Six days of intensive, exhausting Formula One tyre and development testing took place between January 16th-21st in sweltering conditions at Rio de Janeiro’s Autodromo Riocentro in preparation for the first World Championship Grand Prix of the season, scheduled to take place at that circuit on March 25th. The vast majority of competing teams took part in this busy programme of testing, but the Brabham team was a notable absentee from the proceedings and one is bound to consider the lap times achieved with what may be produced by Nelson Piquet and the latest Gordon Murray variation on the Brabham-BMW theme once official Grand Prix qualifying begins in just over seven weeks’ time.
Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli produced countless combinations of tyres for their contracted teams for this test, Goodyear now concentrating exclusively on radials after several seasons experimenting with them behind the scenes whilst using cross-ply rubber for racing. Although in 1984 pit stops for fuel will not be permitted, there is nothing in the Formula One regulations which prevents competitors stopping for tyres and all three companies were clearly thinking in terms of the potential saving involved over a race distance if their runners perhaps started Grands Prix in 1984 with relatively hard rubber, changing to softer tyres in the latter half of the race as the fuel load (maximum 200 litres) is consumed.
After a season floundering around with two chassis designs and uncompetitive tyres, Team Lotus bounced back firmly into contention with its Goodyear-shod brand new Lotus 95Ts handled by Elio de Angelis and Nigel Mansell. Impressed with the high level of grip afforded by the American rubber, de Angelis quickly became the man to beat in the first half of the week, the new Gerard Ducarouge-designed Lotus sustaining an advantage of around two seconds over the first three days of the test. On Wednesday evening, in relatively cool conditions by the standards of the previous three days the Italian managed a 1m 30.65s best, pretty close to the “all time” ground effect record of 1m 28.808s and some four seconds quicker than Rosberg’s pole position time for the 1983 race with his Williarns-Cosworth FWO8C.
Later in the week Nigel Mansell underlined that de Angelis’ performance had been no fluke and it looked as though the Englishman’s 1m 30.28s best would stand as the quickest time of the whole week. But on Saturday morning, Patrick Tambay took advantage of even cooler weather conditions and, with his Renault RE50’s new EF4 engine equipped with experimental Garrett AiResearch turbochargers, he broke the 1m 30s barrier with a splendid 1m 29.34s lap. This was a sweet reward for a week during which Renault fortunes had appeared distinctly troubled, oil pressure problems having earlier hampered his team-mate Derek Warwick while Tambay himself had suffered an engine failure on the first day. The problem was one of oil surge which hadn’t manifested itself during earlier tests in wintry conditions at Paul Ricard, but it was eventually cured and Tambay’s final effort more than wiped out the embarrassment felt by the team at having been behind its two engine customers, Lotus and Ligier, earlier in the week. Other problems for Renault included a spin by Warwick, during which he scooped up a pile of grass beneath the car which briefly caught fire, and an off-course excursion for Tambay which resulted in minor damage after the car ran over a kerb.
Warwick impressed the Renault team with his ability during race tyre testing and finished the week with a 1m 30.97s best, content at the progress which had been made with the RE50 even though he missed out on what he thought would be an even quicker lap when a coil lead became detached. Williams and Ferrari spent most of their time working through a test programme based round a “race set-up” rather than going for out-and-out qualifying laps, but Michele Alboreto pulled an impressive 1m 30.72s out of the bag at the wheel of a revised C3 which featured totally re-shaped intercooler / radiator layout and a prototype MareIli electronic “management” system. Keke Rosberg also proved that he is totally recovered from the virus which exhausted him throughout much of the 1983 season and ended up with third quickest time of 1m 30.40s at the wheel of a FW09-Honda which sported the currently fashionable “three piece” rear aerofoils similar to those pioneered by Ferrari early last season. The FW09 was largely as seen in South Africa at the end of last year, but the Honda engine was fitted with Japanese-made IHI turbochargers on this occasion. For most of the week the Williams team felt it was, running considerably less turbocharger boost pressure than most of its quick rivals, and remains very confident that it will be highly competitive.
In the Euroracing Alfa Romeo camp, Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheever proved well-matched at the wheel of the two 1983 specification Alfa Romeo 183Ts which appeared at Rio, the only major change being revised suspension geometry to accommodate their change from Michelin to Goodyear tyres. Both drivers complained of excessive understeer and recorded times in the high 1m 31s bracket. New turbochargers, manufactured by the Alfa Romeo aerospace division, seemed to be experiencing more than their fair share of failures during the week although the Italian V8 was the quickest car in a straight line.
Ligier’s new Renault-engined contender, equipped with Michelin rubber after the team owner pulled some influential strings to assure continued supply in the face of the tyre company’s decision to cut-back for 1984, went relatively quickly in the hands of new team driver Andrea de Cesaris on the first day. But the Italian never improved on his 1m 35.69s best and impromptu revisions to the car’s suspension geometry ended up with a front wishbone securing bolt failing, giving de Cesaris a worrying moment as he slithered to a halt on the main straight.
The McLaren camp had a rather disappointing time on the last outing of the MP4 chassis, although a single impressively reliable Porsche-built TAG turbocharged engine ran right through the week without any technical problems. Lauda and Prost grappled with fading turbo boost pressure, but this stemmed from a malfunction in the Bosch electronic ancillary equipment. Various revised exhaust and intermiler components were also tried on the car.
Interesting newcomers who acquitted themselves respectably included Ayrton Senna at the wheel of the Toleman-Hart TG183B, obviously under pressure on home ground, and his former Formula 3 sparring partner Martin Brundle who continued to compare very well against Danny Sullivan in the Tyrrell-Cosworth 012, sole normally aspirated car present. Former twice World Champion and Brazilian hero of yesteryear, Emerson Fittipaldi tried his hand at the wheel of a Hart-engined Spirit 101, but it was hardly a representative test as Italian Formula 2 competitor Fulvio Ballabio had first try in the car on most days, comprehensively taking the edge off the engines due to missed gearchanges before Fittipaldi took his turn.