When we got to the halfway point of the 1988 season, even the most disinterested follower of Formula One must have realised that McLaren International had won all eight races with its Honda-powered MP4/4. Since then it has won two more and its drivers, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, have been sharing the victories between themselves, quite often finishing first and second.
You may wonder what everyone else in Formula One has been doing, for after all there are twenty-nine other cars and drivers when qualifying begins at each race, and twenty-four of these join the McLarens on the starting grid.
The truth is that the rest of the field is comprised of a mixed bag from possibles to no-hopers, but nowhere in the list is a team as homogeneous and 100% complete as the McLaren team. No matter from what aspect you scrutinise the McLaren team the answer is 100%, whereas all the opposition lack a bit of this and a bit of that.
Take engines, for example; Honda produced three new versions of its four-camshaft, narrow-angle V6 with its twin-turbochargers for the 1988 season, and research and development on the basic engine is continuous as regards power output, fuel economy, torque characteristics and suitability for various circuits. Engine management, with micro-chips juggling with fuel mixture, ignition timing, air temperature, throttle openings and any other important variable that might affect the performance of the engine, is a very exacting science to Honda.
The only other turbocharged engine of any significance is the V6 Ferrari, which was new for 1987 and is a development of the same unit for this year. In spite of what the Ferrari drivers say, the engines from Maranello have not been significandy inferior to the Japanese engines as regards power output, which has often been shown by terminal speeds on the faster circuits. There are those who say that this is only because the Ferrari team induces less downforce and drag in a desperate attempt to keep up, but lap-times and "stage-times" through sections of some circuits do not support this theory.
Where the Ferrari engine does seem inferior is in engine-management and fuel consumption, and the stupid FIA fuel-limitation rules do nothing to help. No factory will show you its bhp and torque curves, but I would expect to see Honda's curves much more suited to any given circuit than Ferrari's, thus making the engines just that bit more "usable" for the drivers.
The other turbocharged engines being used this year are really Hobson's Choice. The Arrows team did a deal with BMW, using Megatron money, to take over the upright 4-cylinder Munich engine and the Swiss engine-tuner Heini Mader has been working on it and supplying the units. It is a design that is very long in the tooth, and it reached the end of its obvious development long before BMW parted with it and changed to its near-horizontal 4-cylinder layout. The only thing that can be said for the Megatron-financed BMW engine is that it has proved reliable on the imposed 2.5-bar boost-pressure limit. On power it is not in the same league as Honda or Ferrari.
The Zakspeed four-cylinder turbocharged engine has never looked like getting near the front since its first appearance, and this year Erich Zakowski has had little option but to keep plugging away in order to stay in the game. The same goes for Enzo Osella and his Alfa Romeo-based V8 turbocharged engine.
On the engine front, the only serious opposition to McLaren International could come from Lotus, which is supplied with identical engines from the Honda Motor Company, but that challenge has not happened. Just take the driver situation, regardless of anything else; the Japanese driver Nakajima is a midfield runner, which leaves Nelson Piquet on his own, so it is McLaren 2 "aces", Lotus 1 — a psychological advantage to McLaren if we assume all three drivers to be equal. They could have been, but the 1988 Nelson Piquet has been one of the big disappointments of the season.
If everything else were equal, I am sure Piquet would be in there with the McLaren pair, and the fact that he is not suggests an inequality somewhere. With identical engines and everyone using a standard Goodyear tyre, it can only mean that the Lotus part of the equation is lacking. It does not have to be lacking in much to put it behind the McLarens, and if Piquet applies all his driving skill and can only hope for third, he reasons that you might as well relax a bit and be a poor third instead of a good third. The trouble is that when you start thinking like that, and easing off, you find your third place has become fourth or even fifth, especially with bright young chargers like Gerhard Berger about the place.
Team management at Lotus does not have that sharpness to it that McLaren has, which is another 1% advantage for McLaren, and Team Lotus has shown signs of lacking the direction and forceful leadership it had when Colin Chapman was with us.
The Ferrari team, too, is reeling from the loss of its figurehead, Il Commendatore. Prior to his eventual death in August, Enzo had been going through a series of health crises, and his condition had several times caused the greatest alarm. He was obviously not in a condition to do much controlling of the Scuderia, but it is not clear who among the hierarchy has been making the decisions.
The Italian team has been suffering from a lack of direction and stability, which instantly gives McLaren another 1% advantage. The reshuffling of personnel within the Ferrari empire has been a bit like Government reshuffles: team management, designers and engineers seem to be continually changing, and many familiar faces have disappeared, some of them reappearing further down the pit-lane with lesser teams such as Tyrrell, Minardi and BMS Dallara.
No matter how good the cars or how good the drivers are, this instability cannot make for a confident and tranquil team; another 1% advantage to McLaren, for even if there is any discord within its team it doesn't show.
In fact it is quite the opposite, for the whole McLaren team has an air of cold, organised, efficiency which seems to upset a lot of observers. There are those who just wish the team in red-and-white would look human occasionally, like falling over their own shoe-laces. If there was any chance of that you could be sure that Ron Dennis would ban lace-up shoes in his team!
So who has McLaren International been beating with its ten victories? Teams with inferior equipment, teams with inferior management, teams with inferior drivers; it doesn't look very impressive when you analyse it, but nobody is more aware of the fact than the McLaren team itself. They know that it can't last and some opposition will appear eventually, and this makes them try all the harder to be 100%, so that they will be ready for any opposition when it comes.
People who thought a non-turbocharged 3.1/2-litre engine was going to beat a good turbocharged 1.1/2-litre were whistling in the wind, even with the turbo engine held down to 2.5-bar and limited to 150 litres of fuel for the race. Last year Tyrrell showed us the potential of a 3.1/2-litre version of the very old Cosworth-Ford DFV; it wasn't anything to get excited about. This year, anyone using the Cosworth DFZ is ruled out of the winning equation entirely, apart from freak situations. Regardless of the drivers this removes Tyrrell, AGS, Rial, Minardi, Lola, Coloni, EuroBrun and BMS Dallara from the winning position. For those teams there was no alternative.
For some favoured teams, favoured by potential, money or influence, there have been two alternatives. Cosworth, with the help of Ford, reworked the basic DFV design into an effective package that looked similar outwardly but was all-new internally, and had an impressive power advantage over the production DFZ. These factory DFR engines have been exclusive to the Benetton team, while from Rugby came John Judd's development of an old 3-litre V8 Honda engine from Formula 3000, abandoned by Honda itself at the end of last year.
The 3.1/2-litre Judd V8 is used by Williams, March and Ligier, and of the three the March team seems to be having the best run, challenging the factory Cosworth DFRengined cars. Williams seem fast but fragile and Ligier has been the bad joke of the season, the new JS31 proving to be a disaster. Neither the Cosworth DFR nor the best Judd engines have caused any real problems to Honda, so McLarens may have been winning but who have they been beating?
By the time we got past the half-season mark, a lot of decisions had been made about next year, so much so that at one point I began to wonder why everyone was going on. There isn't much to learn in the second half of the season, and even less to gain, so I wondered if we shouldn't fold up Formula One now and start preparing for next year.
Drivers are changing teams, designers are changing teams, some teams are embarking on new engine projects, some teams could be left high and dry without an engine, and some drivers could be left high and dry without a team. So much appears to be going to be different, and a lot of people hope that somebody different is going to get the chance to vvin a race or two next year.
There really is so much to do in the short winter break that I thought it would be a good idea to end this season prematurely to give everyone a chance to be ready in good time for the first race of 1989. When I suggested this to one team manager he laughed and said he doubted whether it would make any difference, everyone would still be in a "last-minute" panic in the weeks before the first race of 1989.
I think he is probably right. What we discussed was the motivation forced into a team by the pressure of continually "keeping at it", and teams like McLaren and March, which don't envisage any personnel changes for next year could profit by keeping at it until the end of this season.
Then a more important factor reared its head, that of finance and sponsorship. An organised team budgets for a series of sixteen races, attracting advertising sponsors on that guarantee. It takes money either in a lump sum for the sixteen events, or at a fixed sum per event, or in quarterly instalments. A sponsor who has paid up for sixteen "exposures" is not going to be content with eight, and would want his money back on the eight cancelled races. As the teams will have already spent the money, or at least budgeted to spend it, they would not be in a postion to pay any of it back.
Race organisers would have budgeted for their event too and are hardly likely to cancel it without compensation, and all the commercial ventures involved with each race will have been planned ahead, so taken all round there is too much money at stake to consider ending the season prematurely.
The "circus" will just have to go on its inevitable way through Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan and Australia, even if half the cast will have lost interest. It is not likely that the stars will lose interest, for a race is a race, and there is plenty at stake thanks to FOCA's monetary system which rewards effort. The harder and longer you try the more money there is at the end of it all. For the anti-McLaren and anti-Senna or Prost people, it will be a long tedious bore (they were saying this by half-season), but no doubt they will go on accepting payment from their employers to be at every race until the last one.
So where are we heading in the "coasting" mode? To an equality some think, but I find that hard to accept. A similarity, yes, but it won't be very equal because in racing it never is.
If you give Gabriele Tarquini a similar McLaren-Honda to Prost it won't enable him to race against Prost, it will just mean that he is not so far behind as he would be in his Coloni-Cosworth, always assuming he could keep it on the road. For some drivers, such as Mansell or Berger, an equal car to Prost would do them the world of good, and they would certainly be up there with him, but there are not too many in that category.
This year there have been eight new drivers full-time on the Formula One scene, and so far only one of them has shown any real talent. That is Mauricio Gugelmin, the chunky Brazilian, driving for the March team. The other seven would probably say that if they had a March-Judd they would be as good. I doubt it. Even with a Minardi or a Tyrrell, if you have any talent it will show. I cannot see any real talent in Schneider, Larini, Perez Sala, Modena, Larrauri, Tarquini or Bailey, though at times Modena and Perez Sala have looked promising.
Among the not-so-new drivers, which means those who are not in their first full season of Formula One, some have been around a long time, others are relatively new. The two who stand out a mile are the Italians Nannini and Capelli, the former in his first season with a really good car, the latter in his second season with March. They progress visibly race by race. Caffi has shown talent for a fair time now, but the Dallara doesn't really do justice to his ability. Ghinzani, de Cesaris, Streiff, Palmer, Alliot, Dalmas and Martini do not show any real signs of improvement, and some are even beginning to deteriorate.
In mid-field there is a bit of a wilderness, and those in it have either reached their limit or have been much higher and are now sliding back down, often by force of circumstances rather than their own weakness. Patrese, Arnoux, Johansson, Warwick, Cheever and Nakajima are all in this wilderness, the Japanese driver really only being there by courtesy of Honda. Patrese and Arnoux have actually been up on the winner's rostrum, but are not likely to do so again. For the others it is probably too late.
The select little bunch at the top comprises Prost, Senna, Berger, Mansell, Alboreto, Piquet and Boutsen, the first four being natural recipients of the chequered flag. Alboreto has known what it is to win, but it never seemed a natural state of affairs, like it does with Prost. The real Piquet has known it also, and very naturally, but 1988 has not seen the real Piquet, while Boutsen on the winner's rostrum is something that is long overdue unless we have misjudged his obvious talent.
Next year has a lot of potential interest already, with some known new factors. The unknown ones leave room for some interesting speculation. Taking the two teams who have already announced officially that there will be no major changes within their structure, we can start with a feeling of stability. McLaren International has settled its contracts with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna for next year, and if they are not using a V10 Honda 3.1/2-litre engine in their 1989 cars then the world will come tumbling down around our ears. Similarly, if everything in and around the team is not painted in the red-and-white colours of Marlboro then it will mean something awful has happened on the sponsorship/advertising front that was totally unexpected. Just when the 1989 McLaren will be seen is anybody's guess.
The Leyton House March team has announced that it is very happy with its two drivers Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin, and the drivers have reciprocated by signing up for 1989; if John Judd can come up with the engine requirements, this team should continue its steady progress. Designer Adrian Newey gets on quietly and effectively with the development programme and race programme, and the March Engineering "boss man" Robin Herd is taking more and more interest in the team's progress as the races go by.
Of the teams that are going to start afresh with the arrival of the new formula, the Scuderia Ferrari has John Barnard's new car with a Ferrari 3.1/2-litre V12 engine, which has already been quietly shown to the outside world, and the arrival of Nigel Mansell to join Gerhard Berger on the driver front can only cause a stir within Maranello which will be to the good.
Mansell and Berger in the same team is bound to be a good thing, for they will automatically urge each other on to better and better performances, and on their own they are both capable of some pretty spectacular driving. If the Ferrari management can get into the same mode as the design team and the driving team, we could see the Prancing Horse really stirring up the Rising Sun.
The Benetton team is losing Thierry Boutsen, but keeping Alessandro Nannini, and will be having the latest Cosworth-Ford V8 engine. If this is a similar step forward over the DFR as the DFR has been over the DFZ, then Cosworth's 1989 engine could be in with a chance against the various brand-new V10 and V12 engines. If any team deserves to win a race before the end of this season then it is the Benetton team.
1988 has been a season that the Williams team will be pleased to see ended and even more pleased to forget. Patrick Head's reactive suspension has been giving so much trouble that he has had to shelve it for the time being, and the installation of the "stop-gap" Judd V8 engine for this year has begun to look rather suspect, causing a depressing reliability record on the engine front.
That Nigel Mansell has decided to leave the team at the end of the year, and join Ferrari, has caused mixed reactions; whether it is bad for Williams and good for Ferrari, or vice versa, depends on your personal choice. However, of much more importance is the official announcement from the Regie Renault that it is returning to Formula One in co-operation with the Williams team.
Since Renault pulled out completely at the end of 1986, it has had an engine design group, led by Bernard Dudot, working on a 3.1/2-litre engine for the new formula. This is a V10, with four overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder, which is normal practice these days, but using Renault's patented pneumatic-spring valvegear. This was used with complete success on the last of the Renault turbo engines, the details of which were kept very closely guarded.
Apart frorn telling us that the new engine is called the RS-1 (RS= Renault Sport) and is a V10, Renault says nothing about the bore and stroke, the rpm, the bhp or the torque, or consumption, construction of the internals, the type of bearings, the piston design, the cylinder-head shape, the sparking-plug position, the materials within the combustion chamber and ports — all those design details that are so important. From the external dimensions given, it would appear to be compact (668mm long, 550mm wide and 440mm tall), while the weight is quoted as 141kg (310lb).
A deal has been done for Williams to use this engine for three years, ostensibly on an exclusive basis, but of this one cannot be certain. In an empire so large and complex as the Regie Renault anything can happen, and you don't have to look far down the pit-lane to see who else is heading for the Paris-based management.
At least Williams can look forward to a three-year stability programme with a competitive engine, for obviously Renault has been keeping a keen eye on the Formula One situation and on engine development, and if it was not convinced that its V10 was going to be competitive it would not have countenanced a return to Formula One.
Among the top teams we should see Team Lotus, but all the signs so far this season have caused a lot of concern among Lotus fans. Lotus will not know until early September whether Honda is going to support it on the engine front, and if so what form that support will take, and if rumours are to be taken into account there is unrest in the top management.
Designer Gerard Ducarouge is making noises about being "homesick" for La Belle France, and Peter Warr is said to be looking for pastures new. Piquet seems to be wanting "out", and one wonders if he was ever really "in". In the woods behind Ketteringham Hall, the Team Lotus headquarters, there is still the spectre of the DeLorean affair and Her Majesty's Government which is still unhappy, and you cannot afford to make HM Gov unhappy.
Of the other teams, some of those who have been using the production Cosworth DFZ this season to reasonable effect can expect to be able to buy production versions of this year's works DFR variant. Those which have appeared to be pretty hopeless will stay pretty hopeless, with private ventures trying to develop the old DFZ design. At best, anyone with a derivative of the original 1967 Cosworth V8 engine can only hope to scratch onto the back of the grid. Of the Arrows team all I can say is: "I shot an Arrow into the air, it fell to earth I know not where".
There will probably still be twenty-six cars on the grid next year, and possibly thirty for qualifying, but at the front where it really matters the scene won't change a lot. The details will change, but McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Benetton, March and Lotus will provide the real interest. DSJ