Features - News Feature

JANUARY 1, 1991

Formula 1 Preview 1991


With the benefit of foresight, 1991 looks like being one of the closest Formula 1 seasons in many a year. No longer do we face the prospect of McLaren-Honda wiping the floor with the opposition. Last year the competition between McLaren, Ferrari, Williams and Benetton was tight.

So who starts the year as the favourites for success? Over to you Nigel Mansell.

"Ferrari are going to be the most formidable force at the start of the year. They are clean favourites for Phoenix and Brazil. They have everything proven, they've done an enormous amount of testing over the winter. They're doing a tremendous job."

On paper it is hard to fault Mansell's logic. Last year he and Alain Prost scored six wins, with the Frenchman challenging for the World title. This year Mansell has been replaced by Jean Alesi. It is a potent combination. Alesi is hungrier for success than Prost, although Alain is undoubtedly the more complete driver. Prost must be seen as the man most likely to win the 1991 title.

Ferrari is continuing with the development of its tried and tested V12 engines, continually producing development versions, while the new 642 chassis is an obvious development of the successful 641/2. It should thus have all the strengths of the old car and fewer of the weaknesses. Far from standing still, the team is continually pushing ahead with new developments. The semi-automatic gearbox is the best in the business, and is still being improved, while there is an intense development programme around an active suspension system and an electronic traction-control unit.

McLaren must never be underestimated. Having won the Constructors' Championship six times in the last seven years the team has to be hard to beat.

With Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger it has a strong driver line-up, although the Austrian may once again be handicapped by trying to drive a car which is too small for his lanky frame.

The MP4/6 is not expected to be a radical car, following the MP4 theme. The design is now getting towards the end of its active life and against newer concepts is going to struggle.

The biggest change will be the new Honda V12 engine. In testing it has shown potential, but it is not yet fully developed, despite having had thousands of miles of running.

The new car will not initially include a semi-automatic gearbox system and it is not likely that the team will risk running such a system until it is totally sorted.

Expect the team to be a frontrunner as usual and look out for a championship challenge from Senna -- still the fastest man in F1.

Will anyone be able to challenge these two?

Down at Williams, there is plenty of enthusiasm. Thierry Boutsen has left to join Ligier but with Nigel Mansell alongside Riccardo Patrese the team has a strong line-up.

Patrick Head has been joined from Leyton House by aerodynicist Adrian Newey and the new FW14 shows a great deal of Newey's influence. With a new Renault RS3 engine and a new electronic gearshift, which has run remarkably successfully in testing, the team must be strong.

There is also continued development of an electronically-controlled suspension system, which will appear on the FW14 when it shows itself to be superior to traditional suspension systems.

Benetton won the final two races of the 1990 season, the team is well-placed to be a front-runner in 1991. The new Benetton B191 is not due until Imola, but with F1's top designer John Barnard with the team, most observers are expecting great things.

"We are working on an automatic gearbox and on active suspension," says Barnard, "and these will gradually evolve throughout the season."

At the same time the rumour mills suggests that Barnard is going to follow the aerodynamic route introduced last year by Tyrrell, although there is also talk of composite suspensions. Whatever the case, the car will be a challenger for race wins -- if not for the championship.

However, there is some doubt that the Ford V8 engine will be able to match the lastest V10s and V12s.

"I think everyone is talking about cylinders," says Barnard. "They sould talk about horsepower and power curves. As far as I am concerned there are only two things that can make the difference of a second a lap: one is the driver, the other is the tyres that is one reason why we are going with Pirelli."

Make no mistake, tyres will be an important factor in 1991. Benetton's switch to Pirelli surprised many, but Pirelli has been working hard, so watch out.

With Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno driving the team has talent behind the wheel.

Tyrrell is going to be worth watching too, despite the loss of aerodynamicist Jean-Claude Migeot and driver Jean Alesi to Ferrari. The new 020 chassis is a development of last year's startling 019 design and with Honda V10 engines, Tyrrell has to be seen as a likely race-winner.

"The engine is a further development of the engine used by McLaren last year," says Ken Tyrrell, "It has improved performance. At the end of May maybe we will have Ron Dennis coming round wondering if he can have his engines back!"

Stefano Modena joins Tyrrell from Brabham and is as good, if not better, than Alesi.

As with Benetton, however, the one question mark must be over the use of Pirelli tyres.

Thus, it would seem, there are five teams with a chance of victory in 1991. But what about the support players? Will any be in a position to upset the applecart?

Quite a few teams head into 1991 with new engines which may take time to develop: Leyton House Racing has a new Ilmor V10. Ilmor has enjoyed phenomenal success in America and the engine should not be under-estimated. Chris Murphy's new CG911 is a conventional car and there is plenty of talent in drivers Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin.

Scuderia Italia has John Judd's new GV V10 engine which has done well in testing, while Minardi Ferrari V12 engines and Goodyear rubber. The team also has the highly-rated Pierluigi Martini and a good-looking new car in the M191. The team does not, however, have a full budget.

Ligier has Lamborghini V12 engines and two new drivers in Thierry Boutsen and the reigning Formula 3000 champion Erik Comas. Ligier gets Renault V10 engines in 1992 and a one-year deal with Lamborghini will not give the team much scope for development. It looks like being an interim year.

Brabham has a new driver line-up with Martin Brundle (who drove for Brabham in 1989) returning to join highly-rated young Englishman Mark Blundell. The most important past of the new Brabham package is the deal with Yamaha to run the Japanese company's V12 engines. These are new and need considerable development this year.

Footwork has the new Porsche V12 engine, but it has shown little pace in testing thus far and needs a lot more work. Alan Jenkins is working on a radical new FA12 design which should be worth watching for.

Of the V8 users, Lotus is now under the control of Australian Peter Collins. The team has old Judd EV engines in a 102B chassis. Martin Donnelly is recovering the injuries he received in qualifying for the Spanish GP at Jerex last year and although he has been nominated as the team's lead driver he is unlikely to be fit until at least the San Marino GP. Either Johnny Herbert or Julian Bailey will stand in.

The team's second driver will be the highly-rated Finn, British F3 Champion Mika Hakkinen. Lotus will struggle in 1991.

So will Larrousse, which did such a good job in 1990, finishing sixth in the Constructors' Championship. Gerard Larrousse's team has lost its Lamborghini V12 engines and had no choice but to accept Cosworth DFR V8 power. There was also a financial setback when the team's part-owner Kazuo Ito of the Espo Corporation was forced to withdraw from because of financial difficulties.

In recent days FISA has declared that all the team's 1990 results are cancelled and the team must pre-qualify. If there are any plus points for Larrousse it is in its drivers: Eric Bernard and Aguri Suzuki having proved themselves to be among the best young drivers in F1.

Do not expect much from Coloni and Fondmetal (formerly Osella). Coloni has inexperienced Portuguese driver Pedro Chaves and old Cosworth DFR V8 engines, while Fondmetal is in the throes of rebuilding. This will take time. Frenchman Olivier Grouillard is good, but the car is not.

Finally there are two new teams: Jordan and Lambo F1.

If you could talk your way to the World Championship 7Up Jordan would eb there already. Eddie Jordan has an established pedigree in the lower formulae and has talked Andrea de Cesaris and Bertrand Gachot to join the team. More importantly the Irishman has talked Ford into supplying customer versions of the HB V8 engine.

The Jordan 911 chassis has been designed by Gary Anderson and has proved to be notably quick in winter testing.

"I think that Team 7Up Jordan has the potential to surprise many of the established teams in its first season," says De Cesaris. I tend to agree, but it will be a tough year as the team tries to escape from pre-qualifying.

Lambo F1 has a viable package thanks to Italian financier Carlo Patrucco. Lamborghini Engineering has built both the team's engines and cars and with V12 power pre-qualifying should be easier. Drivers Nicola Larini and Eric Van de Poele both have talent.

F1 looks better than ever, but the trouble with having such high expectations is that there is an increased likelihood that we will all be disappointed. Let us hope not.