Friday, 21 February 2014

1990 French Grand Prix - Circuit Paul Ricard

July 8, 1990

Leyton House Racing (formerly March Racing) looked to be the most promising new outfit on the Grand Prix scene in 1988, its second season of F1 racing, when Ivan Capelli gave the McLaren-Honda drivers a fright on two memorable occasions. Under team chief Ian Phillips and its highly rated designer Adrian Newey, then 27, the only way for the Japanese-funded project seemed to be up. They were a happy group.

Adrian Newey: The start of a great F1 career.
By the 1990 Mexican Grand Prix, though, Leyton House Racing was almost literally flat on its back. The cars were uncompetitive, the crew tight-lipped. And Phillips had been absent since the second round in Brazil, suffering from meningitis. Leyton House thus suffered something of a leadership vacuum. In Mexico both Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin failed to qualify and shortly afterwards technical director Newey and chief draftsman Tim Holloway left the team.

Like the boss’s sickness, the problems were all curable – eventually. Unhappily, they appeared to be more fundamental than anyone could hav
e imagined. The CG901 was aerodynamically very advanced. Newey had pursued a design concept pioneered by Benetton’s Rory Byrne, by concentrating most of the car’s aerodynamic performance on its front wings. The principle offers advantages but at the same time it was extremely sensitive to change. Before he departed, Newey completed major modifications for the car and these proved extraordinarily successful at the next round on the calendar, the French Grand Prix.

This was Ferrari’s 100th Grand Prix and victory did not come easily. Alain Prost’s undiminished ability played a vital part, together with a car that stayed healthy despite a persistent electrical problem. The Ricard circuit, hosting the French Grand Prix supposedly for the last time, took a sort of revenge for its rejection by posing physical and technical problems which had already taxed the initiative of drivers and engineers to the limit in two days of qualifying. Although the Ferrari men didn’t get all their calculations right, at least they made far fewer mistakes than their rivals.

Outshining all the big names, though, were Leyton House who staged a spectacular return to form at Ricard and, by staying out when everybody else pitted for fresh tyres. Capelli came within a whisker of an unbelievable victory.

Ivan Capelli
Ricard can be a tricky circuit, and on Friday, Nigel Mansell adjusted his Ferrari to the conditions better than anybody. The result was a time that could not be beaten in Saturday’s changing conditions. Gerhard Berger (McLaren) claimed second on the grid with Ayrton Senna (McLaren) third. Prost, who was on pole here last year, blew the special qualifying engine in his spare car and was pleased to be fourth fastest with a time set in his race car with its less powerful race-spec engine. The Leyton House entries qualified seventh (Capelli) and tenth (Gugelmin), which was an achievement in itself after Mexico. But it would not be until Sunday morning, when the team’s engineers realised that they could run non-stop on Goodyear’s softer “C” compound if the drivers avoided sliding the cars too much. Everyone else – even those starting on the harder and safer “B” compound – was planning to stop for tyres.

The run to the first corner was a duel between Mansell and Berger, with Mansell gaining the advantage. However, Berger deftly darted past him and into the lead at Signes. As they crossed the line at the end of the first lap Berger was 1.1s ahead of Mansell, with Senna only 0.4s back in third place. Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) lay fourth, ahead of Riccardo Patrese (Williams), Prost and Thierry Boutsen (Williams).

Capelli, having made a good start, got a nasty surprise when Prost braked early at the first corner. The Leyton House, with its wheels wreathed in smoke, banged Goodyears with Boutsen, and the Italian began to worry about the vibration that he could suddenly feel through his steering. On lap 10, Senna now past Mansell and into second, was stepping up the pressure on Berger. But with tyre stops planned by all of them, overtaking was likely to be a wasted exercise. Meanwhile, Nannini closed on the three leaders. Patrese lay fifth, stalked by a frustrated Prost. Nelson Piquet (Benetton) was seventh, with Jean Alesi (Tyrrell) and Capelli closing up. Senna did not finally move into the lead until lap 28, when Berger was already heading for his pit and a change of tyres. It took 12.7s , bad enough compared with Prost's Ferrari stop on the previous lap (7.6s) but nowhere near as disappointing as Senna's stop of more than 16s. That left him in eight place behind Piquet, with it all to do.

1990 French GP - Capelli worked his strategy to perfection.
When Senna stopped for tyres on lap 30, it was Capelli - first of the "non-stoppers" - who took over the lead. Team-mate Gugelmin moved into second place and started a defence against Prost that would last for the next 20 laps. On television, the BBC's James Hunt was anxious to point out that the Leyton House 1-2 was no more than a temporary and artificial situation "probably to get their sponsors on the telly" which would be resolved as soon as they made their essential tyre stops. Hunt would later eat those words as he realised, like many team managers in the pits, that the Leyton House boys had pulled off a magnificent bluff.

Gugelmin's day ended with 28 laps to go when his Judd EV engine gave up. Ironically, Capelli had taken his own Judd round to 14,000rpm (1500rpm more than permitted) - and it held out almost to the finish. The most important part of the Leyton House performance was the speed of the cars on the straight. With much better acceleration, especially because his car was quite good through the corner before the straight, under braking, Prost was never close enough to risk an overtake. The only place where it may have been possible was the double-right corner, and it was clear that the Frenchman would do everything he could in the last laps.

Capelli seemed to have enough speed on the straight to hold Prost. But the gap stayed at under 1 second for the last 16 laps, except when traffic allowed Capelli to pull out a bit more. With three laps to go, Prost made his final bid in the double right-hander after Signes. He did not know that Capelli was getting signals that his oil and fuel pressures were sagging, so the overtaking moment was memorable. Although Capelli hung on, he was nursing home a sick Judd. Senna, having battled his way back up to third place, was no threat, being almost 10 seconds back.

So close, yet so far - Capelli has to settle for second.
In his anxiety to greet Capelli's second place, Gustav Brunner forgot the FISA rules and bounded over the pit wall as soon as his car limped across the finishing line. It could have cost the Leyton House team a hefty fine, or worse. As it happened, he was let off with a warning.Brunner was entitled to celebrate, though. "This morning, I would have been happy with just the one point we needed to avoid pre-qualifying in the second half of the season," he enthused. "Instead, we ended up leading for more than 40 laps!"

It was an amazing achievement. From the double non-qualification in Mexico two weeks previous, here were the turquoise cars taking over the lead of the French Grand Prix and dishing out what should have been a hiding to McLaren-Honda and Fiat-Ferrari. It was proof-positive that it takes more than money to win in F1 ..... innovation, hard work and belief can carry even the smallest team to the front and Leyton House surely proved it at Paul Ricard that day.

1990 French GP Podium - what a difference two weeks make.