The 1984 season continues on the American continent, with a three Grand Prix tour between Canada (in Montreal) and the United States (Detroit and Dallas), held over four weeks in the height of summer, between June and July. Holiday period for many workers, who can finally enjoy a little rest thanks to the long-awaited holidays.
Holidays unjustified for McLaren, which for three Grands Prix in a row leaves the victory to its pursuers, who for a moment almost hope to be able to get back into the fight for the title. The Canadian weekend begins under the sign of Prost, who ends free practice at the top of the standings, lowering the circuit record by one second. His time, one minute and twenty-six seconds, according to him could even drop below the minute and twenty-five seconds.
Friday is also characterized by the misadventure of the Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto, who fights with an Italian journalist who had criticized his residence in Monte Carlo a few days earlier, a subterfuge to evade the tax authorities according to what the journalist wrote. Alboreto intimidates him in words and then shoves him, the other doesn't fit and punches him. The two begin to fight before Mauro Forghieri and Marco Piccinini arrive to divide them. Alboreto also receives an apology, but refuses to accept.
During qualifying, as predicted by Prost, it drops to 1'25"442, but it is not the McLaren driver who sets this super-time. Alain remains at 1'26"198, and furthermore at the end of the session he breaks the engine by spraying the track with oil, and by doing so no one can improve their time in the final stages.
It is the revived Nelson Piquet to conquer the pole position, trimming seven tenths to the leader of the World Championship. Brabham arrived the Americas with numerous innovations to overcome the worrying zero that persists in both general rankings. Above all, a smaller turbine stands out. Even in the race there is no way to counter the reigning champion, who not only returns to victory, but also earns the first points, finally moving his ranking.
On the track, the Austrian remains anonymous all the time, just tenth in qualifying two and a half a second behind poleman Piquet, and retired on Sunday due to problems with the electrical system. He thanks Prost, who argues with the Michelins in the race, stopping twice, and is only fifth at the finish. However, with Lauda running out of steam, he certainly can't complain.
However, his situation with the Michelins is worrying, since Piquet, with the same soft compound, had no problems whatsoever, and went on to win alone with the forklift (the first was irreparably damaged during an accident at the start, then with the interruption necessary to remove the numerous damaged cars, he was able to line up again with the forklift). Martin Brundle on Tyrrell is second at the finish.
In Detroit the Tyrrell case exploded, and a month later led to the decision by the Federation to disqualify the team from the World Cup, something that never happened until then. The two cars of Ken's team run sub judice (even if they had finished in the points, they would not have been awarded, ed) also the following races up to Zandvoort, before the definitive ouster. This decision, and the subsequent decision of October 9, 1984, to change the race rankings by excluding Tyrrell, thus brings Prost to fourth position, de Angelis second with Lotus and Teo Fabi third on the other Brabham.
And if Brundle manages to get noticed with excellent results, then revealed useless, what is his rival in Formula 3 doing, already on the podium in Monaco amid the thousand controversies for the disputed suspension of the race?
Well, to tell the truth, Senna is not doing very well after the near success in the Monegasque streets. Toleman isn't turning out to be such a bad machine, at least in his hands. The confrontation with Cecotto, his teammate, is pitiless for now; Ayrton continues to comfortably stand in front of him.
At the end of the Canadian Grand Prix, which ended close to the points, Senna felt ill, seized by dehydration, and was rushed to the infirmary where he rested for a few hours. After fainting in South Africa, the Brazilian once again suffers the enormous physical effort required by Formula 1.
In Detroit, however, he pays for his aggressive driving style. In the first qualifying session he violently hits the barriers at a speed of 260 km/h, and luckily he comes out without any broken bones. The next day he avoids crashes and is seventh in the total count of the times.
Certainly the conditions in which the entire racetrack is raging do not help the drivers in their search for the limit: few escape routes, protruding manholes, bad asphalt, and there are even the rails for trains. To make matters worse, the rain that falls on the night between Saturday and Sunday, which also makes the track slippery.
So there are so many accidents, and Ayrton is just one of many to make mistakes. In the race, however, he runs into an accident again, this time at the first corner, and destroys the car for the second time in three days.
Someone accuses him of too much aggression, but on the other hand we still talk about a rookie, and the mistakes of those who want to show off are sometimes welcome. In fact Senna is already in the middle of negotiations that will take him to Lotus, to replace Nigel Mansell. In early July, the short American tour in the hell of Dallas ends.
Paradoxically, the heat is the least concern for the weekend, as other issues are the main concern that put the regular running of the Grand Prix at risk. The first question is brought forward by the Texan organizers, led by Don Walker, against FISA and FOCA, regarding the effective decision-making powers of the parties. Free practice is delayed by two hours, Ecclestone resolves the dispute by threatening to desert the entire Grand Prix, with the support of all the teams.
Another burning issue concerns the track: if the Detroit one was in bad shape, the Dallas Fair Park is a real disaster. The free sessions are delayed not only for political discussions, but also to weld various manholes, or fix numerous escape routes. The drivers speak clearly: the track is not at the level of a Formula 1 competition. Elio de Angelis is the toughest, declaring he feels ridiculous to race on this circuit, and adds:
"We are truly like wild beasts exhibited in a circus".
The city circuit is the result of a flash investment by real estate agent Don Walker and the president of a construction company Larry Waldrop. The construction of the track around a football stadium, an aquarium, ponds and large buildings, had begun in February and then finished within a few months. Regardless of the large investment, it seems clear that things have been done a little too hastily. Furthermore, it is a track that has not even been homologated with an international race test. This arouses numerous criticisms towards FISA, which had already turned a blind eye in the past with other races in the USA, such as Long Beach and Detroit itself. But you know, unfortunately in some cases the economic interest prevails over everything. Thirdly, there is the aforementioned heat.
During the entire weekend temperature never drops below 35° C, and the asphalt in some places even begins to crumble due to excessive heat, not withstanding a temperature of over 60° C. During qualifying, Brundle and Lauda pay the price: the former breaks his ankle, the latter comes out battered with only a sore calf. But both Tyrrell and McLaren are destroyed. The drivers threaten not to race, but both the teams and the sponsors fail to support them. Economic interest.
On the edgy US track the Renault engines manage well: the two Lotus, captained by Mansell who gets the first pole in his career, monopolize the front row, with Warwick third. Senna is sixth, between the two McLarens. After the problems he had in South Africa and Canada, the harsh conditions caused by the heat could prove to be a problem for Senna, but in the meantime he is continuing to work hard on his physical condition.
Brabham is back in anonymity, with Piquet and Corrado Fabi (substitute for his brother Teo who is racing in Indycar on the same weekend) in the center of the group. Furthermore, the Brazilian refuses to take to the track in the last quarter of an hour of qualifying, as it was physically impossible in his opinion to continue racing, with the 40° C as minimum. The pilots continue their battle almost unanimously. Arnoux claims that:
"Dallas and Detroit broke the record for mediocrity".
Prost, on the other hand, says he regrets being there, and urges everyone to protest and rebel against the situation. Jacques Laffite does not get lost in long speeches, but proves to be of the same idea by exclaiming:
"Too hot, circuit too long, full of bumps, dirty, real shit".
Few are in favor of the track. These include Warwick, who defines it as pleasant, and Fabi, who only regrets not having air conditioning. Ecclestone is magnanimous, reducing the total distance of the race by ten laps, which starts at 11:00 am in the morning in order to avoid the unbearable afternoon heat. Furthermore, just an hour before the start of the race, an attempt is made to lay an additional layer of asphalt.
Despite everything, the race turns out to be spectacular and uncertain, and at the end of the hostilities it is surprisingly Keke Rosberg who wins, thus giving the first success to the Williams-Honda duo, up to that point one of the biggest disappointments of the season. A masterful performance of the Finn, protagonist in the first part of the race of an exciting battle for the first position with Mansell and Prost.
It is curious what happens on the last lap of the race: in fact, Keke, observed by Lauda, Prost, Bousten, Cheever, Patrese, Surer and Alboreto, all sitting on the wall with their suits rolled up and their torso uncovered, from the cockpit of his Williams gives them the sign of masturbating with his hand.
Alain himself in the second phase managed to conquer the leadership, but when he seems launched towards a guaranteed and fundamental success in view of the World Championship, he touches a concrete wall and breaks the front right suspension. Alain goes through a couple of corners at a slow speed, and then parks behind the Ferrari, which is also out of the way of Alboreto. The cause of the retirement is the same for both, as well as for Niki Lauda, once again anonymous in the race and this time no longer immune from flaws.
A gift from Alain, this is true, but Rosberg deserves it all, if only for the simple fact of not having made any mistakes despite the heat. Poleman Mansell, on the other hand, ensures that the Dallas Grand Prix is transmitted to posterity, giving an image of himself at the end of the race that transforms him into an irreducible gladiator.
A few hundred meters from the finish, the Lotus gearbox fails while the British is in fifth position. Mansell does not give up, he gets out of the car and begins to push it with all his strength to be able to cross the finish line, but the unbearable heat knocks him unconscious.
Nigel wakes up shortly after, but for precautionary reasons he is taken to the medical center. He concludes in any case sixth, behind Piercarlo Ghinzani who gives immeasurable joy to the little Osella-Alfa Romeo. Mansell is then punished with a one-year, suspended, suspension from racing. He can therefore safely continue to compete.
A race that could see him there in front, turns into a useless stroll in the desert for Senna. Fourth after the start, Ayrton lets himself be enticed by the possibility of attacking the third place occupied by Warwick at that moment, exaggerates again and crashes into the barriers, then going into a spin. Race compromised in the forty-seventh lap:
"It's not my fault, the wall has moved".
This is how Ayrton justifies himself, back in the pits. And since the insistence is so great, only a few hours later it turns out that Ayrton is right, as Pat Symonds, who went to the place, discovers that the wall had really moved a few millimeters during the race.
Alain, on the other hand, wastes a big opportunity to mortgage the title, he can hardly console him for the fact that Lauda also met the same fate. At least though, McLaren again appeared to be the fastest on the track.
Meanwhile Elio de Angelis, thanks to his consistency in the results, overtakes Lauda in the general standings, with 26 points against the Austrian's 24. Alain, despite the period of fogging, is firmly in the lead with 34 and a half points. At Brands Hatch, July 22, 1984, the Woking team returns from vacation and extinguishes any distant dream of rivals' glory.
Before the English weekend, on July 15, 1984, Senna decides to participate in the 1000km of the Nurburgring in the World Sportscar Championship, where the European Grand Prix will be held in October. As there is no test on that track with Formula 1 cars, Ayrton is able to participate with the help of his manager, Domingo Piedade, in this competition, with the aim of getting to know the German track better. He doesn't ask for money, much less does he offer it.
At the wheel of the Porsche 956 Group C Senna immediately turns on the times of the best, at one point he also holds the fastest lap, then an electrical problem on the car relegates him to eighth.
The next day, Reinhold Joest, who provided him with the seat, reads the car report sent to him by Senna, and is shocked. The accuracy and completeness with which Ayrton describes the strengths and weaknesses of the car are extraordinary. Joest immediately gets in touch with Piedade to try to find out more about that Brazilian, and make him race in the Prototype and American championships. But Domingo Piedade makes it clear to him that in Senna's mind there is no room for Prototypes. Senna only wants Formula 1.
The Brazilian's season has two other high points, at Brands Hatch and Estoril, the last race of the championship, taking third place on both occasions. In England he is strong starting from free practice, where he sets the best time. He does not let himself be intimidated by the bad accident involving his teammate Johnny Cecotto, who suffered seven fractures in his legs. Indeed, the fact that Ayrton, along with Hawkbridge, is the only one who does not go to the hospital to visit him, proves that the relations between the two are not idyllic.
In qualifying he gets a promising seventh time, which is however overshadowed by the heated argument with Arnoux immediately after the end of the second qualifying session. Ayrton furiously goes to the Ferrari garage to reprimand Renè Arnoux, guilty of slowing him down during his last lap, not allowing him to improve the time. Senna pushes the Frenchman, who does not stand by and does the same. Big words fly in Italian, the only language they can both speak, before Senna is turned away:
"It may well be that I caused him some problems. I didn't realize he was coming but anyway I didn't do it on purpose. But he can't come and protest in my house, he can also protest politely".
Arnoux says commenting on what happened. Senna proves to have to improve both on the track, after the recent hits in the States, and in relating with his colleagues. In the meantime, however, on the fast English circuit he conquers the second podium in his career, this time without the bitterness of Monte Carlo:
"It was fantastic. For me it is almost a victory. On this track I have achieved many successes even in the minor categories".
Two weeks later, in Hockenheim, Ayrton is the victim of a terrible accident at Ostkurve in the race. On the fifth lap, at over 260 km/h, due to anomalous vibrations the front wing of the Brazilian driver's Toleman collapses. Ayrton can only wait for the car to stop before getting out of the car. The Brazilian, however, continues to make some mistakes even off the track, and we are not just talking about the quarrel with Arnoux.
The negotiations with Peter Warr for his passage to Lotus come to a positive conclusion towards the first days of August, after the German Grand Prix. It's all done, for 1985 Senna will be the new teammate of Elio de Angelis, with Nigel Mansell signing for Williams. For the English team, two birds with one stone: on the one hand they divide two drivers who were on bad relations, de Angelis and Mansell, on the other they take on one of the most promising youngsters of the moment.
The thing remains secret until August 24, 1984.
Since Warr is in a hurry to bring or keep sponsors at home, in particular John Player Special, so, without Senna knowing anything, he issues the official statement that formalizes the engagement of the Brazilian driver; however, the contract with Toleman stipulates that Senna will be able to free himself from the team only after having paid the buy-out clause, which the Brazilian driver did not do. Alex Hawkbridge is furious, also because he, like Warr, is desperate for sponsors, and the main attraction he uses is Senna.
Already at the beginning of the season, when Ayrton sewed on his sponsor suit without the team's permission, Hawkbridge reacted with an iron fist. Even in this case, he doesn't discount, and leaves Senna at home at Monza, despite the Brazilian driver having in the meantime paid the buy-out clause before the race weekend begins. The Swede Johansson drives in place of him. For the records, he ends the race in fourth position, a fact that irritates Senna even more.
But thanks to the intermediation of the FOCA President, Bernie Ecclestone, the two sides reconnect and Senna resumes his seat until the end of the year. Between a few other incidents and the podium in Portugal, his adventure in Toleman ends, with three podiums to his credit, and thirteen total points, valid for ninth place in the drivers' standings. Ayrton will declare about it:
"The problem is that when I decided to be part of the team I had a lot of confidence in the management, but few in the possibilities of the team itself. Within six months I found myself having total confidence in the technical possibilities of the team, but serious doubts about the management".
They may not have been left with two pats on the back, but the one who until the year before was the Cinderella of the World Championship, with Ayrton at the wheel, won its only podiums during her stay in Formula 1, which for Toleman comes to an end at the end of 1985, a season spent back in the rear with no points scored. Senna, for Toleman, therefore represented both the rise and the fall.
Returning to the world championships, after Dallas, there are seven Grands Prix left at the end of the championship. The goal for Lauda, but also for those like de Angelis or Arnoux who still hope for it, is to stop Prost, who, regardless of his retirement in the last race, travels quickly towards the World title.
As already mentioned, the hegemony of Ron Dennis’s team in the second half of the year becomes embarrassing, so much so that the Prost-Lauda duo wins all the races: Alain wins four, Lauda three. The first stage of the final sprint takes place at Brands-Hatch, a historic and beautiful track which, unlike those just visited in the United States, guarantees spectacle and above all safety. In England, Prost's advantage is heavily curtailed.
Before the weekend begins, FISA announces the decision that for 1985 the limit of petrol that can be loaded will remain the same, and will not drop to the prohibitive 195 liters. The race, divided into two heats due to the accident suffered by Jonathan Palmer with the RAM damaging the protective barriers, was won surprisingly by Lauda.
In fact, from the very start, it seemed like a sure head-to-head between poleman Piquet and Prost, but the two, one after the other, went out of the picture and left the road cleared for the Austrian.
Alain suffers from gearbox problems, he loses the third gear, and then fourth and fifth and while he was easily in command he must return to the pits and reluctantly leave the leadership of the race to Lauda.
Piquet, on the other hand, at the wheel of the BT53 retraced his steps after the various technical innovations had not given the hoped-for improvements, and suffers from turbo anomalies. The Brazilian manages them, but still ends out of the points zone. After the race there were logically conflicting moods for the two title rivals:
"It's Ecclestone's fault, who has stopped all races where Piquet was in trouble. Unfortunately, I had some problems. I hope it won't happen again".
Prost comments on the interruption of the race deemed necessary to rearrange the barriers after Jonathan Palmer’s accident at Clearways, which occurred while he had just climbed over Piquet. More lucid, however, Lauda comments:
"The interruption was right. Prost retired? Worse for him, better for me".
It's easy enough to see the joy of one, Lauda, and the frustration of the other, Prost, who lost nine points in one race and now has just half a point ahead of his teammate. In the meantime, the situation at Ferrari is quite black: Alboreto is in free fall, Arnoux is back from the fantastic second place in Dallas, but at Brands Hatch he shows frustrated by the bad times for his team, and during a duel with de Cesaris he loses his temper and throws him out on purpose.
Although the two drivers have been confirmed, rumors of a return of Lauda continue to increase, but he is also strongly compared to Renault, eager to give a new internal jolt by hiring the most experienced driver on the grid.
The rumors arise from the fact that Ron Dennis is convinced to put Prost at the center of the team's project, and therefore is not willing to pay Lauda's onerous engagement for the following season, for which there is a new contract, but with half the salary. Which Niki doesn't like at all.
The icy silence established between Lauda and Dennis begins to sting the nerves of the Austrian driver, who at one point tries to reach a clarification, inviting Ron and his friend Liza to Ibiza, to be able to discuss calmly.
Here, aboard Niki's motorboat, the two begin to talk about the current situation. Ron immediately states that he feels a feeling of hatred and love towards Niki, due to the almost blackmail with which he had obtained a very expensive contract for the two-year period 1983-1984, earning double than any other driver:
"When someone pays a person such insane amounts, he has the right to demand a little friendship".
Ron exclaims to Niki, even accusing him of self-centeredness. The two continue the discussion, launching themselves against numerous accusations, until Dennis concludes by exclaiming that the following Monday he would invite Senna into his office to offer him a contract for two or three years. Lauda obviously replies to do what he likes and wishes him good luck.
Thus, the Austrian driver contacts Gérard Larrousse, Renault's racing director, mentioning the possibility of opening a collaboration. Later, Larrousse calls Lauda, finding an agreement in broad terms and making an appointment in Paris. It is curious that, on this occasion, Larrousse wastes about ten minutes of the phone call to determine whether or not he should send a helicopter to Le Bourget.
However, Larrousse assures Lauda that the meeting would remain secret and that no one else would be aware of it. Thus, Lauda flies to Paris and the two argue for hours, until an agreement is reached on the economic claims of the Austrian pilot.
But when the contract is ready for signature, Larrousse announces to Lauda that the contract would be signed in the presence of the Renault president. What therefore seems normal practice instead turns into the end of the negotiations, since the president of Renault informs Larrousse that the contract could not be signed that day: a mishap had occurred and we had to wait another two weeks.
However, Lauda remains certain that the team principal of the French team would have phoned him when everything was ready. An hour later, when Lauda has already returned to Ibiza, Ron Dennis calls the Austrian driver on the phone and asks him:
"Where have you been today, in Paris?"
Lauda replies in the affirmative, albeit perplexed.
"It's nice of you to admit it".
Dennis retorts, and later tells him about the details of the contract. With these premises the German Grand Prix begins at the fast Hockenheimring circuit. Meanwhile, Alain shows himself to be bad on the track as rarely seen, he is always based on driving the car with extreme gentleness, and gets a super-pole in front of de Angelis' Lotus. Lauda tries to keep up with the Frenchman's qualifying pace, but he simply doesn't have the same speed: The Professor is faster than him. The two times world champion is just seventh, having spun on his last good lap.
For Sunday, Lauda asks for a smaller wing to be fitted to his car, in order to reduce aerodynamic drag and thus facilitate overtaking. The idea of him doesn't work quite as he intended, as heavy oversteer affects him for a long time.
Before leaving, Prost accuses problems with the oil pump, and opts for the forklift. This does not stop him in his race to success, the fourth of the season, also facilitated by the retirement of Piquet, the only one able to counter him:
"You - turning to journalists - always write that Lauda is a computer, and no one can deny it. But you have also seen that when we have the same machines he cannot reach me".
Alain is radiant after the victory; he is proving race after race to be faster than his rival. With this premise, the final result of the World Cup should seem obvious.
Lauda, however, capitalizes on every situation in the best possible way, and even in a complicated day for him, completes the McLaren double thanks to second place. Niki justifies his inferiority on pure speed with the little knowledge he has of Turbo engines compared to Prost, who instead already tested them for a long time with Renault. Having said that, he still says he is convinced that his two World titles will make a difference.
This seems almost a prophecy in view of the Austrian Grand Prix two weeks later, on August 19, 1984, which confirms the home driver right: a lot of experience can make a huge difference between him and Alain.
During the summer, the conversation between Lauda and Renault continues. Larrousse recalls Lauda, confirming that the contract has been approved: the management has given its consent and can therefore be signed. But irritated by the previous indiscretion, Lauda replies that the agreement is valid and gives the word, but he would have officially signed only at the conclusion of the World Championship, as he fears that if he had acted differently Ron Dennis would have made sure that Prost was favored in the fight to the title.
Larrousse understands the situation and confirms the verbal agreement. This time the secrecy works, even though the topic is constantly kept hot in French newspapers and Dennis still tries to get Lauda to sign a halved contract. In fact, two hours before the start of the Austrian Grand Prix, Dennis replies to Lauda:
"Half fare or I'll take Keke Rosberg".
"Okay, take Keke and I'll thank you for bothering me almost at the start of a decisive race with similar speeches. After all, it's just a world title".
At the same time as the harsh protests of the Ferrari fans that lasted all weekend, enriched by choirs and banners like the wooden horse and Forghieri stay at home, Nelson Piquet makes another qualification his own, and as already happened four more times in the season, Prost completes the front row with him. The Ferraris reinvigorate the whistles coming from the stands after a twelfth and a fifteenth place obtained on the starting grid.
De Angelis is third ahead of Lauda, but both the Italian and the Brazilian from Brabham have no illusions: they know that unless there are technical problems, the two McLarens will have a separate race.
Yet the irreproachable Piquet proves to be able for a good part of the race to keep Prost at bay, who in the course of his chase for first place loses the use of fourth gear. When half of the race has just passed, Elio de Angelis leaves the race due to engine failure, which leaves a slick of oil on the track, precisely at the last corner. For the Italian it is the second retirement in a row, he who had always reached the finish line in the first ten races, a constancy that had temporarily placed him in the position of third in the World Championship.
Arriving at the last corner, Piquet slows down when he sees the yellow and red flags signaling a slippery track, he swerves slightly but keeps control of the Brabham. Prost, less than a second away, is unable to do the same, also disadvantaged by the fact that he no longer has the use of the fourth gear, and therefore, having to manage the transmission in a different way, he held a one hand on the steering wheel.
Alain loses control of McLaren and goes to the wall. A very serious mistake, which the Frenchman justifies by arguing that the commissioners had not displayed the flags that signaled the imminent danger, adding that having lost fourth gear certainly did not help him.
Piquet, however, denies this and does not forgive the incredible mistake, according to him, of the McLaren driver, asserting that the flags were clearly visible, and that for this reason he slowed down just in time. Then he lets himself go to a light tease with a pinch of malice towards Prost:
"Ah, he had lost the fourth? But no. He also lost the first, second, third, fifth, the race and the championship! This year he lost his head before last year".
Any reference to Zandvoort 1983 is purely coincidental. In any case, Piquet finished second at the finish, as Lauda took the win, who remained on the sidelines until the moment of Prost’s accident, slightly detached from the leading duet, despite the discussion with Dennis before the start of the race.
Then he reached Brabham and overtook them on the straight. First victory on the home circuit, celebrated on the podium together with his friend Piquet and Michele Alboreto, who takes advantage of the many retirements and stands on the podium, thus silencing the many unhappy Ferrari fans at least for that day.
The home idol becomes the new leader of the standings, with 48 points, while Prost, who remained at 43.5, now has to chase. Lauda is now the favorite in all respects, who will be slower, but as he has already shown in the past years, he is practically never wrong.
On the contrary, Prost is targeted by the press (and also by the pilots in Piquet's case), who consider him too mentally fragile. Alain takes it out on bad luck, he talks about the three engines broken only during the Austrian weekend, and about the defective gearbox in the race. And finally he unloads the pressure on his boxmate, declaring:
"Now Niki will take on all the responsibilities and pressures of whoever is the first candidate for the title".
The leadership acquired also puts Ron Dennis in crisis: how can he think of reducing the salary to the driver who is leading the world championship and consequently also the number one favorite to win it? In Zandvoort, therefore, Alain is called to a real litmus test: on the circuit where the year before he actually lost the title due to an error in his judgment, and after having committed another one the week before in Zeltweg, the Frenchman the obligation to demonstrate that it has no moral fragility. He has to react. This time Alain makes no mistake, he gets pole position and a landslide victory, plus he proves to deserve his title of Professor, if anyone has already forgotten it.
The race was expected to be a three-way fight between the two McLarens and Piquet, fast as usual in qualifying, but also hit by technical problems in the race. Ten laps in fact, and the carioca can leave the Netherlands with another zero. Prost's success is the result not only of the great speed he has accustomed everyone to, but also of the winning strategy regarding tires.
Lauda has soft compounds on one side, and hard compounds on the other; Alain opts for a whole set of hard tires. It is the winning move, as Lauda seems to be able to get close, but then as the laps go by he begins to suffer from the choice of tires and has to give up attacking.
Prost beats Lauda in what has been recognized for years as the Austrian specialty. To show that the world championship issue is becoming serious, it should be noted that the two had always confronted each other on everything, sometimes their chats went for long, but at a certain point in the championship, Prost stopped tell Lauda in advance the tires he intended to fit for the race. To win the Formula 1 World Championship, we must also look at what seem like trifles, but which in reality are not. Lauda pragmatically recognizes the defeat and defines Prost as the best driver of the lot, but with the firm intention of not raising the white flag.
The distance between them in the championship is a point and a half, while McLaren, thanks to the overwhelming superiority, can already celebrate the Constructors' championship, the second in its history.
In addition, the record of eight victories in one year for a single team, previously belonging to the 1978 Lotus, was broken. At the end of the season, that record isn't just broken, it's shattered.
On the eve of the third to last round of the World Championship in Monza, the drivers are asked who they see as favorites in the title race. Well, thirteen say Lauda, another ten Prost, while Rosberg and Alboreto do not express themselves.
Niki is seen as the most likely winner, although it is clear that Prost is the fastest. In any case, the general classification sees the Austrian ahead, but in the temple of speed he can no longer afford to use his wait-and-see approach that has paid off so far. Now he has to attack, exactly like his teammate is doing.
However, his weekend did not start very well, as during free practice the seat belts not fastened correctly caused him to subluxate a dorsal vertebra. His participation in the race is even questioned, but given the circumstances it is impossible to think that Lauda can accept such an eventuality.
At the end of the morning, after the tests, there is an hour before the afternoon tests. At this juncture of time, Niki immediately disappears, holing up inside the motorhome of the restaurant that is located immediately behind the pits, and then comes out with a plate of vegetable soup. After that, the Austrian pilot sits in a corner of the green table with the yellow flowers and begins to eat.
A few moments later Alain also arrives, who on the way has limited himself to pulling down his suit in the middle of his leg, walking awkwardly with small steps. Alain sits down next to his companion and gives an unconvinced glance at his soup, while a provident young lady places a more substantial plate of ham and cheese in front of him. The two drivers confabulate a few seconds, then Niki with the soup and Alain with the cold cuts decide to indulge in the privacy of the motorhome.
In the afternoon, as mentioned, Lauda complains of painful back pain: this was announced by a press release from the Grand Prix News, echoing the rumors of Marlboro-McLaren herself. Despite the ailments, Niki is fourth in view of the race, while Piquet and Prost, for a change, occupy the front row.
At the end of the rehearsals, Prost grants yet another smile to the photographers, gives the mechanics a few pat on the back, and then disappears, while Lauda, chased by an English gentleman dressed as a horseman, signs the only autograph of the day, then departs on the motorhome.
However, he is waiting for an appointment with a German television, so Niki reappears a few hours later in a pink T-shirt and green trousers, colors a little softer than the blinding white-red of sponsorships.
On the other hand, the qualifying of the two Ferraris is terrible, with Michele Alboreto eleventh and René Arnoux fourteenth. At the end of the rehearsals, Arnoux almost starts to cry. Microphones huddle on his lips and the poor, little, combative Frenchman doesn't hold back:
"I don't understand anything anymore, the car was worse than this morning when I tried with race tires and a full tank of petrol. I hope that tomorrow we will be able to understand what's wrong. I don't want to give up fighting, not only for a possible third place in the championship but above all to find out what happens, to pave the way for next year".
But when they tell him that the Alphas are ahead of the Ferraris, René replies:
"Oh yeah? I didn't know, my God".
And he goes away. In the following minutes, the fans flock to the Ferrari tent but the drivers, locked in the bus, do not go out:
"What can I tell them, I would like to cheer them up, indeed I should, but I can't".
René says, before collapsing on a sofa with his eyes staring at the ceiling. If possible, it goes even worse for Michele Alboreto, since the new car is out of order and the old one did not go beyond seven thousand laps. At the Ferrari garage, the engineer Forghieri is no longer there, but he is already regretted.
For Piquet, on the other hand, the pole was missed because when there were eight minutes to the end of qualifying, the Carioca driver was forced to return to the pits with the engine of his Brabham puffing blue smoke. Nelson said he was sure he could go down to 1'25"5 but he didn't succeed because, as he stated:
"With the first set of tires in a long time, in the lap of pole position, I took a bad curb at the Lesmo corner, the car danced for a while otherwise everything was a second less. Then with the second set of tires, which usually it allows you to improve, I immediately broke the turbo. They put my car back in order, but with the tires already used for one lap there was nothing to do, I stopped at 1'27. declared, tomorrow Lauda and Prost will only take care to mark themselves, certainly they will not come to get her. I understand them, I would behave like this too, but for myself it will be a race like any other, I can't go slower for me. ahead, and hope that the car holds".
Then, speaking of the technical problem, Nelson confesses that:
"I haven't broken the engine since the Brands Hatch race, the last two retirements are due to other trivial problems with the oil pipe left loose by the mechanics. I can't say anything else. I just add that we have to solve a small set-up problem that comes out when the car is full of petrol".
Inconveniences that certainly do not leave even the McLaren mechanics calm, given that the moments preceding the start are a bit excited for the British team, with Lauda changing the engine, and Prost deciding to leave with the forklift after having encountered a water leak on his car. Perhaps Alain would have been better off staying in his main car?
Who knows, the fact is that after just four laps of the race, the irreparable happens: on the main straight, at the start of lap 4, the classic blue smoke comes out from the rear of McLaren number 7 that no driver would want to see in the mirrors. Alain goes through a couple of curves, then inevitably he has to park on the grass on the edge of the track exiting the Variante della Roggia. He is retired from the race, the fifth in the season, but by far the heaviest.
Lauda's victory makes it all the more dramatic for him. The Austrian starts badly, is a bit awkward, then picks up pace, Piquet needless to say retires, and he pockets 9 key points that earn him a serious mortgage on the title. In fact, there are 10.5 points ahead of an inconsolable Prost on his return to the pits.
Losing a World Championship in this way, due to an engine failure that prevents you a priori from being able to play it on the track, is nothing short of frustrating. Obviously, the one who is labeled as the pilot who gets lost on the most beautiful, after a blow to morale like that, is definitely KO'd. But Alain doesn't want to give up:
"It's up to me to fight to re-emerge, and so I find myself both dejected and exalted. I have to fight against Lauda, a great champion and also a true friend, now I can tell. When have two riders from the same team ever had such a battle? I am calm, even if sad. This is real sport, gentlemen. I don't know if it is still possible to win the World Championship, however let's say not impossible. But now things don't depend on me. I can also win the last two races, but that's not enough: Niki has to stop, in short, I must be helped by his misfortune".
Prost then also comments on the fury of the Italian fans towards him, since while he was returning to the pits there was the unpleasant throwing of a stone towards him, in addition to the roar that accompanied his retirement:
"I don't understand the people who insulted me, or who applauded my misfortune. I do my best, I run, I risk, I fight, I have bad luck but they insult me and throw stones at me, besides the peanuts. Maybe I'm wrong to be, by pure chance, the opponent of the current favorite, at least in Monza: once Arnoux, now Lauda".
There are two other races to be played, but logically Lauda's speeches begin if he wins.
For his third crown, Niki needs two third places, or a second and a fifth. Meanwhile, the unthinkable happens outside the competition fields. Lauda is asked to urgently call Larrousse, who, sadly, says he regrets not being able to honor the agreement. In France the unions got into agitation due to the enormity of the sum requested by the Austrian driver and the recent layoffs, so the president was forced to declare that he could not take responsibility for paying Lauda, while on the other side the company had further layoffs in store.
At this point, Lauda is left with only the possibility of agreeing with Dennis, who obviously offers him half the money, and not an extra dollar. Lauda then heads to Lausanne, where he asks the Marlboro executives if they want his performance, with the hope that the latter will take his side.
Having received a positive response, in the days preceding the race to be held on the Nurburgring circuit, Dennis submits a welcome contract to Lauda, although his salary is reduced by a third. Thus, Lauda, on the verge of becoming World Champion, must at the same time submit to the most substantial financial cut of his career.
As fate would have it, his first match-point is at the Nurburgring, a circuit where he hasn't raced since the year of his near-fatal accident. However, the route has been drastically modified, and from twenty-five kilometers in length it has passed to today's 4.5 kilometers; furthermore, the safety of the renovated racetrack is not in question.
The weekend is full of events, the first concerning the Austrian ace, who formalizes his stay in McLaren also for 1985, and consequently also Renault makes it known that Patrick Tambay will also remain for the 85 championship alongside Warwick. Then comes the news of the abandonment of Michelin. More customers for Goodyear, but also for Pirelli, until then a supplier of only small teams, which now also signs an agreement with a top team, namely Brabham.
Also noteworthy is the misadventure involving Prost's track engineer, Alan Jenkins, who after arguing with one of the pit safety commissioners, who had probably denied him access for some reason, was summoned by the police. and risked arrest. He was saved by Lauda, who resolved the affair by acting as an intermediary and peacemaker between the two parties. In an indirect way, Niki assists his partner and rival for the title.
The qualification of the World Championship leader is one of those beautiful troubled ones. Between gearbox and electrical unit problems, oil leaks and bad timing in getting out on the track to make his only four laps of the first qualifying session, Lauda is only fifteenth. The next day the rain arrives, so there is no chance to improve your times.
He can thus hope for a favorable result to rekindle the hopes of Prost, who starts second (always behind Piquet, who took the eighth pole this season), but hopes for a Sunday without rain, as a slippery track in a race where he must to go on the attack would mean taking further risks.
His prayers in the night are of some use: on Sunday not a drop falls, however Alain complicates his life in the warm-up, when he crashes violently against the barriers and seriously damages the car.
The Professor refuses to use the forklift, set up on the occasion for Lauda, and luckily for him, the mechanics manage to repair his car perfectly with an amazing job. The race, once past Piquet at the start, turns into a peaceful walk towards the checkered flag.
At the same time, Lauda has to elbow up the rankings, risks retiring in contact with the dubbed Baldi (a misunderstanding between the two causes the McLaren spin), and concludes fourth, unnerved by not being able to close the world championship speech before the last race. Once out of the car, he even asks for a cigarette, he who no longer smokes.
The other two participants in the podium ceremony are Alboreto and Piquet. In the final, the Ferrari driver competes with the Brazilian for the second step, which leads both to run out of fuel in the very last meters. To take advantage of every last drop of petrol left, they cross the finish line zigzagging, after which, unable to go further, they immediately get out of the cockpit and comment on the incident with a good laugh.
Four and a half points behind at the end of the race. Three and a half points after FISA's decision to reassign the points Tyrrell had won prior to disqualification. The rankings are redrawn, and Prost benefits from this by earning a point from the Detroit race. Before Estoril, therefore, the situation sees Lauda at 66, and Prost at 62.5. To win the first World Cup in his career, Prost has these possibilities:
- Victory with Lauda who is third or worse;
- Second place with Lauda fifth or worse;
- Third place with Lauda out of the points.
In short, nothing is lost, everything is still possible. Paradoxically, Alain is the one with the least pressure: no longer having the leadership of the standings, he is the challenger, a generally more comfortable position, moreover he is aware of being McLaren's top driver for the future.
He decides to spend the Lusitanian weekend in a villa of eight hundred hectares surrounded by the people most dear to him, including Jacques Laffite. Lauda, on the other hand, resides at the Hotel Sintra d’Estoril with his wife, who for the occasion breaks the rules and takes part in a race weekend. In fact, it had been years since Marlene did not show up for a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but it is clear that Lauda needs her support to be able to win. The Austrian driver is nervous, he stays in a hotel that, admitting him, smells bad and has ugly rooms, and what's more he doesn't like the circuit at all.
On a track that is actually quite slippery, full of bumps and some points considered unsafe by the drivers due to the barriers too close, Prost trims a clear second to his teammate in the tests. The tension is felt on Friday, during the first qualifying session.
The sky cleared after a sudden rain, in the last minutes all the riders took to the track to try to improve their timed times, and it was Prost who managed to set the provisional best time. Back in the pits, Alain stops a little further back than the lay-by of his competence, occupying the necessary space also for Lauda, who unlike him has to make a quick pit stop to get back on track, and look for the fastest lap.
Thus, Lauda loses several seconds in the pit lane, and is unable to improve. Subsequently, Prost justifies himself by arguing that there was a lot of chaos in the pits, and therefore he felt it was inappropriate to advance those extra meters at the risk of running over someone.
Small psychological games that do not grip Lauda's mind too much, but even on Saturday he is not competitive at all, he is in fact only eleventh, with Prost who usually occupies the second position behind Piquet, who is on pole.
Yet, Lauda arrives relaxed at the circuit on race day, while Prost continues to chew his nails, is pale and looks sleepless. In fact, unlike his teammate, Alain slept little or nothing.
During the morning warm-up, Lauda is three tenths faster than Prost. But the Austrian driver does not feel in tune with the engine, the one with which he won at Brands Hatch. Lauda asks to be able to assemble the engine used in Dijon. Prost also decides, following an oil leak, to change the engine of his car.
On Sunday October 21, 1984, the turnout on the circuit is not very high, just 44.000 spectators, probably for too high a ticket price in the country with the lowest standard of living in Western Europe.
Prost has all the credentials to win, Lauda is called to another difficult comeback. At the start Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell are the authors of a deadly shot that takes them to the head, while Piquet turns in the very early stages of the race and can say goodbye to the leading positions. He who, according to Lauda, should have hindered Prost:
"But why aren't you careful? But why does he have to do this nonsense today? He knows very well how much you count on him. Nelson is my only and sincere friend in this brigade and we naturally agreed for him to try to hinder Prost for help me".
Lauda will declare many years later, describing the first minutes of the race. Now also for Piquet, as for Lauda, a tough recovery is looming. Prost is temporarily third, but it does not take too many laps to get rid of Mansell and Rosberg, the latter also passed by Senna, who virtually climbs to the podium. Prost flies away in solitude, taking Mansell with him; after thirty laps, however, Lauda is fifth.
At this point, to be able to overtake Johansson, Lauda is forced to increase the supply pressure from 2 to 2.5 bar, despite the fact that in doing so the fuel consumption is excessively high. But Johansson makes a mistake, and Lauda gets over it; however, when braking at the entrance to the next corner, Johansson hits Lauda's left rear wheel with the front wing; luckily, the contact does not cause significant damage to the Austrian driver's car.
Within a few more passes across the finish line, Niki climbs to third position, passing first Rosberg and then Senna. Now Lauda is convinced that he is second, but when he can see the sign that says P3, and with Mansell over thirty seconds away, he begins to pray for something to happen to the British driver. In fact, in order to win the title, Lauda needs the second place occupied by Lotus. Right now Prost has 71.5 points, Lauda 70.
The Austrian tries to close the gap, lapping on average a second and a half faster than Mansell and constantly lowering the track record, but then he has to deal with the management of the car; he can't afford to do all the laps to the limit, so he has to give up his desperate run-up. At the fifty-second lap comes the decisive turning point.
Suddenly Lauda sees in front of him a Lotus stopped due to a brake problem, but the Austrian driver takes more than one lap to see that he is second through the sign displayed by his team. The situation is thus reversed, now it is Prost who has to hope for a failure that catches his direct rival, who has passed Mansell and is second.
Lauda, however, does not encounter any problems, he manages the last twenty laps sparingly, first by decreasing the engine pressure to 1.8 bar, only to bring it back to the normal level of 2.2 because Senna is pressing from behind, and crosses the finish line as runner-up: 72 points against Prost's 71.5. The World Champion is Lauda, for only half a point.
On the return lap Piquet joins the McLaren champion and asks him for news about who the new champion is, and when he receives the confirmation that his friend has triumphed, he makes the sign three with his fingers, and cheers conspicuously. Laffite does the same, but once he discovers the result he doesn't react in the same way, being one of Prost's best friends.
During the interviews Lauda makes a gesture that is rarely seen: he takes off his hat.
An item of clothing he never got rid of, probably a good luck charm for him, since he exclaims to journalists:
"Now I don't need it anymore. It was the hardest race of my life, I rode the last laps with a lump in my throat. And these things are told by a man who was judged cold and emotionless. I had many opponents to overcome at the start, and this worried me. Too many I overtook, I repeated to myself, besides I didn't even want to risk compromising the race. But it was easier than I thought, since no one hindered me badly. Yes, I was lucky too. Mansell's brake failure that preceded me certainly made it easier for me".
While Prost is mocked, once again at the end, once again at the best. 1982 was full of regrets, even more so in 1983, when Prost had thrown a world championship that seemed to have been won, paired with Renault. This one, however, lost for the misery of half a point, hurts even more than the previous ones.
Alain proved to be consistently faster than Lauda throughout the season, he led the races for a total of 345 laps against Lauda's 168; he was at the top of the standings for a long time; he was World Champion for fifty-two laps.
The victory halved in Monaco, the reliability problems, above all the crucial one in Monza, and the Zeltweg error. The three main episodes on which the French can complain. One less would have been enough, and everything would have been fine:
"I did everything I could. I won seven races, Niki five. Some of the riders ahead of Lauda perhaps gave up a little too soon. I was checking Mansell, I saw him second in the rearview mirror and I was calm, everything was fine, I felt World Champion. When I saw that Mansell was gone, I realized that the race had no more history. I would have won it, I knew it, but I also knew that Lauda would finish second and he would be the Champion. Now I have to start all over again, for the third time. In any case I still have some good years ahead of me, and I'm the fastest. But to win it also takes a little luck, and with luck I'm in credit".
On the Estoril podium are the two title contenders plus Senna. Lauda, trying to comfort Alain, visibly disappointed, whispers:
"Forget, forget as soon as possible, listen to me, this was my vintage, the next will be yours. Forget everything else and be happy for next year".
The careers of these three are at a rather different time from each other: Lauda has reached the top again, has won his third World Championship, and still seems to have little to ask of Formula 1. Prost is considered the present of the sport, the fastest on the track together with Piquet, but at the moment, at twenty-nine, the eternal second label remains stuck on him more than ever, and he will need all the mental strength in the world to be able to take the necessary step to detach it; Senna, on the other hand, is the future, a fast but still immature driver, but for whom there is a secure future, full of successes, ready to arrive in 1985 with Lotus.
Despite the strong head to head, Prost and Lauda maintain a peaceful and friendly relationship from the start to the end of the championship, definitely a rare event in Formula 1, especially when it comes to two team mates. On Sunday evening the entire McLaren team goes to celebrate the triumphal season in the restaurant and nightclub of the Albatroz hotel in Cascais.
Returning around five in the morning, Alain finds himself unusually a little tipsy to accompany Elio de Angelis to his hotel, also not in perfect condition after having raised his elbow. Arriving at the hotel entrance, Elio asks Alain to accompany him closer to the door, a request that turns on a light bulb in the drunken mind of the Frenchman.
"Do you want me to come close? Okay".
Alain exclaims, who turns the car, enters the first one and enters the hotel lobby by breaking down the glass entrance doors. Then he turns to Elio and says:
"Ok, now ask for the keys to the room".
With his car stuck in the lobby, Alain has to hail a taxi back to his hotel, and luckily for him, Marlboro pays for the damages. For Prost, before starting all over again, for the third time, a little fun and relaxation, leaving out the destroyed hotel entrances, can only do him good.
Davide Scotto di Vetta