Formula One scene: Australian GP

The end of an era

Adelaide, November 13
On the face of it, it was all just another crushing McLaren-Honda demonstration run, as Ron Dennis' machines sped to their tenth 1-2 of a season in which the team has re-written the parameters of Formula One.

Alain Prost apparently cruised to his seventh win of 1988 and another nine points, which brought his total to 105, although thanks to the silly regulations only 87 of them could count towards the second place he thus took in the championship. It was his 35th GP success, and somehow apposite that it should be he who took the final win of the turbocharged era.

New World Champion Ayrton Senna was second, comfortably ahead of Nelson Piquet, which pleased Honda no end if not Lotus, and between them the two McLaren drivers brought the team's Constructors' Championship points tally to an incredible 199. Unless McLaren surpasses itself with the 1989 V10 Honda-engined cars, we are not likely to see that record beaten in the near future.

Beneath the external facade of the Australian Grand Prix, however, lurked a fascinating story, for both McLaren drivers were in dire trouble, needing all of their considerable talent and resourcefulness to bring home the bacon for the 15th time in 16 races.

Senna had narrowly beaten Prost to the pole after their customary qualifying duel, but Prost was only fractions off his pace, determined to win the final race of the era. Irritated by the recent polemics surrounding the entire question of equality of machinery, he simply wanted to race and to prove a point. And when the green lights finally put an end to all the speculation, he sprinted ahead of his team-mate on the run to the first corner and never looked back. He won the first race in Rio, and he won the last in Australia, but what made Prost's latest record so special was the manner of his success.

Despite FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre's ire that Alain had suffered gearshift problems in Suzuka, and despite Ron Dennis' call just before the final race for an apology from FISA for impugning McLaren's reputation, the Frenchman was still troubled by gearchange stiffness early in the event. "The shift from second to third was particularly bad," he admitted, adding: "I was missing a lot of changes." Senna, too, was in difficulty, with third gear jumping out of engagement, but for both there was worse to come.

Prost's abiding problem arose on lap 47, when a shunt involving Pierluigi Martini, Stefan Johansson, Mauricio Gugelmin and Satoru Nakajima left debris on the track in the fast chicane. Prost ran over it, and damaged one of the skirts beneath his front left nose-wing's endplate. On the face of it, that was a minor aggravation, but its effect was to promote excessive understeer that he knew could destroy his front tyres.

Thereafter what should have been a relatively easy canter became a juggling act of continuously adjusting the damper and roll-bar settings using the cockpit controls, and it was under such circumstances that he finally triumphed.

Earlier in the race he had shown his maturity and common sense by refusing to be drawn into battle when Gerhard Berger blasted his Ferrari from third to first place by lap 14, and then began easing away, but the Frenchman had at least been forewarned about the irrepressible Austrian's race strategy. "Over breakfast this morning he told me he wasn't going to spend the last turbo race pussyfooting about for fifth place," grinned Alain, "and told me not to be surprised when he overtook!"

From his launch over the first corner kerbs at the start it was obvious that Gerhard was out simply to enjoy himself, and the hell with all the stupid fuel-consumption considerations he has been obliged to observe since Silverstone, and he'd gobbled up Senna within three laps as he set out after Prost. It was never going to last, of course, but it was beautiful while it did, and almost possible to believe it was real racing. Maybe next year . . .

The end came unexpectedly, not through the Ferrari running out of fuel, as surely it would have at that pace, but when Gerhard got a mite too impatient trying to nose down the inside of the about-to-be-lapped Rene Arnoux at the end of Dequetteville Terrace. The Frenchman is never an easy man to pass, but on this occasion Gerhard was a little ambitious, and as Rene turned in, the Ferrari was launched over the Ligier and both were instant retirements. Having enjoyed himself, Berger walked in and happily told anyone gullible enough to believe him that he'd been right on his fuel schedule . . .

With Prost back in front, and obliged to cope with his understeer problem, Senna found himself in little position to capitalise. As the race progressed beyond half-distance his gear problem became more acute as second went out of business altogether, and suddenly Piquet was beginning to make inroads into the 50-second advantage he had built. At one stage it shrunk perilously to 10 seconds, but Senna and Ron Dennis had things worked out, the latter no doubt recalling how Niki Lauda had managed to win in Austria in 1984 by lulling Nelson into the belief that he couldn't be caught.

Senna was instructed to run the highest boost and the richest fuel-mixture on the fastest parts of the course, and to ease right back and make full use of Steve Nichols' excellent chassis on the slowest, and the ruse worked. At times Nelson, in his best race of the year, was lapping as fast as the crippled McLarens, but gradually the gap began to expand again as Senna slipped in a bunch of 1min 22sec laps.

For Lotus, Piquet's performance was nonetheless encouraging on the day on which director and general manager Peter Warr had finally been able to confirm that Satoru Nakajirna would be staying on for a third year, and ex-Williams aerodynamicist Frank Dernie will be the Technical Director next year.

Nakajima himself ran strongly to begin with until a touch with Piercarlo Ghinzani's baulky Zakspeed sent him scurrying pit-wards for attention and fresh tyres, and no sooner had he returned than he came across Martini in the throes of the 360 spin which triggered the laying of debris in the fast chicane. The Italian recovered with only the loss of a place to Johansson, but as Gugelmin braked Nakajima ran into the back of him, spinning the tardy March into retirement and damaging his own nose-wings sufficiently to prompt immediate cessation of his own race. Martini would continue for seventh, but Johansson's fine drive in the awful Ligier was finally thwarted by lack of fuel.

The McLarens' problems apart, brakes and fuel were the two other watchwords of a dull race, which was enlivened mainly by the Williams' pursuit of Piquet. In qualifying, Nigel Mansell had been his usual electrifying self in the FW12, despite the bumps aerating the brake fluid in its master cylinders. The problem was alleviated slightly by judicious insertion of foam, but nevertheless both Didcot cars were in trouble.

Mansell had settled into sixth, after being elbowed out of second on the run to the first corner and then demoted from fifth a lap later by hungry team-mate Riccardo Patrese, but when the Italian spun after braking a shade too late on lap 26, the Englishman knuckled down to chase Piquet.

Lap by lap he reduced Nelson's carefully garnered advantage, until he was right behind going down Dequetteville Terrace on lap 59. It was Mansell at his never-say-die best, but his former team-mate simply turned up the boost and outdragged him, and thereafter Nigel never got as close again. Indeed, he was beginning to drop back further when a long brake pedal caught him out on lap 66 and he span backwards into the tyre wall. It was an ignominious end to his glittering career with the team.

His misfortune promoted Patrese to fourth again, but by this time Riccardo was in no shape to challenge Piquet any further, having flat-spotted his tyres in his own excursion. It was, however, his best result of the year.

Neither March nor Benetton was really on top of things in Adelaide, both suffering serious lack of mechanical grip. It was sufficient to induce both Sandro Nannini and Thierry Boutsen into spins in their B188s, and while the Belgian fought back despite an engine that occasionally ran on seven cylinders and later broke an exhaust pipe, the Italian ended his challenge against the wall. He described his race as like driving on ice, and when the car caught him out the second time he was unable to restart his stalled Cosworth.

Boutsen's eventual fifth came partly at Capelli's expense. The March driver had disposed of Nannini early on and was on course for sixth (despite poor braking performance and a repeat of his qualifying handling imbalance) when he sustained a puncture on the chicane debris. As it turned out, a gritty drive brought him back to sixth by the end, but only after the rigours of the longest race on the calendar had taken their toll on his rivals' economy.

Andrea de Cesaris was the greatest sufferer, after driving the Rial with uncharacteristic aplomb all afternoon. He ripped up to a useful seventh after 26 laps and was fifth, fending off the recovering Boutsen's challenge, when the "blue Ferrari" ran out of fuel on its 78th lap. Gunter Schmid's tiny team was heartbroken, for though the Italian had driven really well, he had pointedly refused to acknowledge pit-signals exorting him to slow in the last 20 laps. He'd run out of fuel in qualifying, too, having ignored his "in" signs . . .

At least he wasn't alone in his misery, fuel crises also accounting for Philippe Streiff in the AGS, after a smooth drive which threatened to take him into the points, Johansson, whose chances of preventing Ligier from having to pre-qualify in 1989 were dashed on lap 77, and Philippe Alliot, who wrestled his gripless Larrousse-Calmels Lola for 75 laps before suffering a similar fate. Fate was not kind to Alex Caffi in Adelaide, either, and the Dallara driver would have been a thoroughly deserving recipient of points after a superb performance in qualifying. He was shaping up nicely in tenth place, having collided with Alboreto's Ferrari on lap one, when the Scuderia Italia BMS 188 broke either its clutch or the gearbox input shaft.

For Alboreto, the retirement was an early release from the torment of Adelaide, for in qualifying he was fit to be tied by the attitude of the team to his requests for chassis set-up changes. "I might as well be driving the third Ferrari not the second," he glowered. Such a diminished relationship was a sad sight after his 1985 championship campaign for the team.

Australia brought no sudden return to Monza form for Arrows, either. Derek Warwick qualified a useful seventh and ran ninth for a long time, but he slowed steadily with appalling throttle-response and eventually stopped rather than jeopardise other drivers, just before team-mate Eddie Cheever retired from a challenging 12th with the final Megatron engine failure of his career.

Piercarlo Ghinzani actually managed to get his Zakspeed into the race, but was brought to a halt by fuel-pump failure after an uninspiring showing, while both EuroBruns also surprised by getting in when the likes of Julian Bailey and Pierre-Henri Raphanel couldn't in Tyrrell and Larrousse-Calmels Lola respectively, but neither made it to the finish after driveshaft breakages. Luis Sala was also on the retirement list, his Minardi's Cosworth engine succumbing to the abuse the Spaniard had to mete out after discovering severe shortcomings in its braking department.

After his efforts in qualifying it was also sad to see Jonathan Palmer roll to a stop with crownwheel-and-pinion failure in his Tyrrell after only 17 hips, but in many ways the disappointment typified his dreadful season.

Thus ended the turbocharged era, which began with the Renault's quiet debut, at Silverstone in 1977, and played its final gig in downtown Adelaide. It has been called a lot of things, and has produced some memorable races, but those who don't mourn its passing, and instead deride the fuel-consumption racing that bred those dominant Honda Marlboro McLarens, might do well to study the times the prototype MP4/5s achieved recently at Imola. Everyone hopes desperately that 1989 will produce closer racing, but don't expect McLaren and Honda to abdicate their thrones just yet... DJT