As is customary since Bernie Ecclestone got the world of Formula 1 organised, everyone is ready to go the moment the circuit is open for testing at 10:00 a.m. on Friday morning for the regulation one and a half hours. Nobody is missing and nobody is late and it is particularly pleasing to see the amicable Piercarlo Ghinzani back in action in a brand new Osella-Alfa Romeo after his horrifying accident at the South African Grand Prix. Usually the Zolder circuit causes anguish over brakes, the on-off, on-off, on-off nature of the circuit playing havoc with the systems, but this year Ferodo, Girling, Lockheed, Brembo and all the others who look after Grand Prix retardation seems to have the upper hand and the fact that a Grand Prix car can pull 2½-3g under braking says much for the continual research and development done by the brake specialist firms, to say nothing of the rubber supplied by Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli that allows this sort of stopping power. With turbocharged 1½-litre engines giving 650bhp if required, in cars weighing around 620 kilogrammes complete with driver, the performance potential round a stop-and-go circuit like Zolder is nothing short of staggering. With a surplus of horsepower, huge aerofoils can be dragged through the air to give a large downforce that more than makes up for the loss occasioned by banning of under-car ground effects. Throughout the two days of testing and qualifying, engines are the big problem some teams. While Renault and Ferrari are free from engine troubles, Honda, Porsche and BMW are in dire trouble. There are pools of oil, clouds of smoke and derelict cars almost continually during Friday and Saturday. If it isn’t a Honda engine in a Williams that blow up, it is a Porsche engine in a McLaren or a BMW engine in a Brabham. Even the Hart engines are not devoid of trouble, the Spirit team blows up an engine, but the most spectacular is the BMW engine in the special lightweight Brabham BT53/3.
In Saturday’s qualifying Piquet has only just started on his first flying lap when there is an almighty bang and the Brabham stops abruptly. You can clearly see the crankshaft and one of the connecting rods, and they are still inside the engine! Honda does an equally good job on Rosberg’s race-car FW09/4 on Friday afternoon covering the whole of the back of the car with glistening oil so comprehensively that it looks as if it has been spray-painted with shiny black cellulose. Porsche manages to set fire to Lauda’s McLaren MP4/2 on Friday afternoon, and excel themselves on Saturday night (or early Sunday morning to be more precise) when, after installing a new engine ready for the race, working through the night, the mechanics starts it up behind the pits and it promptly blow up. Through all the smoke and oil Ferrari and Renault vied for the best qualifying results, with Derek Warwick making fastest lap on the first day for Renault and Alboreto scoring pole position on the second day for Ferrari, with Arnoux in second place. Warwick might have retaliated had his engine started promptly when he was ready to go out again on his second set of qualifying tyres on Saturday. As it was it is reluctant to start and a precious ten minutes are wasted. He gets going with just enough time to do one flying lap but then an exhaust pipe fractured, so he has to be content with fourth fastest lap overall. Just how much trouble the Brabham team are in with their BMW engines can be see by Winkelhock’s position on the grid with the ATS-BMW, and on Pirelli tyres at that. Warwick is forced to fight a lone battle against the Ferraris for his team-mate, Patrick Tambay, is in dire trouble throughout both days. He and his ex-Ferrari engineer Tommaso Carletti cannot get things right, when the engine stops misfiring the gearbox plays up, when that is cured the brakes give trouble, when they work all right the tyres are all wrong, and so it goes on from one trauma to another, with Tambay ending up on the sixth row of the grid, alongside Cheever’s Alfa Romeo.
Lauda is just behind Tambay and equally unhappy, though Rosberg on the other hand is surprisingly chirpy about being on row two alongside Warwick, bearing in mind that things are a bit shambolic in the Williams pit. After all the BMW dramas Piquet and Fabi are happy to be on the grid at all. Among the lesser teams Arrows has their hands full as their new BMW-powered A7 model was making its first appearance, in the hands of Thierry Boutsen as it was his home Grand Prix. A7/01 is in the back of the garage, having been used for initial testing and he is using A7/02, while Surer has to soldier on with the Cosworth powered A6 cars for this race. Team Tyrrell has no option but to soldier on with their 520 b h p Cosworth DFY engines, but both their drivers are putting all they knew into the game and making the best of a bad job, so that they embarrassed Hesnault with his turbo Renault powered Ligier, Surer with his Arrows-Cos worth, Baldi with the turbo Hart powered Spirit and both turbo Hart powers RAM cars by being ahead of them all at the end of the day. This time Palmer just scrapes onto the grid and it is the turn of his team-mate Alliot to be odd man out. On Saturday evening the whole row of pit-lane garages is an incredible sight with barely a complete or healthy car to be see and gearboxes and engines all over the place. It really seem as if the “big guns” has destroyed themselves during the two days of testing and qualifying. There are engineers from Japan, Germany, France, Italy and England all looking very worried and very deep in thought. Apart from the usual worries of tyres, brakes, suspension settings, aerodynamic settings, fuel consumption, race tactics and so on, there are many furrowed brows over petrol specification, inter-cooling, fuel injection, engine management systems, mixture control, turbo boost settings, to say nothing of what is on the menu for dinner. By Sunday morning there is total calm, all the cars are ready to go and look like new, and the amount of work done overnight by the army of mechanics and engineers of all nationalities would have keep a typical industrial firm going for a year.
When you hear about strikes and arguments and lack of production in some of our industrial sectors it gives you hope for the world when you see the world of Grand Prix Racing with its collective back against the wall and fighting hard to recover. A walk down the pit lane show no signs at all of the scene of chaos there have been at the end of practice. The half-hour warm-up session at 10:30 a.m. confirm that the C4 Ferraris are as strong as they has been in practice and that Goodyear’s radial construction race tyres are not lacking. BMW has some new petrol sent up from Munich overnight to try to alleviate their engine problems and engineers from Stuttgart and Tokyo are still looking worried, as are some of the English engineers. The Toleman team has a problem when Cecotto’s engine suddenly dies on him for no obvious reason and the Spirit team are running their 101/1B car and their new one, 101/2B is all in bits. ATS run their old D 6 car, but the new D 7 is being fettled ready for the race. Although the skies are clear and the sun is bright there is a cool wind blowing, raising a lot of sandy dust in places along the edge of the track, but nobody is complaining, especially the engine men who greet every degree drop in temperature with pleasure. Before the 26 starters left the pit lane a small gaggle of cars that include Rosberg’s Williams, Lauda’s McLaren, de Angelis in the Lotus and Warwick in his Renault make a couple of straggly laps in what is supposed to be FISA’s idea of presenting the top six in the World Championship league to the paying public. Warwick and de Angelis stops at the beginning of the final straight to have a private drag race against each other and just as they starts off Lauda whistled round the corner onto the straight and nearly collected both of them. After that everyone set off from the pits to drive round to the starting grid, a lot of them diving into the pit lane to sneak another lap before the gate closed.
Eventually everyone is in place and ready for the 70 lap Grote Prijs van Belgie, as they say in Flemish. Alboreto is on the left with Rosberg behind him and Arnoux is on the right with Warwick behind him. The rest of the grid is a funny old mish-mash with a lot of drivers further back than they should have been, due to practice troubles, notably Piquet, Lauda, Prost, Tambay and Fabi. In good order they do their parade lap, lined up once more well controlled by the marshals and Derek Ongaro is able to give them a good clean start, the two Ferraris streaking away with Warwick making a real screamer and diving between the two red cars as they go into the first corner. Rosberg makes a complete nonsense of his start and while he is gathering himself up he is engulfed by most of the rest of the field. Alboreto leads from Warwick and Arnoux, so the Renault is the meat in the Ferrari sandwich, but the Hampshire lad looks superbly at his ease in the situation. At the end of the opening lap Rosberg is in twenty-first place and there then starts one of those heroic drives from the back that no-one does deliberately, but when it happens it is something to watch. Out in front Alboreto is doing exactly what everyone knew he could do, leading the race confidently and comfortably, everything about his C4 Ferrari being perfect. When Michele Alboreto make his appearance on the Formula One scene in a Tyrrell it do not need much knowledge to appreciate his very un-Italian like style. He is smooth, polish, effortless and secure and though he is only achieving lowly placing because of the equipment, his natural ability stood out a mile. Enzo Ferrari must have been watching Alboreto’s progress at the front of the Belgian GP on the TV with great pleasure back in Modena. The Ferrari just pulled away lap after lap with no worries from anyone behind, least of all his team-mate, who is not even giving Warwick any trouble. The brave Manfred Winkelhock is striving to keep his ATS-BMW up with the leaders and is a long way ahead of the rest of the field by the time five laps has been covered.
Rosberg is up to fifteenth place. Elio de Angelis is leading the field after the first four cars, but he has Prost and Piquet climbing all over him looking for a way by. Prost scrabbled by only to have his Porsche engine stops with electrical trouble and as an oil leak has developed, dropping onto the hot exhaust system, when he stops the oil ignited and marshals promptly covered the whole car with fire extinguishant. It is now Piquet’s turn to get by the Lotus, which he does on lap nine and immediately began to pull away. On lap 10 Rosberg is tenth. Cecotto retires at the pits at the end of lap two with the Toleman clutch slipping and Patrese stops out on the circuit with an electrical fault. Mansell is being embarrassed by the two Tyrrells for the Lotus-Renault is suffering clutch slip and cannot put any real power through the back wheels, so that Tyrrell’s young lads are enjoying themselves hanging on to the tail of the Lotus with their under-powered Cosworth engined cars. BMW let the rear Arrows down by suffering valve trouble so Boutsen is out on lap 16, having made a previous visit to the pits and Ghinzani retires the new Osella with no drive to the rear wheels after leading Mansell and the two Tyrrells. Baldi in the Spirit and Palmer in the RAM are bringing up the tail end, the English doctor being lapped by Alboreto on lap 14 just as Mansell give up the embarrassing struggle and retires. On lap 16 Laffite spins off into the sand at the ess-bend before the pits, due to his Honda engine cutting in at the wrong moment catching him out. Rosberg is now eighth. Near the back of the field Tambay is having as bad a time as he has in practice with brakes pulling sideways, gears not engaging, tyres not gripping and handling feeling awful and an engine that do not want to pull properly. He could barely keep ahead of the Tyrrells and on lap 24 he heads for the pits for a tyre change, just before he is lapped by Alboreto’s Ferrari. Rosberg is now sixth and Palmer has been lapped twice by the leader. On the next lap Arnoux stops to change tyres and by the time he rejoins the race Alboreto is nearly a lap ahead.
All this time Derek Warwick has been holding a secure second place, driving smoothly and tidily for the edges of the track are getting very slippery and a moment’s inattention or a few inches off line could spell disaster. Winkelhock’s moment of glory in fourth place fades as Piquet caught and passes the ATS after his lowly starting position and on lap 26 the incredible Rosberg caught and passes the ATS, putting the Williams-Honda into fourth place with the race not yet at half-distance. Lauda stops for new tyres on lap 30, which prove to be a waste of time as on lap 36 his Porsche engine blow up! Rosberg is now putting pressure on Piquet and as he tries to find a way by the two of them he nearly run over Baldi in the Spirit, but the Williams is ahead on lap 32, now in third place. When Warwick make his scheduled stop for new tyres on lap 33, Rosberg moves into second place. From 21st on lap one to second before half distance is heroic stuff by any standards, regardless of other people’s misfortune, and the leading Ferrari is in sight, but not close enough to challenge. Warwick rejoins the race in a safe third place, knowing he would get his second place back when the Williams-Honda stops for tyres. Alboreto has just lapped Brundle in the Tyrrell and Fabi’s Brabham when he get on the loose stuff on lap 36 and has a big moment off onto the grass, but he recovers and carries on looking completely unflurried. On lap 39 Alboreto heads up the pit lane and a swift tyre change by the Ferrari mechanics see him back into the race without losing the lead. When Rosberg stops for tyres on lap 43 not only does Warwick regain second place but Piquet, de Angelis and Bellof goes by as well. The young German newcomer to Formula 1 is really enjoying himself and hanging on to the Lotus-Renault of de Angeiis in a very impressive manner and really putting the Roman’s nose out of joint. Arnoux now seems to wake up and piled on speed, staying with Rosberg as the Finn caught up with de Angelis and Bellof.
On lap 54 they go by in the order de Angelis, Bellof, Rosberg, Arnoux, nose to tail, and next time round the order is Arnoux, de Angelis, Rosberg, Bellof! Then the Ferrari and the Williams begin to pull away and menace Piquet who is in third place. Having started everyone off on the pit-stop lark two years ago, Gordon Murray now pulls a new stunt, for Piquet is running through non-stop but with his boost well down and fingers crossed for engine reliability. There is nothing Piquet could do about Arnoux and Rosberg and on lap 64, with only six more to run, Piquet is down into fifth place. Alboreto is serenely in command of the whole affair way out on his own, Warwick is a most worthy second with Arnoux third and the tenacious Rosberg fourth. Hardly has this situation settled itself than Arnoux get off line and spin on the loose stuff, requiring help from the marshals to get going again, but Rosberg and Piquet have gone by. Although the end of the race is in sight it is by no means over, for on lap 67 Piquet’s BMW engine blow up in such a big way that it send the Brabham crashing into the barriers. The uncatchable Alboreto lapped fifth place man de Angelis and starts his last lap with nearly three-quarters of a minute lead over Warwick. In third place is Rosberg and fourth is Arnoux. As the Williams-Honda starts its last lap it spluttered and ran out of petrol before the end of the lap, coasting to a stop and handing third place to Arnoux to complete the Ferrari sandwich with Warwick and the Renault as the filling in a splendid and faultless second place, more worthy in some ways than the two Ferrari drivers, who both have an excursion into the rough stuff in the slippery and tricky conditions. Although Rosberg’s Williams does not get the chequered flag it is classified fourth and Piquet’s Brabham netted 10th place from its position in the crash barriers. As the opening race of the European season the Belgian GP is a most interesting one and if the portents come to pass, we are in for a fine season of Grand Prix racing.