Sunday, 2 October 2011

2000 Belgian Grand Prix - Spa Francorchamps

August 27, 2000

Three races into the 2000 Formula One season and Mika Hakkinen had only 6 points to Michael Schumacher's 30, but Hakkinen was still putting on a brave face. He must have known something the rest of us didn't: seven races later, he'd clawed back all but 2 points to his title rival and seemed to have all of the momentum going into the net round in Belgium.

Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, on the otherhand were on the back foot as they prepared for Belgium. Two weeks before, Hakkinen had pulled off a near miracle in Hungary to transform a badly-handling McLaren MP4-15 between qualifying and the race so he could drive the opposition into the ground. Ferrari was unable to match McLaren on the twisty Hungaroring, but hard work following that defeat left it quietly confident for Spa-Francorchamps.

Schumacher - Four time victor at Spa.
After all, the circuit had come to be seen as a near certain 10 points for Michael Schumacher. He scored his first victory there in 1992, he'd won a further three times and he should have taken the spoils in 1994 and 1998 but for a disqualification and a slow moving David Coulthard hidden by a curtain of spray in a rain-drenched race.

But what Schumacher had come to learn in his Ferrari days was that even being the best driver in the world isn't any good without equipment to match. McLaren had been the better package for most of the 2000 season, and Schumacher was pinning his hopes on a new Ferrari 049C engine and aerodynamic tweaks to move him back to the front of the field. Sadly for him, it wasn't to be. 

In qualifying it was Hakkinen who got it right, fighting off competition from Jarno Trulli (Jordan-Mugen Honda) and an inspired Jensen Button (Williams-BMW) to snatch pole position. Schumacher would start in fourth just ahead of his team-mate Rubens Barrichello in fifth. Ferrari was clearly struggling.

2000 Belgian GP - Hakkinen and McLaren, faster than the Ferraris

But hope appeared to have been resurrected on race morning when a downpour washed out the track. Although it was clear that the rain would not stay all afternoon, it was a blessing for the undoubted skills of Schumacher, that era's acknowledged master of wet weather racing.

At the start, Hakkinen led away once the Safety Car had peeled off into the pitlane and, with the track drying out rapidly, the Finn maintained his advantage through the change to grooved "slick" tyres as Schumacher found a way past Button and Trulli to move into second place. On lap 13, however, the race turned on its head when Hakkinen touched a wet white painted line on the exit of Stavelot and spun through 360 degrees. He recovered and got back on the race track ... but the damage was already done. Schumacher took the lead, and charged into the distance. As the gap between them extended to 12 seconds, it appeared the race was over, with victory to Schumacher.

But as the afternoon wore on, there began to be signs that all was not well for the leader. On the long run down from Eau Rouge to Les Combes, Schumacher repeatedly ran off the racing line to cool his tyres on a damp section of the track. The implication was clear: the Ferrari was using its tyres more heavily than the MP4-15. For how long would Schumacher be able to maintain his lead?

Sure enough, Hakkinen began to close the gap as his car started handling better and better as the fuel load lightened. With five laps to go, Hakkinen was right on Schumacher's tail, looking ready to overtake. Through Eau Rouge he got a good run on the Ferrari and as Hakkinen jinked out of his rival's slipstream to the right, Schumacher slowly moved over to cover him. Hakkinen kept his foot down but as he started to pull alongside Schumacher firmly shut the door in an ultra-aggressive manner. The rear wheel of his Ferrari touched Hakkinen's front wing and the Finn braked to avoid what would have been a sizeable accident.

Hakkinen's determination was solidified by Schumacher's aggression.
"It was a very hectic and unpleasant moment - at the time I thought I had damaged something on the car," said Hakkinen. " Michael was holding the inside line and I tried to put the car half on the tarmac and half on the grass and it didn't quite work out. It was very exciting indeed."

As the pair turned into Les Combes, Hakkinen waved his fist in anger at the leader. It was perhaps his frustration at what happened that proved to be a key factor in his aggression the following lap.

Once again Hakkinen got a better run through Eau Rouge and, as Schumacher came up to lap Ricardo Zonta (BAR-Honda), all three drivers were closing in on each other. Schumacher moved to Zonta's left, believing that Hakkinen's only means of getting past had been blocked. But the reigning world champion still livid over what had happened on the previous lap, had other ideas. As Zonta held his ground in the middle of the track, Hakkinen pulled over to the right. Running three abreast with Schumacher and Zonta, he had the acceleration to pull clear and overtake. The race was his.

The Pass - Hakkinen's bravery is unquestionable.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis, watching on the pit wall, punched the air in delight, fully aware of the move's significance - Hakkinen went on to extend his lead to six points in the title chase.

"It was unbelievable," said Dennis. "I think I'd rate the move as the best I've ever seen in Formula One. There have been some exciting moves in the past, but it was the difficult conditions under which Mika did it, having been pushed almost off the circuit and on to the wet track during the previous lap. It wasn't just a question of going either side of a driver. It was also the wet part of the track, and that required commitment and bravery. In order for it to work, the momentum had to be there to keep him on line for the next corner."

The overtaking move of the 2000 season? Definitely. The best overtaking move in Formula One history? Probably not. Whatever the quality of Mika Hakkinen's spectacular manoeuvre past Michael Schumacher, there was no doubt that it was a significant moment in the fight for the 2000 world crown.

Hakkinen stakes his claim on a third straight driver's title.
Hunting Schumacher down in the final laps, refusing to be intimidated by a ruthless chop at over 190mph and passing him in one of the boldest moves ever. It was a spellbinding display made all the more impressive when Zonta later admitted that the reason why he didn't jink to the right when Schumacher came past was that he felt the track was too wet on that line.

Hakkinen was one of the few drivers of that era who had the talent to battle with Schumacher on even terms. The Finn was a hard racer, but he was also a fair and honest sportsman. The bravery and commitment demonstrated during that pass at Spa-Francorchamps was simply brilliant.

There are not many Grands Prix where a single pass defines the race, but this was surely one of the finest examples.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

1978 South African Grand Prix - Kyalami

March 4, 1978

Colin Chapman was a legendary innovator. As founder and team manager of Team Lotus he is most remembered for his many clever designs and for his enormously successful Grand Prix team. Chapman introduced the monocoque form of construction into modern single-seater racing, he brought Ford into Grand Prix racing and along the way laid the ground plan for the venerable Cosworth DFV engine, brought sponsorship into the Grand Prix world, and he very quickly forced the pace of aerodynamics development once the use of wings were introduced to Grand Prix racing.

Perhaps Chapman's greatest legacy was to harness airflow beneath a car to increase its roadholding. In 1977 he introduced the Lotus 78 which was the forerunner of a new breed of grand prix car. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson dominated the 1978 season in the black and gold cars as everyone learned a new expression: "ground effect".

Ground effect involved smoothing the under-car surfaces and attacehd "skirts" to the sides in order to give the underside the profile of a saucer. This shape had the effect of creating a vacuum between the car and the road surface, the effect increasing with the speed of the car. The vacuum "sucked" the car down onto the road, enabling it to corner at speeds that hitherto would have been inconceivable. 

Colin Chapman

Many doubted Chapman's wisdom in pairing Andretti and Peterson in 1978. Mario had an close and trusting relationship with Colin and he and contractually made the American the team's number one driver. Ronnie, however, was widely regarded as the fastest driver in the world in the mid-seventies, his seat-of-the-pants driving style and astonishing car control won him an army of fans. He was at the very least equal in ability and talent to Andretti, but Chapman probably knew better than the track-side cynics that Ronnie would honour the agreement that Mario was to be world champion that season.

It is likely that Peterson accepted the role of number two because he had not won for over a year. During his first stint with Lotus winning seemed to come easy. In 1973 he won four Grands Prix and added another three in 1974. A dreadful 1975 saw him leave Lotus for March in 1976, where he took a further win before being tempted to join Tyrrell in 1977. However, the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 turned out to be a disaster and by now the critics questioned whether he would ever win again. But a switch back tot he resurgent Lotus team for 1978 gave him back all of his enthusiasm and he was ready to prove the critics wrong.

In truth, however, this was not a race which Peterson looked likely to win. It was a race which should have produced a victory for team-mate Mario Andretti, for a young Riccardo Patrese (Arrowa-Ford) or for Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford). 

Andretti started from the front the front row and streaked away into the distance. But at quarter distance Andretti noticed that his front left tyre was starting to blister. If he carried on pushing at this speed, he would lose the race. But if he backed off to conserve it, then the chances were he would be able to pick up the pace again.

So he let Jody Scheckter (Wolf-Ford), who was being closely pursued by Patrese, through. The young Italian pushed Scheckter so hard that the performance of the Wolf's rear tyres went off and, after a spirited wheel-to-wheel battle, Patrese forged ahead. 

Patrese & Scheckter - wheel-to-wheel for the lead.
This was only the second race for the new Arrows team, and Riccardo built up a sizeable lead with Depailler moving up to second as Scheckter faded. Then, with just 15 laps to go, Patrese's engine blew. That left Depailler in the lead, but with Andretti, John Watson (Brabham-Alfa Romeo) and Peterson not far behind. This, in fact, had been a remarkable drive by Peterson, for he had been relegated to the sixth row of the grid by gearbox problems. But, once into the race, he picked his way through to the top six with aplomb.

Watson was next to go when he spun on oil, and that left Andretti, his car working perfectly again, catching Depailler for the lead, with Peterson closing up to both. Then Andretti's engine started to stutter. He was out of fuel, and livid because, to keep the weight of the car down, the Lotus team manager, Colin Chapman had taken out some fuel on the grid.

"What made me so mad was that Colin had three gallons of gas taken out of my car on the grid!" Andretti recalled later. "I didn't really argue with him because the guy was nearly always right. Colin, I says to him, if I run out of fuel, I'll take it out on your hide. Trust me he says ..." Apparently, even legends get it wrong sometimes and Andretti had to pit for a splash of fuel.

The day was not lost for Lotus, however, for Depailler's car was now trailing smoke. But Ronnie made no real inroads into the Tyrrell's lead until, with just five laps to go , the fates decided that the next helping of bad luck was to go to the Frenchman, and the Tyrrell began to stutter - it too was having trouble picking up the last drops of fuel.

1978 South African GP - Depailler tries desperately to hold on for his first win.
Peterson took up the chase. As they went into the last lap Ronnie was gaining, the Lotus virtually on the Tyrrell's gearbox as they came out of Crowthorne. This victory was going to be important to someone. After five years in Formula One Depailler had still to win his first Grand Prix. And Peterson was keen to show the sceptics that he was the man of old.

Round the last lap they went, sometimes side-by-side they ran, each driver's desperation to win plain to see as twice they banged wheels. But Ronnie was very determined to get by, and Patrick's car was hobbled. At the Esses, the last but one corner, the blue and white Tyrrell slid sideways slightly and the gleaming black Lotus slipped ahead. From 12th place on the grid, the great Swede won by half a second.

1978 South African GP - Peterson relentlessly pursues Depailler.
With an absolutely brilliant drive Peterson emphatically answered the critics who questioned his ability. Together, he and Andretti, dominated the 1978 season and, as well as scoring two more superb wins, Ronnie often sat just behind Andretti's exhausts, his integrity refusing to allow himself to break his contract and pass the American.

His performance that season was enough to win him an offer to be McLaren's number one driver in 1979, but after an accident at the start of the Italian Grand Prix left him with serious leg injuries, a bone marrow embolism entered his bloodstream, and Peterson died the following morning, depriving Formula One of one of its most electrifying talents.

Friday, 23 September 2011

1996 Spanish Grand Prix - Circuit de Catalunya

June 2, 1996

A casual observer may not have enjoyed the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix - a lone red Ferrari putting an ever increasing distance between itself and its pursuers. But to the purest it was spellbinding.

What made it all the more impressive was the fact that at the start of the 1996 season Michael Schumacher appeared to have done the unthinkable by leaving Benetton in the wake of back-to-back world titles. He transferred to Ferrari - a proud name, but in many ways a bare shell of a team. 

He'd been encouraged when he tested the 1995 car, but was hugely disappointed when he'd subsequently tried the new F310, Ferrari's first V-10 powered Formula One car. He knew immediately that he was in for a tough season, and he was right. The Williams-Renault dominated the season with a far superior car. In Spain, however, Ferrari had an unquantifiable edge ... Schumacher. 

Still, Schumacher finished the warm-up 0.86 seconds shy of polesitter Damon Hill (Williams-Renault), almost the same margin he'd been adrift in Saturday's dry qualifying session where he claimed third on the starting grid. Then he took a calculated gamble. He told the team he wanted a full wet set-up with light tanks. Two stops. 

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher's bold gamble was pivotal.

Normally in the wet, the strategy is to go to the grid with a heavy fuel load for maximum strategic flexibility. A wet set-up means the car is softened right off on the springs and bars, making its response to the driver's actions more gentle - reducing the risk of a small mistake turing into a terminal, high-speed incident. More wing is cranked on to produce more downforce int he corners, assisting the tyres to grip and disperse more water. The problem, of course, is that if the track dries, the driver will lose out hand over fist to a car that started on a stiffer set-up. Furthermore, the tyres will start to wear horribly quickly.

But start on compromise settings and you obviously don't go as well in the wet. So it is a grey art: if you anticipate a drying track, you run as hard (dry) a set-up as the driver can cope with in the rain.

Hill seemed to hesitate when the lights went out, trailing Villeneuve and Alesi into the first turn, but his getaway was scintillating compared with Schumacher's. The Ferrari appeared almost to stall, before stumbling away. "My start was a disaster," Michael said. "I went for the clutch, and there was nothing. I nearly stalled, then tried it again. Fortunately, no one went into the back of me." By the time he got things sorted out he was ninth going into the Elf right-hander. He quickly recovered however, and had passed three cars before the end of the first lap.

1996 Spanish GP - After a poor start Schumacher storms to the front.

Thereafter, his progress was mesmeric. Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) spun out of fifth and when Damon Hill (Williams-Renault) ran on to the grass a couple of laps later, Schumacher was up to fourth. On lap five he passed Gerhard BErger (Benetton-Renault), lapped two seconds quicker than anyone else and closed to within six seconds of the lead. Next time around he was 3.7 seconds faster than race leader Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) and second-place man Jean Alesi (Benetton-Renault).

The German was using totally different lines to everyone else, sweeping wide to avoid the more frequently used, rubber permeated areas of the track and thus maximizing what precious little grip was available. On lap 9 Schumacher swept around the outside of the tightening fourth gear Renault right-hander and did the same out of Repsol. He sliced his way past Alesi, into second, and on lap 12 he overtook Villeneuve, too, at precisely the same place. On each occasion, he left his braking late, poked the nose of the Ferrari inside, leaving neither Jean nor Jacques an opportunity to resist. The moves were exquisitely judged and by the end of lap 12, he was three seconds clear.

Just two laps later Schumacher posted the fastest lap of the race, some four seconds quicker than Villeneuve and Alesi. By lap 24, Schumacher was in for his first stop. In the twelve laps he led the race he opened a 40 second gap. Before he stopped again, on lap 42, the margin was widened further to 90 seconds, despite a sick sounding engine.

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher effortlessly passes Villeneuve for the lead.
"It started on lap 33," Michael said, "and I thought I was running on eight or nine cylinders. I guessed it was probably caused by the water, but I was worried. Normally I'm flat in sixth on the straight, but suddenly I wasn't even hitting the limiter in fifth."

In actual fact his engine was on nine cylinders for a time, but this cured itself and the main problem was a broken exhaust. Nevertheless, through the most appalling wet conditions Schumacher scored his first success for the Prancing Horse. A truly brilliant one, too. He all but drowned Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt on Moet on the podium.

"I wouldn't have bet a penny on myself winning this race," he said after the race. "In Brazil the car didn't handle and it hadn't felt good in the wet warm-up at Monaco. I've no explaination other than that it is very sensitive to the circuit. Here, we hadn't been competitive in the dry, but suddenly, in the wet warm-up, it felt great. We made a few more changes afterwards and it was perfect."

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher and Ferrari would soon dominate F1.
It was, in truth, one of the great wet weather drives in history. The set-up and strategy may have been perfect, but this was as good a drive as Michael Schumacher had ever delivered. And that's saying something. The highest praise came from the opposition.

Renault's Bernard Dudot said with a smile "Today, Schumacher was brilliant and nobody could do anything to stop him. We had no engine problems!" And Williams senior operations engineer James Robinson added: "I don't think the Ferrari was that brilliant. It looked like it was on ice to me. That guy is something else. It was pretty amazing." 

Amazing was about the only way you could describe it.

Monday, 5 September 2011

1988 Japanese Grand Prix - Suzuka

October 30, 1988

In the summer of 1987 Ayrton Senna finally sealed a three-year deal to drive for the McLaren team from the start of the 1988 season. Former McLaren team driver John Watson found himself chatting with Senna about his prospects with McLaren during the summer of 1987. The conversation worked around to how Ayrton would handle competing alongside Alain Prost, by then in his fourth season with the team and already the winner of two World Championship titles.
Drawing on his experience of running beside Niki Lauda in the McLaren squad, Watson offered the young Brazilian his opinion that the best way to deal with Prost would be by stealth rather than by engineering a head-to-head confrontation. Senna listened politely, then surprised Watson by telling him that he had other ideas.

"He told me he would beat Prost by being fitter, more motivated and more dedicated," Watson recalled later. "He said he would make sure he was in a position to drive faster, more consistently, and for longer than Prost could. He meant to beat him convincingly from the front, and I recall thinking, Well that seems a little optimistic."

1988 Prost & Senna - The two premier drivers would battle for the title.
Alain Prost was indeed a potent and formidable adversary, not to be taken lightly. He had, after all, won two of the previous three World Championships and at that time he had won more Grands Prix than anyone in history. Beating him would never be easy and while it was fairly obvious that Ayrton had the natural talent to confront him within the same team, with equal machinery, overcoming the mental barrier of actually transcending Prost would prove to be the biggest hurdle.

As the cornerstone of his impending strategy Ayrton Senna made qualifying a speciality which no-one could hope to match in 1988, not even Alain Prost. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than at Monaco where his pole position lap, the 19th of his five year career, was a scarcely believable 1.6 seconds faster than the Frenchman! To outpace a team-mate of Prost's stature by such a margin was absolutely astounding and up until then ... unheard of.

At Monaco, being on the front row can be a decisive advantage and Senna made effective use of his pole position. The Brazilian made a brilliant getaway while his team-mate faltered. Out of the Ste Devote chicane it was Senna ... then Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) who had snatched second place from Prost. At the end of the opening lap, Senna had pulled out a 2.5 second lead.

Though Prost drew level with Berger several times under braking for Ste Devote, and even pushed his McLaren's nose in front, his efforts looked fruitless, perhaps even reckless. When, at last, the Frenchman managed to wrestle second place from Berger, Senna was 48 seconds in front. Prost posted a couple of fast laps, but then when Senna responded with the fastest laps of the race thus far, Prost radioed to his pit and said that he would settle for second place.

"When they told me that Alain had overtaken Berger, I went faster for a few laps," Senna would say later. Team chief Ron Dennis, then called Senna to inform him that Prost would not be trying to attack. Only a few laps later, Senna's car bounced off the guardrail on the inside of the right-handed Portier corner and then smashed into the barriers on the outside of the corner.

1988 Monaco GP - The biggest step in Senna's career.
He trudged away expressionless, numb and he went directly to his nearby apartment. There he promptly fell asleep without even calling his team. On reflection, he concluded that the accident had been his fault, for heeding Dennis' advice and slowing down. "It was my mistake," he said "by going slow I lost concentration."

Given the fact that it was Senna's avowed intent, when he went to McLaren, to prove to everyone that he was beyond doubt the next World Champion, the shock of Monaco must have been immense on his psyche. It would have buried the confidence of most, especially considering that on points, Alain now led Ayrton in the Championship 24 to 9 and making up a 15 point deficit on Prost would not be the work of a moment. Hard to believe as it was, but after only three of sixteen races, Senna may have already lost the 1988 World Championship at Portier that Sunday.

Ayrton, however, was never one to give up and it was belief in himself (to do even what seemed impossible) that would eventually make him one of the truly greatest racing drivers of all time. He was able to shake off the disappointment of Monaco and came back even stronger and more determined, winning six of the next eight races. As the calendar approached the Japanese Grand Prix, with only two rounds remaining in the Championship, Senna had trimmed Prost's lead in the standings to 5 points.

In 1988 drivers counted their best eleven finishes towards the Championship and if Senna could win in Japan he would clinch the World Driver’s Championship no matter what Prost did. This straightforward scenario seemed to be perfect for Senna. He seemed to be created for such a task … grab pole, go faster than anyone and win. 

1988 Japanese GP - A victory would seal the Championship for Senna.
Ayrton duly took the pole at Suzuka, which was almost a given since, in the end, he would win the pole position in all, save three races, of the 1988 season. Prost joined him on the front row with Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) and Ivan Capelli (March-Judd) occupying the second row. 

It was unfortunate that, amid the excitement and anticipation of the moment, the politeness of Suzuka’s efficient organizers was tested to the full by none other than FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. His first gaffe was to send a letter to the president of Honda Motors reminding him (as if such were necessary) that both Senna and Prost should be provided with identical engines: “otherwise the image of the World Championship would be tarnished.” An ominous precursor to the behaviour of Monsieur Balestre, and an ironic choice of words, given how his actions would reflect on the World Championships of 1989 and 1990.

Politics aside, the stage was set then for the epic showdown that would decide the World Championship. However, moments after the start of the Grand Prix it seemed almost unthinkable that Ayrton Senna would win the championship in Japan. The benefits of his hard-earned pole position, evaporated when his Honda engine died. Prost whizzed by to grab the lead, while on the grid behind there were numerous heart-stopping moments as fast moving cars swerved around the seemingly stricken number 12 McLaren. 

“It was the only start I missed all year – and it was the most important,” Senna would relate later. “When I dropped the clutch, the engine died, and then when I got it going, it did it again. I thought: I am going to have to drive as hard as I can, but it will be impossible to catch Alain.”

Senna’s car was fourteenth at the second corner, and one couldn’t help but recall his mental lapse at Monaco. Surely the situation he was in now was impossible. His vastly experienced team-mate was out in front, with the same dominant equipment and twelve competitors between them. After fighting so hard all season to put himself back into contention for the title it is easy to imagine how demoralizing this must have been. Any other drive would have mentally packed it in, but Senna was not like that, and as only he could, he began to fight back. By the end of the first lap he was eighth. 

“I found my rhythm and started to go quicker and quicker,” Senna recalled. “Then some drizzle came, so everybody slowed, and that helped me.” Indeed in the slippery conditions Senna’s special brand of skill and daring brought him dramatically closer to his team-mate. Patrese (Williams-Judd), Boutsen (Benetton-Ford), and Alboreto (Ferrari) were all comparatively easy prey – it took three laps to dispose of them, but by then third placed Berger was 9.4 seconds in front.

The gap melted to nothing in five laps, as Berger did his best to stay within the limits of his Ferrari’s fuel gauge. Once past the red car, Senna’s sternest rival would be the excellent Ivan Capelli, who had taken his March past Berger on the sixth lap. At the moment when Senna started to cut into the margin separating him from Capelli, the Italian was giving Prost a hard time. For one glorious moment the sea-green March actually nosed in front of the McLaren in front of the pits, but his normally aspirated Judd just could not match the turbo-charged Honda and Alain maintained the lead.

Senna Closes In - Prost's advantage at the start melts away. 
Prost would not be able to resist Senna so easily. “Ayrton was very strong and motivated, and I knew it would be difficult,” said the Frenchman. “I had a good opportunity when he missed the start, and I controlled the race. Then I had some traffic – and also a gearbox problem – I was missing one gearshift maybe every two or three laps. I am very frustrated and it was disappointing that I lost maybe eight seconds in two laps compared with Ayrton. He overtook me when I had traffic.”

Once in front of Prost, a jubilant Senna allowed the remaining 23 laps to tick away without effort. When a second rain shower damped the circuit in the last five laps, Senna victory was assured. There was certainly no mistaking his elation that he felt as he crossed the line, punching the sky with both arms, to win.

Ayrton had pulled off the unimaginable, with a stupefying performance. He won the Championship in the best possible fashion, beating the dominant driver of the day fair and square despite the huge obstacles that were thrown his way. After his victory at Estoril in 1985, he was given the nickname “Magic” and at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1988 he proved how appropriate that nickname truly was.

In the press conference afterwards, Senna was more open, more frank than usual. “I feel as if I’ve lost a great weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I feel very light and pleased. Many times people ask me which was my best race, and up until now it was always Portugal in ’85 in the rain, my first win. But this one is the best one now, for sure.”

“Generally, people don’t realize how hard it is for us to come from behind. There were so many back markers and they were so difficult.” As it happens, one of those who didn’t make it easy for Senna was Prost himself. The passing manoeuvre that gave Senna the lead, and with it the championship, took place as they passed the pits, Senna chose to pass on the inside, and Prost who occupied the middle of the circuit showed no readiness at all to concede. Senna completed the pass in the dirt. 

Senna saved the biggest revelation for a question about his now celebrated mistake at Monaco. “I can talk about it now,” he said. “Monaco was the turning point of the Championship for me. The mistake I made in Monte Carlo woke me up psychologically, mentally, and I changed a lot after that mistake. And that gave me the strength and the power and the cool mind to fight on critical situations.”

“That was when I had the biggest step in my career as a racing driver, as a professional and as a man. I have to say that it brought me even closer to God than I’ve ever been, and that has changed my life completely.”

1988 Japanese GP - Senna and a great weight lifted.
As much as the events during the Grand Prix reminded us of why we love Formula One, Monsieur Balestre's bias and favouritism reminded us afterwards of how loathsome certain aspects of the series can be. On Sunday afternoon, having heard of Prost’s gearshift difficulties, he rang FISA officials at Suzuka to demand that the offending gearbox be stripped down. This led to the amusing sight of six FISA officials, none of whom knew the difference between a pinion and a potato, trying to make sense of dozens of gearbox parts scattered over the paddock tarmac.

In contrast to the deluded world of Jean-Marie Balestre, Ayrton Senna’s victory in Japan was something real. I truly admired him for readily admitting his shortcomings and making no excuses for his mistake at Monaco. It would have been easy to massage his ego with his eight victories, his thirteen pole positions or his world crown, but it was his ability to make himself stronger through adversity that made me respect him even more. Facing challenges seemed to unlock an even higher level of performance from him, and the more difficult the challenge he faced, the more inspired a performance he could deliver.

This was Ayrton Senna’s “Magic” … this is what made him special, this is what made him the greatest driver of his era.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

1979 French Grand Prix - Circuit de Dijon-Prenois

July 1, 1979

Renault's first Formula One race in the modern era was at Silverstone for the 1977 British Grand Prix. They entered a single car for Jean-Pierre Jabouille. What made this particular entry so notable, was the fact that the Renault RS01 carried a Renault-Gordini V6 turbocharged engine which was the first such engine to be used with any regularity in Formula One history.

1977 Jabouille - The fast, but fragile RS01
The car proved extremely fragile. So much so that the British teams cheekily dubbed it the Yellow Teapot because of its tendency to retire from Grands Prix billowing smoke from the engine. It suffered mechanical failures in all five of the races it entered that season. While reliability was clearly an issue the car was able to demonstrate an impressive speed capability and Renault stayed committed to developing the technology. Solving the turbo puzzle proved difficult and it wasn’t until 1979 when they introduced their new RS10 ground effects car (which now had a Renault-Gordini V6 with a twin turbo configuration) that the team began to show progress. That season Renault had expanded the team to two drivers with René Arnoux joining Jabouille.

The team was a national undertaking. Not only was Renault France’s largest automobile manufacturer, the team also partnered with Elf Fuel and Michelin tyres. So when the Grand Prix circus arrived at the Dijon-Prenois circuit it was clear that this was not just another race on the calendar for Renault.

Dijon, abounding in fast corners and with a steep uphill haul towards the end of the lap, is a circuit where horsepower counts for more than anything else. With the twin-turbo Jabouille was fastest from the very beginning of practice and he took a comfortable pole. Less readily anticipated, though, was the presence of René Arnoux's sister Renault on the front row. In the matter of sheer pace, the yellow cars stood alone.

Only Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) came closest to disrupting the Renaults dominance during qualifying. Behind the French-Canadian was Nelson Piquet (Braham-Alfa Romeo), Jody Scheckter (Ferrari), and Niki Lauda (Brabham-Alfa Romeo).

The crowd on race day was predictably of epic proportions, variously estimated at between 100,000 and 120,000. They were there in droves to lend their support to the yellow of Renault. Even the Gods seemed to be doing their bit for the home side. After the blistering, if clouded, heat during practice and qualifying, race day was overcast and cool - in other words, perfect turbo weather. All the omens seemed to be pointing in one direction.
Gilles Villeneuve

With all of this stacked against him, Villeneuve, knew the start would be critical. “For me, it is very important to get a good start,” he said on Sunday morning. “Somehow I must at least split the Renaults on the first lap.” He did better than that. When the green light blinked. the Ferrari lit up its tyres and catapulted away. Arnoux, on the front row, very nearly stalled his car, and that was all the gap Gilles needed. Jabouille had got away reasonably well, but it was not enough to hold the Ferrari. Villeneuve led the pack into the first corner, intent on forcing the issue from the outset. All the way round that lap, the Ferrari was on the ragged edge, but the policy was working out. Gilles was leaving them behind.

As the T4 completed lap one in the lead, it was followed by Jabouille, Scheckter, Piquet, Jean-Pierre Jarier (Tyrrell-Ford), who had made a sensational start from row five, Lauda, Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Ford), Alan Jones (Williams-Ford) and - back in ninth spot - Arnoux. After two laps, Villeneuve's lead was over two seconds and growing, but Arnoux was already giving notice of the Renault's potential, dispensing with Jones and Laffite in a single lap. After another, he was past Lauda. 

Rene Arnoux
At five laps, Villeneuve was more than four seconds to the good, with Jabouille steadily dropping Scheckter. Piquet ran fourth, with Jarier fifth, but the Tyrrell was swiftly passed by Arnoux, who needed only another five laps to displace the Brabham.

At the front, Villeneuve's progress was remarkable, but one wondered if he might regret the early charge when tyre wear became critical in the second half of the race. “I am not interested in three or four points,” he had said on Sunday morning. "This is one I want to win, nothing less.”

Although maintaining his five-second lead, it was clear that Villeneuve's Ferrari was making its driver work. The Renault, by contrast, looked as smooth as silk. If Jabouille was content to let Villeneuve lead, Arnoux clearly had very definite ideas about coming to grips with Scheckter, and the South African surrendered without a fight on lap 14. Ferrari, Renault, Renault, Ferrari. Quite suddenly it became obvious that Villeneuve's strategy, while the only one open to him, was not going to work out after all, for Jabouille was closing relentlessly, sometimes by as much as half a second a lap. The two of them were now well clear of the rest, who were led comfortably by Arnoux.

1979 French GP - Jabouille relentlessly pursues Villeneuve.
Jabouille was right up with Villeneuve after 30 laps, and the spectators really began to believe that perhaps a French victory might be at hand. Villeneuve was not about to wave Jabouille by, however, and a combination of lucky breaks with lapped traffic, handled with good deal of verve, pulled the Ferrari's lead out to four seconds again.

“For the second half of the race, my car was all over the place,” said Villeneuve later, this being the price of his early charge. On right-handers, he added, it was oversteering, and on left turns, the very opposite. So when Jabouille moved in once more, Gilles had no worthwhile cards left to play.

On lap 46, Jean-Pierre made his move, diving past the Ferrari at the end of the pit straight. “I remember being told early in my career that it was essential, after overtaking, to go as quick as possible for three or four laps afterwards,” he said afterwards. “It demoralizes the guy behind. That was good advice. and I really went hard for a while.” 

1979 French GP - Once past the Ferrari, Jabouille builds a gap.
In five laps the Renault went three seconds clear. Now the driver had only to keep going, keep praying that this time it would all come right.

Stalemate appeared to sum up the dying laps. Jabouille was a quarter of a minute to the good, with Villeneuve similarly ahead of Arnoux. Jones ran a solid, now lonely fourth, and Jarier appeared to have the measure of Clay Regazzoni (Williams-Ford).

And now it was that the race came alive. The question of victory was never in doubt, of course, for Jabouille had all well in hand. But even he was not without problems. “In the last 30 laps, my brake pedal went 'hard', and required a tremendous effort to push it. For the last few laps, I was in a lot of pain with my right leg, and I don't believe I could have continued for much longer.” Jean-Pierre's problems, however, were as nothing compared with those confronting Villeneuve, whose tyres were now quickly approaching the end of their life's work. The Ferrari's pace had slowed appreciably; and at the same time, René Arnoux, fighter that he was gave the Renault everything he had, closing in on Villeneuve at a simply prodigious rate, something around a second and a half a lap.

With ten laps left, Gilles's position appeared hopeless, for Arnoux was only five seconds back and, as we had seen earlier in the race, he quite obviously had no trouble in passing people.

Five laps to go, and the two cars were almost nose, to-tail, spectators now on their feet, willing Arnoux on screaming frenzied support. Villeneuve surely could not withstand the Renault for long, for surely Arnoux was now quite inspired, swept along by the moment.

On lap 71 he had gone round in 1:09.16, more than a second faster than any other driver in the race! And some measure of Villeneuve's determination was that he, too, set his fastest lap of the race at the same time, hobbled by tyre wear or no. On lap 77, Jabouille went through, then a horde of backmarkers, then ... delirium from the stands, Arnoux was in front! It was going to be a Renault one-two. At the end of the pit straight, he had calmly out-braked Villeneuve and snatched second place. And that, so it appeared, was that. Gilles had gallantly carried the battle to the Renaults and the gamble had failed. Torque - and a healthy dose of French pride - had beaten him. But Villeneuve was not like that. He had sensed that something was slightly amiss with Amoux's car. “When René passed me, I expected him to run away down the straight, just as Jabouille had done, but the gap stayed the same. I couldn't close on him, but he wasn't getting away.”

Arnoux's fuel pick-up was faltering slightly in the last few minutes. “I thought I would try to get him back as quick as possible, because he wouldn't expect it. At the end of the pit straight, I wasn't really close enough, but I dove for the inside and left my braking really, really late ...” 

1979 French GP - The epic duel between Villeneuve & Arnoux.
With smoke from all four tyres, the Ferrari scrambled inside the Renault, and the two cars rounded the tight right-hander side by side. During those remaining 7 or 8 kilometers (4 or 5 mi.), no one really knows how many times they banged wheels, slid wide, went off the track, rejoined it, touched again. It was desperate in a manner not often seen in Grand Prix racing, condemned by some as irresponsible, lauded by more as heroic.

The downhill left-hander into the loop is not a place for overtaking, nor even for lapping unless the back marker is unusually charitable. It follows a top gear right-hander, which dictates line astern formation Therefore, it was with considerable surprise to witness the Ferrari and the Renault emerge absolutely side by side on the last lap. Down through the left they plunged, Arnoux sliding out into Villeneuve, both cars getting way out of line on the exit.

René led up to the hairpin, but Gilles asked one more favour from his exhausted Michelins, braked later than late, and snatched back the place. Desperately Arnoux tried another counterattack, but Villeneuve was not giving way now. Across the line they went, the Ferrari in front. 

There was total pandemonium. As they cruised round the slowing down lap Gilles and René saluted each other, and when they stopped, they jumped from their cars, shook hands and embraced after the race of their lives. There were no recriminations from either man.

"No," grinned Arnoux, "I am not sad to be third. I enjoyed the race very much, and Gilles drove a fantastic race. Most of all, I am pleased for Jean-Pierre. C'est justice!"

"C'est justice!" - Renault and Jabouille achieve the first turbo victory.
"I tell you, that was really fun," said Villeneuve, merry as ever. "I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another. But we didn't crash, and it's OK. Tired? Not really, I feel I could go another 40 laps, maybe..."

The same could not be said of his tyres.

Truly a race to remember, a first win for Renault, their turbo and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. And there lay the tragedy. He had driven magnificently, finished the race exhausted. The winner, French in a French car in France, however, it is the legendary battle for second place that this race will always be remembered for. Being a Canadian, Gilles Villeneuve was a childhood hero of mine. I admired him for his strong and true character, but I loved him for his racing. In 1979 at Dijon is why I and many Canadians to this day will never forget Gilles Villeneuve. He was one of the very best drivers to ever race in Formula One.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

1984 Monaco Grand Prix - Monte Carlo

June 3, 1984

Ayrton Senna came to Europe in 1981, at the age of twenty-two, to begin his open wheel racing career competing in British Formula Fords. He was already well known for what he had accomplished in karting. A portfolio which included the 1977 and 1978 South American Championship. He was also the Brazilian national champion four straight years, from 1978 to 1981.

Ayrton won his third ever car race at Brands Hatch on March 15th 1981, at the wheel of a Van Diemen RF81. By the end of the season he had established himself as the man to beat, winning the two prestigious national British Formula Ford titles.  In 1982 he graduated to Formula Ford 2000, competing in both the British and European Championships. Utterly and completely dominating the formula he won twenty-one of the twenty-seven races contested. That season Senna also had his first chance to race in a non-championship Formula Three race at Thruxton. He started from pole position and won easily.

1982 FF2000 - Gaining the attention of the F1 fraternity.
At the start of 1983 several F1 teams were keen to bankroll Senna's F3 season in return for an option on his services. He refused them all, choosing instead to maintain his independence and decide his own future. That year he drove for Dick Bennetts' highly respected West Surrey racing team in the British national F3 championship. This partnership began with a formidible display of dominance as Ayrton won the first nine races of the season and duly took the title after a season long battle with Martin Brundle.

Bernie Eccelstone, well known as the commercial driving force behind F1s multinational television coverage, was in 1984 also the owner of the Brabham Formula One team. Eccelstone was keen to have Senna drive for him, but it never materialized. Instead Senna signed for the Toleman F1 team.  While the Toleman team was neither a top team nor particularly well financed, it did have some talented people in it`s ranks. These included designers Rory Byrne, who went on to design championship winning cars for Benetton and Ferrari, and Pat Symonds, who succeeded with the team as it transitioned to Benetton and then eventually Renault. Towards the end of the 1983 season the team began to show some promise. It was only their third full season, but their TG183B design, in the hands of Derek Warwick scored points in the final four races of the season.

1984 Monaco GP - Senna's talent shine through.
Senna was quick to realize this and even at this early stage in his career Senna knew precisely where he wanted to go and how he intended to get there. From the start of his relationship with Toleman he displayed a finely honed analytical mind. It was with two impressive point scoring finishes at Kyalami and Spa-Francorchamps that Senna and Toleman would arrive for the sixth round of the season at Monaco.

Qualifying had seen World Championship leader Alain Prost (McLaren) take pole position with Nigel Mansell (Lotus) second, ahead of Rene Arnoux (Ferrari), Michele Alboreto (Ferrari), Warwick (Renault) and Patrick Tambay (Renault). Senna qualified an admirable 13th.

Race morning was marked by steady rain and conditions were so bad that the start of the race was delayed for forty-five minutes. At the first corner Warwick and Tambay collided and were out. Prost led the opening lap with Mansell giving chase, then the two Ferraris. Senna and another talented rookie, Stefan Bellof (Tyrrell) who started 20th, made excellent getaways from the start and at the end of lap one were up to 9th and 11th respectively. Briefly Prost extended his lead over Mansell. His teammate Niki Lauda (McLaren) was also going well and by lap 6 had overtaken both Ferraris to move into 3rd place.

1984 Monaco GP - Plumes of spray as Senna enters Tabac
On lap 10 the Englishman's Lotus was right up with the McLaren and on the following lap Mansell passed Prost for the lead. By this time both Senna and Bellof continued their steady charge through the field despite the treacherous conditions. Senna was 6th and threatening Keke Rosberg (Williams) for fifth, and Bellof was 8th immediately behind his compatriot Manfred Winkelhock (ATS). Leading a Grand Prix for the first time now Mansell began building a gap. The weather, however, continued to downpour unabated and on lap 16 when, going up the hill to Casino Square, with the power hard on, he touched the painted white line in the road with one of his rear wheels. The car flicked right, then left, before clouting the Armco barrier on both sides of the track. With his rear wing now askew and his suspension broken, Mansell tried to limp back to the pits but spun at Mirabeau and retired. By this time Senna had found a way past Rosberg and Arnoux. He was simply flourishing in the incredibly challenging conditions holding 3rd on merit and closing now on Lauda in second. 

Within two laps of Mansell's retirement on lap 19 he overtook Lauda to take second place and began to chase Prost, who was half a minute ahead. Five laps later Lauda crashed in Casino Square. As Senna chased Prost so attention focussed on Bellof who was up to fourth place from last on the grid. It was a mighty performance. On lap 27 Bellof blasted past Arnoux to take third place and set off in pursuit of Senna. As Senna closed on Prost so Bellof closed on the pair of them.
Stefan Bellof - What might have been ....
By lap 28 Senna had reduced the gap between himself and Prost by an incredible ten seconds, and it was at this time that Prost began gesturing to the flag stand to stop the race. By lap 31 was just seven seconds adrift, with Bellof inching ever closer to the Brazilian. But the world was denied the spectacle of one of these two young geniuses clinching his first victory in only his sixth Grand Prix, when red flags were produced, stopping the race. 

Jacky Ickx who was the clerk of the course and a renowned wet-weather expert in his days in Formula One, found himself in the midst of a political storm as he was accused of deliberately stopping the race to ensure Prost won. In fact he did stop the race upon his own decision and did not consult the race stewards before doing so. Adding fuel to the controversy was the fact that Ickx drove for Porsche in sports car racing, and so it was insinuated that he wanted Prost, who was powered by a Porsche-built engine, to win. Ickx was later fined $6000 by FISA and had his clerk's license suspended. Many people rightfully pointed out that the rain was falling as hard when the race was stopped as at any time in the afternoon.
1984 Monaco GP - Senna's first podium after an astonishing performance.
It would have been truly mesmerizing to witness what would have happened if the race had been allowed to run it's course, but unfortunately we are left only to speculate. Still this race marked the emergence of the new breed of racers in Formula One. Prost and Senna went on to become the dominant drivers of their era. But Bellof, who surely would have challenged them for that distinction, was killed in a sports car race at Spa-Francorchamps, ironically trying to pass Ickx's Porsche through Eau Rouge, a little over a year later.

What might have been .....