A two-horse race?

Last year it was Mansell chasing Senna. Will it be the other way round in 1992?

Quintessentially, 1991 was a two-horse race, with Ayrton Senna winning seven Grands Prix to Nigel Mansell's five, Patrese supporting his team-mate with a brace of victories, and Berger and Piquet picking up but a win apiece.

Who can forget the way in which the Brazilian won four straight victories as the season opened, or the manner in which Mansell chased back into contention throughout the summer? By the end of a traumatic year the indications were that McLaren had resumed the upper hand once more, with commanding successes in Japan and Australia, but neither team has slackened the development pace during the winter and come Kyalami battle will clearly be resumed.

In 1991 the technological war favoured McLaren. Its MP4/6 chassis was conventional, in both constructional terms and its aerodynamics. Its transmission was conventional too, as was its engine, although the Honda RA121E V12 was to be the focus of much development work as the season progressed. Williams, by contrast, supplanted the unexciting FW13B with the dramatic FW14, a package in which Adrian Newey's flair was given free rein, albeit under the experienced hand of Patrick Head. The result was a car that pushed forward the technical barriers, with its semi-automatic transmission which went a stage further than Ferrari's in its transverse guise. In the power stakes there was often little to choose from, with Honda working flat out with Shell and Renault ditto with Elf as they fought across Europe in the middle of the year. Where the McLaren was fearfully reliable, however Senna retired only once, in Canada, and had only one other non-score when he ran short of fuel at Hockenheim it took Williams time to get the bugs out of its transmission's electronics.

At times McLaren tested three different types of transmission, one designed by Pete Weissman, Honda's electro-hydraulic semi-auto, and its own pneumatic, with varying rates of success. Eventually the work was rationalised to the Honda and McLaren units, and the winter has been spent with Berger and Mark Blundell pounding round Silverstone developing an amalgam of the two.

Williams, meanwhile, has been moving another step forward, and the B version of the FW14 has run throughout with the latest version of the reactive suspension that proved troublesome back in 1988 on the FW12. Then it was replaced mid-season by a conventional passive system, but now Head has incorporated a number of fail-safes and thoroughly revised all areas, and those who watched the cars in action recently at Estoril where in a brief run on qualifiers Mansell lapped two seconds faster than Patrese's 1991 pole time reported that the cars looked beautifully poised over the bumps.

Never more than in 1992 is F1 set to be a critical balance between the reliability demanded by a scoring system in which all 16 races count, and the need for technical advance. Following Estoril Williams has taken the decision to go reactive for the year (system originator Team Lotus may also follow suit), but as Head says: "With the sort of transmission and suspension that we will be running this year, it's going to be a pretty big challenge to maintain regular reliability." Mansell, who knows just what it's like to watch the clockwork Senna rack up wins while he retires, is desperate for the latter.

Head has also moved the semi-automatic transmission a stage further. Now, an electronically controlled clutch allows the driver to sit on the grid with the clutch 'in' and the engine set at maximum revs. By depressing a button on the steering wheel he can then let the clutch out and a wheelspin sensor limits tyre slip to within one per cent of optimum.

One technical parameter, however, has been eased, and that is the passing of the qualifying tyre. Now that Pirelli has once again withdrawn to lick its wounds, Goodyear has the tyre supply monopoly (until Bridgestone makes its rumoured debut in 1994?) and has thus dispensed with qualifying tyres. That may be popular in some quarters, but already drivers are worried that traffic during qualifying sessions will now reach saturation point. "Our job then will be the hardest ever since 1982," said Mansell.

If Williams and McLaren are set to fight for the world titles, Ferrari and Benetton face crucial years. After the turmoil of 1991, which culminated in the acrimonious sacking of Prost, Ferrari was in tatters. Now it has an air of 1976 as Luca di Montezemolo returns as chief with his old muckers Sante Ghedini and Niki Lauda assisting in roles of team manager and 'advisor' respectively. Lauda will attend six or seven races. The new F92A looks good so far, but with non-GP winners Jean Alesi and Ivan Capelli on board the Prancing Horse lacks an established star. It is said that it seeks a 'quiet year in which to regroup - team members speak of one or two victories as 'great achievements' should they happen - but Ferrari is never allowed such a luxury. If the polemics can be kept to a minimum, and if the atmosphere does not demotivate two situation sensitive drivers, it could spring a surprise. As Steve Nichols departs for Sauber, and Harvey Postlethwaite returns to join forces with former Ferrari and Tyrrell engineering bedfellow Jean-Claude Migeot, the start of a revival of fortune could be on the cards despite the off-season auguries. Realistically uthough, Ferrari needs to build a new foundation for 1993.

Benetton has already got off to a shaky start with the new battle for Michael Schumacher's services, Sauber recently claiming the right to exercise the clause in his driving contract which concerns Mercedes-Benz. Such aggravation is not conducive to feelings of wellbeing within a team already troubled by budgetary shortfalls, but on the bright side Martin Brundle has put some very good testing behind the interim B191B and the latest Series VI Ford Cosworth HB V8 with its pneumatic valve operation. At Ricard at the beginning of February, the Briton achieved four and a half Grand Prix distances, in competitive times.

You can read elsewhere in MOTOR SPORT of the lessons learned by Jordan Grand Prix in 1991, but Eddie Jordan's team faces its second season with an all-new look thanks to Gary Anderson's neat Yamaha-powered 192 and its Sasol blue livery. Yamaha's motorcycle racing pedigree is second to none and already the OX-99 V12 has made good progress in its first year. Stefano Modena recently commented that it feels as powerful as the Mugen Honda V10 he used at Tyrrell last year, and it is markedly lighter. The 192, with its seven-speed sequential gearbox has been running reliably in testing after initial troubles with fourth gear, and with a much better budget the team is set to consolidate on its fifth place ranking in the Constructors' Championship.

In other camps the recession has wrought havoc of a kind not hitherto seen in F1, and brought an unprecedented wave of rentadrivers. More than that, as these words were written the tide had apparently washed both Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet from the F1 shore. The Frenchman, of course, found himself without a decent seat when the 1991 soundtrack ceased, since McLaren, Williams and Benetton appeared to have filled their cockpits. He tested the Ligier, of course, and as we closed for press it was not within the bounds of possibility that he might yet pop up in the JS37 in a last minute bit of horse trading.

Testing has already revealed that, Renault V10 notwithstanding, the new Ligier is not a Williams FW14B, let alone an FW15, but the French team should still enjoy markedly better fortune than it has in recent seasons. Money has never been a problem for Guy and his equipe, and if Prost does race he would give it much-needed impetus. For a while it seemed that he had negotiated Erik Comas into a berth at Tyrrell, rather than squeeze his friend out if he were to take the lead Ligier seat, but Comas preferred to stick with Ligier even if it meant merely testing for a year and thus Uncle Ken plumped for the Elf and Marlboro support on offer for Olivier Grouillard. The younger Frenchman looked good in his 1989 debut season but has gone downhill since, and if past seasons are any guide Tyrrell will have to build a few monocoques and have plenty of spare engines to keep him sufficiently supplied. Nevertheless, he's quick and so at times in 1991 was his partner Andrea de Cesaris, who replaced original nominee Alessandro Zanardi at the 11 1/2th hour. With the neat, light Ilmor 2175A V10 replacing the bulky Honda RA109E, the modified 020B could spring a few surprises, especially now that it is back on Goodyears.

Over in Italy the new Scuderia Italia Dallara BMS192 hasn't yet been shining in testing, initial suggestions pointing accusingly at the front end, whereas Minardi, which lost its Ferrari engines to the Scuderia over the winter, has been looking reasonable with its replacement Lamborghini V12s. Longtime Minardi man Pierluigi Martini has swapped camps to join JJ Lehto, while Gianni Morbidelli is now joined at Minardi by Christian Fittipaldi, son of former F1 racer Wilson and nephew of former World Champion and Indy winner Emerson. As if family heritage isn't enough, the F3000 star has been quick and intelligent so far in testing.

With backing from Shionogi and, possibly Hitachi, Team Lotus looks to consolidate for the first few races as Johnny Herbert and Mika Hakkinen make do with the ageing 102s, now in D specification and equipped with the Ford HB V8s. Both drivers have welcomed the power increase over last year's stop-gap Judd EVs, but until Chris Murphy's new 107 is ready for the European season their best bet is to make a few points on sheer reliability.

Lotus at least has hope allied to a sensible programme. Others are less fortunate. For Footwork 1991 was a total disaster, the deal with Porsche rapidly turning into a nightmare. Now, Alan Jenkins' FA12 has mildly metamorphosed into the FA13 with Tyrrell's Mugen Honda engines, and Aguri Suzuki joining Michele Alboreto. The result has yet to show its true pace in testing, but this team at least has the right sort of budget. Gerard Larrousse, meanwhile, narrowly avoided the loss of all he has worked to build when he did his deal in February with the Venturi company. Already Tino Belli, Robin Herd and Tim Holloway were beavering away on a new car, and the Venturi-Larrousse LC92 saw the light of day early in February. After its enforced year's sabbatical chez Ligier, Lamborghini returns to Larrousse, as does Bertrand Gachot who stood in for Eric Bernard in Australia last year. As the talented Bernard loses his drive altogether (another waste, like Blundell), Ukyo Katayarna prepares to debut in F1 courtesy of Cabin cigarettes.

As Fondmetal continues to keep the faith with charger Gabriele Tarquini, pairing him with Andrea Chiesa ('Andrew Church') in a Ford HB powered update of last year's Fomet-designed chassis, Alex Caffi moves across to spearhead the Andrea Moda challenge. 'Andrew Fashion' may not seem the most charismatic F1 team title, but since shoe manufacturer Andrea Sasserti bought out Enzo Coloni last year he has attempted to inject a degree of competitiveness into the team. Former Coloni pedaller Enrico Bertaggia comes in from the Japanese F3000 cold and joins him as the old C3 is updated temporarily with the Judd V10, until a new Nick Wurth-designed S921 is ready for the European season.

Brabham joins Andrea Moda in using the Judd GV V10, and while Eric van de Poele cunningly signed early before the real financial wheeler dealing began amongst drivers, the team's plans were set back when Akihiko Nakaya was refused a Superlicence. At once team boss Dennis Nursey faced the prospect of a lot of money staying east, and in the shuffle signed Giovanna Amati as the first woman in F1 since Desiré Wilson attempted to qualify in the early Eighties. Necessarily, the financial uncertainty wreaked havoc with testing plans for the modified Brabham BT60B, which was finally finished just in time to be shipped out for the South African GP meeting at the end of February. March (né Leyton House) also suffered from its uncertain position as Ken Marrable struggled to keep the ailing team afloat. In the end it opted to retain Austrian Karl Wendlinger, who had supplanted Capelli for the final two 1991 races, and has paired him with unspectacular Frenchman Paul Belmondo, who raised more dollars for once than good old Andrea de Cesaris could rustle up. The great renta-driver had been pipped on the last lap, an indication of how times are changing as the formula struggles to find a way out of the depression, but finally ousted the less well heeled Zanardi at Tyrrell.

A prediction for the World Championship? Such things invariably make the forecaster look foolish by the end of the season (sometimes well before!) but Nigel Mansell looks to have his best chance ever for 1992. As you can read elsewhere in this issue, the man himself certainly thinks so. DJT