Power and glory

A combustible mix of politics and potency turbocharged an unforgettable racing decade

If the first Grand Prix of the 1980s in Buenos Aires fought for newspaper space with international darts from Stoke-on-Trent, the last in Adelaide was worthy of headlines before a car had turned a wheel.

It was never going to be any other way in 1989, from the moment title contenders Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost collided at the previous encounter in Japan and the sport’s governing body, FISA, waded in with bar-room bully finesse. The only consistency across the 10 seasons had been the inconsistency of FISA’s controversial president.

Jean-Marie Balestre had also been present in Argentina in 1980, in the early stages of a crusade to deal with the upstart Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA); essentially, the British teams led by Bernie Ecclestone. In the years that followed, a bruising series of battles would shake down to Ecclestone taking control of the finance and FISA making the rules. Along the way, F1 would flourish, its popularity rising in accompaniment with TV and media coverage beyond anything imagined at the decade’s dawn.

THE 1980 NEW Year celebrations had barely ended when 15 teams prepared for the trip to South America; not that you would have known it. On Saturday January 5, the sports pages of The Times (15p) carried a short piece on the hopes of Arrows, but nothing else to mark the start of a new season a week later.

Arrows had been highlighted, not because the fledgling British team was considered to be a contender, but thanks to the Milton Keynes outfit having built a completely new car. Even allowing for a three-month off-season, this was something of a novelty, only Ferrari, Lotus, Shadow and Ensign joining Arrows in having new designs ready.

The rest would rely on modified versions of the previous year’s chassis. Significant among them would be Williams and Brabham, the two teams due to dominate the championship – assuming, that is, the title fight would actually be allowed to run unimpeded by politics.

Ecclestone’s street-wise nous was complemented by the sharp legal brain of Max Mosley, no longer part of the March team he had founded 10 years before and now relishing the seemingly inevitable fight with Balestre. That confrontation would take many forms.

At the South African GP in March 1980, and noting the president’s habit of making himself part of podium ceremonies, Mosley advised a security guard that this man in a blazer was likely to make a nuisance of himself but, regrettably, would prove impossible to stop. The burly official took the bait and proudly rose to the challenge, Balestre’s subsequent outrage being multiplied when he was prevented from helping René Arnoux of Renault and Ligier’s Jacques Laffite and Didier Pironi celebrate a French whitewash.

The political point-scoring would assume a more literal and serious meaning in Spain when FOCA’s resistance to a number of inflammatory moves by Balestre led the GP to be made illegal and victory for Alan Jones and Williams declared null and void. Both sides would win in the end as Williams defeated the FISA-favoured manufacturer teams in the championship and Balestre got rid of skirts, an aerodynamic device that had allowed British entries to take full advantage of ground effect thanks to the narrow profile beneath the ubiquitous Ford-Cosworth V8.

A fight to stop the advance of turbocharged engines (favoured by Renault and Ferrari) had been a significant part of a long-running and messy FOCA v FISA war that was doing racing no favours, crowds having dropped at a third of the 15 circuits used in 1980. 

Needs must, of course. Despite their objection to turbos, the FOCA teams had no alternative but reluctantly to abandon natural aspiration. The resulting marriage with chassis barely capable of handling such explosive power resulted in some of the most spectacular F1 cars ever seen. Honda (V6), Alfa Romeo (V8) and TAG (a V6 manufactured by Porsche for McLaren) joined the turbo revolution, but the most potent unit had the fewest cylinders. BMW’s M12/13 was based on its four-cylinder production unit. Such a humble source would translate into a racing grenade thanks to special toluene-based fuel and 3.5-bar boost.

Taming this 1200bhp rocket during qualifying at Monaco was terrifying. Drivers had to deal with wheelspin in every gear on the steep climb from Ste Dévote and somehow contain the projectile as it reached 175mph on the approach to Casino Square. Subsequent wide-eyed expressions said everything about the mix of surging adrenaline and relief that qualifying tyres were only good for a single lap. Not that the engine in this state of tune would have lasted much longer. It would be detuned to a ‘mere’ 900 bhp for the race.

The pursuit of power at the expense of complete reliability meant regular truckloads of engines from Munich each race weekend, BMW reportedly building no fewer than 600 units for Brabham in a single season. It was Eighties excess in its most profligate form.

Having originally championed the turbo as a matter of political expediency, Balestre found himself in the tricky position of back-pedalling in order to stop this lethal performance advance with a ban at the end of 1988. 

The eventual division of financial and political power to everyone’s satisfaction would allow Ecclestone to make the beginning of a personal fortune. Balestre, meanwhile, could strut his stuff, but without unduly interfering with the reshaping of F1’s image from a band of grubby racers to a slick show.

The only thing lacking – with the greatest of respect to champions Jones (1980), Piquet (’81 and ’83), Keke Rosberg (’82) and Niki Lauda (’84) – was an enigmatic star capable of catching the public imagination. One emerged through the Monaco spray in 1984 at the wheel of a car funded by a transport company and powered by a four-cylinder turbo made in Essex: Ayrton Senna in his Toleman-Hart.

His record book opened with an outstanding win (in the rain) at Estoril in 1985, but the full import of a personal intensity to match this brilliance would not be felt until 1988, when he moved to McLaren. Now he was head-to-head with Alain Prost, arguably the driver of the decade and, by extension, the man Senna most wanted to beat.

Meanwhile, another character had emerged, totally different to Senna in terms of culture and personal circumstance and yet a frequent thorn in the Brazilian’s side.

On the day Senna hit the headlines for the first time in Monaco, Nigel Mansell had hit something more substantial when he crashed his Lotus out of the lead. But when Mansell got himself into a Williams-Honda, his innate speed, driven by bloody-minded determination, suddenly had a reliable and competitive outlet. When Mansell won his first GP in late 1985, it added – against all previous odds – the Brummie’s name to the title betting for the following year. The world began watching with fascination, the media picking up on this and raising the sport’s profile. The acceleration of interest coincided with changing times in the newspaper industry.

RUPERT MURDOCH HAD taken on unions that could stop a paper run by the callous flick of a coffee cup onto newsprint as it rolled through presses roaring at full chat. By moving The Times and The Sun from the moribund traditions of Fleet Street to a plant in Wapping, Murdoch introduced computer technology to an archaic process in desperate need of it.

This laid fertile ground for The Independent, the first quality daily newspaper to be launched for almost 100 years. The new offices in London’s City Road were not only without a thundering printing press in the basement, they also broke free from stuffy values by producing – to quote the prospectus – ‘news combined with analysis and entertaining writing’. The final race of the 1986 F1 season in Australia would provide perfect material for such a thrusting initiative.

A year earlier, Adelaide’s first world championship race had enticed just one Fleet Street writer. In 1986, Mansell’s presence in the three-way title shootout attracted every national newspaper worthy of a credential.

Having largely limited coverage of a GP to highlights late on race night, the BBC went live from Australia in the early hours of Sunday. The dramatic pictures were guaranteed to become classics as Mansell’s title went the way of air exploding from a rear tyre at 185mph. With the BBC Sports Personality of the Year following a few weeks later, Mansell was a shoo-in to become the first winner from motor sport since Jackie Stewart 13 years previously.

Losing out to his Williams team-mate Piquet in 1987 would be Mansell’s last opportunity to take the title for some time as the Senna-Prost-McLaren-Honda combination began to exert its stranglehold. With McLaren winning 15 of the 16 races in 1988, a period of potential disinterest was actually accelerated in the opposite direction by increasing friction between its drivers and a sport that had become more popular than ever.

Leading up to the first race of 1989 in Brazil, the media was awash with coverage. An entry of 39 brought the need for pre-qualifying – the only means of whittling down the field to 30 runners trying to qualify for the 26-car grid.

Meanwhile, Nigel Mansell had joined Ferrari. The new car, with a revolutionary paddle-shift gear selection, had been so troublesome that Mansell didn’t expect to finish the first race and booked himself on an early flight home from Brazil. He missed his plane thanks to winning, adding further colour in every sense by cutting his hands –
as only Nigel could – on the ornate trophy.

Ayrton Senna 1980s

Mansell interfered with the McLaren hegemony later in the year when he overshot his pit in the overcrowded pit lane in Estoril, reversed illegally, failed to see the subsequent black flags, collided with Senna, received a ban from the next race – and immediately threatened to quit.

Balestre was behind the severe punishment, made even more controversial in Jerez a week later when FISA handed down a mere $20,000 fine for Senna’s more serious failure of ignoring yellows at the scene of an accident during practice. The inconsistency was no surprise since it had come from a man who had huffed and puffed his way across the track after the start of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Balestre had failed to notice that Nicola Larini, having dashed into the pits to attend to a loose mirror, would be steaming through Woodcote in his bid to catch up. The Osella driver lost favour with many by taking urgent avoiding action to miss the president.

If anything, surviving such a moment seemed to embolden Balestre, particularly in Japan when Prost and Senna managed to collide while disputing both the lead and the championship. Confusing the role of the legislature with that of the judiciary, Balestre involved himself in an enquiry that blamed Senna and triggered a massive reaction.

The uproar continued through and beyond that final round in Australia; a race, incidentally, that should never have started in heavy rain and ended after 14 laps when Senna, driving like a man possessed, smashed into a backmarker hidden by spray.

And so ended 10 years brimming with bravado, blatant political intrusion, bad judgment and brilliant racing. The final legacy was a lingering threat that Senna, at loggerheads with the administration, would not turn up for the first race of 1990.

Phil Collins claimed the last number-one single of 1989 with Another Day in Paradise. For Formula 1 fans fed by an eager media, the title was an apt metaphor for the best part of a formidable decade.