The Active Cars
Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.
It was in 1987, the sole Williams exception to the string of seven straight McLaren drivers championships from 1984-91 (and the season that witnessed Piquet’s 3rd World Championship when Mansell broke his back in a qualifying crash at Suzuka), that the seeds for the fifth major technical revolution in Formula One were laid. Although their struggle to remain competitive would be doomed, in the ’87 season Team Lotus unveiled the first F1 car with a computer-controlled “active suspension” system. Active suspension — later joined by the semi-automatic gearbox, traction control, “black box” controlled starting programs, fly-by-wire controls and anti-lock brakes — would produce fabulously complex and fast cars, but would also give lie to Niki Lauda’s prediction, after ground effects were banned in 1983, that the new rules “create a purer sense of racing for the driver.”
At the start of the post-turbo era, McLaren remained supremely dominant, but its two stars — Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost — would begin a personal battle that never came to an end. Given their cars’ technical superiority, both drivers agreed in 1988 that it made little sense (particularly since they usually qualified 1-2) to fight over the first corner of a race. Yet that gentlemen’s agreement was broken at the 1989 San Marino GP, where Senna overtook Prost during the restart (after a flaming accident at Tamburello when Gerhard Berger hit the wall, a shunt that would have killed the driver a decade before) by taking the racing line from behind. Prost was furious, finding Senna’s adversarial approach to racing impossible to deal with, commenting that “I no longer wish to have any business with him. I appreciate honesty and he is not honest.” (Senna, for his part, complained that fighting for the racing line before the braking zone was legitimate.)
With the 1989 title on the line at Suzuka, the feud came to a head. Prost led by 1.7 seconds at the start, but Senna slowly reeled him in, moving alongside at the chicane, putting two wheels on the grass to go for the inside line. As Prost turned in, he held firm — he had given way previously, but not now. Both cars collided and went off. Prost got out of the cockpit in disgust, but Senna insisted on a push start from the track marshals, stopped for a new nose in the pits, and passed Alessandro Nannini to cross the line first. Yet FISA declared Nannini the winner, disqualified Senna (revoking his superlicense as well) and effectively awarded the championship to Prost. Senna remarked, “What we see today is the true manipulation of the World Championship.”
The two would do the same thing again in 1990 — different corner, same result — except that Prost by now had moved on to Ferrari, no longer content to take a back seat to Senna after complaining that McLaren was giving preferential treatment in car set-up to the Brazilian. But in 1990, Senna was leading the World Championship when the shunt occurred, and many observers feel, to this day, that Senna deliberately drove Prost off the road as a measure of revenge for the prior year; Senna admitted as much in 1991, without remorse. Prost thought that what Senna had done was “disgusting.” Said the typically circumspect Frenchman, prophetically perhaps, “Ayrton has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself. And I think it’s very dangerous.” F1 1990 also witnessed Belgian Thierry Boutsen scoring the only pole position of his Formula One career at the Hungaroring. Boutsen went on to win the race for Williams, taking the checkered flag with less than three-tenths of a second from Senna’s McLaren. And the 1990 season quietly saw both the introduction of Harvey Postlethwaite’s anhedral high-nose Tyrrell 019 and the GP driving debut of Jean Alesi — bringing the team two 2nd places at Phoenix and Monaco — Alesi actually leading 30 laps of the U.S. Grand Prix in the desert race. More than 20 years later, while the Tyrrell team and Alesi are long gone (Tyrrell sold to BAR in 1997, with Ken Tyrrell himself dying in 2001), that revolutionary high-nose design remains, having within just a few seasons become ubiquitous in Formula One.
Some will say, perhaps, that the 1991 World Championship was settled by the events at Montréal or Spa or Estoril, where apparently certain victories gave Nigel Mansell the slip. It was not. In reality, the World Championship was won — and lost — in the first four races, all won by Ayrton Sennna. Won, moreover, by a car which should not have been winning.
Autosport 1991 — Nigel Roebuck
It was in 1991 that the active era in Formula One truly began, as Williams GP introduced the FW14, designed by Patrick Head. As the first F1 car combining a semi-automatic gearbox (originally debuted by Ferrari in 1989) with traction control, the ’91 Williams-Renault was revolutionary, but broke the old dictum that “To finish first, first you have to finish.” Thus Senna, driving a plainly inferior
The Williams began to improve at Monaco, where Mansell took second to Senna, and at the Canadian GP on 2 June it looked like Williams were finally ready to make their move. Mansell qualified second, took the lead in the first corner, and dominated easily throughout. He ended the penultimate lap with a commanding lead of more than a minute. Waving to the crowd, Mansell turned into the final hairpin, at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve when the engine cut dead, the car coasting to a slow stop, a victim of electronic gremlins. Nelson Piquet pushed forward to take the checkered flag for Benetton — for what would be his last F1 win. The balance of the 1991 season would see a fruitless quest by Mansell and Williams to catch Senna, including a pitiful black flag disqualification while leading at Estoril after a wheel fell off in the middle of pit road, with now-excellent F1 journalist Peter Windsor as the unfairly mailgned lollipop man allowing the pitted care to accelerate away. Mansell won three in a row in France, England and Germany, and came into the Japanese GP at Suzuka needing two more victories (and no more than a 4th from Senna) to take the title. But Mansell went off into the sand chasing the Brazilian on lap 10, and Aryton Senna had clinched his 3rd Formula One championship in four years.
Senna joined Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet and Prost as three-time World Champions. On the evening of 20 October 1991 in Japan, only legendary Juan Manuel Fangio — “the old man” — was ahead with five, and it seemed Senna had plenty of time for that. He was 30, Fangio had been 44 when he won the fifth. Many still despised him for the dual run-ins with Alain Prost — like they later would, within half a decade, for a son of Germany who never overcame doubts from his own aggressive racing tactics — and would only come to admire Senna the driver, and the man, much later. Patience was not a word Ayrton tolerated well, and his character was to be tested severely with a lack of pace and grip in his cars over the next several F1 seasons. Some F1 experts may have suspected that the McLaren era of F1 dominance reached its end with 1991’s MP4/6. Few observers would have been anything but astonished, however, by the idea that the charismatic, stubborn and sublimely talented Brazilian had won his final drivers’ championship.
Williams did get the bugs worked out of their gearbox. Adding traction control and a host of other computer-controlled wonders to their Patrick Head designed chassis and aerodynamics, WIlliams ran off a tremendous streak over the 1992-93 seasons. In 1992, Nigel Mansell finally rode the Williams wave to the World Championship, winning the first five races and a total of nine overall — breaking Senna’s 1988 record — to cruise to the F1 crown. His win at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix was emotional and firightening simultaneously, as Nigel’s Williams-Renault was surrounded on the tarmac by a sea of adoring humanity. The triumph made Nigel Mansell the first British F1 World Champion in more than 15 years, since Hunt in 1976. Mansell abruptly and surprisingly retired from Williams after team owner Frank Williams announced that he had hired Alain Prost (who took the ’92 season off) for 1993,
Mansell enjoyed enormously the best car and had reached the point in his career when he had could exploit it enormously. He seized the 1992 season and held it tight. In the end, the simplicity was all beguiling. After 13 years, after the nightmare of Adelaide in 1986, the pain of Suzuka in 1987 and 1991, Mansell would achieve the World Championship with five races to spare. That simple.
Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton
but headed “over the pond” to IndyCar, where he won the 1993 PPG Cup championship, teaming with Mario Andretti (and ironically with victories mainly on the ovals). The prodigal Prost returned to claim Mansell’s seat — promoting test driver Damon Hill, son of Graham and driving number “0,” to the second spot at Williams — and in 1993 in turn won his 4th and last World Championship in the fabulous Williams-Renault FW15C, putting him 2nd, until Michael Schumacher, on the all-time Formula One list only to Fangio. The penultimate 1993 race in Japan, won by Aryton Senna, was memorable for an incident where Jordan’s rookie Eddie Irvine unlapped himself against Senna in his race-leading McLaren. The incensed Brazilian later stormed over to the Jordan garage and after some heated discussion and histrionics, punched the Irishman in the face.
Yet in some respects, 1993 was the end of another era — in fact, of two eras — in Formula One. Again fretting over the perceived absence of driver skill as a delimiter of success, and concerned about the impact a long stretch of runaway seasons on worldwide viewership and sponsor money, FIA summarily declared an end to “driver’s aids,” banning active suspension, traction control and other automatic car adjustment mechanisms for 1994. While the reaction was typical (recall 1981 and 1983), it was in many ways over-the top. As Steve Matchett, later the championship-winning chief engineer for Benetton, observed, by 1993 F1 had reached at its technical zenith: “The sport was at full stretch. We had expanded to the maximum, and from afterwards we were forced to contract. Formula One will never again see that level of sophistication. One stroke of the rule-maker’s pen took away much of F1’s reason for being.”
Even at the height the active cars, driving skill still mattered. Witness Aryton Senna’s spectacular show, once again in an outmatched McLaren MP 4/8, fitted with customer Ford V8 engines, wining five GPs in 1993. The most memorable of these, and perhaps the finest victory of his career, was at the European GP at Donington Park, where Senna won after picking up five places (and easily passing Prost) in the rain on the first lap, cementing his place in history as the rainmeister. The most impressive was Senna’s record sixth win at Monaco. After Monaco, the sixth race of the season, Senna unexpectedly led the championship from Prost, but as the year progressed, Prost and Damon Hill asserted the superiority of the the active Williams chassis at its height. (1993 was also the season in which American Michael Andretti tried to master a difficult McLaren without testing and while commuting on the Concorde, crashed in his first four outings, and was sent limping home after a single podium finish.) And so, with a final victory from pole at the Australian GP at Adelaide in the last race of the 1993 season, a race which made McLaren the most successful Formula One team in history with a then-remarkable 104 Grand Prix wins, Ayrton Senna poignantly prepared to join the iconic, stoic Frank Williams to drive the best car in Formula One, at long last striking a $20 million per-year deal with the team owner who had more than a decade earlier given him his first test ride in an F1 car.