Formula One scene

The three commandments

At one time the European part of the Formula One season used to finish at Monza, when there were no “chicanes” and the Italian Grand Prix was a glorious flat-out slip-steaming blind. There was always a feelingthat if everything blew sky-high, it did not really matter for it was the end of the season.

Those sort of races do not happen anymore at Monza with the cicuit bedevilled by “chicanes” before the Curve Grande, another befoire the Lesmo corners, and another before the fast back straight down to the Parabolica corner. In view of the maximum speeds reached by the turbocharged cars in the mid-eighties and with today’s Formula One cars not far off these speeds, perhaps it is just as wrell that officialdom tried to slow things down a bit.

However wheel-to-wheel finishes are no longer a feature of the Italian Grand Prix, even though the atmosphere is still highly charged, so the addition of races in Portugal and Spain to finish off the season make a quite nice way to round off the middle part of the F1 calendar. The circuit at Estoril is not spectacular, but it is very pleasant and the whole flavour of the meeting is one of relaxation with a very friendly atmosphere on all sides. I always like the way he Potuguese organisers provide special parking places behind the control tower for the Club President, the President of FISA and the reigning World Champion driver; a nice touch of old fashioned courtesy, so rare in Formula 1.

The Spanish circuit at Jerez is rather “Mickey Mouse”, with too many tight corners and not enough straights and is not fast enough to be challenging. It is very tiring to drive for not much in return in the way of personal satisfaction. A true racing driver likes to end a fast lap feeling he has really achieved something worthwhile, which circuits like Spa Francorchamps and the Osterreichring (what happened to the Austrian Grand Prix, Mr Ecclestone?) provide.

Like Portugal, Spain is fairly relaxed and comfortable and friendly, and at both circuits there never seems to be any organisational drama. With long trips to Japan and Australia following immediately after the two Iberian races, this relaxed atmosphere is very welcome to most people within the Formula One “circus”. While it is not possible to visualise the Portuguese GP and the Spanish GP ever reaching the status of a “Grande Epreuve” they are, nonetheless, nice little events, both very welcome in the calendar.

But this year there was little to relax about at both events, not through bad racing, far from it, but due to media hype and polemics. The Portuguese race was going well, the Ferrari team was in cracking form and providing a very serious challenge to McLaren-Honda, a challenge so serious that even some of the McLaren hierarchy felt they had met their match, even if it was only momentarily. Gerhard Berger made a stupendous start and held the lead until he stopped for new tyres, as did all the other fast runners, but then Nigel Mansell made a complete nonsense of his arrival in the pit lane and overshot the Ferrari pit. Instead of charging off and doing another lap, he committed the cardinal sin of selecting reverse gear and driving the Ferrari backwards to his tyre-changing point, which naturally meant instant exclusion. From then on Berger’s fine drive to win the race was almost lost under the confusion, acrimony, political wrangling, misquoting of rules, accusation, speculation, shouting and yelling from all sides, some of it very unruly.

Any driver worthy of the name “racing driver”, knows that there are three things you do not do under any circumstances, for they all carry the penalty of exclusion, administered instantly, or as soon as the stewards have got together, which is never very long at a circuit. On the final “parade” lap before a start you must not overtake another car; if your car has trouble, or you get left behind for some reason, you do not regain your grid position, you start from the back of the grid. An eminently sensible rule, for once the field is back on the starting grid there are only a few seconds before the green light comes on, and we would not want someone weaving his way through the grid to regain his position, just as the green light comes on. Everyone knows this rule, yet drivers still break it in the heat of the moment, and they pay the penalty of instant exclusion. John Watson had “brain fade” in his last race, in South Africa, and ended his Formula One career ignominiously with an exclusion.

Another rule insists that during the qualifying periods before a race, cars that are picked at random for a weight check point, and any driver who ignores it is instantly excluded from the rest of the meeting. This rule was not made in the interests of safety, but to ensure that teams do not abuse the minimum weight rule, as they had done in the past. In other words, certain people had been found to be cheating, and the spot-check system put a stop to it, the penalty being known to everyone. The third rule of Importance is that a car must not proceed under its own power in the reverse direction to that of the race, at any time while it is on the circuit, and the pitlane is specifically designated as part of the circuit. This rule is essentially one of safety, for the thought of anyone driving his car in the reverse direction of the race is too horrific to contemplate.

If a driver was allowed to reverse back to his pit from the far end of the Pit-lane, it does not bear thinking about If someone else came in at speed to make a pit-stop. Whether you reverse one yard or 100 yards, it makes no difference, the rule is quite clear. 3500cc is the maximum, 3500.01 is illegal, there is nothing complicated about it. The reversing rule Is quite clear, it is not complicated. If you engage reverse gear and let in the clutch, you are disqualified. Mansell made a simple mistake and he knew what the result was going to be. That should have been the end of the story, but sadly it wasn’t. He then failed to stop when the black flag and the number 27 was shown, and he was then involved in an accident. Officialdom got very uptight and threw the book at him.

Then it all began, and at the time of writing it is still going on, for some people just don’t know when to shut up. Poor Gerhard Berger had driven one of his best races and Ferrari had McLaren-Honda on the run, but few people were interested, most people were wetting their knickers over the Mansell affair. Mansell made a mistake in over-shooting his pit, for whatever reason, and then broke a rule, knowing the consequences.

This whole sorry affair dragged on into Spain and rather tainted the atmosphere of the Spanish Grand Prix, so that instead of the Formula One “circus” leaving the Iberian Peninsular in a relaxed and pleasant frame of mind, in readiness for the long trips to Japan and Australia, most of them came away wound up tight and carrying mental scars as if they had been in a war. It had all been going so well until Mansell came in for his tyre stop … DSJ