Monday, 17 November 2014

1984 Formula One World Championship: Lauda v Prost

Half a point. Just half a point. Sixteen races taking in four continents over seven months of intensive competition, and at the end of it just half a point separating the two protagonists. The 1984 Formula One World Championship season would involve a battle between two legendary drivers that would go right down to the wire, the pair finally separated by the tiniest of winning margins. To the winner the spoils, and one last championship to crown his career that was inevitably drawing to an end. To the runner-up, more heartbreak, as for the third year in a row he was denied the title and the chance to be the first Frenchman to win the Formula One World Championship.

It was also a season that saw the emergence of another star who would feature prominently in the years to come and leave an indelible mark on the sport. A man who would join battle with his rivals in an era of the sport in which we were truly spoilt for driving talent and drama. It turned out that 1984 was not quite as bad as George Orwell had predicted.

McLaren

1983 had not been a particularly good year for McLaren. Using Ford engines, the team finished fifth in the Constructors' Championship, with only John Watson victorious in a single race. But the development of the Porsche TAG engines, first used by Niki Lauda in the Netherlands in 1983, would result in a much more profitable 1984. With the new rules introduced at the start of the season - cars could only carry 220 litres of fuel and were not allowed to refuel during pit stops - engine efficiency would prove crucial during the campaign, and the work put into the TAG engines by Porsche gave McLaren an edge that they used to their advantage.

Conversely it would be a year of frustration for many other teams. Defending champion Nelson Piquet failed to finish in five of his first six races in his Brabham; Ferrari would win just the one race as would the Williams team; Lotus enjoyed a reasonably consistent campaign with sixteen top six finishes but the troubles of the Tyrrell team would be an enduring saga throughout the year.

Niki Lauda and Alain Prost

It also helped McLaren that they had two drivers of undoubted quality in their team. Austrian Niki Lauda was a two-time world champion and a man with 141 Grand Prix races behind him, his tactical know how and wise racing strategy developed through 13 years of racing experience. Lauda had in fact only returned to racing two years previously - he quit the Brabham team to establish his own airline - and after a trying 1983 in which he scored just 12 points, Lauda and McLaren had a lot to prove.

After a bitter row with his Renault team bosses, Alain Prost had rejoined McLaren after a two year gap, and was striving to make it third time lucky after his near things in 1982 and 1983. Fiercely ambitious, Prost was not joining McLaren to play second fiddle to Lauda, with John Watson, who Prost had replaced, wondering if the new team mates would be good for each other. "I'm not sure it was made in heaven, for they are both single minded, selfish, wanting kind of people".

Rumours circulated that Lauda was indeed less than impressed with the appointment of such a competitive team mate, his comments in 2014 seemingly backing up this theory. "I hated the guy. When I saw him I got upset, because he was my biggest enemy, in the same team," said Lauda, although the duo did manage to make the relationship work. In fact the pair turned out to be good for each other, Lauda driven on by a desire to keep the younger man in his place, and Prost learning from his more experienced colleague.

"Niki was the old master when I joined the team and I was the young guy," said Prost in 1988. "But we worked together very quickly. I was very eager to learn and Lauda helped me a lot". Lauda's steadiness in qualification, his concentration on getting things right on the race day and his relentless point accumulation during the season taught the younger man a crucial lesson come the final reckoning. Ultimately the lessons learned from his 1984 agony would stand Prost in good stead for the future.

Season start

If anyone was questioning the prowess of the McLaren-TAG partnership, then the first five races of the 1984 season put paid to any such doubts. Prost's win at the Brazilian Grand Prix was eventually comfortable, although in an incident packed race Lauda was forced to retire whilst leading, his car limping into the pits as Prost was in for a tyre change.

Lauda responded in the very next race, winning in South Africa after Prost had been forced to start from the pits in a spare car after a frozen fuel valve had disabled his racing vehicle. Prost forced his way through the field for a fine second-placed finish, highlighting his talents and the efficiency of his (spare) car. The McLaren pair may have suffered a rare setback at Belgium, both retiring as Ferrari's Michele Alboreto won, but the next couple of races put the campaign back on track.

Prost led from start to finish at Imola, stretching his lead to 15 points over Lauda, as the Austrian suffered an engine blow out whilst in fourth place. But the pattern was maintained when Lauda won Prost's home Grand Prix in Dijon, the Frenchman only managing seventh after his attempts to take the lead from Patrick Tambay on lap 26 caused him to damage his wheels and lose a lap because of this. The sort of mistake that come the end of the season would prove costly.

A mention too for Nigel Mansell who came third in France, just three days after his mother had died of cancer, and also had to contend with a rogue marshall wandering across the track. "On one lap I came over the brow of the hill before the pits, flat out in fifth, to find one of them crossing the track about 50 feet in front of me. You could say I was very unimpressed. In fact, it shook me rigid".

After five rounds of the 1984 Formula One World Championship, the battle lines had been firmly drawn: Alain Prost 24 Niki Lauda 18.

Senna announces himself

On to a Monaco Grand Prix that could fill a blog on its own. Torrential rain and terrible racing conditions led to a cancellation of the race, half points awarded to the drivers due to less than 75% of the event being completed. On an extraordinary day of drama and controversy, Prost hung on to win a race, a star was born, a clerk of the course took centre stage, and a whole series of what-ifs were created that would have implications for the rest of the season.

Prost's 4½ points were very welcome at the time, the Frenchman frequently waving his hands at officials as he protested that the race should be stopped, yet what if the 75% mark had been met and full points were awarded? The thrilling drive of Toleman's Ayrton Senna (not forgetting Stefan Bellof's efforts in his Tyrrell) saw him gaining 3 to 5 seconds a lap on Prost, and pass him at the end of lap 32 as Prost stopped on the finishing line (the result after 31 laps counted as the final placings). So what if the race had been called off a few laps later? And why did clerk of the course Jacky Ickx wave the red flag before discussing this decision with the official steward, an action that saw him fined $6,000 and suspended for the rest of the year?

What was a certainty though was the emergence of Senna as a star in the making, his stunning wet weather racing capabilities highlighted for all the world to see. In truth his race was almost run - his Toleman was only fit for a few more laps due to suspension damage - yet Senna's drive, which had been achieved with another handicap of spilt fuel seeping through his overalls, enhanced his career prospects, and by the end of the season it was no surprise to hear that the Brazilian had been signed up by Lotus.

Forget It's A Knockout style joker round gimmicks during the final round; half points during one race is obviously the way to go. In 1984 it provided us with the closest championship ever. The Monaco rain storm in June was bad enough, but the ripples the race had on the rest of the season - and the impact it had on Senna's career - were felt for a long time.

Piquet threatens briefly

Nelson Piquet's defence of his world title did not go well. But for a short period mid-season it did look as if Brabham and Piquet were about to make a move. At the Canadian Grand Prix he went through the pain barrier to win his first race of the season, collapsing as he got out of his car and then being carried to the podium after his right foot had been badly burnt due to a new radiator in his car. Lauda and Prost came second and third respectively, as the circus moved on to Detroit.

Piquet would win in a spare Brabham in America, his original car wrecked after a multi-car collision at the start of the race, as Mansell attempted to squeeze through a gap that didn't really exist. The bumpy street circuit certainly provided entertainment, with only six cars managing to finish the race. Piquet held off a determined challenge from Tyrrell's Martin Brundle, winning by less than a second, as Prost somehow dragged his car around the circuit to claim two points for a fifth-placed finish.

Trouble for Tyrrell

Or so we thought. Brundle's Detroit achievement was immediately overshadowed when the contents of his water injection reservoir were analysed and Tyrrell were then banned for the rest of the season, after FISA judged that the team had broken rules relating to refuelling, as well as having illegal fuel lines and ballasts on the car. "The tank was found to contain lead pellets as well as water," wrote the Times' John Blunsden, adding "and the contention is that the lead could have had the effect of raising the octane rating of the fuel if injected into the engine".

After an appeal, Tyrrell were allowed to take part in championship races, but their drivers would not score any points. Crucially, any previous points their drivers had scored were wiped from the records, and others promoted into their positions. Prost's fifth place was turned into fourth just eleven days before the final race of the season, putting him one point closer to Lauda, and making squeaky bum time even squeakier.

A soap opera in Dallas

Neither Lauda or Prost would score points in the next race, as the second Grand Prix to take part in America lurched from one drama to the next. Taking place on another street circuit lined with concrete walls, both the track surface and temperatures would cause headaches for all concerned. Hosting a 50-lap Can-Am race on the day before the Grand Prix was not the wisest of decisions, the surface crumbling and leaving holes that had to be patched up with quick drying cement, as rumours of a cancellation and driver boycott spread.

However, the race did go ahead, although with cockpit temperatures reportedly reaching 140 °F the shoddy conditions of the track were not all the drivers had to contend with. Race winner Keke Rosberg, and Williams team mate Jacques Laffite sported refrigerated skull caps costing $2,500 in an attempt to get around the heat problem, but many drivers were forced out after hitting walls, including Prost, with Mansell running out of fuel and collapsing with exhaustion as he tried to push his Lotus 100 yards over the finishing line. The 1984 Dallas Grand Prix was rarely dull.

Back and forth

After McLaren's relative struggles in North America, it was very much normal service resumed as the championship came back to Europe. Lauda won a British Grand Prix that had to be restarted after 11 laps due to accidents involving Jonathan Palmer, Philippe Alliot and Jo Gartner. Gearbox problems for Prost ended his race, his lead in the championship cut down to 1½ points, on an enjoyable day for Lauda who could also celebrate overtaking Jackie Stewart's overall points record in Formula One history.

The script for the rest of the season was now firmly established, the key part of the plot being that whenever Lauda claimed nine points for the win, Prost failed to finish, but crucially if Prost took the chequered flag first, then Lauda claimed points to limit the damage. Prost won the German Grand Prix in a spare car after a fuel pump issue during the warm-up lap had caused him to switch, Lauda coasting to second as the pair followed team orders to maintain their current positions with ten laps to go. "It's to avoid the possibility of running out of fuel if we tormented each other right to the finish," explained Prost.

So far it had been a season of Prost out in front and Lauda in constant pursuit, but all this would change at the conclusion of the Austrian Grand Prix. Lauda's win - the first for an Austrian on home soil - moved him ahead of Prost, after the Frenchman had spun off when encountering oil on the track deposited by the Lotus of Elio de Angelis. Lauda 48 Prost 43½.

For the first time in a long season, Prost was now playing catch-up, some casting doubts on his ability to overhaul the wily old campaigner in Lauda. "Victory may go to the driver who can better handle the psychological pressure, in which case Lauda's third championship trophy is as good as on the mantelpiece," wrote Blunsden post-Austria, although a Prost win in the Netherlands temporarily silenced such utterings. Lauda's second place gave McLaren the Constructors' Championship with three rounds to go, highlighting the chasm between them and the rest. Lauda 54 Prost 52½.

And so it went on. Lauda looked to have one hand on the trophy when he won at Monza as Prost suffered engine failure, a fine effort after the Austrian had displaced a bone in his back the day before after problems in his cockpit, and had needed the expert hands of masseuse Willi Dungl to save the day. But Prost came back at the revamped Nurburgring, the £24 million spent on the circuit meaning it could host its first Grand Prix since Lauda's near death experience in 1976.

Prost's win at the European Grand Prix, coupled with the extra point he was allocated from Detroit due to the ruling on Tyrrell, meant that going into the final race of the season, the title was on a knife edge. Lauda 66 Prost 62½.

The decider

So on to the permutations. Obviously if Lauda finished ahead of Prost in the first Portuguese Grand Prix since 1960 then the title was his, and at the very least Prost had to claim third to stand any chance. If both completed the race then Prost would win the championship if he won and Lauda came third or lower, or if he came second with Lauda coming no better than fifth, or the Frenchman came third with Lauda out of the points. Phew.

From Prost's point of view, the qualifying was almost perfect, as he qualified in second position for a place on the front row of the grid for the eleventh time in the season. Added to this was the fact that Lauda was nine places further back, the Austrian struggling in qualifying during a season in which he did not claim one pole position. If Lauda was going to claim title number three then he had given himself a challenge.

Immediately Prost was relegated to third at the start although Lauda also dropped a couple of positions to muddy the waters further. By lap nine the picture was a lot clearer though, as Prost passed Rosberg to take the lead, and with Lauda back in ninth he now had 61 laps to get up to the minimum second place that he needed for the title. Prost was a little under 165 miles away from his first world championship.

Lap by lap the Austrian worked his way through the pack, passing de Angelis, Stefan Johansson, Alboreto, and Rosberg, and by the end of lap 33 (out of 70) Lauda had moved ahead of Senna to progress to third. Less than 100 miles of racing remained of the 1984 season, with Prost's hopes now in the hands of Mansell who separated the McLaren drivers, a significant 36 seconds ahead of Lauda.

Thirty laps to go and the gap between Lauda and Mansell was down to 30 seconds, although James Hunt co-commentating on the live BBC coverage speculated that the difference was too much for the Austrian to make up. It looked as if Lauda would was going to finish 1½ points behind his team mate, yet on lap 52, with less than 50 miles to go, Lauda's prayers were answered. A spin for Mansell, caused by a brake problem, saw Lauda move into second, and barring a mechanical failure, the title had been ripped from Prost's grasp.

The remaining laps were completed without any drama. Prost crossed the line in first place but 13 seconds later his fate was sealed. Lauda achieved the second-placed finish required and with it took the title by just half a point. "This was the hardest race I have ever driven," proclaimed an elated Lauda, adding that it was also the most difficult championship that he had ever won due to the constant pressure exerted on him by his team mate.

For the second year in a row Prost had won the most races during a season yet ended up with nothing to show for his efforts. But that elusive title was getting ever closer - a ten point deficit in 1982, two in 1983, and just half a point in 1984 - and despite his clear disappointment, Prost declared his intentions to win the title the following season. He was good to his word too. A man of Prost's ability could not be denied any longer, and by the end of 1985 he was the world champion, Lauda had retired, and a new chapter of the Formula One story was about to begin.

No comments:

Post a Comment