Formula One Scene

Time is tight

Last month I described how the Brabham team received a slap on the wrist from the FIA technical scrutineers for a rule infringement, discovered after the end of qualifying at the German GP. This month the Williams team received a severe kick up the backside after qualifying at the Belgian GP. At each Grand Prix, four cars are selected at random by the technical commission as qualifying ends and these four cars are impounded in the scrutineering bay the moment the final qualifying is finished. Everything about a Formula One car has to be in accordance with minimum or maximum dimensions agreed in consultation with the chief engineers of the teams, and the findings are published well before a season begins. As an example, all monocoque designs in carbon-fibre or Kevlar or any similar material have to be submitted to the FIA technical commission with a strength certificate issued by an FIA experimental test facility.

In addition to all these technical matters there are general rules laid down, one of which is a mandatory fire extinguishing system and a specified size and volume of container for the extinguisher fluid. Teams have been penalised when the scrutineers have discovered empty containers on a car. Another rule says that all cars must have a reverse gear, working at all times. Unfortunately for the Williams team the scrutineers decided to check reverse gear in the post-qualifying inspection at Spa, these decisions being made before the four cars are chosen, and they are “picked out of a hat” anyway, so it is not until the end of qualifying that anyone knows who are the unlucky four, and even then nobody knows exactly what is going to be checked.

Number 6 came out of the computerised hat, which was Patrese’s Williams-Renault, and totally unconcerned with any decisions, he happened to have made second fastest qualifying time in the final session. The car was found to have no reverse gear, either because the operating mechanism was not functioning properly or something had broken, the reason being immaterial. The rule says a car must have a reverse gear, operating at all times, and the Williams number 6 did not comply, so all lap times recorded on Saturday afternoon were deleted from the time-keepers records. Patrese had to use his best time on Friday to establish his grid position, and because it was not a very good time it demoted him from second place to 17th. A harsh decision by the scrutineers, but strictly according to the rules.

We all know that if the whole field had been checked there would probably have been at least half a dozen other cars that would have been penalised, but this is not the point; the system says four cars will be chosen at random, and everybody knows the system works. It was just bad luck that Patrese’s car was chosen, for he had driven hard to win that second place on the grid.

While on the subject of gearboxes there is an interesting aside to Senna’s gearbox trouble during the race at Francorchamps. Whether the trouble started in the gearbox itself, or in the operating linkage is hard to say, but the end result was no gear being engaged, and then the wrong one. Most drivers would have stirred about on the gear-lever until they found something or until a vital part broke under the strain. As there was the long climb up to Les Combes ahead of him Senna left things alone until he reached the top of the hill, deciding that it was better to keep going at reduced speed and lose valuable time, rather than risk being unable to find any gear at all and having to roll to a stop on the uphill section.

Once over the highest point of the circuit, with a long downhill section ahead of him, Senna began to delicately feel the gear-lever movement and find out what the response was and quickly decided that fourth, fifth and sixth gears were usable, third being very suspect, and knowing the gearbox layout it meant that it would be inadvisable to try and use first or second gears, which he really needed for the hairpin at La Source. In less than half a lap, all at around 130-140mph, his plans were made; he would take the hairpin in fourth, making as wide a sweep as possible. This meant he needed a clear road, so his long-range vision, which is far above normal, had to pick out slower cars ahead that he was going to lap, and make sure he caught them before the hairpin, by pushing a bit harder, or back off a bit and pass them after the hairpin. From where I was spectating Senna had come into view slowing visibly, when the trouble first appeared, and I thought he was going to stop, but he went by at greatly reduced speed and though there was no ominous smoke or noise I mentally marked him down as retired. Imagine my surprise when he appeared on the next lap and went by at full speed, and continued to do so.

After the race a look at the Olivetti-Longines lap times showed Senna recording regular lap times at 1 min 57 secs to 1 min 58 secs, except on lap 27 when he recorded 2 min 08 secs, a sudden drop of 10 seconds. This was the lap on which all the foregoing had been taking place. On lap 28 he was back to 1 min 57 secs and before the end of the race he had put in a number of laps in the 1 min 56 secs bracket. At the time when Senna’s trouble began he was lying second, following a stop for new tyres, to Alesi in a Ferrari, who was planning to go through non-stop. Three laps after sorting his problems out the Ferrari engine failed, so Senna must have smiled quietly to himself as he went back into the lead, which he kept to the finish, in spite of driving with a three-speed gearbox!

The printed sheets of everybody’s lap times throughout the race, which Olivetti makes available, always make interesting reading. Although Gerhard Berger finished second he looked very displeased about his performance, as well he might. His stop for new tyres was a disaster, first of all losing one second to Senna on the lap on which he came into the pits, and then a reluctant front wheel took seconds longer to fit than it should have done, and then as he left the pit lane he stamped on the throttle pedal too violently and spun.

The lap including the time in the pits and the time spent spinning took Berger 2 mins 28.7 secs, compared to Senna’s pit-stop lap time of 2 min 15.4 secs. Somewhat niggled at himself Berger drove harder after his pit-stop than before, lapping at 1.56 to 1.57.0, whereas before the stop he was seldom below 1.59.0. On lap 37 he recorded 1.55.9 and on lap 39 he improved this to 1.55.6, his fastest lap of the race. When the race was over he was mumbling about his engine being “down on power” but the facts did not support this story and I don’t think the Honda people really believed him, though they appeased him later by saying they had found one cylinder to be a bit down on compression!

Another driver was complaining about his tyres after the race. He had been running steadily in just over 2 mins to the lap, his best being 2.00.7, before stopping for new tyres. It was a good pit-stop and the standing start lap took 2.14.0 which was well above average. His next lap was in 1.58.5 and then he dropped to 1.59.4 and subsequently down to 2.01.8 before stopping for another set of tyres, saying he “could not make the previous set work” (whatever that means?). Again he set off from the pits on new tyres and again his first flying lap was 1.58.8, followed by 2 minute laps, which suggests that he was going “too fast, too soon” and not using the tyres to their best advantage. His teammate did not seem to have trouble with his tyres, which suggests that the black-art of tyre technology as far as some drivers are concerned is all in the mind.

The Italian GP was refreshing in many ways, one of which was that most drivers planned to run the race non-stop, the only tyre stops being unscheduled ones like Senna’s after a locking front brake put a serious “flat” on the tyre. The result was a good uninhibited flat-out blind. The Friday qualifying hour was one of the best seen for a long time. From morning practice it was clear the McLaren and Williams were going to be the front-runners, with Ferrari doing their best to keep up, and then the 22-year old German Michael Schumacher, now in a Benetton-Cosworth instead of a Jordan-Cosworth. While the media of the world were trying in vain to investigate the intrigue and business deals that had caused the German new-boy to change teams, the qualifying session was proving fascinating.

Although there are no rules about when a driver can try for a fast lap, there is a definite “pattern” to the proceedings providing the weather is stable. There are 30 cars standing ready to go, each driver being allocated two sets of qualifying tyres. Under normal circumstances the slower drivers go out first, because the four slowest cars are going to be eliminated, so it is sensible to establish a benchmark as soon as possible. The faster drivers tend to wait until about half-way through the hour before making their first run, so that they can make their second as the end of the hour approaches. At the moment there are six “aces”, two at McLaren, two at Williams and two at Ferrari.

When the first of the six “aces” was ready to do his first run the timing screen showed Michael Schumacher at the top of the list with a time of 1 min 22.779 sec. For the next quarter of an hour it was fascinating to watch in detail for quite by chance the six went out in ascending order of performance and as one came back into the pits the next one went out. Alesi was first away and he put pole to 1.22.485, then Prost improved to 1.22.080; Patrese to 1.21.619; Mansell to 1.21.602, Berger to 1.21.432 and finally Senna to 1.21.114 and that was the end of the first round, and all of them had passed the pits at 200mph or more. It was spectacular. From temporary pole-position Schumacher had been gently elbowed down to seventh place, which was nothing to be ashamed of for a 22-year old in his second F1 event.

The second runs did not go quite so orderly, and not all of them improved on their first run times but the end result was impressive: 1: Senna, 1 min 21.114s (159.951mph avge); 2: Mansell, 1 min 21.328s; 3: Berger, 1 min 21.360s; 4: Patrese, I min 21.619s; 5: Alesi, 1 min 21.956s; 6: Prost, 1 min 22.080s; 7:Schumacher, 1 min 22.471s.

Then came Moreno, Piquet, Martini, Blundell (another new-boy showing good progress), Capelli and the rest. On Saturday there were a few minor changes to the scene, but nothing dramatic. If FISA could regulate qualifying the way American racing does, with one car on the track at a time, and the results transmitted to the spectators efficiently, Friday and Saturday could be made even more exciting.

Being in the pit-lane at the nerve-centre of qualifying like the Monza Friday session is not only exciting, but fascinating and interesting, because you are aware that everything, driver included, is wound up as high as it will go, with no holds barred for one glorious lap. Occasionally the spring breaks, but that is another matter. By comparison the race is often dull.

At the start of the Italian GP there was an interesting little cameo at the back of the grid. Mika Hakkinen, the young Finnish driver, was on the penultimate position on the grid, which was the end of the left-hand row of cars. To his right, but one place back, was Olivier Grouillard in the Fomet in last place, at the back of the right-hand row, the two rows being staggered. The starting procedure is that at a given signal the whole grid of 26 cars go off on a “parade” lap, led by the driver who is on pole position. At no point on this parade lap is anyone allowed to pass another car. If any driver has trouble starting or during the parade lap he is allowed to catch up the field, but must stay at the back and forfeit his grid position.

Now it had happened that Hakkinen’s Lotus 102B was reluctant to start on the button and he had to be push-started after everyone had gone. He caught up the field and when they returned to the grid he stayed behind Grouillard, on his own side of the grid but with his original position empty a few yards ahead. At this point a marshal, who obviously was unaware of the rules, frantically waved him forward to the marked grid position, but the young Finn totally ignored him and stayed back, not quite level with the Fomet on his right. Undisturbed by the agitated marshal he concentrated on the starting lights, making a good getaway when the green came on. Had he edged forward to his proper grid position it would have meant passing the Fomet and would have entailed instant disqualification. It was nice to watch a well-disciplined new young driver in Formula One acting intelligently in the heat of a Grand Prix start.

New engines in Formula One are always interesting, and even more so if they are from manufacturers new to Grand Prix racing. John Judd’s V10 engine has followed on satisfactorily from his previous V8 engines, and in the Dallara cars of the Scuderia Italia they have been putting up some good performances. Already a deal has been struck with the Brabham team for them to use the Judd V10 in their car in 1992, as the Brabham-Yamaha partnership finishes at the end of this season. Yamaha started the season cautiously with a rev limit of 11,500rpm, but have gradually been improving things race by race. At Monza the drivers, Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, were given the OK to run the V12s to 15,000rpm and with those multi-cylinder atmospheric engines more rpm basically translates into more bhp.

At Monza Blundell was 11th on the starting grid with a respectable time of 1.23.473, ahead of some seasoned F1 regulars. In the race both Brabhams finished; lower than they should have been mainly due to stops for new tyres, but they were running strongly, at the end of what had been a fast and furious race. Significant were their fastest race laps, for Martin Brundle was third fastest overall, only Senna and Piquet being faster, and Blundell was fifth.

In testing, qualifying and the race, engine strength was all important for there is no serious let up, even with the three artificial ess-bends introduced over the years to try and control speeds. It is nearly six kilometres on full song, and no matter where you go around the circuit all you hear are engines flat-out. Racing engines are always wound up tight or they will never be competitive, but in this 3.5-litre formula competition is so strong that engines are being wound up tighter than usual. — DSJ