Formula One Scene
When the Light turns Green
If racing CARS interest you more than racing DRIVERS, and MOTOR RACING is more important to you than DRIVER RACING, then Friday and Saturday before a Grand Prix holds more in store than actual race day. These are the days of morning free-for-all testing for 1-1/2 hours and afternoon qualifying for starting grid position for one hour. Sadly, the normal spectator cannot get very close to the interesting action of these two days, for much of it is hidden away in the pit lane garages or in the paddock, and it is only the end result that the spectator can see, when a driver goes out and makes fastest (or slowest) time of the day. What you can be sure to see is the car/driver/team effort working at its maximum for one lap, though naturally you see the combination for three laps; one warming up lap, one "flyer", and one slowing down lap, but you have to be paying close attention all the time for unlike true qualifying, as used at Indianapolis where drivers go out individually, a pole position lap can be at any time during the period between 1pm and 2pm.
For those fortunate enough to be allowed into the pit lane the signs that Senna, Mansell, Patrese or Prost etc, are about to go out "for a quick one" can easily be read, and a good circuit commentator can also read the signs and let the spectator know over the public address system, providing a car is not going past your particular loud-speaker at the time. Electronic display screens are gradually appearing at many circuits, to replace loudspeakers that cannot be heard, and also closed circuit television is making it possible to follow a car after it has gone out of your sight.
Monaco had such a screen mounted high up, overlooking the harbour and if, for example, you were watching along the harbour front and around the swimming pool complex, you could see a car coming out of the tunnel and down through the harbour "chicane" on the large screen, right to the moment it came into view. When it disappeared round Rascasse hairpin you could pick it up on the screen again for the rest of the lap. It was all a bit unreal at times, and some people were actually watching the screen all the time, even when the car was passing in front of them, which made me wonder why they bothered to buy a seat in the expensive grandstand! Admittedly the magic-screen does not give you the sound and the vibrations, but I suppose that will come eventually.
In the first qualifying hour at Monaco the air temperature was so low that qualifying tyres were lasting longer than expected, and it was possible to do more than one quick lap on them, and a number of drivers made more than the usual two fast laps. Near the end of the hour the two McLaren drivers went out for a third run, setting off down the pit lane together, Senna leading Berger. This in itself was unusual, but I could not help noticing that a McLaren team member had been watching the Ferrari pit closely, and that the two McLarens followed Alain Prost down the pit lane as he was going out to make his second attempt for pole position in the Ferrari. Now there was nothing wrong in this, and there was no way that the McLarens could create "traffic" and baulk Prost, but psychologically it was bound to upset the Ferrari team, who are easy prey for such a ploy, and slightly disturbing for Prost knowing they were behind him. Senna matched the pace of the Ferrari, and there is no better place to be than right behind your rival if you want to find out how his car is handling, or where he is quicker or slower than you.
On the second afternoon of qualifying Prost tried the same bit of gamesmanship by following Senna down the pit lane as the McLaren driver was away on a serious qualifying run, but before Prost could see how the McLaren was performing Senna slowed right up and pulled over out of the way and Prost was forced to go by and continue on a fast lap. Senna went slowly, keeping an eye behind him and by the time someone else appeared in his mirrors Prost was way ahead and out of reach, so the McLaren driver wound everything on and started his "flyer" with a clear road ahead of him. As he once said, when asked about "traffic" during qualifying, "you can make your own traffic, or not."
Holding a Grand Prix through the streets of Monte Carlo in this day and age is unreal enough in itself, but there are always sights and sounds that live in the memory afterwards, some real and some unreal but the abiding memory of this year's race was the opening phase, when things were settling down. It is normal for a gap to appear between the bunch of five or six hard-chargers at the front of the field and the midfield runners, which can be led by anybody in the group, and then the stragglers bring up the rear. This year there was a bright green car hanging tenaciously onto the back of the leading group, as Andrea de Cesaris drove his Jordan-Cosworth HB faster than seemed reasonable, and certainly faster than anyone expected. Back in the days of national racing colours I used to watch a blue car hanging on to the leaders, as Jean Behra drove his Gordini faster than seemed possible, and later Harry Schell did the same thing with a green Vanwall, and they were heroic days.
It was an heroic day in Monte Carlo this year, as de Cesaris forced his way past Moreno's Benetton-Cosworth and then began to lean on Alesi's Ferrari. It was all fascinating stuff to watch, but somehow you knew it could not last, and shortly before one third race distance the Jordan's engine died when an electrical fault crept into the throttle control system. But it was entertaining while it lasted. You could almost feel the relief in the Ferrari and Benetton pits when the green car disappeared, for both teams are riddled with discontent within their management hierarchy at the moment and for a Jordan driven by de Cesaris to be giving them trouble was something neither team needed. While Eddie Jordan and Gary Anderson quietly worked away on their reliability factor, Benetton sacked their designer John Barnard, Ford announced that Cosworth were going to produce a V12 engine for next year, using Ford money and Ford electronics, and Ferrari sacked Cesare Fiorio from his position as Ferrari team manager. I am not suggesting that the little incident with the new Jordan had anything to do with these upheavals, but the Jordan team, with its non-alcoholic drinks sponsorship does seem to be getting along nicely in their first season in Formula One.
Perhaps if the cars were not bright green they would not be so noticeable, but with Eddie Jordan being a true (green) Irishman it does seem to be a most suitable colour. All three cars are so similar that it is virtually impossible to tell one from another, and like most F1 cars the racing numbers are hidden away out of sight on some part of the car that does show too much, otherwise it would carry advertising material. To try and help identification the car of de Cesaris has green rear-view mirrors, the colour of the car, while the car of Gachot has the mirrors painted red; but now they are going by so fast that I cannot see that difference.
A similar problem arises with the two Larrousse Lolas, the two Tyrrells and others, and the only thing to do when trying to follow a race closely is to beam onto the second car of each team as it passes and if you can identify it positively then you know who the other one is that is ahead. Some teams have drivers with very distinctive helmet colours, such as Senna (yellow) and Berger (black and red), or Piquet (red and white) and Moreno (yellow). There are occupational hazards when you are trying to follow a race closely, and they are worse still if your name is Murray Walker and you are trying to do a running commentary from a television monitor screen, especially when there is a "glitch" and your screen goes from colour to black and white without any warning! Every now and then I mention the numbers' problem to team designers or team managers, but they all say the same thing. "Square inches of fibreglass on the body or aerodynamic appendages are worth a lot of money, especially prime sites, to sponsors. We cannot afford to give up that space for the numbers." Now if nice Mr Ecclestone and FOCA were public spirited they would pay all the teams for the square inches needed for a large and prominent racing number, and they could put "By Courtesy of FOCA" under the number. Just an idea, but I am continually meeting spectators who complain about not being able to read the numbers on F1 cars, especially those spectators who only get to see one live Grand Prix a season.
The pit lane at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the Ile Notre Dame at Montréal was well up to standard for detail interest, and there was time to nose around on some small details such as the quick-lift jacks in use by those teams using the Tyrrell-style high nose and low front aerofoil fins. With a conventional layout, like a McLaren the front lever-jack can be fairly straightforward with a single bar or pad that goes under the nose and lifts on the front of the monocoque. With the "Tyrrell nose" nothing is flat until you get back to the beginning of the cockpit area, or the forward extending mandatory flat floor pan, which is not strong enough to lift on. Front jacks on these cars have all had to be specially designed with curved lifting pads to either cradle the nose, or to lift on the drooping "whiskers". Whatever system is used, any team using the fashionable "Tyrrell nose" has had to spend quite a lot of design-time on their front jacks. In all the teams, the most simple of jacks has still had to be designed and manufactured "in house" because they are all purpose-made. In the same vein some of the equipment used in the garages for lifting cars or engines, or carrying complete transmissions and rear suspensions, shows a most interesting degree of design and manufacture, all done by the team personnel. There is a lot more work done in a racing car factory than merely designing and building a racing car.
For a time during Saturday morning testing in Canada I wandered away from the pit area to the very fast ess-bend which is blind over a brow and leads on to the final straight. Senna was visibly quick through this section but the McLaren looked anything but stable, in fact on some laps it looked decidedly "nervous". In contrast the Williams-Renault looked very steady and was proving faster on the whole lap anyway. Other cars looked steadier but were slower, but even the slow ones were taking the blind brow at something like 150 mph. There were quite a lot of slower cars out on the track and Senna was doing a lot of overtaking, aided by marshals waving blue flags, and he wasn't having any trouble. Most drivers can recognise a McLaren-Honda in their mirrors, especially one with a yellow helmeted figure in the cockpit and most of them lift off momentarily and move out of the way. At one point Senna passed Emanuele Pirro driving a Dallara-Judd V10 and it was just as they were both opening up for the 180 mph dash down the final straight towards the pits. It was noticeable how Pirro dived into the McLaren slipstream as it went by, but more surprising was that it was still there next time round. Now if Senna was maintaining his pace this meant that Pirro would have recorded a faster lap than he could achieve on his own. On the next lap he had dropped back a little, and on the third lap he had lost his tow and was back on his own again.
It was a nice little example of a lesser driver learning from the Master, for it is one thing to be sucked along in a faster car's slipstream and another matter altogether to stay there for a whole lap, round all the corners. Back at the information centre where we lucky insiders get all the speeds and lap times from the Longines-Olivetti timing team, it was fascinating to study the times. Pirro had recorded one lap that was over a second quicker than his regular laps, and the following two were faster than normal for him, but what turned out to be more significant was that in the afternoon qualifying he improved on his best morning lap, indicating that he had learnt something from his laps in the wake of the Master. It was all to no avail in the race because on the opening lap he collided with de Cesaris and had to stop for new tyres, thinking he had a puncture, but something was a bit out of line and affected the handling, so he did not have a very happy race. The race itself, apart from being remarkable because Senna was not on pole position and did not lead for a single moment up to his retirement on lap 26, saw the three top teams all plagued by electrical or electronic troubles in some way or another. McLaren-Honda, Williams-Renault and Ferrari are all so deep into electrics and electronic systems on the cars that when the bodywork is removed you see an electrical nightmare to the uninitiated. Williams and Ferrari both have sophisticated electronic control of gearchanging, the Williams in advance of the Ferrari in that the driver does not have to lift his foot off the accelerator pedal, while neither of them use the clutch pedal once they are on the move, or take their hands off the steering wheel to change gear. The Williams gear selection and change mechanism is programmed on a computer and all the driver has to do is to send an electronic signal. Clutch operation, throttle movement to regulate engine speed to gearbox shaft speed and road speed is all under the control of the electronic unit. The driver, with his accelerator pedal pressed hard down on the stop, has no control for a few milliseconds while the computer programme is closing the throttles, freeing the clutch, engaging the required gear, opening the throttles and letting the clutch in again, all so quickly that the time taken is hard to visualize, and as far as anyone is concerned the gearchange is instantaneous. The Ferrari drivers have control of the engine at all times, so they have to ease the throttle pedal very slightly as their gear changes are effected by the electrically operated hydraulic actuators. This may sound like a lot of unnecessary complication, but it is all leading to fully automatic transmission systems in which the engine runs at constant speed and the gearbox is replaced by an infinitely variable gear mechanism. Then the driver will merely have to steer the car and operate his road-speed control and the brakes, and with the ever increasing lap speeds being set up that will be more than enough for him to concentrate on.
McLaren are still using a conventional mechanical gearchange mechanism, and anyone watching the on-board television shots of Senna in action will have noticed how much time he had to spend with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on the gear-lever. I feel sure that Honda are more than ready to work with a constant-speed engine, running at 13,800 rpm, or whatever, as no doubt are Renault.
In addition to all the foregoing, Honda and Renault have telemetry on their engines, which is relayed to equipment in the pits on which they can follow every revolution of the engine throughout the race, with data displays recording everything that is happening, such as throttle opening, pressures, temperatures, fuel consumption, ignition and spark plug conditions and so on.
Now all this electronic equipment is working in a fairly unfriendly environment involving noise, heat, vibration, changes of direction with high G-forces, high acceleration values and heavy braking forces. It is a wonder it works at all. But it does, and reasonably reliably, but any of it could be influenced by an unknown outside force. I don't think it is coincidence that all three teams had unexpected electrically-orientated breakdowns while on the island in the St Lawrence river. Mansell's car had a failure in gear-selection when trying to get first gear from the neutral position, when about to go out in qualifying on Saturday afternoon, and after that was cured the clutch operation failed before he left the pit lane. On Sunday morning the whole fuel system on Patrese's car went on the blink. In the race Senna's engine stopped very suddenly with electrical failure, said to be alternator failure, but I am sure it was not as simple as that, for an alternator merely keeps the battery topped up and failure usually means that the battery starts using up its amps until one or other system fails through insufficient supply, not the whole system.
Prost's Ferrari had a sudden electrical failure in its gear selection wirings, exactly as Mansell's Williams had on its last lap, the Renault engine cutting out at the same time. Patrese had symptoms of failure in his gear selection during the closing laps and was really lucky to finish. Two things are very significant in all this: when Mansell's car was brought back after the race and was cooled down, it started up and ran with no signs of trouble! Even more significant was the fact that when the Renault engineers looked into all the information they had recorded during the race, it was all scrambled and unintelligible; in their language "the information had been corrupted" which means disturbed by some outside influence. More than that we don't know at the moment.
When the race was over and most of the 50,000 spectators had gone there was the gentle stirring of a giant behind the pits, as a long line of 35 or more vast articulated trucks began to manoeuvre into position. The previous night they had come in and lined up nose-to-tail on a dirt service road away from the actual track, now they were coming into the arena of the pit lane preparing to load the whole F1 circus into their great trailers and set off on a 2000 mile journey down to Mexico City, in readiness for the Mexican Grand Prix which will have happened by the time these words are read. This very impressive fleet of blue and white trucks belonged to North American Van Lines and are part of the impressive organisation that FOCA run to ensure that the show always opens on time, no matter where it takes place. The advantage to a team to perform well and gain points in the Constructors' Championship is that when you have qualified all this sort of behind-the-scene activity is paid for by FOCA who handle the overall finances of Formula 1. New teams or hopeless teams who have no points from last season have to pay for this service, until such time as they are deemed worthy to receive "transport expenses" and naturally this involves the air freight to and from North America.
Formula One is a costly business to break into, but once established there is a lot of financial help and support, but it is not easy to become established. Merely being there is not sufficient, you have to make headway and prove yourself, which is why the little Jordan team were rejoicing more over their 4th and 5th places, than Benetton were over their victory.
IRONIC FOOTNOTE: Very odd that the designers of the cars that finished first and second in Canada have both parted company from their teams. John Barnard leaving Benetton to stand outside the arena and take a long, hard look at Formula One and Dr Harvey Postlethwaite has left Tyrrell to take a job with Mercedes-Benz! The designer world is worryingly unstable at the moment. -- DSJ