Formula One scene: Monte Carlo

The eleven year plan

I sometimes wonder if I am totally out of step with the rest of the world when I read things like the Renault Press handout which says that the Monaco Grand Prix is the world’s most prestigious race. I have been watching Grand Prix races round the streets of Monte Carlo for longer than I care to remember, and I can’t say I have ever taken them very seriously.

The idea of racing round the streets of a town is a fascinating one and in this day and age it is an audacious prospect, but I grew up with Grand Prix racing being events of speed and grandeur on circuits like the old Nurburgring, Reims, the Bremgarten circuit in Switzerland, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Pescara in Italy and in later days the majestic Osterreichring and the spectacular mountain circuit at Clermont Ferrand. Amidst all these, the “scratch round the houses” at Monte Carlo was a bit of light-hearted frivolity in between serious Grand Prix racing.

It amazes me that the Monaco Grand Prix still happens every year, for it contravenes so many of the FISA requirements for a modern Formula One race that there has to be something behind the scenes that allows it to happen. This was brought home forcibly when the Automobile Club of Monaco published the dates for future races. Not just the date of the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix, on Sunday May 21, which is now only eleven months off, but the dates for future races right up to the year 2000. Practice will start on June I and the race will be on June 4 of the year 2000!

Now the interesting thing is that FISA has not really started to think about next year’s calendar, and here is Monaco stating in black-and-white the days it has decided on for the next eleven years. Presumably all the other Grand Prix organisers will have to fit in their events around these dates.

Ayrton Senna’s performance throughout qualifying and the race was something not to have missed; it was a superb demonstration of Grand Prix driving at its highest level, even in the confines of the Monte Carlo streets, and his thinking and strategy while he was racing was brilliant. He gave a similar performance last year on the very fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

The confidence he exudes is remarkable, and puts him in the category of Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss and Jimmy Clark. In Thursday’s qualifying he had made fastest time in 1 min 24.126 sec but quietly said he would go faster on Saturday, weather permitting. The reason being that there is no opportunity for testing prior to the event, so the first day has to be used for “tuning” the car and driver to the circuit. In addition the road surface is still “raw”, but by Saturday afternoon the surface will have “bedded-in”. While Prost was close to him, with 1 min 24.671 sec, the third-placed man was one and a half seconds away.

It was 19 minutes into the qualifying hour on Saturday before Senna went out, and he did two flying laps — 1 min 23.777 sec and 1 min 23.529 sec, just like that. Prost went out after his team-mate and matched his times with 1 min 23.741 sec and 1 min 23.641 sec. They both returned to the pits and waited for a while, and Prost had another go and improved fractionally to 1 min 23.456 sec, but then Senna went out again and there was an uncanny aura about the way he came down the pit-lane, paused to have his tyres checked by the scrutineers and then took off from the pit gate. It wasn’t frantic or spectacular, but equally it wasn’t slow. Purposeful is the only word.

His first lap was I min 27.939 sec while he weighed up the circuit and where other cars were, and then became out of the Rascasse hairpin like a bullet and crossed the timing line with the Honda V10 giving all it had got. The next time past it was all over, 1 min 22.308 sec. Even Prost rolled his eyes when he heard the time.

There were those who said Senna was lucky in getting a clear lap, suggesting that they could have done that sort of time if they hadn’t been held up by a slower car. Senna did have a clear lap, but it wasn’t luck; he has done it too many times.

It is the use of a remarkable brain and perception, and the ability to absorb the hundreds of little things that are happening all around you: to absorb which drivers are in the pits as you drive down to the exit of the pit-lane, to know who is on the circuit, and where they are, to read every little detail all round the circuit on the first warming-up lap at a pace that would nearly have got him on the back of the grid! And then the total confidence of that one fast lap. Sometimes qualifying is more exciting than the race.

The object of any serious team should be to have its new cars ready for the first race of the season, especially if the season is to be for a new Formula. McLaren-Honda and Ferrari achieved this, in spite of the fact that they were racing turbocharged 11/2-litre cars right through to the last of 1988. Arrows, Lotus, Brabham, Ligier and others also managed it, though helped by using 1988 engines. Every race you miss with your new car puts you that far behind the opposition, especially the successful ones who win the races. To have to introduce your new car at Monaco is not the best idea, for there is no pre-meeting testing allowed, and you have to plunge in to the first morning of practice with fingers crossed.

The March team was in this predicament but bravely took the plunge, as did John Judd who was supplying them with his new engine. The new March is designated CG891, the CG being in memory of Cesare Gariboldi, the sponsor and supporter of Ivan Capelli who sparked off the whole March/Leyton House (Japan) connection. Sadly Gariboldi was killed in a road accident during the winter and his initials were added to what was going to be the March 891.

The team had two new cars and two 1988 cars at Monaco, but concentrated on the new ones and qualifying them both for the race. The new Judd engine has been redesigned with an angle of 76° between the two banks of four cylinders, in order to make it more compact and to attach to a smaller and narrower monocoque. Just why the odd angle of 76° was used, and not 75°, is an engineering restriction that time and money could have erased. A new gearboxifinal drive is used, with the gear cluster ahead of the crown-wheel and pinion, and the coil-spring suspension units mounted horizontally on top of the gearbox and operated by links from the rear suspension members. Nobody envied the team its task, and there was a lot of sympathy for it when fate took its toll. On the warm-up lap to the assembly grid Gugelmin’s car had gearbox trouble and he was forced to start from the pit-lane in one of the old 881 models, which was inadequately prepared for the street circuit.

Capelli in the second of the new cars started in 22nd position and steadily worked his way up through the field as others ran into trouble. He was in sixth place when the winner was completing his last lap, though two laps behind, but on the final lap an electrical failure stopped the engine and he never got to the chequered flag. This dropped him from sixth place to eleventh place, the bare results not doing justice to the team’s overall effort.

Someone’s misfortune is always someone else’s good fortune, and on this occasion the demise of the March put Martin Brundle’s Brabham into sixth place; but again the bare results did not do justice to the position.

From the first appearance of the Brabham BT58-Judd V8, designed by John Baldwin and Sergio Rinland, in the reformed Brabham team now owned by a Swiss financier, the scene has been looking good. With a very neat and tidy car, driven by Martin Brundle and Stefano Modena, it seemed ludicrous that such a set-up should have to go through the nonsense of pre-qualifying before it could even start the serious business of getting into the race. If anyone has had any doubts about the Brabham being suitable material for the top echelon, the Monaco race should have expelled them.

Brundle was a fine fourth on the grid, only beaten by the two McLaren-Hondas and Boutsen’s Williams-Renault V10, and in the race he kept pace with the leaders, losing out to Mansell’s Ferrari in the opening lap. When Boutsen stopped to have his rear aerofoil replaced and three laps before the Ferrari stopped altogether with gearbox trouble, Brundle had moved into a well-merited third place and stayed on the same lap as the leader. On lap 49 the Judd engine went on the blink when the Brabham’s battery failed to supply the necessary current, and Brundle had to make a pit-stop to have a new battery fitted, which lost him over three minutes. Undaunted, and more than a little wound up, he stormed back into the race in tenth place, caught and passed Nannini’s Benetton and Cheever’s Arrows and took sixth place when Capelli stopped.

Meanwhile his team-mate Modena had inherited third place, so the Brabham team came away with some solid results to assist it when the pre-qualifying nonsense is reviewed at mid-season.

At Imola the Tyrrell team had produced its new 018 model for Alboreto to try to qualify, which he failed to do, but Palmer switched from the old 017B (which he had qualified) to the new car and brought it through to the finish.

At Monaco Palmer kept the same car and Alboreto started all over again with another new car, the second of the 018 series. It was not ready until the second day of practice, but nonetheless he got it onto the grid in twelfth position and drove it home into fifth place; Palmer finished ninth, so that now, with three races gone this season, the Tyrrell team can consider itself to be on the way in the new formula.

While all this late panic and sweat seems commendable you have to admire the front-running teams who were ready to go from the first day of practice of the first race. In all truth that is the reason they are the front-running teams.

Much coverage was given to the fact that Arnoux did very little to help his fellow-countryman as Prost came up to lap the Ligier. By lap 13 Senna had caught up the tail-enders and was settled in to lap times of 1 min 28 sec, with Prost right on his tail. As he went past Gugelmin, Moreno, Sala and Palmer he reduced his lap times to 1 min 26 sec, dropping Prost behind. He lapped Piquet (yes, the Lotus number one!) and Herbert, which slowed him to 1 min 28 sec and then he passed Arnoux, with a lap at 1 min 29 sec!

Now, knowing how Arnoux dislikes Prost and guessing that the Ligier driver would not get out of the way of McLaren number two, Senna reeled off six laps that varied only from 1 min 26.0 sec to 1 min 26.8 sec, during which time he lapped Capelli’s March. Meanwhile Prost lost 41/2 seconds in one lap, stuck behind Arnoux, so it was all over. Even though Prost got back onto the pace that Senna was setting, and eventually made fastest lap of the day, he never saw his team-mate again until the finish.

After the race Arnoux was given a severe warning by the Stewards that if he was seen to deliberately baulk again he would be disqualified. Meanwhile Prost was still smarting from a $5000 fine inflicted on him by FISA for not attending the post-race interview after the Imola race. The management of Formula One is as complex as the “setting up” of a Formula One car is to many teams and drivers.

Many teams and drivers who appeared to be in a shambles most of the weekend were trying to explain why things had not worked out round the rough and bumpy streets of Monte Carlo. They had “tested” at some remote circuit, or done wind-tunnel testing to prove this or that, all to no avail. One team-manager was heard to murmur, when told of wind-tunnel results, “but we don’t race in wind-tunnels”.

In the same way, if all the races were run on Ferrari’s test-track at Fiorano the red cars would probably win them all, providing they did not allow McLaren-Honda any pre-race testing!

The silhouette of the town of Monte Carlo changes every year as bigger holes are dug to accommodate underground car parks and shopping centres, and new skyscraper buildings reach ever upwards. One change that pleased everyone this year was a rearrangement of the pit-lane, to try and ease the cramped situation. Normally all the pit material has been kept on a sort of island between the track and the pit-lane, but this year provision was made for material to be kept in lockable sheds on the other side of the pit-lane, with only timing and signalling equipment on the “island”. It is still an awful shambles that would not be tolerated anywhere else, and the paddock is an even bigger shambles, totally divorced from the pits, but this is “the world’s most prestigious race” we are told, and we are stuck with it at least until June 4, 2000. DSJ