Iberian Interlude

The European part of the Formula One season ended with two races on the Iberian peninsular on consecutive weekends. The Portuguese Grand Prix took place on the pleasant little circuit at Estoril on 23rd September, while the Spanish Grand Prix on the circuit at Jerez followed a week later on September 30th. Both events were won by the Scuderia Ferrari team, in Portugal Nigel Mansell was dominant and in Spain it was Alain Prost who took the initiative. At both events the only serious opposition came from Ayrton Senna and McLaren-Honda, and on both occasions Senna looked set for victory until varying conditions decided otherwise. In Portugal Senna finished second to Mansell and in Spain he was forced to retire when a support strut from an AGS undertray fell off and pierced the McLaren radiator.

At both events a strong contest between Ferrari (Fiat) and McLaren (Honda) started from the moment practice began on Friday morning and reached a climax on Saturday afternoon at the end of qualifying, so much so that the races themselves came as something of an anticlimax, race lap times at Estoril being 5 seconds slower in general, than qualifying times, and in Spain the difference was more than 6 seconds. In Portugal Mansell took a courageous pole position ahead of Prost and Senna, with a time of 1m13.557s while his best race lap of 1m18.577s would not have qualified for the grid and was the sort of pace that Barilla (Minardi) and Tarquini (AGS) were achieving while failing to qualify. In Spain it was a similar story, with Senna taking pole position (his 50th since he joined Formula One) at 1m18.357s and his best race lap being so slow that it would have only been good enough to be next to last of the pre-qualifiers! Even Patrese's race lap, which was the fastest of all, at 1m24.513s would not have got him on the grid the day before.

Fortunately the whole field of runners are running equally slower on race day, so the difference is not noticeable, the same front runners are at the front, the midfield are struggling to sort themselves out and the backmarkers are still the backmarkers, the only real difference being the slowest four cars in qualifying do not get to start the race. The pace of the front runners during qualifying, both on Friday and Saturday, especially on Saturday, is so fast and furious, and so competitive that at times the end of the frantic hour between 1pm and 2pm comes as something of a relief after you have been actually in the middle of it all. It is something that no amount of television coverage can really show with any degree of reality, though there are occasional flashes of excitement to be seen by those fortunate enough to have the right sort of equipment. There have been times when the thought of race day repeating the tempo of qualifying, and for twice as long, has seemed to be more than I could stand. For that one lap that decides grid positions everything is wound up tight to its maximum, the engine, the chassis, the suspension, the aerodynamics, the brakes, the gear ratios, the drivers, the engineers, the mechanics and the whole team. It is a "tightness" around the top teams' pits that you can feel, and once the job is done there is metaphorically a great exhalation of air that says "Whew!" and you know that no-one could keep up that pressure for every lap of a 70 lap race. If they could then the races themselves would probably be more than many spectators could cope with. So races are run at a much less frantic pace, but if anyone said on Saturday evening that tomorrow's race was going to be run at the pace of Gachot in the Coloni, or Langes in a EuroBrun, most people would want to go home!

Fortunately everyone has to detune themselves for the actual race, and as there are various ways of doing it, the interest lies in the methods and the end result. Senna racing against Prost or Mansell would be as competitive if they changed their Formula One cars for 250cc Karts.

At both races in Iberia tyres played an important part and pit stops for a change of tyres was unavoidable for the faster competitors, though the Benetton team were able to take a gamble on running through nonstop. They could not match the performance of the Honda, Renault and Ferrari powered cars, but had enough power to keep them in sight, and by avoiding a stop for new tyres it was hoped they could stay close enough to profit from a nonstop run. The Estoril circuit, with its lap speeds over the 120 mph mark was just too fast for the gamble to pay off, though Piquet finished fifth and Nannini finished sixth. At the slower Jerez circuit with the average down nearer to 100 mph the gamble nearly paid off, for Piquet actually led for two laps while the faster cars were making pits stops. He was forced to retire with electrical trouble, but Nannini came home third, though mostly by reason of faster cars retiring.

In Portugal Mansell was in his best fighting form, not only taking pole position from Senna, but he appeared to fight his team-mate Alain Prost. When the starting light shone green Mansell veered across the track to the right, nearly putting Prost into the pit wall, and this strange manoeuvre let Senna and Berger shoot through into the lead.

After the race Mansell said he got too much wheelspin and nearly lost control of the car but few people believed him. In a novice's hands that could have happened, but one can hardly describe Mansell as a novice! Whatever the reason, and recently Formula One has been suffering from too many people opening their mouths and being incapable of distinguishing between truth and untruth, Mansell's strange manoeuvre put Prost right off his stroke so the Portuguese Grand Prix became a straight fight between Mansell and Senna.

Apart from two laps during which the front runners stopped for new tyres, Senna led the Portuguese Grand Prix until the start of lap 50. At this point Mansell had been in second place since lap 32, having disposed of Berger without too much trouble, and had been pressuring Senna. The only place to pass an equal adversary on the Estoril circuit is the fast bend after the downhill pits straight, and last year Senna and Mansell tangled at this point. This year, when Mansell made his challenge for the lead, Senna let him through, having decided that second place was better than another tangle, and remembering that to win a World Championship you have got to finish. Mansell led the remaining twelve laps in a dominant manner to score his first win this season, and apart from the "funny business" at the start, it was a thoroughly deserved victory. A very disgruntled Alain Prost was third and he spent the next two days whingeing and moaning about anything coloured red with a Ferrari horse on it, in particular the team manager who is supposed to be controlling the team

The following week it was the same cast in the lead, but a different scenario. This time it was Prost who gave Senna and the McLaren-Honda a hard time, and once again confirmation was given that there are really only two teams in Formula One with any real hope of winning. McLaren-Honda and Ferrari-Fiat, and there is nothing wrong with that. Senna took pole position at Jerez with a lap half a second quicker than Prost, just when it looked as though Ferrari had got pole position sewn up for the second race in succession. Senna then led for 26 laps, until he came in for a tyre change, by which time Prost had already been into the pits and out again. Both the Ferrari and the McLaren pit stops were as fast as anyone could wish for, but Prost had pulled a masterly tactical stroke, and it paid off — just! His stop was on lap 23, and his next three laps on new tyres were 1m29.799s; 1m27.256s and 1m26.519s during which time Senna was leading on worn tyres and lapping at over 1m29s. As the McLaren left the pit lane Piquet was going by, having inherited the lead, with Prost and Mansell right behind him, with Mansell being all friendly to his team-mate and letting him through into second place. Senna came out of the pit lane to find the track full of Ferraris and a Benetton and just managed to squeeze into third place, between the Ferraris. Piquet then ran wide onto the grass, through missing a gearchange, and Prost and Senna were by, but it was all over for the Brazilian.

Right from the start the Ferrrari had got the measure of the Honda, as could be seen by the way Prost was holding Senna with ease, never getting left behind, though the gap varied around the lap as the McLaren was faster in some places and the Ferrari in others. Once in the lead Prost was able to pull away relentlessly and the remainder of the 73 lap race looked like being a case of stalemate with Prost 1st and Senna 2nd. There was still the possibility of a change as it seemed certain that the leaders were going to need another stop for tyres, but then fate stepped in. The first indications were what looked like a puff of smoke from the right-hand sidepod of the McLaren, but then it was clear that it was steam, which could only mean radiator trouble and subsequent overheating.

Senna could feel the rear end of the McLaren sliding about more than was normal, and not knowing he had his own water spraying on his right rear tyre, thought the tyre must be losing pressure. He was into the pits, with what he thought was a puncture, had a new set of tyres on in double-quick time and was gone, but for only one more lap as the engine was overheating and gave up the ghost very quickly. Just why the Honda telemetry and indicators were not ringing alarm bells has not been explained. After the race it was found that an AGS undertray support rod had pierced the radiator, and Ron Dennis was heard to say, "and I am not giving it back to them."

The only difference that all this made to Prost was that Mansell moved up into second place, but nearly half a minute behind, so the little, whingeing Frenchman scored a brilliantly tactical victory, beautifully driven, with Mansell making it a Ferrari 1-2. This weekend wasn't Mansell's, his mind being more on how he was going to explain his 180 degree turn around since his decision to retire which he made at the British Grand Prix back in July. He mumbled about having a sticking throttle system, like he had suffered at Monza, but even if it was true not many people were interested, least of all the Ferrari technicians.

So Ferrari left the Iberian peninsular on a very muddled "high" having won both races, trounced McLaren and Honda, but with everyone distrusting everyone and a lot of backbiting and behind the scenes wrangling going on. Let us hope they have got their 1991 engine well advanced, for rather than weep tears of self pity McLaren and Honda got down to some serious test sessions with the 1991 Honda V12.

That was what was happening up the front of Formula One in the races in Portugal and Spain, but there was a lot more happening in the overall scene, bearing in mind that after the two Ferraris and two McLarens there are still twenty nine other cars and drivers with aspirations ranging from the hopeful to the desperate.

Unusual was the fact that at both races there were only 25 starters, instead of the regulation 26. In Portugal the Japanese driver Satoru Nakajima caught a bug that laid him really low so that he missed the Saturday testing and qualifying completely. The qualifying time he had recorded on Friday was good enough to ensure him a position on the starting grid, but in the Sunday morning warm up session he only got halfway round his first lap before he crashed, his sense of balance still being lacking, so there was no option other than to post him as a non starter. This late in the proceedings the rules did not allow the substitution of the first non qualifier. In Spain it was a different story altogether, though the end result was the same. During the Friday qualifying session Martin Donnelly's Lotus 102 suffered a suspected suspension component failure and the car had a monumental crash into the safety barrier, which shattered the car into pieces leaving the Ulsterman lying on the track with very severe injuries. Media reports quoted speeds of impact at anything up to 180 mph, depending of the assumed mentality of the reader, but the Lotus on-board telemetry was reading 220 kph (135 mph) when it all disintegrated. Regardless of the whys and wherefores and details, it was a very nasty accident from which Donnelly was lucky to be alive.

Naturally he took no further part in the event, but the time he had already recorded qualified for the grid, so once again no-one moved up from the non qualifiers who were 27th down to 30th.

Both races took their toll of drivers and machinery and in Portugal there were only 13 cars running at the finish, though under the strange FIA rules two of the cars that were off the track were classified as finishers, and in Spain there were only 10 cars running at the end. At both races there seemed to be an unnecessary amount of bumping and boring or simple collisions, some of them fairly minor, while others were pretty serious. In Portugal Alex Caffi and Aguri Suzuki had a "coming together" near the end of the race, from which Caffi came off second best with foot injuries which put him out of the Spanish GP, his place in the Arrows team being taken temporarily by the German driver Bernd Schneider. It merely caused the Arrows team more expense, as he did not qualify.

The Caffi/Suzuki collision caused the Portuguese race to be stopped on lap 62, as the little Italian was trapped in his car and the medical services could not do a proper job with the race still in progress, and the race director wisely brought out the red flags. As there were only 10 laps to go to the finish it did not effect the points scoring outcome, and it is unlikely that Senna would have done anything about Mansell's lead, but then again, a lot could have happened in those last 10 laps.

Altogether it was an unfortunate collision, for both drivers had been going well; Caffi is not a driver to have accidents and this season Suzuki has been showing great improvement and showing as much potential in the Larrousse-Lamborghini team as the much vaunted Frenchman Eric Bernard.

Another "coming together" in Portugal was between Philippe Alliot and Nigel Mansell, though the Frenchman knew little about it and Mansell was so busy at the time that he was barely aware of it. He was driving hard to keep ahead of Senna as they lapped some tail-enders near the end of the race. Alliot was very busy in a little dice of his own and just did not see Mansell behind him as he turned into a downhill right hand bend at the precise moment that Mansell was about to go past on the inside. There was no time for either of them to do anything and the Ferrari left front wheel nudged the Ligier's right rear wheel. The French car spun neatly out of the way and Mansell's car hardly wavered as he went by, closely followed by Senna's McLaren. Unfortunately the Ligier thumped heavily into the barriers causing a lot of damage, but the driver was unhurt and more embarrassed than angry.

In Spain the collision continued, with Berger nudging Alesi's Tyrrell under braking for the first corner after the start, which bounced the blue and white car sideways into Patrese's Williams. All would have been well had the Tyrrell not broken its left rear wheel rim on the "rumble kerb" which let all the air out of the tyre so that when Alesi tried to turn right into the corner the car spun out onto the gravel trap. Two thirds of the way through the race when Berger was running in fifth place behind Boutsen's Williams-Renault, he tried to force his way past on the inside hairpin. The McLaren touched wheels with the Williams and literally spun and vaulted over the top of the Belgian driver's car, landing in the gravel trap and out of the race. Silly boy! It was especially irritating for the McLaren team because Senna had only just retired with his "cooked" engine, and they lost all hope of collecting a few points towards the manufacturers' championship.

Throughout the two weekends there were numerous spins and off-road excursions by individual drivers, most of them harmless enough but some with extensive chassis and suspension damage. At times it all seemed a bit like "end of term at school". Perhaps the season had been going too long? Yet when everyone left Spain there were still two more major journeys to make, one to the Japanese Grand Prix and the final one to the Australian Grand Prix. DSJ