In Good Company

“Monza” — you only have to say the word out loud to get the adrenalin flowing. It exudes motor racing and speed and the Italian Grand Prix, the very home of Italian motor racing since 1922. A look down the list of the previous 57 Italian GP races is a history of Grand Prix racing in itself: Antonio Ascari (1924), Varzi (1930), Nuvolari (1932), Caracciola (1937), Alberto Ascari (1949), Fangio (1953), Moss (1956), Clark (1963), Stewart (1965), Regazzoni (1970), Andretti (1977), Piquet (1980), Prost (1981), and Lauda (1984); if you win the Italian Grand Prix you are in good company.

Over the years the Autodromo di Monza has been rebuilt, altered, modified, changed, improved, but it has never lost its real identity. Monza is still Monza, and if you don’t get an emotional tingle as you drive in the gate, then your heart is not really in motor racing.

This year the race for the lead, which is what counts after all, was such that the rest of the action faded into the background, and this front-running race got away as soon as the track was open for practice on Friday morning. It continued throughout the weekend, right through to the last lap when Piquet led Senna over the line by 1.8 seconds after three days, at a continuous average of around 145 mph.

Few of us have ever driven at 145mph, let alone spent any time at that speed and today’s Formula One cars are doing that sort of speed almost immediately after leaving the pit lane. On a flying lap the front-runners were reaching well over 210 mph on the run past the pits and grandstands, into the braking area for the first chicane, and the mid-field runners were around the 200 mph mark. When somebody says “He’s a Grand Prix driver, you know”, he is talking about someone a bit out of the run of ordinary mortals.

During the race we had a marvellous exhibition of the performance of Formula One cars. Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) and Thierry Boutsen (Benetton) pulled out of the leading bunch at the end of lap 23, came into the pits for routine tyre changes, and rejoined the race nose-to-tail as they left the pit-lane. From virtually a standing start we were able to witness a super drag-race as they accelerated wheel-to-wheel up through the gears, heading for the first chicane.

It was very serious stuff, for fourth place was at stake, and both drivers gave it all they had got: both tachometers right at the end of the dial in every gear, lightning gear changes, and neither giving an inch. It was so exciting that it almost took my mind off the real race!

The two days of practice and qualifying had seen many similar close dices, not on acceleration, but in flying lap times, and all previous records went by the board as the battle for pole position raged. There are still people who cannot understand why a racing driver feels he has to be on pole position. If you have the ability and the machinery and you don’t try to make fastest practice time, you are not a racing driver.

Lap times kept coming down in spite of the FISA limitation on boost-pressure and the Goodyear limit on tyre performance. Last year the fastest qualifying lap was 1 min 24.078 sec and this year three drivers broke into the 1.23 bracket. 1 min 24 sec was a sort of unofficial bogey time. Both Williams-Honda drivers were well into it, vying with each other for top position and it eventually went to Piquet. He was driving the latest version of the Williams FW 11B fitted with the Williams hydraulic computer-programmed self-levelling suspension, similar in result to the Lotus “active” suspension, but different in operation.

After 4500 km of testing the Williams engineers were confident that the system was ready to be raced, and Piquet’s car was fitted with it. It never gave a moment’s worry throughout the three days, and the only time Piquet drove his normal coil-sprung spare car was when the poke of the Honda engine stripped the teeth off top gear during Saturday morning testing of the “active ride” car; it was soon repaired and back in the fray.

The third driver to beat the “bogey-time” was Berger in the number two Ferrari, Alboreto being hampered by various problems most of the time. While third place on the grid for a Ferrari was encouraging it did not rouse the crowds to great enthusiasm, for they still expect to see Ferraris on the front row.

The race itself got off to a shaky start, for after all 26 cars had completed their parade lap behind the leader Piquet, everyone was in position and the starter was just about to set the red/green light system in motion when he saw flames coming out of the back of Patrese’s Brabham. He immediately aborted the start with the red flag, and everyone switched off while marshals dealt with the fire. It was not as serious as it seemed, being caused by vapour from the fuel tank breather pipe being ignited by the turbo.

After a five-minute delay the field set off on another parade lap, and the race was officially reduced in length from 51 laps to 50 laps, in accordance with race rules.

This time everything went smoothly, except that Mansell jumped the green light, stopped before he infringed any rules and thus got caught on the wrong foot when the green light did come on, and this baulked Senna who was behind him. On the left of the grid Berger, driving the Ferrari T-car as his own had given clutch trouble, was all set to do a “screamer” off the line behind Piquet, but the Brazilian made a very poor start and momentarily lost the lead to Mansell. The two “hot-shoes” in the second row were both temporarily frustrated, but nevertheless everyone got away safely.

Piquet led Mansell at the end of opening lap, but the British driver got in a bit of a muddle trying to fend off an attack from Berger, who was a bit sideways over the kerbs, and the result was that Boutsen passed them both in a beautifully smooth manoeuvre and finished lap two in a strong second place behind Piquet, followed by Berger and a rather annoyed Mansell, who had now lost contact with his team-mate.

Prost and Senna were not really in the picture at this point, the Frenchman because the Bosch electronics on his Porsche engine were playing up, and the Lotus driver because he was scheming something, which we found out about afterwards. Most drivers were planning for a stop for a new set of tyres around half-distance, but Senna was planning to run through non-stop, and the important part of this plan was to conserve the tyres in the early stages. At the same time he could also conserve fuel, and thus be in a position to turn on the pressure in the second half of the race.

Out in front Piquet was in total command but when he went into the pits at the end of lap 24, Senna sailed by into the lead, having moved up from fifth to second when Mansell, Berger and Boutsen all made their tyre stops.

Most onlookers expected Senna to make his pit stop for tyres within a few laps, and inevitably let Piquet back into the lead, and probably also allow Mansell into second place. But Senna did not make a pit stop.

As Piquet made up a bit of ground it was becoming increasingly obvious that Senna was going to run through non-stop, and the Williams driver was not gaining ground rapidly enough, so all looked set for a Senna/ Lotus-Honda victory.

That was until lap 43, when Senna made one of his rare mistakes for which he later accepted full responsibility, and it lost him the race. Coming down the back straight into the braking area for the Curva Parabolica he caught up with Ghinzani’s Ligier, to lap it for the second time; Ghinzani was in the middle of track, lining up to take the fast right-hander as Senna came up behind him. The Brazilian was going to dive inside him on the right, realised it wasn’t on, changed his line to the outside and then it was too late. He was going too fast and rather than try a desperate manoeuvre and risk a spin he took to the run-off area and let the car take its own course, delicately keeping it under control and bringing it round in a long curve back on the track, but not before Piquet had gone by into the lead.

Luckily for Senna, four hours of heavy rain the night before had made the sandy run-off area reasonably sticky rather than dusty, and Senna only added 13 seconds to his lap time as he took the long way round the Curva Parabolica — but it was too much. For the remaining seven laps he put on a brilliant display of driving as he closed up on Piquet, but the Williams driver was equal to the situation and had everything under control.

On the penultimate lap Senna clocked 1 min 26.796 secs, a new lap record, but Piquet had clocked 1 min 26.858 secs and the crafty little Brazilian knew he had it made as he covered the last lap, to finish 1.8 seconds ahead of his young countryman.

It was a splendid finish to a splendid weekend, and a new lap record on the penultimate lap of the race summed it all up, but not everyone was happy. On lap 10 Prost had been forced into the pits to investigate the electronics. This involved a long stop, and even when the engine was restarted it was still a bit hesitant and altogether Prost lost four laps. Undeterred he got back into the race and drove hard and fast right through to the finish, even though he never rose from last place; a true champion’s performance.

From the whinge-department came complaints of “down on power engine” from Mansell, even though he was often putting in faster laps than leader Piquet in the first twenty laps, and Fabi complained of “no grip” yet managed to make a faster lap than his team-mate with the Benetton-Ford.

An interesting aspect of this year’s Italian GP was that FOCA/FISA rules had somehow been manipulated in order that two Italian drivers could have their first try at Formula One. At one time it was normal practice for new young drivers to get a chance to try Grand Prix racing in their “home” event, but the FOCA/FISA rationalisation of Formula One put a stop to this, and if you didn’t join a registered team before the start of each season you had little chance of ever trying your hand in the top echelon of racing.

At Monza we had Franco Forini, from just over the Italian border in Switzerland, making his debut in the second Osella-Alfa Romeo, and Nicola Larini in a new car powered by a Cosworth DFZ built by Enzo Coloni. The former qualified for the last place on the grid; the latter didn’t quite make it, but at least had the opportunity to try.

Had this sort of thing happened at the British GP back in July we could have had a trio such as Johnny Herbert, Andy Wallace and Mark Blundell being given the opportunity to try their hand in their “home” Grand Prix, even if they did not qualify. The limitations and control of entries has smacked of “closed shop” for far too long, so perhaps Monza has started a return to the past for young hopefuls.