On Sunday, 23 August 1987 Didier Pironi, former Formula 1 driver who raced for Scuderia Ferrari in 1981 and 1982, loses his life with two other crew members during an international offshore competition in front of the Isle of Wight, in Southern England. The coast guard from Solent is trying to reconstruct the tragic dynamics of the accident: the Needles Trophy Race had begun a few minutes before when the Colibri, the boat piloted by Pironi, with navigator Bernard Giroux (famous sports commentator for French television) and third crewman Jean-Claude Guenard, was hit by a wave caused by a small oil tanker. Eyewitnesses say:
"In that moment, Didier’s motorboat had reached the first buoy, and it was in the lead a few hundred meters ahead of his followers. It was travelling at 100 miles per hour approximately (over 160 km/h, editor’s note). All of a sudden, the boat lifted up like crazy and crashed onto the water surface upside-down".
Immediate aid was vain. Two boats left the coast, while a helicopter took off: scuba divers recovered two lifeless bodies from the inside of the Colibri; the third was found drifting a few minutes later. The victims’ remains were brought to the Saint Mary Hospital in Newport, Isle of Wight. While the race went on, Pironi’s boat was towed to Lymington Harbour: British authorities immediately opened an inquiry. Pironi was born on 26 March 1952 in Paris but his family had Italian origins. He entered the world of racing in 1973 as an Elf driver. In 1978, his first, important, win: the 24 hours of Le Mans, with Jassaud, at the wheel of an Alpine. Then, he moved to Formula 1: he won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1980 with Ligier and the San Marino and the Dutch GP in 1982 with Ferrari. The 1982 season looked promising for him: he was largely on the lead of the World Championship when, on Saturday, 7 August, in Hockenheim, he almost died during the free practice of the German Grand Prix, on a rainy day. An accident that reminded of Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash, occurred three months before: on the straight that led to the most spectacular and twisty section of the track, Didier Pironi, who was driving at 260 km/h after passing a dangerous chicane, found himself on Alain Prost’s Renault line. A tremendous impact. Shortly after, Prost said:
"I saw Didier’s car passing over my head, as if it had to take off. It looked like a bullet".
The driver was pulled out of his destroyed car with some difficulties: his legs were mangled, he had a fractured arm, broken nasal septum and a head injury. He spent almost six hours in the operating room in Heidelberg hospital. Then, the dramatic days between life and death. And the ordeal of the rehabilitation of his right leg: three and a half years. A persistent fight driven by the desire of going back to racing. In August 1986, Didier saw the light at the end of the tunnel and he got to drive a Formula 1 car again - an AGS. But the attempt was unsuccessful: the response of his limb was not good. However, after 70 Formula Grand Prix, Didier Pironi could not let go his wish of speeding. He moved to the world of offshore powerboat racing, getting his first win only one week before in the Grand Prix of Arendal in Norway. A lifetime risking death. A fate that reminds of another big name of Formula 1, Graham Hill. After his body was pulled out of the wreck of his Lotus in 1969, the English driver minimized:
“I’ll survive as always, don’t worry. After all, our job is not that dangerous. You only need a sixth sense: the sense of accident".
Six years later, Graham Hill’s legendary career ended because of a crash in the fog while piloting a Piper Aztec over a golf course near London. Meanwhile, after the best time set by Michele Alboreto during free practice on Tuesday, 25 August 1987, the following day Ferrari simulates a Grand Prix on the Imola circuit, along with Nelson Piquet’s Williams. Sixty laps confirm that the team from Maranello improved, although, with ten laps to go, Michele Alboreto is forced to stop for some engine issues (probably related to a bulkhead) allowing Nelson Piquet to set the best time (1'27"78). It’s curious that the stewards have to stop Piquet, during a practice session begun at 5:30 p.m..
During his second lap, the Brazilian has to go back to the garage because he has got on the car wearing a shirt and a pair of shorts rather than the required fireproof racing suit. The fastest lap of the day is set by Alain Prost (1'27"17), who has not simulated the race. Alboreto’s lap (1'27"60) is still a great performance.
"The car has definitely improved after working in the wind gallery".
Michele Alboreto reiterates.
"I’m confident. In Monza, I think I can fully celebrate my hundredth Formula 1 Grand Prix".
Piero Lardi Ferrari clearly affirms that the car will stay the same - the same one that collected five double retirements in the last races. Michele Alboreto explains:
"We are working on the details that betrayed us at the beginning of this World Championship. Specifically, we have made changes to the manifolds and the suspensions".
Speaking of active suspensions, Ferrari has got a programme that won’t start in the short term. Their new car is postponed to 1988 season. The possibility of having a car with aspirated engine and another with turbocharger is not excluded. Meanwhile, Nelson Piquet tries the new active suspensions that he might use for the Italian Grand Prix. Contrary to expectations, Coloni team (that will make its debut in Monza) doesn’t hit the track. On Thursday, 27 August 1987, the third day of practice has got news: Riccardo Patrese at the wheel of a Williams. The Italian driver was called by the executives of the English team for some testing with a view to a contract for next year. Frank Williams’s team is in fact trying to replace Nelson Piquet, after his obvious move to Lotus. It seems that there are two lists of drivers taken into consideration, but the one who begins the tests in Imola is Patrese, and he does it with excellent results. The Italian driver, at the wheel of Brabham, completes several laps in the morning, setting the time of 1'27"56 and getting close to Nelson Piquet (1'27"13).
"The car is exceptional. Engine, chassis and setup are great as well. I felt comfortable, but I can’t say moving to Williams is a done deal".
Rookie Coloni, with Larini, finally hits the track, followed by Osella, in the hands of Italian-Swiss Franco Formi. In the afternoon, Michele Alboreto confirms Ferrari’s improvements, setting the time of 1'25"85, very close to Ayrton Senna’s track record of 1'25"05, that gave him the pole position.
"I’m very satisfied, I think we have found a good compromise between chassis and engine. I hope I’ll be lucky enough and that I won’t be involved in silly accidents".
Gerhard Berger does even better than Michele Alboreto, with his new track record of 1'25"01. The great performance of the Austrian driver follows the Grand Prix simulation - specifically, its last laps, when his purpose was actually setting the best time. The day ends with great satisfaction for drivers, technicians and mechanics of the team from Maranello. In the final ranking, the two Ferraris are followed by Alain Prost’s McLaren and Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese’s Williams. The latter sets the best time of the final day of testing in Imola (1'25"28, second best time of these tests). Nelson Piquet, officially driving for the team, can’t do better than 1'27"0 after a second Grand Prix simulation. The Italian driver shows a big smile when he steps out of the car.
But he also wants to point out that he got his best time without the usual tricks that Williams resorts to in qualifying. Riccardo Patrese adds playfully:
"The car I drove is going back to England, but I’d like to take it to Padua, paint it white and blue (Brabham colours) and race like that in Monza".
But, seriously talking, Patrese says he has no plans with Williams in 1988. Nelson Piquet is satisfied with the job done: the Brazilian has driven 1.400 kilometres in these four days and he is particularly confident about the performance of the new active suspensions for the remaining races. Around 4pm, Benetton leaves the track too. The best time set by Teo Fabi - only driver of the Anglo-Italian team - is 1'28"61. More teams join them: Osella, that ends the tests at 11am (when it starts raining), Arrows, which doesn’t set remarkable times (around 1'34"70), and Coloni, with an encouraging time of 1'36"20 among several stops. In the following days, the excitement for the Italian Grand Prix grows. Automobile Club Milano, race organizer, informs that there are very few grandstand tickets left - with a total of 30.000 each day. 90.000 people are almost guaranteed, and we must add the standing-room, with a daily capacity of 100.000 spectators. Monza is one of the season’s highlights for many reasons, particularly for Michele Alboreto this year: he will join the veterans' group since this is his hundredth Grand Prix. He’s come a long way from his debut day in Imola, on Sunday, 3 May 1981, for the San Marino Grand Prix, at the wheel of Tyrrell-Ford. Over six seasons, during which the thirty-year-old has won five races, three of them with Ferrari. Right, Ferrari. People say that the team from Maranello is ready to win again after all the bad placements and retirements in 32 races, with their last win achieved at Nürburgring, on Sunday, 4 August 1985, by Alboreto himself.
"It’s true, our car is good now. It’s great actually. I think we can aim to first place. I don’t want to create easy illusions, but I hope so too. Premises are good and we base our optimism on them".
Beating Williams won’t be easy.
"No objection on this. Maybe we should lower the enthusiasm and try to be more concrete. Let’s say Ferrari is the only team that could do better than Williams at the moment. Piquet and Mansell are still the favourites, but we come right after them on paper. The English team is still a bit faster. However, we are close: from the beginning of the Championship, we have improved about two and a half seconds each lap. It was the difference between Williams and us".
And McLaren? Lotus?
"I honestly think they’re struggling. They’re still fearsome, but they can’t go too far. Prost’s car has had chassis and engine issues in the last races. Lotus wanted to try the active suspensions instead and, in doing so, they have left aside more realistic goals. Except in case of a last-minute miracle, of course".
What has Ferrari F1-87 improved?
"Everything, mostly aerodynamics and chassis. We have reached at least 90% of the car’s potential, while we were hardly at 50%. The level is high now, we only need to perfect our road holding, but the technicians are already working on it. Engine performance has increased as well".
Is this the reason why you lost reliability?
"Difficult answer. After changing some details, you have to face uncertainties. We’ve been working to solve our problems. Everything that broke in the latest races has been reviewed and strengthened. Monza will be our litmus test, because the powertrain will be highly stimulated with the three straights of the circuit".
Monza, Ferrari wins again. Alboreto runs his hundredth Grand Prix… What if Berger took the first place?
"That’s fine too. Ferrari must win, the driver doesn’t matter. We won’t be racing for ourselves on Sunday, but for Enzo Ferrari. The Austrian is fast. Berger first, Alboreto second: I’d be happy anyway. Of course, reaching the top step of the podium would be the crowning of a dream, the reward after many disappointments, the end of a nightmare".
Hostilities will begin on Friday, 4 September 1987 with the first day of practice. But on Wednesday, 2 September 1987 the circuit is already jam-packed. The menace of racing in a different circuit next year is gone for now, it will be discussed afterwards. The atmosphere is still tense in the garage, where mechanics work hard to prepare the cars. Technical checks are scheduled on Thursday and everything has to be ready. Despite everything, there is curiosity about Ferrari, as usual. Even without significant results, Alboreto and Berger’s latest chronometric performance has brought unbelievable enthusiasm. Everybody’s waiting for the team from Maranello, expecting a result that won’t be easy to reach. Every team wants to win for different reasons, taking the Monza opportunity. An uncertain situation. And things got even more complicated since Wednesday 2 September 1987 because of a statement from McLaren. The English team, from its headquarters in Woking, officially communicates they won’t be using Tag-Porsche engines from 1988. The news is also confirmed by the German company in Stuttgart. It’s the end of a fruitful collaboration that brought three Drivers’ Championships titles in five years (one for Lauda, two for Prost) and two Constructors’ Championships, with an excellent average of 24 wins out of 58 races.
"The collaboration with the English team McLaren and TAG company will not continue in 1988 season. The turbocharged engine used in these five years in Formula 1 won’t be supplied to other teams".
Porsche withdraws after winning three Constructors’ Championships. In 1983, when Ron Dennis and Mansour Oijeh signed, Porsche was clear: the name of the German car manufacturer couldn’t be used, but it had to be replaced by TAG, because they thought that the Formula 1 project was going to fail since it is a competitive environment. That’s why they didn’t want to associate their name with it. And yet, in the previous years, in Germany people got to read about Porsche-McLaren wins. However, Porsche announces they will go on with the powertrain development until the end of the season to guarantee Alain Prost’s possibility to be the world champion again. The clamorous split does nothing but confirm the latest rumours: McLaren signed Ayrton Senna, whose dowry is a Honda engine, for next year. This exquisitely technical affair may have a huge impact in the feverish end of season, though. It seems certain that the Japanese company, which has a contract with Williams until the end of 1988, intends to leave the team of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. Questions arise now. What is Williams going to do? What will happen in the fight between the two drivers of the English team, with Nelson Piquet that seems to be even Honda’s favourite? Frank Williams has been busy for a while looking for a new powertrain, but the task isn’t easy. Ferrari seems to be the only team trying to bring up the name of Europe, since Porsche will retire and BMW will leave by the end of the year. A German Mercedes-Sauber engine has been discussed and it will be used by a new team set up by manager Brun. But this can’t be a solution. Even Toyota might join - rumours say in partnership with Ford. In this muddle, reactions from Williams will have crucial importance. Pumped and dumped, will the current world champion team give Honda another title after such a discourtesy?
Won’t Honda do its best to push its favourite Ayrton Senna with Lotus? Astonishing story. Such a chaotic situation rarely occurred during a championship. Theoretically, four drivers (Piquet, Mansell, Senna and Prost) are still aiming for victory. Monza will be a major moment of this no-holds-barred battle. Ferrari appears as well. Since McLaren is in trouble (last Wednesday, Alain Prost ended early his test in Imola for some engine issues) and Lotus can’t overcome the difficulties caused by active suspensions, the Maranello team might decide the result, if they made enough progress and if they find the lost reliability. The Italian Grand Prix begins in a tense atmosphere on the first qualifying day. Stakes are high: being one step closer to the title. The interest is not only in this season, but also in the future. The prediction is obviously a family fight between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. Williams’ so far shown domain (six victories out of ten races) does not give any alternatives, apart from political or emotional implications. And the outsiders must be taken into consideration as well: first of all, Prost and Senna, but also Ferrari. The team from Maranello is renewed: a lot of progress compared to the beginning of the championship, even with no match in terms of results. Victory is missing, as well as a good placement. The cars are now competitive; the concern is now related to their reliability. If Ferrari has reached this maturity, then they will have their say. Sadly, for the record, we must also mention the discontent that is spreading in the team. The mechanics (mostly) have been stressed by methods and work organization. It is not only about the ban on drinking Lambrusco: the necessary serenity is gone. They can’t work 15-18 hours per day without getting paid back in terms of comprehension and humanity. It does not mean that Ferrari will miss the appointment, but this situation will certainly weigh on the future. What if employees didn’t put the same passion in their job? However, everybody in Formula 1 believes in the Ferrari possibilities, starting from Ayrton Senna.
"Ferrari has improved. They can do well for the end of the season. If they find reliability, they will have the power of deciding the final result, taking points from the candidates to the title. The main issue is now the engine with its accessories. But I’m convinced they will know how to defend themselves in Monza, pushed by their fans".
Ayrton Senna’s relation with Michele Alboreto is going through a tough time. Without giving up on his ideas, Ayrton reaches out for the Italian driver to end the controversy.
"Our job is dangerous; we shouldn’t worsen the situation with unprofessional attitudes. I think my conscience is clear. If you want to win, you can’t surrender. You need to be tough. But there are limits. I’m the only one who has taken steps to find serenity. I wish Michele understands".
A prediction on the race?
"Williams ahead of everybody else. But I hope the cars with a Honda engine will rise, including my Lotus of course. In the fight between Piquet and Mansell, I think they have equal chances. The English driver is pumped and he’s faster at the moment. He attacks to the full. Nelson has been defending and he’s been more consistent. But I doubt he can continue like this. The only tactic to win the title is winning races".
And Alain Prost?
"McLaren is in decrease. Their chassis is still one of the best, but the engine has caused many problems lately. I’m convinced Prost will do whatever it takes for a comeback. He still is a dangerous rival. However, if his car doesn’t help him, he’s going to surrender too".
On Friday, 4 September 1987, after the first qualifying session of the Italian Grand Prix - that brings 30.000 people to Monza - Scuderia Ferrari sports director Marco Piccinini says:
"We keep on chasing Williams. We will begin tomorrow, race day. There is one more day to improve, but we are close".
The Maranello team seriously seems to be the only one, along with Benetton, able to oppose the power of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet’s car. The English driver sets the best time as always: 1'24"350, with an average of 247.540 km/h, only 0.3 seconds slower than Teo Fabi’s track record (1'24"078) - and it’s still day one! Nelson Piquet finishes second, driving a Williams with active suspensions. Gerhard Berger is third with Ferrari. Thierry Boutsen with Benetton and Michele Alboreto follow, ahead of Alain Prost (McLaren) and Ayrton Senna (Lotus): the two of them might not be struggling, but they are late. It has to be said though, that Berger and Alboreto risked a lot to get closer to Williams. The two drivers of the team from Maranello made every effort and both of them are the protagonists of some spectacular spins, for driving to the limit. The Austrian is the first, after trying to cut a chicane in order not to lose speed: Berger accelerates while his back wheels are still on the concrete kerb and he ends up spinning. Damaged nosecone, floor and spoiler, not severely; the driver goes indeed back on track with the same car, setting the third time (1'25"211). Frightening accident for Michele Alboreto: while going through the second Lesmo corner, with new slippery asphalt, in fifth gear, his car skids. The driver keeps the control of the car but can’t avoid the kerb, so that he spins twice, violently hitting the barriers, and the front right suspension ends folded.
"Routine. These things must be taken into account when you are focused on the performance. It’s a shame because I could do better. I hope I’ll hit the target in the second session".
Williams still seems to be unreachable in terms of lap time. Nigel Mansell explains:
"Our car is perfect as always, but I couldn’t do a good lap. I’ve always found myself stuck in traffic and when I didn’t find any obstacles on track, I made some mistakes. The asphalt is slippery and it’s improving little by little. If the grip gets better, I might improve by one second".
Nigel Mansell is confident. He knows he’s in a good shape and he has no rivals in terms of speed. On the other hand, Nelson Piquet looks camouflaged. The Brazilian is probably finding a way to beat his teammate. Only the search for a secret weapon can explain the decision of trying the active suspensions, which could give him advantage. We will see if his shrewdness rewards him. Meanwhile, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, that will be teammates next year in McLaren, give the impression (but it may be only an impression) of thinking about the future, more than the present. The French needs to work hard, during the morning, to finalise the chassis of his car. In the afternoon, during timed practice, he sets the sixth time.
"It’s going better, I’m happy".
He probably knows there’s nothing he can do against the Honda powered cars, and he can only hope for a positive race. Ayrton Senna is a bit slower than Alain Prost. His Lotus did great during free practice, then, for some reason, he reported a strong understeer. The Brazilian finds difficulties in every corner. He might settle for a normal placement, while he needs a win to stay in the fight for the World Championship. Nothing new, regarding the rest of the drivers. Riccardo Patrese, good as always in eighth position; Alessandro Nannini in the middle of the grid with Minardi; Ivan Capello at the wheel of a March setting the best time among the drivers with an aspirated engine.
Some positions may change on Saturday but only behind Williams. Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet will be the ones aspiring to pole position, unless a miracle happens. But first, on Friday afternoon, Honda dismisses Frank Williams - among smiles, bows and nice words - and announces the new agreement with McLaren. This is how the so-called statement war ends, carried on with ploys and rumours. Williams opened the curtain of this engine battle that has animated the central part of the Formula 1 season. On Friday morning the British team issues an impeccable note, which doesn’t reveal all the rage and bitterness that must have upset Frank Williams lately.
"After a joint agreement between Williams and Honda, we have decided to end the collaboration begun in 1983, which made us win twenty Grand Prix and the Constructors’ World Championship in 1986. We had excellent relations, but we are now stimulated to start a new adventure. We are working on the 1988 car and we have decided to make use of Judd aspirated engines (3500 cc) next season".
Judd engines are actually 8-cylinder Honda engines, currently used in the Formula 3000 Championship. John Judd is an English engine manufacturer who will furnish three teams in 1988 working on this powertrain. So far, the engines are built with components from Japan, but next year they will be completely made in the UK and they will be used by Ligier and March as well. In a press conference, during the afternoon, Honda executives reaffirm their intentions. Kind and impassive on the stage, designer Osamu Goto, Formula 1 supervisor Sakurai and directors Yoshida and Higuchi read a number of documents repeating what the Williams statement had already said.
"A bilateral decision".
Afterwards, they announce that the official aspirated engine is under construction, it will be tested next year and it will debut in 1989. However, they don’t reveal the real reason behind the separation, considering there was a contract until the end of 1988.
"Some clauses allowed the cancellation of the agreement, with full satisfaction from both sides".
But reality is different. It seems that Honda left Williams for some specific reasons. First of all: losing the Drivers’ World Championship last year because of the internal fight between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Second: difficult relationships between Williams’ designer Patrick Head and the Japanese, that perhaps wanted to know more of his secrets in terms of chassis and aerodynamics. Third: the belief in the Japanese company to take advantage by relying on drivers more than teams. Some more considerations are left. Honda, at the end of the meeting, introduces his new gems as if they went there by chance: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and McLaren manager Ron Dennis. Toasts, wishes, more nice words. Honda has now got three of the top five Formula 1 drivers (Nelson Piquet will drive for Lotus). In addition, they will have three teams all in all racing with engines designed in Japan. The attempt to grow in motorsport continues. Besides, Alain Prost himself was in favour of Senna signing with McLaren. The choice was between Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, who was brought to the factory at closing time to show him the company and their plans for 1988. But Piquet’s only words during the tour were:
"How much? How much?"
Talking about financial compensation. This is why Alain Prost spoke out in favour of Ayrton Senna, when he went to Japan with Ron Dennis to meet the Honda employees. According to the French driver:
"Nobody is as talented as him. And I think the good of the team comes before anything else".
Let’s come back to the present. If the Italian Grand Prix is just like qualifying, we will see two separate races. On one side, Nelson Piquet against Nigel Mansell with their Williams; on the other side, a group of followers seeking glory, leaded by Gerhard Berger at the wheel of his Ferrari. Needless to say, the tifosi in Monza dream the overtake. But it won’t be easy. Williams have dominated the whole season, except for the atypical street circuits of Montecarlo and Detroit. In addition, the battle between the Brazilian and the British driver heats up this time and they will both do their best. Nelson Piquet takes pole position. Gerhard Berger brings up the Ferrari name keeping the third position, while Michele Alboreto, unfortunately, slips from fifth to eighth place, overtaken by Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi. The battle for the best time is thrilling, extraordinary. Six times, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell steal each other the pole position while setting new track records. First, The English, after five minutes, followed by a one-two for the Brazilian, and then Mansell improves even more in two almost consecutive laps. In the end, with an excellent lap, Nelson sets the time of 1'23"460 with an average of 250.180 km/h. The Brazilian gets out of the car, tense but smiling, waiting for the award ceremony. The gap between the two drivers is 0.099 seconds, almost a tenth. An intangible difference. The South American champion drives the Williams with active suspensions. Hard to say if that was the winning weapon or if the gap depended on Piquet’s heart, talent and luck. The two rivals are at loggerheads. Williams seems to be split in two as well: on the one hand, the English supporting Nigel Mansell; on the other, the Japanese from Honda supporting Piquet. The drivers don’t talk to each other, if not formally for the bare minimum. The fight is in and out the track, among controversy, suspects and jokes. The winner smiles; the loser gets serious. Nelson Piquet is happy this time. After getting the pole position, the Brazilian says:
"You will see a different Piquet during the race. I start ahead of everybody else and I want to stay there until the end. The strategy must be increasing the gap immediately. My car is perfect. I was afraid of damaging it during qualifying. That is why, 18 minutes from the end, after setting the best time for the third time, I decided to get out of the car. Monza might be a turning point to the championship: I want to win and I must win. No excuses. If I didn’t win, I’d rather quit".
Nigel Mansell, on the contrary, is suspicious. It looks like he’s carrying a burden he can’t get rid of.
"I didn’t lose faith in my possibilities, but the situation is clear to me now. Piquet can’t stand anymore being considered as the second driver by Williams. He’s got a spare car, according to the contract, and he was given the possibility to race with active suspensions. I think there are no doubts. The only consolation is that this system seems to work. And I will stay at Williams next year, while Nelson moves to Lotus".
Nigel Mansell talks about his problems too, maybe psychological more than anything else.
"In a way, we are in the hands of the Japanese technicians. Our people can’t take action in the engines. We have noticed my car consumes more fuel than Piquet’s. By changing a chip on the on-board computer, the performance evolves. It means I risk not to finish the race or to slow down if the dashboard display tells me there is not enough fuel in the tank for the final laps. In short, everything is hanging by a thread".
It’s a balancing act. This doesn’t apply only on Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, though. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost are involved in the battle too: next year they will be teammates for McLaren with Honda engines. Neither of the drivers have lost their hopes of fighting for the World Championship, even if their real possibilities are minimal. The Brazilian, with his Lotus, improves a lot and reaches the fourth place, ahead of the French.
"I cannot wish for the podium. We will have to fight during the first laps, even with Ferrari. But then, the Honda-powered cars will release their potential. And my Lotus consumes more than Williams. In other words, I can win if the others get in trouble".
Alain Prost is even more pessimistic:
"McLaren’s chassis is not that bad, but we have less power. At this stage, I’d like to win a race before the season ends to break Stewart’s record, reaching 28 wins. But this goal is hard to achieve as well".
In this scenario, the other drivers can only take the third place. This battle sees Gerhard Berger ahead of former winners Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, and the two Benetton that are not a surprise anymore: they must be taken into account for the race. An Austrian’s exploit would be enough to satisfy Ferrari fans appetites. It was honestly impossible to hope for anything better: the actual cars, in the end, have undergone changes but they’re still the same Ferrari they were at the start of the championship. They used to have a gap of 2-3 seconds, though, while it has dropped to less than 0.5 seconds since the car with number #28 has set a time of 1'23"933. Smallest gap of the year. Can this Ferrari make their fans dream? Premises are good, even if reliability is still uncertain. The race will be dominated on the technical side by the engine response (the three straights in Monza are intense) and the fuel consumption problems. One more problem will be the great heat. Everyone may have problems, but lately the cars from Maranello have been often stopped by small damages. It happened to Michele Alboreto: after damaging his car in a scary accident on Friday, his spare car was ready for the last practice day, but, in the morning, he had a turbine failure. As known, when the overfeeding system doesn’t work, engine might be compromised. The mechanics checked the car and decided not to change the powertrain, mostly because time was running out. Poor choice, unfortunately. Alboreto could not give his best, giving proof of his determination. After only few kilometres, the Italian driver noticed that the engine response time was too slow, that something didn’t work properly. Ferrari argues this powertrain is not good for qualifying, but it can be a pun. Perhaps it is not about special units, but it has to do with different setups. Many had the feeling that high hopes were put in the engine of Michele’s car. This probably explains why the mechanics decided not to change it: it was worth the risk. These are details, though, just to better understand the situation. What matters is the result. If Ferrari is on the same level as Williams, fans in Monza will be ready to forget the long crisis tormenting the world’s most loved team. In this respect, Ferrari’s official voice, represented by sports director Marco Piccinini, merely reveals a significant fact:
“We’re in 1'23”0 club".
Explaining that three cars only (two Williams and one Ferrari) broke the old Teo Fabi’s record and went under 1'24"00.
The sport director adds:
"It’s a pity for Alboreto because the second row could be ours".
There’s no space for predictions. Caution is not bad after the events of these last races. At most, something more significant will be said on Sunday, if the result is positive. Meanwhile, Gerhard Berger hardly says in a whisper, with his thumb under his chin:
"I pushed to the limit. I obtained everything I could from the car. Possibly I could do even better than my best lap. My tyres were gone, though. The race? It’s always different from practice. We’ll see. We will give everything as always".
Michele Alboreto was committed as well: he surely wanted to give something more to Ferrari, to himself and to the fans, who cheered every time he hit the track. But, after a while, it was clear that things weren’t going well.
"Engine response time, which matters after approaching a corner, was too slow. The car did good, but I wasted too much time accelerating whenever I shifted gears. A mysterious problem, that we couldn’t understand while on track".
The Italian had the spare car available, but he didn’t use it, in accordance with the technicians. It was the car of Friday’s accident and maybe it was not in perfect shape. But, why didn’t they change the engine, after the turbine failure in the morning?
"We checked the car, and everything seemed to be fine. Instead, especially with the second set of tyres - when the track got very fast - the problems became more evident. I drove to the limit too, but I did not achieve significant results".
Is the race compromised?
"Fourth row is certainly not okay. It means losing a big number of seconds at the start. Of course, if I have chances to make it up, I won’t step back. Perhaps, a radical decision would have been better: we had to change the powertrain. It’s too late now. Anyway, we have not had serious damage and this is a good sign. Hopefully we’ll be luckier for the race".
Will Berger and Alboreto implement a special strategy for the Italian Grand Prix?
"No, it isn’t the right time. We’re free to attack the way we want to. After all, we have to be fast here. The track looks easy, but we need to be careful. As known, chicanes are crucial here. They slow down the action. If you’re too slow when exiting the corner, you’ll end up losing seconds and facilitating the rivals. Drivers should cut them but it’s risky: we might damage the car because of the kerbs or finish off track. The teams able to better manage the car, we’ll have more chances to increase the pace at the end. Fuel consumption and pit stops must be taken into account too. In short: different place, same problems. I’d like to please our fans. If nothing unusual or unexpected happens, I’m convinced Ferrari will prove the progress made in the last races".
Michele Alboreto reveals he focused especially on the start, one of his strengths.
"I’ve been thinking about it since Thursday. I know the track well, even the asphalt properties. I will study the other drivers, examining their features. And I’ll try to memorize the colours of the cars. The pressure at the start is unbelievable. I will take advantage of every space, hoping I’ll keep calm and I’ll have quick reflexes".
On Sunday morning, at 8:30am, Piero Lardi Ferrari - son of the manufacturer from Modena - arrives at the circuit and he finds a message in the motorhome on a table, next to his phone:
"Agnelli said he will join us for practice".
Promptly, while the drivers warm up the engines, the Fiat president lands on the racetrack in a helicopter. Nobody escorting him, green water shirt and jeans, Agnelli, all smiley and tanned, enters the paddock, welcomed by Piero Lardi and Ferrari sports director Marco Piccinini. Most of the drivers are already in the cockpit. He waves at Berger and meets Alboreto, who stands up: a couple of sentences, some questions about the car and some encouraging.
Then, the lawyer heads towards Lotus, McLaren and Williams, with Nelson Piquet nodding his head. After that, Gianni Agnelli reaches the Ferrari station, where he sees the timing, talks to the team’s executives, gets information and asks questions, keeping an eye on the cars down the straight. He asks for the active suspensions too, almost screaming in the noise. Half an hour later, he climbs the pit wall and he heads towards the exit, followed by cameramen, photographers and journalists. Pretty much stuck in front of the Ferrari van, but still friendly and cheerful, Agnelli gladly exchanges some words with them. Avvocato, a prediction first of all.
"It is better not to compromise before the race. Only for the Hungarian Grand Prix, we were feeling better than here. So that we might have chances after a difficult year. Everybody at Ferrari deserves that".
In Montecarlo, you said we needed to be patient with Ferrari. How about now?
"Italians are patient by default. But I feel like chassis and aerodynamics improved a lot".
Which car impressed you the most, after Ferrari?
"Piquet’s. Not because it looks good, but because it’s the best".
While in the garage, you watched carefully the Benetton, powered by a Ford engine.
"It was a coincidence".
Questions are about to get more insistent. Somebody whispers:
"Ask him what he thinks about Barnard".
But a louder voice changes the subject. Then, one last question: so, will Ferrari and Juve win next year?
"In the past, they won together, in the same year. Goodbye everyone".
Quickly, Gianni Agnelli, surrounded by Ferrari executives, reaches the Lancia Thema ready to bring him to the helicopter. Who knows if he’s patient enough to watch his Ferrari on television. A few hours later, at the start of the Italian Grand Prix, Nelson Piquet isn’t fast enough and Nigel Mansell overtakes him. But in accelerating, the Brazilian overpowers his twin car and approaches first the chicane. Meanwhile, Michele Alboreto passes Fabi, in trouble, and he reaches the seventh position. Nevertheless, his race ends soon: the left side of the bodywork comes off his car. This kind of damage usually causes problems with aerodynamics, but the turbine air intake gets clogged and Alboreto is forced to retire for a failure of the overfeeding system. Little by little, Nelson Piquet builds a good gap from a group of drivers behind. Prost was part of it, until an electronic problem takes him out (he will go back on track to test the car, rather than to race). Later on, Riccardo Patrese (lap 5, engine) and Andrea De Cesaris (lap 7, suspension) retire too. Nigel Mansell tries to react, moving into second position. However, he’s forced to drop the pace and he is the first driver to pit, followed by Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen. The only driver not to pit is the Brazilian on his Lotus. Active suspensions work perfectly and the tyres benefit from that. But Nelson Piquet starts recovering ground and reduces the gap from his compatriot to 4.6 sevonds.
During lap 43, Ayrton Senna, in the attempt to overtake the lapped Piercarlo Ghinzani, goes wide at Parabolica and his dreams of victory end in the gravel. Ayrton Senna is able to hit the track again and collects a string of fastest laps, setting a new track record, but Nelson Piquet is by then uncatchable. At the end, the race director, Romolo Tavoni, does not realize the Grand Prix is over and he waves the chequered flag at Nigel Mansell, in third position. An incredible oversight, but nobody argues. Nelson Piquet wins the Italian Grand Prix, ahead of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. Gerhard Berger overtakes Thierry Boutsen, taking a difficult fourth place, followed by the Belgian driver and Stefan Johansson as usual. The Italian Grand Prix validates active suspensions. Nelson Piquet, first; Ayrton Senna, second. Two Brazilians in the lead of the Formula 1 World Championship. Taking for granted the supremacy of Honda engines compared to other powertrains, this one-two proves the time has come for the new electronic system figured out by the English technicians. Lotus has been testing active suspensions since the beginning of the season, while the new Williams made its debut at the Italian Grand Prix. Some concerns emerged during the first practice session, but Nelson Piquet decided to keep going with the device. And the result is clear. Also, the tire change revealed that the Brazilian’s tyres were in a better condition compared to his teammate. Since the two Williams are identical, we can deduce these suspensions are extraordinary and they ensure a smaller degradation. It is a great advantage. Ayrton Senna didn’t even pit, sign of considerable confidence. The new system confirmed its validity also in Monza.
This is a quick track and the asphalt’s pretty good. It seemed that those advantages were limited to twisty tracks, but this theory was proved wrong. Lotus and Williams are different: the system of the first is more complicated, while the latter follows the philosophy of functional simplicity - making innovations when it’s worth it. Here’s why Williams, even starting after their rivals, had less problems. What is certain is that electronic suspensions give clear benefits. We can be sure that every constructor will imitate them; otherwise, they would always be outclassed. Keeping the ideal car setup, no matter the downforce, it is possible to take advantage from aerodynamics. It possibly means saving in terms of resistance, and then consumption. Getting rid of the problem of setup changes, the designer can adjust suspensions the ideal way to make tyres work better. Result: besides degrading less, they’re better in accelerating and braking. In fact, suspensions are always in the same, ideal, position while still allowing wider variations than the traditional systems. In a racing car, this is as worthy as good aerodynamic efficiency or a great engine. The counterpart? More complicated electronical systems, with an increasing reliance on the battery and the generator - which power ignition, fuel injection and a couple of transceivers (one for communications between driver and box and the other for telemetry, regarding engine operating data). On the podium, Nigel Mansell, in a nice gesture worthy of his sportsmanship, raises Piquet’s arm, with Ayrton Senna watching alongside. A sign of surrender from the English in front of the next possible World Champion? Mansell is certainly not the type of driver who surrenders until he has chances, but it is also clear that he understood the value of that win for his teammate. The English driver says, referring to the doping affair published by Sunday Times:
“It was not a special day for me but, as you can see, I’m fine and I don’t have any physical problems. My engine was terrible. After the start, when I tried to increase the pressure to keep Piquet’s pace, the onboard computer reported high consumption. I couldn’t go to the end. So, I had to give up, while he kept going smoothly and it proves the difference between our engines: Nelson was faster and his car consumed less fuel. Apart from that, I must admit I have responsibilities. I didn’t trust active suspensions, that actually brought advantages”.
Nigel Mansell is in trouble, and not only for the race results, not as brilliant as expected - maybe not because of him. Popular among fans, the English driver has not been in good relations with journalists since last year. He was criticized for losing the World Championship in the last race, and he answered with a long silence. They’ve been waiting for the right moment. In such a difficult time (problems with Honda and Nelson Piquet), the driver has been subject of a deep investigation conducted by the prestigious Sunday Times, and he’s been accused of alleged doping. The newspaper from London called attention on the fact that FIA intends to set up a medical commission for check-ups (as for the Olympic Games) as a consequence of the suspect that some drivers make use of dangerous substances such as steroids, amphetamines and beta-blockers. They mentioned doctor Raphael Orajales Robles, a Panamanian living and working in Germany.
The expert has been working in Formula 1 for several years: he took care of Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Reutemann and, more recently, of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Teo Fabi, Stefan Johansson and Adrian Campos. When consulted, the drivers admitted they asked for his help, but they are not in contact anymore. Nelson Piquet explains he ended the collaboration because he was asked 100.000 dollars last year. The Panamanian doctor is currently taking care of Nigel Mansell. In the last seasons, drivers have been under stress - both physical and psychic - and some of them decided to rely on specialized doctors or physiotherapists. Nigel Mansell has recently had mysterious physical problems after the races: fainting, fatigue, weird reactions to bright lights. In the Sunday Times inquiry, they ask:
"Does Mansell know what he takes, when he drinks his doctor’s potions before races?"
Nelson Piquet’s joy acts as a counterpart to Mansell’s disappointment:
"It was a great satisfaction for me and for the team. Winning was in my plans and it turned out the way I wanted it to be. Second place was not okay for me. Did Senna deserve to win? I don’t think so, he made a big mistake. I did not intend to change the tyres, but it was impossible not to, it was slippery".
The heat also weighed on the race result: it seemed to be in Brazil. The tyres were crucial and Ayrton Senna was the only world title contender not to change them.
"I took the decision during the race. I knew it was the only possibility to win, but I was not sure I could use this strategy. That’s why I had an intensive exchange of information with the box, by radio. They told me to pit after exchanging opinions with the Goodyear technicians. I saw Piquet was too fast and if I had stopped, I wouldn’t have caught him. Then, I decided to take the risk and screamed into the microphone under the helmet: I’ll go to the end".
What about the problem with Ghinzani?
"It was my fault. I had Piquet behind, who was probably going to overtake me. I couldn’t slow down. By my calculations, I could pass the Ligier that was on my same line, while braking. So, I braked as late as possible, but I almost locked my tyres. I turned right but the car went left, and I ended up in the gravel. I could get stuck in there, but I was actually able to get back on track being careful on the throttle. The damage was done, though. If was my fault, a bad judgement caused by a dangerous situation".
What about the World Championship?
"There are five races left and I can still win. It’ll be among the Honda-powered drivers. Active suspensions are great in certain conditions. Hopefully, they will work perfectly in the next races".
This Grand Prix had to be his redemption, but it remained a dream, postponed to a different time. Ferrari betrayed the crowd in Monza: Gerhard Berger in fourth place is still a step forward, compared to the complete debacle of the previous five races. But it didn’t seem like the Austrian’s car could compete with Williams and he was also overtaken by Lotus; on the other hand, he managed to contain Thierry Boutsen’s desires with Benetton. Another retirement for Michele Alboreto: the ninth in eleven races, seventh in a row. Unfortunately, the Italian Grand Prix made clear that F1-87, despite the considerable progress compared to the first part of the season, is still far from regaining competitiveness. The chronometric performance is not enough to reach good placements.
The cars from Maranello are not balanced enough to make the most of the tyres (deteriorated too fast) and they still lack reliability. The problem that caused Alboreto’s withdrawal was certainly random, but it adds up to all the previous issues. It’s significant that, at the beginning of the season, the English designer John Barnard said that active suspensions were not necessary. And now, cars without this new technology can hardly win. The English technician, pressured by more urgent problems, clearly chose to put aside this matter. However, he must now become aware that this kind of solution cannot be ignored in the next years for the car development. Meanwhile, Alboreto, interviewed by television after his retirement, affirms:
"It was the perfect ending to a bad weekend. The left sidepod bodywork came off early. It contains the heat exchanger. The damage folded the air intake of the turbo, it partially clogged and the pressure went missing. It’s a pity, nothing else to say. I wished I could celebrate my hundredth Grand Prix in a different way".
But what really happened to the car of the Italian driver? Michele says he didn’t hit anybody at the start. A detailed examination made by the technicians determines that the damage was probably caused by a kerb, most likely a chicane. The friction took off a tie-rod that secures the floor to the engine head. Once the floor became loose, it caused the collapse of the bodywork fixing pins, and aerodynamics made it fly away, causing all the following problems. Needless to underline Alboreto’s disappointment. After all, not even Gerhard Berger looks happy, although he crossed the finish line. The Austrian, pale and visibly tired, makes clear that the race was difficult, harder than any predictions, and that is why he started with his spare car: in the formation lap, he noticed his car had some issues, so he pitted to take the car Alboreto used on Friday.
"At the beginning, I was able to fight with Piquet’s followers. But then tyres deteriorated quickly and I was forced to slow down. After the pit-stop, the new wheels were even worse. They probably picked up all the dirt on track and it looked like a wet race. Then the situation worsened even more: I felt terrible vibrations and I noticed I had a damaged tyre. I couldn’t defend myself and I didn’t want to risk, I only thought about ending the race".
Whether on Tuesday 8 or Wednesday 9 September 1987, Nigel Mansell will be on track at Brands Hatch. He will test the Williams with active suspensions, to get ready for the Portuguese Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet, instead, is taking a week off. Most likely, he’ll go to Turkey, where he is preparing a boat to inhabit in the future. A thirty-metres-long yacht that he is basically assembling by himself: he asked for the hull construction in Istanbul, he took the engines in Germany and accessories and furnishing in Italy - made by a friend in Viareggio. The two teammates are in completely different situations: one of them jumps towards success, and his chances of winning the third world title increased considerably after the Italian Grand Prix; the other is in a crisis, in a bad mood. The English is convinced Honda supports his rival with better engines and he has now realized that the choice of active suspensions, that he has always opposed to, is one of the winning moves of the Brazilian:
"It is not all about luck, but good luck is necessary to win the championship. I ran 4.5000 kilometres during testing, before coming to the conclusion that active suspensions were ready to use. A huge effort".
Nelson Piquet has two faces: on track, he’s focused, careful, ready to take risks; outside, in his private life, he knows how to relax and release the stress in entertainment and hobbies.
"I understood this is the best way to recharge your batteries. A while ago, I looked for trainers, doctors, science… Gym, massages, vitamins, salts, and so on. Then I realized I didn’t need that. I was tired, I couldn’t recover. It was a turning point. During the three Grand Prix days, my colleagues eat mush, like canaries. I have a secret instead: I eat spaghetti every day, at lunch and dinner time. Tomato, basil and a lot or parmesan cheese. Sometimes I run, but only a little. And I feel in top form".
A reference to Ayrton Senna? To the mistake he made on Sunday?
"Senna is still dangerous. He is probably the most dangerous driver in the fight for the title. I feel calm, though. I’ve done the maths right: there are five races left and maybe, with a win, I can still think of being the World Champion. But it all depends on the others: if they share the race wins, I’ll beat them. And we must add the variable of active suspensions. They’re efficient in medium and slow corners. The Lotus system is more sophisticated than ours. We will see on track - next time it’ll be in Estoril - if Senna has the advantage of not pitting. I still feel pretty calm, though".