It is with some trepidation that the Formula 1 re-assembles in the paddock of the splendid Circuit Nationale de Francorchamps for a re-run of the 1985 Belgian Grand Prix that has been abandoned back in June when the Formula One cars tore up the newly-laid surface. Since then the whole circuit has been resurfaced at enormous cost and effort, using a normal tarmac-mix instead of the trick water-repellant one that had not worked. The motorcycle grand prix, a 24 hour saloon car race and a sports car endurance race had all been held on the new surface without any problems arising so all augured well. But the Haute Fagnes and the edge of the Ardennes in mid-September is another matter and weather reports are being studied carefully. Add to this the fact that practice is due to start on Friday the Thirteenth and that two drivers who were here in June are no longer with us, while a third is in hospital and it is easy to see why some people are a little apprehensive. The normal entry is slightly depleted by the Tyrrell team only entering Martin Brundle, though he has two Renault-powered Tyrrell cars to utilise, and the RAM team withdraws its entry for Kenny Acheson due to a shortage of spare Hart 415T engines following the Italian Grand Prix the week before. The new team sponsored by the Beatrice Group cannot enter Alan Jones with its Hart-powered car for this re-run as it has not entered the original event last June. During Friday morning in the test-session Niki Lauda damages a wrist when a sticking throttle on his McLaren-Porsche catches him out and spins him into the barriers. The car is not badly damaged but Lauda flew away to Vienna to have his injury looked at and will not return. There is talk of replacing him with John Watson, who happes to be passing through, but it would have needed the agreement of all the other teams and Ron Dennis has made some enemies within the ranks recently and it now shows. All this means there are only 24 drivers for qualifying, so providing everyone goes fairly quickly there are no problems about the starting grid, only the question of where everyone will be.
Team Lotus starts the day in good form, but within minutes it has turned into Team Shambles, with Elio de Angelis in the T-car because his own car has a slipping clutch, and Senna is sidelined with a turbocharger failure on his Renault engine, and gearbox trouble. However, a lot of hard work by the mechanics gets both drivers back into fair order ready for the afternoon qualifying though Senna has to use the T-car which is not set-up properly for one lap sprints. The morning is cooI and clear, with blue skies and a warming sun, and Mansell is in great form with his Williams-Honda, the Japanese engines sounding more purposeful at every race. He is revelling in the high-speed swerves and downhill swoops, as is Rosberg, while Piquet is in his element. For those teams who have made no progress since June it is just a matter of repeating what they have done before, but for the progressive teams there is plenty to learn in the way of adapting their cars to the superb conditions. During the lunch break the skies cloud over but conditions look stable, though not permanently so, and in consequence there is a pretty busy queue in the pit lane to get out as soon as the track is open for qualifying, Prost and Piquet leading the charge. Goodyear tyres are only just able to last a hard lap with Honda, Ferrari, BMW or Renault power, but look happier with Porsche power so although Piquet, Senna, Rosberg and Mansell look terrific down the hill by the old pits and up through Eau Rouge and the Radiallon it is Prost who is fastest for the lap, but only by an infinitesimal margin. Although the cool weather is good for the highly stressed engines and visibility is ideal, with no glaring sun, there are still troubles. Laffite goes by with a spectacular fire pouring out the back of his Ligier when the left-hand turbocharger breaks, but it is soon dowsed by the marshals when he stops. Mansell has a very frightening moment in the long double-left downhill bend in the centre of the circuit, when the righthand spoke of his steering wheel breaks and he scrabbles round the corners with the rim nearly at right-angles to the column.
By 1:30 p.m. nearly everyone has made his pass at pole position and Prost, Johansson, Piquet, Mansell, Berger and Alboreto are all below 1'57"0, which gives a lap speed of well over 130 mph. Grand Prix racing in the Grand Manner. Probably the most impressive figures given by the Longines team of timekeepers are the speeds of well over 160 mph past the pits into the braking area for the famous Le Source bottom-gear hairpin, and 200 mph at Les Combes at the top of the long uphill section on the main road towards Malmedy just before braking heavily for the sharp turn off onto the new section of the circuit. It is the BMW powered cars that are topping these figures. As the qualifying hour draws to a close there are flashes of lightning in the dark skies and the rumble of thunder getting closer. Literally one minute before qualifying finishes the rain comes over the hills from Stavelot but everyone is back in the paddock by then, though Senna has suffered another turbo failure and Laffite has borrowed his new team-mate’s car right at the end, and this time the right-hand one broke. Apart from Senna being down in eighteenth place, due to his mechanical troubles, the scene looks pretty healthy. The only uneasy part of the proceedings is the fact that there are hardly any spectators to witness the speeds and high-speed driving by the top drivers. There are so few that you could almost count them individually, and one could only assume that having been caught in June they are not coming back to risk another debacle. In addition there is a depressing amount of black polythene sheeting covering the majority of the advertising hoardings, presumably because the firms concerned refused to pay any more money for their permanent sites. This is nothing to do with the RACB who organise the Grand Prix, but is the concern of Bernie Ecclestone and his financial firm who look after the finances of running the event. On Saturday morning a gloom falls, for it is a typical autumn morning with thick mist in the valleys and clouds in the hills and as everyone drives into the circuit for the morning test-session it is obvious that it isn’t going to happen at 10:00 a.m. Not until the mists clears and the clouds lift, anyway. The start of testing is put back until 11:00 a.m. and shortened by 15 minutes.
The sun breaks through and all is well so that we are able to get under way with all the usual things like trying different tyres, setting the cars up fully laden with 220 litres of fuel, doing consumption tests with lower boost pressure, fiddling with aerodynamics and so on. The afternoon turns out to be superb and the battle for pole position is on in earnest. Senna set the ball rolling, then Alboreto beats him and Johansson is not far behind, though not quite as quick as he has been the day before. Prost is sent off and promptly takes pole-position from Alboreto and then Piquet goes out in the tweaked-up Brabham T-car and snatches the top spot. All this is with their first set of chosen tyres, some of them finishing their fast lap with the rear ones covered in blisters, while others manage to complete a full lap with them looking pretty-healthy, but not good enough for another really quick lap. Piquet is down to 1'55"7 with over 200 mph through the speed trap, but Prost then does 1'55"3 with only 192 mph through the trap. The Ferraris and the Williams are tending to follow the Brabham principle of ultimate power, while Lotus is trying to keep down to the McLaren idea of less top speed and to finish the lap in good shape. Senna’s first run time, which has been the initial target, is down to fourth position as the end of the hour approaches, but Team Lotus has everything under control and the young Brazilian is waiting in the shadow of the pit garage ready for a final fling. With everything on his side he is away, round for a warm-up lap and then past the pits flat-out and maximum braking for La Source hairpin, down the plunge to Eau Rouge and up the other side to reach 190 mph at the top of the hill. Down through the fast infield onto the lower road and back across the timing line, with bubbles appearing on his rear tyres. 1'55"4 which puts him into second place a 10th of a second behind Prost. In the last moments Piquet goes out again, to do another 200 mph pass through the speed trap, and to reduce his time to 1'55"6, but it is only good enough to consolidate his third place.
The two Ferrari drivers are in the 1'56"0 bracket, closely followed by Boutsen, Mansell and Berger also in the 1'56"0 class, but de Angelis and Rosberg, who are ninth and tenth, are already nearly two seconds slower than Prost, and that is a long way at an average of well over 130 mph. The two Arrows drivers have been making full use of their BMW power, Boutsen being very much at home on his national circuit, and the young Austrian Gerhard Berger being quite simply very brave. His grid time has been set on Friday, for on Saturday he is on his first flying lap when the plenum chamber feeding the BMW engine with highly compressed air from the turbo-charger unit, explodes and takes some of the bodywork away, a frightening thing to happen just behind your head. Everyone is assured of a place on the grid, though there is a difference of nearly 11 seconds between the fastest and slowest, and a speed differential at the top of the hill of nearly 30 mph. It is not only a question of engine power, for the top runners have cars that are close to the minimum weight limit of 540 kgs, while the small teams down the back have difficulty in getting their cars under 600 kgs, which is all a question of detail design and being able to afford exotic materials like carbon fibre and titanium, and of course, knowing how to utilise such things. For the organisers things perk up a little, for the small number of spectators of Friday seems to have doubled, but it is still a pathetically small crowd and would not have done justice to a British club meeting. It certainly is not of Grande Epreuve standard. By the grace of the gods we have skated precariously through the two days of practice and everyone is very thankful that all seems to be well, but Sunday morning spells total disaster. Not only are the clouds back on the high ground, but rain is pouring down in the valleys and the whole area is gloom personified. In diabolical conditions the morning warm-up session takes place at 10:00 a.m. and it is heroic stuff, with Mansell fastest with his Williams-Honda in race-trim, but it takes him 30 seconds longer to complete the lap over a normal time.
There are one or two spins and excursions into escape roads and onto the grass verges, but no serious damage is done, except to the Osella, so that Rothengatter has to face starting the race with the old 1984 car they keep by as a spare. The Ferrari team has brought along an early-specification car as a spare for Alboreto, more as a cross-check than anything else, for he and Johansson have the heavily revised cars they had used at Monza. It doesn’t take Alboreto long on Friday morning to convince himself that the newer car is an improvement, so 078 is put to one side. The 43 lap race for the Grand Prix de Belgique is not due to start until 2 pm so in the interim there is a race for old sports cars such as Ford GT40, Lola T70, Porsche 917 and Can-am McLaren, which revives some happy memories of past events at Francorchamps as they roar round in clouds of spray. At midday the rain is still falling and the small crowd of enthusiastic spectators is huddled under umbrellas, and then a miracle happens. The rain stops, the clouds which are sitting at ground level begin to swirl about, the sun breaks through and there are the makings of a nice afternoon, but the track is still very wet. The pit lane opens at 1:30 p.m. for the run round to the dummy-grid and everyone is on wet tyres and there is a lot of spray from the cars visibility being appalling, but at least it is not going to get any worse, and during the 30 minute build-up to the start the track begins to dry visibly in places. All is not well in the pit-lane for Alboreto’s Ferrari (085) develops a fuel tank leak and there is a panic to transfer him to the virtually untried T-car. At the other end of the pits there is also trouble when Christian Danner returns with the Zakspeed while Alboreto is able to leave the pits before the closing time and make his lonely way round to the grid, Danner is forced to start from the pit lane, having returned to his pit after the parade lap. From the start Senna rockets into the lead, followed by Piquet, both of them out-accelerating Prost’s McLaren in the rush to the hairpin. As they accelerate out of it down towards Eau Rouge Piquet gives his BMW engine too much welly and promptly spins, with cars dodging all round him, so the order up the Radillon is Senna, Prost, Alboreto, Mansell, Johansson, Boutsen, Berger and Rosberg.
And the spray is flying. With a clear road ahead Senna is pulling away rapidly but poor Alboreto is finding the old Ferrari a terrible handful, having done very little practice with it, and he begins to lose places dramatically. Incredibly it only needs the 24 cars to cover two laps for a dry line to begin to appear, so providing you stay in the groove the going is good. This prompts Rosberg to stop on lap 4 and change to slick tyres, and Piquet does the same on the next lap. This drops Rosberg to 21st place and Piquet to 19th place, but they both then begin to go motor racing in true champion style. Alboreto disappears on lap 4 with clutch failure in the Ferrari and at that Prost decides there is no point in doing any serious motor racing, his mind is on gathering points for the World Championship rather than trying to win the Belgian GP. Mansell has different ideas and slices through into second place in pursuit of Senna who is hungry for another victory, having been robbed of so many this season. At the end of lap nine Senna, Mansell and Prost all decide that the circuit is dry enough for slick tyres and for a brief moment de Angelis actually leads the race, but then he too stops and everything returns to normal, except that Rosberg has come storming up through the field on his dry tyres, profiting from every yard of track as it dries, and is now in third place ahead of an untroubled Prost who is merely going for a nice Sunday afternoon drive to gather points. Cars are already falling by the wayside and Ghinzani gets his Toleman slightly off line down the hill past the old pits and promptly spins into the barriers with a sickening crash, and three laps later Alliot does the same thing with his RAM and crashes on the other side of the track, giving the marshals a busy time dragging the wrecks out of the way. Johansson goes off into the rough when his transmission seizes up, and the Zakspeed expires, while de Angelis manages to struggle back to the pits with a turbo-charger failed on his Renault engine. Senna is in a class of his own, though Mansell is driving heroically to try and keep him in sight, but it is useless, even though the Lotus is badly baulked on the rush up the hill from Eau Rouge by a different car on six or seven laps in succession.
It seems that Senna is destined to lap the tail-enders and mid-field runners on this section, and for lap after lap he goes up the hill on the over-run behind a slower car, waiting to power past over the brow. The dry line is fine, but it is still damp off-line, so no one is going to move out of the way on the 150 mph sweeping climb, and Senna isn’t going to try any silly passing manoeuvres round the outside. Just after half distance, 17 laps, a small shower of rain passes over the circuit; not enough to cause any trouble but sufficient to slow everyone down by some 15 seconds a lap for three or four laps, then it is back onto the pace again, Prost has been following closely behind Rosberg until the rain comes, when he eases off and let the fiery Finn go. When the rain stops, Rosberg is hard up behind his number two team-mate and fizzing about to try and get by, but Mansell is unimpressed and a very good dice ensues. Both cars sound very healthy indeed, the Honda engines sounding like winners, whereas the leading Renault engine is beginning to splutter occasionally and do not sound anything like so purposeful. However, the Lotus part of the combine is working superbly and with Senna’s beautiful touch on the fast parts of the circuit, which means almost everywhere, he is well away from the battling Williams. Mansell has no intention of giving way, for he is in a very worthy second place and he intends to keep it, but Rosberg is still pressing him hard. On lap 31 he literally has his car’s nose under the gearbox of Mansell’s car, and on the long top straight he is wondering if he can outbrake his team-mate when there is a loud bang from the front of his car as one of the very large fibre-glass brake air-scoops virtually explodes. He has to let Mansell go, for with one brake cools and the other not, things are a bit dicey and at the end of the next lap he shoots into the pits to have the other front scoop ripped off, to equalise things, at the same time having a new set of tyres fitted.
This stop puts him back behind Prost, and with the race in its closing stages there is no time for him to regain his position. Meanwhile Mansell has suffered a moment of inattention due to Rosberg’s trouble, for he has been driving with his eyes on his mirrors to see what the Finn was up to and when he arrives at the end of the long top straight he is puzzled to find car number six has disappeared. It is only a momentary hesitation, but it is enough for him to overshoot his braking point and go sailing across the rough stuff and rejoin the circuit on the other side of the right hand corner, luckily without doing any damage. Out in front Senna is driving with fingers crossed, for every now and then his Renault engine stutters, and he is dreading the sudden silence that would herald another retirement while in the lead. However, for a change fate is on his side and he completes the 43 laps without the sign of a challenger in his mirrors, elated at scoring his second Grand Prix win. It is a win from the front, on a circuit that calls for the highest standards of Grand Prix driving, and there is justifiable joy in the Team Lotus camp. Half a minute later Mansell charges across the line into a fine second place, after one of his better races, but it has not been without its drama, for he spun at La Source when the track was very wet, but kept the engine on the boil, and had his long anxious excursion across the rough when he misjudged his braking point. A satisfied Prost finishes third, happy in the knowledge that Alboreto has retired from the points race and a fighting Rosberg is a fine fourth. Honda power is second and fourth without a single hesitation. These four are the only ones to complete the 43 laps, though Piquet has driven a very hard and canny race after his first corner misdemeanour and Warwick drives a good race to come home sixth. Unfortunate is Thierry Boutsen who has held fifth place for a long while, not by reason of other people having trouble, but by sheer merit and good driving, only to have his gearbox break up two laps before the finish. By good fortune we have got away with the re-run of the aborted Belgian Grand Prix without any undue drama and it has been a good race, with splendid opportunities for some real Grand Prix driving. It’s just a pity that not many people were there to see it.