Formula One - Seasonal Review

A glance over the shoulder

I don't go much on looking on the immediate past; if I have to look back I prefer to look back 25 years or more, into history. However, 1990 was a significant year in Formula One and much that happened can be translated into serious portent for the future. The year saw the absolute confirmation that the 3½-litre normally aspirated engine formula is a success, thanks to the engineering efforts of Honda, Ferrari (Fiat), Renault, Cosworth/Ford and Lamborghini on the engine front, and McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Benetton and Lola on the chassis front, with Tyrrell the joker in the pack.

Throughout the season it became very clear that there are two drivers at the absolute pinnacle of the scene — Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who between them won 11 of the 16 races. Only four other names appeared in the winner's lists: Piquet, with two wins, and Patrese, Boutsen and Mansell with one each. None of the other 31 drivers registered with the FIA for the 1990 World Championship had a look-in as far as winning was concerned anyway. A look at the results page elsewhere in this issue will also show that not a great number of drivers even managed to get into the first six in any of the races.

With the two top drivers in their teams it was no surprise that McLaren-Honda and Ferrari set the pace and were the teams to beat, and only Williams-Renault and Benetton-Cosworth managed to do so. With Prost joining Ferrari for 1990 and Senna staying at McLaren-Honda it was obvious that the season was going to see some close competition. It was a make or break year for Ferrari, but their progress was first class, finishing second in the Constructors' Championship, so they can definitely be said to have 'made it'. At the other end of the scale Team Lotus proved quite the opposite, for it was their year of decision in the make or break stakes, and regrettably they failed. After a year in the doldrums, being forced by circumstances to use Judd V8 engines, they had an opportunity to demonstrate their worth with the use of Lamborghini V12 engines in the Frank Dernie-designed Lotus 102. Nobody expected them to challenge the front runners, but a direct comparison could be made with Gerard Larrousse's Lola team using identical engines. Sadly, apart from a few fleeting moments, Team Lotus were no real match for the Larrousse team, who themselves were only good enough for an occasional good placing but with never a glimpse of outright victory.

Similar comparisons between lesser teams were made very clear throughout the season, notable the good pace set by Team Tyrrell with their sleek Tyrrell 019, though the outstanding quality of this team lay in the young French driver Jean Alesi. But even so their number 2 driver Nakajima showed on numerous occasions that the performance of the 019 was not all due to the French driver's talent. Power for the Tyrrell came from old Cosworth DFR engines, prepared and maintained by Brian Hart Engines, and some of the qualifying performances by Alesi with these 'production' engines were an embarrassment to the works Cosworth engines in the Benetton cars. By contrast, the Arrows team were also using Hart tuned engines, the same as Tyrrell, and the performances by Caffi and Alboreto in what was ostensibly a 1989 car, were mediocre in the extreme. They reached rock-bottom in Australia when neither driver managed to qualify for the grid.

Some people may think that there were two types of engine, one for Team Tyrrell and one for the Arrows Footwork team, but any sound engine man will tell you that any difference in similar engines is so marginal that you could only detect it on a dynometer. Throughout the season there have been 'whingers' among the non-winners about disparity of engines, but no engine manufacturer is deliberately going to turn out a duff engine, even if he knew how. The installation in the chassis and the on-circuit final adjustments and use are another matter altogether, and that is where a good team can gain an advantage.

The McLaren-Honda team started with everything on their side, but as the season progressed they had to fight harder and harder to fend off the Ferrari team, which they managed to do, but not by a big margin. By the end of the season it was a brave man who bet on either team guaranteeing a win. They were pretty well equal in all respects, Ferrari having a slight advantage in having Nigel Mansell Number 2 to Prost, who could guarantee to be up near the front, whereas McLaren suffered a bit with their number 2, Gerhard Berger not really delivering the goods as expected. When the chips were down between Senna and Prost, Mansell could usually match them, but Berger was often found wanting and on a number of occasions when Senna ran into trouble and the Austrian should have taken over, he fumbled it. McLaren used to pride themselves in having their cars finish 1st and 2nd, but in 1990 they did not achieve it once whereas Ferrari did the double on two occasions.

In passing, while on the subject of a team having its cars finish 1st and 2nd, it is worth recalling the recent Japanese Grand Prix. Every team would love to be 1st and 2nd, not only for their personal joy and satisfaction, but it is the ultimate 'poke in the eye' for all the other teams. No matter whether you do so from sheer domination like McLaren used to do, and Ferrari did this year, or whether you do so thanks to the bad management of the opposition, it is still something of an achievement to be proud of. In Japan the acknowledged ‘aces' either fell over each other, spun off or broke down and the Benetton team made the most of the situation with a resounding 1st and 2nd, team leader Nelson Piquet virtually leading by the hand his young friend and compatriot Roberto Moreno who was 'standing in' for the injured Alessandro Nannini. It was one of the most pleasant and joyful situations Formula One has seen for a long time.

If you only watch Formula One on television you might get the impression that it is one continual accident from start to finish. The TV cameras are strategically placed to record any misdemeanour of a driver, and very seldom film a driver doing some skilled high-speed driving, demonstrating that uncanny judgement and skill that allows him to record two or three laps on the trot within one hundredth of a second of each other. Even if you only compete in club hillclimbs or one-lap pursuits, you will know how difficult it is to get runs on two occasions to within a tenth of a second. The handful of drivers at the top of Formula One can, and do, reel off a succession of laps to within one hundredth of a second. For me that is what Formula One is all about, not making misjudgments and having accidents or spinning off, any driver can do that.

Oddly enough I seldom see the lurid accidents portrayed on television and am often very surprised to see the things that go on when I look at a video replay afterwards. When you watch a race 'on the spot' you only see the action at that one place, so that it all seems very pleasant and entertaining. When you watch through the eyes of TV cameras all round the circuit you almost see too much, nothing is left to the imagination, and a Iot of the clueless accidents that happen you would prefer not to see.

One accident which was not seen by a TV camera, I am glad to say, was the helicopter crash in which Alessandro Nannini suffered severe injuries which may put him out of Formula One forever. One that viewers did see was the Lotus crash in qualifying in Spain that looks like putting Martin Donnelly out of action for some time, though it looks as if there might now be a Team Lotus for him to return to when he does recover. 1990 could well have been the last season of that famous team that rose from nothing to the absolute pinnacle of Formula One, with frequent ups and downs, only to wither and die once Colin Chapman was gone. When Enzo Ferrari died it was feared that the Ferrari team would go the same way, but to everyone's relief FIAT took over and Zion Enzo would have been proud of their 1990 efforts.

While the pace at the forefront of Formula One was fast and furious and at times very exciting, it did make it very difficult for the lesser teams to keep up. During the year we witnessed the demise of a number of small teams, most of them inevitable. The Onyx team flourished briefly like a garish firework and then changed hands becoming known as the Monteverdi team, run by Peter Monteverdi, a Swiss who has been in the motoring and motor sporting game for long while. It was his first serious attempt at Formula One, but he soon found it was more than he could cope with and pulled out before he did irreparable damage to his private finances. The Italian Enzo Coloni struggled with an abortive flat-12 engine designed by Carlo Chiti and financed by Suburu until they were forced to change to a Cosworth DFR. It did them little good, though the car sounded better. Another Italian team that struggled against adversity was the Life team who built a car round an ambitious 12-cylinder engine of inverted broad-arrow configuration. It was a total disaster and they finally succumbed and installed a Judd V8 engine, but to no avail. Before the end of the season both of these one-car Italian teams had gone from the scene, unable to match the pace even of the tail-end of the field. Also gone from the bottom of the entry list was the EuroBrun team of Swiss man Walter Brun, who desperately tried to run a two-car team but gave up before the season's end.

1990 started out with so many entries for the 26 places on the starting grid that early on Friday mornings nine cars had to pre-qualify so that four of them went on to official qualifying, making the limit of 30 to compete for grid positions, from which only the fastest 26 were actually permitted to start the race. By the end of the season pre-qualifying was no longer necessary, as the small unsuccessful teams had eliminated themselves. How many of those that are left will survive the winter months only time will tell.

One rather disturbing trend that was very evident last season was the restlessness among drivers and team personnel, from designers down through team managers to mechanics and truck drivers. Everyone seems to want to be on the move, not out of Formula One, but within the 'circus', and it created an alarming air of instability. It was one that was not helped by the 'media' who were forecasting 'who was going where' even before the season got under way. Fortunately the fierce competition between Senna and Prost, and McLaren-Honda and Ferrari throughout the season, watered it all down a bit. There has been so much movement within the 'circus' that the safest thing to do for 1991 is to await the first race of the season and see what colours everyone is wearing. So colourful and gaudy are some of the teams' corporate colours that there is little chance of getting team members muddled up. Some actually look like true 'circus clowns' while others look like 'dogs' dinners' but it seems that if you pay enough money people will wear anything, or even nothing at all!

I can't help closing this 'glance over the shoulder' with a firm look ahead rejoicing in the knowledge that Nigel Mansell has had his first test drive in a Williams-Renault V10, and after learning to change gear with a lever once again, went as quick as a Williams-Renault V10 has ever gone, which looks good for the coming season. Jean Alesi has had his first test drive in a Ferrari V12, and as expected was satisfyingly quick, which should keep Alain Prost on his toes and give him something more to whinge about.

The new V10 Ilmor engine has been running on the test bed since last August and has been out track testing in a slave Leyton House chassis, while the new car, designed specifically for this engine, heads towards completion. Unlike the Ilmor lndycar V8 engine that became a Chevrolet, the 72-degree V10 four-cam Formula One engine is exclusive to the Leyton House team until 1994, which indicates a healthy commitment to the project from the Japanese owner of Leyton House.

With any luck the new sounds in the Formula One paddocks, from Honda, Ferrari, Porsche and Yamaha V12s with the Ilmor V10 and the well established Honda and Renault V10s and the Lamborghini V12 will make it difficult to hear the Cosworth and Judd V8s, while media hype and chatter will seemingly be non-existent. Away with the old and on with the new...