Before the Dust had Settled

Normally when I write Reflections on a particular Grand Prix event it is when there has been time to wait and let the dust settle, and the euphoria whipped up by the media die down, and to then think about things a bit more clearly than is possible when the sound of 25 800 horsepower engines has gone. This often means that the written result is a bit out of date compared with daily, or weekly newspapers and magazines, but the vagaries of the Grand Prix calendar and the printing schedules to get MOTOR SPORT on the bookstalls, take no heed of the requirements of the writer, and dead-line dates are either too early or too late; seldom do they fall as a nicely balanced pattern. Consequently these thoughts on the Spanish Grand Prix are being written before any of the teams had returned to base or analysed carefully their successes or failures.

Not long ago I happened to say to my colleague A.H., “Whatever happened to the Spanish Grand Prix,” Throwing questions of the “What ever happened to . . .” type at one another is one of our more amusing pastimes. His reply to my question was to the effect that, though I might find it hard to believe, a brand new circuit was being built at Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain, and a Grand Prix was due to be run on April 13th 1986. He had been in the area on a Ford “jolly” at the end of 1985 and had seen the workings going on, but with the best will in the world he could not see it being ready by April. However, we all went down to southern Spain in the second week in April and, lo and behold, the circuit was there, complete and ready to be raced on. If I hadn’t seen it for myself I would not have believed it possible. The race was run and there were no serious problems, in fact I found the weekend very agreeable and a lot more straightforward than many long-established circuits.

I first read about the Spanish Grand Prix while still at school, when it was run on the Lasarte circuit at San Sebastian, a circuit of some length, made up on the normal everyday Spanish roads. It was run regularly up to 1935 and then disappeared from the calendar as Spain had embroiled itself in civil war in 1936, and this was followed by the world war in 1939, so no-one in Spain could think about motor racing for a long time. It was not until 1951 that the Spanish Grand Prix was revived, and two events were run on the very fast Pedrables circuit outside Barcelona. I say “outside” Barcelona, but in fact the circuit was in the fast-growing suburbs of the city and was soon engulfed by new road systems and suburban building, so that now it is impossible to find where the circuit actually ran. By this time I was part of the Grand Prix scene, visiting all the European races, but after 1954 there was not another Spanish Grand Prix until 1967.

All ideas of racing on closed public roads were long gone, so the only thing to do was to builds circuit on private land, and this was done at Jarama, some miles north of Madrid. The Autodrome at Jarama was a “Mickey Mouse” affair, with one straight and a lot of tight twisty bits, which did at least go up and down, but it was more suited to Formula Ford than to the Spanish Grand Prix. Because Jarama was associated with Madrid, the capital of Cataluna in the north-east of Spain always thought that the Grand Prix really belonged to Barcelona, so an agreement was reached to alternate between the Spanish capital city and the capital city of Cataluna, rather like London and Edinburgh sharing the British Grand Prix. Racing had been happening in Barcelona for many years, on a challenging circuit in the Montjuich Park on the edge of town. The roads were in use every day, as part of the normal road system, and were merely closed to the public when racing was planned. The Penya Rhin event used to be the major meeting in the Montjuich Park, and in the 1930s it was virtually a second Spanish Grand Prix in all but name. I first raced there on a motorcycle and sidecar, in 1949. and can tell you from first hand experience that it was SOME CIRCUIT.

By 1969 the world of Grand Prix had become known as Formula One racing and from 1969 to 1975 the Spanish Grand Prix alternated between the Jarama Autodrome and the Montjuich Park circuit. You left one tingling with excitement and the other bored to tears. I don’t think anyone will forget Ronnie Peterson in a Lotus 72 at the Montjuich, it was Ronnie at his inspired best. Various safety problems put paid to the Formula One “circus” continuing at the Montjuich so that Jarama become the permanent home of the Spanish Grand Prix from 1976 until 1981, but the event began to visibly die on its feet at the tiresome little Autodrome, and then one year there was no Spanish Grand Prix on the International Calendar and nobody seemed too worried about it. 1981 was the last event and it wasn’t until there was a moment to spare that anyone said. “What ever became of the Spanish Grand Prix?”

If the Jarama circuit was a “Mickey Mouse” Scalextric slotcar track, the new circuit at Jerez de la Frontera is a “MICKEY MOUSE” Super Scalextric slot-car track, and is not about speed, like Osterreichring, SpaFrancorchamps or Monza, but is all about cornering, and many of the corners are quite interesting and the trace goes up and downhill in a mild way. It is 4.218 kilometres in length and has 16 corners in all, nine to the left and seven to the right, is more than adequately wide everywhere, is beautifully surfaced and has a pit-complex and paddock that is more than adequate. Many grandstands have been built on the hill-sides, giving excellent spectator viewing and very few obvious problems arose, and complaints seemed to be few and far between on all counts as far as the competitors were concerned. From the spectator point of view the main complaint was that of the cost of entry. It was £25 just to go in through the gate and grandstand seats were £50, £65 and £75 extra, depending on their location, and that was for one seat, not for the whole grandstand! In addition there was what was laughingly called a VIP Club, which cost £150 a head and for that you got a special pass for your car, which showed how rich you were, and you were allowed limited access to the pits and paddock. It is difficult to decide whether FOCA and the organisers are trying to raise the social standards of motor racing, or merely trying to keep the hoi polloi out to prevent the possibility of “football type crowds” spoiling our scene. What ever was behind the price structure there were not too many people there on race day.

Official practice started on the Friday, with the usual untimed morning test-session and the one hour of qualifying after lunch, with the same programme for Saturday.

As the circuit was brand new, and all that had happened on it before the “circus” arrived was a motorcycle race and a small saloon car race, Thursday was given to a pre-race test session for the F1 teams and all doubts about the readiness of the circuit, the quality of the tarmac, the construction of the foundations and the arrangement of the paddock and pits, were soon dispelled for everything worked perfectly and by the time of the first qualifying session it was hard to believe that the circuit was brand new. The Spanish may appear to be laid back and dozy but they certainly got on with the job of building their new circuit and the only complaint that the drivers had was about the ridged curbing on the corners. The ridges increased in severity on each concrete block forming the curb and they were clearly meant to be markers and were not meant to be used. With the more popular bevelled curbing there is an instant invitation for drivers to use them as part of the track and very soon they lose their point as markers. The warning at Jerez de la Frontera was “keep off the curbs, they are not part of the track”. If a driver made a mistake he could survive by going over the curb, but his car would be damaged: not as badly as hitting a concrete wall or an iron guard-rail, but the underside would suffer. Piquet put it to the test on the first day of official practice, and his Williams FW11 suffered a badly damaged monocoque and it meant that he had to take the spare car for the rest of the meeting.

Unlike American track-racing drivers, Formula 1 drivers do not like going very fast on long straights, and prefer corners, so they all liked the new Autodrome and there were no complaints about too many corners, for there was plenty of room to overtake, and some reasonable bits of straight in places. When you watched from the centre of the circuit, in the paddock area, it was a bit like a three ring circus in that cars seemed to be going in all directions, but you soon got used to it. As it runs up hills, down hills and round behind hills, the overall effect was not at all bad.

Pre-race information suggested that lap times would be about 1 min 52 sec and the average speed would be between 85 and 90 mph, which did not sound very exciting. In fact, the estimates were hopelessly wrong and lap times were nearly down to 1 min 20 sec and the average speed was over 115 mph. So it was all much better than expected which always helps to smooth a troubled path, except that the Spanish GP did not seem troubled. A look at the qualifying times will show that Ayrton Senna was way out on his own on both days, the first day in spite of everything that Team Lotus and Renault could do to prevent him taking pole position, and on the second day when the whole team got it all together in an impressive display of confidence. For those anti-Senna readers who don’t believe that he is troubled by his Team’s inability to do a proper job, I can only quote the official John Player Team Lotus press handout after the first qualifying session.

“Ayrton Senna was the quickest driver round the new Jerez Circuit in his JPS 98T setting a time of 1 min 21.605 sec — second fastest driver, Nigel Mansell, set a time of 1 min 23.024 sec in his Williams. In the morning session Ayrton had an oil filter seal fail and the mechanics had changed the Renault engine in the spare car between sessions, getting the car ready for the second half of the timed session. Ayrton was full of praise for the speed with which the mechanics had worked. ‘It was very difficult because the car was wrongly set-up, and it was far, far too low and the car was bottoming almost everywhere, then the car was bumping on the high speed corners, therefore, it was a hard job. But it was worth it, I think for today it was the best I could do. I hope that tomorrow we can improve the chassis, which was quite wrong today, and still have a good clear run,’ were his comments.”

For Johnny Dumfries the morning went badly when a transmission problem left his JPS 98T stranded out on the track. In the timed session he was also unhappy with his time of 1 min 29.093 sec being 23rd fastest. Explaining his afternoon problems, Johnny said: “The undertray came loose and it started oversteering really badly, because if that is not fixed then you lose downforce at the back and I knew I had a problem straight away. I was going to come in then I thought maybe it was tyres, so I slowed down for a lap, then attempted another quick lap and I knew then I really did have a problem, but by that time it was the end of the session.”

That was just the bare bones of the story, for Senna’s engine spewed out most of its oil in the middle of the hairpin before the pits and he was lucky to coast into the pit lane leaving a stream of good ELF lubricating oil behind him. Dumfries’ trouble was a broken shaft in the Lotus six-speed gearbox, and with Senna using the only available car, that was his lot. In the afternoon the qualifying hour was nearly half over before Senna got out on the track, having to stand and watch the likes of Piquet, Mansell, Prost and Rosberg out there setting the pace. Dumfries had barely a quarter of an hour in which to qualify. In doing the best he could under the circumstances, Senna was nearly 1 1/2 sec faster than the second man!

On Saturday afternoon the scene at the Team Lotus pit was completely the reverse, they were confident, ready, prepared and completely in control. Senna watched his rivals straining to approach his pole-position time and it was not until Mansell looked as if he might break 1 min 22 sec that the Brazilian went out. He put in a lap at just over 1 min 22 sec, but was not convinced about the selection of tyres so came in and tried another combination and promptly recorded 1 min 21.924 sec, not as fast as the day before when the car sounded to be a shambles, but still the only driver to get under 1 min 22 sec on this new track. While this had been going on Dumfries had done an excellent job and got down to 1 min 25.107 sec which gave him 10th overall for the two days of qualifying, and seventh for the Saturday session. His race performance was to be curtailed as the team had suffered a number of breakages in their six-speed gearboxes and there were only enough for Senna’s two cars, so Dumfries had to use an old-type five-speed box, which was a distinct handicap on this twisty circuit, and during the race the crown-wheel and pinion broke.

Having been shown the internal construction and workings of the new seven-speed gearbox on the Brabham BT55, by designer and builder Pete Weismann, it was not difficult to appreciate that it was designed for a driver with a velvet touch like Lauda, Piquet or Prost. The gear shafts are mounted across the centre-line of the car, the input coming through bevel gears on the right. From the seven speed gear cluster of straight-cut spur gears, further straight-cut gears take the drive rearwards and slightly upwards to the differential. The whole transmission layout is all part of the overall concept of the BT55, which started with the idea of lowering the overall height of the BMW four-cylinder engine and at the same time lowering its centre of gravity. The centreline of the engine is at a mere 18degrees from the horizontal, and the offset weight of the crankshaft, flywheel and clutch is balanced by the camshafts and turbocharger unit on the nearside. Looking at the engine from the rear, the centre of gravity must surely be in line with the crankshaft centre line, and with the centre of gravity on the centre-line of the car, the offset of the crankshaft is in the order of eight inches. The input bevels of the transmission turn the drive line from fore-and-aft to transverse and then Weismann has built what is in effect a big strong motorcycle type gearbox, with sliding selector arms moving double sided dogrings in either direction, the actual selector movement being less than a quarter of an inch between gears. The gate pattern is conventional, with reverse and first on the left, then second and third, then fourth and fifth as the lever is moved across to the right, and finally sixth and seventh. There is no visible gear-lever gate, but there are spring loaded detents at second third and again at fourth fifth, so that the driver can “feel” where he is in the gear pattern. The Spanish circuit did not need all seven gears, so seventh position was blanked off. The object behind all these gears is like a small racing two-stroke motorcycle with a limited rev band, and the BMW engine in the Brabham needs to be driven on the rev-counter, which actual gear is engaged being immaterial. I am not sure that Patrese and de Angelis are mentally attuned to such thinking. A Piquet or a Senna would probably drive the BMW engine on the boost-gauge rather than the rev-counter. The long-term thinking behind the BT55 is probably leading towards a constant-speed power unit with clutchless automatic transmission that simply keeps the engine at its most efficient point, this point being fed into the engine management system.

As always, testing and qualifying was the most interesting time, the race itself being a different matter altogether and the 72 laps round the new Jerez circuit was no exception. With fuel limited to 195 litres and tyre wear being critical it was a race of tactics rather than gutsy racing. For the first half the leading bunch, of Senna, Piquet, Rosberg, Mansell and Prost, circulated in Indian File letting Senna set the pace, which he did on his fuel consumption gauge rather than his rev-counter. This allowed the two Ligiers to keep up with them, Rene Arnoux in particular showing good form on his return to the scene. Not quite staying with the front runners were the two Ferraro, but neither Alboreto nor Johansson had been a major threat throughout practice, the V6 engines from Maranello giving continual niggling troubles, and not being quick enough when they did run right. It was beyond half distance before anyone made a move, and then it was Mansell who began to force the issue, and he took the lead. Senna was content to keep the same pace, intent on conserving fuel and tyres, as was Prost, but Rosberg’s tyre wear was too much and he eventually dropped back and finally made a stop for new tyres.

Mansell’s tyres began to deteriorate and his situation was not made any easier by one of his tyres losing air pressure through a slit caused by a piece of metal picked up off the track. He stayed out as long as he could remain ahead of Senna, but once the Brazilian began to lean on him, Mansell shot into the pits and the Williams team made what must have been the fastest pit stop ever recorded in Formula 1, with all four wheels changed in under nine seconds. The tyres were all ready and pre-heated so that Mansell was back into the race at maximum potential. Senna drove as hard as conditions of fuel consumption and worn tyres allowed, but it was not enough to prevent Mansell from gaining on him dramatically. As they rounded the last hairpin the Lotus was only just ahead, and Mansell caught it as they crossed the line, but did not get ahead until a few feet after the finishing line. The time difference was 0.014 seconds, in barely the diameter of a wheel between the two cars. It was one of the closest finishes seen for a long time, and while Ayrton Senna was the winner, Nigel Mansell was the hero, making up for all his previous misdemeanours with a race that will go down in history.

The whole affair had been a gamble from start to finish, for the Lotus finished with very little fuel left in the tank, while the Honda engine’s consumption in the Williams was much better, but Piquet’s engine had blown up. Senna was once more using the latest Renault engine with the compressed-air system of valve springs replacing the conventional wire valve springs.

As the first Spanish Grand Prix since 1981 it can be considered an excellent racing success, but it is difficult to see how it was a commercial success, though we are never told about the finances behind the scenes that prop up seeming financial disasters.

As a final thought. A brand new circuit on which no-one had tested prior to the event was said by the media to be the recipe for evening out the overall scene. It wasn’t noticeable, the fast were still fastest and the slow were still slowest. Noticeable omission from the pit lane was the Regie Renault team, but the lack of Alfa Romeo and RAM teams was not so noticeable, and the Toleman team seemed just the same, merely having a different patron in the shape of Mr Benetton. Also noticeable that people no longer talk of petrol being used by Formula 1 engines; it’s “fuel” these days, strictly to the regulation figures of course. — D.S.J.