Nigel Mansell, A J Foyt, Niki Lauda and Jack Brabham – legends all and each, in true legendary style, enjoyed a final flourish. The last time they put the youngsters in their place is recalled by David Malsher
Nigel Mansell 1994 Australian Grand Prix
It had been an unsatisfactory Formula One season in almost every respect, far and away the worst aspect being the double tragedy at Imola. In the weeks following that hideous weekend, Patrick Faure of Renault decided Williams must have a star name in the cockpit to help in the quest for the partnership’s third championship in a row.
In Adelaide then, Nigel Mansell would start the final part of his $1.5m-per-race deal, which saw him replacing rookie David Coulthard. So far, he had looked poor value. In France he had spurred Damon into the most spectacular pole position of his career, but on raceday Mansell retired from a distant third place. At Jerez, he qualified fourth and spun out of 16th place on lap 48.
John Russell was the engineer on Hill’s car for most of the year, but at Monza swapped with David Brown to engineer Coulthard. Now he found himself with his third driver of the year.
“David would’ve done a better job than Nigel in Spain. Nigel’s concentration and stamina weren’t good enough. And the brakes, the big difference between ChampCars and F1, caught him out.
“But then he got in shape, and it started to gel in Japan. Suzuka’s a ballsy circuit, and through the 130R corner he was spectacular. If it had stayed dry, I’m convinced he would have been on pole.” In Australia, rain was predicted for Saturday which meant Friday times would be crucial. Hill elected to concentrate on race set-up, so Nigel became the team’s best hope for pole. When Schumacher skimmed 0.4sec off the Briton’s time, Nigel was ready to respond, but on his next flyer met Johnny Herbert’s Benetton broadside across the track. Tweaking the car into a halfspin, he screeched to a halt with inches to spare, before flicking into gear, booting the tail round and setting off again. Two laps later, he had taken back pole. Pure Mansell. Schumacher’s response ended in a huge shunt at the chicane.
Mansell got it wrong at the start, though, while championship protagonists Schumacher and Hill jumped into first and second. To compound matters, Nigel then proceeded to unbalance his car by going briefly off course, and ended the first lap in fifth, behind Mika Halcirinen’s McLaren and the Jordan of Rubens-Banichello. It would take until lap 21 for him to reach third, by which time Schumacher and Hill were long gone. Still, they were on a threestop strategy, Nigel was on a two-stop. Could he catch them?
We’ll never know, for on lap 36 came the infamous incident which won Schumacher the title. That left Mansell and Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari fighting for the lead. The Austrian, on a one-stop strategy, appeared to be sitting pretty, just two seconds behind a Williams which would have to stop again. And, sure enough, the Williams pitstop on lap 54 left Berger with a 20sec lead. Surely Nigel couldn’t make that up in 26 laps, even on new tyres?
He didn’t have to; Ferrari changed tactics, believing they could give Berger a dash of fuel and new rubber without losing the lead. They were right, and he emerged from the pits on lap 57 still 5sec clear of Mansell. But now the Briton had the whiff of victory in his nostrils, and rapidly hunted down his quarry.
On lap 64, he harried Berger into missing a braking point and ducked through into a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. They finished 2.5sec apart.
“It was a fatigue race,” says Russell. “Nigel and Gerhard’s lap times were up and down. In the pits, there was disappointment over Damon’s title bid, of course, but Frank Williams and Patrick Head were still pleased to see one of their cars win the race.”
It would prove to be Mansell’s last race for Frank’s F1 team; Coulthard was eventually signed to partner Hill in 1995.
If only Nigel could have left it at that.
A J Foyt 1991 Indianapolis 500
The punchy, aggressive name inspires awe. And so it should. He is a true hero who has been there and done it all — except Formula One. But that is grand prix racing’s loss, not his.
In 1978, Foyt won two USAC races, and when CART formed as a breakaway group in 79 (taking almost all the best teams and drivers with it), he stuck by USAC as it attempted to plug on. Against little opposition, he scored five victories, bringing his ChampCar victory tally to 67, a record which will probably never be broken. But did he feel those last five victories were a little hollow? Or did he miss racing old rivals Mario Andretti and Al Unser? Whatever, Foyt switched to CART; from two races in 1980, he made more and more appearances in the championship. In ’88, he contested virtually the whole season.
In qualifying, there were flashes of his old, phenomenal speed, but in those eight years there was just one podium finish (second at Milwaukee in ’82). It seemed like Graham Hill Syndrome — a great tarnishing his reputation while denying the inevitable. Yes, Foyt could point to the Indy 500s of ’89 and ’90 (both top-six finishes). But now, in his mid-fifties, did he still need the aggro?
A huge crash at Elkhart Lake towards the end of the ’90 season seemed like fate making the decision for him. The violence of the accident, caused by brake failure, saw the front half of the car ripped open, and Foyt’s legs and feet were so badly damaged there was a period when it seemed they might have to be removed. Then came rumours that he would be at Indy for the 34th year on the trot. For all the adulation as Foyt eased his aching legs into his Jim Gilmore-run, self-owned Lola-Chevrolet that qualifying day, how many onlookers could deny their nerves were jangling? One of the best drivers ever, a four-time Indy 500 winner, was about to put it all on the line. A mid-grid position wouldn’t satisfy him, scraping onto the back row would embarrass everyone; but the worst scenario was a shunt He couldn’t afford to damage those legs again.
It was llam, this was the first qualifying run of Saturday, track conditions looked okay, but when you are covering a soccer field every second, ‘looked okay’ isn’t very reassuring. But A J is made of stem stuff, and tripped the speedtraps at over 230mph as he crossed the start-finish line to commence his four-lap run. Unlike some of the regular front-runners, he seemed untroubled by the turbo boost-restricting pop-off valves. Neat, precise and committed, he stopped the clocks at 2min 41.839sec. As he got off the throttle, the news was yelled over the PA system: Foyt had just done a four-lap average of 222.443mph.
A roar from the packed grandstands; Foyt, never the sentimental sort, nonetheless waved a gloved hand in acknowledgement Perhaps even he was thinking back to his first Brickyard win 30 years ago. Able to get out of the car only with the aid of a mechanic, helmet not quite disguising the pain written across his face, Anthony Joseph may have guessed what he had achieved. As track conditions gradually deteriorated, only Rick Mears was able to beat the man in black. At 56 years of age, Foyt would start the Indy 500 from the front row for the eighth time in his career.
Come the race two weeks later, he predictably faded soon after the start, but it was the manner of his retirement — debris from someone else’s accident took out his suspension — that compelled him to come back in 1992. He finished ninth. Still dissatisfied, he was lying fourth-quickest in a practice session for the ’93 500 when his other car, driven by Robby Gordon, had a big one. He was okay, but Foyt, watching from the pitwall, decided there and then that enough was enough. A ceremonial lap, to a standing ovation, signalled the end of a legend — a living legend, thankfully.
Niki Lauda 1985 Dutch Grand Prix
The Rat’ had been no match for McLaren team-mate Main Prost in 1984. During qualifying, that is. On Sunday afternoons, when the points are distributed, his combination of speed and tactical awareness made him a contender for victory almost every race, and he beat Prost to the championship by half a point.
The situation changed dramatically in ’85. The MP4/2 remained the best car, but even in updated B-spec, its advantage had been heavily reduced. Prost, still hungry for his first championship, was driving harder than ever, while Lauda was struggling to match his team-mate in a car that consistently let him down. He had retired from eight of the first 10 races, and even his two finishes had been hampered by mechanical dramas, keeping him off the podium.
After announcing his retirement, Lauda’s relationship with team principal Ron Dennis had taken a turn for the worse, but his personal performances had improved. However, here at Zandvoort, his pent-up aggression was masked by an engine problem which put him 10th on the grid, seven places behind Prost But Niki set quickest lap in the Sunday warm-up, and when three cars ahead of him virtually stalled on the line, some wild zig-zagging took him into sixth at the first corner, and fifth by the end of the lap.
But already Lauda was unhappy. His choice of three soft tyres and one hard for the left-rear brought severe oversteer, and though fourth by lap six, he could not close on Prost just ahead, let alone the dominant Williams of Keke Rosberg or Ayrton Senna’s Lotus.
Before the race, Niki had arranged with his pitcrew that if he came in early, he would have four hard tyres; any later and he — along with everyone else — would go for four soils. On lap 21,just as Rosberg’s Honda engine blew up, Lauda dived into the pits, but though the stop was quick, he found his handling much as it was; the McLaren crew had mistakenly refitted three softs and a hard.
Five laps later, Senna pitted and re-emerged behind Lauda. Prost, always kind to soft tyres, did not need to stop until lap 33, but it was a slow one and he rocketed out of the pitlane in third place.
Thus Niki found himself leading, but on unsuitable tyres; his team-mate had a potentially faster car but was nine seconds behind. And between them was a very defensive Senna. When, on lap 48, Prost finally passed the obstructive Lotus, it was clear Lauda would soon have his hands full. The gap closed relentlessly, and by lap 60, with 10 to go, they were nose-to-tail.
Lauda makes no bones about it in his biography To Hell and Back. “There is no way I am simply going to let Prost through: I haven’t driven all this way, only to hand it to him in the last few laps. What is more, as far as the championship is concerned, he probably won’t need any help from me or, if he does, then only in the last couple of races; certainly not now, in September.”
Lauda was perfectly fair and had too much class to weave. Instead, at corners where he felt vulnerable to attack, he chose the defensive line over the quickest, hogging the middle of the track. The message was clear: he would turn in when he chose to, and Prost could look after himself There would be no concessions.
Main tried, hard. It wasn’t championship points at stake here; it was intra-team pride. Prost’s hustling would have dissolved a weaker driver than Lauda. But Niki himself had played the role of hunter in the past, and well knew what was required of the prey. Despite a desperate, two-wheels-on-the-grass lunge on the last lap by the Frenchman, it was the reigning champion, not the champion elect, who crossed the line ahead. By 0.232sec.
As his 25th victory, it sent the Austrian past Juan Fangio in the all-time winners’ list and drew him -level with Jim Clark. It serves to remind us that he ranks among the greatest drivers this sport has known.
Jack Brabham The 1970 season
“If Jochen Rindt had carried on with us after 1968, Jack would have retired then. But Colin Chapman offered Jochen money, which we didn’t have. And if Jacky Ickx had been quicker than Jack, and stayed with us at the end of ’69, Jack would have retired then, too.” So says Ron Tauranac, legendary Brabham designer.
“But the other way of looking at it is that had Jack won the title in ’70 (and it was close) he might have raced on the following year.”
Close indeed. Over the winter, while Dunlopand Firestoneshod runners tested at Kyalami, venue for the first round of the 1970 season, Jack had gone instead to California with a Brabham BT33 to test with Goodyear. The reasoning was simple.
“We had discovered previously that in handling terms Kyalami results applied only to there and Brands Hatch,” explains Tauranac.
When the South African GP came round, it was apparent this had not hurt Brabham’s chances at all. Qualifying third behind the new March 701s of Jacicie Stewart and Chris Amon, he was in the hunt from the start — though it nearly all ended then too. Rindt got his Lotus 49 alongside Amon, only to cannon off the March and into Brabham. This badly delayed Jack but, by lap six, he had passed Jackie Oliver, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and IcIck. Now in second, he homed in on Stewart, passing him on lap 20.
Denny Hulme’s McLaren also passed the Scot just before halfdistance, but Jack had his former team-mate covered, and set fastest lap nine laps from the chequer. On the eve of his 44th birthday, Jack Brabham had blown his rivals into the weeds.
Top-drawer performances kept coming. Brands Hatch’s Race of Champions saw him lead from lap eight until three from home, when an ignition fault and pitstop dropped him to fourth. Back on the GP trail, at Jarama, he took pole and hounded the leader Stewart until another engine failure put him out at two-thirds distance.
Rindt’s scintillating drive in Monaco three weeks later has passed into legend. He snatched victory from his former team manager on the last lap, Brabham misjudging a manoeuvre on a backmarker at the Gasworks Hairpin and slithering into a guardrail. Tauranac remembers it thus: “Getting stuck behind Jo Siffert for one lap, Jack lost 12 seconds to Rindt, then he tied to make it all up in one corner!” The crestfallen Aussie got going again to take second place.
At Spa he retired from third, at Clermont-Ferrand, a circuit for the very bravest, he took third and set fastest lap. And at Brands for the British GP, his great form continued. Tailing Rindt, now in the Lotus 72, from the start, these two were soon in a race of their own, Jochen leading, Jack content to sit two or three seconds behind. But with 25 laps of the 80 remaining, Rindt’s mirrors were full of blue-and-yellow BT33. Jack wanted revenge for Monaco.
Jochen cracked, missed a gearchange, and the wily old campaigner ducked round him to take the lead, promptly set fastest lap, and pulled away to such an extent that he was cruising to victory. But on the final lap, the car coughed, went silent, fired again, then died. Its fuel mixture had been mistakenly set to run rich. Jack was out of gas. Rindt shot past the Brabham, which coasted over the line half a minute later for another second place.
Set-up problems, tyre difficulties and sheer bad luck ruined Jack’s championship campaign thereafter. But at the final round, in Mexico, he reminded everyone of what they would be missing, lying a comfortable third behind the Ferraris of Ickx and Clay Regazzoni until low oil pressure ended his final GP. Had he not lost those six points at Monaco and Brands, and had some of those potential podium finishes not turned to DNFs, he would have been champion. But even as things stood, he led more laps that year than all but Stewart, Ickx and Rindt ‘Black Jack’ was on it right to the end. II