Formula One scene: Imola

Same tune, new sound

The mythical “they” (whoever “they” might be) were saying that it was all going to be different this year at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, but though I looked pretty carefully I couldn’t see much difference from last year.

Ayrton Senna was on pole position on the starting grid, with Alain Prost alongside him, and apart from a few hundred yards down to the first corner at one point in the race, Senna led from start to finish, with Prost finishing in second place. The McLaren cars were red-and-white, sponsored by Marlboro, and powered by Honda engines.

One big difference was the sound from the McLaren-Honda exhaust pipes; last year they made a hard, low-pitched growl that exuded “muscle”, this year they were raucous and high-pitched. The reason? Instead of being turbocharged 1500cc V6 engines they were normally-aspirated 3500cc V10 engines, but apart from the exhaust noise it would have been hard to tell the difference. They were still ahead of the field and lapped all the finishers at least once, the seven other cars still running at the finish all being powered by Cosworth-Ford V8 engines which seem to have been around longer than most of the drivers.

But don’t despair, much of the scene has changed — it is just the winning combination of McLaren, Honda, Senna and Prost that has remained constant. The Williams cars are back near the front, while they are running, thanks to the new Renault V10 engine, and the new V12 Ferrari is bristling with exciting developments; at the back of the field are the Lolas of Equipe Larrousse with V12 Chrysler-Lamborghini engines, and the Zakspeeds with Yamaha V8 engines. In between the new breed of engines that are setting the pace, and the new ones that are not yet on the pace, is a veritable sea of “production” V8 engines supplied to small teams by Cosworth and Judd — these two firms supplying the power for 29 of the cars entered, some direct from the factories, others from engine specialists such as Brian Hart and Heini Mader.

Due to this preponderence of V8s it was difficult to enjoy the new V10 and V12 engines during practice, for invariably just when the new engines were getting “on song” a gaggle of V8-powered also-rans would go by. In the race it was alright, as the new engines soon pulled away from the rest.

The McLaren-Hondas may look like last years cars to the casual observer, but they are completely new from front to rear, only the colour being the same. Similarly the V12 Ferrari is all new and full of interest and potential, while the Williams is an “interim” car comprising the basics of the FW12 adapted to utilise the new Renault V10 engine.

Although McLaren and its drivers threw away their chances of winning the Brazilian Grand Prix, and thus all hope of improving on their 1988 score of 15 wins out of 16 races, they made no mistakes at the San Marino race. While both Honda engines had run well in Brazil, the Japanese were particularly pleased with the Imola result, not so much for winning their first race of the season, but for creating a small technical landmark in achieving the first Grand Prix victory for a V10 engine. Almost every other configuration of racing engine has won a Grand Prix race at some time, even an H-16, but this was a new milestone.

There was an interesting change in the Imola paddock scene this year in that the allocation of pits and paddock space was completely re-arranged. You might think that it is a case of first-come first-served as regards where all the transporters, motor homes, vans and cars are parked, but in fact it is the result of a major piece of planning by the FOCA man Alan Woollard. The whole thing is run to strict timing and planning and Wednesday in the paddock was fascinating as vast articulated lorries were turned round and backed into position by the drivers who are just as important a part of the various teams as the drivers of the racing cars. If the teams’ transporter drivers failed at their job, there would not be any racing cars for the higher-paid drivers to race.

Normally the pits and paddock space is allocated in descending order of importance, according to local requirements or to racing success, and prime position is usually at the head of the pit-lane. It is not always like this, but it is at most circuits, and over the years you can watch a team make progress by its position in the pit-lane.

At Imola the natural place for the Ferrari team is in the first pit, closely followed by McLaren, Williams, Lotus and so on, but this year all the front-rank teams were grouped together in the middle of the row of pits, with lesser teams at the head of the row and newcomers at the end of the row.

The reason for this was not obvious at first, but a look at the paddock area behind the pits showed that it was actually a triangular area, not noticeable when covered with trailers, vans and motor homes. The sharp end of this triangle happens to be at the head of the row of pits and the shape is dictated by the banks of the River Santerno behind a high concrete wall. The successful teams are getting so big these days that it was time to give them more paddock space by moving them down the pit-lane. If they go on expanding they may even have to be moved to the far end, with the newest and smallest teams taking over what used to be the prime position opposite the main grandstands. There is a lot more to a Grand Prix than just the racing cars going round the circuit!

Because Gerhard Berger’s crash was in full view of the television cameras “the world and his wife” knew all about it, and were not hesitant to express their views. Almost everyone went on about it being a miracle that he escaped with so few injuries, and everyone praised the prompt action by the marshals, and rightly so. But very few people seemed concerned about why he crashed and why there was a fire. That something on the Ferrari broke while he was in full flight seems fairly certain, but the simple fact is that “something” should not break. The fire came from leaking fuel, but fuel should not leak in a crash with all the design restraints and safety measures insisted upon by FISA.

I hope that somewhere behind the scenes (we don’t want a public enquiry) there are some serious questions being asked and sound technical answers being sought, with the findings being made available to those who are interested. At the time of writing we have only had two races to the new Formula One, but there has been a lot of testing carried out and there have been far too many accidents already. Many of them are lightly explained as “the rear suspension broke” or “an aerofoil came off” or “a brake disc shattered” — all mechanical failures that one day are going to kill a driver. If a driver has an accident due to an error of judgement, that is his fault and if he kills himself it is the calculated risk that anyone racing has to take. Accidents through design faults or mechanical failures seem to be taken too lightly by too many people.

If motor racing had a powerful authority like the CAA, that Ferrari accident would have caused all Formula One Ferraris to be “grounded” until a full investigation was carried out. Think about it.

One thing I know is that I would not want the job of being a racing car designer in today’s scene. Over the years I cannot help thinking to myself, when wandering around the pits, “that is the chap who killed so-and-so”. It is no good worrying about this problem, or racing would come to a grinding halt, but nevertheless the thought is there, which is why I would not want the responsibility of being the designer of a racing car which crashed because “something broke”.

I was watching the race from the public enclosures at the Rivazza corners, before the final squirt back into the area around the pits. There were no loudspeakers nearby to tell me what was happening, so it was a case of using my eyes. For three laps the two McLarens were pulling away from the rest of the field, and Senna was pulling away from Prost. As the two red-and-white cars came into view at the end of lap four they were nose-to-tail and going relatively slowly, so it was obvious that something had happened.

A quick thought made me realise that the race was being stopped, and that the two McLaren drivers knew this and had clearly been informed over their cockpit radios from the McLaren pits as soon as the red flag appeared at the start/finish line. A lot of other cars came charging down the hill to Rivazza and slowed up when they saw black flags appearing in response to circuit administration from race control. I could not help smiling and thinking “Ron Dennis and his team are always one move ahead of everything that happens”. Before returning to the paddock to find out what was going on, a quick check on the numbers that passed showed that No 28 was missing.

The red flag did not mean the race had been abandoned, as it does if it is shown in the first two laps. It merely meant that the race had been stopped and would continue once the accident had been dealt with.

If Formula One teams and drivers were as disciplined as American USAC and CART people, the whole field could have slowed up behind Senna and cruised round the circuit until given the green light, the very strict rule being that no-one passes anyone during this cruising period. Formula One stops the race, everyone lines up on the grid in the position they were when they crossed the timing line on the lap before the race was stopped, and a restart is enacted. It is not a new race.

Not everyone seemed clear on the significance of this restart, least of all Alain Prost.

He and Senna knew from the morning warm-up period that barring anything going wrong they had the race in the bag. Ron Dennis leaves it to his drivers as to how they conduct themselves, asking only that they finish first and second. Between them they had an unwritten agreement that the first one into the first corner should set the pace and win. At the start Senna led away comfortably. At the restart Senna hesitated slightly and Prost got in front, leading to the first corner, but then Senna gathered himself up and powered past into the lead, where he had been when the race was stopped.

After it was all over Prost was very po-faced, and did not go to the television and radio interviews. He felt that he should have won, but was not making a big song and dance about it and quietly refrained from talking to anyone, much to the chagrin of the media who wanted to make a big thing about it. If the field had continued to circulate under a yellow light, as in USAC/CART racing, there would have been no discussion at all. Equally, if Ron Dennis ran his team as a dictator rather than a friendly philanthropist this sort of problem would not arise. After all, the drivers are only paid employees. The media made much of “the breaking of a gentleman’s agreement” but in my funny old-fashioned way a gentleman’s agreement is something between two English gentlemen. I am not sure you can use that term for something between a Brazilian and a Frenchman when their only form of communication is the English language, a tongue foreign to both of them, DSJ