#475 1989 French Grand Prix

2021-10-14 15:14

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#1989, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Flavia Delfini,

#475 1989 French Grand Prix

Ferrari and John Barnard will break up, officially, at the end of the season. But in practice the Maranello team and the English designer are already


Ferrari and John Barnard will break up, officially, at the end of the season. But in practice the Maranello team and the English designer are already going their separate ways. The announcement of the divorce comes on Wednesday 21 June 1989 with a Ferrari communiqué.


"A meeting took place in recent days between the president of Ferrari, engineer Piero Fusaro, the head of sports management, Cesare Fiorio, and John Barnard. First and foremost, Ferrari reiterated to Barnard its appreciation for his professionalism and technical contribution to the design, construction and development of the Formula 1 car. Various hypotheses for the continuation of the relationship were examined during the meeting, but no agreement was reached on any of them. John Barnard assured his complete availability until the end of his commitment. The Gto, which remains the property of Ferrari, will continue its activities as a centre of research and advanced technological production".


In the beginning it had been a thunderbolt, dictated by necessity and admiration for his victories and the perfection of his cars, the McLarens. He had been called by Enzo Ferrari. Fabulous contract, a centre in Guildford, total freedom. That was how John Barnard had presented himself to Ferrari. But after a fortnight the situation had already changed. Among his first decisions was the imposition of a Spanish chief mechanic, Villadelprat, the removal of Piero Lardi from the race fields, even the ban on drinking Lambrusco during meals. Barnard, recruited by Maranello on 1 November 1986, produced little in almost a thousand days of reign: two victories in the 1987 finale with a car designed by Brunner and revised by Postlethwaite, one success last year at Monza with a hybrid single-seater, another at the beginning of 1989 with the 639 that later became 640. More than two years to create a conceptually valid single-seater, but with the handicap of an electronically controlled gearbox that would have deserved a few more tests. Also negative was the decision to dismiss valuable men like His, Migeot and Postlethwaite himself. The farewell of the Englishman, a technician with great ideas, leaves no regrets. Ferrari subsequently issued another communiqué:


"Enrique Scalabroni will be the new head of chassis design at Ferrari. Engineer Franco Ciampolini has been hired as electronics manager".


Two more pieces in the mosaic regarding the future of the Maranello team. Enrique Scalabroni was born on 20 October 1949 in Argentina, in Alta Gracia in the province of Cordoba, and graduated in mechanical engineering from the Technological University of Buenos Aires. Fun fact: he does not have a driving licence and does not like driving cars. He is currently at Williams, among Patrick Head's closest collaborators. But he had already worked with Dallara in the past, working on Formula 3 cars and Lancia prototypes. He is a well-known technician, who speaks Italian and has considerable experience. Scalabroni, however, will not be Barnard's replacement, but he will have responsibility for one sector (chassis, then suspension and perhaps a little aerodynamics). Just as engineer Massai is head of engines, Hans Hahn of development and now Franco Ciampolini (Magneti Marelli) of electronics. The obstacle that has dropped any possibility of further collaboration between Barnard and Ferrari apparently concerns the placement of the engineer who did not want to go to work at Maranello according to the team's requirements. The Englishman proposed alternatives, but these would have created ambiguous solutions that had already been used, such as a consultancy from England with an in-house technical manager, perhaps his trusted Gordon Kimball. And so it would have started again from the beginning, with the same problems that had emerged throughout the relationship.Better therefore to make a clean break. Now Fiorio, after having laboriously found the soloists, will have to find a conductor. Engineer Gian Paolo Dallara, whose name had come up in recent days, does not seem to be inclined to leave Varano de' Melegari. And then it will also be necessary to look for a man for Guildford, so as not to dissipate the energy and means spent in the realisation of what was defined at the time as the English technological antenna. 


Just to complete the picture, the fate of Gerhard Berger should be known within a few hours. The Austrian seemed to be out of the picture by now, but lately something must have changed, even if the most likely hypothesis is still that of a divorce. Actually Berger has offers, but he might not move to McLaren, which seems to be interested in Montreal winner Thierry Boutsen. In that case Gerhard would have to fall back on Williams. The only certain fact is that the driver from Innsbruck (financial and logistical demands aside) if he were to renew his contract at this point will have to prove that he deserves to stay at Ferrari. As possible replacements, the name of Riccardo Patrese has been added to that of Nicola Larini.In the meantime Gerhard Berger, from whom Ferrari is still waiting for an answer for the renewal of his contract, does not spare himself on the track. While in turn waiting for Prost's decisions about the Frenchman's stay at McLaren (not before next week), the Austrian is training intensively. Berger, testing a laboratory version of the Ferrari, with a more powerful engine (which should make its debut in France), unofficially sets a new track record on Friday 23 June 1989, lapping in 1'04"0. This is a remarkable improvement if one considers that the record was 1'04"66. A few days later, in the free practice scheduled for Tuesday, 27 June 1989 at Silverstone, the Lola-Larrousse tests Honda test driver Emanuele Pirro from Rome. Also on the track were McLarens with Senna and Prost, Ferraris with Mansell and Berger and Williams only with Boutsen. Gerhard Berger is undecided about his future, and Ferrari could play a nasty trick on him. On Tuesday 29 June 1989 the Austrian, who has just arrived at Silverstone for two days of testing, immediately makes his intentions known about a possible contract renewal with the Italian team:


"I will decide after the British Grand Prix on 16 July. I have contacts with McLaren, Williams and Benetton. Ferrari can also wait".


A puzzling behaviour that of the driver from Innsbruck. On the one hand in testing he tries his hardest (as in the Fiorano track record), but on the other hand he seems to put the Maranello team at the bottom of his wish list, putting it ahead of the British ones. Where does he want to go from here? To a break-up? Is he really measuring himself after the Imola crash to assess the validity of his recovery, or does he want to see if the Maranello cars will be competitive in the next two races? Is he just looking for a showcase to sell himself better, overcoming spectacular limits, or does he want to impress the managers of the teams involved to open up a path for himself? The only certain thing is that the risk is great. Cesare Fiorio is certainly not the type to be pushed around and he certainly has several alternative solutions ready. In the meantime, the head of Scuderia Ferrari, Cesare Fiorio, accompanied by engineer Piero Fusaro, president of Ferrari, visits the Gto in Guildford (on the table is the problem of making the best use of the centre set up for Barnard, and deciding who will manage it) then moves on to Silverstone. At this point it cannot be ruled out that the situation could also precipitate for Berger, who could find himself out of the team before even knowing whether he will be able to go to McLaren. In any case, however, he will not stay put because Williams, rather than Benetton, is ready to welcome him. His value, however, is undisputed. On Monday, during practice, Gerhard Berger, when the day was not yet over, set the second fastest time of 1'10"57, placing himself in the time classification behind Patrese (1'10"10 with Williams-Renault).Last year on this same track Berger had taken pole position in 1'10"133, but the absolute record belongs to Piquet, who in 1987 with the Williams-Honda lapped in 1'07"110. About forty laps for the Austrian without any particular problems (apart from rain) and with times lower than those of the McLaren, which until then with Prost had only recorded a time of 1'12"10. Besides Berger, Alain Prost also seemed to be on his way to Williams-Renault. On Tuesday 29 June 1989 the Frenchman is the protagonist of a long talk with McLaren manager Ron Dennis, at the end of which nothing official leaks out. But from the expression on Dennis's face someone guesses that the partnership should be over, and that the driver would have accepted Renault's offers. Prost meanwhile set the best time in free practice in 1'09"46, ahead of Mansell in the Ferrari in 1'10"39. As one can see, in recent times in Formula 1 one is more concerned with the market than with racing. It is above all the Prost case that keeps the attention high between indiscretions and denials. 


And it remains unresolved to this day. What will the Frenchman do next year? There are four hypotheses: he stays at McLaren, even if it is practically improbable; he changes team; he goes his own way by founding a new team; he retires. Of all the possibilities, the most likely is the second, for a simple consideration. The Frenchman, despite his fabulous earnings in recent years (and he has not spent much, profitable investments aside, as he is one of the few top drivers not to own executive planes and luxuries of the kind) is quite attached to money.And another year of activity will allow him to collect another ten million dollars before eventually setting up on his own. Behind the story, then, there is an intrigue of sponsors, of contacts, of attempts to make ends meet (of Prost and his supporters). But the French Grand Prix, the seventh round of the World Championship, which marks the return of the Circus to Europe and to the classic circuits (Le Castellet), is an important appointment for other reasons that are, however, always linked to the future of Alain Prost. Leader of the championship standings, the McLaren driver could inflict on team-mate Ayrton Senna a defeat in this race capable of relaunching him towards the conquest of a third title. The Brazilian already boasts three wins against only one from his teammate. And since the first places should count above all at this point, the Frenchman must take advantage of favourable opportunities. Last year, in a similar situation, with an advantage of 12 points over Senna, the little Prost obtained at Le Castellet a victory that would have led him to fight for the World Championship until the penultimate race of the season, inflicting among other things one of the few lessons on the very fast Ayrton Senna, beaten in qualifying and trailing in the race by more than 31 seconds. This time the advantage is much smaller (2 points). But it is also a unique chance to prove that the transalpine driver's strengths and attitude are still intact. On a human level, therefore, this is the leitmotif of the race. But on a technical level the challenge is much more articulated. The recent Canadian Grand Prix showcased a McLaren in difficulty, at least in terms of results. The Anglo-Japanese cars proved to be competitive as always, but in the end they did not collect anything. This gave confidence to the opponents, who took advantage of the situation to improve, even though the red-and-white cars are always the reference point and the ones to beat.In order among the pretenders are Williams, Ferrari, Benetton and March.


The English team powered by Renault, after the one-two at Montreal, has no illusions, but will present the French ten-cylinder in an updated version, theoretically more powerful. Without forgetting that it is precisely the Le Castellet track that is the main testing ground for Renault, which has its own workshop inside the facility. As for Ferrari, so far it has lacked reliability. Last week's tests at Silverstone (800 kilometres without problems) brought a breath of fresh air of confidence, although the situation in France may change due to the different climate and the more demanding track for the electronically controlled gearbox. Berger and Mansell (the former also linked to the affair of Prost's possible transfer and therefore in the odour of McLaren) are pawing at the bit and will certainly do their utmost for a prestigious result. So far Ferrari, due to certain technical failings, has collected far less than it could have done. Could it be that the time has come to finally get back on track? Benetton presents the new car and, above all, the long-awaited Ford eight-cylinder engine, the result of a rather troubled gestation. Nannini, who tested it at Silverstone, speaks highly of it. The March seems to have regained momentum with Capelli and Gugelmin, which is why we can expect a weekend (from Friday's practice to Sunday's race) at lightning speed. Without forgetting that the French Grand Prix is also an Italian race, a classic occasion for fans on holiday (the track is only 200 kilometres from the Ventimiglia border) to go and encourage the Italian drivers, from Patrese to De Cesaris, from Caffi to Modena, as well as the aforementioned, guys ready to fight for the podium. McLaren showed some signs of weakness, although it is by no means the case to speak of a crisis. But it is precisely in such cases that one must push to the maximum. On Monday 3 July 1989 Gerhard Berger could not show that he had forgotten the accident at Imola, which had happened to him a few months earlier.The Ferrari tests scheduled at the Romagna circuit, where the Austrian crashed during the San Marino Grand Prix, are practically cancelled due to rain and wind. The driver attempts a couple of passes, even forcing himself to the limit on the straight, but then he is forced to give up due to bad weather, just as Patrese with the Williams and Ivan Capelli with the March also remain in the pits. 


The following day the three teams were supposed to test again, but the weather forecast was still unfavourable. In the meantime, a TV storm is brewing over Formula 1. Indiscretions leaked in Italy and Switzerland, according to which the Italian businessman Silvio Berlusconi had obtained for over 20.000.000 lire a year since 1991 the exclusive rights to live broadcasts of the World Championship races, arouse immediate denials, even if FOCA (Ecclestone's manufacturers' association, which manages the filming on behalf of the FIA) admits to having had dealings with everyone, and even with private broadcasters. RAI - which currently pays only 2.000.000 lire a year - officially announces, via the Sports Pool, that it is in daily contact with FOCA itself and the EBU (the European broadcasting organisation that distributes the transmissions) in order not to lose the television rights to Formula 1 after having already had the Wimbledon tournament taken away from a private German station.While waiting to see how this matter will end, on Wednesday 5 July 1989 the tests of the teams involved at Imola in view of Sunday's French Grand Prix come to an end. For Ferrari and Gerhard Berger a negative sign: the team's intense work ends at 4:15 p.m. due to a mechanical failure.


"I heard a big noise, resulting in the engine stopping".


Berger, rather annoyed, shortly afterwards drove towards Monte-Carlo, from where he continued on to Le Castellet. In all, the Austrian driver completed 71 laps, regularly lapping at a pace of 1'30"0, before setting his best time of 1'29"18. Also in the pits was Giacomelli, who will test a March with active suspension in the middle of the month. At the end of the tests, on Friday 7 July 1989, at 9:00 a.m., could the Formula 1 World Championship already be over? Or could it start all over again? It depends on the point of view and the seriousness of the protagonists. Assuming and not conceding that the fight for the title is just a family affair between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the future will be linked to what the French driver will say. Prost, in fact, has called a press conference, together with McLaren, before the start of practice for the French Grand Prix. What will he say? On Thursday, at least officially, no one is talking. But box radio is very active. Rumour has it that Prost will announce his departure from McLaren and that team officials will express their regrets, but there will be no mention of the Frenchman's future or the name of his successor. Radio box adds that Prost has already signed for Williams, brought in by Renault (and the desire to no longer be next to Senna), and that Gerhard Berger will go in his place. The Austrian, in turn, will leave Ferrari, where Riccardo Patrese will arrive. The Paduan is in good shape, ready to crown a brilliant career at Maranello. At this point, however, it must be explained why the championship could end or start again on Friday.It is clear that the predictable secrecy of Prost, McLaren and the other interested parties will only be an attempt to make it clear that the games are played, but that it would not be good to tell everything. Because people would no longer believe the battles between Senna and Prost. 


Or at least one could already guess the final outcome five months in advance. If, on the other hand, the announcement were to be different, then the fight for the title could become even more heated. But that is a remote possibility. In any case, it is a somewhat crazy Formula One that presents itself on its return to Europe, with four new drivers. Benetton brings 25-year-old Roman driver Emanuele Pirro, formerly a Honda test driver, for his debut. He replaces Johnny Herbert, a young talent in a precarious physical condition due to the aftermath of the accident he suffered in 1988. Benetton has not let go of Herbert, who is still under contract, but intends to see him again in three months, possibly in good shape. More traumatic was the split between Yannich Dalmas (who was called the new Prost) and Lola. The Frenchman is sidelined, indeed dismissed for poor performance. A distressing measure: the Lola, if it does not score at least one point in the next two races, risks ending up in the hellish pre-qualifications. Instead of Dalmas, Eric Bernard, 25 years old, French Formula 3 champion, has been called up. Perhaps they hope he will be a kamikaze and solve their problems with some madness. Life is strange: one was considered the natural heir to Alain Prost, the other the new Jackie Stewart. While now both are in danger of disappearing from the Formula One scene. Yannich Dalmas has been set up by Lola-Larrousse, Johnny Herbert may still have the chance to drive for Benetton, but there are ominous shadows over his future. How is it possible that two such esteemed drivers in a very short time have slipped so far back that they are considered burnt out?Is it fair that the stables ruthlessly make them pay for mistakes too in order to try to right the ship like clubs do in football when they change coaches? 


The story of Yannich Dalmas, a boy from Le Beausset, a small village a few kilometres from the Le Castellet circuit, in the hinterland between Toulon and Marseille, is exemplary. A great passion for motors, a successful debut in motocross and then a dazzling career in the minor formulas, until moving up to the 3000 and Formula 1. A promising debut in 1987 at the age of 26 with an astonishing fifth place in Australia, a discrete season last year with a car that had not progressed. Then from the start of the current championship a disaster: failure to qualify, bad practice. Is it all his fault? Or is it the team that, struggling with the new Lamborghini engine (competitive, but undergoing difficult fine-tuning) left him behind, giving the best material to his more experienced team-mate Philippe Alliot? There are two races to go before the end of the first half of the championship when, by rule, the cars that have to take part in the pre-qualifying are determined. Lola-Larrousse did not pick up a point, has very few placings to its credit and is taking it out on the blameless driver. At Silverstone, the team had let two other Frenchmen (Ferté and Bernard) test and had also entrusted a test to the Roman Emanuele Pirro, an experienced racer who has been McLaren's test driver for years on behalf of Honda. This, at least unofficially, is the decision that would sound like a rejection for Yannich Dalmas, who has already offered himself to other teams. But what is behind it? Is it not just a question of money (drivers often bring a cash dowry) or a punitive measure for a young man who perhaps dared to protest against inadequate treatment compared to that received by his team-mate?Another case is that of Johnny Herbert, probably even hotter. The blond Englishman, considered to be one of the best talents to appear in recent years, was signed by Benetton alongside Nannini, despite being the victim of a terrible accident in Formula 3000 last year. Herbert has made a fantastic recovery from what he suffered (comminuted fracture of both legs), but with only a few days to go before the start of the championship he is still limping noticeably, so much so that there are doubts as to whether he can pass the FISA test in which a racer is rightly required to exit the cockpit of his car in 5-6 seconds at the most. A safety rule that ensures the driver can save himself in the event of an accident by jumping out of the car quickly. 


Johnny tries his best, trains hard and eventually passes the test, which is certainly not severe on him. Peter Collins, Benetton's sporting director, pushes hard on his young compatriot. And he is right: at the first race Herbert miraculously finishes fourth, confirming excellent skills. Then, surprisingly, a kind of ordeal begins: his limbs ache, he finds it difficult to press the brake and clutch pedals, especially in cold weather. His performance diminishes, the Ford company that supplies the engines to Benetton begins to mutter, it is realised that it was a risk to engage a driver in less than perfect physical shape, he would like another rider, intact.And so a replacement is being sought. The change has not yet taken place because it is not easy to find a good free driver at this point of the season, but it may only be a matter of time. Johnny Herbert is also in danger of being fired. When he finished fourth he was a hero, now he may be sidelined. This is the terrible law of Formula 1, golden only for those who also have great luck. On the other hand, those who gamble a little, as happened to Yannich Dalmas and Johnny Herbert, taking their own risks, can go wrong even before reaping the rewards of hard work. And equally incredible is the story of Michele Alboreto. When it seemed that the Milanese driver had finally reached the end of his misfortunes, finding a fairly competitive Tyrrell, here he was again without a seat. What happened? Simply that Tyrrell found money and a sponsor. But it is a brand of cigarettes competing with the one that has so far helped Michele Alboreto. After receiving assurances that this would not happen, Michele now has to entrust the matter to a lawyer. In the meantime with Tyrrell will race Jean Alesi, also 25 years old, also a former Formula 3 national champion. Normal (up to a point) is instead the replacement of Derek Warwick at Arrows. The Englishman cracked two ribs while taking part in a karting race and will be replaced by Mark Donnelly, a Formula 3000 driver, of whom much good is said. Who knows, maybe Warwick's misfortune won't become heavier than expected.


"I'm leaving McLaren. But don't ask me anything about my future. I haven't decided yet. The time will also come to talk about it".


This is the official statement of an announced divorce. Alain Prost did not have the courage to continue with a team that would also have made him golden bridges. By now the environment was no longer serene and above all the Frenchman did not feel like continuing to drive alongside Ayrton Senna. Beyond polemics and insinuations, the Brazilian imposed on the team the law of the strongest, which in Formula 1 translates as the power of the fastest. Prost did not say so clearly, but between the lines he replied to the many speeches of the last few months and above all he made it clear that he believed - even if he spoke of unintentionally - that he had been disadvantaged against his teammate. On the livid morning of Friday, 7 July 1989, in a packed press conference, Ron Dennis - McLaren's team principal - also made his official voice heard:


"We are sorry, but after many talks, discussions, we decided it was best this way. We remain good friends".


The British manager expresses these words in somewhat awkward English, because it is clear that these are all lies. The truth is that the relationship has been deteriorated by recent events. And the quarrel must also have broken out over a question of money: giving Prost the same money as Senna to the team must have seemed unfair and in any case unproductive. Better to call it quits. What will happen now? The most likely hypothesis is that at the end of the season Prost ends up at Williams and Gerhard Berger replaces him at McLaren. But it is not excluded that there could be some surprises, at least as far as the future of the former World Champion is concerned. Alain changes his mind every day and has many proposals. However, all this talk does not prevent McLaren from dominating the first qualifying round of the French Grand Prix, thanks to the best time set by Ayrton Senna in 1'07"920, at an average speed of 202.102 km/h. Behind him was Prost, 0.365 seconds behind. The surprise (but is it a surprise?) concerns the performance of Thierry Boutsen, or rather his Williams-Renault, third, 0.014 seconds behind the Frenchman. Fourth and fifth is the Ferrari. Berger precedes Mansell by 0.019 seconds, but the two Maranello single-seaters, while not reporting reliability problems, show some limits. Even John Barnard is brought in to explain:


"The chassis is still not right, we will have to make some adjustments in both the mechanical and aerodynamic parts. And the engine has little power at low rpm". 


As usual. Mansell suffers a spin that sends his car into the sand. Speaking of Ferrari, two rumours: it seems that Ralph Hahn is leaving. The German, who is in charge of engine development, would join compatriot Zucker at the court of billionaire Mansour, who has founded a house of electronic products for racing cars. And there is also talk of Peter Collins as a candidate to run the Gto. For the rest there was a drop in performance on the part of the teams fitted with Pirelli tyres, and an excellent debut by the young Frenchman Jean Alesi, in P10 with the Tyrrell that should have belonged to Alboreto, who stayed at home in Monte-Carlo watching the sea with many thoughts on his mind. All the rookies did well, although Donnelly and Pirro were among the last to qualify. That leaves Eric Barnard, with the Lola sent into a tailspin by an electronics at least bizarre, given that Alliot with the same car obtains an extraordinary P7. So far so many words have been spent. The Prost-McLaren divorce, the still uncertain future of the French driver, Gerhard Berger's intention to leave Ferrari for the British team and so on. But on Sunday 9 July 1989 it was track time again and generally - fortunately - on these occasions the protagonists, i.e. the drivers, forget about speeches and think above all about pushing the accelerator pedal. If there were not the absolute certainty of this total commitment, Formula 1 would become a paltry thing, a circus show. Instead, everyone would like to win or at least stand out, and then it's back to sport. And on Sunday Prost will do battle with Senna, mindful of last year's fine victory on the track he can consider his home track, in the Grand Prix, the one in France, which is obviously his workhorse. In 1988 the young Alain in the Paul Ricard circuit gave the emerging Brazilian a run for his money, inflicting one of the most resounding defeats of his still short career, in a one-way race that ended with more than 30 seconds of advantage for the transalpine. Now the feat is more difficult. 


For many reasons. Because Senna has learnt everything and is no longer surprised by particular set-ups of the car, because he has no reverential fear, but also and above all because he has to recover two points from his team-mate in the standings. And then what a satisfaction it would be for the Brazilian, after forcing Prost to leave McLaren, to also give him a good lesson in front of the French public and in front of particularly interested spectators. Like the Renault executives, who would like to bring Prost to Williams, giving him golden bridges. And this is also one of the highlights of the race, to see what Williams-Renault will do under the expert hands of Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen. Another victory would launch the Italian and the Belgian into world orbit and would mean the confirmation of McLaren's period of crisis, which began in Montreal perhaps by chance but at this point no longer by chance. Prost is also waiting for this, to see how the car powered by the French ten-cylinder is doing before making a final decision. Ferrari should also be part of the game for success. In a certain sense, the circuit of Le Castellet re-proposes conditions similar to those found in Rio de Janeiro, at the time of Mansell's victory: a great heat, a track not too fast (just over 200 kilometres per hour on average), difficult environmental conditions. Those who believe in historical recourses can also bet on Maranello. Without forgetting that in recent days the Modenese red cars seem to have regained, at least in testing, the reliability that had been lost for too long. A small step forward and the hopes of at least returning to the podium will no longer be a pious illusion.


"Championship finished and falsified".


FISA president Jean Marie Balestre proclaimed on Friday after the announcement that Alain Prost, a Frenchman like himself, would leave McLaren at the end of the year. He adds:


"Now who will still believe in the uncertain fight between Prost and Senna, who will control the decisions of the British racing team and the Japanese engine manufacturers? It is a scandal".


A serious denunciation or one of Balestre's usual jokes, which are no longer worth picking up? Everyone has their own opinion. In the meantime, Alain Prost, as if free of a weight that had been crushing his stomach for the last few months, after also completing the second practice session, will start on pole position in the French Grand Prix, ahead of team-mate Ayrton Senna. It is the second time this has happened: the first was three weeks earlier in Canada, and the Frenchman was helped by bad weather, which did more damage to his rival. But on Saturday, at Le Castellet, they fought on equal terms and, in the end, the Brazilian was behind, by a whisker, but behind: 1'07"203 was Alain Prost's time, at an average of 204.259 km/h, the track's new limit for cars with naturally aspirated engines (and the twentieth pole position in his career); 0.025 seconds behind came Ayrton Senna. Prost feels as if regenerated by his decision to leave McLaren. Senna welcomes Alain Prost's pole position with an enigmatic grin, and says:


"The car was perfect, the lap good, I missed pole by a trifle".


And it is true. Besides Ferrari, which now seems to be able to aim high, reliability permitting, Benetton and Williams, other teams are catching up. This is the case of Alliot's Lola, P7, obtained with that twelve-cylinder Lamborghini that shows how Mauro Forghieri still knows about engines. A pity for Patrese (P8, on the fourth row), who was left a little behind due to a gear that jammed on the best lap. The debutants were surprising: they all qualified, some better, some worse: from Donnelly (P14) to Bernard (P15), from Alesi (P16) to Pirro (P24). A day to forget instead for the young Italians, whose performance was conditioned by many technical problems, but also and above all by Pirelli tyres. If the tyres from the Milanese company had been at the root of some brilliant results in previous races, here they did not offer the hoped-for performance. There is still the counterpart of the race, but the balance is currently negative. De Cesaris is even left out with the Scuderia Italia's Dallara, along with Sala (Minardi), Danner (Rial) and Moreno (Coloni, a car too new to make excuses). And in the first few minutes after the end of qualifying Eddie Cheever is also in danger of being out: the American, apart from going slowly because his Arrows does not stay on the road, sees his result taken away because the rear wing is too high. 


But the time recorded on Friday is enough for him to remain on the grid, albeit in the penultimate position. It is a good and exciting day for Ferrari. It hasn't happened for a long time, say since that wonderful and lonely victorious Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. The president of Ferrari, engineer Piero Fusaro, even manages to enjoy himself, going along the circuit, to the area that is known by everyone as the Formula 1 lodge. It is a point, before the Signes curve and after the Mistral straight, where a jury of experts (Jackie Stewart is also part of it) meets and platonically elects the bravest driver at the end of the year. This is the section of the circuit where the most exciting braking is seen: the riders with a lot of heart and talent here delay their braking as long as possible and at the same time immediately press the accelerator to take the next corner as far as possible. Fusaro returns from his visit with bright eyes and high spirits. His smile indicates that the Ferraris are doing well and that Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger are among the best. Meanwhile in the pits Cesare Fiorio lives the second qualifying round with anxiety. The Italian manager immediately sends Mansell out because he fears a return of the wind that had disturbed practice on Friday. And the Englishman, despite wearing out both sets of tyres available, sets an excellent time of 1'07"455. The Ferrari's time subsequently forces the McLarens out of the pits. First Prost, then Senna try to lower the limit immediately, but fail. Nor does Berger achieve much until he gets his car tuned like Mansell's. The Englishman remains in the lead for about 45 minutes, and only at the end do first Senna and then Prost overtake him, working hard. A small disappointment for the Maranello team, but compensated by the fact that the gap was small and not abysmal as in other races, just a couple of tenths of a second. Without forgetting that the Ferrari was also the fastest in race trim in the morning. Good sign. Fusaro before leaving (he will watch the race on television with his family) talks about Ferrari's plans:


"I had a conversation with Berger. We will be happy if he wants to stay with us. At the same time there are alternatives. We look favourably on Italian drivers even though a team must always aim for the top. There are, however, some valuable youngsters and it is important to cultivate a nursery".


What is clear is this: Berger still has a chance to stay at Maranello, but his move to McLaren will not be a drama. Fusaro also confirms the Fiat Group's intention to form a technology pool in which Ferrari can intervene but with its own projects. At the end of the tests Cesare Fiorio says:


"We have had no problems, we have grown, but now it is important to reap some benefits. And only the race will give an answer to our questions".


Ferrari already has upgraded engines at its disposal, with others further developed arriving later this evening in France, to be taken to Silverstone where they will race on Sunday. In addition, Ferrari has brought three modified cars to the Paul Ricard circuit, which are already lightweight and have a modified rear suspension. Weight has probably been taken off in the engine, other castings and the bodywork. An important new feature is in the rear suspension, which now has a torsion bar that had not been used until now. As far as the electronics are concerned, changes have been made to the alternator system. In short, everything possible has been done, on what could be changed in the short term, to regain reliability and seek even greater competitiveness. In the meantime, we learn that the Formula 1 commission has approved the regulations for next year: everything is confirmed, especially the new safety and stability regulations for the 3500 cc engines. Instead, the proposal to reduce the capacity of the petrol tanks was rejected. So no pit stop for refuelling as Balestre would have wanted, and no handicap as Ecclestone would have demanded for race winners in order to liven up the show. In the morning, for the first time, both Onyx cars were admitted to the main qualifying sessions: Bertrand Gachot and Stefan Johansson set the first and second fastest times during pre-qualifying. For Gachot this is the first positive result in pre-qualifying after seven attempts. Alex Caffi in a Dallara is in third place, a few hundredths of a second behind the leaders, while Stefano Modena in a Brabham is fourth and last of the pre-qualified, marginally faster than the Osella of Nicola Larini. The other participants who did not qualify on Friday morning were Martin Brundle, sixth with the Brabham, Volker Weidler, seventh with the Rial, Bernd Schneider eighth and Aguri Suzuki eleventh with their Zakspeed, Piercarlo Ghinzani, ninth with the second Osella, and Pierre-Henri Raphanel, tenth with his Coloni. The EuroBrun of Gregor Foitek and the AGS of Joachim Winkelhock close out the time classification.


On Sunday, 9 July 1989, when the cars take to the track for the first line-up lap, Berger notices that his car is smoking conspicuously at the rear. The Austrian stops in the pits and climbs into the reserve car. At the start of the French Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna takes the lead at the first corner ahead of Alain Prost, while behind them Gugelmin blocks the brakes and crashes into Boutsen's Williams and Berger's Ferrari. The March flies into the air and flips over, and in the crash hits Mansell's rear wing. The race is immediately stopped by the display of the red flag, so that Gugelmin - visibly shaken - can start from the pit lane together with Mansell and Donnelly. It is Nigel Mansell (whose single-seater hit by the March has lost its rear wing and has a bent suspension) who runs to the pits like a fury to change cars, and in the excitement of the moment, seeing that the only car available is not the spare but rather Berger's Ferrari, he goes into confusion. This is followed by a couple of shoves at the deputy sports director Gardella and shouts at the mechanics, who he thinks have been taken by surprise. Instead, the Englishman, all things considered, should thank his lucky stars that he was given the best car, i.e. Berger's race car, which had had an oil leak from a fitting in the gearbox's hydraulic system, which was immediately repaired. Shortly afterwards the race restarted normally. Prost left Senna in surplus, with the gearbox stuck in second gear, and remained in the lead of the race until the end, even when he was forced to stop in the pits to change the tyres.Only for a few laps do Berger, Nannini, Boutsen, Capelli and later also Patrese (who, thanks to the second start, manages to line up regularly) give the impression that they can keep up with Prost. Later, however, partly due to their own problems, partly due to lapping and lack of competitiveness, they all have to give way. Berger remains in second position until the eleventh lap. Then he stops to change his tyres after making a mistake when braking ('The tyres were worn and the gearbox wasn't working'), restarts in P11 and retires with the transmission out on lap 30. In the meantime Mansell, one overtaking move after another, from P21 moved up to P9, making a spectacle of his decision and courage. 


But the Englishman in his enthusiasm compromises his tyres and is forced to stop to change them. After exiting the pits, Mansell resumes his run-up from P15. Boutsen slipped back with gearbox problems, Nannini and Capelli took on the role of pursuers.The Tuscan came off the track on lap 40, giving a demonstration of bravura. And it's no joke. On his Benetton the left rear suspension suddenly gave way. It could also have been a catastrophe, as the good Allessando was overtaking Nakajima's Lotus. Instead, the Italian driver managed to control the car practically on three wheels and ploughed into the run-off area. Capelli moves up to second place, behind Prost. Even for the Milanese the joy lasts a short time: the engine is switched off, due to one of the usual incomprehensible electronic problems. So to the place of honour rises none other than the debutant Jean Alesi, Alboreto's substitute on the Tyrrell. However, the Frenchman cannot resist the attacks of Patrese and Mansell. And finally the driver from Padova, with rear tyres that look like soapsuds, ends up off the track during lap 61, leaving the way to the daring Nigel Mansell, author of the most beautiful comeback of his career. Alain Prost crosses the finish line first, 44 seconds ahead of Nigel Mansell, followed in turn by Riccardo Patrese, 22 seconds behind. Jean Alesi finishes the race in fourth place, 7 seconds behind the Italian driver ahead of him, while Johansson picks up his first Onyx points by finishing fifth.Olivier Grouillard, in the Ligier, gained a point in the standings thanks to a sixth place finish. Pirro finished his first Formula 1 race in P9, Bernard in P11 and Donnelly in P12, while Gugelmin showed his recovery from the accident by setting the fastest lap in the race. The opening carambole of the French Grand Prix not only increased the television audience (it seems that from that moment on, the ratings in the forty-four countries connected live for the Formula 1 World Championship soared), but also affected the entire race. Senna, who had taken the lead at the first start, mortifying Prost's pole, immediately left the scene by breaking the gearbox. Mansell had to start from the pits behind everyone, along with Gugelmin and Donnelly, and had to make a chase race with a car that was not his but Berger's. The Austrian in turn raced in the reserve car and so did Patrese who had stopped during the reconnaissance lap.


"We don't know whether to be a little disappointed or very happy. Personally I would have been very bitter if we had not collected anything because we deserved at least the podium, which we did. However, this is a good injection for the future. We have worked hard to achieve reliability and we have found it in part. There are still a lot of problems to solve, but we are on the right track".


Cesare Fiorio, almost as moved as he was in Rio de Janeiro, seems to have a point. Indeed, Ferrari has shown in recent days that it has achieved a greater degree of competitiveness than in previous tests. Minimal detachments from the McLarens in qualifying and some data in their favour. And everything could have been spoilt by the accident caused by Gugelmin. The incident created no little tension in the team, culminating in Mansell's tantrum. Nigel, then destroyed by fatigue, went to apologise for his words and gestures:


"The Ferrari was fantastic, great chassis and engines. When I got into the single-seater, however, the engine turned off and I had a fit of rage. Then everything went well. To finish second starting in last place from the pits is a result that satisfies me. But what I like most is that our team is growing".


Cesare Fiorio replied:


"And to say Mansell could have tried to go the whole race without changing tyres. Instead he had to stop after about twenty laps because he had deteriorated them in the terrible braking that he was forced to do for the first overtakes. I don't know how it would have turned out. Certainly Prost would not have had it so easy. In the final it was pointless to take risks. Nigel could not risk burning the tyres further and waited until the last two laps to attack Patrese. But Riccardo unintentionally left the way clear for second place".


What had happened when Berger had changed cars because of the oil leak during the reconnaissance lap?


"We thought it was something serious and gave the Austrian the spare car. So we realised that the problem was not irreparable and we took action. But the car was adjusted for Gerhard and it was difficult in a few minutes to change a few adjustments to make the Englishman comfortable. We couldn't finish in time and Mansell couldn't line up on the grid but had to start from the pits, with Gugelmin not even having the foresight to leave him in first place but setting up in front of our car. It was a lost race at that point and instead we straightened it out nicely. One really wonders if we could have threatened Prost with victory. Theoretically, based on the data at our disposal, we knew we could have won".


Meanwhile, Gerhard Berger recriminates about what happened:


"I'm baffled, because if it hadn't been for the accident I could have had a great race. Instead I immediately had problems with the gearbox and the engine mounted on the forklift was the worst I had had during the season. There was nothing I could do not only to catch up with Prost, but also to contain the attacks of the various Boutsen, Nannini and Capelli. However, I feel that we are close to finding good competitiveness".


At the same time, Ayrton Senna even became fatalistic. Until recently, when he lost a race or something went wrong, it was impossible to get close to him. But at Le Castellet, the Brazilian driver appeared amiable when he returned to the pits a few minutes after the start of the race, while his partner Alain Prost was on his way to his second victory of the season:


"These are incidents that happen. In Formula 1 mechanical failure is always lurking. The gearbox got stuck in second gear and I was stuck like a fool. No transmission. I think it was without doubt the shortest race of my entire career. The World Championship? It's still a long way off, we're at the beginning".


Alain Prost was also in pleasantry mode, expressing words of comfort for his companion:


"If Ayrton had been there, it would have been much harder. However, I had a perfect car, in everything. The gearbox is currently McLaren's biggest problem. But starting from the next race, that is from Friday at Silverstone, we will have the new, transverse one, which should make us more competitive and solve the problems. Senna is someone who treats the gears rather rudely and that's why he has mishaps".


But talking about the World Championship, Prost tries to deflect the discussion:


"It was a double joy this, to win for the second consecutive time at home. However, I have shown that, even though I have announced that I will no longer race in 1990 with McLaren, my determination is still the same, the will to win has remained unchanged. The fight for the title is still long. Certainly to have won on a day when my biggest rival, Senna, was out of the running, is worth double. But he still has one more win and that counts for a lot. Last year I had an even bigger advantage than the current eleven points at this point in the season. Then the Brazilian strung together a series of wins that put me down".


And he concludes with a direct jibe at his current team:


"Have you seen that when they give me the right engines I am not that slow?"


A joke to make it clear to Honda that all is not forgotten and that Alain Prost also expects good treatment for the rest of the championship. In any case McLaren, while continuing to dominate, has lost competitiveness: in seven races held there have already been four different winners and the World Championship is not as monochrome as it was last year. Alain Prost stretches his lead in the standings, taking 38 points to his teammate's 27, while remaining with a team that he is sure will leave at the end of the year, and which he hopes will not go against his interests from here on in. But if Prost was the triumphant driver at home, the hero of the day is another Frenchman, the young Jean Alesi. Twenty-five years old (he was born in Avignon on 11 June 1964), he is the current leader of the continental Formula 3000 championship. He has a contract with Tyrrell for one race only (the English manufacturer still hopes to recover Alboreto), he was also second and placed fourth on his debut. Jean Alesi is of Italian origin: his parents are from Alcamo, Sicily. A very nice boy, he speaks Italian:


"I am desperate. In France they call me mafioso, in Italy terrone. Joking aside. My goal is to make it to Formula 1 and to do that I hope to win the Formula 3000 championship. At Silverstone I should no longer be there and leave my place to Michele. But if for some reason they call me, I will drop everything and rush to England. It will be the shortest way not to go. I am really happy".


Speaking of Michele Alboreto, barring unpredictable reversals, the Italian driver will no longer race in Formula 1 this year and will leave his place in the Tyrrell team to Jean Alesi. Not out of courtesy or because he feels inferior to the young Sicilian-born Frenchman whose race and fourth place on Sunday he enjoyed.


"There is only one truth: I can no longer accept driving for people who behave badly. First the mockery of Frank Williams, now Tyrrell going back on all the words given and contracts signed. I have no choice but to put the matter in the hands of a lawyer. I will take some time off with the family. After ten years of an honourable career I really think I deserve it".


If some team does not call him sooner, Alboreto will resume in 1990. Scuderia Italia is one of the teams that could use him next season. One day's rest and Ferrari will leave for Silverstone, without passing through Maranello. The lorries with the single-seaters and part of the mechanics will travel directly from the Paul Ricard circuit to England where the eighth round of the Formula 1 World Championship is scheduled for Friday, 14 July 1989, that is the turning point of the season that includes sixteen races. Along with the men of the Maranello team also travels a load of hope. The policy of small steps adopted by Cesare Fiorio is paying off, under the watchful eye of President Fusaro, who has taken the racing affair particularly to heart and is closely following all developments. The second place obtained by Nigel Mansell in the French Grand Prix behind an Alain Prost more charged than ever (thanks also to Senna's setback) and ahead of Patrese, was a small reward for the work done by the Maranello team.The Williams-Renault, Benetton-Ford and March-Judd are also growing, and could become dangerous in the coming rounds. Returning to the French Grand Prix, it should be noted how Mansell, after suffering a 59-second gap to Prost, made twelve overtaking moves in his desperate pursuit until lap 22, when he was forced to change his tyres deteriorated by braking to the limit. And six more he performed in the second half of the race. All this with a car - tuned for Gerhard Berger - that did not have the new shock absorbers. These, which had given many advantages, were fitted to the withdrawn single-seater. Ferrari quickly managed to lighten the weight of the car by about ten kilos and another three should be recovered at Silverstone to get reasonably close to the regulation minimum limit (500 kg). In England the lighter and more powerful engines used only in practice on Saturday at Le Castellet should serve for all qualifying, while the latest version of the power unit will presumably be used in the next race at Hockenheim. Let's say that the German Grand Prix should be the culmination of the short-term improvement programme. In the meantime, however, work continues on the materials, for example on the gearbox oil ducts, which still gave problems last weekend and caused Berger's retirement. As soon as the suppliers are ready, a special type made of high-strength alloys will be used. All this on a technical level. On the human one, Silverstone could be the finishing line for Berger. The Austrian should say by Sunday whether he intends to stay or go (to McLaren, as seems certain). It seems, however, that the Austrian is in the process of announcing the decision but not the destination. Fiorio, in any case, is working on the various options that Ferrari intends to pursue. The target Nicola Larini remains firm, but the usual radio-box talks of an increase in quotations for Ivan Capelli. But the Milanese driver has complicated ties with his Japanese team (Leyton House) and it will not be so easy, in the event of an agreement, to get rid of him.


©​ 2024 Osservatore Sportivo


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