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DECEMBER 1, 1989

The 1989 F1 season review


What CAN you say about Formula 1 in 1989? Even the most hardened and cynical observers have been getting the giggles this year. Neighbours was never like this! No, folks, Formula 1 makes Dallas look like a kiddies programme.

Why? Well, where to begin? There has been plenty of intra-team strife to keep the media happy, and drivers have been jumping around between the teams. But that's small potatoes really. Three top management men among the teams are presently under arrest.

One joke doing the rounds suggests that the World Championship will be sponsored by Amnesty International next year...

In the meantime McLaren-Honda continues to dominate the action, with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost getting on like Bob Hawke and the airline pilots.

If you believe the press releases put out by the team, everything is rosy in happy valley. Problems are only ever 'slight' and no-one ever has a bad word to say about anyone else. Jelly and ice cream is permanently on tap! Yippee! Isn't life wonderful? Everyone is having such fun.

The reality is somewhat different. Senna and Prost haven't spoken to each other since Imola. They are now way beyond marriage guidance counselling. Prost has upped and gone to Ferrari for 1990.

And yet the team is still winning. Not with quite the domination enjoyed in 1988, but the Marlboro cars start every race as the favourites -- and rightly so. The chassis is adequate and Honda power is definitely the thing to have.

After the Italian GP at Monza, the score stood at McLaren-Honda 9 (Senna 5, Prost 4), Ferrari 2 (both Nigel Mansell), Williams-Renault 1 (Thierry Boutsen's fluke in the wet at Montreal).

The year began with an amazing result in Brazil when Mansell's Ferrari survived a race to win, having never survived beyond a handful of laps previously. The top six was covered by just 18 seconds.

"I know what happened," said an Italian pressman mysteriously after the race. What? Cried the press corps. What was the Ferrari secret?

"It was a miracle," said the Italian. Back at Maranello, they rang the church bells and said prayers of thanks.

But it had been a fluke and in the following races Ferrari suffered with continued problems with its semi-automatic gearbox. These were later traced to an alternator problem which disrupted the power supply to the computer chips working the revolutionary shift system.

A Ferrari victory ion Brazil naturally meant a huge crowd for the San Marino GP, but they did not go home happy for Gerhard Berger crashed out the race in horrifying fashion, his Ferrari smashing into a wall at the fastest corner of the Imola circuit. The mangled car slewed to a halt and then, with Berger slumped unconscious is the cockpit, burst into flames.

The next 15 seconds were like a lifetime for those watching, but rescue crews arrived at the scene with remarkable haste, put out the fire and pulled Berger free. It was a miraculous escape, although the Austrian was to miss one race, having skin grafts to his burned hands.

When the race was restarted the McLarens dominated, the Honda V10 power sufficient to outrun the rest. The result was a 1-2, Senna-Prost.

The same happened in Monaco and Senna won again in Mexico when Prost was delayed with tyre troubles.

In Phoenix Senna again led the pack convincingly, but retired with electrical trouble, handing Prost a victory.

In rain-soaked Montreal Alain retired early in the race with a suspension failure, while Ayrton led until the closing minutes when his engine blew, leaving Thierry Boutsen to pick up the pieces and his first F1 victory.

Back in Europe for the French GP Senna broke his transmission at the second start (the first having witnessed a dramatic accident caused by a cartwheeling Mauricio Gugelmin in his March). Prost won.

At Silverstone Senna led and spun out with a gearbox problem. Prost won. In Germany Senna dominated, Prost was second. But, by now the Ferrari team had solved its problems and was on the tail of the McLarens. Hungary is a track well suited to the handling of the Ferraris, and Nigel Mansell dispensed with everyone to win, despite starting 12th on the grid.

In Belgium and Italy, however, the fast nature of the tracks favoured Mclaren once more. Senna won in the wet at Spa and Prost profited from Senna's engine blowing up in the closing laps to win again.

The fact that McLaren is still winning, despite being a house divided, lends much credence to the belief that everyone else is losing.

The McLaren empire may stumble but in comparison to the rest it is only (slightly) shooting itself in the foot.

Ferrari hobbled itself with the electronic gearbox, which meant that it was effectively out of the World Championship by the mid-season. Berger's accident and subsequent series of non-finishes, meant that in the Constructor's Championship, McLaren had everything its own way. As the season progressed, however, the Ferrari V12 gradually gaained horsepower to close on the McLaren-Hondas.

Williams-Renault embarked on a learning year with the new Renault V10, which was a year behind McLaren in engine development. It fluked a win in Canada, but missed a deserved victory in Hungary when Riccardo Patrese led convincingly. By the mid-summer Patrese and Boutsen were looking forward to the arrival of the much-delayed new FW13, the FW12C having reached the full extent of its development potential.

As you can see the multi-cylinder engines (V10s and V12s) have had the legs on the V8s all year, even at the twisty tracks where the V8 users were convinced they might challenge for overall victory.

Thus a two-class system has developed: the 10s and 12s versus the rest.

The other V12 in the field -- from Lamborghini -- has been too new all year and the Larrousse team has struggled despite having one of the best chassis in the business.

The team, which has one partner in jail accused of murdering his wife, has already fired Yannick Dalmas and has engines which either stop or blow up. a lack of results -- if not speed -- meant that after the British GP the team dropped into pre-qualifying. More development is need