Features - News Feature
MARCH 1, 1990
Formula 1 preview 1990
BY JOE SAWARD
It could be argued that Grand Prix racing is still suffering the after effects of the 1988 season. McLaren and Honda, in their much vaunted partnership, won 15 of the 16 races. It was a massacre, never in the history of Grand Prix racing had there been such total domination. The only defeat for McLaren was at Monza when Ayrton Senna collided with Jean-Louis Schlesser's Williams and a Ferrari won -- literally by accident.
The McLaren-Honda partnership came off the blocks at the such speed that the others were left behind.
The knives came out from the opposition in 1989, but most were still blunt.
"The past," wrote novelist L P Hartley, "is a foreign country. They do things differently there." What was achieved by McLaren in 1988 meant that everyone else had to respond, throw away the old ideas and start again.
This has involved a series of revolutions of which the eastern bloc would have been proud.
Today, Grand Prix racing is a corporate business. The rules of team management have had to be rewritten and many of the old-style leaders have had to be toppled. New people have risen in their places
After the glory days of 1988 McLaren went on to win 10 of the 16 races last year, but there were signs that the empire would not last forever.
Having said that, this year could see another burst of acceleration to leave the rest behind once more. McLaren and Honda must never be underestimated. Yes, important people have left and the team looks more vulnerable, but a few cracks in the armour do not constitute a disaster.
Some would argue that Ron Dennis is trying to balance too many balls as he bids to become a latter day Enzo Ferrari. There is the race team, the road car project, the electronics company, the marketing division. Ron is famed for his organisational skills, but there is a limit to the hours in the day.
Prost and Steve Nichols have gone and Ayrton Senna has been away from driving for most of the winter, but with the Brazilian and Gerhard Berger, plus Honda V10 engines and a fast-moving V12 development programme, the McLaren package is still a thing of awe.
One of the great question marks of the forthcoming year will be outcome of the battle between Senna and Berger.
Both are extremely fast, both are very highly motivated and both have a potentially explosive lack of reserve when the chips are down. Senna is established as THE driver of the moment, but Berger will want that position.
The battles, particularly in qualifying, may well produce some of the best viewing for many a year. Whether the pair will be able to compete without falling out is another matter. Gerhard is less intense than Ayrton, but he is uncompromising when he climbs into his car. At the tracks Ayrton always seems to be intense.
The winter months, however, have seen a concerted effort by Ferrari to beat the McLarens. The blood-letting at Ferrari in 1988 has led to the rise of a new razor-sharp regime, led by the lean and hungry Cesare Fiorio, who has the luck of the devil and similar ambitions to conquer the world. Fiorio, more than most in F1, realises that winning is important -- at ANY cost.
It has been decreed from on high at FIAT that Ferrari will win -- and Ferrari will win races. The technical line-up is strong despite the loss of John Barnard to Benetton. The car, however, is Barnard's creation, refined perhaps, but still his in concept. Steve Nichols proved at McLaren that he knows how to develop a car left behind by Barnard and his inclusion in the team can only be a bonus for the folks at Maranello.
If McLaren's driver line-up is formidable, Ferrari's is also hard to fault: Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. It will be another fascinating contest. Both are mature drivers, capable of thinking things through rather than nailing their feet to the boards and worrying about what happens when it happens. Mansell still has the occasional thought pattern disrupted by adrenalin (remember Portugal 1989) but he is now established as one of the truly great drivers of the era. Prost, by all accounts, is a man who has rediscovered his motivation after an unpleasant 1989. The prospect is enthralling.
Williams-Renault was the established third force in 1989 and over the winter the boffins at Viry-Chatillon produced a lovely neat little new V10, the RS2, which was the product of lessons learned on the RS1. In winter testing the team has been doing considerable work, but one gets the impression that the times which have been produced are not necessarily the fastest of which the cars are capable.
Frank Williams has one of the few organisations which did not have to have public executions to stay in the big league. This is perhaps understandable for the organisation was battle-trained when Frank was out of action. Now he has returned to the helm at Didcot and everything appears to be under control. All that is needed now is a few more wins. The Renault men are convinced that there is still considerable development potential in the V10, which is heartening as Honda face a switch to V12 power.
Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese are both drivers who are capable of winning races, but many cynics (myself not included) believe that Williams really needs a topliner in the mould of Senna, Mansell, Prost or Berger.
If 1989 proved anything it was that you had to have a multi-cylinder engine if you wanted to be in the ballgame, the only V8 victory being for Benetton at Suzuka -- which can only be described as unusual circumstances.
The Larrousse team had exclusive use of the Lamborghini V12 last year and things were difficult. The team was in some turmoil at the start of the year. The reliability of the unit was suspect and despite a very good chassis and the best efforts of Philippe Alliot, the year ended with some fine showings of speed but no points on the board.
Financial considerations meant that by the end of the year Gerard Larrousse had to sell off part of his team to the Japanese company Espo.
With increased power and reliability, the Lamborghini engine should be closer to the pace this year and, if you are looking for a tip for the revelation of the season, it would be wise to consider Eric Bernard as the man who is most likely to provide the fireworks.
Although new to F1 throughout his career Eric has proved time and again that he is a match for Jean Alesi, who made such a huge impact on F1 last year. If the engine runs and the Larrousse chassis is as good as last year, young Bernard should become a regular points scorer. His Espo Larrousse team mate Aguri Suzuki is fast, although the 1989 Zakspeed did little to help the young Japanese driver's reputation. He may, because of language problems, have difficulty explaining technical matters to his engineer.
Lotus is one of the team's to have undergone revolutionary changes. The old management was swept away in the midsummer of last year and in their place there came a new, ambitious management group, who operate under the weather eye of Tony Rudd, a man with bucketloads of Formula 1 experience.
The new men are sensible enough to realise that Rome was not built in a day and while there is talk of the possibility of a win if the cards fall in the right places, the folk at Ketteringham Hall are looking to 1991 as h year in which the revival at Lotus will bear fruit. There is still a lot of restructuring needed if the famed team is to have the facilities and strength on depth that characterises the modern winning teams.
Other new multi-cylinder engines may appear, but all will be in their first year of competition and unlikely to turn the world upside-down.
The top V8 team will once again be Benetton, with its exclusive deal to run the Ford V8. Alessandro Nannini lucked in to victory at Suzuka last year, but otherwise the Benetton-Ford combination did not look to be truly a threat.
There were, of course, major ructions going on in the management and politics of the team. The team is still in the throes of revolutionary change and until that is sorted out, one way or the other, there will be effects from these internal machinations. There are very few people to be found in the F1 paddock who believe that two strong-willed designers such as John Barnard and Rory Byrne can work together without an explosion which sends one or the other off looking for work elsewhere.
In Sandro Nannini and Nelson Piquet the team has two of the most laid-back individuals in F1. It will be an interesting contest. Nelson is now the snior citizen of F1 and the last couple of years have not been kind to him. At the same time, he has appeared to lose motivation. On the other hand Nannini has just won his first Grand Prix and his enthusiasm to repeat that excitement will be unbounded. One cannot help but wonder if the revolution at Benetton is over, or whether we are still to see further problems.
Tyrrell has undergone a quiet, but complete overhaul during the last months. Money supply, which has long been Ken Tyrrell's Achilles Heel, would appear to be solved with the arrival from nearby Woking of Ron Dennis's sponsor-hunting vanguard.
Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot have the skills necessary to produce a car which should be a challenger, and the arrival last week of Sergio Rinland from Brabham can only strengthen that department.
Ken Tyrrell's experience as a team manager will still be available and the arrival of Joan Viladelprat from Ferrari can do little harm. At Estoril last year when Mansell reversed in the pitlane, Viladelprat seemed to be the only man present who immediately knew the gravity of what had occurred.
Jean Alesi wrote his name in lights in his debut F1 season in 1989. He is, without doubt, bound for greater things and will always wring whatever possible out of his car.
Satoru Nakajima joins the team. This is not unrelated to the fact that Tyrrell will have use of the Honda V10 engine in 1990. Naka-san will occasionally turn on the speed, but beyond the occasional blast, his involvement in F1 is testiment to the power of the yen.
Jack Oliver and Alan Rees have spent a decade in F1 without ever masterminding a race victory. The team has grand facilities and when the Footwork Corporation arrived brandishing a horse-choking wedge of yen, the two decided to use this to their advantage. The team was sold, lock, stock and barrel.
A pair of smart cookies, you might think. It is all the more impressive when you realise that the team has secured an exclusive deal to use Porsche's new V12 engine in the future and has signed the talented Alex Caffi, thanks to the payment of a large escape clause in the Italian contract with Scuderia Italia. But if all this skill and judgement was not enough, Oliver and Rees have managed to retain their positions within the team.
If this business acumen could be matched by results, Arrows would have had a string of World Champions by now and would probably be building road cars in Woking.
The Footwork deal will introduce some new blood into the team. Perhaps this will help to turn the rather poor record into something a little more special.
Caffi will be very quick when he recovers from his shoulder injury and Michele Alboreto, still trying to resurrect his career after Ferrari, may have difficulty in keeping the youngster in check.
Grand Prix racing has been gobbling up yen in increasing quantities with each passing year. The silent eastern stockpile of gold bars has been tapped by many. One of the first groups to realise the potential of the latent Orient was March Engineering, which set up its F1 team with backing from Leyton House.
It is perhaps a cautionary tale for those who seek to fund their exploits from Japan. The sponsor suddenly wanted to buy the team and a deal was struck, but in sorting out the details and setting up the necessary technical back-up the team lost its way.
In 1988 things looked bright indeed with a sparkling young designer who had taught the men at Indianapolis a thing or two about the black art of aerodynamics. The team was full of enthusiasm and fun.
Last year it all went wrong. The March-Judd combination could rarely be made to work, and when it did properly and when it did, realiability was woeful. The team and the drivers lost heart.
This year Gustav Brunner has joined Adrian Newey to strengthen the design team and the organisation of the team has been supplemented. There is still the ned for a multi-cylinder engine, but the team has a pair of good drivers in Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin. They not only get along famously, but their respective talents compliment each other. Things must improve. If they do not, another revolution may be around the corner.
The Japanese invasion has also been felt down in Italy where Enzo Coloni, on the ropes and searching for his chequebook, decided that the name Subaru-Coloni has a certain ring to it. The result is better finance and a new engine, initially a flat 12. This could be a worrying proposition until a new V12 comes along. Having hired the entire design team from AGS a year ago and having lost them all, the ambitious Enzo has turned to English technicians this year. He has also traded in his Pirellis for Goodyear tyres, which may be significant.
The facelifts in Grand Prix racing seem to go right down through the grid. At AGS the original management was kicked into touch some time ago and when the replacement crew proved similarly ineffective, they too were shown the door. The team has secured another healthy budget, has moved to a new factory and has hired the guiding lights of the ORECA organisation which has done so well in Formula 3 over the years. Hugues de Chaunac is no stranger to Formula 1, having been involved many years ago with the Martini F1 car, but his involvement and experience should be of great use to AGS which has two talented drivers in Gabriele Tarquini and Yannick Dalmas.
Ligier has facilities which should guarantee its success, but somehow or other, it always seems to go wrong these days. Last year the team hired a hotshoe in Olivir Grouillard and then fired him when he did not get on with the team boss. Money is seemingly never a problem and to suggest that Guy Ligier is well-connected in important places is like asking whether the Pope is a Catholic. So why does Ligier not win? An internal revolution might answer the problem. Vraiment(itals), things are not what they used to be.
Down in Italy, where Ferrari is the only thing that matters, some of the lesser Italian teams have been showing remarkable form.
Much is down to the success or failure of Pirelli rubber, but all the teams have shown that they can build a car capable of doing great things. It may not be consistent, but the potential is there on which to build.
Minardi is the chief example of this new phenomenon. Once berated as the tail-end charlies of Grand Prix racing, the team has improved with each passing year. They talk in awe of "the English way" to run racing teams and do their best to follow that example.
The result last year was that Pierluigi Martini briefly led the Portuguese Grand Prix and in qualifying he would often be found dicing for positions with Senna, Prost, Mansell and Berger.
If that progress is sustained over the winter Pierluigi could do great things. Paulo Barilla will have a difficult task, for he has no real experience of F1 and will not match the pace of Martini.
Scuderia Italia achieved less dramatic performances but still made considerable progress in the course of the year. The team has restructured somewhat over the winter with new administrators and Christian Vanderpleyn on the design team. In the past it has often seemed that Scuderia Italia had more chiefs than indians. The loss of Alex Caffi to Arrows has removed one of the team's high cards, but Emanuele Pirro should be a match for his fellow Roman Andrea de Cesaris. At the time of writing Pirro was out of action with a mild case of hepatitis and his place was expected to be taken by Gianni Morbidelli.
Osella had a good year in 1989 with Nicola Larini hustling to some fine performances in qualifying, unfortunately the race reliability was woeful. The winter has seen the team bought out by Fondmetal and the arrival of Ligier refugee Olivier Grouillard as driver. If the team can improve its reliability, Osella could make even more of an impression.
EuroBrun has had two difficult seasons and on paper, at least, the set-up for this year looks good. There is a sponsor in the wings, a development facility in England, an exciting engine programme with the Austrian Neotech concern and Roberto Moreno as the lead driver, supported by Claudio Langes. The reality is rather more confused and we will have to wait to see what appears at Phoenix.
At the time of writing the team was still fighting to have its cars on the plane for Phoenix. If, as is likely, the team does make it to Arizona, Stefan Johansson and JJ Lehto will be able to continue their good work from last season.
The situation at Brabham was even more desperate as we were closing for press, the sale of the team to Middlebridge had been blocked by the liquidator of its controlling company. Once this became clear the designer Sergio Rinland switched to Tyrrell and Stefano Modena was out testing for Footwork Arrows at Silverstone.
Life Racing Engines has done very little to convince anyone that this is a serious Grand Prix team. Testing of the car has amounted to only a handful of laps. Gary Brabham is expected to drive, but the team needs considerably more than enthusiasm if it is to survive in the rough-and-tumble world of F1.
The day to day problems of F1 teams and politics tend to overshadow other longer term difficulties.
The sport is certainly growing, more manufacturers are becoming involved and sponsorship attracts multi millions of dollars.
On the other hand the onset of widespread satellite coverage must be looked out as NASCAR could become a very serious threat to the popularity of Grand Prix racing. At the same time, the problem of future restrictions on tobacco advertising mean that the long term F1 money supply is under threat.
For the average race fan, however, the politics and intrigues of F1 are unimportant. All that matters is that the engines will fire up in Phoenix next Friday -- and the exciting world of Grands Prix will be up and running again.