Join us at a soaking wet Estoril, Portugal, where a young Brazilian named Ayrton Senna takes the pole and leads from start to finish in his John Player Team Lotus 97T-Renault. Peter Windsor describes the build-up to the race and – almost unnoticed amongst the shouting – the excellent drive to fifth place by the new Williams-Honda driver, Nigel Mansell He had to race for the full two hours this time – there were no Monaco-like interruptions in Portugal, despite the heavy rain – but he firmly took up from where he left off in May ’84.
Leading from start to finish, from pole position to the 120th minute, Ayrton Senna da Silva won his first Grand Prix. That was the most significant event in Portugal. The next was that neither McLaren MP4/2Bs finished the race, making it a total eclipse by John Player Team Lotus-Renault. Whilst Senna disappeared into the mist, his pit board showing plus a million minutes over anyone who tried to race him, McLaren began to look like…just another front-running team. Alain Prost spent 30 laps behind Elio De Angelis’s second-placed Lotus – and then spun.
Once, twice and then again, aquaplaning off at the end of the race-defining main straight. Further down the field, Niki Lauda was looking as though he would rather be in his motorhome. A down-on-power TAG Porsche engine, which eventually blew, enabled him to take tea on lap 50. He would have finished fourth or fifth but nobody gave the problem too much thought: more appropriate was the comment made by the McLaren man a couple of hours later: “Tonight,” he said, “we are going out to celebrate not winning the race.” The proper celebrations belonged to Senna. Gerard Ducarouge, Lotus’s French engineer, was the first to embrace Ayrton.
Then came his father, followed by Peter Warr, the mechanics and Armando, Senna’s Brazilian manager. It was a win memorable because it will be the first of many rather than simply the first. Senna’s class has been shining, dazzling, for more than a year now and the conditions in Estoril were exactly what he needed: the rain gave him no worries on fuel consumption, no choice about which Goodyears to run. Given those variables, there is always a McLaren or two with which to contend. Without them – without them there is Ayrton Senna.
True, Senna had dominated the two dry qualifying days at Estoril, heading the times on Friday and lapping half-a-second quicker again on Saturday. His driving was smooth and clinically-precise. He made no mistakes. He even lapped quickly enough to be in the top six when his Renault engine was being throttled by a temporary fuel system mis-fire. His pole position – his first – came with a lap in 1min 21.007sec (so it will be remembered!) – 0.4 sec quicker than anything offered by Prost. But it wasn’t all as it seemed to be. Senna was quicker in a straight line on this lap by a considerable margin over his previous best; and, eagle-eyed in the Brabham pit, Gordon Murray thought he saw something.
What he saw would have made Colin Chapman smile: the top of the rear wing had come adrift as Senna neared the end of the quick lap. In the cockpit, Senna felt the car jiggling around a little bit and assumed at the time that he had just passed the peak performance of his Goodyear qualifiers. Actually, he was feeling a reduction in downforce – and in drag. As the Lotus bobbled out onto the finishing straight, power oversteer clear to see, it picked up revs and speed. He crossed the line at a fraction over 1min 21.0, bent trim tab and all. Was it a “moveable aerodynamic device”? If it were, it would have been illegal.
By the time Senna was back in the pits, smiling at the smiles, ready for the interviews, the rear wing looked no different from normal, for the tab had sprung back into place. The car, of course, turned out to be legal. Senna was by then in the midst of something special. He had come to Portugal tanned and fit. He now runs regularly – about four miles a day – and he was delighted by the villa in which he was housed. He played beginner’s tennis and there was golf to watch there, too. He ran on Tuesday, perhaps a little too hard, and on Wednesday he came to the circuit. Dressed in baggy JPS shorts and shirt, his thoughts were of the recent sacking of Rene Arnoux and, perhaps, of the chance he might have had at Ferrari. “But I am very happy at Lotus,” he said. “Very happy. We have a very good car.
I was in really good shape in Brasil until the electrical problem. I think we’ll go well here.” Of the winter illness that caused partial paralysis of his face there was no sign. Instead, Senna spoke of the new house he is buying in Reading, Berkshire, of the life he is living at Lotus. Lotus-Renault had the best qualifying combination in Estoril, and Ayrton Senna, as he now likes to be known, made the most of it. He was consistently half-a-second faster than his team-mate, de Angelis, and the aforementioned pole lap gave him an advantage over Prost. Striding away for another round of golf, Alain said that qualifying had simply been won by horsepower. “We still cannot run a true qualifying boost with the TAG engine,” he said. “I followed a Lotus and the difference was very clear: it was power.
My chassis was the same, no problem. The Lotus left me behind in acceleration.” Prost might have added that, in this respect, he was in excellent shape for the race, for Porsche’s qualifying boost is remarkably close to its race boost. Asked about fuel consumption on Sunday, indeed, Porsche’s Hans Mezger blew through his lips and waved: this, I think, was German for “no problem at all”. Ducarouge, to be sure, on Saturday was predicting a McLaren win. “They have a big fuel consumption advantage over us. A big one,” he said in the tone he normally adopts for statements of the more positive kind. Given that sort of pessimism, something was bound to be different on race day. The morning warm-up ran to form. Alain was quickest, from de Angelis and the Ferraris – cars that lacked the grip on empty tanks that clearly they had with a full fuel load. Senna? He was only seventh, with the engine way down on power. It was changed, together with the gearbox.
It was when the rain began to fall, 20 minutes before the start, that the race suddenly split wide open. On the grid, Senna sprayed his visor with de-mister. He had the inside line for the first corner, and, in theory, there would be no-one in front of him. A win was in the offing. Behind, Prost climbed from his car and waited under an umbrella. His only worries were the brakes. At Monaco, in the wet last year, there had been a problem. Here, hopefully, they would be better. Senna won the start – and he made good use of it. He was leading clearly as they left the first corner, and Elio took second place behind him. Confident and calm, Senna drove the first lap hard.
He pulled out a lead, and did the same on lap two. Elio could match him for a couple of corners but then Senna was gone, out into a world of his own, where mistakes are rare, where Lotus chassis are a delight – and where the Reanult V6 turbo engine would be tailor-made for the conditions. Fuel consumption-for-power it may still be inferior to the Porsche; in the wet its power curve is sufficiently well-balanced to allow its drivers to apply throttle – and to get traction – tens of yards before its competitors. In the wet, the Renault engine looks like the one that been undergoing development since 1977. Senna had some problems with his carbon brakes – but they were not as serious as those of the McLaren drivers. Prost felt he could run quicker than Elio, behind whom he became trapped, but he was never confident enough under brakes to do anything about it.
Prost eventually spun out of the race, as related, and it was no help for him at all to learn later that he needn’t even have tried to pass the second Lotus: Elio slowed in the closing stages thanks to a punctured left-front tyre. Second place was therefore taken by the man who now leads the championship – Ferrari’s Michele Alboreto. Like Senna, Alboreto was in many ways saved by the conditions. He had been fastest in the winter tests in Estoril, but he was shattered on the first day of official practice to find that his Ferrari 156 had unaccountably lost grip and traction. “The track surface has been changed since the tests,” he said to his team. “Either we change the surface again or we change the car. I suppose it’s easier to change the car…” The mood at Ferrari on Sunday night was of happy relief. It is a good, uncluttered team now that Stefan Johansson is in the second car and Ferrari set neatly about its work. It improved the car, but not dramatically, which leaves furrowed brows pre-Imola.
The car was at least a quick one on a full load of fuel – but how would it be in the later stages of the race? The question-mark was still there when the rain began to fall. Here was a different race – one that Alboreto maximized. He paced himself well, he made no serious errors – and he finished second. In his view, he was beaten by a better chassis and a more-progressive engine. Patrick Tambay’s drive into third place for Renault rewarded some beautifully-smooth yet aggressive driving – and, in a more general sense, the latest Goodyear wet tyre. Its quality was clear to see, too, on the Lotus-Renaults but the Pirellis were a disaster. Andrea de Cesaris had been the fastest Pirelli qualifier – 0.3 sec quicker than Nelson Piquet’s Brabham, much to Pirelli’s delight – but Andrea, nor Piquet, nor any of the other Pirelli runners, were anywhere in the race. Third place could therefore have belonged to any number of people – to Piquet, to de Cesaris – to Derek Warwick, perhaps, for he had done a great job in practice in the other factory Renault, to Johansson, who had done a similarly professional job in the spare Ferrari (following a blown engine in his race car) – or even to Keijo Rosberg, who qualified third with the Williams-Honda. It went, instead, to Tambay.
He had some bad moments in practice (losing the rear brakes on the spare car and suffering a suspension problem on Saturday with the race car) but on Sunday he did all that could have been expected of him. For a change, his car was powered by an engine (the new EF15) that surpassed the chassis in quality. Johansson hit – or was hit by – two people: Manfred Winkelhock spun his RAM in front of the Ferrari, causing him to break the front wing when running ninth; and, earlier, on lap 34, Riccardo Patrese had shut an obviously open gate and squeezed out the Ferrari. As a warm-up for that, Patrese had collided with his team-mate, Eddie Cheever in qualifying. Neither Alfa had been badly damaged – but Cheever had punted Nigel Mansell (Williams-Honda) hard into the Armco as a result. It should be noted that the two Alfa drivers have been fighting one another – in silence, and then on the track – since Monaco, 1984. Warwick spun out of seventh place on lap 22 – he had been passed by Tambay by then, but he continued, after repairs, to finish in the position he had lost – and Rosberg stalled on the grid. Or, rather, his Honda engine died, suggesting that there was something seriously wrong – an understatement that will make Keke rage. When he did finally start, with a damaged wheel that was already leaking air (due to a brush with Jonathan Palmer’s Zakspeed, which had qualified well in its first race) it was with an engine that even he described as virtually undriveable: “One minute there was nothing; the next there was everything,” said Rosberg.
He stopped for new tyres and for a while he went well. He was 14th when the Honda engine suddenly gave a kick when he needed it least. He hit barriers on both sides of the track, wrote off the chassis and sustained an injured thumb. Mansell had been warned about just such an incident on the formation laps. He drive his first few wet Williams-Honda corners on tip-toes, then gave the car some throttle after a double-apex left. The FW10 spun instantly, slid onto the grass and banged the barrier. Mansell could have driven his damaged car onto the grid and received repairs there. Instead, he drove into the pit lane, for the shunt had been hard enough perhaps to have damaged the suspension. The car received a new front wing and two new wheels and Mansell started from the pit lane – from the back.
And he finished fifth. In the heavy rain that characterized the closing laps, Mansell was threatened by Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell-Cosworth. The pair finished four seconds apart, Mansell ahead. His was a brilliant drive, and Mansell explained afterwards that he’d done most of his passing under brakes. “I couldn’t see anything so I just had to listen to the other guy’s engine note. As soon as he backed off, I stayed on it a bit longer and then passed him…” Given how bad the Honda’s throttle lag was obviously proving to be, Mansell’s performance in Estoril was in many ways just as awe-inspiring as Senna’s.
Ayrton finished 63 sec ahead of Alboreto – but it could have been more. It was a dominant, sweeping victory, partly the property of Lotus, Renault and Goodyear but mainly owned by a man who, in 1981, retired from racing because no-one would give him a drive. Much to the benefit of us all, Senna continued. Since then, his progress has been marked by an almost-vertical line. In Portugal he was stunning to watch. Author’s note: Despite securing seven poles in 1985, Portugal and Belgium turned out to be Ayrton Senna’s only wins of the season. Alain Prost easily won the championship for McLaren-TAG Porsche, with the very polished Michele Alboreto winning twice for Ferrari and finishing second overall. And Williams’s Nigel Mansell’s great drive to fifth place proved not to be a fluke: as Honda began to solve their throttle-lag problems, Mansell was able to out-pace his famous team-mate and would score two late-season victories.
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