Tuesday, 12 February 2019

1990 San Marino Grand Prix - Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari

May 13, 1990

By his own admission it was not a story that Riccardo Patrese liked much to remember.  It was a certain race victory, lost due to a lack of concentration and a simple mistake. “Imola in 1983 was a race I should have won. I led, then my pitstop was slow and Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari went ahead. Six laps to go, I get the lead back. And then I relax a little, I say to myself, OK, I have won this Grand Prix. At the Aqua Minerale corner the surface was breaking up, I put a wheel a few centimetres off-line, and I crash. There were many races when I was in the lead, when the car broke down.  But in this case I had a crash that was purely my mistake. You were going to win …… and then you lose and you know that it’s all on your shoulders. You made a mistake.  It’s even harder to accept.”

1983 San Marino GP: Patrese crashes shortly after assuming the lead.
As difficult as this was to face his mistake, there was another element of this failure that twisted the knife a little deeper into Patrese’s heart.

“The tifosi cheered: they prefer a Frenchman to win in a Ferrari than an Italian to win in any other car. I was so angry with myself I didn’t hear them cheering.  But I saw it on TV when I got home, and it made me feel even worse.”

And while the Italian was able to secure a victory later that season in South Africa, the loss in Imola was a wound that Patrese would carry for seven years.  He spent two seasons driving the hopeless Euroracing Alfa Romeo followed by another stint with Brabham.  Towards the end of the 1987 season, when Bernie Ecclestone decided to give up being a team boss, he recommended Patrese to Frank Williams. “When I went to Williams it was like a camera which had finally come into focus.”  He was very well liked within the team and had an excellent rapport with Patrick Head.  His cause was also aided by the fact that he was much easier to live with then Nigel Mansell and more of a team player as well. “You’d call Riccardo up,” Head would recall “ask him to test at a moment’s notice, and he’d say, ‘Fine. No problem. I’ll be there’. He’s not a selfish man, that’s the point, which is quite rare in a racing driver. His ego’s under control, too. Which is also quite rare.”  The relationship with the Williams team was to be the most productive of the Italian’s career.

Riccardo Patrese 1990:  At home in the Williams team.
The 1990 Formula One season was the second season in which the Williams was powered by the first pneumatic valved Renault V10 engine.  It was a mixed year for the Williams team.  When the cars were running reliably they were able to show well.  However, there were problems with the engine and gearbox which restricted good results on several occasions.  The San Marino Grand Prix was a high point.

The dominant cars at the time were the McLarens and the Ferraris, however at Imola, there was some doubt about the staying power of the McLarens, for on this demanding circuit they were on the limit of their fuel consumption. But if the McLarens were not up to their usual immaculate level of performance. the Ferraris seemed set to have it all their own way after dominating recent testing at Imola. As it turned out the Italian cars flattered to deceive.  In qualifying their times were effortlessly beaten by both the McLarens and the Williams.  Ayrton Senna (McLaren) captured the pole position with a time of 1:23.220, with Gerhard Berger (McLaren) second, Patrese third, Thierry Boutsen (Williams) fourth and then the Ferraris of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost.

Sunday's warm-up showed that the McLarens had much less of an advantage with race tyres and fuel than they had enjoyed in qualifying.  At the lights, Berger made a tremendous start, but unfortunately missed a shift which allowed first Senna, and then Boutsen to move in front of him.  But just as he did so, Mansell's Ferrari darted on to the grass and sent up such a thick dustcloud that confusion broke out behind him. At the end of the first lap Senna led Boutsen by 1.5 seconds, with Berger third, Patrese fourth, Jean Alesi (Tyrrell) holding an aggressive but short lived fifth ahead of Mansell and Prost.

1990 San Marino GP: Berger fighting hard to maintain his lead.
Senna held on in front for only three laps before he suffered a freak wheel failure which caused his tyre to go flat.  As a result he wobbled out of the lead and into a sand trap.  Berger was already chasing Boutsen hard, but the Belgian seemed capable of holding the McLaren until a missed shift damaged the Renault engine, which gave up on lap 17. Berger was 1.6 seconds ahead of Patrese when he moved into the lead and he was able to increase this only slightly. But Patrese had his hands full with Mansell, who had started the race on the softer  Goodyear "C" tyres that the Ferrari's well-balanced chassis could use most effectively.  Prost, on the harder "B" compound tyres, was also trying to catch Patrese, but it would only be Mansell, in a brave move, who would be able to put a Ferrari in front of a Williams at Imola.  The Frenchman was complaining over the radio of oversteer and on lap 28 he made an unexpected stop for "C" tyres.  This allowed Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) to slip by into fourth place.

With close duels being waged up and down the field, the leading cars were losing time in traffic.  As the race started its second half, though, Mansell had carved Berger's lead down to half a second, with Patrese four seconds behind, followed by Nannini and Prost.  On lap 36, at the fastest point on the circuit, the notorious Tamburello curve, Mansell made his move on Berger with frighteningly spectacular results.  As the Briton came alongside he put two wheels on the grass and almost immediately spun wildly.  Despite raising dust and spreading rubber all over the road, Mansell remarkably managed to regain control of the car and carried on.  Almost four precious seconds were lost, but the Brit was quickly shaving down the gap again.  He had reduced it to just over two seconds when the engine, which had been trailing smoke almost since the beginning, blew up to the disappointment of the tifosi.  

With one Ferrari retired and the other languishing in fourth place one would expect that there was little to hold the attention of the Italian crowd.  It was then that Patrese began to close on Berger. The Italian had been driving an savvy race, holding back after a slow start and saving his big effort for the end.  With 16 laps remaining he was close enough to challenge Berger.

1990 San Marino GP: No mistakes this time. Patrese takes his third F1 victory. 
And this time, unlike 1983, the tifosi were cheering him on .....  

As chance would have it Berger was experiencing a technical issue.  As the team had feared he was having fuel consumption issues, made all the worse by a damaged engine piston and this meant that he was unable to richen the mixture to compensate for the loss of power.  Patrese made his first attempt to get past the Austrian at Rivazza, but the tight nature of the corner allowed Berger to defend and it took him half a dozen laps to recover.  However, on lap 51, with 10 remaining, he sailed past the leading McLaren, which was being driven on the limit with brakes and tyres obviously past their best.  Ironically the overtake seemed oddly familiar.  "In fact, when I overtook Gerhard today it was exactly the same place where I overtook Tambay in 1983" he recalled.  "And because of that, when I  overtook Gerhard my first thought was about 1983. I said 'OK, that year I made a mistake - this year I cannot make a mistake.'"  He didn't.  Once past the McLaren he was able to open a gap and took the chequered flag four seconds to the good.  It was the 36 year-old Italian's third victory in a career that then spanned 195 Grand Prix starts.

"It's difficult for me to find the words to express my happiness about this win," he grinned as he spoke in the press conference. "It is a race I really wanted, ever since 1983 when I lost here with four laps to go."  Patrese drove with commendable intelligence, however after the race, surely the least complaining and most gracious of that era's racing drivers typically gave credit  to his team.  A day when something lost had been regained in the finest of fashion.  A ghost vanquished.  A wound healed.  And unlike 1983, the Imola crowd cheered their countryman to the echo.  He deserved nothing less.

1990 San Marino GP: For Patrese, it was lost spoils reclaimed.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

1982 United States Grand Prix (West) - Long Beach Street Circuit

April 4, 1982

The Brabham team had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Niki Lauda for the opening practice session of the penultimate round of the 1979 Formula One season in Canada. He had yet to drive the new Cosworth-powered BT49/03, and up to that point he had not even sat in the car. Having established his own airline, Lauda Air, earlier that year in April, his interest was such that he had never even been to the factory to see the new cars being built. As it turned out Lauda drove ten laps in the brand new car and then sloped off to his hotel, leaving Bernie Ecclestone to circulate a PR line that the Austrian was unwell. In truth Niki Lauda had just walked out on the world of motor racing. It was not until the afternoon that it was officially admitted that Lauda had retired from Formula One racing and broken his contract with the Brabham team. And with that, the 33 year-old two-time World Champion was gone. After his retirement, Lauda focussed on running his airline, a charter service flying within Austria, with a fleet of four planes—which Lauda often piloted himself.

Niki Lauda 1979
For two years I didn’t take any real interest in motor racing,” he freely admitted. “It was a chapter in my life I believed was over. My interest was now flying, and it absorbed me totally. I could watch a Grand Prix start and not feel even the slightest tremble of excitement or enthusiasm.”

It genuinely seemed as though the moment had passed as far as his rekindling an F1 career was concerned. Until he found himself curious as to whether it was possible for him to get back into a car after two years and drive with the rest of them. Fortuitously, it was at this time when Ron Dennis, a director of McLaren International, approached Lauda with an offer designed to lure him back into Formula One racing. Lauda had received attractive offers from other teams during his retirement and had passed them up; what intrigued him this time was the unique McLaren MP4 race car. An innovative race car, designed by John Barnard, with a carbon fibre chassis, which was lighter than its aluminium counterpart but three times as stiff. However, while Lauda was impressed with the potential of the McLaren, he would also have to discover if he could adjust to the new demands of Grand Prix driving. Since his retirement Formula One racing had changed drastically as the result of the proliferation of ground-effects cars, which incorporated a uniquely designed undertray, that accelerated the air passing beneath the cars so as to form a partial vacuum and literally suck the vehicles to the surface of a racing circuit. This meant that cornering speeds had greatly increased, and so had the physical demands on the drivers.

During his first test session with the team at Donington in September of 1981 Lauda found driving quite exhausting and he had to keep a tight grip on the tiny steering wheel as his body was subjected high g-forces in the high-speed corners. While he was reasonably quick and obviously enjoying it he could only do two or three laps before having to stop to catch his breath. Niki realized that his physical condition was holding him back.

Lauda signed with McLaren International on November 12, 1981 for what was rumoured to be $3 million for the scheduled 15 Grand Prix races of the 1982 season, making him the highest-paid driver in Formula One racing. Once committed to a comeback Lauda began a three-month conditioning regime, with Willi Dungl, an Austrian physical therapist who had helped in his remarkable recovery from the Nürburgring crash in 1976, that continued right up to the first Grand Prix of 1982, in South Africa in late January. In that first race of the 1982 season, on the Kyalami circuit outside Johannesburg, Lauda qualified thirteenth and finished fourth.

The third round of the season was to be held in America, on the streets of Long Beach, where concentration and precision driving counted for everything. Here Lauda would face an unforgiving and demanding circuit that required absolute perfection, or he’d find himself against the barrier. From the beginning of practice, however, all the smart money was on him. It was not that he took pole - he qualified second - but that he made the matter of lapping Long Beach quickly seem deceptively undramatic and simple. There lay his class.

Andrea de Cesaris 1982
Saturday afternoon, with only a couple of minutes remaining in the last qualifying session Lauda was fastest and looked set to win the pole position having driven just seven laps, such was his speed, with the last being the quickest. There had been no flamboyance, no apparent dash. He had not looked among the quickest, and there laid the greatness of the man, his sublime ability to make it seem easy. He had threaded the McLaren between Long Beach's concrete walls, averaging over 140 kph on the 12-turn, 2.13-mile circuit, and it left you believing anyone could do it. He then stood in the pits for most of the session, not a bead of sweat apparent, his 29 rivals pounded round, to no avail. It had been a simple show of intelligence and efficiency of the kind which has made him a legend. But suddenly, 15 seconds before the qualifying hour was up, Andrea de Cesaris (Alfa Romeo) had produced a lap 0.1 seconds faster than Lauda. When he returned to the pitlane a simple glance at the young Italian illustrated the extent of his effort. He was in a very emotional state, weeping and shaking in the enormity of the moment. A lot of inspiration went into that pole position lap. However, at no point did the Italian look as strong as Lauda, simply because the great Austrian was smooth and effortless in achieving the same end, never looking close to an accident.

On Sunday morning with the Californian sun burning down, the Italian got his start absolutely right, leading the field down Shoreline Drive with Rene Arnoux (Renault) powering by Lauda to take up second spot into the right-hander at the end. Up through the swerves and onto Ocean Boulevard to begin the first full lap, with de Cesaris driving betraying no signs of nerves. The Alfa Romeo led by almost two seconds at the end of the third lap, with Arnoux, Lauda and Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo) running as a group and starting to open out a gap to the rest, who were led by Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari).

1982 United States GP (West): Lauda bided his time in the early stages of the race. 
On the sixth lap, Giacomelli decided to take a run at Lauda at the Turn 11 hairpin. Down the inside he plunged, braking far too late. Lauda made no attempt to block him. The unfortunate victim of this piece of ambitious overtaking was the luckless Arnoux. Having shot by Lauda, Giacomelli locked up and slide into the back of the Renault punting the Frenchman out of the grand prix, now leaving Lauda untroubled in his pursuit of de Cesaris. For a few laps, though, McLaren made no impression on the Alfa Romeo, its lead was almost 5 seconds after eight laps. Thereafter Lauda slipped into that clinical precision so often witnessed during his Ferrari days, taking away a tenth here, a fifth there.

The inevitable lead change happened on lap 15. Through the chicane at the start of Shoreline Drive, de Cesaris was held up by Raul Boesel (March), in an instant Lauda was right with the Alfa Romeo, and the McLaren was very swift in a straight line. Down to the right-handed Turn 1 they came, with Lauda moving smoothly and easily to the inside, leaving de Cesaris with no option other than to cede the corner. Once by, Lauda quickly began to clear, working the traffic with all the guile in the world. Undaunted, de Cesaris charged on, but a simple comparative lack of experience lost him ground every time there were cars to be lapped.

Lap 35 brought about the end of de Cesaris, whose Alfa Romeo crashed heavily at Turn 5. It was a very sad end to all his efforts. He deserved better. The picture, it seemed, was set, for Lauda had a lead of 50s, colossal by any standards. Keke Rosberg (Williams), who had found a way past Villeneuve, was still pushing hard, but his task looked hopeless. Typically, though, he did not simply settle for second place. The gap began to come down. Lauda, of course, was not hurrying as he had been before de Cesaris' exit, and he further gave hope to the Williams team by most untypically missing his braking point at the top of Linden Avenue on one occasion, just managing to keep the car on the road, but losing nine seconds of his lead in the process. It was his first and last mistake of the afternoon.

1982 United States GP (West): Lauda calmly took the lead and controlled the race from there. 
In the last few laps the Austrian was cruising, unconcerned that his lead was being diminished by the energetic Rosberg. The Williams driver never let up, hoping to be close enough to take advantage of any last-minute problem that Lauda might incur, but the McLaren swept on, finally taking the flag a little over 14 seconds to the good. The race lasted almost two hours, and Lauda was quite refreshed afterwards. He had, after all, expended far less energy than most of his rivals. It was cool, analytical and brilliant.

Many of the drivers were angry afterwards about the track surface, which broke up badly in places, Nelson Piquet (Brabham), Didier Pironi (Ferrari) and Alain Prost (Renault) were among those who crashed into the barriers in the tricky conditions. Above all, though, the day belonged to Lauda, with a most conclusive victory. It was like the old days, and nothing reminded one so much as the Austrian National Anthem after the race. It took you back to countless times in the mid-seventies when Niki Lauda was dominant. Long Beach 1982 was a week in the Lauda tradition, the sort of victory he used to make a matter of routine. And that he had done it in only the third race of his comeback put everyone on notice that he was not there for money, or for fame. Lauda was there to compete at the front, win races and challenge for a third World Driver’s Championship. 

 He was certainly back, and it was as though he’d never left.

Triumphant Return: In just his third GP Lauda proves he can still dominate.