Formula One scene

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Spouting at Spa

Anyone who has been to the motorcycle TT races in the Isle of Man will know what I mean when I say “there was mist on the mountain”. The Spa-Francorchamps circuit where the Belgian Grand Prix was run last month does not have a real mountain at one end, but there is quite a difference in altitude between the low point at Eau Rouge and the high point at Les Combes, where the new part of the circuit begins. Unfortunately television coverage of the circuit, with the use of drastically foreshortening lenses, does not do justice to the sheer grandeur of the circuit, nor of the length of the straight bits, nor the steepness of the inclines.

Even so, the coverage for those unable to get to Belgium is pretty good, but being there is being in a whole new world of spectacular Grand Prix racing. To drive round in a family saloon takes your breath away, and the plunge down the long hill in the centre of the circuit is one off those things that makes you exclaim “Wheeee ..ee ..ee”, it is difficult to imagine what it is like at 180 mph in a Grand Prix car, but it is quite understandable when drivers say it is the best circuit on the calendar at the moment.

All weekend “there was mist on the mountain” and the weather at Les Combes never did clear although the rain did stop at times. From the pit/paddock area of the top of the hills and the fir trees were shrouded in mist or low cloud every time you looked across the valley. In spite of all this I was not aware of any driver deciding not to go out, even in practice, let alone in qualifying. When the heavens opened fifteen minutes before the scheduled starting time on Sunday nobody would have blamed anyone who decided they had had enough and were going home. The rain had stopped pelting down by 2.30pm and it was just raining, but the start was delayed for 30 minutes while marshals worked valiantly at dispersing the flood water and sweeping mud and gravel off the track, which the rains had carried across the circuit.

At 2.30pm the conditions had been diabolical, if not downright impossible, and at 3pm they were just awful. When the green flag was waved to set pole-man Senna off on the parade lap the whole field followed him, eager to get on with the racing; apart from Stefano Modena who was having to start from the pit lane due to a change of Brabham. Conditions were still pretty bad when the twenty-five cars took position on the grid, but when the green light came on they were gone as if they always drove in such conditions. Heroes all, and greatly admired by even worst of the Formula One critics and cynics.

Many people find it fashionable and clever to criticize Ayrton Senna in everything he does, and frankly they bore me, but the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix answered their continual bleat about “why is Senna so obsessed with being on pole position?” apart from the sheer satisfaction of doing the perfect lap, and setting a new benchmark, pole position shows any opposition who is fastest, and as Fangio says in his forthcoming autobiography in English, “when you are World Champion you should be honour-bound to show people why you are World Champion.” All these things Senna agrees with instinctively, but when the weather is like it was in Belgium you are the only one with a clear view. On that opening lap there must have been twenty-five drivers wishing they had been on pole position rather than Ayrton Senna, but it was too late.

His problems began on lap 8 when he began to lap the tail-enders, for it meant coming up behind a great cloud of spray containing a car somewhere inside. For those like Prost, Berger and Mansell, who had been following Senna, the problem was different, for all they had to do was follow the cloud of spray in front, with no speed differential. When you are leading a race like this, with a clear but murky road ahead of you there are no problems, but when you begin to see a moving cloud of spray a long way ahead you have to start thinking carefully.

Last year, after his runaway victory, Ayrton Senna told me how he programmed himself for lapping slower cars with such apparent ease. It wasn’t easy, it required a lot of thought and winning on such a challenging circuit as Francorchamps was more of a mental strain than a physical one. In the dry he could see the tail-enders as much as a mile ahead of him, either at the end of the long uphill straight to Les Combes, or across the open valley on the high-speed swoop down to the Stavelot road. Seeing what car it was, and which driver it was, gave him time to estimate where he would actually catch it, and thus pre-plan his tactics and approach. If there were two cars together it soon became apparent that either they were racing against each other, and would have to be overtaken in one move, or if the gap between them changed between two viewpoints it would be a case of passing them individually, and at different places on the circuit. His ideal situation was to overtake one under braking for La Source hairpin, and the other on the rush down to Eau Rouge.

All that was comparatively simple, providing you have the sort of eyes that see, the brain that registers and the skill to drive at 180 mph and think well ahead all the time. In the pouring rain it was a different story altogether.

There was no way of pre-planning, for you could not see what was in the cloud of spray until you were in it as well, with your own cloud all around you. Then you had to make instant decisions and act on reflexes more than anything else. In a mille-second you had to take in what the other car was, who was driving it, what speed it was going at, which direction it was taking and whether it was actually two cars, not one. After the race Senna had to admit that he was very careful about lapping the slower cars!

For his pursuers it was doubly difficult, for they had to divine (and divine is the word) which cloud of spray contained the slow car, and which contained Senna and his McLaren, and if you were racing against somebody, you had to know where he was as well. All the drivers said afterwards that the visibility was appalling, but in truth, by the standards of normal mortals there was no visibility.

We all have our “moments of truth” and the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix was a “moment of truth” for Grand Prix racing, and it came through with flying colours. Some years ago the German Grand Prix on the real Nürburgring had a similar “moment of truth” and Grand Prix racing then came through with flying colours. People who are not very close to Formula One often deride it and talk about “overpaid prima-donnas” and query why I hold the top drivers in such esteem. Had those people been at Francorchamps on Sunday 27 August, rather than sitting comfortably at home in front of their “magic box” they would know why I regard these drivers so highly. Even the rabbits at the back of the field were heroes.

Nobody had refused to take the start, nobody pulled in at the end of the first lap, (though Alain Prost had given serious though to it on the opening lap) and everyone gave it their best. There were numerous spins and excursions off the road, some terminating in the gravel traps, others getting away with it, but nobody would be really blamed. You or I would have probably spun on the straights in a Metro, let alone trying to control a car of about the same weight, with 600 horsepower on tap. What this race illustrated very clearly was who had remarkable sensitivity in hands and feet, phenomenal judgement and perception, anticipation and conditioned reflexes, and who knew the true meaning of “throttle control”.

Towards the end of the race, when the rain stopped and a “dry line” began to appear it was probably even more difficult for anyone really racing. By this time Senna had the whole situation well in hand, as he so often does, but behind him Nigel Mansell was enlivening the grey scene by his spirited attack on Alain Prost’s second place. They put on a splendid display of Grand Prix driving, trading fastest laps continually as the road dried out. They were no threat to the leader, who was watching their progress in his mirrors and across the corners and valleys, but it was stirring stuff.

Providing Prost kept to the “dry line” and did not make the tiniest error his second place was safe, but Mansell did not give up pressing, ready for the slightest fumble by the Frenchman. Once again, as in the recent German Grand Prix, it was Prost at his best and they finished half a second apart, with Prost just pinching fastest lap from Mansell on their last lap. Prost recorded 2.11.5 and Mansell 2.11.7, while Senna cruised serenely home with 2.18.2 so that all three crossed the line within sight of one another.

Some people were worried that Senna was in trouble, but when questioned he smiled (Yes, Autosport, he does smile!) and said “you don’t have to win by very much, as long as you win”.

Recently I have been involved with editing the English version of Juan Manuel Fangio’s autobiography, due to appear early next year, and it is uncanny the number of times that Senna’s racing philosophy coincides with those of the five times World Champion from the 1950s. Fangio used to say that he tried to win races at the slowest possible speed, the emphasis being on winning. Senna’s love of this home country Brazil, is the same as Fangio’s was for Argentina when he was racing in Europe; Senna’s belief in “teams” rather than “individual” is similar; his “obsession” for being on pole position and always showing who justified the title World Champion is similar. It is interesting.

At a press ‘junket’ after practice Senna was asked by someone what he thought about Team Lotus packing up and going home, their drivers having qualified 27th and 28th, or on other words, neither Lotus had qualified for the race. His sadness for what was once a very great team was sincere and honest, which he expressed with well-chosen words. And to those of us who have been Grand Prix for a number of years it was equally sad.

When Senna left the Benetton team and joined Team Lotus I asked him why he had chosen Lotus; he could have gone to Ferrari. His reply was so simple and honest that it floored me for a moment. He said “Ferrari? Why? It was Team Lotus that made Emerson Fittipaldi World Champions, and when I was a young boy Emerson was Brazil’s national hero and we all wanted to follow his example. It was Team Lotus that did that, so naturally I jumped at the chance to drive for them.

Fittipaldi’s reign was in the days of Colin Chapman, who kept Team Lotus wound up tight and revving on the rev-limiter. Within the Lotus empire he was known as ‘The White Tornado’ – the dust never settled while “Chunky” Chapman was around. He kept the big flywheel that energised Team Lotus fully wound up, but since his untimely death that flywheel has been slowing down with nobody capable of putting the energy back into it that Chapman did. There is no real answer, except, “come back Colin, motor racing needs you”. DSJ

Murmurs from Monza

This sub-title is really rather absurd, for one thing that does not happen at Monza is anyone murmuring quietly, except perhaps some of the ‘money manipulators’ in the paddock. There is either a stony silence overall, or vociferous cheering, shouting and whistling, and at all times there is the sound of racing engines on full song, either down the back straight from the Ascari curve to the Parabolica corner, or from the Parabolica up past the pits and main grandstands towards the first chicane. Across the timing line the Ferrari and Honda powered cars were nudging 200 mph, while the slow back-markers were well into the 180 mph area. Monza is about speed and noise.

Before the meeting got underway on Friday morning there was quite a lot of noise in the Italian newspapers, for the Scuderia Ferrari had announced officially that Alain Prost had signed to drive for the Maranello team in 1990 and we already knew that Gerhard Berger was leaving Ferrari and joining McLaren-Honda for 1990.

Some 30,000 spectators were at the Autodromo Nazionale on Friday when the action began, but a large proportion of them were very confused. They were not confused in their passion for motor racing or their passion for Ferrari, but who to cheer was the problem facing them. There was no problem with number 27, or its driver Nigel Mansell; he had already won two races for Ferrari and fought the Pericolo Giallo (i.e. McLaren-Honda, the yellow peril) valiantly on every possible occasion and had confirmed his contract with Ferrari for next year. From any viewpoint Mansell was a hero to be cheered long and loud. Gerhard Berger was a problem; he was a good, honest, fast driver for Ferrari, but he was a traitor to the cause. He was abandoning the red cars next year, which was bad, but worse he was joining the Pericolo Giallo. However, he was driving a Ferrari at the moment so he merited some cheers and applause.

But Alain Prost, now he demanded maximum ovation, for he was going to be “our” driver next year. But he is still driving a McLaren-Honda, and may beat the Ferraris, you deign to mention. Yes, but . . . he drives for Ferrari next year, and that means maximum cheering and applause. And Ayrton Senna? No problem; whistles, cat-calls and boos. He is “our” opposition, he drives the dreaded Japanese-powered car, he beats our Ferraris, he is the enemy. But Alain Prost also beats the Ferraris with the Honda-powered car?Yes, but . . . Prost drives for Ferrari next year, he is “our” driver. But you used to whistle Prost and throw gravel at him in previous years, even when he drove for Renault, before Honda? Yes, but . . . now he is a Ferrari driver.

The enthusiasm of the Italian motor racing fan is lovingly simple, why make problems. Alain Prost, winner of more Grand Prix races than anyone else, is driving for Ferrari next year. Friday was joy day. The Ferrari engine men had been working hard on improving the performance of the 5-valve per cylinder V12 engine, improving the torque and power range, and there was little to complain about John Barnard’s chassis, suspension and aerodynamics. In spite of the three chicanes introduced some years ago, Monza is still all about power and speed, and Ferrari were well to the fore, in fact they were ahead.

Berger and Mansell were separated by third place decimals in their battle for provisional pole-position during the qualifying hour. There was plenty to cheer about and the Berger fans bantered light-heartedly with the Mansell fans, but were united over the fact that Ferrari was setting the pace. Berger recorded 1.24.734 and Mansell 1.24.739, with a similar minute difference in speed across the finishing line, but in reverse order. Mansell 196.57 mph, Berger 196.17 mph.

The crowd was buzzing, and then Senna went out for his final qualifying run. There was hush, broken only by the feeble sound of Cosworth DFR engines and Judd engines trying to keep up with the overall pace. He looked cool enough, and had had the front ride-height altered at the last moment, the tyres were at the right temperature and pressures, all seemed set to deal with the Ferraris. He had already done 1.25.792 but needed a whole second off that. One “flyer” and the timing apparatus clicked up 1.25.021. Fast, but not fast enough. The crowd roared and waved their Ferrari flags, the Italian journalists rushed to their telephones and word-processors, the whole of Italy seemed to be hugging each other with joy. Ferrari was on top in a really good free-for-all. The McLaren pit was quiet and sombre, Senna grimaced and shrugged, that was all he could do for the moment, my old colleague AH. (now writing for The Guardian) murmured, “He doesn’t look too worried, does he?”

After pouring rain on Saturday morning at breakfast time, the track dried out during the testing session and then 1pm approached. Only one hour for McLaren-Honda to redress the situation, only one hour for Ferrari to defend their position. There was no one else in the picture. The tension was almost unbearable.

The Ferrari were still quick, dispelling evil thoughts about 4-litre engines the day before, but no quicker than in Friday qualifying, though Mansell upped his finish-line speed to 197.51 mph. it seemed that conditions for lap-times were slower by a few tenths of a second.

The battle for pole-position at the home of Italian motor racing was not only serious, it was a “death or glory” situation, far more important than the Grand Prix itself. Senna did his first run, 1.24.996, with a good solid 196 mph across the finish, and then he returned to the shade of the pit-lane garage. It was the fastest time for the afternoon, but not fast enough to beat Berger’s Friday time for pole-position. Ferrari were still ahead, but the whole of Monza seemed to be aware that Senna was only two-tenths of a second away from Berger’s time. Meanwhile heroic things were being enacted by drivers with less powerful engines or less effective chassis, and in a lot of cases a lot less driving ability. Even the Renault-powered drivers could not get below 1.26 while most the other drivers were from 3 to 5 seconds away from the serious battle of the moment.

In the McLaren pit the air was very tense, even grim, for Prost had been unable to approach the Ferrari times. It was not merely a question of pole-position, it was far more serious than that. The threat from Ferrari had been getting stronger all season and now at the very home of Italian motor racing the red cars occupied the front row of the grid. Some drivers and team would shrug and say things like ‘you don’t have to be on pole, you can win from the second row’. But that is not the philosophy of Ayrton Senna and the McLaren-Honda team. They are the reigning World Champions, and if you have truly deserved those titles it is up to you to show the world why.

Senna sat in his car, looking so calm and cool, surrounded by the men from Honda and McLaren, all looking a bit tense. They were waiting for the moment for their final attack; their whole reputation was at stake, it was as if they were about to “go over the top into battle” or even more, as if they were on the countdown to firing a rocket to the moon! Nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody fidgeted. What a pity that the world outside could have not witnessed this moment. Only those of us who believe in Senna and acclaim him as the best there is, lurked in the shadows of the garage, observing, but not daring to speak, suffering all the tension of the team members. Senna’s composure was remarkable. He was watching the Olivetti-Longines small monitor screen that was recording what was happening out on the track. He was not watching to see if anyone was challenging his present lap time, but analysing who was out on the circuit at this very moment, what order they were in and what they were doing.

There were not many minutes left of the qualifying hour, the moment had come, this was it. He has admitted that at such a moment his heart does beat a little faster. He lowered his visor, signalled to the McLaren mechanics to start the engine, the tyre-warming covers are removed, the McLaren time-keeping team tell him over the radio how many cars are still out on the track and he is off down the pitlane. If you were interested you had the option of looking out onto the pit straight to watch his approach, you could find a closed-circuit TV screen to watch his progress, or you could study the Olivetti-Longines timing screen.

As happens so often that it cannot be luck, there was a distinct break in the passing “traffic”, on this occasion after Boutsen had one by in the Williams-Renault. Then came the scream of a Honda V10, a flash of red and white car with the driver’s yellow helmet, and Senna was on his “flyer” with a very clear track in front of him. No problems with “traffic” for Ayrton Senna. In just over 1 minute and 26 seconds Boutsen went by again, and again a pause. Then Pirro’s Benetton appeared coming up the centre of the track, but coming up even faster and using the “draft” of the Benetton was the McLaren-Honda.

The electronic timers flashed their message on all the screens in the pits and paddock. 1 min 23.720 secs – 199.27 mph across the finish line. One whole second faster than Berger’s existing pole-position time. There was a stony silence form the crowd. The Pericolo Giallo had struck again. In the McLaren pit there was no wild cheering, or shouting and waving, but the grim tension had risen up and was gone and there were a lot of contented faces like those of the Cheshire Cat. Senna came in at the end of his slowing-down lap, quietly satisfied with the result of what he describes as “total commitment”.

He climbed out of the cockpit, removed his helmet, and shook the hands of the Honda engine men, then of his McLaren mechanics, from those who put the car together to those who pour in the petrol and change the tyres. Then he admitted to his engineers that at the start of that shattering lap he had made a slight error at the first chicane, but added that it wasn’t serious. At that moment a shrill scream came from the pit next door. It was the war cry of a V12 Ferrari engine preparing a counter-attack, the crowd cheered, but it was too late. Time had run out, but even Mansell and Berger knew they had no hope of matching Senna’s time. Up and down the pit-lane there was an air of disbelief, but he had done the same thing at Monte Carlo earlier in the season. Slow circuits or fast circuits, it makes no difference, and he never looks flustered, there is always the feeling that there is more to come if it is needed.

The vast crowd of Ferrari supporters drifted away, their Ferrari flags at half-mast. Joy had turned to sadness. And it the race tomorrow? Could anyone hope to challenge Ayrton Senna and the McLaren-Honda?

As the race report shows, there was no-one in the same class. He was in total command until the Honda men shot themselves in the foot and their engine blew up in a big way, the stream of oil and water over the rear tyres causing Senna to spin harmlessly off the track while trying to coast back to the pits with a dead engine. It should have been Berger’s moment of luck, but a few laps before Prost had moved up from a dispirited third place to outbrake the Ferrari into the first chicane and sit in second place until Senna’s engine went bang, whereupon he inherited the lead. Afterwards he moaned about having been given a bad engine, and this being wrong and that being wrong; you wouldn’t have thought he had won the race, his 39th Grand Prix victory. If anyone had cause to complain it should have been Senna, for his engine had let him down, but he stressed that the engine had been running perfectly until warning lights suddenly appeared on his instrument panel indicating that trouble was imminent, and then “bang”.

As Prost took the chequered flag the crowd cheered and waved and applauded, and the ovation accompanied him all round the track. The applause for Berger, who came home second, was restrained by comparison. But McLaren-Honda have once again beaten the Ferraris? Yes but . . . Prost is “our” driver, he drives for Ferrari next year.

Would that life could be so simple in all the other countries of the world. You’ve got to love Italian motor racing.   DSJ

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