#393 1984 French Grand Prix

2021-09-19 11:40

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#1984, Fulvio Conti, Giulia Noto,

#393 1984 French Grand Prix

Practice and qualifying at the French Grand Prix is ruined by the weather and those who have failed to produce their best on Friday are left flounderi


The storm is raging again in Formula 1, but the constructors, though divided, or rather precisely because they disagree, put on a brave face and say that nothing has happened. And that nothing will happen. At the end of a series of meetings throughout the day on Thursday, May 17, 1984, the representatives of the teams announce that no decision has been made. In reality, the only unanimously implemented pact is not to reveal anything, especially to journalists. They prefer to remain silent about the controversies tearing apart the environment, wanting to hide that they might be on the brink of another collapse, as happened in 1981 when there was a risk of splitting the World Championship into two segments. This time, the apple of discord is represented by fuel consumption. The regulation that reduced the fuel tanks' capacity to 220 liters has divided the teams. A few days earlier, Renault had sounded the alarm through its sports director, Gerard Larrousse:


"If we can't solve the problem, if we continue not to finish races, if we are forced again to make our drivers lift off the accelerator in the final laps, we will probably have to take a pause for reflection".


In short, a withdrawal threat that could also involve Lotus and Ligier, which use the French manufacturer's turbo engines. It is clear that, faced with a possible request to review the technical rules, some are not willing - rightly - to accept. McLaren, for example, the winner of three out of the four races held so far, and Tyrrell, with its naturally aspirated Cosworth, which has achieved three placements. They invoke the Concord Agreement, freezing the regulations until 1986, and if even one of the signatories is unwilling to change, nothing will change. However, there is an impression that the current discussions are primarily meant to prevent a switch to the planned 195 liters next year. A reliable source even suggests that the proposal to go from 220 to 230 liters for 1985 will probably be accepted shortly, aiming to avoid the fuel shortages seen in the first four races of the season, during which several cars ran out of fuel before reaching the finish line. This issue will be discussed again in the near future. For now, the French Grand Prix, scheduled for Sunday at the Prenois circuit, still raises the question of who will manage to finish the race and solve the challenging equation between available fuel and engine power. McLaren is still the favorite, having set the fastest time in the free practice sessions the previous week with Niki Lauda on the same track. 


To counter Austrian driver Lauda and Alain Prost, the leader in the World Championship standings, Ferrari will attempt new solutions. Two of the four cars brought to Dijon have different suspensions both front and rear, developed after thorough testing in the hope of better exploiting the Goodyear tires. There are also new, untested tires from the American manufacturer. On Friday, May 18, 1984, Formula 1 once again proves to be surprising. Renault was considered in crisis, but Patrick Tambay, in the first qualifying session of the French Grand Prix, sets the fastest time with one of the team's cars. It was also said that the former Ferrari driver was no longer himself. Imagine that. And it was claimed that the McLaren-Porsche was the most reliable car of the season: well, at Dijon, it broke three engines in one day, two with Lauda and one with Prost. And Ferrari? A mystery. The Maranello team seems to be engaged in a beautiful tango: one step forward and two back. Eleventh place for Alboreto, twelfth for Arnoux, both later advancing one position due to the disqualification of Andrea De Cesaris, who was in ninth place. For Renault, the provisional pole position (which could become definitive as there is a threat of rain in the area, and in that case, no one would be able to improve) was like a breath of fresh air. Mainly thanks to Tambay, who says:


"I took quite a few risks because in my best lap, I found Alboreto very slow in front of me and another car that I didn't even recognize but had to overtake on the outside, with the risk of going off the track at 200 km/h. I thought to myself: it's either this time or never. And I kept my foot on the accelerator. But what a scare".


Everyone noticed that Alboreto (and Arnoux) were not very fast, even De Angelis - who complained about obstruction - and the Ferrari drivers and technicians themselves. Among the times obtained in the morning in the free practice with the 126 C4 in race trim and those in qualifying, there is a minimal difference: 1’05”747 against 1'04"459 for the Italian driver.


"We don't have grip: probably the problem is caused by the new suspensions. We had tested a month ago on this track with the same front technical solution and a different rear one. Now we have changed almost everything, and it is evident that the adjustments studied then are not valid. In a way, it has repeated what happened at Zolder. We hope for a similar turnaround in the race as in Belgium".


Even Mauro Forghieri admits to having several problems. Ferrari complains of a lack of top speed. At the beginning of the tests, there was almost a 20 km difference in speed between De Angelis' Lotus (the fastest on the straight in front of the pits, 307 km/h) and the Maranello cars. Alboreto was passing at 288 km/h. Then some aerodynamic loads were removed, and Michele climbed to 294, but the lap time did not change much. Mauro Forghieri says:


"The drivers report understeer in the first part of the circuit and oversteer in the subsequent one. The tires, that is, reach temperature at different times front and rear. We need to find a better balance. However, we are not so bad in race trim, with a full tank of fuel. We hope to be able to work in the second day of practice".


However, Ferrari is not the only one with problems. Aside from McLaren breaking three engines (they were the old ones used in Imola, that's the less credible explanation) with Niki Lauda doing two laps, leaking oil on the track, putting everyone in difficulty, two engines were broken by BMW (one by Fabi on the Brabham and one by Winkelock on the ATS), and two exploded on the Renault. Tambay himself, immediately after setting his fastest lap, stopped on the track, and the car almost caught fire. After a relatively calm day, the French Grand Prix promises rain. At least that's what the specialists from the meteorological service at the nearby Satolas airport assure, who didn't go wrong on Friday warning that there would be a wet practice day at Dijon on Saturday. And so it is. Remember that it has been since September 27, 1981, that a Grand Prix has not been held in the rain. It happened in Montreal, Laffite won with the Ligier-Matra, ten cars were eliminated due to accidents and off-track excursions. Villeneuve accomplished one of his great feats, finishing third after driving blindly, with the front wing of his Ferrari bent upwards. The rain, with a backdrop of mud rivulets, misty trails, zero visibility, achieves a double result. It does not allow changing the starting order determined on Friday (a nice gift for Tambay and Renault), and it allows the teams to prepare the cars for the almost certain eventuality of racing in similar conditions. The only change concerns Andrea De Cesaris. The Roman manages to get among the 26 starters not for his skill in driving the car in the wet but for a stratagem devised by Guy Ligier. 


The French constructor, who certainly cannot be accused of nationalism in this case, sidelines Francois Hesnault, who had set the fourteenth time. Officially, he would be the second driver to offer, with a burst of altruism, this opportunity to the Italian. Hooray for sportsmanship. Hesnault out, all the drivers move up one position from fourteenth place onwards. De Cesaris will start last, hoping to reciprocate his boss's consideration with a good race. But Ligier, anyway, makes a fool of himself with this story of empty fire extinguishers. And Ligier has a nice threat of retaliation from Gabriele Cadringher, the FISA technician who discovered the trick to lighten the car. If the French constructor was acting in bad faith, he is wrong; if he was acting in good faith, he is doubly guilty because safety systems must always be checked. Speaking of the race, it seems that this time, dry or wet, the Renault engines have a good chance of winning. With Tambay in pole position and De Angelis alongside him on the front row, the chances of success for the French brand are significant, especially if it rains because, in this case, being in front will provide a double advantage for visibility. And there will be no fuel consumption problems either, as the average lap speed, in case of bad weather, is about 50 km/h lower. Always in the event of a race in the rain, specialists should be kept an eye on, starting from Rosberg to De Angelis, Prost, Winkelhock, Arnoux, Boutsen, Cheever, Surer, and Palmer. The Ferrari issue remains. Alboreto and Arnoux will start in tenth and eleventh positions. On Saturday, they practiced little, only to fine-tune the cars. The Italian driver says:


"If everything had been normal, we should and could have improved perhaps. But the Zolder turnaround certainly would not have occurred. We will try to score points, waiting for a more favorable moment or circuits. In certain conditions, with a flooded track, we shouldn't be racing. But this is also part of the game, with all the risks it entails".


And what about Alain Prost? The French driver of McLaren will certainly attempt a hat-trick, that is, a third victory. However, he will be controlled by everyone, starting with his teammate, Niki Lauda, who is not willing to let him escape. On Sunday, May 20, 1984, the sky is overcast but without rain. At the start of the French Grand Prix, Patrick Tambay seems to anticipate the start, deceiving Nelson Piquet, who starts from the third position. Elio De Angelis, in second, takes advantage and takes the lead of the race. Tambay manages to resist the attacks of Piquet and Keke Rosberg, reclaiming the first position. Behind them, Nigel Mansell seizes the opportunity, positioning himself ahead of Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg, following his teammate Elio De Angelis. Derek Warwick quickly climbs to the fourth position, and Niki Lauda also moves up the ranks to eighth place. During the fourth lap, Manfred Winkelhock makes a pit stop, while Keke Rosberg loses another position to Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, and Niki Lauda. On the fifth lap, Alain Prost overtakes Nelson Piquet, moving up to fifth place, just behind Derek Warwick. The French McLaren driver passes the British driver on the sixth lap. During the 12th lap, Nelson Piquet significantly slows down, allowing Lauda and René Arnoux to pass. The BMW engine breaks down again, forcing the World Champion to retire for the fifth time in five races. The McLaren comeback continues in the following laps: Prost takes third place from Mansell, and Lauda passes Warwick. On the 17th lap, the Austrian McLaren driver also overtakes Mansell, securing the third position. Tambay continues to lead the race, followed by Elio De Angelis, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, Derek Warwick, and René Arnoux. De Angelis holds onto second place until the 18th lap when he is forced to yield to the attacks of Prost. Three laps later, the Italian driver is also passed by the other McLaren driver, Niki Lauda. On the 28th lap, due to a problem with a poorly fixed tire, Prost goes off track at Pouas corner. After returning to the pits, the French driver manages to restart but only in eleventh position. Meanwhile, on the 30th lap, Nigel Mansell makes a pit stop, dropping to seventh place. On the 35th lap, Derek Warwick also pits, returning to the track in seventh place, ahead of Arnoux. 


De Angelis makes a pit stop on the 38th lap and is passed by Rosberg, Mansell, and Warwick. On the 39th lap, at the Villeroy corner, Tambay overtakes Jacques Laffite, allowing Lauda to close in. The Austrian goes off the track slightly in his attempt to pass the Frenchman but fails. Meanwhile, Nigel Mansell manages to take third place, overtaking Keke Rosberg. On the 41st lap, taking advantage of a small mistake by Tambay, penalized by imperfect braking, Niki Lauda takes the lead of the Grand Prix. On the 43rd lap, Rosberg, with worn-out tires, loses his position to Warwick; the Finn makes a pit stop only on the 47th lap. Tambay changes tires two laps earlier but remains in second place. On the 53rd lap, Eddie Cheever is forced to return to the pits due to a front wing failure after contact with De Cesaris. Lauda makes a pit stop for a tire change on the 55th lap, allowing Patrick Tambay to regain the lead. Meanwhile, Nigel Mansell and Derek Warwick approach Marc Surer for lapping; in this phase, Warwick is misled by a sudden braking from Mansell and collides with Surer's Arrows. Both the Renault driver and the Arrows driver retire. Warwick remains inside the cockpit with a injured leg and is taken to the circuit's medical center. On the 59th lap, due to severe vibrations in his car, Alain Prost makes a tire change, which proves problematic. The French driver re-enters the track in eleventh position. On the 62nd lap, Niki Lauda overtakes Patrick Tambay again, while René Arnoux takes fourth place, surpassing Elio De Angelis. In the final part of the race, the top positions in the standings remain unchanged, although Tambay and the two Lotus drivers will have fuel consumption issues, and Arnoux will have to manage an engine not running at full efficiency. Niki Lauda wins the French Grand Prix, followed by Patrick Tambay and Nigel Mansell. Prost, who approaches Rosberg in the final laps, finishes in seventh place. One hundred thousand fans, armed with umbrellas, raincoats, and rubber boots in anticipation of the forecasted rain, came to witness a French car or, at least, a French driver win. All their effort was in vain. Waterproof clothing was unnecessary because the wind kept the rain away. The hope for a home victory was futile: the sensational Niki Lauda secured his twenty-first Formula 1 victory, one of the most beautiful and spectacular. 


The 35-year-old Austrian veteran, at the top of motorsport since 1971, left no room for rivals. He had to win - for many reasons - and he didn't miss the target. Lauda expressed himself in a way that he perhaps hadn't been forced to do before. He risked to the limit of his and the car's capabilities, assisted by an almost perfect McLaren. The great Niki finished ahead of the unyielding Tambay, who revitalized Renault in a moment of crisis, Englishman Mansell with the Lotus, and Arnoux with the Ferrari. Alboreto did not have a happy day. Dealing with an underperforming engine from the start, the Italian retired when he was already in twelfth position, lapped, due to the definitive failure of the engine. Regarding the World Championship, Alain Prost, particularly unlucky despite a good race that only brought him to seventh place, remains the undisputed leader with 24 points. However, his teammate, Niki Lauda, is close behind with 18 points, while Arnoux consoles himself with the third position, 11 points behind the leader. For McLaren, it's the fourth victory of the season (two for Prost and two for Lauda) out of five races, against only one for Ferrari (Alboreto). The numbers speak for themselves, and the French Grand Prix confirmed the supremacy of the trio formed by the English chassis, the German Tag-Porsche engine, and Michelin tires. The race was spectacular until three-quarters of the 79 scheduled laps. At the end of the race, the fans clashed, and the police had to intervene for Niki Lauda's press conference. The popularity of the Austrian champion is still immense among fans, including the French, and many Italians gathered around him when he returned to the pits. Niki is smiling, particularly relaxed, not at all fatigued:


"It was a relatively easy victory, the only real problem was the heavy traffic on the track".


When asked where he found such determination, the Austrian responds with simplicity:


"It's not that I attacked more than necessary. Yes, I had to chase, but it all depends on the car. If it's as good as the McLaren, you can make moves that others might consider daring. In reality, I felt quite confident. Now my position within the team is clearer, and I believe I've balanced the judgment with that of my teammate. I don't think the team will want to favor one or the other but will work seriously for both".


An extremely confident Lauda, so much so that he had already told his masseur, Willy Dungl, in the morning that he would be the winner of the French Grand Prix. As for Alain Prost, the Frenchman was hampered by an unusual malfunction: 


"The left front wheel did not close perfectly on the carbon fiber disc. It was truly a misfortune because we could have finished first and second. I don't know who would be in front of the other, but I would have been satisfied even with six points. Instead, now I'm starting to worry".


The only spectacular incident of the day occurred on lap 54. Swiss driver Surer and Englishman Warwick went off the track. The major damage was to the Renault driver, who missed the opportunity to secure third or fourth place and suffered a severe bruise to his right ankle. Surer tells what happened:


"I was traveling at my maximum capacity and had already been lapped, when behind me, like two furies, Mansell and Warwick arrived, fighting for third place. I moved aside, the Englishman overtook me at the braking limit because we were entering the corner, and he even squeezed me from one side. I think Warwick found himself facing a kind of wall formed by the two cars. I felt a great impact in the rear of my car, saw the Renault fly over my head, then we both ended up in the barriers".


What exactly happened? It's simple, Mansell passed, and Warwick, who didn't hesitate to get involved, didn't manage to escape. A quite daring maneuver, that of the driver nicknamed the bomber. It cost him precious points and perhaps even a privileged position he had gained within the Renault team. In fact, Tambay, with the second position achieved, got a boost, while the French team seems to have finally solved the problems regarding fuel consumption, as the car that finished the race still had 21 liters of fuel in the tank. Speaking of Ferrari, saying that they were completely satisfied with Arnoux's fourth place in the Maranello team would be an exaggeration. 


The French driver, after returning to the pits, is particularly nervous; Alboreto leaves immediately after retiring; Forghieri does the same. Before leaving, the technical manager of the Maranello team says:


"We wasted an opportunity to at least reach the podium with Arnoux. René lagged behind by 18 seconds, spending ten laps stuck behind De Angelis' Lotus. Another 5 seconds were squandered in our pit stop due to a wheel not fitting properly. We could have aimed for at least third place, but there was no hope of going further. McLaren, at this moment, is clearly superior and in the latter part of the race could even use very soft tires that allowed performances unthinkable for us. The British team can apply more pressure to its turbo than Renault or anyone else without significant fuel consumption risks. A well-deserved victory. With four wins for McLaren and only one for us, the balance speaks for itself".


After cooling down his anger, René Arnoux says:


"I am quite satisfied with the car because it is very balanced and gives me the feeling of being able to handle well, especially in fast corners. However, I lacked top speed on the straight. That's why I couldn't overtake De Angelis' Lotus, which was much faster than me on the straight. I had to take quite a risk in braking to get ahead of him, and then I had problems with the tires. In short, we have to work hard to close the gap with our main rivals".


Arnoux is, however, satisfied with his position in the standings, where he is in third place:


"Last year, at the beginning, it was worse. We hope that with the arrival of slower circuits, like the upcoming one in Monte Carlo, our Ferrari will be more competitive. We have some new things to try; we will test them at Imola next week. It is not excluded that we will go back to testing the Magneti Marelli-Weber electronic injection".


A few words from Michele Alboreto, evidently disappointed:


"I'm happy for René, for me, just bitter. It doesn't seem like too much to ask for a bit more luck. I've been forced to retire too often, and I can't defend myself. We were also a bit betrayed by the weather. In the morning it was quite hot, and then the clouds brought in a cool wind that evidently favored certain tire choices".


Pietro Corradini, one of the Ferrari mechanics, was involved in an unfortunate incident during the race. When Arnoux's car stopped at the pit for a tire change, the mechanic injured his ankle by a metal plate that goes under the tires. Going to the infirmary to have the deep cut examined, the medical staff responds:


"We are here only to treat the drivers".


A nice way to ensure assistance inside the circuit. Monday, May 21, 1984, Niki Lauda goes to Clermont-Ferrand to test some tires. On Tuesday morning, he will fly to Texas, where he will pilot a new Lear Jet, the plane of his dreams, estimated cost 7.000.000 dollars. On the way back, he will stop for a few days on the enchanting island of Ibiza, together with his wife Marlene and children Lucas (five years old) and Mathias (three and a half). Then, Niki Lauda will show up in Monte Carlo to win the Monaco Grand Prix, scheduled in two weeks.


"You have to strike while the iron is hot. McLaren is currently the best car, I know the track very well, I like the Principality circuit. In short, I can really continue the climb towards the world title".


Second in the standings behind teammate Prost, the Austrian seems to be living a second youth at the age of 35.


"This is the best demonstration that certain speeches are not always valid, at least not for all drivers. My trajectory is not in decline yet".


The two-time Formula 1 World Champion doesn't name names, but the reference to Enzo Ferrari is evident, who wrote in his book that certain drivers, after reaching the peak of their careers, are no longer themselves, satisfied with victories and earnings. Never heard Lauda so sure, almost presumptuous. What happened to this driver always considered very skilled and ready to seize every opportunity, but not always reckless? What spring has clicked to transform him into a spectacular driver capable of breathtaking overtakes, attacking at the limit of risk? Who changed the driver who retired at Fuji in 1976 due to rain fear?


"Nothing and nothing. I am still the same Niklaus Lauda, born on February 22, 1949, in Salzburg, Pisces sign. I have not become more reckless. I have the utmost respect for the difference between the heart a driver must have and the recklessness he must not. The only secret is that I enjoy racing and consider it my current profession. Let's not talk about money. They say I returned to racing after two years of inactivity because I was hungry for money. Some maliciously claim that I was in debt with my airline. I don't even want to respond to these accusations. I get paid for what I'm worth. If they give me a lot of dollars, it's because, in some way, they return to those who make the investment. No one gives anything for free. If someone is scandalized by saying that I earn more than Zico and Platini, it's because they don't understand much about life".


But a Lauda unleashed like in Dijon had never been seen before...


"I attacked, it's true. I had to take risks on some occasions due to traffic, many cars to lap. However, I don't think I did anything extraordinary. If a car is faster and better than others, as is the case with McLaren, everything becomes easier. I think, in reality, Tambay suffered more, threatened by Prost and me, twice. First, I waited for the right moment and then overtook him when he made a small mistake. The second time I was clearly faster".


Speaking of Prost, the French driver set the fastest lap in the race. In the overall of his laps, without considering the two pit stops, he was faster than Niki. If he hadn't had problems, he could have fought for victory.


"Prost is a very good driver, the most formidable opponent. I have the utmost respect for him. Numbers aside, I must point out that when he was ahead of me with a five-second advantage, I gained 0.5 seconds per lap. Later, when I was in the lead, I didn't push to the maximum. Again, Prost is the man to beat, but he will have to deal with Niki Lauda. We have two wins each; he has a six-point advantage for the second place in Kyalami. I will try to win in Monte Carlo".


McLaren is strong, dominating the races. Four wins out of five races, without too many problems. It's pointless to try to explain why this superiority exists. There are no mysteries: an excellent English chassis, a reliable German engine, aerodynamics that partially exploit ground effect as in the days of the miniskirts, tires with constant performance, and two very good drivers. The most homogeneous set. However, the favorable moment of the British team coincides with a negative period for most rival teams. 


Currently, it is not seen who can threaten Lauda and Prost. Ferrari is the only alternative, but the Maranello team also has to solve several problems. The 126 C4 was competitive only in Belgium, where Alboreto won. Someone, after the numerous retirements of the Italian driver, begins to insinuate doubts about his skill. The driver, however, cannot be discussed: commitment, skill, courage, and intelligence are not lacking. Just look at his starts to realize how Michele is up to the situation, even a step above many others. Only with intense work on the car's setup can a recovery be hoped for. It will be very interesting to check the behavior of the Maranello car on a city circuit like Monte Carlo. The engine is not discussed, according to the drivers, the chassis is excellent, the setup good. There may be doubts about the tires and aerodynamics. For the first, it is to be hoped that Goodyear manages to improve in time. Regarding the second issue, given the lack of top speed shown in France, it is to be thought that to have grip, Ferrari must give a lot of incidence to the wings, inevitably slowing down. It is a difficult issue that the technicians of the Maranello team will certainly evaluate, especially while waiting for the more challenging tracks in terms of speed.


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