Two Pros At Work
If Alain Prost's brilliant manoeuvre had worked at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix's 49th lap, the Frenchman still would have been the leader of the World Championship chase after 76 gruelling laps of the tortuous Hungaroring.
Instead, team-mate Ayrton Senna yet again pushed the nose of his Honda Marlboro McLaren first across the finish line, 0.529 seconds ahead of Prost. It was the team's tenth victory of the year, its seventh 1-2, the sixth time Senna had achieved the feat in 1988. It was also a bitter disappointment for Prost, who had the better set-up on the day but couldn't quite make use of it as Senna drew level with his 66-point score.
Both drivers were agreed that had Prost gone ahead in less opportunist circumstances he would have stayed there, for his MP4/4 was marginally faster than Senna's. His second place, defeat by McLaren's exulted standards, had its roots in qualifying.
The Hungaroring is twisty, with only one real straight past the start/finish line. Of all the circuits this year — even Monaco — it was deemed before the event to offer the normally-aspirated runners their one real chance of beating the turbos, and that meant really only the McLarens, for the others proved unhappily destabilised in the part-throttle running that is so much a part of the venue's nature.
When Nigel Mansell and Alessandro Nannini headed Julian Bailey in Friday free practice's appallingly wet conditions, the Tyrrell driver actually being fastest for a long, long time, it was clear the non-turbos were in with a chance, and although the afternoon's first official qualifying session saw the track dry rapidly towards its conclusion, still the turbos came under threat. By Saturday, it was evident any McLaren advantage was marginal, and also apparent why Ayrton Senna is currently the most accomplished driver in the best car.
As one has come to expect, the Brazilian came out of his corner fighting on Saturday afternoon, stung that Prost had topped Friday's session after he himself had looped into a big spin when he got offline preparing to pass Derek Warwick's Arrows. Within moments he had reduced his moming best of 1min 28.623sec to 1min 28.071sec, perilously close to Mansell's 1987 4-bar pole time of 1min 28.047sec. Later still, after Mansell had gone faster, he finally found a really good, clear lap and grabbed his eighth pole of the year with a breathtaking 1min 27.635sec.
While Senna thus had the optimum starting slot, Prost languished on the fourth row, seventh fastest and separated from Ayrton by five normally-aspirated runners who were going to be fast enough in the race to give him plenty to think about while trying to get anywhere near McLaren No 12.
The MP4/2 in which Prost won his 1986 World Championship was a renowned understeerer which taxed, and ultimately defeated, the likes of Keke Rosberg, but Prost was its master. That put Friday in Hungary into perspective as even he complained of understeer on his way to the afternoon's fastest time, and he spent a lot of time with engineer Neil Oatley meticulously setting up the MP4/4. Time and again on Saturday he lost a good lap running into traffic. Where Senna would take chances and commit himself with ruthlessness, Prost would back off and thus give up his opportunity.
On his very last, however, he was faster at every reference point, apparently set on a really quick one, when he came across Oscar Larrauri's slowing EuroBrun in which the Argentinian was struggling with faulty brake bias. Larrauri was slow to move over, and though Warwick, as next in line, was courtesy itself, the damage had been done. What should have been Prost's 1min 27sec "flier" stopped the clocks instead in 1min 33.009sec, hopelessly compromised.
In 1984, of course, it was Prost in the Senna role, with Lauda struggling to nerve himself up for qualifying, but Ron Dennis is quick to point out that Prost has had to raise his game far less than did Lauda, commenting: "Alain is much closer to Ayrton than Niki was to Alain." Prost was seventh, but with mitigation. Nevertheless, it would be enough to cost him the race.
In an event in which fuel economy could be a problem, Senna grabbed the lead at the start after a drag race with Mansell, who actually had his wheels moving first, and began very cannily pacing the race. Prost came round ninth, but after 15 laps had worked up to fifth on Mansell's tail, after the Englishman had spun challenging Senna.
When Riccardo Patrese dropped back from second with a misfire, Prost ran third and began a steady hounding of Thierry Boutsen, who was driving beautifully in the Benetton. The relentless stalking paid off going into Turn One on lap 48, when he towed up to the B188 and then slipped neatly through. Next time round, he would lead at the same point, but in less controlled and less enduring circurnstances.
With his team-mate behind him, Senna knew he no longer had the advantage of superior straight-line speed that had kept him just far enough ahead of his other rivals up to that point. Worse, he was about to lap the duelling Gabriele Tarquini and Philippe Alliot as they crossed the line to complete lap 48, and the delay behind them gave Prost the ideal opportunity as he edged closer and closer, his right-hand wheels all but scraping the pit-wall.
Senna was all too aware of his presence, and his responsibility to McLaren, knew he'd been had and daren't defend too vigorously for fear of both MP4/4s going off. As he went inside Tarquini, and Prost went by inside him, he edged minutely left to give Prost just enough room.
"I really wasn't sure I had enough!" said Prost later, admitting that initially he had begun to brake for the corner, only to assess the opportunity and accelerate. His momentum carried him past Ayrton, but the tightness of the innermost line also edged him gently into oversteer and an inexorably wider line. Senna had a grandstand view of it all, moved fractionally further left to avoid Alain's gearbox and preserve his own nose wings, and was thus ideally aligned to slash back past down the inside on the exit. It was superb driving from both. Prost for seeing and exploiting the opportunity, Senna for assessing it and reacting so decisively. Both for avoiding contact. It was two pros at work, and it was breathtaking.
Sadly, similar moves were to be denied. In running wide Prost possibly dirtied his left front Goodyear to the point where it developed such a fierce vibration he at one stage feared it was about to part company. As Dennis recently disclosed, today's sticky rubber can pick up the best part of a kilo per wheel when running a lap on the dirt, and as Prost spent the next patiently allowing it to clean off, he fell back into Boutsen's clutches so rapidly it seemed mechanical failure had finally struck an MP4/4.
By the time he was able to run back on the pace, time was running out, and though he hauled Senna back in, he finally failed by that scant half-second margin.
Although Senna was controlling the pace throughout, carefully lapping backmarkers at the most opportune moments in a virtuoso demonstration of the art, several normally-aspirated runners were very serious challengers.
Mansell, naturally, was the leading contender, refusing to be daunted throughout qualifying by the after-effects of chickenpox, which left him feverish and giddy whenever he stepped out of the Williams. Hungary was always going to be his best chance for glory this year, and he wasn't going to surrender it without a fight. By lap 12 he was mere inches from Senna, unable to compete on the pit-straight, all over the MP4/4's three-shaft gearbox everywhere else.
If he had been 100% fit, maybe he wouldn't have spun then, or maybe it was simply loss of downforce as he followed so closely. As it was, going up the hill to the highest point of the track, he put the right front wheel on the kerb, and the FW12 pitched into a hairy 360° spin which he controlled well enough to emerge only two places lower down the order. It was reminiscent of Keke Rosberg's first-lap spin at Long Beach five years earlier.
As Nigel slammed on the brakes, however, he flat-spotted all four Goodyears, and when he finally pitted for replacements on lap 38, Prost had gone by and Gerhard Berger was looming in the Ferrari. He resumed behind team-mate Patrese and Mauricio Gugelmin in the surviving Leyton House March, quickly passed the Brazilian, and then tovved him past Riccardo as the latter's misfire worsened, From lap 60, however, Gugelmin's presence on his tail signalled trouble, and he cruised in five laps later to retire, totally exhausted.
With Patrese's sister car crippled, having driven his best meeting since Kyalami in 1983, Williams ultimately went home with a mere point for the Italian's sixth place — poor reward for a weekend which had promised so much.
Benetton was the beneficiary of Williams' ill fortune, and for a long time Boutsen looked menacing enough in Senna's mirrors, closing in traffic and always a potential threat until Prost demoted him. Thereafter he maintained an easy third place until an exhaust pipe split on lap 61, losing him an instant two seconds a lap.
Alessandro Nannini, fifth fastest in qualifying, had run right behind him after being shouldered rudely aside at the start by Patrese, who went round the outside at Turn One. However, on this occasion the young Italian's race lasted only 25 laps before he pitted with rising water temperature caused by a fractured pipe.
Berger proved in no position to take advantage of Boutsen's late-race problem. Ferrari was in handling trouble right from the start of the meeting, neither the Austrian nor Michele Alboreto expressing anything but disgust for the behaviour of their F187s, and the candid Gerhard again pointed out how hopeless is the current cause.
Typically, that doesn't deter him, and in the race he made his usual excellent start to run sixth, was never lower than seventh for a handful of laps when Prost overtook, but was continuously struggling to conserve fuel. All he could hope to do was have a reliable run and inherit places, which was just what happened. Alboreto, meanwhile never featured higher than eighth and concluded a disappointing meeting for the Prancing Horse by retiring on lap 41 when his engine simply cut out.
Like Williams and Benetton, March pressed home its challenge throughout qualifying, team manager Ian Phillips delighted to demonstrate that Adrian Newey's adventurous 881 is as good on twisty tracks now as it proved on the fast stuff at Silverstone and Hockenheim. Both Ivan Capelli and Gugelmin had qualifying problems sorting the handling fully, but by Saturday Gerhard Berger for one expressed the view that the turquoise cars looked the best out on the track.
But for accidentally knocking off his ECU switch two corners from the end of his best lap, Capelli would have qualified higher than his eventual fourth, but he over-revved as he and Mansell ran side by side down to Turn One at the start. The likeable Italian was sure the ECU had sent the rev-limiter crazy; others suspected the heat of the moment might have got to him. Whatever, the Judd V8 was a dead duck after six laps and three pit-stops, leaving him bitterly disappointed.
Gugelmin, meanwhile, didn't run quite as quickly as expected, hampered in a long hot race by a faulty drink-bottle, but he pushed as hard as he could even when his clutch went out of business at the height of his battle with Mansell. Make no mistake, with a little more fortune and experience, March is going to be a serious contender.
Indeed, the team's progress in one year is thrown into even better perspective by Camel Team Lotus' continuing problems. Neither Piquet nor Nakajima took part in Friday's wet free practice, team manager Peter Warr preferring to conserve his equipment as the triple World Champion had some new parts to try, and in the first session an experimental set-up left his Lotus 100T ill-balanced as the track dried fully, consigning him to a lowly 22nd place. He improved to 13th the following day, but ground had been lost and he complained of lack of grip even though the balance was satisfactory.
Any hope of improvement was dashed early in the race, as he battled hard with Eddie Cheever and Pier-Luigi Martini for 11th place. At the start of lap nine, going into Turn One, the one real overtaking place, things got a little too close. According to the Minardi driver, he was alongside Cheever on the inside when Piquet simply slammed into the back of him and punted him out. Nelson, however, had flat-spotted his tyres in desperate braking, claiming Martini had swung across in front of hint and left him nowhere to go.
Piquet crept to the pits for new Goodyears and a new nosebox, resuming to recover to eighth in a gritty drive that nonetheless saw the Lotus a poor match for the leaders.
Nakajima, meanwhile, collided with Philippe Streiff's AGS on the same lap. It was the final straw for the Frenchman, who had started on the penultimate row after persistent brake trouble in qualifying. He pitted briefly for attention, then watched as his left front wheel departed as he rejoined, no doubt a legacy of the contact. Nakajima carried on, hardly covering himself in glory as he took seventh, three laps adrift and just ahead of his delayed team leader, after a non-stop run.
To underline Lotus' current state, Piquet had been outqualified by the Italian specials of Alex Caffi and Luis Sala. The Dallara driver was on the pace all weekend, impressing with fifth fastest wet time on Friday and an eventual tenth grid slot alongside Berger to confirm the progress Beppe Lucchini's Scuderia Italia is making.
The Dallara looked particularly well suited to the circuit as Caffi exploited it to the full, delighted with a trouble-free meeting. He chose his newer chassis, which he felt had a stronger engine, and was running a comfortable ninth, keeping Gugelmin honest and way ahead of Alboreto, when blue smoke signalled the beginning of the end, which came on lap 23. But for that, he might well have been able to challenge Patrese for the final point.
So too might Sala, but for a poor start and then a moment of rashness which damaged his nose against Philippe Alliot's Larrousse Calmels Lola and prompted a first-lap pit-stop. The Spaniard rejoined within a mighty battle for 17th place, waged between Tarquini, Nakajima, Streiff, Johansson, Dalmas, Modena and Arnoux, albeit a lap down. As indication of his speed, however, he soon dropped them all and eventually brought the Lois Minardi home tenth, one place better than it had qualified, and proof that its revised front suspension has gone a long way towards eliminating its season-long understeer problem.
Of the aforementioned, Tarquini and Dalmas were the stars. The Italian was delighted to get past pre-qualifying on Friday morning, something the beleaguered Coloni team has failed to do for the past three races, and made the most of his opportunity by fending off Dalmas for lap after lap once the Frenchman had reeled him in by lap 28.
On Saturday morning Yannick had returned on foot to the pits, covered in mud after barrel-rolling his Lola following a touch with Oscar Larrauri's EuroBrun, which failed to qualify after its brake-bias problems. Dalmas was passed by Larrauri's team-mate Stefano Modena on lap 14 but tigered back as the group expanded and contracted, repassing nine laps later.
As Nakajima pulled himself clear of trouble, as well as he might given the engine behind him, Dalmas pushed Tarquini to the limit, Gabriele using everything he knew to repulse his attack. The two had Allot in their sights when Philippe suddenly dropped back with loss of fourth and fifth gears and then the clutch on lap 47, and then Dalmas' persistence finally paid off on lap 54 as Tarquini's Coloni began to weave with suspected rear-suspension breakage. He kept going nonetheless, and finally brought the yellow FC188 home 13th.
Dalmas was slowed towards the end by a misfire, but managed ninth ahead of Sala, while Modena was also misfuing as he took 11th ahead of Allot.
Neither Ligier made it to the flag, even though Stefan Johansson felt his lighter chassis and latest-specification Judd V8 had rendered his JS31 the best it had been all season. He was fighting aggressively in 16th place on lap 18, comfortably ahead of Nakajima, when a sticking throttle sent him into the dirt and prompted eventual retirement. Arnoux fared worse, running as the last non-delayed competitor until his Judd consumed itself in a cloud of smoke on lap 33.
Despite the loss of designer Gustav Brunner, who has now had his employment with Rial terminated by Gunter Schmid following his 1989 liaison with deadly German rival Zakspeed, Andrea de Cesaris was in his usual ebullient form. Friday proved a complete write-off when both ARC 01s ground to halts on the circuit with electrical failure, and but for that he would certainly have qualified better than 18th. He proved that by sauntering from 17th on the first lap to ninth ahead of the Arrows of Warwick and Cheever by lap 28, but then a constant-velocity joint sheared and that was that.
Neither Arrows proved at ease with the circuit's characteristics, but Warwick had pulled clear of Cheever after 30 laps, no threat to Alboreto in eighth but apparently untroubled. Eddie began to pull back the gap slightly once initial oversteer subsided, but both were to retire with sudden and mysterious brake loss within ten laps of each other, Warwick's pitching him into a spin and then seeing him overshoot his pit.
They had at least made the cut. Jonathan Palmer was the final qualifier, planting the Tyrrell 017 twenty-first on the grid but retiring as early as lap four vvhen his Cosworth DFZ cut out. Team-mate Bailey, after his distinguished showing on Friday morning and having been on Jonathan's tail on Saturday morning, was beset by set-up problems thereafter and failed to make the cut in his team-mate's car in the afternoon after his own had broken its crownwheel and pinion. As well as Larrauri, the Zakspeeds were also on the sidelines, hopelessly outclassed despite recent improvements in the four-cylinder turbo's management system. Poor Nicola Larini didn't even pre-qualify, having taken over Rial's slot as one of five required to do so now that Schmid's team has scored some World Championship points.
The pendulum had been swinging in Senna's favour since Canada, only Ricard slowing its arc, and the Hungarian GP once and for all expunged any Monaco-inspired question over his ability to withstand pressure. It doesn't come any more intense than it did in Hungary, and he came through with flying colours. With Spa approaching, a circuit both drivers adore, Prost knew he had his work cut out. DJT