Two Plus Two Makes One Two
A Williams-Renault won, with a McLaren-Honda second. Nothing remarkable about that, except that for once it was Patrese, not Mansell, from Berger, not Senna
Report: Nigel Roebuck - Qualifying: Joe Saward
In l987 a Japanese man called Fukashi Kazami rode to the North Pole on a 250cc motorcycle. Curious folk these Japanese. No, not perhaps curious, just different. Very different. To be honest, Formula 1 folk don’t like visiting Japan. The Grand Prix chic don’t like raw fish, nor do they look cool sitting on floors. They are not comfortable trying to squeeze into hotel rooms the size of large cupboards and they hate to get hopelessly lost on roads and, particularly, railways. And yet they do come to Japan. They come because, in the finest F1 tradition, everyone has a price. These curious oriental islands are the powerhouse of the Grand Prix economy and, as the sport has a Billy Bunter-ish appetite for horse-choking wedges of dosh, they just can’t say ‘No’ when the Japanese want to have their own event, and their own drivers. It matters not that - whisper it - the Japanese drivers have not, in general, been good enough for F1: except in terms of dollars. And so the F1 folk come, complain, drink and hurry away, tut-tutting. Every night, when the circus is in town, the beautiful people gather at the famous Log Cabin bar at Suzuka to drink, lock themselves away in karaoke booths to sing Puff the Magic Dragon and get completely off their faces. To the locals, who think of the F1 folk as the jet-setters we believe ourselves to be, it is all so madly glamorous.
It helps, of course, that F1 is basically a European thing. In Japan everything European is totally awesome and chic: Harrods, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Moschino. If you sold a coat with Romford written on it, they would buy it. If you turn on the television at any hour of the day or night you will find programmes teaching Japanese to speak European languages. When it comes to F1, the fanaticism in Japan borders on the insane. This is the Bay City Rollers and Donny Osmond rolled into one. This year, so the officials said, there were seven million applications for the 150,000 available tickets. That is like the entire population of London all being desperate to go to Silverstone. A sizeable percentage of these fans are women. And the lucky ones chase the stars, scream, cry, and generally drool...‘They’re completely crazy,’ said the spooked JJ Lehto one morning, having been mobbed while riding a moped from the Circuit Hotel to the paddock. ‘I was riding in at 60kph and they were jumping on the bike. Surveys are reputed to have revealed that the girls love wicked Gerhard Berger (and, naturally, vice versa), the men love macho Nigel Mansell and everyone loves the demi-god Ayrton Senna.
In Friday qualifying, though, their hero yet again had to settle for second best in the face of another completely dominant performance from Mansell and the Williams-Renault FW14B. There had been talk of fancy hand grenade engines from Honda for the great occasion of the company’s last home Grand Prix for what looks like being quite a long time. There were rumours of 830bhp on the dyno.
What actually happened was a bit different. Renault anticipated Honda’s home-front push and produced its own souped-up screamer to ensure maximum loss of face for Honda and guarantee Williams the front row because, at Suzuka, overtaking isn’t that simple.
‘Renault has done a very good job for us,’ said Nigel Mansell. ’I would say that this has made a difference of at least one second per lap. This means that Senna would have been on pole if we had not had those engines.
Nigel was quite honest about it. No, he said, they could not race the same engines.
Friday was the only day when qualifying meant anything, for torrential rain on Saturday put paid to any serious efforts and as a result 125,000 fans sat in pouring rain watching a few cars pottering about.
But Friday was a good show. It was warm and sunny in the morning, and as the grandstands filled up, the engineers strolled up and down pitlane to see what the opposition had in the way of wings, all desperately trying to look like men not doing what they were doing. In the early minutes of that Friday morning session - pre-qualifying is a dim and distant memory now - we had the usual local heroics as Ukyo Katayama and Aguri Suzuki trundled around trading fastest times with Jean Alesi’s Ferrari.
Then Gerhard Berger lobbed in a 1m46.1s lap. A few moments later Mansell turned a 1m42.9s and a little while later a 1m40.9s. Next we had the usual Michael Schumacher spin into a sandtrap and a similar indiscretion from Katayama before Nigel took the fastest times down into the 1m30s. As the session ticked tiresomely towards its close Senna went out for one of his famous blasts. And he gave it everything. It was a clear lap, a brilliant lap, an over-the-top-but-what‘s-the-choice kind of lap. He was still a second from Mansell’s best. It makes you understand why Ayrton might be frustrated these days. Gerhard Berger was driving in much the same way and he ended up spinning off.
‘I had hoped that coming here we would have been able to close the gap to the Williams, said Ayrton, ‘but although the engines are running well they are not as quick as we expected. Their performance on the test bed does not seem to have been translated into improved track performance. I drove really hard and pushed beyond my own limit.
Honda did its best to put a brave face on the disaster.
‘We have managed to reduce the gap between McLaren and Williams slightly,’ said Akimasa Yasuoka, Honda’s F1 project leader, ‘although because the lap here at Suzuka is longer than average this is not as apparent as it might be at other tracks.
The Friday morning session revealed the shape of the weekend ahead. Williams was dominant, Benetton was under pressure from Lotus to be top Ford team, the Ferraris were pretty poor but the new spec Lamborghinis were better than ever, prompting Ferrari team boss Harvey Postlethwaite to mutter that Ferrari had now been overtaken by Lamborghini. Further back March was struggling.
The afternoon confirmed everyone’s suspicions. There was a fair bit of action early on in the session with Patrese, Martin Brundle and Michael Schumacher all involved. After 10 minutes, Mansell emerged and set off to break records. On his second lap he spun.
‘I went off line and lost my rhythm,’ he explained. ‘I put a wheel over a kerb as I turned into the corner and that was it. It was interesting.
Later Nigel would try his second set to record 1m37.360s - there wasn’t anyone who was going to do anything about that.
In the course of the session Alesi and Naspetti had a misunderstanding and ran into one another at the hairpin. Martin Brundle, who was beginning to feel very unwell, had a sizeable accident in the sweepers behind the pits.
The high point of the session, however, was Senna’s valiant efforts to separate Mansell from pole position in the final minutes. It was impressive stuff, brave, typical Senna. It was evidence, if such a thing were needed, why Ayrton Senna must be convinced to stay in F1 next year and not disappear off for a year on a Brazilian beach.
Mansell turned the post-qualifying press conference on Saturday into an appeal to Williams to find a driver to take on Alain Frost.
‘If the Williams is reliable next year and there’s not a comparable driver in the other car at Williams, you will probably get Prost winning all 16 races. There will be developments on FW15 and also anti-lock braking, which takes the skill away from braking. I guess a good puppet could drive the car and win everything.
‘Somebody should say, “let the two World Champions be together and put Ayrton in the car”. He would have an exciting year.
The grid was pretty much as one would expect, with Patrese alongside Mansell. Senna and Berger were third and fourth, Schumacher was fifth and the two Lotuses sixth and seventh, Johnny Herbert faster than Mika Hakkinen. ‘Coming out of the chicane on my best lap I hit fifth gear instead of third,’ said Johnny. ‘The whole thing just seemed to die. In fact it hadn’t seemed like a really good lap. It was one of those when it seemed a bad lap but the time turned out to be good. Missing the gearchange cost me a lot of time. Half a second, maybe more. Without that I am sure I could have outqualified Schumacher.
Next up were the two Ligiers — split by Andrea de Cesaris’s Tyrrell - and in 11th place Nicola Larini’s active Ferrari F92A. Team leader Jean Alesi was back in 15th with the F92AT, having collided with Naspetti and then suffered an engine failure. Also back there was the sick Brundle and the two Minardi-Lamborghinis, outqualifying the Venturi- Lamborghinis for the first time this year.
Saturday was barely worthy of comment. In the morning a few folk ventured out, spun here and there, among them Mansell, Martini, Suzuki and Grouillard. Things were no better in the afternoon. Only eight drivers recorded times before the session was wisely called off when the descending clouds meant that the safety helicopter could no longer take off. It was time to go back to the hotels, raise a few glasses and hope that it wasn’t going to rain again on Sunday.
No one was really expecting any surprises.
Race: After the rain and murk of Saturday, it was good and bright on Sunday morning, exactly as the forecasts had said. And that was a relief, for the track drainage at Suzuka is not wonderful, and many drivers, Mansell in particular: had been very concerned at the thought of 26 cars ploughing through deep puddles on the opening lap of the race. In those circumstances, Nigel reckoned, a big accident was a virtual certainty.
No worries any more on that score, however, but still he had an anxious moment in the warm-up, going over a kerb hard enough to damage the underside of the car, and to destroy its undertray. Thierry Boutsen, Mansell said, had backed off unexpectedly in the middle of a corner.
It hardly mattered, for still he had the second best time of the session, and only Patrese was ahead of him. Berger third fastest, was almost two seconds from Riccardo, with Herbert’s Lotus an encouraging fourth, ahead of Senna’s McLaren-Honda, which suffered a major engine failure. The mechanics set to work on installing a fresh V12 for the race; that one would have an even shorter life.
At Ferrari spirits could hardly have been lower, for Alesi was 18th, and Larini, giving the ‘active’ F92A its debut, 23rd. Jean could hardly bring himself to speak about the car: I’ve got 14 cars ahead of me on the grid - and I don’t see how I can pass any of them. Our horsepower here is pathetic.
The trap speeds told their own tale. At the fastest point on the circuit, Mansell, Berger and Senna went through at a little over 186mph; Alesi, in contrast, was doing 177, Larini only 175. They were right down at the foot of the table, slower even than the Yamaha-powered Jordans. It was same Maranello story Chris Amen was telling 25 years ago: lovely noise, not much else.
Through the morning it was apparent that something was missing from the traditional Suzuka atmosphere. For the four years the Japanese Grand Prix has settled the outcome of the World Championship, but this season Mansell resolved it long ago as to make it a forgotten issue.
Therefore, it was a race for the sake of a race, rather than for points, although still to be decided were the places in the championship. And for Honda it was clearly important to win at home, a feat they have managed but rarely.
Berger was realistic about that
‘Yesterday’s rain has washed the circuit clean, just as happened at Estoril, so it’s like a new race track today, and tyre wear will be high. Realistically, we don’t have a chance of running with Mansell and Patrese, so the only thing to do is try something different.
The decision, therefore, was to have two planned tyre stops. So heavy on fuel is the Honda V12 that going hard in the early laps of a race means rooted tyres. At the same time, Gerhard pointed out, he and Senna needed to go hard at that point, for overtaking at Suzuka is mighty hard. So... two stops it would be.
In Ayrton’s case, the strategy was hardly necessary. He got away well enough, running third behind the Williams-Renaults, but on the third lap pulled off, cruising to a halt with a dead engine. ‘I could feel it was starting to tighten up, and there was no point in going on until it blew.’
For a few minutes he stayed by the car and watched the race, as he always does on the rare occasions when a McLaren-Honda breaks on him. Then he walked down to the pits, waving all the way, shaking a lot of hands. There was a touch of the farewell performance about it, and few believe, now that the McLaren-Renault saga is over, that Ayrton will race in 1993. The following year, though, could be a different matter.
Berger was now left in lone pursuit of the Williams duo, but in reality there were no hopes for him at all. At the end of the opening lap, Mansell had led Patrese by a staggering three seconds, and Riccardo himself was soon out of Gerhard’s sight. If thrills were why you had come, it looked like a long afternoon.
For Boutsen, as well as Senna, it was already over. The Ligier had a brand new gearbox for the race, but almost immediately the fourth gear pinion broke. And right at the back, by some way, was Larini, whose unfamiliarity with race starts in the Ferrari had caused him to stall at the start. A long afternoon for him, too.
In the early part of the race, six drivers — Mansell, Patrese, Berger, Schumacher, Herbert, Hakkinen — separated themselves from the rest, who were led by Comas, then de Cesaris and the ailing Brundle.
Before the race, Martin had seriously doubted his ability to run the full 53 laps. ‘It was a matter of pacing myself. I spent the whole of Saturday in bed, and that was good, because I was able to save energy for the race. But food poisoning weakens you a lot, and I haven’t really eaten for two days. Starting 13th, which I did, meant there was a fair bit of overtaking to do, but I managed to be aggressive when if counted.
Indeed so. By lap nine he had dispensed with both de Cesaris and Comas, and was up to seventh, which became sixth four laps later, when his team mate failed to come by.
Schumacher has not retired often in 1992, as 10 finishes in the points confirm, and he was optimistic for the race here. ‘It was a good start, and the set-up of the car was perfect. But then, on a change up to third, the gear didn’t quite go in. There was a slight crack, and when the lever finally went in, there was nothing. I tried going straight into fourth, but in fact the gearbox was finished.
Briefly, Herbert celebrated, for Schumacher had actually been holding him up, he said. But only a couple of laps later, the Lotus, too, suffered gearbox failure. ‘I was way quicker once Michael had gone,’ he remarked, ‘and just starting to think of a finish in the points...
On lap 11 Berger had blasted into the pits for his first of his tyre stops, the McLaren mechanics doing well, at this early stage, to get him back out in sixth place. And he well knew that everyone would have to stop today.
In, too, on lap 15, was Brundle, who would also change a second time, but the stops for those aiming at a single change, began in earnest a little later, with Comas, on lap 19. After that, it was Hakkinen (21), Patrese (22), and Mansell, de Cesaris and Alesi (23). And when they were all done, the order was Mansell, Patrese, Berger, Hakkinen, Brundle, Comas and de Cesaris. The man having the most dispiriting afternoon was undoubtedly the hapless Alesi, who had circulated endlessly between the Minardis of Fittipaldi and Morbidelli, quite unable to do anything about it. The Ferrari wasn’t disastrous on balance and grip, Jean said, but a joke in a straight line. So lamentable were the Italian engines in Japan that the team was obliged to run a considerably lower top gear ratio than last year.
Finally, superior pit work by the Ferrari mechanics got Alesi back out ahead of Fittipaldi, but for the rest of the race he would have the Minardi- Lamborghini in his mirrors.
Wilson’s boy drove a magnificent race at Suzuka. Since returning to racing, following his huge mid-season accident at Magny-Cours, there had been signs of depleted confidence in the young man, but he said a long talk with his father had helped him immeasurably, and in Japan he was aggressive, yet still smooth and controlled, and a first championship point was his just due. At the flag he was still but a second from Alesi.
At the front, though, Mansell was again making the business of leading a Grand Prix in a Williams-Renault seem ridiculously easy. His only anxious moment came at mid-race, when Gugelmin crashed his Jordan, and Nigel was the first man through afterwards. The sidepod of his car was damaged by debris, but all felt well, and he pressed on, apparently heading for his 10th victory of the year. Or was he? As black clouds collected over the circuit, bringing a real threat of more rain, No 5 suddenly slowed at the exit of the chicane. Momentarily, it seemed that perhaps there was a problem with the gearbox, for Mansell crawled down towards the start/finish line, and only began to pick up pace when Patrese had gone by him into the lead.
‘I’d talked to my race engineer about the points situation between Riccardo and Senna,’ Mansell said, ‘and I slowed enough to let him through.’
‘I have to thank Nigel for that,’ Patrese said, ‘but we hadn’t discussed this before the race, and it wasn’t really clear to me what was happening - especially as he pushed very hard after letting me through! I didn’t know what he wanted to do. If he really was prepared to let me win the race, I think he could have gone a bit slower...’
Riccardo was smiling as he spoke, but said the thought in his head was that still there were nearly 20 laps to go. ‘I have to say it was... a good release when I saw he wasn’t in my mirrors any more.
This was on lap 45, only eight from the flag. ‘The engine, Mansell reported, ‘just went. No warning at all.’ As he took the short cut back to the pits, there was quite a fire burning at the back of the Williams, and other drivers found a good quantity of oil through several corners. ‘It would have been nice to have had a one-two,’ concluded Nigel. ‘I think everyone understood what I was doing.
At about the same moment Hakkinen, too, disappeared. For some time he had gear selection problems, and perhaps the engine had been ‘buzzed’ once too often; at all events, it blew, which locked the rear wheels, which spun Mika out of his deserved fourth place.
Changes, then, in the top six, which now read: Patrese, Berger, Brundle, de Cesaris, Alesi and Fittipaldi. Modena’s Jordan-Yamaha was not far behind the last pair, but never really looked like taking them on, and fell away in the last few laps, low on fuel. Nevertheless, it was the most convincing performance by the car in a long time.
There was little of moment in the closing stages, although Venturi team mates Gachot and Katayama unaccountably contrived to have an accident at the chicane, the Belgian’s car taking to the air. For reasons unclear, Bertrand tried to rejoin in his heap of wreckage, but soon stopped; his team mate, after pitting for repairs, was able to continue, clearly in a highly agitated state.
Riccardo Patrese, unlike some of his colleagues, is not a man ever to sing his own praises, but after this race he rightly said he felt he was due a victory. ‘Now that I know a few things that happened in this race, I have to thank Nigel for helping me to win. In the Williams-Renault team, we have all worked very hard this year. Of course, he is World Champion, and he has been the strongest driver of the season, but all season long I have been thinking about winning a race. And I think, at least for the amount of work I have done for the team, to help it succeed, I think I deserve it.
Everyone in the place went along with that. While not a memorable day, in terms of racing, it was good to see a fine man rewarded at last.
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission
- Riccardo Patrese (Williams)
- Gerhard Berger (McLaren)
- Martin Brundle (Benetton)
- Andrea de Cesaris (Tyrrell)
- Jean Alesi (Ferrari)
- Christian Fittipaldi (Minardi)