When two tribes go to war… it’s Senna vs Prost, Mansell vs Piquet as the superpowers turn the wick up on their turbo missiles
By Nigel Roebuck
It was the era of Margaret Thatcher, relished by some, despised by others. It was a time of plenty, even excess, not least in motor racing, which went through perhaps the most convulsive decade in its history. The ’80s.
“In my time,” said Patrick Tambay, “there were three drivers on another level from the rest of us. I don’t know what it is, this special quality – but I do know it exists…” Tambay was speaking of Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Some defeats are more triumphant than victories. I think of Gilles at Monaco – not so much in 1981, when he took the lumbering Ferrari 126CK to the unlikeliest of wins, but the year before, when he drove the unloved 312T5, somehow qualifying it sixth, 11 places higher than team-mate Jody Scheckter.
This was the ‘ground effect’ era, when grip levels were redefined, but the shape of Ferrari’s flat-12 engine militated against building an effective ground effect car: “The T5’s got skirts,” Villeneuve shrugged, “but I don’t know why! Just for show, I guess…”
Because the car slithered around so much it would eat its Michelins, and in an age when tyre changes were not the norm Scheckter was in after just 13 laps, Villeneuve after 21. Soon Jody parked it, describing the Ferrari’s handling as ‘impossible’, but Gilles, back in 14th place, was set on being 13th as soon as possible.
At half-distance it began to drizzle. I was at Casino Square, and as those at the front – Pironi, Reutemann, Piquet – took it increasingly easily, Villeneuve mesmerised us, grazing the barriers, one second, two seconds a lap faster than anyone else.
I have always been moved by fighting spirit – to me it defines a racing driver – and it is never more stirring than when little reward is on offer. At the flag Villeneuve – lapped during his stop – was fifth, a result no one remembers, but as an exhibition of what may be done with a Grand Prix car it stands comparison with anything I have seen.
Two years later, though, Gilles was gone, and his loss put into perspective everything else wrong with Grand Prix racing, which was plenty, and of a political – no, make that commercial – nature. At the time of Villeneuve’s death at Zolder, most of the teams had been on strike at the previous race, Imola; a few months before that the drivers had taken similar action at Kyalami.
Two years earlier we had had a Grand Prix (at Jarama) ruled ‘illegal’ by the governing body, and removed from the World Championship. “Whatever f****** Balestre says about it, that was a Grand Prix as far as I’m concerned, and I won it!” raged Alan Jones, World Champion in 1980, but it never was a ‘points race’.
Whatever was going on?
In 1978 Jean-Marie Balestre had become president of the CSI, then the sporting arm of the FIA, and the following year he transformed it into FISA – Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile: thus, for the whole of this period, we must think in terms of ‘FISA’, rather than ‘the FIA’. It was not until Max Mosley – then Bernie Ecclestone’s legal sidekick, and much opposed to the governing body – became president of the FIA in 1993 that FISA’s activities were absorbed into the main organisation, this of course greatly extending Mosley’s – and therefore Ecclestone’s – power base. QED.
We may believe F1 came close to splitting asunder last year, but it was as nothing compared with the early ’80s, when the choleric Balestre decided that Ecclestone was becoming too powerful, that it was time for the governing body to start governing again.
Many outside the FOCA ranks felt the same way. “Don’t get me wrong,” Scheckter said to me that summer, “there’s a place for Bernie – he’s done a good job in certain areas, but he has to be governed properly. He can’t be allowed to take over…”
The other side of the coin had the head of Frank Williams on it: “This is my livelihood, and I refuse to be administered by an incompetent. All Balestre has is an armband – he doesn’t have one penny invested in my business…”
Over the winter of 1980/81 we went through what became known as the FISA-FOCA War, during which FOCA issued a dossier, entitled ‘The World Federation of Motor Sport present (sic) The World Professional Drivers Championship’ – a breakaway series, complete with race schedule (which included an event in New York!). It was a scam, of course – but it worked, for Balestre, despite holding most of the cards, lost his nerve and in April 1981 the first Concorde Agreement was drawn up. Announced as ‘a working document, under which Formula 1 is run’, it was swathed in secrecy, but its essentials were clear.
One was that, ‘The FIA is the sole international body governing motor sport. Its Statutes have delegated this power to FISA, which governs the organisation of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, which is the exclusive property of the FIA’.
Fine: it had ever been thus, after all. Of far greater significance was this: ‘The FIA grants the exclusive right for FOCA to enter into contracts with the organisers of FIA F1 World Championship events, in the best interests of all competitors’. Henceforth, in other words, Ecclestone would have charge of the deals, and there, amid all the arguments about technical regulations, had lain the real cause of the war in the first place.
Concorde Agreement or not, the rows about rules did not abate. It was clear that turbocharged engines, introduced into F1 by Renault, were going to hold sway for the foreseeable future, and the ‘normally aspirated’ brigade, still largely dependent on the elderly Cosworth DFV, couldn’t compete. When it came to chassis, however, such as Williams and Brabham were plainly superior.
This, as I said, was the ground effect era (pioneered by Lotus), in which a combination of shaped underbodies and sliding skirts created a seal with the ground and made for wicked cornering speeds, with which such as Ferrari couldn’t compete. The ‘FOCA teams’ suggested that a ban on skirts would remove their sphere of superiority – very necessary in combating the power advantage of the ‘grandees’ (as Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo were known).
Balestre argued against skirts on grounds of safety, suggesting that cornering speeds were getting out of hand. And a man like Patrick Head, while ideologically in the FOCA camp, didn’t argue: “I do agree that cornering speeds should be reduced – the drivers are all very fit, but we’re getting to a point where we’re going beyond human capabilities…”
For 1981 FISA indeed went ahead with its skirts ban, decreeing that there should be a six-centimetre gap between car and ground, this to be checked rigorously.
For an engineer of Gordon Murray’s ingenuity it was the work of a moment to sidestep the rule, by means of a hydraulic system, which allowed his Brabhams (still fitted with skirts) to pass the height check, then sink down to kiss the ground at speed. Williams protested, but FISA declared Murray’s concept kosher, so that immediately ‘hydraulic suspension’ became de rigueur; on the slowing-down lap drivers would bash over kerbs, trying to ‘jolt’ their cars into a legal – checkable – ride height once more. It was absurd: the cars were flagrantly illegal, yet the powers-that-be pretended it wasn’t happening.
For 1982 the situation worsened, for now FISA declared that (fixed) skirts were legal again – which meant, of course, that if they were not to be swiftly destroyed suspension had to be effectively solid. Cornering speeds went ever higher, and the drivers complained there was no warning of the limit.
The cars were not only dangerous – suspension failures were rife – but also extraordinarily uncomfortable to drive. At Rio, a few weeks before his death, Villeneuve told me of his concerns: “You know how much I love driving, but I hate these cars. There are moments when you lose vision – everything goes blurred. The g-forces are unbelievable, and the steering is ridiculously heavy. There is no suspension – your legs are flung around in the cockpit, your head hits the rollover bar… you become aware of not enjoying driving a race car…”
This was a time before PR had taken a stranglehold on F1 – but it was coming. At a Camel Lotus dinner a few years later, about the only journalist not invited was Innes Ireland – the man who had scored Team Lotus’s first Grand Prix victory.
Forgive the digression – couldn’t let that pass.
A month after Gilles’s death, rookie Riccardo Paletti was killed at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix, and a month after that Jochen Mass’s March finished up in a spectator area at Paul Ricard, after tangling with another car. Somehow no one was badly hurt, but it was a highly tense time, and Jackie Stewart said he had never been so concerned for the sport’s future.
“Any risk of involving spectators in an accident cannot be tolerated, and you can’t put all the onus on the circuit owners. Only when there is tragedy does anything get done. That’s the history of the sport, but people in F1 need to recognise what a major shunt – a major shunt – would do to them. If sponsors decide to pull out, the decision will come from the Board of Directors, and it will be cold-blooded. There’s no racing passion there. The cars have got to be changed: as things are, I believe we shall be extremely fortunate to get through this year without another driver being killed…”
In the autumn of 1982, Balestre – for all his faults a man who loved motor racing, and always had the drivers’ best interests at heart – announced that for ’83 skirts would be banned once and for all, and that flat-bottomed cars would be mandatory. It didn’t go down well in some quarters, but few felt inclined to argue: F1 had taken itself to the brink, and it was time for a little common sense.
After the last race, in Las Vegas, where Keke Rosberg clinched the World Championship for Williams, I had a drink at the airport with Derek Ongaro, FISA’s circuit inspector of the time. “I’ve hated every second of this season,” he said. “There’s something very wrong when the chequered flag comes down and all you feel is relief that another race weekend is out of the way without someone getting killed…”
By any standards, the 1982 season had been turbulent: two drivers had been lost, and another – Didier Pironi – injured so severely he would never race a car again. At Imola Pironi had stolen victory from his team-mate, Villeneuve, and was held responsible by many for the state of mind in which Gilles went to Zolder, where he died.
Amidst all this tumult, the statistics of the season, too, beggar belief: 16 Grands Prix produced 11 different winners, in seven different types of car. No driver had more than two victories.
Among the winners was Elio de Angelis, whose Lotus beat Rosberg by about a foot at the Österreichring, causing Colin Chapman to fling his cap into the air for what would be the last time. In the tail of 1982 there remained one last sting: shortly before Christmas Chapman died after a massive heart attack. Given all the other turmoil of the year, it was somehow less of a shock than it should have been.
Six years later Chapman’s eternal rival, Enzo Ferrari, also died, at the age of 90. Ruthless, manipulative, cunning… all these epithets were applied to ‘The Old Man’, but many of his drivers revered him and his stature was beyond dispute. I was one of many to feel that now the last of my gods was gone.
After the apocalypse of 1982 F1 settled down for a while, as it needed to do. For all their opposition to turbocharged engines, the FOCA teams decided competitiveness was the better part of whingeing, using engines supplied by such as Renault, BMW, Porsche, Honda, even Ford.
In 1983 Alain Prost looked a sure bet for the World Championship, but in the closing races the striking Brabham-BMW BT52 of Nelson Piquet came on increasingly strong, and took the title at Kyalami.
To this day Prost regards it as a championship stolen: “Everyone knew the fuel used by Piquet’s Brabham was not legal, and from the summer onwards the lead we’d built up was steadily nibbled away. We could have protested – I wanted to, but the Renault management didn’t…”
At the end of that season McLaren tested three young drivers, and all – Ayrton Senna, Stefan Bellof, Martin Brundle – were to be in F1 the following year, albeit not with the team Ron Dennis had taken over from Teddy Mayer. One in particular would leave an indelible mark on the sport.
When the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, run in appalling conditions, was stopped before half-distance, Senna, far from being thrilled at finishing second for Toleman, was incensed that his chance of victory – in only his sixth race – had been lost. Already his sights were squarely on Prost, the king of the hill, and that would never materially change.
At the time too little mention was made of the fact that, while Senna had been catching Prost, so Bellof – in a Tyrrell-Cosworth – had been overhauling Senna. The free-spirited German, regarded by team-mate Brundle as ‘another Villeneuve’, was sadly given no time to make a real impression in F1, losing his life in a Porsche at the 1985 Spa 1000Kms, trying to take the lead at Eau Rouge.
If, politically, F1 settled down somewhat following the truce between FISA and FOCA, there remained serious concerns elsewhere, mainly to do with safety. The towering influence of Professor Sid Watkins was certainly making itself felt, in terms of improvements to circuits and medical facilities, and the cars, too, were becoming safer, thanks not least to the adoption of carbon-fibre monocoques, pioneered by John Barnard in his McLaren days.
In absolute terms, though, the sport remained highly perilous. Bellof may have died in a sports car, as did Manfred Winkelhock, but in the ’80s we lost not only Villeneuve and Paletti in F1 accidents, but also Patrick Depailler and Elio de Angelis, both of whom were killed in test sessions.
As well as that, there were many injuries. Following an accident at Long Beach in 1980, Clay Regazzoni never walked again, and there would follow accidents to Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Didier Pironi and Jacques Laffite, all of whom suffered severe leg injuries. Look at an ’80s F1 car now, and how absurd it seems that the driver sat so much to the front of the car.
Having lost the 1983 championship to Piquet, Prost, now a McLaren-TAG driver, also missed it the following year – by half a point. Although Niki Lauda, his team-mate, scored only five wins to Alain’s seven, a better finishing record brought him his third title. Comebacks can work: having quit in 1979, Niki had returned in ’82 – and proceeded to win his third race.
At the end of 1985 Lauda retired definitively – and this time Prost finally won the World Championship. It was in ’85, too, that Nigel Mansell became a winner at last, scoring for Williams at Brands Hatch and Kyalami.
Earlier that season there had been a drive – at Estoril – that marked Senna down as a driver for the ages. In monsoon conditions Ayrton, now at Lotus, simply drove away from the rest, scoring the first of his 41 victories. “It’s Villeneuve all over again, isn’t it?” said Denis Jenkinson approvingly. “A racing driver who’s ahead of his car…”
The year of 1986 began disastrously when Frank Williams had a road accident, en route to Nice airport from a test at Paul Ricard. For some time FW’s life hung in the balance, but eventually he pulled through, albeit consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
The pattern for the second half of the decade looked set, with a very obvious top four, Prost and Piquet now joined by Senna and Mansell. Ayrton was not involved in the championship fight in ’86, but the others went to Adelaide, the last race, to settle the issue, and what followed was the best Grand Prix I have ever seen, the pendulum swinging throughout between Mansell, Piquet and Prost. Tyre failure accounted for Nigel, and Alain won both race and title.
“These days,” commented Jackie Stewart, “you don’t often see a guy win a Grand Prix in a slower car – but this guy’s won the World Championship in one! For me, Alain’s undoubtedly the best. No way Williams-Honda should have lost the titles…”
The cars were very quick at that point in the turbo F1 cycle. “We had a big horsepower advantage,” said Patrick Head, “and therefore were able to run more downforce than anyone else. Honda couldn’t actually tell us how much power we had – because they didn’t know themselves! Their dyno only registered up to 1000 horsepower – which they were reaching at 9300rpm. We were revving them to 13,500 or so…”
During 1987 that horsepower asserted itself to a point that only Piquet and Mansell were contenders for the championship (with occasional interruptions from Prost and the Honda-powered Lotus of Senna). Nigel was the quicker of the two, and scored a particularly memorable victory over his team-mate at Silverstone. But Nelson, eyes fixed on the championship, used stealth and guile to land a third title.
They did not get along, these two. At all. “Oh, that season of ’87…” Head rolled his eyes. “We’d finish one-two, and I’d go back to the motorhome, knowing that the loudest noise would be the moaning of the guy who’d finished second…”
On the horizon, though, was a scenario which would define ‘feud’ in motor racing for all time, for it was announced that Honda was leaving Williams for McLaren – and that Senna was part of the deal. Ron Dennis said everything would be all right.
At first it was. Between them, Senna and Prost dominated the 1988 season, winning all but one of the 16 races. At the time the rule was that your 11 best scores counted for the championship, and thus Ayrton took it, by 90 points to 87; under the previous points system, with all results counting, Alain would have won, 105 to 94.
Honours were pretty well even, then, but an incident at Estoril suggested difficult times to come. As Prost went to pass Senna, Ayrton blatantly swerved, all but putting Alain into the pitwall. I can still recall the shock we all felt, which says everything about how the ethics of the sport have changed: nowadays such behaviour is taken for granted, but time was when it was rightly considered unacceptable.
Prost won, but made his feelings clear: “I knew how much Senna wanted the championship, but it wasn’t until today that I realised he was prepared to die for it. If he wants it that badly, he can have it…”
They remained team-mates the following year, and this time Prost emerged with the title. Always totally professional, he and Senna continued to work together at the debriefs and so on, but on a personal level things were glacial, and came to a head at Suzuka, where finally they had a coming-together.
“Before the race,” said Prost, “I told the team, ‘There’s no way I’m going to open the door any more – I’ve done it too many times…’
“Ayrton knew he would have to take a risk to get by,” said McLaren director Creighton Brown, “and Alain, equally obviously, couldn’t give way. It was the unstoppable force meeting the immoveable object…”
Senna didn’t see it that way. At Suzuka the following year, he speared Prost’s Ferrari off at the first corner in perhaps the most reprehensible action ever seen in Grand Prix racing. By then, of course, we were into the ’90s.
It was endlessly fascinating, endlessly chilling, to watch the two of them go at it, year after year. If Senna hated Piquet, on a personal level, he did not feel that way about Prost: it was simply professional rivalry with a serrated edge. As McLaren’s Jo Ramirez said, each deeply admired the ability of the other: “Ayrton and Alain never worried about any of the others. They were in a different class, weren’t they?”
They were. I remember watching a qualifying session at Spa with Jenks. “This is the circuit that matters,” he said, “and, watching Senna and Prost today, it struck me that in my lifetime I’ll never again see two drivers of that class competing against each other.
“Artists, aren’t they?”
That was the decade that was
1980 Ronald Reagan becomes American president, Mount St Helens erupts in Washington, John Lennon is assassinated and the Rubik cube puzzles the world. This is the turbo era in F1 but the decade starts with a championship for Alan Jones and Williams with the neat and effective FW07. Ferrari struggles and Scheckter retires.
1981 Millions watch Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer get married in London, a new disease is identified as AIDS, assassins attempt – and fail – to kill President Reagan and the Pope, and IBM launches the personal computer. The F1 championship is touch and go between Nelson Piquet and Carlos Reutemann, but the Brazilian triumphs to land his first title.
1982 Argentina invades the Falkland Islands and Britain goes to war, Prince William is born in London, Mark Thatcher is rescued after getting lost on the Paris-Dakar Rally, the Mary Rose is raised and Michael Jackson releases Thriller. Keke Rosberg wins the F1 title after Gilles Villeneuve is killed and Didier Pironi breaks his legs in a crash at Hockenheim.
1983 Russia shoots down a Korean airliner, the US embassy in Beirut is bombed, tennis star Björn Borg retires and the final episode of M*A*S*H is aired. On the circuit Nelson Piquet and Brabham win their second title while Patrick Tambay, racing with number 27 on his Ferrari in honour of Villeneuve, takes a poignant victory at Monza.
1984 Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi is assassinated by her bodyguards, ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean win gold in the Winter Olympics and Band Aid records Do They Know It’s Christmas? in response to the Ethiopian famine. Niki Lauda wins the F1 title by half a point from team-mate Alain Prost, while Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof emerge as exciting new talents.
1985 Live Aid raises £50m for famine relief, scientists discover a hole in the ozone layer, Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev calls for ‘glasnost’ and the wreck of the Titanic is located. Prost takes the first of his four world titles, Bellof is killed in a sports car race at Spa and Senna wins his first Grand Prix in torrential rain at Estoril.
1986 There’s an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Challenger space shuttle explodes and Diego Maradona scores his ‘Hand of God’ goal as Argentina defeats England in the World Cup. Nigel Mansell, Piquet and Prost fight it out for the world title. Prost wins when Mansell suffers a puncture at the final race. Elio de Angelis is killed testing at Paul Ricard.
1987 DNA is used to convict criminals, the New York stock exchange plummets on ‘Black Monday’, U2 releases The Joshua Tree and hurricane-force winds batter southern England in the Great Storm of ’87. Nelson Piquet wins the world title for Williams after Mansell injures his back practicing for the Japanese Grand Prix.
1988 A transatlantic Pan Am jumbo jet is bombed, falling on the Scottish town of Lockerbie and killing all on board, Benazir Bhutto is sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan and The Last Emperor wins nine Oscars. On the track McLaren wins 15 of the 16 races and Ayrton Senna takes his first world title at Suzuka.
1989 Protesting students are massacred in Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall comes down, George Bush succeeds Ronald Reagan as American President, 96 Liverpool fans die in the Hillsborough disaster and Nintendo releases the Game Boy. At McLaren Prost and Senna become bitter rivals and a controversial collision at Suzuka decides the title in favour of the former.
1981 Monaco Grand Prix, Motor Sport, July 1981
It began to look as if a stalemate was developing between Piquet and Jones, which was just as well for since their argy-bargy in Zolder there had been no love lost between them. The Brazilian is a very determined young man and the Australian is… well, an Australian, and they are not cast or forged, they are carved from solid.
By lap 39 the Williams was right under the tail of the Brabham and you could imagine Piquet thinking ‘if that Australian thug tries anything I’ll have him off’. The situation was really tense and for three breathtaking laps the Williams was really leaning on the Brabham. Meanwhile Villeneuve was comfortably in third place and wondering if they were going to give him first place on a plate… As Piquet hurtled along the harbour front on lap 54 he misjudged overtaking Tambay’s ailing Theodore and slid into the barriers. As Jones went by into the lead he must have smiled…
…With 20 laps to go his engine began to stutter. Switching on the electric pump did not help, so Jones signalled to his pit that he was stopping for more petrol. Unknown to Villeneuve, the Williams dived into the pits, a 2½ gallon container of petrol was emptied into the tank and Jones was back on the track before Villeneuve arrived. But the Williams was in trouble, for the stuttering was getting worse.
With eight laps to run Villeneuve used all the Ferrari would give, making his own fastest lap and passing the stricken Williams in front of the pits. Monte Carlo erupted. Hooters and sirens echoed round the harbour, hats flew, tears ran down the cheeks of all the Ferrari folk, and Villeneuve fans prayed that the Ferrari engine would hold together. It did and there was no need to ask who was a popular winner. A lucky win, yes, but when the good luck is being handed out you’ve got to be there; it’s no good being a lap behind and cruising along dispiritedly. Jonsey must have thought once again ‘Goddam, that guy never gives up’.