On Friday morning the skies are still grey and the air is cool, but no matter there is a large crowd of spectators and four Ferraris in the pits. There are also three Renaults, three McLarens, three Williams, three Lotuses, three Tyrrells, three Alfa Romeos and all the rest, and even two Osellas, the extra one being one of last year’s Southgate designed cars with V12 Alfa Romeo engine for new boy Jo Gartner from Vienna. In other words, in spite of the previous race having been only five days before and 1.000 miles away, everyone is ready to go. When the start of the first morning of testing is delayed by 30 minutes because of the non-arrival of the medical helicopter we should have taken note of the warning. At 10:30 a.m. activity begins, and for Cheever ends almost immediately as he returns to the pits in a cloud of smoke from a wrecked turbo on his Alfa Romeo V8 engine. There is much to see around the pits, for Lauda’s McLaren is being taken apart to investigate some water-pump trouble. Warwick’s Renault is having its springs changed, Surer is trying the BMW-powered Arrows for this race and the Osella mechanics stuff asbestos bungs up the tail-pipes of their turbocharged Alfa Romeo V8 engine when Ghinzani stops, to suppress the frightening-looking flames that come out as the driver switches off. With so much activity in the pits and pits garages I have overlooked the outside world, and when I do look up for a moment I am reminded of Alex Henshaw’s classic remark, used the title for a series of articles in Aeroplane Monthly about testing Spitfire aircraft in wartime. There is a deafening silence. Not a cheer, not a scream no flags waving, no arms waving, nothing, the stands might have been empty.
Just the harsh boom of a Porsche engine, the flat drone of a Renault engine, the hard crackle of a BMW engine, the scream of a Cosworth engine and then the sight of a Ferrari passing the stands and not a movement. This is bad news. A look at the Longines-Olivetti read-out of lap times on the VDU in the Renault pit reveal all. Renault are fastest, followed by McLaren and the best that Ferrari can do is Arnoux in fourth place. Yesterday’s hero, Alboreto, is in tenth place. This doesn’t call for a stiff upper lip, it is sadness time. The two Renault drivers seem to be having it all their own way, if Tambay isn’t fastest, then Warwick is, but Lauda is keeping them both on their toes. When this first session ends the rain begins to fall and the final order is Tambay, Warwick, Lauda, Arnoux, Winkelhock and Piquet, but as it has only been a test-session the times are unofficial and do not count for grid position. The huge crowd sits like a solid block of stone, now huddle under umbrellas and once more the silence is deafening. In the Renault pit a roastbeef can be heard saying damn good show of young Warwick, always knew he had it in him, y’know. Outside you can actually hear the rain falling. While the rain does not develop into anything catastrophic it is enough to thoroughly wet the track so that everyone prepares to tackle the qualifying hour on heavily treaded rain tyres. With the morning session starting a half-hour late the regulations insist that the afternoon times session should also start a half-hour late so it runs from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The silence is broken only by the Renaults droning sound in the first and second places, Arnoux is in this T-car, but nowhere near the front and there is a panic to prepare Alboreto’s T-car as he comes walking back having parked his number one car on the grass when it brakes. Lauda is back in his own car, as is Cheever, but Piquet is in the lightweight spare Brabham.
The silence continues as neither Arnoux nor Alboeto show any signs at all of getting near the Renaults and it is made all the worse as others like Prost (McLaren-Porsche), Rosberg (Williams-Honda), Piquet (Brabham-BMW) and de Cesaris (Ligier-Renault) begin to move towards the head of the list of times. There is a small ripple of interest as Warwick comes into the pits with smoke coming from one of the Garrett Turbo-chargers on his works Renault, but an army of mechanics in asbestos gloves fall upon the car and replace the offending instrument in a bare 18 minutes. Meanwhile the track is beginning to dry rapidly and dramatically and every time one of the real factory drivers do a lap it is a new fastest time. In quick succession the Longines-Olivetti screen shows the names of six or seven different drivers as being on pole-position and it is now a last minute battle to see who can be the last one out on a fast lap on qualifying tyres as the minutes tick away. Neither of the Ferrari drivers are on the pace, but most of the others are and more and more often the name Piquet appears at the top of the list, but Prost is never far away, nor is Rosberg, Lauda and Tambay. The excitement is instant, the conditions are changing so rapidly that there is no time for the public address to make any announcements for the order would have changed before they have got half way through the first statement. The pity of it all is that the paying public does not have a huge VDU above the pits, with which to follow the split-second drama that goes on right to the chequered flag. When it finishes Piquet is on top, but one lap more and it can have been Prost, Tambay, Warwick, Fabi, Lauda, de Cesaris, or Rosberg, it is almost like musical chairs. When the timing machine stops ticking and the computer stops sorting out the times, the order is Piquet, Prost, Tambay, de Cesaris, Warwick, Rosberg, Fabi and Lauda. Arnoux is 10th and Alboreto is 24th and to cap everything the Belgian GP winner has run out of petrol in the last few important minutes.
Number 27 comes in on the end of a tow-rope when it is all over! Black armbands are on sale everywhere, not only for Ferrari enthusiasts but also for Toleman followers, for neither Senna nor Cecotto have been allowed out all day. A telex from the Toleman Group headquarters has stopped the team in its tracks, while some strange negotiations go on between Toleman and Pirelli. This means that only 26 cars have been circulating so that everyone has qualified of the grid, even Palmer and Garner, the two mobile chicanes who seem incapable of keeping out of the way. With more than 15 seconds time-spread from Piquet to Palmer the fast boys are continually falling over the rabbits and some of them are pretty unpopular when they don’t get out of the way. It is raining on Saturday morning and a light drizzle keeps falling throughout the test-session so that nobody really know what they are trying to achieve and nobody really has any useful yard-sticks by which to measure adjustments and alterations. While there is an overall impression created by the drivers that they are all of equal ability in the dry, and only the cars and entries prevent them all being on pole position, it is a different story in the wet. You do not have to go far to see ability and bravery. Arnoux has a brand new engine installed in his Ferrari, with the latest 12 pipe exhaust manifold and Alboreto’s new engine has the earlier siamesed six pipe system. The RAM team have suffered trouble in both their Hart engines on the previous afternoon, but are now back in good order and the Toleman management has now given permission for their cars to start practising, though it seems that it is to be their last event on Pirelli tyres. The whole morning is rather wet and meaningless and if there is no improvement in the weather it looks as though the Friday qualifying time would settle the starting grid. As luck would have it, by the time 1pm approaches, the rain has stopped, the sun comes out and it suddenly gets quite warm, while the track dries rapidly. It is now a question of those who know what they are doing applying their knowledge to the rapidly improving conditions.
After trying his own car Prost switches to the spare McLaren and finds it even more to his liking and is soon vying with Piquet in the lightweight Brabham and Rosberg in the Williams-Honda. Warwick is not far behind them and these four are the only drivers to get below the 1'30"0 barrier, a reasonable time considering that the fastest practice lap still stands a 1'29"765 set up by Arnoux in 1982 in a Renault. By the end of the hour all four have beaten this time, Piquet and Prost being well down into the 1'28"0 area. Although the rabbits improve, there is still over 10 seconds between the fastest and the slowest on the starting grid, which can mean that in the race the tail-end-Charlies would be lapped every ten laps, or six times during the 60 lap race. And the Ferraris? The team never do get all the variables pointing the same direction and neither driver ever look like making the front of the grid and the crowd has nothing to get excited about. There hasn’t been such a deafening silence at an Italian motor-race for a very long time and you begin to wonder if any of them would bother to stay for the race. Of the 29 drivers attempting to get into the race, the two who fail are Ghinzani and Senna, and neither of them deserve the ignominy as both their cars give trouble before they can really get under way, and in the frantic rush of the qualifying hour there is little time for a second chance, consequently Palmer and Gartner find themselves on the back row of the grid more by luck than speed. With Arnoux in sixth place and Alboreto in 13th place at the end of the day, the grid layout has an unfamiliar look about it, though with Piquet on pole-position, with Prost alongside, Rosberg and Warwick in row two and Lauda in fifth place there isn’t too much room at the top for anyone else. The first six places on the grid can be considered the worthy ones and Tambay and Alboreto should have been in there, while de Angelis, de Cesaris and Patrese are all capable of being in that select half-dozen. At the moment it is very tough at the top.