It was going to be a superb Belgian Grand Prix, in fact, a real Grand Prix de Belgique South east Belgium was on its very best behaviour, the skies were clear, the sun was warm, the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit was in perfect condition and practice had gone off splendidly. A lot of the fun of being at a Grand Prix is the anticipation before the start, like being at a bullfight before the first bull is let into the ring, or at a circus before the spotlights are turned onto the trapeze artists high up in the Big Top, or a Drag Race as two nitro-burning “rails” rumble up to the start-line. Anticipation is a wonderful thing, and can keep the adrenalin flowing and charge the body with energy. If you are one of the competitors it can give you ‘butterflies in the tummy”, if you are a mere spectator you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck tingling. It was just that way on May 25th as I waited in the spine-tingling dip at the Eau Rouge bridge.
Nelson Piquet was on pole position after a lap at over 135 mph on Saturday afternoon, but alongside him was the young, enthusiastic and hard-charging Gerhard Berger who had taken his Benetton (ex-Toleman) with BMW power round the circuit only o.13 seconds slower than the Williams-Honda. In the same 1 min 54 secs bracket were Prost (McLaren-Porsche). Senna (Lotus-Renault), Mansell (Williams-Honda) and Fabi (Benetton-BMW). That these six drivers, with four very different conceptions of a Grand Prix car, could lap the Spa-Francorchamps circuit all within less than half a second, is one of those things that has always mystified me, and probably always will.
Right behind this bunch were Arnoux (Ligier-Renault), Rosberg (McLarenPorsche), Alboreto (Ferrari) and Tambay (Lola-Ford), this last one being one of the notable things of practice and qualifying, like Berger’s FTD on Friday afternoon, and second place overall. With Cosworth Engineering behind the new V6 Ford engine you just have to take it seriously, and from the accounts of Patrick Tambay and Alan Jones, the Lola-named chassis is more than up to the standard of the new engine, and the Belgian circuit with its high-speed corners, fast straights, steep climbs and equally steep descents, is one to sort out the chassis. while the engines have to be able to work really hard.
But I digress, as usual. With the Brabham team entering only one car, following the tragic death of Elio de Angelis in a testing accident at the Paul Ricard circuit, there were only twenty-five cars on the assembly grid and as the field went off on its parade lap, dutifully following Nelson Piquet, you could sense that there was a powerful bunch behind him which was not going to be content to follow him once the green starting light had come on. From the Eau Rouge bridge you cannot see the starting grid, which is at the top of the hill. before La Source hairpin, but you can certainly hear the cars and you know instantly when the red light has come on, indicating that everyone is ready and that the green light will be on within four to seven seconds. That’s when the adrenalin starts to flow In fact, there were only 23 cars on the grid, for Patrese with the lone Brabham had gone into the pit lane, with the mixture settings of his ‘laiddown’ BMW engine on the blink, and Danner had taken the new Osella back into the pits, Its fuel system playing up.
When a Formula One starting grid takes off, you know about it, even if you are a mile away, unlike television viewers who only have the shouting of the commentator to listen to! Round La Source hairpin and down the hill came Piquet, followed by Senna (alright so far), then Mansell, then Johansson(!), then Johnny Dumfries in the second Lotus(!) Something had gone wrong, no Berger, no Prost, no Fabi, no Arnoux, no Rosberg, no Tambay… what had happened? The Belgian GP seemed to have fallen flat on its face, but the race was on and it would be a question of finding out all about it afterwards. Long after Piquet and the others had disappeared over the top of the hill, Rosberg came by, then Arnoux, Fabi and most of the missing ones, including Berger a long way back, and Prost even further back with his right front nose fin buckled and the nose-cone out of shape. Clearly there had been a right old “kerfuffle” on the first corner and Tambay never did appear.
For those who were unscathed the job in hand was 43 laps of this circuit that they all love, as it epitomises pure Grand Prix racing: for the others the problems were individual Berger went into the pits at the end of the second lap and lost two laps while a steering arm was replaced and the front end was checked over, and Prost had gone in at the end of the first lap for a new nosecone and an assessment of the damage, which was deemed safe, and he was soon out again, but right at the back of the field. He then put on a superb display of World Champion style driving and was the fastest man on the circuit for the rest of the afternoon, climbing up through the field to finish in sixth place, the last one to be on the same lap as the winner. As a memorable piece of Grand Prix driving, this performance by the little woolly-haired Frenchman, will probably go down in history more than some of his comparatively easy and unruffled victories. He was clearly driving hard all the time, yet he still looked smooth and unruffled, though a colleague claims to have seen the McLaren with just a touch of “tail-out” attitude on one slow corner!
Out in front from the start was Nelson Piquet, and the way the Williams-Honda looked and sounded, he was going to have an easy victory. In second place was Ayrton Senna. though Mansell scrabbled by courageously for a brief two laps, and then made a complete nonsense of the chicane before the pits, and Senna was back into second place, the two Brazilians looking very strong and dominant out in front. Actually, Mansell’s nonsense wasn’t “complete” for he did save the situation by a bit of quick thinking and action He arrived at the chicane going too fast, having braked too late and had the option of going up the escape road and back onto the circuit through an exit gate, but incurring a time penalty of one minute, or spinning the car through the chicane, keeping his fingers crossed that he didn’t hit anything or damage the car over the kerbs. He chose the latter option and got away with it, keeping the engine running, and only losing 10 seconds on his lap time, but it dropped him two places, for Johansson took his Ferrari through into third place.
Now as far as I am concerned a race won by Nelson Piquet, with Ayrton Senna in second place, is a neat and tidy affair and very satisfactory. I am not especially pro-Brazilian, it is just that I think Piquet is the best racing-driver today, and Senna is the fastest racing-driver today, all things being equal, which unfortunately they seldom are. However, national pride has been muttering in my car for some time now, “Thank goodness we’ve got Nigel Mansell, otherwise the Brits would have nothing to cling to.”
On lap 16 this race that was going to be so good, fell apart once more Piquet felt a ‘nastiness’ about to happen in his Honda engine and dived into the pit lane at the end of the lap, never to re-appear. He is extremely sensitive to engines, as well as sympathetic to mechanical things, unlike some drivers who barely recognise an engine when they see one sitting on the workshop floor. His quick action was to enable the Honda engine men to analyse the fault, which turned out to be imminent piston failure. A lesser driver would have gone on just that bit longer and destroyed the engine and all hope of investigating the fault properly. This retirement left Senna in the lead, but Mansell was challenging him hard and with the added bonus of very quick tyre stop, in which all four wheels were changed in around seven seconds, the Isle of Man resident was into the lead on lap 24 and never looked back, apart from a few glances in the mirrors to see if Senna was still there in second place, and, of course, he was.
Afterwards, Mansell remarked that Senna is one of those drivers who never give up, which is what Alan Jones used to say about the late Gilles Villeneuve. Senna had given up all hope of re-taking the lead from Mansell, but he hadn’t given up being in a menacing second place. It only wanted the Brit to make another silly mistake like he had done earlier and the Brazilian would have been by. As it was, Mansell made no more mistakes and completed a heart-warming drive to victory, which no doubt was the best sort of “get-well” card that the team could have sent to Frank Williams who was still in hospital following his road accident earlier in the year, but about to return home to convalesce.
The performance by the Williams-Honda team was a powerful example to everyone, principally in having a very strong number two driver who can not only support the team leader to the hilt, but take over his role very competently when trouble arises. By normal standards Mansell could rate as a team number one, but with Piquet in that position he has to be considered as the second driver in the team. People talk of “joint number one” status in teams, but in my book that is waffle; a number two driver who is strong enough to stand in when required is what you want, and Mansell, Rosberg, Johansson and Berger are prime examples. The last two mentioned drivers had mixed fortunes in Belgium, but both showed their real ability, for the Spa-Francorchamps circuit encourages it.
Profiting from the first corner “kerfuffle” Johansson was away in fourth place, held third for a time and was then back to fourth, and passed by a very determined Michele Alboreto, only to get third place back before the end. Tyre choice for this high-speed circuit was interesting, and Johansson chose to make a stop for new tyres about half-way through, while Alboreto chose to use a different compound of rubber and go through non-stop, gambling that any time lost towards the end of the race when the tyres were worn out, would equate against the time lost in making a pit stop The car may be stationary for only eight to ten seconds, but slowing down and getting going again can lose another live seconds at least. It turned out that Alboreto’s gamble did not quite pay off for Johansson, on new tyres, hauled him in as his tyres wore, and took third place from him six laps before the finish. Some people wondered whether Johansson had disobeyed team orders by passing his ‘number one’ when they were safely in third and fourth places, but the Swede said afterwards “I didn’t see any signals to tell me not to pass Alboreto” and Alboreto himself said “I’d have done the same thing if I had been in Stefan’s position.” They are a good pair, those two, it is just a pity that the strong opposition from McLaren, Williams and Lotus, aided by Porsche, Honda and Renault, is too much for Maranello at the moment.
Berger’s forceful driving has been very noticeable this season since he joined the ex-Toleman team, now owned by the Benetton brothers and powered by BMW engines. He is not a smooth, effortless driver like Prost, nor a coldly confident one like Senna, but he presses on with all the enthusiasm of the Rosberg we used to know and love in his Williams days. When you see the green Benetton car approaching you tend to take a step backwards, just in case, and so far Berger has kept it on the island. His fastest time in the first qualifying session was not a fluke, because he did many laps in the same bracket during the two days of practice and was pretty quick in the race, even though his front suspension was bent.
Although there is much to see and watch up at the front of any Grand Pox, one has to keep an eye on those who are struggling along at the back, for one day some of them may be up at the front and you do not want to be caught wondering where they came from. One team that is beginning to show a bit of progress is Erich Zakowski’s Zakspeed team that has backing from the West cigarette firm. They started in Formula 1 last year with a single car driven by Jonathan Palmer, and this year have expanded to a second car for Huub Rothengatler the large amiable Dutchman who brings back memories of Count de Beaufort. In spite of numerous mechanical troubles Palmer finished the Belgian race, albeit in last place and five laps behind the winner, but at least he was still running at the end and got some racing miles in his log book. He had done the same thing at the previous Grand Prix. at Monte Carlo, so that his tally of actual racing miles is beginning to add up. In Spain he had been all set for an improved race performance when he was savaged by Alan Jones in the Lola-Ford, so his racing miles there were minimal. That actual racing miles give you a chance to learn is undisputable and in the race Palmer’s best lap was 4.1 seconds off his best qualifying time, while Prost, record lap was 4.7 seconds off his best qualifying time. The old adage says “To finish first you must first finish” and if you never finnish you will never be first. I am not saying that Palmer and the Zakspeed are going to finish first but at least they are making progress in the right direction by now finishing.
This principle of being there at the end of the race no matter whether you are first or last. is one that Mike Kranefuss of Ford has adopted with his direction of the Ford involvement with Cnsworth and the Carl Haas team running the Lola-Ford V6 cars. Unfortunately the fates have been against them lip to now, for various reasons, some of their own making, others beyond their control Tarnbay’s tenth place on the starting grid was very encouraging and his smooth elegant driving style is well suited to the characteristics of the Belgian circuit, so his race performance was being looked forward to with interest.
It only lasted to the first corner, for in the melee he hit Fabi’s car and the Lola-Ford ricochetted off into the rough with badly mangled front suspension. Although Alan Jones had not qualified as well as Tambay, due to various small problems, he got going in the race and had worked his way up to sixth place by lap 25, which made me sit up and take notice. What I did not know at the time was that last-minute panics with electrical “gizmos” meant that he was driving without an instrument-panel read-out to tell him how much fuel he had left in his tank, and he ran out of fuel three laps from the end which dropped him back to eleventh. He was considered to be a finisher in the results, even though he was stationary out on the circuit.
These days the various cockpit display screens that are used to tell the driver what his fuel consumption is, are all important It used to be the tachometer that was vital in a race, then it was the boost-pressure gauge, now it is the fuel gauge Races themselves have become something of high-speed economy runs due to the rule limiting fuel tank capacity to 195 litres Methods vary from engine to engine, and management system to management system, some telling the driver how many litres he has left in the tank, which he matches to a known figure lap by lap, others tell him how many more laps he can do at any specific speed, others tell him simply whether he is on calculated target or above or below it, and others give him a simple 00, which means all is well, or it reads 2, or 2 or whatever the error is, so that he knows he can go faster or that he must go slower if he wants to finish In the race Mansell was driving nicely on the 00 point, while Senna was verging on the minus, sedate not use more boost.
That the lotus-Renault mason the limit was indicated afterwards when it was weighed for it scaled 542 kilogrammes, which was uncomfortably close to the 540 legal limit, and the fuel drained from the tank was barely measureable The Williams-Honda was much more within the safety limits, with a weight of 550 kilogrammes and with enough litres still left in the tank to have done another lap. That works out at about 4: mpg. Now to the first corner fracas Instant viewing of a video of the television transmission. which I was able to enioy through the courtesy of the Elf hospitality unit, showed quite a lot of things, but not all Descriptions from drivers and people
standing on the corner added more information, but much of it seemed contradictory Tambay, for example, was convinced that Berger’s Benetton had rolled across in front of his Lola, and he had hit it. but the television replay clearly showed Berger’s car stationary across the track, Fabi’s Benetton coming to a stop more or less nose to nose with his team mate, and Tambay’s lett front wheel striking Fabi’s right rear wheel, with instant damage to the Lola which then speared oft into the rough. But it had all started much earlier Piquet had got away cleanly from pole position and into the lead. Senna had aimed to dive between Piquet and Berger and aim for the apex of the hairpin, while Frost was intent on following Piquet up to the corner on the right of the track Berger had got a lot of wheetspin when he let in the clutch, and the back-end was fish-tailing and he waltzed across the front of Senna, whereupon the Brazilian instantly changed direction and went to the left of the Benetton, instead of the right as he had intended.
We now had the situation of Piquet on his own diving into the righthanded hairpin, with three cars more or less abreast behind him going for a space that was really only big enough or two cars Scones Lotus gave Berger’s Benetton a nudge, sideways, wheel to wheel, and kept on heading for the hairpin, and Berger was forced sideways to the right. across the bows of Prost’s McLaren While Senna went out wide and rounded the hairpin to follow Piquet down the hill, Berger spun clockwise through 180 degrees and stopped. while Prost spun 90 degrees anticlockwise and headed to the left of the stationary Benetton.
Unfortunately Arnoux was out there, running wide to avoid what was ahead of him and Prost’s McLaren ran up over the rear wheel of the Logi, damaging the rear aerofoil of the French car. and launching itself into the air, to nose-dive down again and wreck its nose-cone, while the Ligier did a 180-degree left hand turn and dived off down the hill behind Rosberg who had also taken avoiding action by doing a 180-degree left-hand loop and going off down the hill, passing behind the stationary cars Fabi had rounded the corner to find his team mate across the road and had stood on the brakes and was thumped in the rear by Tambay. Amidst a certain amount of banging and bumping everyone else escaped damage, but the order down the hill bore no relation to the order going into the hairpin. Nobody could be blamed for the situation, it was just that three into two will not go, and when one of the three is Ayrton Senna, somebody else is going to have Income off second best, this time it was Berger Poor Alain Frost was a completely innocent party who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am not going to say that it was anyone’s fault, but it all began to go wrong when Senna gave Berger a nudge When a similar situation happened in Brazil on the opening lap, and Mansell ended up in the guard rail while Senna went on his way in the lead, a friend of mine remarked quietly. “Isn’t that the hall-mark of great Grand Prix driver, to dispose of your opposition without damaging your own car,We thought back to many such occasions involving Ascari, Fangio, Moss. Clark and . An interesting aside to it all was that the television replay only caught the beginning and the middle of the -kerfueleand the last you saw of Frost it looked as though he had smashed his nose-cone into the armco barrier on the apex of the hairpin, so next morning, after the dust had settled and the sun was still shining I drove back to the circuit to have a look at the marks. There weren’t any, There was no sign of contact with the steel barrier, so I assumed the damage had been done on the kerbing round the inside of the hairpin, but even that wasn’t convincing. Whatever had happened, his righthand nose tin was dragging on the ground as he came down the hill, so I was a bit puzzled I recalled that somebody had mentioned about the McLaren aviating, though I hadn’t really understood what that was all about, but when returning to Spa and buying La Dernier Heure newspaper, there on the front page were three superb photographs showing the whole sequence ofevents as described earlier, with Frost aviating over Arnoux’s rear wheel and another one of the McLaren about to hit the ground and bend its righthand nose fin It was a fascinating study which time, and a monthly publication date, allowed me to sort out.
One 01 the joys of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is that it is made up of public roads, suitably modified and prepared, and the new part of the circuit which descends across the valley is also open as a public. road so that when the race is over you can drive round and look at the various points where interesting happenings took place. Immediately after the race ills a bit fraught doing laps of the circuit, for there is a lot of traffic and movement as everyone packs up to go home, but next morning things are pretty tranquil and you can lap to your hearts content. Even driving round in a mundane saloon, with the tyres whistling a bit admittedly, is fun and it gives you the feeling of whets joy it must be to the racing drivers Certainly, they all enthuse over the circuit and feel that each lap done is a job well done and worth doing Due to the exigiencies of the financial side of Formula One it now costs an arm and a leg to enjoy the Belgian Grand Prix as a spectator. but I am sure it is worth it. especially in the weather we enjoyed this year Ills lists pity that it wasn’t the race that I anticipated 115 J