Spectacular sport by vocation, Formula 1 is preparing to close the season in a thrilling way. There are two races left at the end of the World Championship, but already on Sunday 1 November 1987 it will be possible to attend a decisive race with the Japanese Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet will in fact have his second match-ball at his disposal, after the failed one in Mexico City. A victory by the Brazilian, in fact, would exclude Nigel Mansell from the fight, his only remaining opponent. The Englishman, on the other hand, will have to fight to ensure the possibility of continuing the challenge in the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. The race will take place on the Suzuka circuit, on the track normally used by Honda for testing. And this could be a small advantage for the Brazilian who has carried out several tests on that apparently very demanding track. As for Japan, it's a comeback. In the Land of the Rising Sun they competed in 1976 and in 1977 on the Fuji track. On the first occasion Niki Lauda, blatantly refusing to drive on the flooded track, under pouring rain, handed the world title to James Hunt on a silver platter who, finishing third in the race won by Mario Andretti, won by one point. The following year the Austrian from Ferrari won his second laurel, but the race was still the prerogative of James Hunt. Nelson Piquet arrives at the appointment with a 12-point lead. A conspicuous margin, but the South American can only aim for success above all to take it away from his teammate. If Nigel Mansell were to win, things would be very complicated for Nelson. Also because he has already reached the maximum cumulative limit of eleven scores and will in any case be forced to discard any result lower than second place. For Mansell the task will be even more difficult. An inconvenience, a puncture, a retirement, would take him out of the fight. In any case, even in the event of a retirement for Nelson Piquet, he will have to win at least three points to keep hoping and fighting in the final race. We remind you that with the same number of points, the Englishman will in any case win the title for the highest number of first places. On the margins of this challenge, with Honda in the role of referee, there are a whole series of motivations and interests. From the intentions of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who never give up on winning, to the position of Ferrari always looking for a success that would interrupt the very long negative streak. An affirmation could finally arrive for the Maranello team. But after nine winning races out of fourteen so far, Williams can hardly be defeated.
Which is why Mansell and Piquet will have to contend in a desperate head-to-head, in which the psychological implications and possible alliances will also count. Team games. On one side the Englishman and his team, on the other Honda, which has never officially sided with Nelson Piquet, even though in practice it has already rejected the British by removing the engines from Williams itself for the 1988 season. A modern castle adapted for the display of extraordinary colored panels, the Ninja school, fearsome spy forerunners of the modern 007, the ultra-modern Honda workshops in Hamamatsu, a ceramics factory born in the distant twelfth century, a playground very similar to Disneyland. These are the attractions, offered through posters and brochures with organized tours, surrounding the Suzuka track. But more than from the tourist tours, this time people are drawn here by the Grand Prix. On Wednesday 28 October 1987, there was already a large crowd around the track, and an even bigger one is expected starting from Thursday, the day dedicated to a series of free practice sessions to allow the drivers to get to know the track and to adapt the cars. From Friday we will start with the traditional organization. Formula 1 returns to Japan after eleven years. It returns with a Honda that is reaping triumphs and, after all, also with a Japanese driver, that Satoru Nakajima who certainly isn't a champion, but at least occasionally, given that a camera is mounted on his Lotus, shows live television crashes, such as the incredible rear-end collision with Warwick’s Arrows in Mexico. After all, the Japanese seem to like bloody scenes. Otherwise it would not be possible to explain why in one of the best cinemas in Nagoya, a few kilometers from the racetrack, a film called “Goodbye, Hero” is still being shown, starring Gilles Villeneuve, which stands out from all the posters. The deceased Canadian was in fact the protagonist of a terrible accident in the last race held in these parts (at Fuji): after a collision with Ronnie Peterson's Lotus he fell into the crowd, killing two spectators. And since then he was called the aviator, a title that unfortunately he carried with him until the moment of his tragic death which occurred again due to a flight, in Belgium, in 1982. But let’s leave this sadness aside. The cars have now, fortunately, become similar to tanks. See Mansell, Senna and Warwick run off the track at the recent Mexican Grand Prix.
Structural sturdiness and technical solidity, at least as far as Williams is concerned, which out of 28 starts this year failed to reach the finish line only 7 times, also considering Nelson Piquet's non-participation in Imola and the accidents. This consideration is necessary in view of the duel that characterizes the penultimate round of the World Championship, based on the Piquet-Mansell challenge. It would be really strange if one of the two (especially the English) was forced to drop out before the deadline. A withdrawal would cost Nigel Mansell total defeat, the impossibility of continuing to hope for the title. And then the controversy would become topical again, the suspicion of a result driven, not by the drivers, but by the pits. And it would be a great bad thing for all of Formula 1. Waiting to see what will happen and which of the two contenders (the tension is very strong, it borders on a paroxysm) will have the strength to impose itself, the Japanese Grand Prix presents itself with a small novelty: the Brazilian Roberto Moreno in place of Pascal Fabre at the helm of the AGS. The South American newcomer will start well, at least in terms of the audience. The organizers announce the presence of at least 100.000 people, if the weather remains as favorable as in these days. And after all it was predictable: Nelson Piquet or Nigel Mansell, for the Japanese it's the same. Both drive cars with engines produced a few kilometers from the circuit. In Formula 1 the circuits, the periods, the situations change, but not the desire for the title that drives Nigel Mansell. On Thursday 29 October 1987, the Englishman goes against everyone, quarrels with the mathematical logic that would like him beaten and with Honda that would prefer Nelson Piquet over him. And once again he sets the best time ahead of his rivals and above all keeps his first opponent away, that is, his teammate. And now Nigel Mansell is the mandatory parameter for everyone in this new Suzuka circuit. The Englishman, on a day dedicated to two extraordinary sessions of free practice of 45 minutes each, drove with extreme ease. His time will be the starting point for qualifying. Nigel Mansell laps in 1'43"305, at an average of 204.176 km/h, rejecting the attempt of Ayrton Senna (the South American has a gap of just 0.2 seconds but he had tested here the previous week and his Lotus had already been put to point for the characteristics of the track), then Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson, Satoru Nakajima and Teo Fabi. To find Nelson Piquet you have to go back to tenth place. Pale-faced, doubled over, Nelson says he doesn't feel well, to be plagued by stomach pain and stop spinning before the end.
A food poisoning, the change of time zone or a sign of tension in view of the decisive challenge? Or a tactical move? Sure, a 4.5-second disadvantage is too much in any case. It must be said that not everyone pushes the pace. The track is new, different even for those who had previously competed in Formula 2 races or testing at Suzuka. The layout has been modified in many points: at the Degner corner before the underpass, where the corner has been made slower and more angular. in the bend that leads to the finish straight, which has become a chicane. So, many drivers have lapped with caution. And those who immediately forced the pace, like Gerhard Berger, ran into a spin (fortunately without consequences) or, like Jonathan Palmer, ended up off the track. Palmer blocks the session for a quarter of an hour. Michele Alboreto is calm, saying that the setup of his Ferrari isn't perfect. After all, spins aside, not even Gerhard Berger appears satisfied, indeed he says he is worried as the turbo response is high. And to say that Ferrari, despite the presence of Honda engines on four cars, is among the most admired cars of this Japanese debut. There are around 30.000 people in the grandstands and stands, including many school groups in uniform. And the passage of the cars from Maranello always arouses great interest. However, this is a particular world that cannot be clearly deciphered. Honda, for example, never says anything about its engines. Then at the Tokyo Motor Show it exhibited a naturally aspirated ten-cylinder that could be the one used in 1988. But it is not excluded that it is a move studied previously, and that at the right moment a 12-cylinder will come out. The circuit is a beautiful reality. The track encloses two lakes, has respectable structures, an immense playground on the side. A sort of oasis dedicated to racing in the middle of a forest of roads, motorways, monorails, railways with 300 km/h trains. In short, everything is ready at Suzuka. But the great challenge of Formula 1 will not take place. On Friday 30 October 1987 Nelson Piquet wins his third world title. His great rival, Nigel Mansell, stopped by a crash, after spending a night in hospital, is transferred by plane to England on Saturday morning. The Englishman is involved in a frightening exit from the track during the first qualifying session of the Japanese Grand Prix. He doesn't suffer injuries or fractures, but the doctors, after having checked his psycho-physical conditions, refuse to give him the go-ahead to return to the Suzuka circuit and to participate in the race.
More or less what happened to Nelson Piquet at Imola in the spring. Thus ends, in a dramatic and even a little disappointing way, the battle for the victory of the 1987 World Championship. A battle which, after attracting attention throughout the season, promised a fiery finale, a head-to head until the last metre. That’s a pity. Destiny wanted to anticipate the conclusion of the World Championship. The accident occurred at 1:30 p.m., half an hour after the start of timed practice. Nelson Piquet has just set the best time, lapping in 1'41"423. The two teammates look askance at each other in the pits. And Nigel Mansell is back on track like a fury. He does a warm-up lap and then sets off fast. the straight, a fast right-hander and enters the S curves. The Williams goes through the curves at about 220 km/h in fourth gear, slightly off the trajectory, on the dirty part of the asphalt. The car moves to the outside, and drives up a curb, puts two wheels on the grass, at which point a rapid spin begins, the car winds up shrouded in a cloud of smoke as it backs up on the other side of the road, hitting the pile of old tires with its rear wing placed to protect a wall. The impact is extremely violent: the car, surrounded by dust and pieces of metal and plastic flying everywhere, rears up at least two meters off the ground and falls back to the ground, crossing the track. Perhaps it is the final impact, against the asphalt, that jeopardizes the health of the English driver. Photographers hear Nigel Mansell screaming under his helmet in pain. Help is immediate. A few moments, then the Englishman is extracted from the cockpit and placed on a stretcher. Subsequently, the pilot is loaded into an ambulance, then transported by helicopter and admitted to the University Hospital of Nagoya, about 40 kilometers away. In the Williams box everyone has their eyes fixed on the television broadcasting the Images. For long minutes an inexorable replay proposes the incident. Frank Williams almost seems to be crying, Nelson Piquet is shaken, pale as a ghost. Then the first rumors: there are no fractures, just a bad blow to the back, a chest contusion and a blow to the right leg. He will make it, they say, the man is strong. He'll be on the track on Saturday, maybe just to watch, but he'll be racing on Sunday. So until 11:30 p.m., when the doctor Rafael Orajales and the press officer Peter Windsor return from the hospital. The latter says:
"Everything is ok, tomorrow we will transfer him to England".
Like, everything ok and he’s going home?
"He hasn't been seriously injured, but doctors say he's in no condition to drive. He's going to be in intensive care tonight. He is in shock and his vision is blurred. But he will be strong in the race in Adelaide".
Of course, in bad luck, not having sustained injuries or serious injuries he’s already lucky. But the World Championship? All finished, Nelson Piquet is the new World Champion. His teammate is out, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost will no longer be able to reach him in the standings. Strange fate that of Nigel Mansell. Last year he lost the World Championship in the last race due to a blown tyre. This time after winning six races, after breaking Ascari's record with sixteen consecutive front row positions in qualifying, he couldn't even defend himself. He is the fastest of all but fails to reach the title. The news of Nigel Mansell's abandon takes Nelson Piquet by surprise, who was already in bed. He had gone to sleep early, very tired, due to the illness that had hit his stomach in recent days. The Brazilian replies in a slurred voice when he realizes he is World Champion again:
"I'm happy with the title. I'm sorry for Nigel, I know what it feels like in certain moments, unfortunately these are things that happen in our sport. At least he wasn't hurt".
What is the most suffered title?
"It is always the last, because the difficulties of the past are always forgotten".
The victory to remember this year?
"There are no doubts, it's Monza. I had to finish first to recover in the standings".
Do you consider this early conclusion a gift of fortune?
"I am convinced that I am a lucky man. But beware, I too have had my problems at times. Last year I could have won if the team had respected the agreements and had treated me as first guide instead of fomenting the fight in the family. I don't think I've stolen much this season. I went well in some races, but I also ran one less race, the one in San Marino, and I never made any serious mistakes, except for the Spanish Grand Prix".
Were there any really difficult moments?
"No. Perhaps it was only at Silverstone that I went through a period of great anger. I was overtaken by Mansell on the last lap when I thought he couldn't catch me anymore and I looked like a fool. But the on-board computer told me that I had no more fuel available. Mansell can complain a lot, but I too could have wrapped up the championship fight earlier if everything had gone the right way".
Meanwhile, Harvey Postlethwaite, Ferrari's technical manager on the track (in the absence of John Barnard), is willing to go too far and say:
"Williams is always the car to beat. There is no doubt about this. But we are in the fray. You can try to win, perhaps risking something".
With Gerhard Berger in second position and Michele Alboreto in third, the reserve dissolved. In fact, the Ferraris continue to go fast, the problem always concerns reliability, but there were no problems on Friday. On the contrary, some appropriate modifications make it possible to improve the set-ups and to shorten the turbo response times. Michele Alboreto says, very concentrated:
"We are in good shape. I might have even gone faster if I hadn't always found traffic. On my best lap I encountered two slow cars in my line. Now I'll try to set up the car well for the race".
Berger complains about the brakes, but the Austrian also confesses that he uses them thoroughly, even with his left foot, when he can't take his right foot off the accelerator to maintain traction on the car. A technique that Berger uses frequently, taking the Ferrari to the limit, always on the curbs, on trajectories that try to be linear, to cut corners as much as possible. There are still two races left, for Ferrari there are two opportunities to exploit to seize the victory it has been chasing for about two and a half years. Superstition is also used, naturally unacknowledged. Many mechanics of the Maranello team haven't shaved since the Mexico City race. They don't say why, but it seems they decided to cut it at the end of the season. Let's hope they don't become so many bums waiting for victory. On Saturday 31 October 1987, more or less at the same time, around 4:00 p.m., the paths of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet diverge. The Englishman, in pain, leaves the hospital in Nagoya and, accompanied by his doctor, Rafael Grajales, leaves for England. At home, his wife Rosanne is waiting for him, who is expecting her third child at any moment. In the meantime, the Brazilian is holding his first press conference as World Champion in Suzuka. Two characters who held up the Formula 1 show until its anticipated conclusion. The story ended somewhat obscurely. It was not understood why Williams ignored it until the last minute, keeping a car for Nigel Mansell ready in the pits, when it had already been known the previous evening that the Englishman, despite not having suffered any injuries or fractures, was not fit to drive.
In any case, FISA dispels any doubts: the driver's licence, upon medical request, was blocked. Perhaps he will return to racing in Australia, if not he will be replaced by former World Champion Alan Jones. Nigel Mansell is dismissed by Nelson Piquet in a few words:
"We've never been friends, but we've never had a fight, except after Mexico, when he claimed that I wanted to push him off the track. Nonsense. I recognize that he is a striker, that he is fast. But before winning a World Championship…".
The Brazilian looks tired, gray in the face, aged. He shoots everyone a bit, giving away bitter jokes to those who don't like him. His was a poisoned World Championship.
"It's always nice to be World Champion. However I haven't won now, I deserved the title for what I did during the season. Of course, if I were to finish first again it would be nicer. Don't tell me about luck or bad luck. It does not exist. In 1986 I lost because I didn't prepare well physically and had an accident in Detroit due to exhaustion. This year I had done things better and had planned everything, except the Imola crash. That terrible blow changed me a lot, even making me lose my aggression because I haven't rested well since then. In any case, the results count: I scored more points than Mansell".
And he adds, speaking of his teammate:
"The truth is that he has always been the privileged one and that's why I'm leaving Williams. When I signed the contract in 1985, I demanded the first driver clause. But I trusted the word and the good intentions, we didn't specify in those sheets of paper what was the exact meaning of first pilot. Then Frank Williams had a car accident that confined him to a wheelchair. The management of the team passed into the hands of Patrick Head and the troubles began for me. I could have appealed to Frank, but I didn't have the courage, in the condition he was in, to go and annoy him with my problems. It was a mistake because Mansell began to throw a tantrum, he went to sign with Ferrari and Patrick promised him heaven and earth to keep him from running away. I was even forced to fight over the forklift. In these conditions you no longer work well, there's too much tension, you need a lot of aggression and I feel I don't have any more".
After that, Nelson Piquet talks about the Imola crash:
"I changed after the Imola accident. Do you remember that bang? Those black silhouettes of tires left printed on the wall? I've been watching them for a long time. For at least three months I couldn't sleep well, I woke up in the middle of the night and wondered where I was. Then I began to think that I had saved myself, that my health was still there and when you start thinking about these things it's difficult to have a charge of aggression on the track. I mentally changed after that incident, I felt dazed and empty for a long time. And I realized that I could no longer live my own way in that team. I'm not someone who lives focused entirely on racing, just racing. I have many other interests in life, and I like to look after them. And then I understood one thing: the day after you win the world title you realize that your life doesn't change, it stays as it is. Of course, when I won my first world championship in 1981 after just two years in Formula One, I felt like I was touching the sky. It's different now, I'm not a kid anymore, I like winning, I do this job to win, but then there's something else. But if the worst moment was that of Imola, the most beautiful was that of the victory in Monza. In Monte-Carlo my foot hurt so much, then second place in Detroit cheered me up".
And now we turn the page, the Brazilian driver will go to Lotus next year.
"I don't like changing teams, but I was forced to. Williams has not fulfilled the contract. Indeed, I was naive: I had made an agreement as first guide without specifying what my rights were. So they, when Mansell signed for Ferrari last year, to convince him to stay they offered him all the support and the team fell apart. It was the management that made a mistake because the team, as technicians, is perfect. For them, the future is full of questions, a lot depends on how the new naturally aspirated engines perform".
Will switching to Lotus be a bargain?
"A team to work together, without interference. The name is old, but the team is young. I had signed up for one year but accepted an option for another season. I've already seen the drawings of the new car, it seems very interesting to me".
How much money is winning a Formula 1 World Championship worth?
"The right. I might even make maybe an extra million or two dollars by engaging in promotional efforts. But I don't want to do it, I would lose about fifty days of freedom. I like racing but I realized that life is made up of other things too and that health is the most important thing. I don't want to arrive at the circuits drunk from motoring and work, I still want to have fun".
But it seems that Nelson Piquet is sadder, less happy than when he won in 1981 and 1983.
"I'm just tired. Mexico, Europe, Japan, I feel broken. Can't wait to stop and rest. I will have Christmas at home, in Brasilia, away from everyone, to sleep twelve hours a day".
But will the World Championship be dedicated to someone?
"To myself, of course. Or perhaps to my mother Clotilde, who suffers in front of the television on Sundays".
Even in Japan, the Ferrari flags appear, as if by magic. Red drapes with the Prancing Horse wave in the grandstand when Gerhard Berger sets the fastest time. Berger takes pole position, the second of his career, the second of the season, after the one in Portugal. But it wasn't easy, even if the absence of Nigel Mansell made his task easier. Nelson Piquet had to pass first, who had been leading since Friday, then battled with Thierry Boutsen performing a brutal overtaking move when the Belgian overtook him. And in the end it resists the return of Alain Prost. How did he do?
"The car was perfect. I pushed hard, I hesitated for an instant to pass Fabi who was proceeding slowly, I put into sixth gear and found myself with two wheels on the grass. If I had braked, I might have crashed. Instead I pressed the accelerator, passed within a few centimeters of the barriers and it went well. The subtle pleasure of the thrill".
And to think that alongside Berger, if not ahead, there could also have been Michele Alboreto, who is instead forced to settle for fourth time, preceded by Alain Prost and Thierry Boutsen. Even if this is the best result of the year for Ferrari in qualifying, the Italian driver is not satisfied. Michele shakes his head, grumbling:
"I’m just always unlucky. I had a clean lap, no mistakes, strong, I assure you. I arrived at the chicane that precedes the straight to the pits and there was no fuel. The engine almost stopped. The fuel shaken in the tank probably didn't get to the fuel system. I restarted immediately, but I was at least 20 km/h less and I set the fourth fastest time. If it wasn't pole position, it was at least said front row. I want to archive this cursed year soon".
In the final stages of the season, Ferrari appears to be growing. Beyond the contingent results, the performances mortified by the retirements, there is no doubt that the cars are competitive again, that in 1988 there are the foundations for rediscovering that team spirit that was disappearing. In the Ferrari pits you can now see mechanics who always work with greater grit and satisfaction. A restrained enthusiasm, but always keeping an eye on the timing monitors, to see how Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto respond to the opponents' attacks. In addition to the Japanese Grand Prix, there is still one race in Australia available to seek success. But much, if not all, is focused on the future. On the one hand, the development of engines (turbo and aspirated) in the Fiorano workshops. On the other hand, the updating work on the current chassis which should begin in the first part of next season, waiting for the new car that John Barnard is building in his Guilford atelier. The birth seems difficult, but the first rumors reveal the image of an extraordinary car, the most advanced, precious, sophisticated single-seater not seen in Formula 1. It is not yet known whether it will have active suspension and an electronically controlled gearbox, but it is sure it will have to be a winning Ferrari. On Sunday 1 November 1987, at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix, Gerhard Berger, who was left a fraction of a second behind, was able to fend off Alain Prost's attack. The Austrian driver doesn't take his foot off the accelerator and, at the end of extremely dangerous swings, with cars almost side by side, holds back the French driver. Behind them, Michele Alboreto and Nelson Piquet create many difficulties for the other competitors. The Italian driver is unable to start, due to the clutch remaining blocked, while the Brazilian, perhaps taken by surprise by the green light, hesitates. So Ayrton Senna slips inside beyond the white lines placed on the track, those same lines that the race director had asked the drivers not to exceed just before. Nelson Piquet then complained about Ayrton Senna's impropriety, but the Lotus driver would reply by saying that that one was the only maneuver he could have made. After the initial outburst, at the beginning of the second lap, the left rear tire of Alain Prost’s McLaren loses pressure, until it falls apart. The Frenchman is forced to complete an entire passage of the track at reduced speed, on a rim, losing over two minutes.
The long chase ends in seventh position. Michele Alboreto started at the back of the group, while his teammate led the race ahead of Thierry Boutsen (whose Benetton, however, had clutch and fuel consumption problems), then the Senna-Piquet duo. After twenty laps the series of pit stops to replace the tires began. The first to return to the pits is Stefan Johansson, then Gerhard Berger, then Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian Lotus driver in the game of the stops rises to the first position during lap 25, but then the positions are recomposed. #28 Ferrari regains leadership and Stefan Johansson takes second place. The Swede, having changed the tires before anyone else, makes up ground with some very fast passages. But Gerhard Berger is not intimidated. Michele Alboreto, risking and driving to the limit, with a broken exhaust pipe from lap 15 (the terminal crawls on the ground causing continuous sparks), climbs back to fifth place. With five laps to go, after trying in vain to overtake Ayrton Senna (the Lotus is slow in the corners but very fast on the straights), Nelson Piquet was forced to return to the pits with the overheated engine leaking oil. It appears that Williams has collected a veritable mass of tire debris in the radiators causing all temperatures to rise. With the World Champion retired, Ayrton Senna attacks the second position. And he succeeds in the maneuver right on the last lap: Stefan Johansson is forced to slow down because the McLaren's fuel is almost gone. Gerhard Berger wins the Japanese Grand Prix, followed by Ayrton Senna, Stefan Johansson, Michele Alboreto, Thierry Boutsen and Satoru Nakajima, who drives his compatriots into a frenzy. But the Japanese driver was also lucky, as that position belonged to Eddie Cheever, who was also betrayed by the lack of fuel. After a long wait, Scuderia Ferrari finds itself again with work, humility, and commitment. And as a prize, it conquers, on the Suzuka circuit, with Gerhard Berger, a victory that is worth double: a stupendous success, which finally interrupts a very bitter negative series of 37 races without a first place, a success achieved precisely in Japan, in the realm of technology, at the home of the Honda that dominated the Formula 1 World Championship with engines given to Williams and Lotus.
For several races already, Ferrari had narrowly missed the appointment with victory: a bit of bad luck, some mistakes by the drivers (Berger in Portugal), the excessive power of the rivals. In Suzuka the negative chain was broken, also - it must be admitted - due to a series of favorable circumstances. Nigel Mansell’s forced absence, Nelson Piquet’s sense of fulfillment, who became World Champion on the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix without a fight, a puncture that stopped Alain Prost and McLaren on the first lap of the race. But this is sport, especially Formula 1 races. And whoever wins is always right. In the Maranello team's positive balance there is another important element to add, called Gerhard Berger. In the 28-year-old Austrian, Ferrari has found a driver of great value, a very fast racer. Gerhard Berger, who started in pole position, didn't make the slightest mistake. He attacked immediately, built up a good lead and then managed it intelligently. And perhaps Ferrari's could have been a one-two if Michele Alboreto, still beset by bad luck, hadn't stood by at the start with the clutch glued and hadn't been forced into a long chase that brought him to fourth place. But the meaning of the Maranello team's return to the top is even deeper. Beyond the pure and exciting sporting story, the injection of confidence that the team has been able to transmit, the industrial, technological discourse emerges. A Formula 1 single-seater can be compared to a traveling laboratory, even if the point of contact with production cars is far away. Winning means being at the forefront, knowing how to navigate a very sophisticated field that includes every sector, from aerodynamics to special materials, from electronics to chemistry. Let's not forget that one of the most demanding challenges concerns fuel consumptions. On a sporting and human level, a winning Ferrari also has other implications. It's good for Formula 1, always thirsty for protagonists, lately a bit bored with the repetitiveness of the results. A success that rewards the sacrifices of the whole team, of the fans, always many, now ready to go wild. It is obvious that the success in the Japanese Grand Prix does not eliminate all problems, that the commitment will be even tougher in the coming months, in the 1988 World Championship. But the tunnel of the crisis seems to have been overcome, taking the right path. Two more considerations. The first concerns a question, the technical manager of the Maranello team, John Barnard, had said he did not believe in this car. What will the English designer do at this point, while working on the car that will house the naturally aspirated engine from 1989? What will be his reactions, such as those of the men he had rejected as incompetent? The second concerns Enzo Ferrari. The Modena-based manufacturer saw Gerhard Berger's race and victory on television in his home. How much strength, what a stubborn determination. In recent times he has had to endure fierce criticism, in some cases even mockery. He has always responded with anger, attacking rather than suffering. Beyond any rhetorical speech, it must be recognized with joy that behind this victory there is also and above all his strength, his intact desire to be first. Ferrari has also made mistakes, made the wrong choices. However, he is still the soul of the Maranello team, and it is thanks to him that the Ferrari name has returned to shine in the world.
"They made the yellows see red".
With this quip a French radio commentator concludes his coverage of the Japanese Grand Prix. And in fact, Ferrari spoils the party for Honda, which was looking for a good victory to celebrate the triumphs in the Drivers' and Constructors' World Championships won with Nelson Piquet and with Williams. In front of over 120.000 spectators, in front of the executives of the entire Japanese car industry lined up in the pits and on the stages, Ferrari demonstrated that old Europe and Italy in particular are still at the forefront. Gerhard Berger solved everything in the very first laps. In fact, it was the start of the Austrian that conditioned the whole race, together with the troubles that befell Alain Prost and Michele Alboreto. When Gerhard Berger crosses the finish line with his right arm raised, there is a moment of silence at Ferrari. And in the unreal emptiness, a series of deep sighs is clearly heard. After so many disappointments, one can hardly believe the reality of this stupendous result. Then joy breaks out. Hugs and kisses, shouts of joy. The mechanics in the pit lane. The technicians between the two walls before the track. More handshakes, while managers and technicians of the other teams arrive in procession to congratulate each other. Among the most celebrated was engineer Harvey Postlethwaite, head of track operations, as well as responsible for aerodynamics.
"Luckily, I am trained, otherwise I could have passed out from the tension. In racing it's always like this, you're never sure of winning until you've crossed the finish line. In the last two laps, even though everything was perfect and under control. Berger is a great driver, very professional. It did everything it was supposed to do, without a fault. It seems to me a faster Lauda".
The measured words of Marco Piccinini, sports director, strategist, politician and confessor of the team follow, who states:
"It is Ferrari's 92nd victory. A happy little episode that takes on great value because it comes to the end of a painful season and in the house of our main competitor. This affirmation is due to the active presence of Enzo Ferrari, to the impulses given by his son Piero".
In a fury, after getting rid of the helmet, Michele Alboreto arrives:
"Great day for Ferrari, we haven't seen the checkered flag for a long time. I was back from ten consecutive withdrawals. I am very happy for the team, especially for Enzo Ferrari. I hope this is the end of a nightmare, we have suffered for two years, we needed this success after so many beatings. As for me, I still had bad luck, but it doesn't matter. I hope it will be the beginning of a new short, the dream is to be able to fight for the world championship next year".
To get Gerhard Berger you have to wait a long time. Televisions, radios and so on. Then, the Austrian arrives, fresh, cheerful, available, ready to repeat the declarations already made countless times, in German and in English:
"It wasn't a tough race. When you win, everything is easy. I reduced the turbo pressure after the second lap and increased it again only to pull Johansson out after the tire changes. I could have gone harder. I seem to have made a good start. I had some difficulty engaging the gears, otherwise everything went smoothly".
In what was Ferrari stronger?
"Overall: great chassis, good engine. But we still have to improve to achieve constant competitiveness against the Honda-powered cars. For the next race in Adelaide I am optimistic. However, we must not underestimate that Mansell was missing here, that Piquet was demotivated, that Prost had some problems. The goal is not just to win races, but to fight for the World Championship. An exploit can help restore morale, but a lot of work will still have to be done".
Sincerity, first of all, a beautiful quality. Then Gerhard Berger was requested by the mechanics for an official photo, in front of the car, with the Japanese Grand Prix cup on display. No particular celebration takes place after the race, apart from a hasty dinner in the box, prepared by the cook Luigi Montanini. Spaghetti with garlic and oil, washed down with excellent French champagne offered by friends, and fillets that are not overcooked. At a certain point Marco Piccinini returns, taking away Gerhard Berger.
"I'll get you Berger for a few minutes".
And it goes away. The Austrian standing, almost at attention, holding the telephone receiver in his hand, makes a few gestures with his head. Then Marco Piccinini comes out. What did Enzo Ferrari ask on the phone?
"He wanted to know what happened to Michele Alboreto. Then he told me to give Berger a heartfelt thank you".
Then Gerhard Berger is asked how the telephone conversation with Enzo Ferrari was:
"Good morning engineer, I said, today everything is fine. And he replied: a very nice race. Now you have to work hard. Next year we will fight for the World Championship. No, I'm kidding. I understood very little, almost nothing. I just realized that he was happy too".
Apart from the Scuderia Ferrari men, there aren't many happy faces at the end of the race. Alain Prost, for example, is enraged:
"A malformation in the tire slowed me down, which became punctured, deflating little by little. My McLaren was perfect, I could have won. Indeed, it probably would have been the easiest first place in recent years. I had already realized in practice that be very competitive and I could have also challenged Mansell and Piquet for the win if the Englishman had been in the race and if the Brazilian hadn't had any problems. men from Honda who were right in choosing our team to supply the engines next year".
There are still disagreements and controversies between Senna and Piquet. Nelson accuses his compatriot of having made a dangerous start risking causing an accident. The Brazilian even wanted to make an official complaint to get him penalized, then he gave up.
"I couldn't overtake the Lotus, my Williams was faster in the corners but was inexorably detached on the straights. I'm sorry, but I still have one race available in Adelaide to look for success and seal the world title".
Ayrton Senna replies by saying:
"I did my race. At the start I couldn't do otherwise with Alboreto stopped and Piquet sleeping on the grid. It was not possible to go anywhere, and I moved inside where there was space and the maneuver worked perfectly. The rest you know. Piquet went slower and I, with an official complaint, burned Johansson on the last lap, passing him like with a dragster".
Unlucky race for Riccardo Patrese who had to run with little pressure in the turbines due to a fuel consumption problem. Furthermore, the Italian driver eventually slowed down due to the engine that was about to blow up. Worse than him, however, was Teo Fabi, who had already retired on lap 15. An enigmatic smile from Stefan Johansson. He finished the Japanese Grand Prix in third place but could have been second if he hadn't run out of petrol, and he is fifth in the World Championship, behind Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. And yet, in a fortnight in Australia, he will perhaps race in Formula 1 for the last time. McLaren has let him go to take on Ayrton Senna and the Swede hasn't found another team with the slightest financial means that would offer him an engagement for next year. Meanwhile Nigel Mansell arrives home in the Isle of Man, England. His conditions are good, the Briton embraces his wife who is expecting a third child in these days. The Williams driver, reached by phone, says he saw the race on television.
"I'm happy for Berger who is a friend of mine, but I really think that if I had been racing, given the pace he had, I wouldn't have missed the win. One more reason for regret, but I can't do anything about that".
Nigel Mansell also says he cannot predict when he will be able to resume activity, or if he will be able to compete in Australia. In this regard it is said that Alan Jones will not replace him but Riccardo Patrese, who has already signed an engagement with Williams for next year. It seems that Bernie Ecclestone is ready to give his permission, also because in this way he will be able to let the Mexican Josele Garza try the Brabham, ready to pay a good amount for this opportunity. The man of the Ferrari rescue had to be an Englishman.
And English it was, but not that designated. John Barnard has nothing to do with the victory achieved by the Maranello team in Japan. Perhaps he gave some advice, but the chief designer hired in November 1986 had made it clear that the car with which Gerhard Berger won on the Suzuka track, in Honda's lair, was not the fruit of his ingenuity. Indeed, he had expressed severe criticism. The chassis of the F1-87, in fact, had been designed by the Austrian technician Gustav Brunner, who resigned in July due to differences with John Barnard. The real architect of the success is another character, also English, who arrived in Maranello in 1981, after positive experiences in the Wolf and Hesketh teams. We are talking about Harvey Postlethwaite, 43, married with two children, a mechanical engineer specialized in composite materials and aerodynamics. They call it Postalmarket or, confidentially, HP. Postlethwaite has a passion for windsurfing and racing cars. Compared to Barnard, the English technician has a superior sensitivity. He integrated better into the environment, understood the mentality. And above all, he didn't arrive at Ferrari as a savior, but as an apprentice employed by Mauro Forghieri, animated by a passion for the Maranello team that borders on love. This does not mean that Postlethwaite is a man of a docile and submissive character. Indeed, from Forghieri he has taken a good dose of irascibility, at times he is harsh and surly, on other occasions kind and helpful. He found himself on the track, he who is above all a laboratory technician, when Enzo Ferrari, in July, with a nice accompanying letter, sent John Barnard to Guildford with the task of preparing the car for the future, the one that will race in 1989 with the naturally aspirated engine. Says Harvey Postlethwaite, touching his forehead as if to wipe the sweat:
"A difficult but rewarding task. We worked hard and a considerable help was offered by finally having our own active wind tunnel. The aerodynamics could be refined and with this the chassis became competitive. There are no big secrets, only small but decisive tweaks".
But how is it possible that a car considered wrong at the start of the season is now a winner?
"Formula 1 cars are strange animals. There are many parameters to take into consideration. They seem subtle but it is with an adequate use of the means available that results are obtained. Effective aerodynamics allow the driver to drive better. Furthermore, if you manage to release the air pressure, you are faster and consume less".
Let's take a practical example.
"Well, if we use a large spoiler, the car remains braked and requires huge engine power. Increases fuel demand. At the same time, if you save petrol, you can have more horsepower in case of need".
So aerodynamics is crucial.
"Not just that. Today, nothing can be done without valid electronics. At the plant level, with the collaboration of Magneti Marelli for injection and data telemetry, we have made giant strides. Now we know everything about the engine, we can intervene, prevent. On Sunday the exhaust gases in the turbines of Berger's car were too cold. We noticed this in the alignment lap from the data we received and were able to make the necessary adjustments before setting off. Some time ago this was done empirically and paid for with repeated breaks".
So now everything will become easier.
"It is absolutely not said. There are others too, something new is discovered every day. In Maranello, however, we have and have always had what we need to keep pace and perhaps even to overtake our opponents. We just have to work hard in all sectors, including the engine one".
Will another victory be possible in the final race in Australia?
"Why not? McLaren was very strong in Japan, but I think it would have been possible to beat them even if Prost hadn't had any problems".
On Monday morning, Gerhard Berger neatly packs his suitcase, telephones Worgl, a small village in the Tyrolean Alps, to say hi to his partner Rosi and his seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Christine. Then he says goodbye to everyone and leaves for Thailand.
"A week's vacation, I want to sleep twelve hours a day, sunbathe and not think about racing. But it won't be easy: by coincidence I am a guest of Frank Convalexius, a friend who, in an attempt to trick me, made me become a pilot. It's a strange and funny story and I want to tell it. It was 1979. I was twenty years old and, like all young people, I loved motor sports. At the time, I was limiting myself to following Niki Lauda's feats, watching television and, at most, doing a little motocross. One day Frank arrives, he was racing cars, and tells me: listen, I always take them. Do you want to try? Gladly, I answer. He lends me the car, a Ford Escort gr. Yes, I take my license and show up on the track in Zeltweg. I set the best time in the category, three seconds faster than everyone else. Convalexius looks amazed and offers me to rent the car: around one million lire. I don't have the money, I answer. He looks annoyed and then offers me another contract: free wagons, but if you screw up you pay for everything. I'm in and I win big".
Gerhard Berger adds with a smile:
"And then I learn that the smartass had fitted a bigger engine and that he just wanted to sell the Escort. He even went to detach the tables with the times attached to the notice boards of the circuit so that the others would not notice the differences in the times. But in the meantime, I had been hit by the racing virus and I continued".
The story is recent. First the Alfasud Trophy, then the minor formulas, with excellent results. In 1984 he made his Formula 1 debut with Ats, the following year with Arrows, then with Benetton. With this team, in the final of the 1986 World Championship, in Mexico, Gerhard Berger achieved his first victory. The Austrian was much loved by BMW, but those of McLaren and, perhaps, Williams wanted him. In the end, he chose Ferrari: after all, he lives 400 kilometers from Maranello, he just needs to cross the Brenner Pass. Furthermore, Berger already loved Scuderia Ferrari, for its fame and thanks to Lauda's feats.
"I knew I wouldn't have made a mistake in betting on Ferrari, even if this championship has been very difficult, due to the controversy and the pressure more than the negative results. It's not easy to race for this great team, internal and external relationships are not simple".
A small veiled criticism, but Gerhard Berger is not one to hide his thoughts. Either he is silent, or he says what he thinks.
"We won; we were strong for a day. The car was fine. But let's not delude ourselves. We still have to work a lot, we must not rest on our laurels. To always be competitive, it will still be necessary to make a lot of effort, tests, and research. In short, we are only at the beginning. The other teams are strong".
But Ferrari has at least achieved the success it has been looking for since August 4, 1985.
"When I arrived in Japan, I found my mechanics unshaven. They said they wouldn't cut it until I won. And then, as a matter of decency, I did everything possible to please them. No, joking aside, that's not enough. I am optimistic about the future. But I can't settle for a few exploits every now and then. My goal is to fight for the victory of the World Championship. That's why I came to Ferrari".
And Michele Alboreto?
"I have already had the opportunity to express what I think about Michele many times. He is an excellent driver, there are no problems with him. Maybe he's been having a hard time, it happens to everyone. There is collaboration with him, we try to exchange impressions and information, even if we have different riding styles and needs. On the track everyone must be free to express themselves to the fullest, obviously considering the interests of the team".
And then, of course:
"I don't think I'm an imbecile: I want to win like all drivers. However, if necessary, in certain situations I would be able to understand and sacrifice myself. I think Alberto is willing to do the same. In these last few races, however, there was no need to implement tactics, it was just a question of pushing hard, risking to win. And that's what I've always tried to do".
Has another Niki Lauda been born? A little early to say, though these Austrians are certainly important in the fate of the Maranello team.