Streetfighters

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Why do some F1 drivers prefer it when the margin for errors lies between negligible and non-existent? David Malsher examines the cases of three men who were kings of the concrete jungle

Graham Hill scored five wins at Monaco; Ayrton Senna six — plus three in Detroit and two more in Phoenix. But I am going to ignore them. Why? Because both of them were multiple world champions: they were expected to be good on every type of circuit. This story is about drivers who, on street circuit, found themselves ahead of the acknowledged masters.

Some might take umbrage at Clay Regazzoni’s absence, pointing to his performance at Long Beach in 1976: pole, first from lights to chequer, fastest lap. But this was a day of days: in other street races, when partnered by Niki Lauda or Alan Jones, he looked unexceptional, gathering points and leaving the heroics to others.

Rosberg fans might be upset that he is deemed eligible. But the fact that four of his five GP wins were garnered on street circuits speaks for itself.

Keke Rosberg

This Finn simply drove as hard as he knew how and, in any given corner, never appeared to take the same line twice. He would hurtle into the braking zone, stamp on the anchors, lock a tyre — sometimes two — make constant corrections, before booting the tail out and carrying on his merry way. It was a different kind of artistry from that of a Stewart, Lauda or Prost, but artistry nevertheless.

It was a technique which served him well in those dark days at Fittipaldi. At Long Beach in 1980, he outqualified his illustrious team owner, and the following year dragged the recalcitrant F8C onto 16th on the grid, ahead of Rene Amoux’s Renault and both McLarens. It was clear he just needed a decent car, and that, in 1982, is what he had. Driving the Williams FW08, Keke left his mark on the Los Angeles circuit, when a torrid battle with Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari yielded second. As reigning champion, he starred again at Long Beach in 1983.

Attempting to nab the lead from Patrick Tambay on the opening lap, his twitching Williams hit a bump, bounced off the Ferrari and looped into a 360 spin right in front of the oncoming pack. Somehow he contrived to hook a gear and carry on, losing just one place. It served him little, for upon re-catching Tambay, they collided again, and this time both cars were out.

Two months later, however, came Rosberg’s first street race victory, at a damp Monaco. Frank Dernie, his race engineer throughout the Williams days, remembers a crucial pre-race decision: “Because Monaco is such a low-wear circuit, the slicks Goodyear had there were much softer than the wet tyres, so the team got him to start on slicks. It would never have occurred to him on his own.” It took Rosberg to make the gamble work, though.

Fifth on the grid — 1.4 seconds ahead of the next normally-aspirated car — put him under the trees where the track was dry, and the Williams catapulted into second at the first corner, passed Prost’s Renault at the start of lap two, and was never seen again. The track was still wet, but Keke’s superlative car control kept the FW08C out of the barriers.

How he did the same in the blistering heat of Dallas the following year is a tale that has passed into legend. Using the early-evolution Honda turbo, complete with all-or-nothing power band, he somehow avoided joining the 14-strong list of DNF wallbangers. To put his pace into perspective, he twice lapped team-mate Laffite, who finished fourth.

Dernie enthuses: “Keke won that race with an engine as unsuited to a street circuit as any engine ever has been. His quick reactions allowed him to get away with things that the other drivers obviously couldn’t. It was a truly remarkable success.”

When Rosberg next raced in the USA, his car was the FW10, his team-mate was Nigel Mansell, and the track was Detroit. Keke had shown well there in 1982 and ’83, finishing fourth and second. Now, with a vastly improved Honda engine, he was ready to win.

“I don’t know,” ponders Patrick Head, “if back then the drivers were more confident of the strength of the suspension parts, but without doubt Keke was an incisive overtaker.” From fifth on the grid, he passed Michele Alboreto, Prost, Mansell and, finally, Senna to take the lead. All by lap eight. Running on B-spec tyres (Senna had chosen the harder, less grippy As) Keke was dialled into a race of his own and, despite an unscheduled stop to unblock radiators, he won by almost a minute.

In Australia, he was similarly brilliant. Dernie remembers it well: “It was our first year at Adelaide and we had made some weird decisions. We could not get any grip, and so decided to go quick down the straights. Keke looked after his first two sets of tyres very carefully. Then gave the new set death.”

Now behind Senna, it was impossible to tear your eyes from the Williams’ sideways antics, its driver hunting prey. As the Brazilian’s Lotus became increasingly hampered by fading carbon brakes, Rosberg must have rejoiced in Dernie’s decision to opt for the steel versions. All seemed set for a showdown of Dijon ’79 proportions. But on lap 62, Senna’s Renault engine blew, and Rosberg allowed himself the luxury of a fourth set of tyres on the way to a fifth career victory. Sadly it would prove his last.

Driving like he had a ferret in his overalls had long been Keke’s way, but joining McLaren in 1986, he discovered the MP4/2B’s handling characteristics to be honed to the smooth, effortless style of Prost: it understeered. His unease was painfully highlighted at Monaco: he qualified ninth — eight places and 2.1 seconds behind his team-mate. He had no answer to the Frenchman — as he readily admitted — and, though second, was almost half a minute down at the finish.

Then, in Adelaide, Keke’s final GP, something remarkable happened: the understeer was gone and he elected to go flat out in a bid to force the Williams-Hondas of Mansell and Piquet to run faster than they wanted to. Taking the lead on lap seven, he blew everyone away until a tyre failed. Thinking it was a more serious problem, he pulled over.

The greatest streetfighter of them all had come to the end of his road.

John Watson

The Ulsterman’s affair with street circuits began in 1974 at Monaco. Qualifying down in 23rd with a privateer Brabham BT42, he climbed through the field and stayed out of trouble to finish sixth, just ahead of Graham Hill, Mr Monaco himself. Three years later he was back, again in a Brabham (this time a works BT45B) — and sitting on pole.

“I liked a car in which I could lean on the rear, and the power advantage of our Alfa Romeo engine meant Gordon Murray could afford to fit a barndoor rear wing. The transformation was absolutely unbelievable; suddenly I could really stand on the gas. The downsides of the flat-12 was that it was hefty and also heavy on fuel, so our start weight was high. I chased Jody Scheckter for about 10 laps that year, and the brakes just couldn’t stand it.

“The same thing happened in ’78, when I was leading and had Depailler behind me. All I had to do was drive my own race and not worry about him, but instead! tried to get away from him.”

Watson’s BT46 went up an escape road after 37 laps and, though he recovered, fourth place was meagre reward for two front-row starts in consecutive years. He would never come so close again. Indeed, he twice failed to qualify there during the next four seasons with McLaren. But the team’s inability to get the most out of Michelin’s qualifying tyre set up Watson’s two most famous wins.

At Detroit in 1982, he qualified back in 17th but, crucially, one man kept the faith.

“The race was stopped due to Patrese’s accident,” says Watson, “and Michelin’s technical director, Pierre Dupasquier, came up to me and said, ‘John, you will win this race if you use the 05 tyre’ — we had started on the softer 06 rubber. Having been persuaded to switch, I suddenly found I had a car I could drive anywhere and everywhere around Detroit. Everyone else had said you couldn’t overtake there, but! had adopted a more positive attitude to the place. In one lap, I passed my team-mate Niki Lauda into the first corner, Eddie Cheever three or four corners later, and Didier Pironi a couple of corners after that!” He took the lead from Rosberg on lap 37 and scored a remarkable victory.

“It was so easy. That weekend I found the key to the circuit and myself. I was good under braking and assertive in my overtaking.”

Watson and McLaren made it even harder for themselves at Long Beach in 1983, for he and Lauda wound up 22nd and 23rd respectively after qualifying. But this time something other than Michelin’s excellent race rubber was on Wattle’s side.

“In the fortnight before Long Beach, I had worked with Willi Dungl, Lauda’s personal trainer, and he saw in me a potential I’d never fully realised. By the time we got to the track, I had an energy which was just unbelievable. I felt on a different plateau.”

Lauda was quicker at the green light, but John shadowed his every move and, amazingly, the MP4/1Cs had made it through to third and fourth long before half-distance. On lap 33, Watson made his move on Lauda.

“I had a good run out of the previous hairpin, and got a draft down Shoreline Drive. I remember thinking, ‘I’m either going to win this or we’re not going to finish’, and then! went to the inside, locked the left front, which made my car flinch towards his, and I got through. Once I was past, he didn’t come back at me.”

Watson took the lead from Laffite’s Williams 10 laps later and went on to record the fifth and final win of his F1 career, beating Lauda by half a minute.

A lot of good it did him. When McLaren’s Ron Dennis unexpectedly discovered Alain Prost was on the transfer market after a dispute with Renault, it was Watson who was cast aside.

Subsequently, the hero tag has never sat well with an essentially quiet man. But there were days when, streets where, no one could match Wattie — not even Lauda in the same car.

Patrick Depailler

If Jean Alesi has a spiritual forefather, it is surely Patrick. Neither were of the top league, yet both possessed immense bravery, astonishing car control, and raced cars out of a pure love for their craft. And there were days when each had few peers. But while Alesi’s talents come to the fore on a damp track, Depailler flowered when the barriers were close, the track was bumpy and there were right angles and hairpins with which to contend.

After contesting two races for Tyrrell in 1972, he was welcomed to the team on a full-time basis in ’74 and scored two points finishes in the first three races. By the time the teams arrived at Monaco for round six, everyone knew the Frenchman was a doughty fighter. But when he set the same time as team-mate Scheckter to take fourth on the grid in a Tyrrell 007, it became clear that here was a driver well suited to the demands of a confined environment. It mattered little — in terms of reputation at least — that his car let him down on the warm-up lap and he was consigned to the back of the grid in the spare 006. He’d made his mark. The following year, in wet/dry conditions, he climbed from 12th on the grid. He pressured James Hunt into an error with 10 laps to go, set fastest lap, and forced his way past the McLaren of Jochen Mass on the penultimate lap to snatch fifth.

In 1976, he became a true contender in Fl, doing everything but win. Second place in Brazil was followed by his final race in the ageing 007, which happily coincided with the inaugural Long Beach GP. He was startling. Beaten only by Regazzoni’s Ferrari in qualifying, he was holding second when a tangle with Hunt’s McLaren allowed Lauda to slip through. But as he stood on the podium, beaten only by the Ferraris, it seemed his sideways style was at last reaping rewards. Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner concurs: “At circuits like that, he had such confidence: he would opposite lock it and take it right to the edge. You had to brush the paint off the tyres if you wanted to qualify on the front row, and that was Patrick.

“He used to blossom at Monaco, not just because of the circuit — the whole atmosphere suited him. There was a short film made by Elf that year, when they mounted a camera on the six-wheeler. At six o’clock in the morning, there was Patrick, driving around the streets of Monaco — and loving it! It had been raining, but that didn’t bother him at all.”

He was on form the whole weekend. Qualifying fourth (ahead of Scheckter again), he finished third — despite a suspension link breaking after just 20 laps, leading to some odd rear-end handling. The six-wheeler suited his style, although new teammate Ronnie Peterson outqualified him at Long Beach and Monaco in 1977 piloting the latest evolution of the P34.

“Yes,” says Gardner, “but Ronnie was extremely hard on the car. His brake wear was phenomenal to set the same sort of times. Patrick would excel when his car neither understeered or oversteered. We achieved that balance at places like Monaco.”

Depaifler’s first win would come at his favourite circuit. Another third at Long Beach fired him up for the next round at Monaco. Running second, the meat in a Brabham sandwich, he forced Watson into screwing his brakes, and once in the lead, absorbed all of Lauda’s pressure. Some might say he was lucky Lauda picked up a puncture in the closing laps, but the fact remains that, in less than the best car, Patrick had won — and blown away his much hyped novice team-mate Didier Pironi, as he would throughout the season.

Depailler’s departure from Tyrrell after five years was a sad day for all concerned, driven as it was by Patrick’s desire to enjoy extra-curricular activities forbidden in his contract with Ken. Ligier would permit skiing, motorcycling — and hang-gliding.

An accident while engaging in this latter pursuit shattered his legs, but not before his street racing talents had shone again at Long Beach and Monaco, each time qualifying on the second row, each time finishing fifth, each time deserving more.

He returned in 1980 with Alfa Romeo, but at 35, less than a year since smashing his legs, he had his doubters. Until Long Beach. The track demanded heavy braking, but he couldn’t help himself and third on the grid was the result. That was flair.

Tragically, the little man with the big heart had just four more months in which to entertain. Gardner: “He just stopped short of having that champion streak, but occasionally he excelled him self.” Often as not on street circuits.

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