NEWS FEATURE

Unlucky 13: The horrors of pre-qualifying

It's early Friday morning. There's a chill in the air and a dusty racing track. At this time of day, a sane soul would be rolling over in bed and re-setting the alarm clock.

But not the 13 Formula 1 pre-qualifiers. They would be up waiting nervously for 8am when, for 60 minutes, they would had the chance to produce one of the four best times. If they failed in this task, they would have to pack up their trucks and leave.

This was the story of the 1989 Grand Prix season and, on the face of it, it was not a fair system. A successful pre-qualifier might go on to gain a good grid position, might even finish the weekend in the top six places -- or even on the podium.

At Estoril Stefan Johansson was third in the Portuguese GP, a week later he failed to pre-qualify the Spanish GP.

The lap times produced in the hectic hour were often faster than those achieved later by successful qualifiers. It mattered not. If you were not one of the top four, your weekend was over.

But how did such a bizarre system develop? Purely and simply, pre-qualifying was a response to Formula 1 being too popular. There were too many teams to fit into the paddock, the pits and onto the tracks.

The decision to hold pre-qualifying was taken to 'weed out' the slower cars. An immediate side-effect of this was to raise the game of the little teams. To be successful in pre-qualifying required a well-sorted, well-built car and some snappy driving.

The pre-qualifying rules developed as they went along. At the start of the year, the unlucky 13 were made up of the left-overs of the 1988 championship and the new teams.

By mid-season this had changed. The top 13 teams in the previous two half-seasons gained automatic inclusion in the official practice. The rest had to pre-qualify.

It all made for spectacular viewing, for many of the smaller teams had hired young drivers, desperate to make their mark on F1. It was a recipe for hotshoes to turn their racing cars into component parts if they tried too hard.

It happened regularly. Gregor Foitek demolished his EuroBrun in Canada, Pierre-Henri Raphanel destroyed his Coloni at Hockenheim.

"I was my fast lap and I had to keep my foot down," explained Raphanel later. "It was my only chance." The result was a very bent Coloni as Raphanel hit a kerb and launched his car into the unforgiving barriers.

There was luck involved, of course, for with the one-lap 'gum-ball' qualifying tyres of 1989 the pre-qualifiers often had just one chance to make the grade. A wasted set of qualifiers would mean a wasted weekend.

If there was traffic in the way on that one lap, the unacceptable risk had to be taken.

The 60 minute session called for unusul approaches. The Larrousse team had a fleet of motorcycles sttioned around the track in Germany to ensure that if one of the cars broke down, the driver could be returned to the pits in time to take over the spare car.

The system could be beaten as Brabham proved. In the first eight races Stefano Modena and Martin Brundle were consistently successful in pre-qualifying and as they gained championships points in the races, so the threat of having of continue pre-qualifying in the second half of the season faded. Alex Caffi also escaped after eight races, but the curious system also had its stranger side.

Christian Danner's Rial scored a fortunate three points in Phoenix and, as a result, Volker Weidler (who had never looked likely to make it through pre-qualifying) found himself an automatic entry to official practice after the British GP. Thereafter neither of the Rials ever looked like qualifying, while the Lolas, AGSs and Onyxs had to fight for one of the four places, despite being obviously quicker than the German cars. Such was luck.

Only one man managed to retain a 100% record, Modena succeeding on all eight occasions when he was called to pre-qualify. Even such experienced drivers as Martin Brundle, Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Philippe Alliot did not always make the cut.

As the teams became ever-more competitive, so the line between success and failure became ever finer. We thought Martin Brundle had cut it as fine as was possible in Monaco when he slipped in by just 0.021 second quicker than Piercarlo Ghinzani's Osella, but it could be even closer than that.

In Canada Alex Caffi began his flying lap just five seconds before the chequered flag came out to mark the end of the session. He bumped out Martin Brundle on that very lap.

But it could go closer than that. At the German GP Michele Alboreto edged outYannick Dalmas's AGS by the smallest possible margin available with the Olivetti/Longines timing system -- 0.001 second -- and that in the closing minutes of the session.

The pressure on pre-qualifiers was not merely restricted to that wild hour, for at the British GP the pre-qualifiers were to change over with teams which had moved into the top 13 list at mid-season moving into the ranks of the automatic qualifiers.

At the French GP Stefan Johansson finished fifth for Onyx. Two points would be enough.

Seven days later Onyx fortunes had dived again, as Pierluigi Martini and Luis Sala took their Minardis to fifth and sixth in the British GP -- scoring three points...

The pressures, ultimately led to consderable frustrations in the teams which failed to make it, and as the season progressed so the hirings and firings increased in intensity: Joachim Winkelhock lost his AGS seat to Dalmas; Raphanel, desperate for a place among the automatic entries switched to Rial replacing Weidler; Gregor Foitek fell out with EuroBrun and was replaced by Oscar Larrauri and Bertrand Gachot was replaced by JJ Lehto.

It was not a fair system. It had many faults and inconsistencies, but it was exciting -- and there were races in 1989 when a little excitement were needed in the face of the McLaren-Honda onslaught.

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