Bastille Day Celebrations
Silverstone July 14. In my report of the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix (Motor Sport June 1991) after the combination of McLaren/Honda/Senna had won their fourth race on the trot I wrote the following: “When someone appears and beats the McLaren/Honda/Senna combination fairly and squarely, not by luck or misfortune, it is going to be well worthwhile being there, for what ever the combination is it will be something very special.” I think I can now say without fear of contradiction, that the occasion arrived in all its glory at the rebuilt Silverstone circuit on the occasion of the British Grand Prix, and something in the region of 150,000 people were there to witness it. That combination was Williams/Renault/Mansell, though to read our daily newspapers you would think Mansell did it all himself.
He made fastest time in the Friday morning test-session, fastest time in the Friday Qualifying period, fastest time on Saturday morning, fastest again in Saturday Qualifying, fastest in the Sunday morning “warm-up” session, and fastest lap in the race which set a new record for the new Silverstone circuit. His pole position lap was at a speed of 144.420 mph, his race average was 131.227 mph and his lap record was 135.325 mph. Nigel Mansell was the disputed master of the whole three days of the British Grand Prix, and he used a Williams FW14 car powered by a Renault V10 RS3 engine.
Where were all the rest? They were all there in great force and trying hard but failed to stop the meteoric flight of the Boy from Birmingham. The Williams-Renault team had begun to show their true potential at the San Marino GP, and then at Monaco. By the time of the Canadian GP the warnings to McLaren/Honda/Senna were clear and by Mexico defeat of the all-conquering Anglo-Japanese team was a fact, to be hammered home in the French GP. At our own Grand Prix at our “home of motor racing” the domination was complete. It did not arrive over-night but is the result of Williams and Renault, together with all their supporters and suppliers, keeping hard at it to gain a tiny advantage here, another there, a one percent improvement on this and a one percent improvement on that on the myriad of components that go to make up a modern Formula One car. It would be too simple to say that the Williams chassis is better than the McLaren, or the Renault V10 engine develops more power than the Honda V12. It is minute attention to every aspect of a racing car that might show a small improvement over the opposition. While Patrick Head and Adrian Newey work away on the car and all its complexities, and the aerodynamics, Bernard Dudot and the Renault engineers work away at engine development, not just in the search for more horsepower and more torque, but more efficiency coupled with more economy, allowing the Williams to start the race with less fuel load for example. If the aerodynamics are more efficient than the opposition then Renault power can be used for other things than overcoming air drag, or if the opposition have to use more of their horsepower to overcome higher drag for the same ‘down-force’ and cornering power, so much the better, and if the Williams driver can save one hundredth of a second on a gear change, then in 100 gearchanges he already has a second advantage. This minute advantage on all fronts is the way Williams and Renault have been approaching their joint Formula One venture in perfect harmony.
That Nigel Mansell would rise to the occasion to use all these small advantages to the full in his endeavours to win has never been in doubt, though during the hard learning period there were times when you could not help wondering if he really understood the engineering philosophy of Williams and Renault. But no matter, he did a near perfect job at the British Grand Prix, much to the joy of his thousands of vociferous supporters. I say “near perfect job” with well-meaning criticism, because by his own admission he did not make a perfect start when the green lights shone, and Ayrton Senna in second place on the grid, beat him away and led through Copse, the new Becketts and down Hanger Straight, but then Mansell out-braked him into the new tight Stowe Corner and was away. Senna had planned to run a controlled race, conserving his tyre wear to aim to make a non-stop run over the 59 laps, in the hope that Mansell might have to stop for new tyres. His McLaren-Honda V12 had never really been a match for the Williams-Renault throughout testing and qualifying, no matter how hard he had tried, and anyone who was watching Saturday’s qualifying will know that he tried very hard.
McLaren had five cars in the paddock for Friday and Saturday and Honda had various versions of their V12 engines installed, Senna having the choice of three cars and Berger the choice of two. We know that Honda engines never blow up, but one did on Berger on Friday and another on Senna on Saturday. The engines were being wound up very tight in the Japanese attempt to combat the French, and were paying the price. Nothing simple like a broken valve or a timing gear, they were big and expensive bangs with the undertray full of ‘shrapnel’; one member of paddock fraternity had a piece in his pocket as a souvenir!
For a change Mansell had to ‘fight the good fight’ without any help from his teammate, for though Patrese was just behind him on the grid he only got as far as the first corner when he was punted by Senna’s team-mate Berger, and the Williams spun off into the gravel with too much damage to hope to continue racing. A somewhat mortified Patrese limped the car round to the pits into retirement, while Berger chased after Moreno’s Benetton which had made a super start. Once by, Berger seemed securely in place behind Senna, but they were both already a long way behind the flying Mansell. This little fracas on the first corner put the rest of the field into some confusion, with a few unintentional nudges and bumps.
In the opening stage Mansell was in a class of his own, pulling relentlessly away from Senna who looked content to pace himself in a secure second place, there being no possibility to actually ‘race’, while the two Ferraris of Prost and Alesi were shaking off Gugelmin in the turquoise Leyton House-Ilmor V10, getting past Moreno and setting their sights on Berger’s McLaren. Both Ferraris were the new 643 models, as appeared in the French GP, and a third new one had been completed during the practice days. The new Silverstone may have a lot of corners compared to the old perimeter track, but some of them are VERY fast, notably the Becketts swerves, and Abbey and the new Bridge corner, and the Ferraris did not look as promising as they had in France.
The scuffle with Patrese at the first corner had damaged a front wheel on Berger’s McLaren which was causing a bad vibration, so before the two Ferraris caught him he slowed up and headed for the pits for a change of wheels and tyres all round, which dropped him to sixth place, behind Piquet who was getting into a good stride after being put off his stroke by the first corner trouble. Berger was regaining ground rapidly after his stop, but had he looked back he would have seen the Emerald green Jordan of Bertrand Gachot going splendidly and by far the “best of the rest”. The young “European” had tangled with another car at the start and suffered a spin, so that he was 24th at the end of the opening lap, the only car behind him being Alboreto’s Footwork-Cosworth which had been forced to start from the pit lane.
Gachot’s progress up through the tail-enders and mid-field runners was quite something, picking them off one by one until he was up behind Piquet in seventh place by lap 22. Both Jordans had gone well in qualifying and after the first qualifying period de Cesaris was actually ahead of both Ferraris, both Benettons and both Tyrrells, as well as many others. Their stability through the high-speed Becketts swerves was visibly impressive. In the race de Cesaris was holding eighth place but his rear tyres were wearing badly and he had to stop for new tyres all round which dropped him way down the field, but like his young team-mates he was soon fighting his way back towards the front. It came to a violent end when something broke in the rear of the car and pitched it into the barriers at Abbey curve at very high speed, the driver escaping unhurt, but was that early tyre wear a warning that something was wrong.
Out in front Nigel Mansell was being encouraged by the crowds all round the circuit, and no doubt by many millions sitting in front of their television sets, but everything was well under control. Some of the lesser runners were anything but under control, Ivan Capelli muffing a gearchange as he approached the first corner of the new Woodcote complex, and spinning off into the gravel and out of the race. Moreno had been leading his team-mate Piquet but an ominous trail of oil smoke was following his Benetton. It was oil leaking from the gearbox and after a few laps the inevitable happened. Gugelmin’s early good run ended when he made a pit stop for a change of tyres, which did not go too smoothly, and then the under-body broke loose and the aerodynamic battering and vibration just about pulverised the Brazilian’s legs and he was forced to give up.
The lone Footwork and the lone Ligier that qualified for the grid both disappeared from the scene without making much of a showing, and Martin Brundle’s Brabham-Yamaha retired with a broken throttle control. He had been forced to take the t-car due to engine trouble in his race car, and was looking quite promising in mid-field before being put out. Team-mate Mark Blundell had been keeping station with him for much of the time and actually got as high as eighth place at one point, but a stop for new Pirellis put him back to 12th place. With only six laps to go he looked set for a finish when the Yamaha V12 expired.
The two Ferraris had been running along close together in their chase of Berger’s McLaren, and though Prost was ahead of Alesi in the opening stages the young newcomer got tired of that and forced his way past his team-leader in a fairly unruly manner, and they stayed in that order until they started to lap the mid-field runners.
Coming up to lap Suzuki’s Larrousse-Lola Alesi collided with the Japanese driver’s car, punting it off onto the barriers and wrecking the nose of the Ferrari. Prost reacted remarkably quickly and avoided the wreckage, to annexe third place, and Alesi limped on to the pits and into retirement.
Berger’s pursuit of the Ferraris after his pit stop was impressive and he eventually caught and passed Prost on lap 43, to retake third place behind Senna, which was all impressive stuff for the McLaren team except for the fact that Mansell was way out ahead of them both, virtually out of their sight. More as an insurance then from necessity Mansell made a stop for a new set of Goodyears, and was away before Senna’s McLaren-Honda came into view. In the closing laps Mansell felt his gear change mechanism was giving signs of trouble, so he drove as carefully as he could, having sufficient lead over Senna to ease off slightly and make fewer gearchanges.
Piquet made a stop for new Pirelli tyres, which put him back between the Tyrrell-Hondas of Modena and Nakajima. As he was lining up to take Modena, Mansell came up to lap them both, and Piquet applied his immense track-craft to profit from the ‘traffic’ created to get past the Tyrrell, even though they were now a whole lap down on the Williams-Renault. With four laps to go Piquet got past Gachot’s Jordan, to take fifth place, but as he openly says “The Benetton-Cosworth V8 has got a long way to go to become a proper front-runner”.
As Mansell started his last lap, with McLaren-Honda, Ferrari and the rest truly beaten by the Williams-Renault, he was almost holding his breath, remembering what happened in Canada, but he need not have worried — the gods were with him this time and he took the chequered flag to thunderous cheers and emotional enthusiasm from an immensely patriotic crowd. There was consternation in the pit lane when Berger arrived in second place, followed by Prost. Senna’s Honda V12 had died on him, out near Club Corner, later said to be due to the tank being empty of fuel, even though the on-board computer maintained there was plenty in the tank! The Brazilian could do nothing, except feel like Mansell had on the last lap of the Canadian GP.
As he came round on his slowing-down, or cooling-off, lap Mansell stopped and let Senna clamber on the side-pod for a lift back to the finish area. Meanwhile the enthusiastic crowds poured over the fences and onto the track in a display of enthusiasm equal to an Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The big difference was that once the prize giving ceremony was over they all went back over the fences and the two support races that were scheduled to complete the very busy program, of which the Grand Prix had been the star feature, were able to take place.
It was fitting that Mansell should enjoy such a splendid victory in front of his home crowd, but equally fitting that Renault should triumph on July 14th “Bastille Day” a very important date for the French. At the beginning of the season Monsieur Patrick Faure, the head of Renault-Sport who design, built and develop the V10 Renault engines, said “If you want to create a winning image for yourselves in the public eye, you’ve got to be in the first three. Anything less than that and you are just one of the faceless crowd”. After winning in Mexico, winning the French Grand Prix, and now winning the British Grand Prix on “Bastille Day” he must be well pleased. It is true to say that Renault have never been part of the faceless crowd, ever since they started in Formula One with their turbocharged car. That memorable day was the Thursday practice for the 1977 British Grand Prix, held on Saturday in those days. The date was July 14th. — DSJ
Results (top five): British GP, Silverstone (new) July 14
59 laps of 5.226 circuit (308.306 km; 191.573 miles
1. Nigel Mansell, GB, (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1h 27m 35.479s
2. Gerhard Berger, AUT, (McLaren MP4/6 – Honda V12) 1h 28m 17.772s
3 Alain Prost, F, (Ferrari F1/91B – Ferrari V12) 1h 28m 35.629s
4. Ayrton Senna, BRA, (McLaren MP4/6 – Honda V12) 1 lap behind
5. Nelson Piquet, BRA, (Benetton B191 – Cosworth V8 EXP) 1 lap behind
Conditions: Warm and sunny
Winner’s Average Speed 211.190 kph (131.227 mph)
Fastest Lap: Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 – Renault V10) 1m 26.379 s on lap 43; 217.784 kph (135.325 mph)
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