bright yellow to signify sponsorship form Camel cigarettes.

Not surprisingly there was a bit of a stir behind the scenes, for Michele Alboreto is personally sponsored by Marlboro cigarettes. The result of “negotiations” between the two fag companies saw Alboreto missing from the French Grand Prix and his place taken (temporarily we are told) by Jean Alesi, a young French driver of Sicilian origin, who is sponsored by Camel cigarettes in Formula 3000! Poor XP Parcels Express suddenly found itself overshadowed by things beyond its control!

For some time now it has been obvious that RJ Reynolds, through its Camel brand, has been trying to topple Marlboro form the top of the tree. Remembering that Marlboro colours the McLaren-Hondas and Prost and Senna, Camel has no easy task on its hands.

Other changes of drivers – some temporary, some not – involved the arrows team “borrowing” Martin Donnelly from Lotus to replace Derek Warwick, who was suffering a back injury caused by a go-kart accident, Larrousse putting Yannick Dalmas out to grass for not being quick enough, and giving Eric Bernard a go in the Lamborghini-powered Lola, and Benetton deciding that Johnny Herbert was not mending properly and putting him on the shelf in favour of Emanuele Pirro (whom it borrowed from McLaren-Honda, where he had been doing test-driving in Japan and elsewhere). The result of these musical chairs was that one or two seasoned drivers were having to try a bit harder than normal in order to save face among the “new boys”.

To crown everything on the driver front, Alain Prost announced that he would not be driving for the McLaren-Honda team next year, making the announcement at the French Grand Prix in order to give Ron Dennis ample time to negotiate for a replacement. The queue outside the McLaren motorhome was quite long, most of the drivers wasting their time, needless to say.

Prost has simply said that he will not be racing for McLaren-Honda in 1990, no more than that. The rest is pure speculation, but he did not say he was retiring from Formula One, or from driving, but time will tell and I am sure it will prove interesting when he tells us what he is going to do in 1990.