Hockenheimring, July 24
If there is a better driver than Ayrton Senna in Formula One today I would like to see him. The Brazilian driver wins in the wet, he wins in the dry, he wins on fast circuits, he wins on slow circuits and he wins on street circuits. He is invariably on pole position and he goes past slower cars as if they were not there, and through traffic as if it were stationary.
He seems to do all this with the greatest of ease, but after winning the German Grand Prix he actually showed signs of strain. When he said it had been one of his hardest races, he meant it; not hard from the point of view of the opposition, because there wasn’t any, but hard from the point of view of the conditions.
The Hockenheimring is fast and slippery when wet, and race day was wet, but the biggest problem was the varying conditions. Occasionally some parts of the circuit almost dried out, sometimes the rain stopped, sometimes there was terrible spray from the car ahead, other times there was none. The sheer concentration needed to combat these conditions, apart from continually passing slower cars, had visibly “drained” Ayrton Senna. But he had led from start to finish and never put a wheel wrong, a feat that few others could claim in the difficult conditions.
The first day of qualifying more or less settled the grid layout for conditions were good, and needless to say Senna was on pole. On the second day a ferocious heatwave hit the Hockenheim stadium and temperatures soared to the detriment of engine power and tyres, so the only drivers who improved on their times of Friday were those who had not got with it in the first session.
After the slight hesitation at the British Grand Prix the McLaren team was back on top form, putting everyone else back where they truly belong. There are still optimists who expect non-turbo 3.1/2-litre engines to produce as much power as a new turbo-charged 1.1/2-litre, which is what the Honda engine is.
McLaren is well aware that it is not really beating anyone of significance, the Ferraris being hashed-up last-year’s cars and the other turbocharged cars never having been worth a light even on unlimited boost-pressure, while the present brand of non-turbo 3.1/2-litre engines are all very long in the tooth as basic designs. Although it is aware of all this the McLaren team never relaxes or gives up development work, and Honda doesn’t know the meaning of the word “relax”, it is not in its vocabulary, at least while it is in racing.
Some of my journalistic colleagues clearly don’t like Ayrton Senna, or McLaren and Honda, and find the domination by the McLaren team an awful bore. I suspect they were bored by the domination of Mario Andretti and the ground-effect Lotus 79, and the domination of Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell, while they have clearly already forgotten the domination of the McLaren-Porsche quite recently. It is a good thing they were not around to watch the domination of Jimmy Clark and Lotus, or Fangio and Moss with the Mercedes-Benz, or Alberto Ascari and the Tipo 500 Ferrari, or the all-conquering Alfa Romeo 158 era. Then they would have been bored. It is the dull bits in between that bore me, years when we suffered easily-forgettable World Champions, or one-engine-kit-car racing.
I hear criticisms of Senna’s overtaking manoeuvres that were praised when done by Gilles Villeneuve, or accurate placing of his car as being dull to watch , when similar finesse and accuracy by Niki Lauda was praised and admired. If other drivers have a spin, or go off on the grass, there is always a technical excuse, they never “goof” or have poor judgement.
Alain Prost had a spin during the German Grand Prix, while lying second to Senna, which was attributed to worn rear tyres, suggesting that Senna’ s tyres were not equally worn, but he didn’t spin. Gerhard Berger, charging along in his normal spirited style, had a big moment on the grass, blamed on a slower driver, not an error of judgement on Berger’s part. How many slower cars did Senna have to overtake without going on the grass?
The “wash” of his close passing helped Alliot into a spin through one of the chicanes, but the Frenchman had just changed from treaded wet-weather tyres to dry-weather “slicks” and would probably have spun off anyway. He saw the red-and-white car in his mirrors and didn’t think it was going to come by! He must have thought it was Prost. If he knew it was Senna, he should have known that he was not going to slow up and wait.
We have now had nine of this season’s Formula One races, and everyone should know by now that if a McLaren with No 12 on it appears in your mirrors, it is coming by. Senna doesn’t need an inch or two; millimetres are enough, just like Gilles Villeneuve or Mario Andretti. It is becoming increasingly obvious that as Senna comes up behind a slower car his McLaren appears to shimmy, so that it appears in the mirrors of the car in front, first to the left, then to the right, then back to the left, and probably more than one “rabbit” has thought there were two McLarens behind him.
It was very noticeable than Senna did not treat all the slow cars the same. There was a visible air of caution as he came up behind René Arnoux and Andrea de Cesaris at different times during the race, and with good reason.
I find all the anti-Senna writings rather unreasonably biased, but that is only because I am biased towards the Brazilian, and have been since he won his first Grand Prix in Portugal in 1985, and that was in the wet. A large and infamous figure of fun who used to be on the Formula One scene once said: “Show me an unbiased critic, and you show me a fool.” I don’t think it was his original saying, but he used it well.
You may think that the German Grand Prix was all about Ayrton Senna, and if the name of the game is winning, it was, but there was a lot of interest around and about, just as there had been at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. You don’t have to win to make an impression, and the Hockenheimring conditions allowed three “likely lads” to shine brightly like stars in the making.
Alessandro Nannini has been driving so well since he joined the Benetton team that you tend to forget that this is his fmst season in a competitive car. He did a super job, hanging on to third place, and then fourth after he was passed by Prost (no disgrace). With the end of the race in sight a bracket on the engine supporting the throttle system came adrift and he had to limp round to the pits for repairs, losing four laps.
When he rejoined he made a new fastest lap for the race, but afterwards when people commiserated and said, “Well never mind, you got fastest lap,” he smiled weakly and said quietly: “I’d rather have kept fourth place.” He did not add “behind Senna, Prost and Berger”, but it would have been a very worthy fourth place.
Two other drivers who you cannot fail to miss are the March lads, driving the turquoise Leyton House-sponsored cars with Judd engines. No matter where you watch them out on a circuit, wet or dry, they always seem to be going well and are invariably well to the fore in “Category B”, the non-turbo 3.1/2-litre class. While the Ligier car makes a disaster of the Judd engine, and the Williams seems to make it fragile or troublesome, the March seems very sympathetic to John Judd’s ex-Honda V8.
Taking a gamble on the weather, the March team started Ivan Capelli on “wet” tyres with wet suspension settings, and Mauricio Gugelmin also on “wet” tyres but with dry suspension settings. If it had dried out the Brazilian would have been sitting pretty, but as it was it never dried so he was heavily handicapped all the time. You can’t win them all.
In spite of this, Gugelmin ran very strongly in mid-field and finished eighth, only one lap down on his better-equipped team-mate. His fastest lap, on lap 10, was only a tenth of a second slower than Capelli’s, on lap 15, and afterwards Capelli was loud in his priase of his team-mate’s performance.
The most incredible thing about the Grand Prix was the decision by Nelson Piquet to start the race on “dry” tyres. In qualifying he had gone a bit better than he usually does, but was still 3.1 seconds slower than Senna, using the same type of Honda engine, which can only mean that the Lotus 100T still lacks something over the McLaren. With the amount of spray that came up from the cars as they left the grid and got worse as they headed out along the fast outward straight, Piquet must have known he was doomed. Nobody expected him to spin off into the tyre barriers half-way round the first lap, where he sat until the last car had gone by, and then limped slowly round to the pits to retire.
Three of the lesser lights also started on “slicks” but it was of little consequence. The Larrousse-Calmels team called Alliot in after eight laps and changed his car onto “slicks” but he never came round again, spinning off when Senna overtook him half-way round his first lap on the smooth tyres. All the front runners started on “wet” tyres and stayed on them, the conditions never drying sufficiently to cause any frantic wear.
For the Williams team it was a bad weekend; its reactive suspension had not been re-hashed and the cars were still on the temporary coil-spring set-up used at Silverstone. In practice they tried a very low rear wing, which looked nice but was soon abandoned, and in qualifying they were outpaced by the Benettons and the Marches in “Category B”.
There was worse to come, as both cars retired when the drivers lost control, and spun off the track. Mansell slid onto the wet grass coming out of the Sachs curve and got bogged down, the marshals pushing the car back down the slope out of harm’s way to the identical place where he had retired last year. Patrese slid straight on into the barriers at the entrance to the same corner and bent the front end. Thankfully for morale, they didn’t do this on the same lap! Mansell went off on lap 17 and Patrese on lap 35.
Following his withdrawal from the British Grand Prix in the wet, Alain Prost was castigated by the French Press in a rather unseemly and ridiculous manner, for if anyone is serious about Formula One racing it is Alain Prost. He didn’t withdraw lightly.
At Hockenheimring he answered his critics in the best way possible. He conceded pole position to Senna by 0.3 seconds, and after making a poor start, with too much throttle and too much wheelspin, he then passed Nannini on lap 8, Berger on 12, and then sat comfortably in second place behind Senna for the rest of the race, actually making a faster lap than Senna and only beaten by Nannini’s time at the end of the race. Those journalists who said Alain Prost was finished had better think again. He did make one inexcusable error, when he spun out of the second chicane, but all it did was lose him 10 seconds on the leader.
The awful conditions actually gave the race a bonus, for normally the Hockenheimring is very hard on engines and there are usually many retirements. In the wet, cool and slippery conditions, engines had a relatively easy time, with the result that 19 cars finished. Happiest were the two Zakspeed drivers, whose engines held together for a change.
With the season now into its second half, McLaren International still has to be beaten, or even look like being beaten, and Senna has scored five wins and Prost four. There must be a weak point in the McLaren team, but nobody has yet found it. DSJ