European Grand Prix, Brands Hatch, 1985
All it took was one race in Nelson Piquet’s test car to convince Marc Surer that, on his day, he had what it took to race at the highest level.
When the 1985 season started I didn’t have an F1 drive. I was still looking at F1, hoping to get back in.
In the middle of the season I got a call from Bernie Ecclestone. His second driver, Francois Hesnault, had decided to retire. He’d found the Brabham too difficult to drive because of its Pirelli tyres, and the fact that BMW horsepower always came all at once. I think it was all a bit too much for him. He spun too many times, and I think that forced him to retire. Bernie asked if I’d like the drive, and of course I said I would. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Nelson Piquet was clearly the number one, so it wasn’t easy to come into the team. Nelson just said something, and Gordon Murray knew exactly what to do. They were like a married couple. I told Gordon things and he said, “Oh, Nelson never told me that”. He was so used to driving those lagging turbos, he wouldn’t even think about it.
Those cars were incredible. We had unlimited boost for qualifying which meant wheelspin up to fourth gear, so you couldn’t use full power until you reached fifth. Even when you got to sixth you wanted to change up, but you’d be at the end of the straight by then…
The first races were very difficult, and then Manfred Winklehock was killed when we were racing his Porsche 962 at Mosport. He was my friend, and after the accident I wouldn’t speak to anybody for a week – I switched the phone off and pulled the plug. Austria was the next GP, and I decided that if I couldn’t concentrate, I’d stop racing. But as soon as I was in the car, the feeling was gone.
I scored a few points, but as the season went on, I wasn’t very happy with my car. Every time they filled the fuel tank I had a strange sensation I felt I had less space, as if the chassis was bending. I noticed it again at Monza; I couldn’t drive the car in a straight line. I didn’t do much testing, but after I tried Nelson’s T-car at Silverstone, I was convinced there was something wrong with my chassis.
Because my place in the team wasn’t guaranteed – I had a race-by-race deal – I didn’t complain too loudly about the car. I knew Emanuele Pirro was pushing to get my seat.
Charlie Whiting was my engineer, and he knew about the problem, but I think it was down to me to say something, so finally I told Gordon Murray. They said were going to make a new chassis for Nelson, and I’d have the T-car.
Brands was the first race with it, and suddenly, I was right there. I was fourth in first qualifying, but I had problems on Saturday so I started seventh. I felt very good in the car, and chose the harder tyres for the race, so I didn’t need to stop – we didn’t have refuelling in those days. I wanted to stay out and keep my rhythm.
I gained a place from Prost at the start, and on lap six Rosberg spun and Nelson hit him. Although it was Nelson I just thought, “OK, two out!” I didn’t care who it was, they were just two drivers who were difficult to pass.
In reality I only gained one place because Stefan Johansson passed me in the Ferrari. At the beginning I struggled because the tyres were too hard, but then it got better and I started passing cars. Stefan was no problem, and then I passed Elio de Angelis to go third. Then came Senna.
That was hard. A few times I came close, but he wouldn’t react to my presence and I was thinking “did he see me?” Then I noticed he left some room at Hawthorns. He was on the outside, so if he turned in we would crash. I was beside him and I backed off because again, I thought he hadn’t seen me. He wouldn’t turn his head, I couldn’t see his helmet move. Perhaps he didn’t want to see me it was a psychological war.
But the next time round I got myself into position, and got past. After that I saw him getting smaller behind me, and it felt great to be second. Then I started to catch Nigel Mansell. He’d never won a GP back then and I hoped he’d get nervous, so I tried very hard. But he was able to counter; it came down to four or five seconds, and then he pulled away again.
I told myself to keep second, maybe he’ll make a mistake. Keep pushing, but not too hard, make sure you finish the race. Then suddenly I had no horsepower I looked in the mirror, and there was black smoke and fire.
Afterwards the mechanics found out it was the bearing of the turbo, and it had probably failed because the engine had been switched off too early in the pits after the warm-up.
It was the race where I proved that I could stay with the best in F1. It’s much easier as an underdog to have the fastest lap in Brazil in the wet, as I did with the Ensign in 1981. That’s something you can do. But if you have the fast car, to prove it – like Mika Salo did in Hockenheim – its not so easy. You’re working at a much higher level.
That was my problem at Brabham. I’d driven so many bad cars, I couldn’t believe how high the level was. You have to believe you can reach that level in a good car, and at Brands Hatch I realised I could.