Touch and go
Spa-Francorchamps, September 15th.
It was with some trepidation that the Formula One “circus” re-assembled in the paddock of the splendid Circuit Nationale de Francorchamps for a re-run of the 1985 Belgian Grand Prix that had been abandoned back in June when the Formula One cars tore up the newly-laid surface. Since then the whole circuit has been resurfaced at enormous cost and effort, using a normal tarmac-mix instead of the “trick” water-repellant one that had not worked. The motorcycle grand prix, a 24 hour saloon car race and a sports car endurance race had all been held on the new surface without any problems arising so all augured well. But the Haute Fagnes and the edge of the Ardennes in mid-September was another matter and weather reports were being studied carefully. Add to this the fact that practice was due to start on Friday the Thirteenth and that two drivers who were here in June are no longer with us, while a third was in hospital and it is easy to see why some people were a little apprehensive.
The normal entry was slightly depleted by the Tyrrell team only entering Martin Brµndle, though he had two Renault-powered Tyrrell cars to utilise, and the RAM team withdrew its entry for Kenny Acheson due to a shortage of spare Hart 415T engines following the Italian Grand Prix the week before. The new team sponsored by the Beatrice Group could not enter Alan Jones with its Hart-powered car for this re-run as it had not entered the original event last June. During Friday morning in the test-session Niki Lauda damaged a wrist when a sticking throttle on his McLaren-Porsche caught him out and spun him into the barriers. The car was not badly damaged but Lauda flew away to Vienna to have his injury looked at and did not return. There was talk of replacing him with John Watson, who happened to be ”passing through”, but it would have needed the agreement of all the other teams and Ron Dennis has made some enemies within the ranks recently and it now showed. All this meant there were only 24 drivers for qualifying, so providing everyone went fairly quickly there were no problems about the starting grid, only the question of where everyone would be.
Team Lotus started the day in good form, but within minutes it had turned into Team Shambles, with Elio de Angelis in the T-car because his own car had a slipping clutch, and Senna was sidelined with a turbocharger failure on his Renault engine, and gearbox trouble. However, a lot of hard work by the mechanics got both drivers back into fair order ready for the afternoon qualifying though Senna had to use the T-car which was not set-up properly for one lap sprints.
The morning was cooI and clear, with blue skies and a warming sun, and Mansell was in great form with his Williams-Honda, the Japanese engines sounding more purposeful at every race. He was revelling in the high-speed swerves and downhill swoops, as was Rosberg, while Piquet was in his element. For those teams who had made no progress since June it was just a matter of repeating what they had done before, but for the progressive teams there was plenty to learn in the way of adapting their cars to the superb conditions.
During the lunch break the skies clouded over but conditions looked stable, though not permanently so, and in consequence there was a pretty busy queue in the pit lane to get out as soon as the track was open for qualifying, Prost and Piquet leading the charge. Goodyear tyres were only just able to last a hard lap with Honda, Ferrari, BMW or Renault power, but looked happier with Porsche power so although Piquet, Senna, Rosberg and Mansell looked terrific down the hill by the old pits and up through Eau Rouge and the Radiallon it was Prost who was fastest for the lap, but only by an infinitesimal margin. Although the cool weather was good for the highly stressed engines and visibility was ideal, with no glaring sun, there were still troubles. Laffite went by with a spectacular fire pouring out the back of his Ligier when the left-hand turbocharger broke, but it was soon dowsed by the marshals when he stopped. Mansell had a very frightening moment in the long double-left downhill bend in the centre of the circuit, when the righthand spoke of his steering wheel broke and he scrabbled round the corners with the rim nearly at right-angles to the column! By 1.30 pm nearly everyone had made his pass at pole position and Prost, Johansson, Piquet, Mansell, Berger and Alboreto were all below 1 min 57 sec, which gave a lap speed of well over 130 mph. Grand Prix racing in the Grand Manner..
Probably the most impressive figures given by the Longines team of timekeepers were the speeds of well over 160 mph past the pits into the braking area for the famous Le Source bottom-gear hairpin, and 200 mph at Les Combes at the top of the long uphill section on the main road towards Malmedy just before braking heavily for the sharp turn off onto the new section of the circuit. It was the BMW powered cars that were topping these figures. As the qualifying hour drew to a close there were flashes of lightning in the dark skies and the rumble of thunder getting closer. Literally one minute before qualifying finished the rain came over the hills from Stavelot but everyone was back in the paddock by then, though Senna had suffered another turbo failure and Laffite had borrowed his new team-mate’s car right at the end, and this time the right-hand one broke. Apart from Senna being down in eighteenth place, due to his mechanical troubles, the scene looked pretty healthy.
The only uneasy part of the proceedings was the fact that there were hardly any spectators to witness the speeds and high-speed driving by the top drivers. There were so few that you could almost count them individually, and one could only assume that having been “caught” in June they were not coming back to risk another debacle. In addition there was a depressing amount of black polythene sheeting covering the majority of the advertising hoardings, presumably because the firms concerned refused to pay any more money for their permanent sites. This is nothing to do with the RACB who organise the Grand Prix, but is the concern of BC Ecclestone and his financial firm (not FOCA I would add) who look after the finances of running the event.
On Saturday morning a gloom fell, for it was a typical autumn morning with thick mist in the valleys and clouds in the hills and as everyone drove into the circuit for the morning test-session it was obvious that it wasn’t going to happen at 10 am. Not until the mists cleared and the clouds lifted, anyway. The start of testing was put back until 11 am and shortened by 15 minutes. The sun broke through and all was well so that we were able to get under way with all the usual things like trying different tyres, setting the cars up fully laden with 220 litres of fuel, doing consumption tests with lower boost pressure, fiddling with aerodynamics and so on. The afternoon turned out to be superb and the battle for pole position was on in earnest.
Senna set the ball rolling, then Alboreto beat him and Johansson was not far behind, though not quite as quick as he had been the day before. Prost was sent off and promptly took pole-position from Alboreto and then Piquet went out in the tweaked-up Brabham T-car and snatched the top spot. All this was with their first set of chosen tyres, some of them finishing their fast lap with the rear ones covered in blisters, while others managed to complete a full lap with them looking pretty-healthy, but not good enough for another really quick lap. Piquet was down to 1 min 55.7 sec with over 200 mph through the speed trap, but Prost then did 1 min 55.3 sec with only 192 mph through the trap.
The Ferraris and the Williams were tending to follow the Brabham principle of ultimate power, while Lotus was trying to keep down to the McLaren idea of less top speed and to finish the lap in good shape. Senna’s first run time, which had been the initial target, was down to fourth position as the end of the hour approached, but Team Lotus had everything under control and the young Brazilian was waiting in the shadow of the pit garage ready for a final fling. With everything on his side he was away, round for a warm-up lap and then past the pits flat-out and maximum braking for La Source hairpin, down the plunge to Eau Rouge and up the other side to reach 190 mph at the top of the hill. Down through the fast infield onto the lower road and back across the timing line, with bubbles appearing on his rear tyres. 1 min 55.4 sec which put him into second place a 10th of a second behind Prost. In the last moments Piquet went out again, to do another 200 mph pass through the speed trap, and to reduce his time to 1 min 55.6 sec, but it was only good enough to consolidate his third place. The two Ferrari drivers were in the 1 min 56 sec bracket, closely followed by Boutsen, Mansell and Berger also in the 1 min 56 sec class, but de Angelis and Rosberg, who were ninth and tenth, were already nearly two seconds slower than Prost, and that is a long way at an average of well over 130 mph. The two Arrows drivers had been making full use of their BMW power, Boutsen being very much at home on his national circuit, and the young Austrian Gerhard Berger being quite simply very brave. His grid time had been set on Friday, for on Saturday he was on his first flying lap when the plenum chamber feeding the BMW engine with highly compressed air from the turbo-charger unit, exploded and took some of the bodywork away, a frightening thing to happen just behind your head!
Everyone was assured of a place on the grid, though there was a difference of nearly 11 seconds between the fastest and slowest, and a speed differential at the top of the hill of nearly 30 mph. It is not only a question of engine power, for the top runners have cars that are close to the minimum weight limit of 540 kgs, while the small teams down the back have difficulty in getting their cars under 600 kgs, which is all a question of detail design and being able to afford exotic materials like carbon fibre and titanium, and of course, knowing how to utilise such things. For the organisers things perked up a little, for the small number of spectators of Friday seemed to have doubled, but it was still a pathetically small crowd and would not have done justice to a British club meeting. It certainly was not of Grande Epreuve standard.
By the grace of the gods we had skated precariously through the two days of practice and everyone was very thankful that all seemed to be well, but Sunday morning spelt total disaster. Not only were the clouds back on the high ground, but rain was pouring down in the valleys and the whole area was gloom personified. In diabolical conditions the morning “warm-up” session took place at 10 am and it was heroic stuff, with Mansell fastest with his Williams-Honda in race-trim, but it took him 30 seconds longer to complete the lap over a normal time. There were one or two spins and excursions into escape roads and onto the grass verges, but no serious damage was done, except to the Osella, so that Rothengatter had to face starting the race with the old 1984 car they keep by as a spare. The Ferrari team had brought along an early-specification car as a spare for Alboreto, more as a cross-check than anything else, for he and Johansson had the heavily revised cars they had used at Monza. It had not taken Alboreto long on Friday morning to convince himself that the newer car was an improvement, so 078 had been put to one side.
The 43 lap race for the Grand Prix de Belgique was not due to start until 2 pm so in the interim there was a race for old sports cars such as Ford GT40, Lola T70, Porsche 917 and Can-am McLaren, which revived some happy memories of past events at Francorchamps as they roared round in clouds of spray. At midday the rain was still falling and the small crowd of enthusiastic spectators was huddled under umbrellas, and then a miracle happened. The rain stopped, the clouds which were sitting at ground level began to swirl about, the sun broke through and there were the makings of a nice afternoon, but the track was still very wet. The pit lane opened at 1.30 pm for the run round to the dummy-grid and everyone was on “wet” tyres and there was a lot of spray from the cars visibility being appalling, but at least it was not going to get any worse, and during the 30 minute build-up to the start the track began to dry visibly in places ..
All was not well in the pit-lane for Alboreto’s Ferrari (085) developed a fuel tank leak and there was a panic to transfer him to the virtually untried T-car. At the other end of the pits there was also trouble when Christian Danner returned with the Zakspeed while Alboreto was able to leave the pits before the closing time and make his lonely way round to the grid, Danner was forced to start from the pit lane, having returned to his pit after the parade lap.
From the start Senna rocketed into the lead, followed by Piguet, both of them out-accelerating Prost’s McLaren in the rush to the hairpin. As they accelerated out of it down towards Eau Rouge Piguet gave his BMW engine too much “welly” and promptly spun, with cars dodging all round him, so the order up the Radillon was Senna, Prost, Alboreto, Mansell, Johansson, Boutsen, Berger and Rosberg. And the spray was flying. With a clear road ahead Senna was pulling away rapidly but poor Alboreto was finding the old Ferrari a terrible handful, having done very little practice with it, and he began to lose places dramatically. Incredibly it only needed the 24 cars to cover two laps for a “dry” line to begin to appear, so providing you stayed in the groove the going was good. This prompted Rosberg to stop on lap 4 and change to slick tyres, and Piguet did the same on the next lap. This dropped Rosberg to 21st place and Piguet to 19th place, but they both then began to go motor racing in true champion style. Alboreto disappeared on lap 4 with clutch failure in the Ferrari and at that Prost decided there was no point in doing any serious motor racing, his mind was on gathering points for the World Championship rather than trying to win the Belgian GP. Mansell had different ideas and sliced through into second place in pursuit of Senna who was hungry for another victory, having been robbed of so many this season.
At the end of lap nine Senna, Mansell and Prost all decided that the circuit was dry enough for slick tyres and for a brief moment de Angelis actually led the race, but then he too stopped and everything returned to normal, except that Rosberg had come storming up through the field on his dry tyres, profiting from every yard of track as it dried, and was now in third place ahead of an untroubled Prost who was merely going for a nice Sunday afternoon drive to gather points. Cars were already falling by the wayside and Ghinzani got his Toleman slightly off line down the hill past the old pits and promptly spun into the barriers with a sickening crash, and three laps later Alliot did the same thing with his RAM and crashed on the other side of the track, giving the marshals a busy time dragging the wrecks out of the way. Johansson had gone off into the rough when his transmission siezed up, and the Zakspeed expired, while de Angelis managed to struggle back to the pits with a turbo-charger failed on his Renault engine.
Senna was in a class of his own, though Mansell was driving heroically to try and keep him in sight, but it was useless, even though the Lotus was badly baulked on the rush up the hill from Eau Rouge by a different car on six or seven laps in succession. It seemed that Senna was destined to lap the tail-enders and mid-field runners on this section, and for lap after lap he went up the hill on the over-run behind a slower car, waiting to power past over the brow. The “dry line” was fine, but it was still damp off-line, so no one was going to move out of the way on the 150 mph sweeping climb, and Senna wasn’t going to try any silly passing manoeuvres round the outside.
Just after half distance, 17 laps, a small shower of rain passed over the circuit; not enough to cause any trouble but sufficient to slow everyone.down by some 15 seconds a lap for three or four laps, then it was back onto the pace again, Prost had been following closely behind Rosberg until the rain came, when he eased off and let the fiery Finn go. When the rain stopped, Rosberg was hard up behind his number two team-mate and fizzing about to try and get by, but Mansell was unimpressed and a very good dice ensued. Both cars sounded very healthy indeed, the Honda engines sounding like winners, whereas the leading Renault engine was beginning to splutter occasionally and did not sound anything like so purposeful. However, the Lotus part of the combine was working superbly and with Senna’s beautiful touch on the fast parts of the circuit, which means almost everywhere, he was well away from the battling Williams. Mansell had no intention of giving way, for he was in a very worthy second place and he intended to keep it, but Rosberg was still pressing him hard.
On lap 31 he literally had his car’s nose under the gearbox of Mansell’s car, and on the long top straight he was wondering if he could outbrake his team-mate when there was a loud bang from the front of his car as one of the very large fibre-glass brake air-scoops virtually exploded. He had to let Mansell go, for with one brake cooled and the other not, things were a bit dicey and at the end of the next lap he shot into the pits to have the other front scoop ripped off, to equalise things, at the same time having a new set of tyres fitted. This stop put him back behind Prost, and with the race in its closing stages there was no time for him to regain his position. Meanwhile Mansell had suffered a moment of inattention due to Rosberg’s trouble, for he had been driving with his eyes on his mirrors to see what the Finn was up to and when he arrived at the end of the long top straight he was puzzled to find car number six had disappeared. It was only a momentary hesitation, but it was enough for him to overshoot his braking point and go sailing across the rough stuff and rejoin the circuit on the other side of the right hand corner, luckily without doing any damage.
Out in front Senna was driving with fingers crossed, for every now and then his Renault engine would stutter, and he was dreading the sudden silence that would herald another retirement while in the lead. However, for a change fate was on his side and he completed the 43 laps without the sign of a challenger in his mirrors, elated at scoring his second Grand Prix win. It was a win from the front, on a circuit that calls for the highest standards of Grand Prix driving, and there was justifiable joy in the Team Lotus camp. Half a minute later Mansell charged across the line into a fine second place, after one of his better races, but it had not been without its drama, for he spun at La Source when the track was very wet, but kept the engine on the boil, and had his long anxious excursion across the rough when he misjudged his braking point.
A satisfied Prost finished third, happy in the knowledge that Alboreto had retired from the. “points race” and a fighting Rosberg was a fine fourth. Honda power was second and fourth without a single hesitation! These four were the only ones to complete the 43 laps, though Piguet had driven a very hard and canny race after his first corner misdemeanour and Warwick drove a good race to come home sixth. Unfortunate was Thierry Boutsen who had held fifth place for a long while, not by reason of other people having trouble, but by sheer merit and good driving, only to have his gearbox break up two laps before the finish.
By good fortune we had got away with the re-run of the aborted Belgian Grand Prix without any undue drama and it had been a good race, with splendid opportunities for some real Grand Prix driving. It’s just a pity that not many people were there to see it. DSJ