April 4, 2013

Not so fast, Mr Senna

Even the McLaren MP4/4 had teething issues © Sutton Images

Twenty-five years ago this week, I flew to Rio de Janeiro for the first round of the 1988 F1 world championship. Stowed in the hold of our Varig 747 was a McLaren MP4/4. This chassis, due to be the team’s spare car, had been completed that very morning. Two days later, Alain Prost would drive it for the first time during qualifying at Jacarepaguá, put the red and white car on the second row - and go on to win the race 24 hours later.

Such a frantic birth was not related to the spare chassis being one of the last items on the lengthy pre-season job list. McLaren had already been flat-out. The MP4/4 was totally new thanks to swapping the ageing TAG-turbo to the first in a long line of successful engines from Honda; not a straightforward switch by any means.

Honda and McLaren had entered their new liaison facing a choice: they could either run the latest version of Honda’s existing V6 turbo or they could take a long-term view and try the next generation normally aspirated Honda V10 knowing turbos would be banned in 1989. Honda’s sums indicated that the turbo had the most potential; the complication of changing engines yet again was something they would have to deal with on another day.

Either way, the workload was massive, the first MP4/4 not having put rubber on a race track until a test at Imola a couple of weeks before. Then, on the first day of practice, Prost spun off and hit the crash barrier.

Seeing Alain Prost make such a mistake tended to take you by surprise. It was like the television camera catching the Queen with her feet up on a seat with a fag and a gin and tonic minutes before her Christmas broadcast to the nation.

Prost, in fact, had been having difficulty with the more reclined driving position of the MP4/4. And you could tell the car was new when a fundamental weakness was discovered in the mounting points for the nose cone. When we asked Prost what the problem was, I remember having to bite my tongue when the nasal Frenchman said he was “…’aving trouble wiz my nuse.”

Fortunately (in the days before Resource Restriction Agreements, curfews and so on) McLaren had brought extra pairs of hands to help out. Even so, they worked until 2am on the Friday morning, 3am on Saturday and 5.30am on race day, the mechanics having just enough time to return to the hotel, shower, change into fresh uniforms and get back to the track for the warm-up at 8.30am.

There were other pressures, not least this being Ayrton Senna’s first race with McLaren. The Brazilian, yet to win a championship, had pleased the home crowd no end by taking pole. But he did not endear himself to his normally-aspirated rivals on race day by completing a very slow parade lap in the heat and humidity and then throwing his arms in the air as he returned to pole position.

In the rush to get things done, the gear linkage had not been properly connected, Senna evacuating the cockpit and running to the McLaren garage for the back-up car (Prost’s repaired chassis).

In the meantime, Nigel Mansell had long since taken off for another lap in order to prevent his normally aspirated Williams-Judd from overheating. In the absence of a rule preventing it, Mansell then threaded his way through the grid to resume his place on the outside of the front row.

Senna would start from the pit lane, a move that seemed quite legal until the officials took 26 laps to decide otherwise. During this time, Senna had the fans on their feet as he stormed his way to second place. The response can be imagined when he was black-flagged for having changed cars beyond the permitted period. Apparently, the start had been delayed rather than abandoned, which meant the cars were still under starter’s orders at the time Ayrton made the switch. Not so fast, Mr Senna.

It was then brought to the stewards’ attention that Ivan Capelli had also swapped cars and started his March from the pit lane. Team manager Ian Phillips was called to the stewards’ office forthwith.

Had his driver changed cars after the field had come under starter’s orders? Yes, he had. Did Phillips not realise that this was illegal? Yes, he did. Springing to the ‘phone, the elated official (no longer working for the FIA, by the way) bellowed instructions to black-flag car 16 (Capelli) immediately.

Phillips waited until the man had completed his grand gesture before quietly informing him that car 16 had, in fact, retired six laps earlier.

Not so fast, Mr Race Steward.


Posted by Daninator on 05/04/2013

haha, love these stories! keep them coming :)

Posted by Pete_from_Nepal on 05/04/2013

I love these Maurice!!! keep them coming!!

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton