1985 Grand Prix de Belgique – What a pity

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Spa-Francorchamps, June 2nd

I HAD a very uneasy feeling when I arrived at the Circuit Nationale de Francorchamps in south-east Belgium, because many of the advertising hoardings around the paddock/grandstand start area were covered in sheets of black polythene, carefully taped in place so that the wind would not lift them or tear them. It was as if the circuit was in mourning for something, except that advertising for Olivetti, Marlboro, Gitanes, Gulf and Magneti Marelli and others were uncovered and shining forth in all their glorious technicolour, strategically placed to form the background for the television cameras.

However, I had enjoyed a leisurely trip down from Bruxelles, the skies were blue, the sun warm and the Francorchamps circuit looked superb, so I motored off to the Haute Fagnes (the Ardennes finish at Stavelot) to check in at the hotel near the highest point in Belgium, owned by the Duez family, whose son Marc is one of Belgium’s “hot-shoe” rallymen.

Next morning the drive down to the circuit in the morning sunshine made life really worthwhile, and I thought, without envy, of my friends at home going to work along the crowded M4 or M3 and fighting their way into London. I too, was going to work but I am one of the lucky ones, they tell me.

Certainly, conditions could not have been better on Friday morning, and before the test session began I read a hand-out from the Belgian firm HYDROCAR, who specialise in anti-skid surfaces, thermoplastics and similar things for roads. The first paragraph read as follows: “In order to reinforce the safety of the road racing set in Francorchamps for pilots by eliminating the AQUAPLANING and increasing the roughness and the adherence of pneumatic tyres, giving by consequence to this marvellous road racing set the “ALL WEATHERS” label, the circuit for its entire length of 6,945 metres has been covered by a RUBBERISED ASPHALT open graded friction course on a SAMI (Stress Absorbing Membrane Interlayer).

I think what they were trying to tell us was that the new demon surface that had been put down was going to give much more grip and in the wet it was going to be far superior to anything yet tried, all of which was most laudable. What they didn’t tell us was that they had only finished the resurfacing a bare 14 days before practice was due to begin.

A visit to the pits soon showed a universal enthusiasm to get out on the circuit, all the drivers looking forward to some real Grand Prix driving on what must be the best circuit in existence today. They had not been there since 1983 and the excitement was intense. Brabham had a brand new car for Piquet (BT54/6) and a brand new team-mate in Marc Surer, replacing the unfortunate Francois Hesnault, while the cars have grown little “Lotus winglets” on the sidepods; Honda had a new version of its V6 engine for Williams to test, this having smaller bore and longer stroke, with suitable internal changes in design, all aimed at providing a bigger torque-spread, better economy and the use of constant boost-pressure and variable ignition timing, rather than the other way round.

Ken Tyrrell was bubbling over with enthusiasm about Renault turbo engines, (a change from a few years ago when he tried to get them outlawed!) as his first 014 car was about to be started up in his woodyard workshops. Lotus was taking some of the blame for the blown-up Renault engine in Senna’s car at Monaco, as the team knew he had over-revved it in the morning, but it had seemed not to have suffered any damage. Now they were wishing they had changed it.

Renault had a brand new car for Patrick Tambay (RE60/05), a bit lighter and a bit stiffer, in their continual search to bring the RE60 on a level with its rivals, notably the Lotus 97T.

Ferrari had a brand new car for Johansson (156/85-082) and Harvey Postlethwaite was reflecting sadly that none of the carbonfibre-composite Ferraris will find their way into collectors hands, for Enzo has decreed that they are all “put in the crusher” when the Scuderia has finished with them. Realistically Harvey had to agree it was the right decision for CFC structures in the wrong hands could lead to some nasty things happening, like a tub being damaged and not repaired correctly, or magnesium bulkheads corroding unseen within the structure.

The little Minardi team, looked after by everyone’s “old friend” Ermanno Cuogi, were in good shape with a complete spare car, all in one piece and ready to run should the latest car misbehave.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when the circuit opened for the morning test-session and everyone soon got on with juggling the variables to suit the circuit. Some had to find their way round, like Ayrton Senna who had never seen the circuit before, and drivers like Surer who were in a new team, had to adapt themselves to the car and conditions.

Actually, the enthusiastic Swiss had a bad morning, for he hadn’t got far in his Brabham BT54 before it died on him and he had to walk back to the pits. As Piquet was fully occupied~ with the spare car as well as his own, Surer /lad to hang about aimlessly until there was something for him to drive.

Brundle’s Tyrrell 012 stopped out on the circuit and he ran back to take over the T-ar, and Warwick had to take the spare Renault while his own was put right. Tambay was very happy with his new Renault, the car feeling taut and lively. Johansson.’s new Ferrari was quite the opposite, the tautness becoming tightness in the steering,’ so he took over the spare Maranello car until his new car was sorted out.

McLaren was in trouble for Prost had an engine failure in his own car, and then another in the spare car; Porsche engineers were looking very glum. However everyone was beavering away for nobody wanted to miss a chance of driving round the best circuit, and whereas nobody had approached 2 minutes for a lap in 1983, with Prost’s pole-position being 2 mins 04.615sec, now any self-respecting racing driver with a half-decent car was lapping in under 2 minutes.

Reports were that the new surface was affording incredible grip on the corners, but it meant that the surface was suffering in places. On a circuit with a lap speed of well over 130 mph smoothness pays off and after watching Alboreto it was no surprise to find him fastest of the morning with a lap in 1 min 56.777 sec, a speed of 133.131 mph.

The surprise was to find Ayrton Senna in second place, ahead of his team-mate de Angelis and Lauda, Rosberg, Prost and Tambay, good runners all. On his last lap, as practice finished, Senna’s Lotus 97T stopped in a cloud of smoke as a turbocharger broke and the car had to be towed back, covered in fire-extinguisher) but the damage was superficial.

For the qualifying hour between Ipm and 2pm the weather stayed on its best behaviour, and it could not have been better. Piquet was out early and established himself at the top of the list, but it was only a matter of time before the Goodyear-shod runner elbowed him down the list.

Alboreto was as smooth as ever, and the result was a best lap in 1 min 5.6.046 sees, virtually an average of 134 mph and that includes the bottom-gear hairpin at La Source. The Zakspeed expired in a cloud of smoke and a small oil fire as its turbocharger broke, and Prost was also in trouble for his third engine of the day blew up soon after he had started his first really fast lap.

Behind the pace-setting Ferrari was de Angelis, being consistently quick and in the 1 min 56 sec bracket, but Senna was being delayed with an electrical fault on his Lotus. Tambay was really enjoying himself for a change and the result was his place among the 1 min 56 sec men.

Piquet was now back in sixth place, being unable to match the Goodyear shod cars with his Pirelli shod Brabham. The McLaren team had been hard-pressed to get Prost’s car finished a bare 15 minutes before the end of the qualifying hour, so that when he returned from the other end of the circuit on the back of a motorcycle there was no possibility of him having another go. He had failed to record a time on a flying lap, so apart from being last in the list, he did not have a time within 10% of the pole-position time!

With only a few minutes to go Ayrton Senna was out again, this time with the misfire cured, and as he started his fast lap he was slightly baulked down into the Eau Rouge bridge by Bellof’s Tyrrell, but he did not hesitate and returned a time of 1 min 56.473 sees to give him third fastest time of the afternoon, with but one serious lap.

After it was all over there were some raised eyebrows and remarks that Senna hadn’t made fastest time for the first occasion since the Brazilian GP. He had been fastest in both sessions in Portugal, Imola and Monaco, and everyone expected him to be fastest at Francorchamps. The fact that he wasn’t was being looked upon as something of a failure on his part until someone said “Hey, wait a minute. He’s never been here before. He’s a new boy and would have impressed had he got into the first ten at his first try”. With only one fast flying lap he was third overall! Not bad for a new boy.

Everyone, or nearly everyone, had enjoyed this first timed session, but there was a certain amount of concern over the fact that the new surface was lifting on a couple of the corners on the downhill in-field part of the circuit. Ruts were forming on the inside of these corners, and the prospect did not look good for this was after only a handful of really fast laps by the leading drivers. An inspection of the surface showed that it was worse than it had seemed from the cockpits and work was put in hand to rectify the problem. However, it was becoming increasingly obvious that 14 days was not enough for the surface to mature.

The two legs of the circuit which use public roads were holding up, for the regular daily traffic had compacted it reasonably well. The centre section of the circuit is on private land and is not open to daily traffic, and this was where the trouble lay. Only the road engineers could have known how serious the problem was. Through the evening and into the night repairs were carried out.

Next morning, with the weather still superb, practice was delayed a few minutes as last·minute clearing up from the night’s work took place. When the circuit was opened Senna was first away, followed by most of the other runners, and Rosberg had not gone far before a turbo-charger broke on his Honda engine and he had to take the spare Williams. It did not take long to realise that something strange was happening, for lap times were down below 2 min 20 sec, nearly 25 seconds slower than the day before. After just over half-an-hour of running everyone drew into the pit lane and practice stopped.

The drivers had found that the contractors had not only resurfaced the parts that were breaking up on Friday evening, but had continued the resurfacing the full width of the road. As the surface had deteriorated on Friday the drivers had changed their lines slightly and gone wide of the bad bits, and were quite prepared to do the same on Saturday morning, keeping off the repaired surface, but with the new asphalt right across the track there was nowhere to go except across it and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of the new tarmac having set properly.

In addition the well·meaning contractors had also resurfaced three more comers that did not need doing, so whereas on Friday evening it had been “possible” to drive the circuit at racing speeds, it was now “impossible” and if you cannot go at racing speeds in a Formula One car there really isn’t any point in being in one.

The organisation, the FISA officials, the contractors, the FOCA luminary and others were thrown into a gloom for in reality no-one could see the answer to the problem. The surface was looked at, prodded at, swept, rolled, treated with various substances, but the task was hopeless. By 5 pm it was very obvious that the Grand Prix de Belgique was not going to take place, and it took until nearly 7 pm before an official announcement was made. In view of the unsuitability of the surface for Formula One cars the Grand Prix was abandoned. A decision that nobody wanted to hear, and nobody wanted to take, but it was inevitable and with great sadness everyone started to pack up and go home.

The spectators were offered their money back or the chance to come in for nothing on Sunday and see a scratch programme of minor events. On Saturday afternoon there should have been a Formula 3000 race, but that was out of the question, so as a half· hearted attempt to salvage something from the disaster it was arranged that the Formula 3000 race would take place on Sunday afternoon, so as to offer “something” to the television people and the few spectators that were staying.

The circuit inspector for FISA deemed the surface “possible” for 400 bhp Cosworth engined cars with fairly mediocre tyres, but absolutely “impossible” for 700- 850 bhp Formula One cars on the best gripping tyres in the business. As it turned out many of the F3000 cars spun off during their race, and it was lucky that no-one was hurt.

The sun continued to burn down from clear blue skies. It was going to be a truly Grand Prix de Belgique when we all arrived on Friday morning, but Dr. Sodt’s Law decreed that it would not rain and that is when the real trouble started. The real pity of it all was that there had been good intentions on everyone’s part right from the beginning, but it had all misfired.

What a pity. -D.S.J.

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