Wednesday, 24 December 2014

1985 Portuguese Grand Prix - Autódromo do Estoril

April 21, 1985

Ayrton Senna's maiden season, at Toleman in 1984, had been nothing short of a sensation. If Monaco, where he finished second to Prost in monsoon-like conditions, was an incredible single performance when taken in isolation, two further podium finishes, in Great Britain and Portugal, for a team more familiar with struggling to qualify confirmed that Senna was a remarkable talent. In his single season with Toleman, Senna scored as many points as every other driver for the team combined in their history.

The Next Step - Senna joins Lotus and de Angelis
It was apparent that Toleman was not a team with which Senna could conceivably hope to achieve his championship aspirations, and having correctly identified that the Lotus-Renault combination would best serve his career ambitions in 1985, Senna duly sealed the deal. But for a man with so obviously passionate about his chosen calling, he remained objective enough to agree to joint number-one status with Elio de Angelis. Senna was the first driver signed to Lotus since the death of Colin Chapman in 1982, and de Angelis the dashingly enigmatic and cultured Italian had five years' experience at the team. Elio's natural charisma and talent marked him as a firm favourite within the team, although his apathetic attitude towards testing and the increasingly technical aspects of Formula One were a weakness Senna was primed to ruthlessly exploit. The dedication which Senna applied to his racecraft would become one of his defining professional characteristics, and he allied this facet with his blistering speed to swing the momentum of the Lotus team away from de Angelis through the course of the 1985 season.
All of his determination and zeal came to fruition at just the second round of the championship in Portugal. And it was a timely tonic for the once mighty Lotus team. Their cars had won only once since the days of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, when the team dominated F1, and that was out of the blue. Since then, they had often taken pole, often led, but this race, at Estoril, had been dominated by a Lotus, first to last.

Senna, stunning in the Toleman here in 1984, was the clear pace-setter in both timed sessions. De Angelis was fastest on Friday morning, but thereafter Senna was in control, the 97T was visibly strong in all departments. With it and Ayrton was able to score his first pole position, on only his second weekend with Lotus. On Friday the elements helped a bit, occasional splashes of rain, then a brief but fierce downpour ensuring that the Brazilian's time was beyond reach, but on Saturday his first flying lap settled the issue. Later in the session he did one more, and that would also have been good for the front row where he was joined by Alain Prost (McLaren).

The warm-up session on Sunday took place under murky skies and odd drops of rain, but soon after noon grey skies were going black. Everyone was going to be on wets. Indeed a timely race for Ayrton to have scored his first pole position. In these conditions a good start, and a clear road, would be more than usually important. Only the leader would be seeing much in the early laps. Senna did the job, smoothly away without too much wheelspin, but into the first corner there was black and gold rather than the expected red and white, in his mirrors. De Angelis had beaten Prost away, and that was going to be important.

1985 Portuguese GP - Senna and de Angelis lead the field away.
On the grid Keke Rosberg (Williams), third, had stalled, allowing de Angelis, fourth, some room with which to work. Although Michele Alboreto (Ferrari), directly behind the stranded Williams, lost little time in going round it, de Angelis momentarily had a clear path down in the middle and made the most of it. At the end of lap one then, Senna and de Angelis came through 1-2, followed by Prost, Alboreto, Derek Warwick (Renault), Niki Lauda (McLaren), Andrea de Cesaris (Ligier), Patrick Tambay (Renault), Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Stefan Johansson (Ferrari).

Senna was treading warily, at the same time doing it faster than everyone else. Making the most of his clear view, he was already lapping at a speed beyond his team-mate. After two laps there was a 3 second gap between the Lotuses, and Prost's McLaren was a similar distance behind de Angelis. Further back in the field Bellof had predictably been making excellent progress, reviving memories of his brilliant display at Monaco last year. From a grid position of 21st, he had come past 14th at the end of the opening lap, and had Winkelhock's RAM against the ropes. Getting by though, was a different matter, for the German could always pull out several lengths down the pit straight. On lap five they touched and spun, both managing to continue, but Stefan's right front wing was gone. He opted to stay out with what he had, and proceeded to charge for the rest of the afternoon.

Far and away the most imperturbable man on the circuit appeared to be the leader. Once or twice the Lotus jinked under braking for the first corner, but never once did it look like escaping Senna's control. Just occasionally comes a race when one driver makes the rest look ordinary, and this was one such. After 10 laps Senna had nearly 12s over his team-mate, who was coming under repeated pressure from Prost, the McLaren in turn being caught by Alboreto's Ferrari. Then Rosberg crashed and not long after that Warwick too, hit a barrier.

Flawless Drive - Senna was brilliant in the worst of conditions.
At the front there was no change. As the 30-lap mark approached Senna led by more than 30s and Prost continued to crowd de Angelis for second place, with Alboreto's beautifully driven Ferrari ever present in their mirrors. As the two of them pounded down the pit straight to begin lap 31, the McLaren suddenly began to weave, veering first left, then right, then breaking into a spin and hitting the wall. Conditions had now gone from bad to appalling. At this point Senna was waving vigorously as he passed the pits, indicating that the race should be stopped. All around the circuit were abandoned cars. Pierluigi Martini (Minardi), after countless spins, was finally out, as was Gerhard Berger (Arrows). The young Austrian had driven a fine and forceful race. Mauro Baldi (Spirit) gave the guardrail a very sizeable thump, and Martin Brundle (Tyrrell), running 10th despite gearbox problems, also spun into retirement.

There were, however, no mistakes from the leader, despite the fact that he was lapping faster than anyone else. An hour into the race he was 40s clear, and interest centred on the battle for second, for Alboreto very definitely had his sights set on de Angelis. On lap 43 the Ferrari had emerged from the spray and flicked inside the Lotus as they approached the first turn. De Angelis made no real attempt to close the door. Immediately he made a rather futile attempt to get back at Michele, but only two corners later left his breaking too late and slid wide. On the gravel and slippery grass he did a fine job in keeping control of the Lotus, but while off-course punctured a front tyre, which deflated slowly thereafter but did not keep him from reaching the finish. However, this allowed Tambay, who had driven an excellent race, to close on the Italian and take third place on Lap 59. De Angelis, struggling with his soft front tyre, could offer no resistance – indeed he was lapped by team mate Senna before the end.

After 67 laps of the originally scheduled 69, with the two hour time limit having been reached, the chequered flag went out to Senna. In the manner pioneered by Colin Chapman, some of the Lotus mechanics jumped over the barrier and onto the track to greet their man. Before reaching the first turn Ayrton had flung off his belts, and was waving both arms wildly. This was his 17th grand prix, only his second for Lotus, and he had won it. More than that, he had been in a different class right from the green light. Fastest in both sessions, fastest lap of the race, leader all the way. Grand Chelem. Victories like that deserve more than nine points.

Magic Victory - Senna could hardly contain himself.
"The big danger," he said later, outward exuberance now gone, "was that conditions changed all the time. Sometimes the rain was very heavy, sometimes not. I couldn't see anything at all behind me. It was difficult even to keep the car in a straight line sometimes, and for sure the race should have been stopped. It was much worse than Monaco last year. Once I nearly spun in front of the pits, like Prost, and I was lucky to stay on the road."

If Monaco '84 had alluded to Senna's wet-weather prowess, his first Grand Prix victory, in just his second race for Lotus, confirmed his prodigious ability in the wet. From the start he was in a race of his own, and made no mistake worthy of the name in conditions so appalling as to catch out a man of Alain Prost's quality. He simply decimated the field in torrential conditions, taking his maiden victory by over a minute and lapping the entire field up to third place. It was a stunning statement of intent from Senna, declaring for the first time his front-running credentials and asserting the unrivalled skill in the wet that would become one of the most enduring attributes of the Senna legend. It was a mesmeric performance.

Towards the end of 1985 one man was afforded a unique, fleeting insight into what made Senna such a special performer at the wheel. John Watson. a veteren of a decades Grand Prix endeavour was having his last ever F1 drive deputized into the McLaren team for Niki Lauda, who had injured his wrist. The occasion was the Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch, and Watson was just slowing his McLaren after a qualifying run on the first day of the meeting."I came through Westfield Bend into Dingle Dell." he recalls very precisely, "when I saw a black car coming up in my mirrors and moved off-line to let it past. it was Senna, and I then witnessed something that few people could ever have been privileged to see from such close quarters. As he came past me, not only was his car carrying so much speed, but he seemed to be braking, blipping the throttle, changing gear and throwing his car into Westfield Bend all at the same time. And at absolutely awesome speed. The Lotus was dancing absolutely on tippy-toes, on the very limit of adhesion, but he displayed his remarkable ability to retain his composure in such extreme situations. I reckon I saw something very special that day: it was a little glimpse of his genius."

Genius indeed, and Estoril was a prime example of Senna's innate talent. He, himself considered this the greatest victory of his career and as a result of it, he was given the apt moniker of "Magic".

Alboreto, Senna and Tambay - The only three to finish on the lead lap.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

2012 United States Grand Prix - Circuit of the Americas

November 18, 2012

There’s no more iconic scene in American Western movies than the good old-fashioned gunfight, where the lawman and the outlaw meet at high noon, facing each other on a dusty road in the centre of town ….. hands at the ready to draw their pistols when the first one flinches. Tension is everywhere as humble townspeople cringe behind barrels and saloon doors, watching nervously as two famous names square off and only one will win. In actuality, this kind of thing very rarely occurred, but it is a scenario that Hollywood has relied on time and again to satisfy the public’s fascination with pitting the two very best against each other in a fair contest.

Five years after the previous United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis, even a Hollywood script could not have been better written to the true life drama displayed at the first Grand Prix to be held at Austin’s, Circuit of the Americas, the tenth track to be used to host a US Grand Prix.

The 2012 race was a straight fight between Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) and while during that season they were the established aces of the day, the previous USGP in 2007 offered a similar storyline, but at that time Vettel and Hamilton were very different protagonists …..

2007 USGP: Hamilton celebrates.
Just seven days after claiming a maiden Grand Prix win at Montreal in Canada, Hamilton delivered another assured drive at the famous Motor Speedway circuit. After taking a second straight pole position, the 21-year old was able to complete a grid-to-flag victory, coolly dealing with team-mate Fernando Alonso’s two attempts to pass him. The Spanish World Champion tried to hustle Hamilton off the grid but the rookie pulled away and used his now customary pace to stretch his lead. After making their first pit-stops just one lap apart, Alonso tried again to pass Hamilton, who had become embroiled with the backmarkers. Alonso gathered pace in Hamilton’s slipstream and the two McLarens went side-by-side down the main straight, only for Alonso to be thwarted by the Briton as they entered Turn One – after that tussle the McLarens did not race again. Hamilton’s win in Indianapolis saw him become only the fourth rookie to win at least two races in their debut season.

2007 USGP: Vettel's debut with BMW.

It was also an historic day in Indianapolis for Sebastian Vettel, who became the youngest driver to score a point in Grand Prix history. The 19-year old was making his Formula One debut for BMW Sauber as a replacement for Robert Kubica, who was still recovering from the effects of his high-speed crash in Montreal. Vettel drove smartly to an eighth place finish. Later that same season, BMW allowed Vettel to switch to the Scuderia Toro Rosso team where he took a regular driving position replacing the American, Scott Speed.

Fast forward five years and these two had both become World Driver's Champions. Hamilton in 2008 and Vettel taking the titles in 2010 and 2011. With the German well on his way to adding his third world title in 2012 as the F1 circus convened in Austin. 

Vettel duly claimed his sixth pole position of the season in what would be his 100th Grand Prix start. He had dominated every session of practice and qualifying at the impressive Circuit of the Americas and it looked as if only a reliability issue would stop him from taking his fifth victory in six starts. Hamilton had been a second behind Vettel's time in Q2, but put in a tremendously committed Q3 lap to qualify second, just over a tenth of a second behind the German, putting the championship leader under some pressure. 

Sunday, however, began with a classic bit of 11th hour F1 chicanery.

Ferrari, who was desperately trying to keep Fernando Alonso in the championship fight, decided to break the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox, thereby inducing a five-place grid penalty which lifted his team-mate Alonso up to seventh and on to the clean side of the grid, a huge advantage at the brand new circuit. While some in the paddock derided the decision as unsporting, Ferrari, a team with a clear history of favouring their lead driver, certainly were not losing any sleep over it. However on this day Ferrari and Alonso would be mere bit players in the drama. Instead it was Hamilton who posed the greatest threat to Vettel.

2012 USGP: Vettel maintains the gap to Hamilton. 
The World Champion made a perfect getaway when the lights went out. Hamilton too started well, but being on the dirty side of the track hampered him enough that Mark Webber (Red Bull) was able to get around the Englishman into Turn 1. It seemed like the Red Bulls were free and clear to walk this race, but Hamilton was not willing to give up without a fight. The McLaren retook second place from Webber on lap four by using his Drag Reduction System (DRS) on the long straight between Turn 11 and Turn 12. With Webber disposed of, Hamilton soon began reducing the gap to Vettel and an enthralling duel ensued.

Vettel and Hamilton were in a class of their own and the pair engaged in a thrilling race-long game of cat and mouse. Every time Hamilton closed to within a second or so of Vettel, threatening to get into the one-second DRS range, the German would respond. From lap 35 onwards, Hamilton was within range and stuck limpet-like to the back of the Red Bull for lap after lap.

Hamilton was always a threat, and quicker through sector 1, but Vettel seemed to have him covered and to be well in control ..... until they encountered Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) in sector one on lap 42. Through a superb section of the new circuit, from Turns 2 through 7, with no grip off-line, Karthikeyan stayed on the racing line until they exited Turn 7, which cost Vettel more than a second. It also put Lewis comfortably close enough for DRS detection down the back straight and Hamilton knew it was his chance. Vettel moved left but such was the McLaren's speed advantage that Lewis could have gone either side. He went right and had sufficient momentum to chop back across and protect the inside into Turn 12.

2012 USGP: Hamilton made the most of his chance.
Vettel's frustration was apparent from the ensuing radio transmission. Thereafter their roles were reversed with Vettel the hunter and Hamilton the hunted, fending off the German for lap after lap. However, as hard as the German had tried to hit back, on that day, Lewis and the McLaren were a match for Sebastian and the RB8. Crucially, Vettel was never quite able to get within DRS range. Hamilton, who was set to leave McLaren for Mercedes in 2013, was intent on delivering another win for the team before his departure and did so with elan as he seized his fourth win of the season and the twenty-first of his career.

"I'm massively proud and extremely happy. To overtake both Red Bulls in the race was the coolest thing for me. The backmarkers really came into play today - and, finally, they worked in my favour. I've often been caught out when I've been trying to get through traffic, but things finally went my way today. When Seb [Vettel] was delayed by a backmarker, I knew I had to grab my chance, so I turned the engine up to maximum revs and pushed like crazy. Along the back-straight I went to the to the outside, but Seb closed the door, so I moved to the inside, and he came back towards me. I was very lucky. It was very close."

Respect: Vettel congratulates Hamilton.
Vettel was extremely generous and noble during the post-race interview. It was evident that despite finishing second, he clearly enjoyed the battle with Hamilton :

"It was a very good race and we did everything we could, but unfortunately we ran into traffic at the wrong time and lost the gap to Lewis. He used his chance well, I tried to cover the inside but he had more speed down the straight. I respect the positions; Lewis beat us fair and square.

Vettel's disappointment was tempered by the fact that he was able to finish ahead of title rival Alonso and thus increase his championship lead with only one Grand Prix remaining in the season. He would in fact win that race and capture his third consecutive World Championship. 

It is always a rare and special thing when two of the best drivers of the era battle from start to finish in a Grand Prix.  Both drivers raced superbly that day and both were deserving of victory. Hamilton and Vettel grew up watching and admiring two titans of Formula One history, Senna and Schumacher. That day they proved that they themselves were worthy of the admiration of the next generation to come. The 1978 World Driver's Champion, Mario Andretti, summed it up best when he carried out the post-race podium interview: “We just witnessed an awesome, awesome race right to the end.” 

Champions all: Vettel and Hamilton on the podium with Andretti.