NEWS FEATURE

Pre-qualifying

Nowadays Formula 1 consists 11 teams (22 cars). Next year if everyone turns up there will be 12 teams. All of them qualify if they can lap the track with 107% of the time set by the pole position man. But it was not always that.

Back in 1989 there were 20 Formula 1 teams, fielding 39 Grand Prix cars.

In those days the rules allowed 26 cars to start a race and it was agreed that 30 could qualify. But with 39 cars chasing 30 places it was decided that there must be pre-qualifying. 13 cars would fight for four places.

It was worse than that because the unlucky 13 consisted, at the start of 1989, of the teams who had done badly in 1988 and plus newcomers. One of the "new" teams was the former World Championship-winning Brabham team with drivers Martin Brundle and Stefano Modena. In addition the quite competitive Scuderia Italia had decided to expand to run two cars and had the impressive youngster Alex Caffi in the second car.

In reality that meant that 10 cars were fighting for one spot. There was the new Moneytron Onyx team, flush with cash and bubbling with ambition. The drivers were former Ferrari star Stefan Johansson and the mercurial Bertrand Gachot. AGS, Coloni and Rial had also expanded their one-car teams with AGS taking on Jo Winkelhock (who would go on to great things in touring cars), Coloni running charming Frenchman Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Rial with new boy Volker Weidler. The other pre-qualifiers were veteran Piercarlo Ghinzani and rising star Nicola Larini (Osella) and the two hopeless Zakspeed-Yamahas of the talented duo Bernd Schneider and Aguri Suzuki.

The final cars was the singleton EuroBrun driven by Swiss rich kid Gregor Foitek.

The Brabham team showed very quickly that pre-qualifying could be beaten and the first eight races Modena and 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. Caffi also got through on most occasions which meant that in reality there were 10 cars were fighting for a single place.

The competition was so hot that at Monaco three of the top six in the race had started the weekend as pre-qualifiers, including third-placed Modena. Later in the year Johansson did the same trick in Portugal.

Pre-qualifying started at eight o'clock on Friday morning and lasted one hour. With so many cars and so many young drivers there were some mighty accidents as they were all using one-lap special qualifying tires. It was a time when he tire war between Goodyear and Pirelli was intense. Traffic could make the difference between success and failure and so huge risks were taken.

As the teams became ever-more competitive the line between success and failure became ever finer. Brundle cut it as fine as was possible in Monaco when he slipped in by just 0.021 second quicker than Ghinzani's Osella. In Canada Caffi began his flying lap just five seconds before the checkered flag and bumped Brundle on that very last lap.

At the French GP Johansson escaped pre-qualifying and managed to get his Onyx home in fifth place. The two points he scored put Onyx ahead of Minardi. It looked bad for the Italian team but a week later at Silverstone Pierluigi Martini and Luis Sala took their Minardis to fifth and sixth in the British GP - collecting three points and escaping pre-qualifying. It is one of Giancarlo's Minardi's best memories...

After the British GP the rankings were changed, based on the results of the teams for the two previous "half-seasons". Christian Danner's fortunate fourth place in Phoenix, Arizona at the start of the year meant that Rial became an automatic qualifier from mid-season onwards. Weidler never once qualified in the second part of the year. Nor for that matter did Danner in the second half of the year.

Brabham was promoted as was Caffi and into pre-qualifying dropped the two Larrousse cars (Philippe Alliot and Michele Alboreto). The results became closer and closer. At the German GP Michele Alboreto edged out Yannick Dalmas's AGS by the smallest possible margin available with the timing system - 0.001 second - and that in the closing minutes of the session.

The Larrousse team started to arrive with a fleet of motorcycles which were stationed around the track to ensure that if one of the cars broke down, the driver could be returned to the pits in a hurry.

As the year went on frustration grew and so firings began. AGS dumped Jo Winkelhock and put Yannick Dalmas in. Pierre-Henri Raphanel, desperate not to waste his sponsorship switched to Rial, ousting Weidler. Foitek fell out with EuroBrun and was replaced by Oscar Larrauri and at Onyx Gachot talked faster than he drove and that gave the team the excuse to dump him in favor of JJ Lehto.

Pre-qualifying continued in 1990 but the numbers were down and by the end of the year it was no longer necessary, the extra teams had all died out.

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