Thursday, 8 March 2012

1986 Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring

August 10, 1986

With ten of the sixteen races done, the 1986 World Championship battle was about to go into its decisive phase in Hungary. Nigel Mansell (Williams) was leading the championship with 51 points. Hot on his heels were Alain Prost (McLaren) with 44, looking to defend his title, Ayrton Senna (Lotus) with 42 and Nelson Piquet (Williams), who was back with the leaders after his victory at Hockenheim, which brought him up to 38 points.

In the first qualifying session, Mansell immediately showed his confidence by driving the fastest lap by far. With a time of 1:30.516, the Briton was nearly a second faster than his teammate Piquet, while qualifying ace Ayrton Senna, who had scored five pole positions in the first ten races of the season, clocked a time 1.7 seconds slower than Mansell. Gerhard Berger (Benetton) set the fourth fastest time in the first session, helped by his Pirelli tyres.

Piquet - Back in the fight for the title.
On Saturday, Senna had sorted out how the track worked, scraping a massive 2.8 seconds off his Friday time to claim pole in 1:29.450. Prost also found his rhythm, improving by over 3 seconds to claim third. Between the two wasn’t Mansell, but Piquet. The Brazilian put his Williams next to Senna with a 1:29.785. Where most drivers found at least one and a half seconds on Saturday, Mansell improved only by half a second, moving him from provisional pole to fourth.

Senna - On pole for the sixth time.
In the race, it was clear, right from the start that this was to be a two man show. The two Brazilians on the front row pulled away, and were only seen again when they showed up in the rear-view mirrors of the drivers they lapped. From the start, even Piquet had trouble keeping up with Senna. The Lotus driver took off with an amazing 1:35 opening lap. Senna managed to create a small gap of about three seconds during the opening laps of the race, but Piquet counter attacked, and after eight laps he was right back under Senna’s gearbox.

For the next four laps, Piquet tried several times to outbrake Senna, but the tight circuit made such a manoeuvre extremely difficult. However, through sheer persistence the Williams driver finally squeezed through on lap twelve, and immediately began striking a gap. While Mansell, Prost and Rosberg didn’t drive badly, the record crowd of 200,000 was in awe with the display the two Brazilians were showing them. In three laps, Piquet increased his lead to five seconds.

Piquet chased Senna down and took the lead before the pitstops.
Then, on lap 18, Senna made a rare mistake, dropping no less than three seconds in one lap. Immediately following this error, the Lotus driver recovered magnificently, driving all out for several laps. He set a blistering pace, while Piquet was suffering from excessive tyre wear. By lap 25 Senna had brought the gap from eight back to three seconds, only to fall back to seven seconds again when Piquet pulled out another fast lap, with his tyres seemingly coming back to him.

After 35 laps, Piquet came in for his pitstop. At that time, his advantage was only five seconds, and so Ayrton Senna easily took over the lead. The young Brazilian then went full throttle until his own pitstop in order to build the maximum benefit from the laps between Piquet’s pitstop and his own. Senna’s plan succeeded perfectly and when his pitstop was completed on lap 42, he came out in the lead with seven seconds advantage. What followed was a frantic battle between the two countrymen on fresh rubber posting nearly identical laptimes for nearly ten consecutive laps.

Senna drove magnificently during the pitstop phase to retake the lead.
By then it became clear that Senna’s car wasn’t 100%. In a period of five laps, Piquet was able to close the gap Senna and began calmly stalking his younger countryman. As lap 53 began, with the Lotus and Williams passing the start-finish line nose to tail, with Piquet perfectly placed in Senna's slipstream. The young Brazilian, despite being in only his third full season of Grand Prix racing, instantly recognized what the wily Piquet was planning and deftly positioned his Lotus in the centre of the racing line to protect his position as best he could. As Piquet went for the inside line, Senna left him room but closed the gap enough to make Piquet's passing attempt as difficult as possible. They both went deep into the braking zone, leaving it all until the last possible second. Piquet reached the corner first, but the inside line that Piquet was on, that Senna pinned him to, was the dirty portion of the track and as Piquet got on the brakes his car immediately began slithering on the edge of adhesion. He could not make the apex of the corner, sliding wide, and this left the door open for Senna to retake the lead. It was riveting stuff from two brilliant racing drivers.

Piquet immediately slotted himself behind Senna once more and calmly took up the chase. In two laps Piquet was again under Senna's gearbox as they went across the start-finish line. The Honda power in the Williams ensured that Piquet quickly reeled in Senna's Lotus. Senna once again expected Piquet to dive for the inside and as before positioned his car in the centre of the racing line. Just as he did so, Piquet dove instead for the outside line. It was a bold move and Senna immediately realized the ruse and attempted to close the gap to the outside line in order to keep Piquet there through the turn. Piquet's bravery and determination, however, was not to be denied and with his wheels millimetres from the grass he went past the Lotus. Again the two daredevils left the braking until the last possible moment, Lotus on the inside, Williams on the outside. Again Piquet teetered on the edge of control, the back end of his car stepping out as he entered the corner, but this time he kept it together, made the apex and left no room for Senna to counter attack. It was an amazing display of car control and a stupefying pass that can surely be considered one of the best ever. In short, it was a work of art. 

Piquet goes around the outside of Senna into Turn 1.
With the job done, Piquet opened a small lead of about four seconds and looked free and clear at last. However, Senna responded yet again and what followed was a stunning race to the flag as the Williams and Lotus raced through the Hungarian hills faster and faster. There was little traffic left, as the number of cars had been reduced to just ten during the race. Each time one of the two leading Brazilians would improve their fastest lap, the other would respond right away with one of their own.

Ten laps from the end, Senna finally got his break as Piquet ran into backmarkers. The Williams driver posted a 1:35 and a 1:36, while Senna was running 1:34s at the time, allowing the Lotus driver to catch up for a grand finale. For the next seven laps there was rarely more than a foot between the two, but Piquet didn’t give Senna a chance to pass. On lap 73 Piquet set the fastest lap of the race with a ripping 1:31.001, two tenths faster than Senna during the previous lap and 1.6 seconds faster than the third fastest driver, Keke Rosberg (McLaren).

On lap 74 the great battle all of a sudden ended in an enormous anti-climax. When Piquet blasted past start-finish, the crowd waited and waited for Senna to show. The black Lotus finally showed, eight seconds behind Piquet’s Williams. As they came around again, Piquet’s victory was clear. The Williams driver had stopped pushing as Senna dropped yet another four seconds. The final lap saw Senna even registering a 1:40 lap as he crawled across the line to claim second. Piquet’s teammate and bitter rival Mansell came third, a lap and 40 seconds behind.

A thrilling display by both, but the wily veteran wins the day.
This was the first of many tough battles between two arch rivals. The rivalry between Piquet and Senna was not a subtle matter. This was Sao Paulo vs Rio de Janeiro, the old fox vs the young gun. Piquet was burning with desire to show the new kid he was still the master, but at the same time he knew that Senna was going to capture his throne as most popular Brazilian driver. This rivalry showed in every inch of the first Hungarian Grand Prix. 

Ayrton Senna, along with Alain Prost, indeed overshadowed their rivals in the Eighties to a great extent. The only man who ever really came close was Piquet, who won three World Championships and 23 Grands Prix. He was a driver full of guile and cunning with a talent that surely places him among the very greatest drivers ever in Formula One. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

1999 French Grand Prix - Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours

June 27, 1999

As Heinz-Harold Frentzen limped painfully around the paddock at Magny-Cours, he did not look like a man about to win a Grand Prix. The bones in his knee that he broke in a crash at the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks earlier were still far from healed, but if his leg was sore, he said, it did not affect him in the car. With a broken knee, the race cannot have been easy, but Frentzen was more than a match for anything the French Grand Prix threw at him.

On the surface the race seemed quite unremarkable. They raced in torrential rain for most of the afternoon Rubens Barrichello (Stewart) in front for the bulk of it; Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) against his brother Ralf (Williams); Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) against everyone; Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) through the field - but ultimately the race came down to the relatively mundane question of fuel strategy.

Not that Frentzen felt it to be mundane. When you consider that he made it through on one stop, running heavier fuel loads than the two-stop opposition at virtually every stage of the race, yet still maintaining their pace, you cannot help but feel that there was more to this race than simple mathematics. Frentzen was helped in his cause by two factors: one, it was wet for all but the opening phase, which slowed the race down and made everything less physical; and, two, the race was neutralized for a while by the Safety Car. That gave him a breather and helped the fuel consumption. More than strategy, therefore, it came down to design. The Jordan Mugen-Honda 199 was built as a car that could run one-stop to the finish. The Stewart-Ford was not. The Stewart was designed with a smaller, two-stop, fuel tank. In the conditions that prevailed in Magny-Cours, that is what beat them.

1999 French GP - Frentzen drove brilliantly on a one-stop strategy.
Designer Gary Anderson is the common thread here. He was involved in the early concept of the 1999 Jordan - and then switched to Stewart, where he took over the Alan Jenkins/Egbhal Hamedy design. By then, it was probably too late for him to design a bigger tank, even if he had wanted to. He would have known, though as the race drew towards two hours, that Jordan had them beaten. All Heinz-Harold Frentzen had to do was not make a mistake.

It wasn't easy. Frentzen did a great job in qualifying, missing the vital, opening minutes but still going out early enough to secure a position near the front. Frentzen drives well in the wet, searching out the grip and using unconventional lines, but he was very prone to locking a wheel here and brushing a kerb there.

That Sunday, though, he kept it all together and Jordan quickly adjusted to a one-stop strategy. Frentzen's race was thereafter comparatively trouble-free.

He didn't, for instance, have a problem with his radio, like Michael Schumacher. Nor did he have a problem with wet or dry settings - again as Michael did. The Ferrari was all over the place in the opening, dry laps of the race. Hakkinen was charging, and so was Irvine, who'd been in neutral for the start, but Michael was ... just there ... tagging along but not making any impression.

Barrichello - on pole, but needed one pitstop too many in the race.
He didn't have a complete electrical failure, like David Coulthard (McLaren), who drove brilliantly past Barrichello into the lead and looked as though he was going to win, pulling away. Schumacher's electrical problem, meanwhile, lost him eight seconds on one lap. He was even forced to swap steering wheels in his pit stop. The problem seemed to have improved, but not enough to prevent brother Ralf muscling past in the closing stages.

Frentzen didn't spin, like Mika Hakkinen, who executed a quick 360 as he left the Adelaide hairpin. Jean Alesi spun out of a points finish just before the Safety Car emerged and Jacques Villeneuve (BAR), Alexander Wurz (Benetton), and Alex Zanardi (Williams) all spun while they were trailing the Safety Car.

Nor did Heinz have a chaotic pitstop, like Eddie Irvine. The Ferrari mechanics were not ready for him and bolted dry tyres on instead of wets. Frentzen's pitstop was surely longer that he anticipated it would be ... but that was only because Mike Gascoyne, Jordan's Technical Director, had switched to the one-stop strategy.

He didn't collect a slower car in the pitlane, as Damon Hill (Jordan) did. The impact punctured a rear tyre and Damon lost an age - and then the electrics limping back to the pits.

And he didn't have to make that second pitstop, as Barrichello did - as they all did. Rubens qualified brilliantly on the pole, taking to the track while everyone was asleep, and his defence of the lead, under pressure from the McLarens, was sensational. Ralf was a great fourth, racing Michael hard, and the Ferraris were fifth and sixth.

Frentzen kept the pace and was error free in tough conditions.
In many ways, then, it was that simple. Except, again, that it wasn't, for here was a guy who'd had a huge accident two weeks before, when the right front brake of his Jordan had exploded at something like 190 kph. He'd hit the wall hard in Montreal, at well over 7g, and his legs in the cockpit had banged heavily against one another. But it was mind over matter in France. You just needed to watch Frentzen through Grande Courbe, the fast sweep at the end of the Magny-Cours pit straight, to see each lap mesmerizing evidence of a confidence level miles higher than the storm clouds that were soaking the track.

The entry to the corner, fifth gear and 275 kph in the dry, maybe 210 kph in the wet, is framed by a wall to the right, parallel to the straight. Every driver, even Michael Schumacher, gave the wall a few inches of respect as they turned in. Apart from Heinz-Harold that is. Each lap he would make you wince as he ran the Jordan into a gap measurable only by laboratory equipment, the better to squeeze just a little more track space, a fraction more speed from the car. But it looked natural, flowing, as though we wasn't even placing it there by sight or reference, but by feel or something even more ephemeral. It made the others appear to be painting by numbers.

Frentzen delivers, to the joy of the Jordan team
Those millimetres shaved didn't necessarily win him the French Grand Prix but they gave an insight into a couple of things. The wholly different state of mind of Frentzen the Jordan driver to that of the haunted, put-down Williams man; and the God-given caressing way he has with a car that was just not apparent before. No question, Frentzen was at home with the Jordan team. 

Maybe it's simply the difference between a team that was looking to get a foothold on the first rung of success and one which had only seen the view from the top for two decades. One was trying to cosset and tease a performance, the other expected it as a given.

It all meant that tensed up within that Williams cockpit for two seasons was a talent most people just never got to see. Many began to think the ability which had so impressed Frank Williams just wasn't there. Because once he'd climbed out of the Sauber and into the Williams , a car which Jacques Villeneuve was taking to the world title, Frentzen looked ragged. Unconvincing. Not only was the form not there, but the style suggested it was never going to be.

Frentzen and Jordan, a combination of confidence and talent.
A marvellous thing, confidence. And a team, like Jordan, that knew how to engender it. Frentzen flourished at Jordan, where he rewarded the team's faith in him with a string of fast and flawless drives. In addition to his victory in France, he also won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The consistency that so eluded him at Williams now underpinned his bid to pull off one of the biggest title upsets in F1 history. Had the Jordan not failed while he was leading the European Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring, he would have entered the final two races as joint leader in the championship.

A talent fully unleashed is a special thing to witness, and when it happens to a genuinely nice person like Heinz-Harold Frentzen it is even more enjoyable.

France 1999 is where Frentzen rose from the ashes.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

1989 Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring

August 13, 1989

Many doubted the wisdom of Nigel Mansell's move to Ferrari, for the 1989 season, particularly over his ability to handle the unforgiving Italian press and the tortuous internal politics of Maranello. But Mansall emerged as a calmer, more relaxed driver and fitted into Ferrari instantly and effortlessly. He couldn't have made a better start, of course. His victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix was a dream debut for Mansell and John Barnard's new chisel-nosed car which had proved so unreliable during testing and practice. After that win he was dubbed "Il Leone" by the Italian fans, the tifosi.

During the first half of the season the Ferrari was rarely reliable enough to reward Mansell's efforts but he produced a typically gritty drive at Silverstone, keeping the pressure on Alain Prost (McLaren) all the way despite the McLaren's technical superiority. And then came his drive in Hungary.

This memorable race had produced a shock even before it started. Riccardo Patrese (Williams), whose only two previous pole positions dated back to 1981 and 1983, produced an astonishing lap on Friday which would stand even on Saturday. Ayrton Senna (Mclaren) qualified second, but the most impressive qualifying performance, was a popular third place for Alex Caffi (Dallara). Mansell found that the softer Goodyear qualifying tyres were difficult to use correctly, and twelfth on the grid was the best he could manage. However, there was an indication of what would follow in the Sunday morning warm-up, when he topped the list.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mansell would battle from 12th on the grid.
The prospect of a duel to decide who would be in front at the first corner, between Senna and Patrese, was something to look forward to. Senna, who had battled here in 1988 for the rights of the person in pole position to choose which side of the grid to start from, found himself on the dirtier inside line in 1989. But although he almost managed to squeeze inside Patrese at the right-handed first corner, the Williams was narrowly ahead and Senna was almost squeezed over the kerbing.

At the end of the lap, Caffi was third, followed by Gerhard Berger (Ferrari), Prost, Thierry Boutsen (Benetton), and Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) before Mansell appeared.

Starting the fourth lap, Berger managed to pass Caffi at the first corner, smoothly moving up to third place. Four laps later Prost also managed to use his Honda power to get ahead of the Dallara, but he would be the last man to pass the well-driven Dallara for fifteen laps, when Mansell at last burst through. But he was 17 seconds behind Prost and it looked impossible to make up the difference although Mansell, of course, had other ideas.  He carved as much as a second a lap out of the Frenchman's advantage, and when Berger stopped for tyres on lap 29, Mansell moved into fourth place, 5.9 seconds behind Prost.

1989 Hungarian GP - Patrese shows that he still has mettle.
For the first part of the race it was impossible to judge the status of the drivers, since most of them were expected to make pit stops for tyres. However, cooler weather than in qualifying, coupled with some gamesmanship by the teams, allowed most of the leading contenders to run non-stop.

At half distance Patrese was defending the lead so firmly that even Senna, tracking his every move, seemed unlikely to pass. However, the Brazilian cannot have felt comfortable, for behind him now was Mansell, who had passed Prost and moved into third place.

Sadly, this promising four-way battle for the lead was brief, lasting until Patrese retired on lap 53 with a steaming engine. It was a stone through the radiator of his Williams-Renault that eliminated the Italian when he was admirably maintaining a narrow advantage. The battle between Senna, now leading, and Mansell was extraordinary given that the McLaren-Honda's power allowed it to pull away noticeably even on the short straights. In braking, and in most corners, the more aerodynamic Ferrari made up all the difference, and on lap times there was virtually nothing between their performances.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mansell doggedly pressures Senna.
The deciding moment of the race came halfway round lap 58. Mansell had been tracking Senna's McLaren within less than a second, and all he needed was a mistake by the Brazilian to let him grab the lead. Senna did not exactly make a mistake: he had the misfortune to come round a corner and be faced with a slower car, that of Stefan Johansson (Onyx). Johansson, in trouble with gears, was reluctant to move off line, despite moving so slowly, and Senna arrived behind him from the previous corner so fast that he almost caught the Onyx. Mansell appraised the situation almost instantly, braking hard and almost hitting Senna as he opposite-locked to his right.

"Ayrton is obviously more difficult to pass than Alain, but he was a bit too close to the car in front, and had to slow in the middle of the corner," said Mansell. "I was very close as well, and almost hit the back of Ayrton, but I was able to throw the car sideways and just have enough momentum to go past." He added that he was tempted to close his eyes...

Split second - Mansell seizes the opportunity to pass Senna.
The large  contingent of tifosi in the crowd got the message that a Ferrari was in front, and Mansell was greeted with huge cheers. He went on to win majestically, with Senna in second and Boutsen gaining third after a late pitstop by Prost to clean his helmet visor.

Not even Ayrton Senna would disagree that Nigel Mansell deserved to win the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix. Only Riccardo Patrese, who had driven immaculately in the lead, from pole position, for 52 of the 77 laps, could offer a better claim than Mansell's. It was a consistently hard, competitive race this - one of the best of Mansell's career by his own reckoning - that took the relentless Englishman from 12th place on the grid into eighth by the end of the first lap, and past no fewer than six rivals by sheer persistence.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mutual respect from the titans of the day.
Determination was Mansell's outstanding quality: it kept him in motor racing when lesser men would have given up and made him habitually drive flat out when the few drivers who have an infinitesimal extra degree of talent might just ease off. This was Mansell's formula for success, fast and strong ... Il Leone indeed.