Contractual chess

Are drivers being moved around in F1 like pieces on a chessboard?

Back in the winter of 1967 Cooper and BRM locked briefly in a battle over the services of Pedro Rodriguez. It scandalised F1 for an hour or two, and cartoonist Don Grant depicted the hapless Mexican being torn limb from limb in the ensuing tug-of-war.

What happened in Estoril last month made that little episode look like a squabble over Lego bricks in a kindergarten.

As Alain Prost sat at home in Yens firm in the belief that he would be driving for Williams-Renault in 1993, moves were afoot to change the scenario. The former World Champion had been encouraged in his belief by the fact that he had a contract which affirmed his position. Indeed, his Williams-decorated overalls and logoed helmet actually reposed in the Williams truck that very afternoon. It was not, it seemed fairly sure, a flight of fancy on his part to believe that he had everything in place. After all, hadn't Nigel Mansell been bleating all year how his presence as a new team-mate was so unacceptable to him? Hadn't Prost and Williams been speaking since the end of 1991?

We live, however, in a different world today than we did back in 1968. Today the drivers fight over the cars. Over breakfast just before Estoril, Mansell himself had expressed his view. We have had our differences of opinion with him all year on a number of subjects, but he was calm, reflective, at his 1989 best. "We are at the end of an era," he had said, and he wasn't boasting about his imminent departure for Newman/Haas and lndycars. In fact, the new World Champion was expressing his relief and it sounded genuine to be getting out of F1. "I think I'm getting out at just the right time," he said, "and I have to say that I am not disappointed. The new era of F1 is an era in which everything is controlled."

Ah! We agree on something at last!

The inference was clear, but just in case it wasn't, there in Estoril the following afternoon, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, with Patrick Head as what one suspects was an unwilling accomplice, met to debate who would get Ayrton Senna's services for 1993. Frank was still desperate to have the Brazilian, Ron to patch things up with the Frenchman, who had confirmed that he would head for McLaren if Senna ever came to Williams. The hatches round the Williams motorhome were so well battened that one was prompted to suppose that the team had been closed down. The paddock was at the time aflame with rumours of McLaren buying Ligier to get its Renault engines; perhaps now somebody had bought Williams instead?

Thus, as Prost sat at home relishing the thought of testing a Williams-Renault at Estoril on the Tuesday after the Portuguese GP, Williams and Dennis were indulging in their bit of horse trading to decide his future for him.

Prost arrived in Portugal on the Saturday, and as it transpired, Frank was finally pressured into announcing him as his lead driver on the Sunday morning of the race, although it is clear that he would have prevaricated further given half a chance. And Prost duly did test the FW14B, coming away revelling in its complexity, and inherent excellence. Senna, it seemed, had once and for all been stymied. A torrent of abuse came forth as he accused Prost of cowardice in having a clause that prevented him – Ayrton Senna! – from running as his team-mate. Those of us who heard this tripe thought back to what Senna himself did to Derek Warwick at Lotus in 1986 and pondered on the way what goes around comes around. Of his innate capacity for self-justification. And as the triple World Champion hinted darkly that 'things could get very physical' in 1993, we remembered Suzuka 1990. the outburst there a year later in which he finally admitted that he had deliberately driven Prost off the road, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Would you want such a man as a team-mate?

The state of the world economy may have disrupted F1 , but in its way it has played nicely into Bernie Ecclestone's hands, which must have been rubbing together gleefully as he watched the bottom fall out of the driver's market.

But... The corollary is that Senna, frustrated, angry, for the first time in his life denied something he really wants (and by a man he detests), again began threatening to take a year off.

The entire Senna, Prost, Mansell situation smacks of pieces being moved around a chessboard. Of efforts being made to control things totally but also to accommodate Senna at all costs. Why wasn't the same thing done at the end of 1991 in favour of Prost?

The Frenchman, whom Ecclestone has deemed the Lone Ranger, is too smooth in driving style to suit the sport's new confrontational image, and therefore, though fast, is less popular. Jim Clark drove in the same manner, so work out for yourselves how far motor racing has progressed if such style is now deemed a disadvantage in spicing things up.

Senna and Mansell crash much more, though, and are thus so spectacular that if they go F1 will lose its televisual appeal. Bernie is clearly worried about this. Hence the attempts to find Al Unser Jnr a seat. A sort of 'They've got one of ours, so we'll have two of theirs' equation. Unser and Andretti for Mansell. Tit for tat.

We have seen this 'stay away' tactic before from Senna, of course. In 1981 he went back home before the Formula Ford Festival and threatened to retire when it did not appear that he could find the money to continue racing in Europe. Surprise, surprise, money was forthcoming. It's the 'can't have, won't play' syndrome. It seems to be part and parcel of New Sportsman's morality.

In part, blame for that must be placed at the door of the technology that is rampant in F1 , for without a Williams-Renault in 1992 or without Frank's cars running into trouble victory has been all but impossible. And these days it seems unthinkable for our heroes to race merely for their own satisfaction. Where are the Raymond Sommers and Gilles Villeneuves, to whom driving bad cars at 11 tenths was more important than victory itself? For them victory came in overcoming shortcomings in equipment, of having the satisfaction of knowing that you have done your utmost.

Yes, that's a naive, romantic view sadly out of kilter with today's values, but the situation was the same for reigning champions Jim Clark in 1966, or Jackie Stewart in 1970, as it could be for Senna in 1993, and neither in their championship years had enjoyed the sort of car/ power advantage that Senna did in 1988, 1990 or even 1991.

In the year when power returned to F1, Lotus was left high and dry when the BRM H16 engine was delayed, and for much of the season Clark had to make do with the Lotus Climax, giving away a full litre to the likes of Ferrari, Cooper-Maserati and Brabham-Repco. Yet he damn nearly won the Dutch GP, from the front. He had no thought of 'sitting it out' until a decent car was available. Likewise, when Stewart lost his beloved Matra MS80 and had to make do with the ultimately disappointing March 701 (until Ken Tyrrell's eponymous vehicle appeared by surprise late in the year), he still fought tooth and nail and suffered in relative silence.

Perhaps the real answer is to create a set of rules that will produce cars that are spectacular when they are being raced, that don't just reward the brave but also favour the truly talented, that don't corner on rails, that can pass and be repassed, that do leave long braking distances, that don't glue themselves to the ground with ridiculous levels of downforce. Cars that give the very best drivers a chance to succeed even when the machinery is inferior. Teams spend ridiculous amounts developing machinery, then FOCA agrees not to make new rear wings for 1993 but merely to drop existing items an inch, in the spurious name of saving money!

Senna makes good copy and is a pivotal figure on the F1 scene, and with Mansell gone and quite likely to drag television viewers from F1 to lndycars next year, the Brazilian must be accommodated at all costs, even though FISA is so keen to see driver remuneration limited. It is a curious paradox that reveals a gaping lack of confidence in the sport's intrinsic ability to throw up fresh heroes.

Thus like chessmen on a board, the Sennas, Patreses. Brundles, Unsers and Hills are moved mentally from one square to another. Max and Bernie sit hunched like Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Bernie said in Estoril, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that he doesn't want Senna in a Williams. because it would be too boring. Prost in a Williams. Senna playing chase in a McLaren with similar power but slightly inferior handling, would do very nicely, you sense.

At one stage in Estoril on Saturday I bet Keke Rosberg and Williams PR Ann Bradshaw that Prost would not end up going to Williams after all, that he would be out-manoeuvred at the 11th hour, but I was wrong. For once in F1 a contract really was a contract. But then I never did like chess. It requires too much deviousness and too much patience. It's supposedly intellectual, which also lets me out, but what chess is played in F1 is not intellectual either, just naked commerce. The only difference is that in the F1 version the moves take even longer.