Iberian Interlude

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Denis Jenkinson

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The European season of Formula One racing finished on a high note with two highly enjoyable races on the Iberian Peninsula. The Portuguese Grand Prix was held at the Estoril Autodromo on September 20 and the Spanish Grand Prix one week later, on September 27, at the Autodromo at Jerez de la Frontera, and both were full of interest and excitement.

Both circuits are man-made, carved out of virgin scrubland in recent years, and both provide entertaining venues for Formula One races, if not for Grand Prix races. By modern standards the Estoril circuit is medium-fast, with a lap record of 122.7 mph, while the Jerez circuit is slow, with a lap record of 108.5 mph.

Of the two, my preference is for the Portuguese circuit, which has a fast, slightly downhill straight past the pits, entered from a fast right-hander. In qualifying the front-runners were touching 208 mph before slamming on the brakes for a fast downhill right-hand sweep. In the centre of the Autodromo the course also runs downhill to a double-left hand bend, where some pretty demon overtaking goes on, and after another straight followed by a tight, falling-away right-hand bend, the circuit climbs upwards again through some twists and turns back onto the top straight.

In contrast the Jerez Autodromo is virtually flat, rather mickey-mouse, and full of twists and turns, with the only real straight being past the pits, entered by a slow hairpin and ending on a slight up-gradient and a slow right-hand bend. If you view the circuit from the top of the control tower at the start/finish line it has the appearance of an over-size table-top slot-car track. You can see it at seven different points, each going in a different direction —very confusing!

However, at both venues the paddock, garages, pits and administration facilities are all well appointed and reasonably laid out, so few problems arise for those having to work there, and both events provide a pleasant overall atmosphere.

The one disconcerting thing about Jerez is that it runs anti-clockwise on the pits-straight , so that cars enter the pits from the right instead of the usual left. Remarkably, nobody got bowled over, although almost everyone on the regular Formula One circus scene is programmed to look left for incoming cars. Naturally, at every race there are those people who have no real reason to be in the pit-lane and you can spot them very easily — they are the ones who could easily be run over by a stationary Grand Prix car!

With the two races being on consecutive weekends, the teams arrived at the first with enough material to keep them going for both races, and some teams had a fourth car with them in case of an emergency, or a monocoque “tub” on which they could build up a fourth Car.

The Williams team had four cars with it and proudly displayed them lined up in front of the pits, with every intention of using all four. Each of its drivers had a pair of cars, one with normal coil-spring suspension and one with the new hydraulic “active-ride” suspension, devoid of any obvious suspension medium apart from intriguing cylindrical and spherical oil containers, various pipes and wires, and electronic “gizmoes”.

Following Piquet’s win at Monza with the new suspension, further testing was carried out and the decision made to take a similar car to Portugal and Spain for Mansell; it was up to him whether he decided to use it. Piquet used his “active ride” car at both races, doing the minimum of laps in the normally-sprung car, while Mansell did the complete opposite, spending much more time in the normal car during testing and practice. He raced the “active-ride” car in the Portuguese race, but the result was inconclusive as its Honda V6 engine died on him with an electrical fault on his fourteenth lap and that was that. Having led on the opening lap he was passed by Berger’s Ferrari, but was lying a strong second when the engine went on the blink.

It was a bad day for Honda, for Senna was lying third when Mansell’s trouble began and almost at the same time the Honda engine in the Lotus gave trouble in its electronic throttle control sensor. Senna pulled into the pits at the beginning of lap 15 and lost nearly four laps while the trouble was diagnosed and the faulty components replaced. He then drove a remarkable fast and consistent race to eventually finish seventh.

Piquet ran second for a time, after Mansell’s retirement, until his stop for new tyres; he then made up time back into third place, but there he settled. A support to the aerodynamic undertray beneath the gearbox came adrift and the fluctuating down-force on the back end made the car feel very odd and unpredictable. He could do little more than drive to finish, coming third, a long way behind the winner.

In Spain Mansell raced his normally sprung car and simply ran away from the rest of the field, Piquet in the “active-ride” car included. From the word go Mansell was totally dominant and gave one of those performances of which he is admirably capable, but not always able to reproduce when expected.

Piquet’s Spanish race with the “active-ride” car is best forgotten, for he made some awful mistakes, which he freely admitted after the race. After sitting a comfortable second to Mansell he stopped at the pits for his routine tyre change and forgot to keep his foot on the brake pedal to stop the rear wheels spinning! The poor Williams mechanics were powerless to do anything until the wheels stopped, and the tyre-change took something like 19 seconds instead of nine or less.

When Piquet rejoined the race he had to force his way into a bunch of hard-chargers battling for his second place, and while trying to get past Prost he spun, though luckily he kept on the track and was able to gather it all up and race on. Near the end of the race he had another spin, without any damage, but then decided to stop at the pits in case the radiator intakes were full of grass. As it was, they were all right and he need not have stopped, so the result of his dismal day was a very mediocre fourth place, while Mansell was triumphant.

To everyone’s delight the Ferrari team got back on to something like its old form in the two Iberian races. Since the German Grand Prix, Dr Harvey Postlethwaite has returned to running the team at the circuits, and John Barnard has stayed at home to work on the design of the 1988 car. Morale has risen visibly over the last few races and in Portugal they had that little slice of luck that every good team needs, and many of them deserve.

The second qualifying session at Estoril was run under threatening skies and Gerhard Berger was giving it his all, vying for pole position with anyone who challenged. just as he had snatched fastest time from the Williams duo the rain started, and pole-position was his. By all normal standards of this season, had it stayed dry Mansell and Piquet would have gone out again and one of them would surely have reclaimed pole-position, though Berger might have been able to split them. With the rain it was all settled, and a Ferrari was on the front of the grid for the first time for a very long while.

Berger was very conscious of being on pole-position more by default than merit, but nonetheless his performance had been good. He led the parade-lap as if it was the first lap of the race, instead of in a quiet and orderly fashion, but although he was all keyed-up Mansell got the drop on him and appeared in the lead by the time they got to the downhill section in the centre of the circuit. They were followed by the two McLarens and then there was a big gap with some important people missing!

Black flags began to appear, and it was obvious that something had happened to cause the race to be stopped. Piquet and Alboreto had collided on the first corner and spun off, Warwick had deliberately spun his Arrows to avoid them, and Nakajima had dodged sharp right to avoid the Arrows. Just at that moment Brundle had been on the inside of the Lotus, and the collision had launched the Zakspeed into the air.

Chaos reigned behind them as the rest tried to stop or avoid a collision. Both Zakspeeds were wrecked, as was Arnoux’s Ligier, and other entries suffered repairable damage. Various drivers switched to spare cars and all but Christian Danner lined up again for the restart.

Once again Mansell made a good start and led the opening lap, but Berger in the Ferrari slashed by on superior speed down the pit straight and from then on one could say that the Austrian never looked back. Unfortunately he did look back late in the race and that was his downfall. . .

He led solidly from laps 2-34, lost the lead temporarily to his team-mate Alboreto while he stopped for tyres, but was back ahead on lap 36.

He continued to lead in a most impressive fashion until lap 68, with only two more to go. For reasons mentioned later, he had Alain Prost closing on him rapidly so he was driving at his absolute limit with nothing to spare — all the time keeping an eye on his mirrors for the menacing red and white McLaren. Half way round the 68th lap, on the downhill right-hander at the lowest part of the circuit. he overdid his braking by perhaps a half of one per-cent, but it was too much, and the Ferrari went into a spin and off onto the dusty run-off area.

Berger kept the engine running, regained control and was soon back on the track, but Prost had gone by into the lead. The young Austrian’s mistake was so small that it only added 22 seconds to his lap time, but all hope of a win had gone and all he could do was finish a slightly crestfallen second.

So well had he driven, both during practice and the race, that not a critical word was heard. Commiserations, yes; sympathy, yes; acrimony, no. He made none of the usual “fallen hero” excuses, such as snatching brakes, worn tyres, oil on the track, weak shock-absorbers and so on, all of which we have heard from other drivers who have thrown away a Grand Prix victory. Young bright-eyed Berger simply said: “I spent too much time looking in my mirrors for Alain, and made a mistake”.

A MOTOR SPORT reader once posed the question to me: “If you were a racing driver and were leading a race, who would you least like to have in your mirrors?” I tried this question on a lot of my Formula One colleagues and two names which came up instantly were Niki Lauda and Alain Prost. Need I say more? It was a moment of truth for Gerhard Berger; he failed, but came through with flying colours.

But how did Alain Prost get into that position? In the first half of the Portuguese race he was not really in the picture, which is not to say he was left behind, but he was running in fourth place. He was not too happy with the feel of his tyres and felt he could not go any faster. After his tyre stop on lap 32, the new tyres felt quite different together with the lightening of the fuel load, and his lap times dropped dramatically.

His performance in the second half of the race was masterly, and after moving up from fourth to second in three laps he really got stuck in, and started the most awe-inspiring pursuit of the flying Ferrari ahead of him. In usual Prost fashion none of his efforts were visible except the diminishing gap.

When some drivers turn on the pressure you can see it easily, the engine note sounds just that bit harder, braking is visibly heavier, even to the occasional puffs of smoke as brakes lock momentarily, the tyres are that much closer to the edge of the track, spurts of dust come up as they put a wheel over the edge, overtaking slow cars is often “marginal” and you hold your breath; occasionally there are signs of the rear end sliding out, as all the power comes in almost suicidally early out of a corner. It is all powerful and emotional stuff and wonderful to watch.

With Alain Prost there is none of that. He sits impassively in the cockpit, showing no emotion whatsoever, his accuracy is as precise as ever and there is no visible strain on any of the components of the car; yet the gap is closing.

One’s first impulse was that Berger was slowing, but lap times showed that he was not, yet Prost was closing relentlessly and consistently, foot by foot, yard by yard. Just occasionally you might see him lap a slower car with only inches to spare, where normally he might give the slower car a couple of feet, but the whole thing was so undramatic that it was almost boring to watch. Berger must have felt those cool, steely eyes boring into his back, and afterwards Prost was almost apologetic, saying he felt very sorry for Gerhard when he saw him spinning. You can believe that, for Alain Prost is that sort of a man.

This impressive race gave him immense satisfaction, the more so because it was his 28th Grand Prix win, which put him at the top of the winning league, having now scored one more than Jackie Stewart, who has held the record for a very long time. To beat Stewart’s record with a victory like the one in Portugal really pleased the woolly-headed little Frenchman, and he added the sentiment that he was very happy to have achieved it with a Porsche engine in his McLaren, for next year he will be powered by Honda.

Not content with this “racer” performance in Portugal, the following week in Spain he gave another scintillating display of the very deep Prost talent, even though it only netted him second place behind the uncatchable Nigel Mansell. He was seventh on the starting grid after a not very impressive two days of practice and qualifying, and got hemmed in by the traffic at the first comer so that he ended the first lap in ninth place. Meanwhile the two Honda-powered Williams cars had rushed off into an unassailable lead.

In third place was Ayrton Senna in the unpredictable Lotus 99T and behind him a bunch of tough characters, all keen on taking third place and possibly making a bid for second. These were Berger and Alboreto (Ferraris), and Boutsen and Fabi (Benettons) and they were all nearly falling over themselves to get by the yellow Lotus, but Senna had no intention of lifting off and waving them by. It was really good rough-and-tumble stuff on this relatively slow and safe circuit, so that chances were being taken which would not be attempted at Spa, Osterreichring or Silverstone.

In Doug Nye’s new book on the racing life of Stirling Moss he quotes something I wrote in 1959: “it is the ability to go fast and conserve his tyres, and to plan strategy while he is racing, that makes Moss the great artist that he is.” If you change Moss for Prost, you can see that nothing has changed when it comes to evaluating racing drivers!

Prost had de Cesaris in front of him and was fairly cautious about dealing with the Brabham, but once by he closed up on the tail of the Benettons. There was no way he was going to plunge into the midst of the unruly five-car melee so he dived into the pits relatively early for a tyre-change, letting his team-mate Johansson go by.

Back on the track he soon caught up the line of cars behind the Lotus, and then simply sat there and watched as one by one they all pulled off into the pits for new tyres. By lap 46 Prost had moved serenely up into third place, his only anxious moment being when Piquet barged his way back into the race after his disastrous pit stop and tried to outbrake the McLaren into the corner at the end of the pits straight. Many drivers would have been intimidated at having the rugged little Brazilian out-braking them, but not Prost, and it was Piquet who spun.

Senna was going through non-stop in this race, and as his tyres began to show signs of wear those with new tyres closed up on him again and there was some more unruly pushing and shoving. During some crowded moments while they were lapping slower cars there were some remarkable instantaneous changes in position and Prost dropped from third to sixth, without visibly losing any ground— they were all that close.

With six laps to go Prost was fourth, behind Piquet and Boutsen, neither of whom even had Mansell in sight. On lap 67 Piquet spun, Boutsen went off into the sand avoiding him, and Prost slipped by into second place! Senna had been unceremoniously elbowed back from second to sixth, unable to defend his position on his perilously worn tyres, and almost unnoticed the affable Stefan Johansson moved up into third place after an excellent drive, faultless and troublefree.

The Ferrari revival did not make it to the finish of the Spanish Grand Prix, but both cars had been giving as good as they got. Berger’s end was heralded by a long plume of oil smoke out of the back for a couple of laps before the engine blew up, and Alboreto came into the pits with a wrecked turbo and covered the pit-lane in smoke.

They had been two fascinating races, encouraged by unforeseen circumstances: the rain in Portugal on Saturday upsetting the status quo of the Williams-Hondas domination of the starting grid, and the tightness and mickey-mouse characteristics of the Jerez circuit encouraging some very close infighting. I would not describe either event as a classic Grand Prix, but they were good Formula One races, with worthy and well deserved winners.

With the two Williams-Hondas, the two Ferraris, the two McLaren, the two Benettons and the Ione Lotus-Honda, there really is not room for anyone else up at the front. The remaining seventeen runners can really only go through the motions of being in the races, even though some of them did heroic things, as the statistics show; but in reality we could have some first-class races with only ten cars, with no slow ones to get in the way, providing all ten could guarantee to keep going for an hour and a half. Unfortunately this is very unlikely, so we need a supporting cast to fill up some of the gaps.

This Iberian interlude concluded the European part of the Formula One series, and the teams left Spain with the knowledge that they were going to spend more time in the air than racing on the ground, as they set off for Mexico, Japan and Australia in their search to find a World Champion who has literally raced all over the world. DSJ

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