The Monaco Grand Prix takes place on June 6th, 1984. McLaren arrives in the Principality after having risked not being able to participate. In fact, from Stuttgart, on May 22nd, 1984, the team got to know that the strike by the German metalworkers that was paralyzing the automotive industry could have put Lauda and Prost in difficulty in the race in Monte Carlo, given that Porsche, which supplies the engines to the McLaren, had been hit and therefore it was assumed that it would be difficult to prepare the engines and have the spare parts. Hans Metzger, the designer of the Porsche engine, said:
"Our difficulties will further aggravate for the Canadian Grand Prix in mid-June".
But in the end, the problem is solved in time, so the attention of the public for the Monaco Grand Prix is obviously on the two title contenders, as well as teammates in McLaren: Niki Lauda and Alain Prost.
1984 is also Senna’s debut season, at that time just one of many young prospects who were close to McLaren, Williams and Brabham during the winter, but who eventually signed with the lesser-known Toleman. The first five races were in dry conditions, so no one can imagine how fast the Brazilian can be if put under the rain, where he's faster. His car is of medium-low rank, and at the moment only a crazy race can do for him. He will be the outsider on Sunday.
On the first day of testing, on Thursday, the fastest is Michele Alboreto, who precedes Derek Warwick and Prost. The Ferrari driver uses a particular strategy with tires: first using three soft tires and one hard on the left rear, then replacing only the left tires, and finally with two other new tires, changing the two worn tires. With this conformation, he gets the time from first place. The left rear tire is the most stressed so Ferrari chooses to use the harder compound, to be sure to complete a greater number of laps.
After qualifying, Michele Alboreto is confident that he can win on this circuit:
"This is a suitable circuit for us, so I have definitely to win. Even a second place would be a fallback that doesn't suit me. For tomorrow's qualifying, I'm afraid that Lotus, especially with Mansell, can do a lot to get pole position: I'll defend myself. For the race, on the other hand, I'm afraid of McLarens. They don't seem to have any problems, and if Lauda wins here too, or either Prost, the world championship is going badly for everyone, starting with us: the difference in points in their favor would risk becoming unbridgeable".
Even the lawyer Gianni Agnelli, who suddenly entered the Ferrari awning when no one was waiting for him, after having walked around the dismantled cars for a long time and slowly, tells reporters:
"I spoke to Ferrari yesterday. He was happy with Alboreto's time. After all, if there is a circuit where we are natural favorites, this is it. How will it go afterward? I don't know".
The other Ferrari driver, René Arnoux, ruins the lap with the three soft tires and the only hard one with a spin, then finding traffic in the attempt with four soft tires.
The two Alfa Romeos are in serious difficulty, while Osella is more competitive, fourteenth with Piercarlo Ghinzani. Manfred Winkelhock destroys his ATS against the guardrail. The German can continue, despite an injury to the ligaments of the shoulder blade, thanks to the involvement of Lauda's physiotherapist. On Saturday the story changes completely: Alain Prost takes pole position, lowering the time of the previous year by two seconds.
The Frenchman enters the track half an hour from the end of practice and only completes the three laps necessary to set a time. It is the first pole position for a TAG-Porsche motorized car. If McLaren begins to dominate even in qualifying, the opponents are in serious trouble. The first row is completed by Nigel Mansell, while the two Ferraris are back in the second row, with Arnoux overtaking Alboreto by two thousandths, ahead of the two Renault. Niki Lauda's other McLaren is only eighth:
"Prost and I did the tests with two cars set up differently: Prost had less pressure than me in the turbo and he went better".
In addition to the turbo pressure problems, during qualifying Niki is slowed down by Mauro Baldi in the fast lap, while Alboreto, after breaking the suspension at the Sainte Dévote corner, has to set the time with the forklift. In Saturday's qualifying there is another bad accident, which involves Martin Brundle, who ends up against the barriers at the Tabac turn. The British driver, bruised, then failed to qualify.
Up to now, not a drop of rain has fallen on the Monegasque circuit. Unexpectedly, on Sunday, since the morning, a violent storm breaks out. The start is therefore delayed by twenty minutes first, then by forty-five minutes, pending an improvement in the time; but there is so much water on the track that later the drivers, through Niki Lauda's words, after completing the formation lap, ask for the tunnel to be wet, to avoid too much difference with the asphalt of the rest of the track.
After a long wait, the race finally begins, although the climatic situation has not improved so much. At the first corner, Prost, who started from pole position, maintains his position without running any risk, while behind him the carnage begins and leads to eight retirements caused by accidents, without sparing even the most illustrious names on the grid. The first victims arrive at the first corner of the first lap, with de Cesaris and the two Renaults of Tambay and Warwick immediately out of the race. The latter comes out bruised by their cars, one limping and the other, Tambay, with a fractured fibula. The French pilot is taken to the hospital, from which he is discharged with his leg in plaster. He will miss the Canadian Grand Prix.
The beginning is certainly not the most encouraging. Lauda, author of a disappointing qualifying started in eighth place, amid retirements and overtaking against Alboreto and Arnoux, reached the third position on lap four, placing himself behind teammate Prost and Nigel Mansell's Lotus.
The bar of chaos rises again on lap eleven when Corrado Fabi's Brabham crashes near the entrance to the tunnel, and a commissioner tries to push him to get him back into the race. Race leader Prost arrives in the heavy rain, unable to completely avoid the man, and hits him in the leg, fortunately not causing serious injuries.
The Frenchman must let Mansell snatch the first position, good at exploiting the inconvenience in the best possible way. However, the British is less good a few steps later.
His driving is too aggressive, he begins to slam from wall to wall, until halfway up the Beau Rivage he loses control of the car, touches the guardrail and damages his rear wing. Mansell tries to continue with the wing folded, but at the Mirabeau he is passed by Prost; the British spins, starts again and stops a few meters later at the Loews.
On lap eleven Senna, already sixth, climbs too abruptly on a curb at the chicane du port, damaging the front right suspension. The Brazilian driver, who attempted to overtake Rosberg, suddenly finding the door closed by the Finnish driver, blocks the wheels and slides the car over the curb, miraculously avoiding the guardrail. Ayrton then manages, in a few laps, first to overtake the Williams-Honda, then Arnoux.
The outsiders of the day did not take long to get noticed: in the rain cloud raised by the cars, the yellow helmet of the Brazilian rookie stands out, starting thirteenth and already third after just eighteen laps, capable of hammering fast laps constantly, and unapproachable for everyone.
The only exception is Stefan Bellof on his naturally aspirated Tyrrell, who even started last and was able to gain ten positions only at the start. Aggressive driving styles of those who have nothing to lose and have the chance to achieve a result that in normal conditions would be much more unlikely. In addition, the engine available to Bellof is decidedly less powerful than the turbos, therefore in conditions of this kind where it is necessary to drive docilely, the Cosworth engine is for him.
The unmatchable ability in the wet of the young Senna is there for all to see. The Brazilian driver uses the engine brake of his Toleman, downshifts the gears to automatically slow down the car, and throws it into the corners with the necessary aggressiveness. Overtaking Lauda, who was driving slowly to privilege the World Cup over the race, is almost a formality on lap nineteen.
The Austrian’s caution did not bear the hoped-for results, as a spin and a destroyed suspension on the following lap also expelled him from the race. Niki quickly gets out of his car, almost relieved to be able to leave behind those prohibitive conditions. The race pace of the leading drivers is around two minutes per lap.
Ayrton is incredibly second, followed by the German Bellof, despite a curious accident affecting his driving throughout the race: in fact, since the previous day, Ayrton feels a strange burning in his hips. On Saturday, convinced that the problem had arisen from the shirt, he replaces it, but the same problem arises again in the race. It turns out only at the end of the race that the passenger compartment is flooded with petrol and that this has irritated the skin of the young Brazilian driver.
Despite everything, the dreams of glory of both two young drivers begin to turn into reality. Prost managed in a short time to create a gap that allows him to feel comfortable, drive clean as he only can and seems to have victory in hand. He has to change his mind, however, on lap 29, because the kid who drives the Toleman is undoubtedly fast, and has gained three to five seconds per lap, and is now only a couple from the MP4/2.
Among other things, Alain has mounted on his car the brake discs in composite material, which struggle to get up to temperature and do not give him the right feeling with the car, while Ayrton, who has steel discs, has less trouble braking.
Meanwhile, the rain is becoming more and more abundant, and Alain, partly to preserve his position, partly for safety reasons, begins to make gestures at the finish line to invite the race direction to stop the race. The two who follow probably would not have stopped it even in case of flooding of the track; the fact is that the next lap there is a new moment of great confusion, certainly not one of the most professional we have ever seen, as far as race direction is concerned. The red flag, the checkered flag and the black flag are displayed simultaneously, inviting the drivers to return to the pits.
Prost notices the presence of the red one and slows down, Senna overtakes him and is convinced, at the finish line, that he has hit his first career victory, and begins to rejoice, as does Bellof, who arrived on the podium after taking the last shot. Who won? Is the race over?
There are moments of enormous uncertainty until the classification is drawn up on lap thirty-one, and it is Prost who is named the winner of this crazy Grand Prix with a halved score, having not covered seventy-five percent of the planned laps, while Senna has to settle for the second place, in any case his first in career; nothing changes for Bellof, third, who can enjoy his podium without too many complaints. A few months later, unfortunately for him, Tyrrell will be disqualified from the World Championship for irregular car, and the result obtained by the German will consequently be canceled, with the third place given to Arnoux. In the pits doubts and gossip rage:
"This one in Monte Carlo is all a mafia, but it has to be expected: a French driver with Marlboro as a sponsor. It is clear that the race had to be suspended before Prost was joined by Senna".
However, it is a historic podium for Toleman and Senna, yet the Brazilian, pushed also by these rumors, does not give peace, sees himself deprived of a victory that seemed certain, and does not accept the decision taken by Jacky Ickx, director of Grand Prix and substitute for Amèdèe Pavesi:
"I was catching up with McLaren and I would definitely have won. In fact, I was convinced that I was in first place when I saw Prost's car stopped on one side. Then they told me that the race had finished a lap earlier. It was a very difficult race. This second place, however, is very tight for me. I am angry, I would have almost certainly won. It is not right to end a race like that. If there is rain, it is the drivers who have to adapt to a speed that is at the limits of the race. You can't miss an opportunity like this, especially in Monte Carlo, where there is no guarantee of having another chance. I'm happy for the team anyway, it's the first time that Toleman has achieved such a result and there I assure you it won't even be the last".
The former Belgian driver stopped the race of his own free will, without appealing to the stewards, an action that will cost him a $ 6.000 fine and the opportunity to be a referee again:
"Between the twenty-ninth and the thirtieth lap I decided to end the race as the rain had frighteningly increased in intensity. I remember perfectly when I was racing in Formula 1, when I finished second in 1972 behind Beltoise, what efforts and what risks the drivers have to face on these occasions. I didn't have to take into account anything, neither the situation in the standings nor Senna's wonderful comeback. I was only interested in the technical side and I think the decision is unexceptionable because it was too much dangerous to go on like that. If something more serious had happened, everyone would have asked me why I hadn't stopped the race".
The aftermath caused by his action does not subside: in the following days, the Brazilian Automobile Federation attributes to the race direction the desire to conclude the Grand Prix before the end of the connection with the television satellite.
While many, including Mauro Forghieri and always the Brazilian Automobile Federation, accuse Ickx of clearly wanting to favor the victory of McLaren, powered by Porsche, for which he drives in the Endurance championship, and with which he seems to have a commercial agreement. Objections obviously end in themselves, as the rain was evidently increasing, and that of the Belgian is undoubtedly the right choice to make, as said by Laffitte and the winner Alain Prost:
"I am also happy to have taken only four and a half points. I increased the lead in the standings. It was useless to continue in this way. We were facing ever greater risks and visibility was nil. This is why the race director did well to interrupt".
The mocking fate for Alain continues to run its course. In France a lap would have been enough to take Rosberg and grab sixth place; in Monaco, without the interruption, he would have finished second, with six points instead of the 4.5 collected with this half victory. All material on which to complain with anger in October.
As predicted, it was a crazy race, the shortest ever run so far in Formula 1, full of twists and turns, full of controversy, and right in the history of this sport for being the race that showed for the first time the immense talent of Ayrton Senna.
If not for the red flag, this Grand Prix would also have given the prelude to the historic battle between Alain and Ayrton at the turn of the 80s and 90s, one of the most heated rivalries that Formula 1 can boast.
But luckily the clash between the two is only delayed for a few years. Meanwhile, Alain must think of Lauda, while Ayrton must continue to make himself noticed to have, the following year, the tools to be able to enter the fixed thoughts of the Frenchman too.
Davide Scotto di Vetta