Formula One scene

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Power game

At last, in the first week in February, we heard officially where the Formula One “circus” will be going this year. Any other branch of our sport which took so long to make up its official mind on the all-important calendar would have been ostracized long ago. Formula One may be the top branch of the motor sporting tree, but it does not set much of an example to those lower down. I am sure there are good reasons for the dilatoriness, and dealing with worldwide events cannot be easy, but this annual juggling of the Grand Prix calendar gets worse rather than better.

Pity the poor people who are trying to run a straightforward business dependent on the Formula One calendar. Tour operators, such as Page & Moy, must have spent the winter tearing their hair in desperation, as must hotel owners, travel agents, holiday planners and so on. Trying to produce calendars of fixture lists becomes a headache, and I don’t suppose the BBC Outside Broadcasting Unit for radio and television has been amused. Even though the calendar of events published below is official, do not be surprised if things get changed by the time the Grand Prix season starts in Brazil on April 3.

The International Federation which controls everything keeps bleating to the competitors and constructors about formulating rules and regulations which must not be changed; it keeps using the word “stability” and yet its own formulating of the calendar and its subsidiary lists of entrants and drivers is the most “unstable” part of the whole scene.

Now that we know where we are going and when, a brief estimate of who and what will be going will not go amiss.

The basic rules to which the events will be run are similar to last year, with a few small but important changes. The Championships (Drivers and Constructors) are open to cars powered by 1½-litre turbocharged engines, or 31/2-litre engines with natural aspiration. The 31/2-litre category is competing amongst itself for separate awards, namely the Jim Clark Trophy for the successful driver and the Colin Chapman Cup for the successful constructor. Last year these were won by Jonathan Palmer and Team Tyrrell respectively. Although this amalgamation of two distinct types of car in the same race gives the impression of an “equivalancy formula” it is not meant to be such, for FISA/FOCA luminaries agreed some years ago that it was impossible to formulate “equivalency” rules. The present arrangement came about with the announcement that turbocharged 11/2-litre engines would be ruled out in 1989. In order to soften the blow of total change, the cars for the 1989 formula (31/2-litres without turbocharging) were allowed to take part in Grand Prix events in 1987 and are again encouraged to do so this year.

Last year the turbocharged cars were limited to a boost of 4-bar (1-bar being 14 pounds per square inch) and were allowed only 190 litres of fuel for the race. This year the limits are 2.5-bar and 150 litres, the idea being to restrict the power outputs of engines. Officialdom hopes that this will bring the two types of engine in Formula One nearer to each other on performance; it is not an equivalency formula, you understand!

An additional rule for this year, bearing in mind that serious operations such as Ferrari and Ford (and no doubt Honda, though we have not seen any positive signs yet) already have 1989 engines under way, is that a team may change its designated power-plant from turbocharged 11/2-litre to normally-aspirated 31/2-litre during the season. Once they have done that, however, they cannot go back, so if their 31/2-litre engine turns out to be a flop, they are stuck with it.

Ford has already taken this major decision, and the new Benetton B188 from the Witney base in Oxfordshire has been designed around the new 31/2-litre Ford-Cosworth V8. This engine is designated the DFR (R for re-hash!) which is a compact Cosworth V8 with new cylinder-head and combustion chamber design using five valves per cylinder, emanating from the Cosworth-Yamaha technical tie-up from last year.

These engines will be exclusive to the Benetton team, and with Rory Byrne’s chassis and aerodynamic expertise together with the driving capabilities of Thierry Boutsen and the potential of Alessandro Nannini (who replaces Teo Fabi), this combination has to be a strong contender for the Clark and Chapman cups, and will no doubt not be far off the turbocharged front-runners.

This means that the 120° V6 Ford turbocharged 11/2-litre which no nearly made it last year in the Benetton has now been officially junked— an expensive little exercise that simply took too long to get under way in the beginning, so that it was always a year behind the Honda, Porsche, Ferrari engines. It is interesting that Ford has cut its losses and does not intend to get left behind when the new formula comes into being in 1989.

I think we can rest assured that Ferrari does not intend to get left behind in 1989. Its new 31/2-litre engine, which is a V12, is already well developed, and the new car designed by John Barnard at his English “out-station” will be on test soon enough. In addition to the V12 engine it will have something interesting in the way of the gearbox/transmission unit. Whether the new car will actually race this year is something even Ferrari has not decided on, bearing in mind that once the decision is made it is irrevocable. A lot will depend on how the first part of the season progresses, for if the turbocharged cars from last year continue as they finished 1987, there will be a natural reluctance to change, especially if championship wins are visibly within their capabilities. If by half-season Honda (in McLaren or Lotus form) has annihilated everyone, Ferrari might just as well drop the turbocharged car and race the 1989 car.

In the world of Honda we are about to see the result of the major decisions made at the end of last season. World Champion Nelson Piquet has joined Team Lotus, replacing Ayrton Senna who has gone to McLaren.

The Lotus cars will be back on normal suspension this year, the complex “active ride” or rapid-response air and hydraulic suspension being withdrawn by the Lotus technical branch. Its introduction to Formula One was in the manner of a practical test-bed with Tearn Lotus supplying the vehicle. The results and knowledge gained were deemed satisfactory, so Lotus Engineering can now continue with its commercial applications. With Satoru Nakajima still as number two driver for the team, Lotus can rest assured that it will get the best Honda can supply in the way of power plants, still turbocharged 11/2-litre V6 units.

At McLaren International, the scene is changed in some major respects. The contract with Porsche for supplying engines ended last year and has been replaced by one with Honda, on a par to that with Lotus. There should not be too many problems for Gordon Murray and his engineers to adapt their chassis design to the Japanese power-plant; the Porsche engine was always a serious competitor to Honda so power and torque figures will be very similar. These are the things which influence chassis stiffness and suspension characteristics.

Alain Prost remains as number, one driver, but he is joined this year by Ayrton Senna who is a natural number one driver anyway, so McLaren is looking to be the most powerful team for 1988. The transfer of Honda engines to McLaren was at the expense of the Williams tearn, even though Williams cars won the 1987 championships and won a lot of races for Honda. With Nelson Piquet transferring to Lotus, he takes the racing number 1 with him, so the Williams team starts 1988 with nothing to show outwardly for its 1987 successes. Its cars will still be numbers 5 and 6, with Nigel Mansell now their number one, and Riccardo Patrese has joined as his number two.

Once the split with Honda was announced Frank Williams wasted no time in doing a deal with John Judd for his new 31/2-litre normallyaspirated V8, thus joining the Clark/Chapman Cups brigade in readiness for 1989. In truth he had no other option.

John Judd has been servicing and developing Honda 3-litre V8 engines used in F3000, as a British base for Honda Motor Company of Tokyo. 1987 saw the end of Honda’s interest in F3000, which was not a brilliantly successful operation, and the Japanese bequeathed all the designs and know-how of the 3-litre V8 to John Judd in recompense for ending their association. Judd has developed from this a 31/2-litre V8 normally-aspirated engine, and there is no better team than Williams to find out whether it is competitive.

While most of the teams have undergone, or are likely to undergo, some changes, the Brabham team under the control of Bernard Ecclestone has gone completely. Last year its contract with BMW for the 4-cylinder engines was tenuous to say the least, and the Munich firm was really only going through the motions of honouring its contract. That is now all finished, and rather than join the queues for engines such as Cosworth or Judd, Ecclestone has pulled the team out of Formula One, and has allowed his only other tangible asset, Riccardo Patrese, to go to Williams. In theory it is just for this year, while a new engine supplier is found, but he will have to hurry, for any serious 1989 car should be out on test by the middle of this summer. As Brabham has not registered a Formula One entry for 1988 there is no way it could race a new car towards the end of the season, even if it had one; unless, of course, the rules were changed!

This will be the first season in 27 years that there has not been a Brabham car in Formula One. I wonder what Sir Jack Brabham thinks of all that? It always seemed a pity that he sold his illustrious name when he sold his racing firm, but it would be hard to take seriously a Grand Prix car called an Ecclestone.

Some of the smaller teams which took part in Formula One last year are blossoming out into two-car teams, and there are a number of proposed new teams joining in this year with Cosworth-engined cars; but they can only hope to fill the back of the grid, always assuming they qualify.

On the face of it, these newcomers swell the ranks to a possible 31 cars turning out for qualifying. With the limit still at 26 for the starting grid, there are going to be some disappointments this year, but at least the competition is healthy and the overall scene is as strong as ever. Whether it stays that way only time will tell. DSJ

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