Against expectations

 

In the end, the Brazilian Grand Prix went against all expectations. Few would seriously have bet against the chances of Ayrton Senna, on his homeground, and the Williams-Renault. Even less so if you gave full credibility (and there was every justification to) to stories that the Brazilian had actually lapped Imola in recent testing another six-tenths of a second quicker than Michael Schumacher. The German had achieved 1m 21.08s to set what was believed to be the fastest time in the final big test before the Grand Prix, but Williams personnel just smiled knowingly when you asked them if it was true that Senna had actually done 1m 20.6s, measured at a different point on the course than the accepted start/finish line.

In qualifying Senna had duly been fastest, the gap between him and Schumacher seesawing. It would be wider in free practice, only to close again in each qualifying session, but if you were Brazilian you had little to worry about. The local hero had taken the 63rd pole position of his career land was pleasantly surprised to receive an official award for the first time to reflect that effort) and all was well.

Already, however, there had been indications that this was the race to upset expectations. For a start there had been no protests during scrutineering, which made it quite clear as we predicted last month that the arguments over technical specification were, after all, a storm in a teacup. Then there were the gaps on the grid. Far from closing up, the front rows were as far apart as ever in terms of lap times, with Senna and Schumacher in a class of their own and Jean Alesi and Damon Hill clear enough of their rivals on the second row. So much for the new regulations making things more even. At the start, Senna led majestically as Alesi burst through to steal second place from a tardy Schumacher, but even on that first lap Michael was challenging very hard. He actually succeeded in passing the Ferrari on the inside going into the tight left-hander which leads to the long drag back to the curved pit 'straight', but as he ran wide Alesi pounced again and regained the position. They were side-by side down to the first corner, but further round the lap Michael found the gap he wanted and after that, the Ferrari permitted Jean no answer. At that stage, Senna had opened a four-second lead, but Schumacher narrowed that fractionally on lap three, and that was when he knew he had a chance of victory. From lap seven until they made their first scheduled refuelling stops on lap 21, it was never more than three seconds. All weekend indeed, for weeks leading up to the race there had been tacit dread about refuelling. HA President Max Mosley was reportedly furious about comments made in The Sunday Times which hinted at the inherent dangers, and all down the pit road you could find faces thoughtfully contemplating the clumsy-looking apparatus which costs so much to make and to transport. As it transpired, the Brazilian weekend went off perfectly in this respect, with no dramas. When Martin Brundle had come in for the first official 1994 race-stop refuelling on lap 15 his call had occupied 10.3s and he had rejoined with no problem whatsoever. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, Now, when Senna and Schumacher came in together, the air was electric. As the Nomexed fuel men and tyre men went to work the race hung in the balance, and it was the Mild Seven Benetton which dropped back on to its contact patches marginally before the Rothmans Williams Renault. When they were racing again, it was Schumacher in the lead. Within a lap he was 2.5s ahead, then 2.3s, then 3.9s. Steadily, as they negotiated the backmarkers at awesome pace, he edged the gap open. Incredibly, they lapped Hill by lap 40, when the gap was six seconds. The Briton, who had taken Alesi for third place when the Ferrari stopped for fuel on its 18th lap, had opted to run through with only one stop, rather than the more popular two, and was astonished to see how fast he'd been left behind. By this stage it was more than apparent that Schumacher had Senna's measure on this occasion, so their final stops were even more eagerly awaited. This time they came in separately, Ayrton on lap 44 (8.5s), Michael on lap 45 (7.4s). Again, the gap stabilised at eight seconds by the 50th lap, when even Senna's most ardent fans were beginning to realise that we were watching an eclipse. Williams-Renault, with a team leader operating at maximum commitment, was getting a sound beating. Senna, of course, would not give up the chase, and as he used traffic to his utmost and Schumacher used his head, the deficit began to shrink. By lap it was down to 5.5s, but it was not one of those charges that had a mathematical inevitability about it. Schumacher was in control and Senna was right on the edge of it. Just how close he was to that edge became apparent the following lap. Going into the Subida dos Boxes corner that followed the left-hander in which Alesi had earlier repassed Schumacher, Senna got into a slide and simply lost it. The Williams slithered sideways off the track, and when he tried to regain the road he stalled the Renault VIO. Game over. In their droves his countrymen, a trifle bewildered one suspects, departed unhappily for home.

It was thus left for Schumacher to cruise to a terrific victory, the best of his three so far. On the day Benetton had been the best-prepared team. It had made the effort, got its car out early, and done a lot of testing. It had paid off.

Likewise, Ford and Cosworth had done an excellent job on the new Zetec-R V8. Quietly now, Ford has amassed a four-race streak of victories, and the Zetec-R will now go down in history as a first-time winner, just like the legendary DFV back at Zandvoort in 1967. Against expectations though this might have been, Schumacher, Benetton and Ford can justly take great pride in their victory, which was by far the most convincing of their alliance. Schumacher drove beautifully, with only a poor start and one locked brake which resulted in a slightly wider line than intended in the Bico de Pato hairpin, to mar his afternoon's work. The car and engine were perfect all weekend, and the team did an excellent job to get him out ahead of Senna during their first fuel stops. That, in its way, was one of the most crucial elements of their day. By contrast, Senna and Williams were beaten fair and square, and Senna even fell off trying to close the gap. Benetton had withstood the best that the best threw at them. There was an air of resignation in the Williams camp, into which Senna appears to have settled very well. The team knew that it had handling anomalies to address, mainly due to its lack of testing, and out on the circuit it was clear that the Benetton was in a different class under braking and in getting the power to the road. There have been suggestions that Senna's spin was partly induced by cramp in his shoulders, for this year Chief Designer Adrian Newey has been allowed to narrow down the FW I 6's cockpit even more, and in Senna's case it's a little too like the March 881 for comfort. He was suffering from cramp in his right shoulder by the end, but made no attempt whatsoever to use that as an excuse. After walking back to the Williams pit he stood shamefacedly before the team and said simply: "Sorry lads, but I messed up." There are encouraging signs that he is more relaxed in the Williams environment, and one hopes that this year we will be able to witness a great driving champion cope with the challenge of the young lion without any of the controversy that has marred his past at times. If Senna's weekend was more encouraging than team-mate Damon Hill's in practice, the reverse was the case in the race, although it would be 56 laps before Damon came to appreciate that. When his onboard fire extinguisher set itself off on Friday morning it set the tone for an awful two days, in which lack of track time militated with 'flu to tax him to the limit. He qualified third, I .5s off Senna, and felt that he never got into the swing off things. In the race he held Alesi off with ease, especially after the Frenchman had made his second scheduled fuel stop, but only the six points for second gave him anything to remember Brazil fondly by.

Alesi's performance at least gave Ferrari the encouragement of a finish, and his opening lap performance again served notice that he will win in the right car, but this was a third place that revealed the 4 I 2T I still to be some way from its principal rivals' pace. Alesi had been heroic in putting it fourth on the grid, but even more than the Williams it looked a twitchy basket case out on the track as he brought his will to bear. It still lacks balance, and it is tiring to drive, but at least for him there was the consolation of four points. For Gerhard Berger Brazil was again little short of a nightmare. Like Hill, he lost much of qualifying to mechanical problems. On Friday the gearbox lost hydraulic pressure; on Saturday an engine failure stole track time. In the morning warm-up on race day the sealing ..ings to his V12's pneumatic valve system failed, and the moment a replacement engine was fired up the same thing happened. In the race he made a terrific start (some say he jumped it) to rocket from 17th to eighth at the end of the first lap, but after six laps an identical problem had claimed him.

If Benetton was totally ready, Williams at least good enough to provide the greatest opposition, and Ferrari reliable enough to take third place, McLaren was in serious disarray by its own lofty standards. And after a weekend in which throttle control problems lost Hakkinen and Brundle much of the time they needed for setting up the cars, the question has to be asked: why did they leave it so late to switch to the mechanical throttle linkage that they knew the F1A would insist on?

Ron Dennis parried such intrusions easily, if not altogether convincingly. "We have fitted our cars with a mechanically operated throttle control mechanism similar to other cars," he said. "There is no question that fly-by-wire is the optimal form of throttle control and we tested with it because we wanted to establish the performance baseline that we had to match with this archaic and less safe system." The safety of the system was highlighted not long after those words were spoken, when both Mika Hakkinen and Martin Brundle experienced unpleasant off-road moments at high speed when their throttles jammed open. In Martin's case, in a crucial weekend for him as a McLaren driver at long last, it was an experience he would have to 'enjoy' on three occasions. Worse still, the time spent identifying the problem and effecting a cure gnawed away at time for sorting the chassis. It is unusual these days to watch a McLaren that looks evil out on the circuit. At the end of the day, RD will rightly or wrongly be perceived to have messed up the team's chances in Brazil by sticking so long during the winter with fly-by-wire. It transpired, however, that the problem lay not with the McLaren side of the operation (after all, it's built the odd car over the years with a cable throttle), but with new partner Peugeot's. Although nobody was particularly forthcoming about it, it seems the key to the problem was the balancing mechanism between the throttle slides for the two banks of cylinders. Somehow this was distorting and jamming up, and would have done so whether it was operated by cable or electronics. And, naturally, it only malfunctioned in highload corners. . . As Hakkinen qualified eighth and Brundle 18th on the strength of their Friday afternoon times, and it was not easy to recall just when the team last had such an awful weekend. Hakkinen looked aggressive in fifth place in the opening stages until his car began to suffer a high-speed misfire (suspected to be a piston problem), while Brundle was fighting his way up nicely from his lowly grid position to lie seventh. He was challenging Wendlinger and Barrichello for fifth when he slowed suddenly and was embroiled in the Irvine Incident on lap 35 which removed four cars. If Ron says he feels instant pain the day after a race his team hasn't won, on a sliding scale Brazil must have been like being on the rack. For Brundle, it was nearly the guillotine. As Schumacher, Senna, Hill and Alesi proceeded unopposed, Wendlinger had underlined Sauber Mercedes' hopes born of splendid qualifying performances and was keeping a challenging Barrichello at bay in the Sasol Jordan. Bit by bit Martin was reeling them in, but then his right rear damper packed up, and he was having to cope with an MP4/9 that really wanted to keep pulling sharply to the left. He lapped Eric Bernard's uncompetitive Ligier as they started lap 35, but going down the back straight his Peugeot engine exploded. Peugeot itself said nothing official of this, but others reported seeing bits of the unit grenading through the floor of the car and certainly it looked pretty damaged back at the garage. Some say the flywheel came off. Brundle was just reporting all this on the radio as he neared the end of the straight, when the accident occurred.

In his first Grand Prix and, likely, only his 50th or so car race Jos Verstappen was driving very sensibly asI)Lehto's stand-in at Benetton to consolidate a good ninth slot on the grid. He had risen as high as fifth by lap 17 when the pit stops began, and was coming back after his own as he chased Barrichello's Jordan team-mate, Eddie Irvine. On lap 34 Brundle was well clear of them, but on lap 35 he was slowing rapidly. Going on to the back straight Verstappen got a good tow from Irvine and as Eddie came up to lap Bernard's Ligier, the Dutchman pulled alongside, effectively trapping him behind the French car. At this stage they were all travelling around the same speed. Irvine still tried to pull left, obliging Verstappen to move a little more, then as Bernard realised that Brundle (who, remember, had only just sped by him) was slowing, he began to move left too to give himself room to pass the stricken red and white car. Irvine, meanwhile, was still moving over on Verstappen, who was forced to put a left rear wheel on the grass as they touched. In a moment the Benetton speared sideways and headed right, straight across Irvine and Bernard's paths.

Bernard went off on to the grass on the right of the track, and was lucky to avoid a head-on trip into the wall when the Ligier snapped sideways at the last moment. Verstappen, meanwhile, was flipped over Brundle's McLaren in a complete roll, slithering to a halt on the grass to the right, further down from Bernard. Irvine slid to a sideways halt, while Brundle spun wildly out of control. The Briton was struck a fearsome blow to the head, which cracked his helmet and smashed the McLaren's rollhoop and headrest. Momentarily unconscious, he came to wondering why on earth he had spun and what the other cars were doing there. . .

It was a very nasty incident, which is discussed further on pages 452-455.

For every unhappy face in some of the Top Four teams, there were smiles elsewhere in the midfield. Sauber Mercedes' joy at seeing Verstappen's fellow debutant Heinz-Harald Frentzen qualify an excellent fifth, ahead of team-mate Wendlinger, lasted until the 16th lap, by which time he was running fifth ahead of the Austrian Then, sadly, he lost the smoke grey CI3 as he crested a rise, and spun out of the race. Nevertheless, he had confirmed expectations that he would be quick.

Wendlinger took over his place and entertained everyone as he and Barrichello raced side-by-side down the pit straight on lap 33, but after that the young Brazilian dropped back a little to have another think. In their second pit stops he got ahead and stayed there, and though he refused to look at his pit boards thereafter in case he lost concentration, he gave those of his countrymen who had bothered to stay something to cheer with an excellent fourth place, less than eight seconds adrift of Alesi. "We screwed up in qualifying," admitted designer Gary Anderson, "but we had things much better sorted out for the race."

The latest Tyrrell-Yamaha showed promise, though Mark Blundell was unlucky to crash out after a wheel broke. Indeed, after being upstaged in practice after high expectations, Sasol Jordan came away Best of the Rest on the day to confirm that it will be as much as a threat (maybe

more) than it was during its tremendous debut season in 1991. If Barrichello had started higher than 14th he might well have beaten the Ferrari. In qualifying Jordan's thunder had been stolen by Arrows and Tyrrell. For the former, Fl returnee Gianni Morbidelli had qualified an

Ismer (above) posted an early retirement. There were mixed fortunes for the new boys. David Brabham (below left) hauled his Simtek to the finish, but Bertrand Gathot's Pacific was an early casualty (below centre). Damon Hill was pleased to pick up six points after a fraught weekend (below right). outstanding sixth to endorse the potential of the neat Footwork FA I 5, while teammate Christian Fittipaldi was also quick if unlucky, like several other drivers being caught out before his second run on Saturday afternoon when the skies opened. They soon discovered in the morning warm-up, however, that their semi-automatic transmissions were less reliable than had seemed the case, and within 22 laps both had gone. Morbidelli made a terrible start to complete the opening lap in ninth place, before succumbing on lap six, while Fittipaldi chased gamely after the Jordans and the Tyrrells before he suffered the same fate. After their dismal season in 1993 Tyrrell staged a 1989-style recovery in Brazil and caused a sensation when Mark Blundell was fourth fastest in the first free practice session. He was unable to sustain such form in the afternoon when his Yamaha V 1 suffered a chipped valve, and thereafter he and Ukyo Katayama struggled a little to regain the perfect set-up, but they were in fine form during the race. Blundell got the better start, only to be blocked (ironically) by the Japanese driver as he in turn bogged down. They then proved quick enough to run with the Jordans and Saubers, and after a gearbox downshift problem Blundell was coming back strongly at Brundle for I I th place when Martin made the first fuel stop on lap 15. With other stops Mark then pulled up to sixth place before going missing on lap 22. In a nasty incident going through a left-hander his right front wheel broke and he did a two-wheel balancing act before the 022 thumped back on to the grass the right side up. Katayama, meanwhile, was reminding people of the form he showed at Larrousse in 1992 with a storming drive that would ultimately take him past Wendlinger for fifth place as the Sauber's tyres went off and its engine lost its edge. In one race Tyrrell thus undid all the aggravation it suffered last year, the first season ever since Uncle Ken's debut in 1968 that his team had failed to score a single point. The heavy Lotus Mugen-Hondas were at least reliable enough for seventh and 10th places in the hands of Johnny Herbert and Pedro Lamy (the team sorely needs its new 109), while Pier-Luigi Martini was a disappointed eighth for Minardi Scuderia Italia after the new Italian alliance had shown real sparkle in practice. The little Italian had had a miserable day on Saturday when a gearbox problem made him watch Friday's eighth fastest time evaporate to 15th, while team-mate Michele Alboreto repeated Blundell's Friday feat on Saturday morning by jumping into fourth place. His practice and race were blighted by failure of the air reservoirs for his Ford Series VII's pneumatic valves, however, while Piero struggled in the race with a car whose handling he had not been able to optimise for full-tank running. Tourtel Larrousse's promise, which had seen Comas qualify 13th, went unrewarded in the race thanks to oversteer and a cracked exhaust.

After the struggle they had simply to be present in Brazil (MoToR SPORT March 19941 it was good to see both Pacific and Simtek graduating as fully fledged Fl teams. Both turned out professional-looking cars, and though each qualified one apiece on the back row of the grid that was no disgrace. The point is that they made it, and they made it despite various mechanical problems. Pacific swiftly realised that it needs a front suspension redesign and thus had to resign itself to an understeer problem all weekend, and Paul Belmondo's newer Reynard-built chassis pulled out each of its front suspension lower wishbone mounts during practice. Simtek couldn't get any heat into its tyres on Friday, and then had electrical problems which damned Ratzenberger's chances of making his GP debut. In the race Gachot's silver, pink and blue car was eliminated early on after an altercation with Larrousse debutant Olivier Beretta as they avoided a spinning Bernard. David Brabham fared better for Simtek, overcoming worries (unfounded as it turned out) that its clutch seals might not be able to last out. Because of this the team loaded up 30 litres more fuel than was necessary in order to avoid a second stop, so an already overweight car was heavier still. For all that the Australian picked up I 2th place on his Fl return, finishing a lap behind debutant Olivier Panis, who had driven well all weekend to outqualify Eric Bernard at Ligier, and to outrace him.

Though it does not seem as if the new regulations have made the slightest difference to the real gaps in the field and we did not really get the chance to appreciate the full import of tactics on refuelling there were some good things to observe in Brazil, not the least of which is the fact that the cars look twitchy again. They do flick their tails out, they do bounce alarmingly over bumps. Once again you can appreciate better the artistry of the men on the high wire. There was a sad footnote when Jordan sought to impose its own safety net by protesting the aerodynamic splitters on the side of the winning Benetton, alleging that they did not conform to the letter of the rules which require protruding items above the cars's floorplan to be outlined at the chassis baseline by shadow plates. Such splitters, of course, were used many times by various teams in 1993, and Jordan could easily have made its protest then or prior to the race, when it had the chance in scrutineering. It wanted to make a point and to have things clarified, but most felt that the time to have done that was already long past. As it was, the team lost its protest fee when the stewards rejected its allegations, and justice was seen to be done as Benetton, Schumacher and Ford retained a victory that was well and truly won the hard way. D T