Showdown in Hockenheim
As a circuit the Hockenheimring will never replace the old Nürburgring, where the German Grand Prix was held for so many years, but it has developed a sort of negative character of its own.
While the twisty bit inside the huge stadium is not as exciting as Mallory Park or the Club Circuit at Brands Hatch, the long curving sections out to the Ostkurve and back are fast, making for an average speed for the 6.797km of nearly 150 mph. For the first time this season, some of the 3 1/2-litre Formula One cars were timed at over 200 mph.
The whole weekend in the giant stadium provided a great deal of interest and excitement, from the arrival in the paddock of Team Lotus with new management, to Ayrton Senna winning the German Grand Prix in the last few miles.
At the moment the Formula One scene seems tube in a state of constant change as regards the people involved. Whereas most of the cars have reached the point of stable design, the work being done on development, the same cannot be said for team personnel. Just why this is so is not very clear at the moment, as an overall trend, though it is more than abundently clear in some individual cases.
Team Lotus head man, Fred Bushell, is out on bail awaiting trial for his part in the DeLorean financial affair, and Peter Warr has also left the team. Tony Rudd moved over from Group Lotus to Team Lotus to try and sort things out, so there was an entirely different scene among the yellow-clad Camel-supported team.
Other changes, heavily influenced by Camel cigarettes, were the appearance of Michele Alboreto in the Larrousse Lola-Lamborghini team, replacing Eric Bernard, who had replaced Yannick Dalmas (if you can follow all that), and Jean Alesi being confirmed as Jonathan Palmer's partner in the Tyrrell team.
With Gerhard Berger being nominated to drive for McLaren next year and Prost having announced his withdrawal from the team, I wonder about relationships within the team for the remainder of the season. Will Honda and Ron Dennis continue to confide in their French driver about their future plans, knowing he may be driving for a rival team next year, and will the Ferrari engineers really tell Berger all about what they are doing in Research and Development, knowing he will take his knowledge to McLaren?
To return to the present, the McLaren team was all back in order after its slightly ruffled appearance during the British Grand Prix. The oil tank breathing problems had been sorted out, it not being smatter of oil leaks, as many people reported, but one of tank and system breathing — the vapour naturally carrying oil with it, which made the back of the car messy so that it looked like oil was leaking from somewhere. The new gearboxes were fitted to all three cars, as it is part of the overall design of the new rear end.
While the gearbox shafts lie transversely in the new box, rather than fore-and-aft, the main reason is to have the gearbox between the engine and the final-drive unit, rather than sticking out the back. Williams, Benetton and Arrows have been doing this for some time now, and Ferrari did it for years before returning to the old-fashioned layout of the gearbox behind the rear axle. Positioning the gearbox in front of the rear axle line gives many advantages, such as reducing the polar-movement of the rear end, changing the centre of gravity of the whole car, and giving greater freedom for air to escape from under the car, which in turn allows more scope for under-car aerodynamics.
At Silverstone, Senna told how the whole feel of the car was improved with this new layout, which meant that he could experiment with all manner of minor adjustments to suspension settings, aerodynamic settings and tyres, all in the continual search for improved cornering and stability under all conditions.
With the German Grand Prix being the first race in the second half of the season, a new list of those unfortunates who had to pre-qualify was drawn up. Justifiably, the two Brabham drivers no longer had to go through the early Friday morning scramble, and were now part of the "seeded" group. Both Lola-Lamborghini drivers had been relegated, or rather the team had been, so Alboreto had to start his new career from the bottom. Moreno and Tarquini were relegated too, but Volker Weidler in the second Rial was moved up on the strength of the efforts of his team-mate Danner, rather than his own ability. Alessandro CalE joined Brundle and Modena in the "seeded" group, showing that there is a small amount of sanity behind the whole nonsense of pro. qualifying.
When serious practice began the two Onyx drivers and the two Lola-Lamborghini drivers were in the top thirty, though Alboreto only scraped in by our of a second, despite being fastest through the speed-trap at 193 mph.
Friday qualifying saw another stupefying performance by Ayrton Senna. In the morning test-session he had "goofed" on the right-hander that enters the stadium and spun into the barriers, so the McLaren mechanics had a lot of straightening Oct to do and the car was only completed when qualify was well under way.
Prost, Mansell and Berger were setting the pace with laps in the 1 min 44sec bracket, until Frost settled the issue with a lap in 1 min 43.386sec and a "trap" speed of 199.85 mph. Mansell drove his heart out as usual and scratched round in 1 min 44.020sec, but with a top speed of only 194 mph; Ferrari was clearly relying on cornering gains rather than speed gains, whereas McLaren was able to have a bit of both. Prost then went out again and clocked 1min 43.306sec and a top speed of 200.02 mph, and still Senna hadn't appeared.
With twenty minutes of the all-important one hour left Senna rolled down the pit-lane and headed out onto the track. Next time past the pits he was clearly on a "flyer" and 1min 43.201sec later he went by again. Fastest time, just like that, and he equalled the speed of Prost with 200.02 mph.
That one lap caused something of stir down the pit-lane, but after a return to the pits to have another set of qualifying tyres fitted and the car checked over he went out again with only a few minutes left before 2pm. A standing-start lap from the pit-lane to get settled, and then one flying lap: tore 1min 42.300sec, "trap" speed 200.68 mph. Fastest time of the afternoon and one whole second quicker than his team-mate. With an average speed of over 148 mph for the lap, one second is a long way when measured in yards.
All the heroics we had been watching before Senna appeared rather paled. Nannini in the Benetton-Cosworth EXP had beaten both Williams-Renaults, and Pirro was just behind them. Nannini had joined the 200 mph club with 200.14 mph, so Ford was a lot happier with its Cosworth V8 involvement.
The Hockenheimring was at least allowing the new breed of Formula One car to stretch its legs, and once again it emphasised how restricted the last year of turbocharged engines had been. Last season Ferrari and Honda had clocked 207 mph through the same speed "trap" so already the new formula cars are within striking distance, in only their first season. On lap times, thanks to improvements in braking, the employment of "downforce" and wider torquespread, last year's lap times have been soundly beaten. So much for the new rules slowing things down!
Senna's incredible lap turned out to be a very expensive one, for as he completed it he ran over a lump of concrete that had been dislodged from one of the kerbs by another car. It made a gouge along the whole length of the underside of the carbon-fibre composite monocoque. When you are on a "flyer" there is no possibility of dodging obstacles that may appear in your path. If you spend your time looking out for such things you don't make fastest lap.
More by judgement than luck, the McLaren team had arranged for its "Test and Development" transporter to pause in France on its way to Italy, so a phone call diverted it to Hockenheim and enabled a spare test chassis to replace the scrap monocoque. Ron Dennis does have a remarkable ability to avoid panic, unlike many teams. On Saturday conditions were not quite so good, and not everyone improved on their previous times. Prost got round fractionally quicker, but the Ferraris made no improvement, and Senna demoralised everyone again, this time with two laps in the 1min 42sec bracket and a top speed of 204 mph.
Whilst testing and qualifying had been interesting and exciting, race day was to continue in like vein. In the morning warm-up period the two McLarens were untouchable, so the race as a contest between teams looked to be over already, but Piquet caused an eyebrow robe raised as the yellow Lotus 101 recorded over 200 mph in race trim. The previous afternoon Piquet had joined the "200 Club" along with Senna, Prost and Nannini, but it was thought that it might have been in desperation, reducing drag and downforce to the detriment of handling. You would do that for a qualifying lap, but not for race conditions.
Everyone loves a hero, and as the starting light turned green everyone loved Gerhard Berger; even Senna's greatest fan DSJ had to join the cheering. The Austrian got one of those starts that every racing driver dreams about. From fourth place on the grid he was well on his way before the two McLarens had moved, and he aimed his Ferrari to go between them. But there was insufficient room. He instantly jinked left and ran round the outside of them into the long fast right-hand bend that follows the start, leading Senna and Prost out of the stadium.
Berger's moment of glory was only a moment, for once under way Senna went by into the lead, and before the end of the lap Prost went past the Ferrari, but it is that sort of thing that keeps everyone on their toes.
Things soon settled down, and the cars came into the stadium at the end of each lap "two by two" like the animals into the Ark. Two McLarens, two Ferraris, two Benettons and two Williams, though the last four were mixed in together. When the lone Lotus of Piquet and the lone Tyrrell of Alesi appeared it seemed to spoil the pattern!
Berger's race did not last long, and once the McLarens had settled down Mansell in the second Ferrari could not match their pace.
From a midfield position on the grid Mauricio Gugelmin was impressing with a steady climb up from 13th on lap one to fifth by lap 27, passing all manner of famous names as well as some prominent new ones. But then the March gearbox jammed in top gear and that was that. A pity, for Gugelmin looks to be a natural for a top-three finish. Emanuele Pirro was also making a good impression, keeping pace with Nannini, but a mistake under braking coming into the stadium ended his race.
Out in front the McLaren one-two, with Senna leading Prost, seemed to be a mere formality but then came the pit-stops for new tyres and it all went wrong. The errors only involved seconds, and did not endanger the team's overall monopoly, but they threw the Senna-Prost situation into confusion.
Prost was the first to be called in, leaving Senna to go on his way. The only interest in this routine stop was to see where Mansell was when Prost rejoined the race. The Ferrari driver had settled for a secure third place, realising he could not hang onto the red-and-white cars. Tyre stops usually take less than ten seconds, but after that length of time Prost was still up on the jacks and a mechanic was struggling with the left rear wheel. It is normal practice at a tyre-stop to keep the car in first gear with the engine running, which is alright providing the clutch is freeing properly. If there is any doubt about that the driver keeps his right foot on the brake pedal and keeps the engine revving with his right heel. Prost did not have his foot on the brake and the clutch was not freeing properly, so the transmission was turning the hubs and the new wheel did not go straight onto the pegs.
If you watch this sort of scene on television it is all apparently quiet and relaxed, with only "Muddly Talker's" voice babbling to cause confusion. Down in the pit-lane it is all confusion, with the racket of compressed-air wheel-nut hammers, the engine revving, the noise of other cam passing by on the track, lots of people around the car, tyres flying through the air, wheel-guns and air-lines whipping about and everyone full of action. There is little time to think and no opportunity to talk.
Prost dabbed the brake pedal, the wheel went on, the nut was tightened, the car dropped off the jacks and he was gone; but the seconds had ticked by and not only Mansell had gone past but Pirro as well. By the end of the lap Prost was back into second place, just like that, though now a long way behind Senna.
Then Senna was heading for the pit-lane for his routine stop for new tyres. All went well and the car was dropped off the jacks, the engine note rose to 10,000 rpm preparatory to a searing getaway, and then promptly cut out and returned to a fast tick-over. The car was jacked up again, the right rear wheel removed, the hub looked at and the wheel put back on.
The mechanic who had put the wheel on had a nasty feeling that it had not located properly and, rather safe than sorry, he had instantly signalled to the team chief to `told it". As with Prost, the seconds were ticking away for Senna and as he was given the signal to go, Prost was approaching the pits on the track at 155 mph.
As Prost lifted off and braked for the 125 mph bend ahead, Senna was going down the pit-lane like a scalded cat, leaving it at a good 100 mph and accelerating hard on a parallel course to Prost. Where the pit-lane exit road blended into the track, at the start of the first long straight, the two McLarens were almost side-by-side, but they still had a 20 mph speed differential. It was now Prost leading Senna by just over three seconds.
For 22 laps we witnessed two master drivers at work, and it was fascinating to watch. Prost was on his most brilliant form, and even when be came up behind slower cars to lap them he never faltered as he has so often in the past. He was as brilliant as Senna through the traffic, and they matched each other's times lap for lap.
This was serious stuff, and poor Nigel Mansell nearly wept as he saw them disappearing into the distance at this late stage in the race. Senna was gaining, but only by inches a lap, not yards, and it looked like stalemate. Prost covered his 40th lap in 1 min 46.636sec and Senna responded with 1min 46.247sec. Prost did the next lap in 1 min 46.026sec, Senna did 1min 45.979sec. Prost matched it with 1 min 45.977sec but Senna recorded 1min 45.923sec.
On lap 43, with only 2 1/2 to go, it happened. Prost moved his gear lever into sixth gear, and there was nothing! By the time he had re-selected fifth Senna was past and away, notching up a new fastest lap as he did so, in 1min 45.884sec. The total hush that fell over the huge crowd in the Hockenheintring stadium when McLaren No 1 appeared in the far corner was incredible; when Prost came into view some seconds later a bewildered buzz started, for only Prost knew what had happened at that moment.
Senna added five seconds to his next lap time, and another seven for his last lap, cruising home to a lucky win at the expense of his team-mate. If the McLaren team had planned the scenario to provide an exciting event it could not have done better. It was an exciting and interesting end to an exciting and Interesting weekend. It also made a change to see Senna profiting from his team-mate's misfortune, for in recent races it has been the other way around. McLaren-Honda is still winning, but ... DSJ