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#400 1984 Austrian Grand Prix

2021-09-12 00:00

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#1984, Fulvio Conti,

#400 1984 Austrian Grand Prix

Not everyone loves the Osterreichring, the beautiful people do not invade it as it is not socially recognised, and many team members and professional

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Wednesday, August 8, 1984, thousands of people go to Monza, at the bedside of Ferrari, the great patient of Formula 1. The Monza circuit transforms into a kind of gigantic consultation place that takes place among the fans, to understand what is happening to the Maranello team. Because what could and should have been a brilliant season has turned into a championship of disappointments, of crises. The question everyone is asking is always the same: why this lack of competitiveness, what is at the root of the negative results? The engine, chassis, aerodynamics, tires, drivers, technicians, and sports management have all been accused. Bitter memories and some fears are recalled, from the infamous 1980 with the 312 T5, which, despite Villeneuve's desperate efforts, earned only eight championship points (compared to Williams' 120), to 1973 when the 312 B2 with Ickx and Merzario seemed like a second-rate car, to the long series of failures in the late 1960s. Answers to doubts and questions are sought. And since it is difficult to extract even a single word from Ferrari in these times, here are the opinions of some experts. Niki Lauda, two-time World Champion with Ferrari and a candidate for another title with McLaren, says:

 

"I don't think it's an engine problem. Or at least not just that. It's the setup of the car, or rather the development, that seems to have lagged behind. Alboreto and Arnoux are very fast drivers. But the first lacks sufficient experience, while the second has never been good as a test driver. And then, I believe that when you take the wrong path, if there are external interferences, it's difficult for the technicians to understand anything. You have to start over, with humility. Now I think Ferrari is making too many changes from race to race, a workload that doesn't allow understanding where the real problem is".

 

For Patrick Tambay, who was fired last year from Maranello, it's also an environmental issue:

 

"There is too much pressure around Ferrari. This affects the team's serenity. I believe that the Maranello team always has enormous potential but can't express it. Also, other teams have made significant progress. Once Ferrari could compensate for all shortcomings with the power of its engine. Now it's at the limit, and if the rest doesn't work well, as it could happen with tires and chassis, it becomes difficult to recover. Moreover, I'm convinced that there are political interferences on the technicians who no longer find unanimity of intent and turn against each other".

 

The current Formula 1 technician is Gérard Ducarouge. According to a recent analysis, the ideal car would be a single-seater with a Tag-Porsche engine, Michelin tires, and a Lotus chassis, precisely what the French designer prepared.

 

"I've found myself several times in situations similar to those in which Ferrari technicians must operate now. And I assure you it's problematic; you end up confusing all ideas. I'm convinced that the Maranello team is not far from the best. There is only a need to act calmly".

 

No one, that's clear, wants to interfere with Ferrari's work: there is too much respect for the Old Man and his collaborators. But it seems that everyone, more or less subtly, has called into question the sports management of the team. The political interferences mentioned are certainly those of Marco Piccinini, a skilled and faithful representative of the company on the racing fields, but the only real interlocutor of the decision-making power, that is, Enzo Ferrari. The remedy would then be to bring the technicians and the Modenese constructor back to a more direct and responsible dialogue, creating a relaxed atmosphere that can start a prompt and possible recovery. In the days leading up to the Austrian Grand Prix, Niki Lauda spends time on the island of Ibiza, where he has lived for two years and bought a house for $240.000, his secret refuge with his family, seven consecutive days of vacation, the only ones for two years. This is how the McLaren driver prepares for the great challenge with his teammate, Alain Prost. The world title is at stake. 

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Lauda needed this rest, not so much for psychological reasons but for physical reasons. The only way to recharge from the stress of races, continuous travel, the commitment that never ends if you want to stay on top. Lauda calls his wife Marlene and the two children, who are playing with some friends, for a moment. Marlene is always beautiful, with blonde hair tied in a bun at the nape, jeans, and a shirt outside her pants. She is reserved, seems to be in a hurry. Niki Lauda says, with an affectionate voice:

 

"She's getting crazier, living in this isolated place with the kids, waiting for her husband to come home, sometimes".

 

Then the children approach, both blond, with curls, Lucas almost six years old and Mathias three. They speak using words in three languages: German, English, and Spanish. The youngest has a toy gun. He asks his father:

 

"Show what you do to Prost".

 

And the child pretends to shoot. Then, smiling, Lauda says:

 

"No need to exaggerate, but this Frenchman is really a tough opponent, perhaps the most difficult I've found. Because he goes fast, knows how to prepare the car well, and makes fewer mistakes than commonly thought. I have only one great advantage over him; I already have two Formula 1 world titles, he has yet to achieve the first. And I assure you, that's not a small thing. Tension, fear of making mistakes, even bad luck can play nasty tricks. I have nothing to lose, even if I care about the third title as if it were the first. After all, the rest of my career depends on the final result, staying with McLaren, a possible move to another top team. And, not to be underestimated, future earnings. I absolutely don't intend to be underpaid. There are protagonists in much less risky sports than ours who earn more. TV and movie characters who receive fabulous fees. I don't find it scandalous to ask for a $3 million contract if my performance proportionally and perhaps even more than compensates for those who spend these amounts".

 

These are discussions that make sense, have their logic, if you look at them from the perspective of those who make them. But words are not enough at this moment. The question arises spontaneously. Who will win this World Championship?

 

"Honestly, I'm convinced I can do it. I don't know why, but I feel I have good chances. For this reason, I have frozen all negotiations with other teams interested in hiring me. I want to wait until the last moment, see who still comes forward. Now I just think about driving, try to regain maximum concentration. I'm improving from race to race with turbocharged cars. And on Sunday at Zeltweg, in my Austrian Grand Prix, I will try everything to surpass my teammate and opponent. The team has given us complete freedom of action. And I won't back down in this fascinating challenge".

 

A few days later, on Thursday, August 16, 1984, on the eve of the Austrian Grand Prix, fans surround Michele Alboreto, enveloping him in a giant tricolor flag and taking repeated photographs. The ritual is always the same: the Grand Prix, which this year is the twelfth race of the Formula 1 World Championship, can be considered, along with those of Imola and Monza, the third Italian race. Ferrari fans come, as usual, from all over and by all means. And they camp along the circuit surrounded by woods, ignoring mosquitoes, intermittent rain, and the sticky mud that forms under their feet. It must be said that Ferrari fans are unique, inimitable, driven by a passion that the negative season does not seem to have scratched. Not even when they ask the Italian driver how the race will go, and the answer includes only a question and a hope:

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"Who knows? Let's hope for the best".

 

The Maranello team still has this opportunity to reconnect with the best in the standings. It has worked hard, even though it cannot bring substantially modified cars. In Zeltweg, there are various types of single-seaters: one with the configuration already seen in previous races, two with the modified rear suspension seen at Hockenheim, one elongated in wheelbase. Thirteen more centimeters thanks to a spacer inserted between the engine and the gearbox. René Arnoux says:

 

"It seems to go quite well, but only Alboreto has tried it".

 

Here, all the hopes of fans and the team are placed in these changes and in the tires that could be more competitive. Otherwise, nothing is heard other than McLaren, the duel between Prost and Lauda. The Frenchman responded to the interview given by the Austrian, saying:

 

"I am not afraid; I am calm even if Niki is running around the house. That is certainly not my problem; I just hope not to have trouble with the car, then I will think about the rest. In any case, there are still five races left in the season. There is time to recover from a possible defeat. Anyway, who thinks about losing? If I win here, I'm good. Even if not mathematically, this could be a decisive success".

 

The only one not happy with this limited English team with a Porsche engine is Elio De Angelis, especially since on this same track, the Italian driver secured a beautiful victory in a sprint against Rosberg in 1982.

 

"If that were to happen again, it would be chaos for me. It's not impossible. I have a car that is very fast; I still consider myself in the running for the title".

 

The optimism of the Italian driver is justified by some news regarding Lotus. The English team has signed a contract to have Renault engines for another three years. It seems that Gérard Ducarouge, for this reason, decided to stay, ensuring continuity in the work that has already yielded good results, at least in terms of speed performance. Another piece of news concerns Tag, the company that commissioned Porsche to build the turbo engine used by McLaren. It has been decided that the engine will not be sold to other teams next year, so Lauda and Prost will continue to have exclusive access. There are also some teams that have prepared new types of wings. All aerodynamic systems that will be tested during the two days of practice. On Friday, August 17, 1984: Alain Prost and Niki Lauda make Nelson Piquet's anniversary less cheerful. The Brazilian driver, celebrating his 33rd birthday, had the best time halfway through the first qualifying session of the Austrian Grand Prix. When he gets out of his Brabham, everyone approaches to congratulate and wish him well, but he, very realistic, had said:

 

"We must wait until the end to celebrate. I'm sure someone will pass me. And on the second day, if the track continues to improve, the situation will ruminate again".

 

He had not finished speaking. The South American, who already saw Niki Lauda take the provisional pole position, was immediately ousted by his teammate, Alain Prost. Niki became nervous, but he made the best of it, smiling a bit bitterly.

 

"My engine consumed more water than gasoline. It didn't go so well even though the car was perfect. Everything is still to be decided for the pole position".

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Prost seems to be the strongest at the moment. Invincible in terms of speed with an equal car, the Frenchman sets a stunning time: 1'26"203 at a fantastic average speed of 248 km/h, shattering the circuit record and annihilating the record with flat-bottomed cars. Alain Prost shows all his confidence and joy, stating:

 

"I am particularly pleased because Niki and I had two cars with very different configurations this morning. We worked thoroughly in the free practice, and in the end, we found ourselves with the same car. This means we are on par even as testers. It's a good injection of confidence for the race".

 

The tests once again highlighted the superiority of Michelin tires. De Angelis' Lotus, the first among the cars with Goodyear tires, is 1.3 seconds behind, an unacceptable gap for the Italian driver who considers his black car perfect and faster than any other car. But the negative result of Ferrari is certainly not only a matter of tires: Alboreto is eleventh, and Arnoux fourteenth, even behind Patrese's Alfa Romeo. The Italian driver leads the 126 C4 with a longer wheelbase, which performs slightly better than the other traditional model entrusted to the Frenchman. The crisis is increasingly deep and undeniable, unfortunately without a logical explanation. Probably many problems are accumulating, from fuel to chassis, engine, tires, to aerodynamics. The drivers, even if they wanted to talk or if they were free to give their explanations freely, wouldn't know what to say anymore. It is evident that they are bitter and disappointed. In this regard, a rumor has been circulating for some time in the paddock, suggesting that one of the two, despite confirmation from the Maranello team, could leave at the end of the season. It is always Niki Lauda's name that comes up in many quarters, as a remedy, especially in the tuning of the cars. Considering that the salaries of the Ferrari drivers are currently paid by the same sponsor as Lauda's, the move theoretically seems possible. 

 

But one must consider the hostility that the Austrian could encounter within the Maranello team (it seems that the sports director, Marco Piccinini, blocked a meeting requested by Niki Lauda with Enzo Ferrari). Nor should we underestimate the fact that Niki needs to have an alternative within reach when negotiating the contract with McLaren to get the money he demands. Staying with the present, it can be predicted that McLaren will once again perform a solo. The only point of interest is the family fight between Lauda and Prost and possible entries behind the two candidates for the world title. On Friday, the young Austrian Gerhard Berger (protagonist of the European Formula 3 championship) makes his debut driving a second ATS. Berger is immediately lucky and does quite well. Better than his teammate Winkelhock, who is forced to use Berger's car to qualify since his is absolutely uncompetitive. On Saturday, August 18, 1984: Nelson Piquet confirms himself as a great driver. The Brazilian secures pole position. The two-time World Champion, whose 32nd-anniversary celebration had been spoiled the day before by Prost and Lauda, returns the favor to the two rivals. Piquet, with his Brabham-BMW, surpasses the two McLaren drivers in the final minutes, leaving Prost 0.03s behind. The feat allows him to start ahead of everyone for the sixth time this season. If Alain Prost qualifies in second place, Niki Lauda is relegated to fourth by the increasingly brilliant Elio De Angelis, a driver who is proving his maturity and champion's sensitivity race after race. However, one should not be fooled into thinking that a Brabham and a Lotus have managed to insert themselves into the family duel between the McLaren pillars. Piquet himself says:

 

"If Prost and Lauda do not make mistakes in preparing their cars, if they do not have technical problems or accidents, they will hardly be disturbed. The McLaren, in race trim, is faster than my Brabham. It can use a smaller wing prior to the ground effect obtained by aerodynamics. We will become competitive again at Zandvoort and Monza".

 

So, the theme is repetitive: a duel between Lauda and Prost. However, the Frenchman is cautious:

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"I fear Piquet, who is very fast, and also the Renaults because they have the same tires as us, which are by far the best. Then there is also the danger from Lauda. There will be no team tactics, but it is clear that everything will depend on the early stages of the Grand Prix. It would be stupid to behave suicidally, also because there is a fuel consumption problem here that should not be underestimated. You cannot force the pace too much without taking risks".

 

Niki Lauda, on the other hand, is more optimistic and admits:

 

"I made a mistake. The track has changed; the tires had more grip. I set up the car wrong, and that's why I couldn't progress. In any case, our cars are clearly superior; there should be no surprises. As for the fight between me and Prost, there are no team orders; everyone is free to run their own race".

 

It is evident that the opinions and intentions of the two McLaren drivers or their interpretation of the sports director's advice are different. It must be taken into account that on a track where the averages approach 250 km/h, mechanical failures are lurking. Prost had to drive the reserve car due to a piston failure, one engine was broken by Tambay, one by Laffite, and Alfa Romeo broke the turbines on the cars of Patrese and Cheever. No major trouble for Ferrari, but the Maranello team has not made even a small step forward. On the contrary, Alboreto and Arnoux are running slower than the day before, a sign that all the changes made to the cars have not served. The Italian driver starts in twelfth position, the Frenchman in fifteenth. One of the worst lineups in recent years. René Arnoux admits:

 

"At this point, it's not even difficult to conduct tests; it's not demanding. We just hope the wind changes".

 

Next to the Frenchman, his Ferrari stands with tires full of incredible holes, having completed just one lap. A great advertisement for Goodyear. A small group of Italian fans, perched in the stands right in front of the Ferrari pit, initiates a heavy protest against the Mannello team. This faction of protesters, undoubtedly having learned from soccer (the majority of Ferrari fans are scattered around the circuit, waving red and yellow banners without considering the negative results), takes issue with everyone, shouting loud demands and considerations:

 

"Wooden prancing horse".

 

Referring, of course, to the Ferrari symbol, the prancing horse. Then, addressing the sports director:

 

"Piccinini, resign".

 

And to the technical manager:

 

"Forghieri, stay home".

 

Surprisingly, the attitude towards the drivers is different. For the first time, criticism is directed towards the team rather than the drivers, seen as innocent victims of the situation. One of the agitated fans shouts:

 

"Well done, Alboreto. It's me who should change teams".

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Not even some girls near the Ferrari pit are spared, and they are subjected to unrepeatable epithets. This detail alone qualifies the nature of these pseudo-fans. Similar incidents have occurred in the past during other periods of crisis. It may be fair and logical to feel disappointment for Ferrari lovers given the unfortunate season, but there is always a measure for expressing criticism and opinions. Insults certainly don't encourage a Formula 1 team. Bitterness, yes, but only for the negative results and certainly not for this type of pressure, comments Mauro Forghieri on the situation:

 

"It's useless to talk about tires or anything else. We are completely modifying the car: we haven't yet figured out what the problem is to solve. We work diligently without reaching anything. The only thing we know is that at the beginning of the season, we were at least on par with Lotus, which is now always among the best cars. Now we find ourselves clearly behind. So, it's not about pulling out a magic wand but about proceeding by trial and error, hoping to find a solution to our dilemmas as soon as possible. I feel sorry for the drivers who deserve something more for their efforts".

 

Among the Italian colors, there is only some hope of glory from De Angelis and Teo Fabi, who recorded the seventh-best time. Ferrari and Alfa Romeo are in the middle of the pack, neck and neck. De Cesaris with Ligier is even further back. The Osella, dealing with engine breakdowns, is moving in the opposite direction. Some fare even worse: the two naturally aspirated Tyrrells already racing on their own, being virtually excluded from the World Championship, do not qualify. Bellof's car is even found underweight during checks (537 kilograms) and is therefore disqualified. On Sunday, August 19, 1984, before the start of the Austrian Grand Prix, Elio De Angelis and Huub Rothengatter signal to the race director that their cars have stalled on the starting grid. Derek Ongaro, the race director, presses the button that activates the orange light indicating the need to repeat the starting procedure. However, due to a technical issue, the green light is activated, starting the race, even though some drivers don't take off. All drivers on the left side have to jump over De Angelis' stationary Lotus. Alain Prost takes the lead, followed by Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Keke Rosberg. The race direction decides to display the red flag, interrupting the race. After a quarter of an hour, the Austrian Grand Prix is restarted, still covering the original distance. However, the drivers are allowed to refuel and change tires. Nelson Piquet takes advantage of this opportunity to switch to hard compound tires. In the second start, Alain Prost overtakes Nelson Piquet, but at the chicane, Piquet regains the lead. 

 

Patrick Tambay, Elio De Angelis, Derek Warwick, and Niki Lauda follow. Derek Warwick passes Elio De Angelis in the first lap, while Teo Fabi remains stationary and is overtaken by all other competitors. In the following laps, Niki Lauda overtakes Elio De Angelis, who is then passed by Ayrton Senna, dropping to sixth place. Senna loses sixth place to the Italian driver of Lotus in the eighth lap. In the ninth lap, Elio De Angelis overtakes Derek Warwick, while Niki Lauda attacks Patrick Tambay at the Bosch curve, then passes him at the Texaco curve. Tambay decides to return to the pits to change tires, dropping to tenth place. In the 17th lap, Derek Warwick also returns to the pits to change tires but loses an exhaust upon restarting, forcing him to retire from the race. Meanwhile, Nelson Piquet continues in the lead, followed by Alain Prost 1.5 seconds behind, then Niki Lauda, Elio De Angelis, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Patrick Tambay. In the following laps, Elio De Angelis is forced to reduce turbo pressure to preserve the engine's durability. However, his race ends in the 28th lap due to the explosion of the Renault engine. Nevertheless, the driver doesn't stop immediately but returns to the pits, flooding the track with oil. Meanwhile, Patrick Tambay passes Nigel Mansell. Nelson Piquet, passing over the oil stain left by Elio De Angelis' car, manages to keep his Brabham on track, while Alain Prost, struggling with his car due to being stuck in fourth gear, loses control and hits the guardrail at the Rindt curve in the 32nd lap. In the 32nd lap, Patrick Tambay exploits the difficulties of the Toleman's Hart engine to overtake Ayrton Senna and move into third place. In the next lap, Nigel Mansell is forced to retire due to a similar problem with the Renault engine. In the 35th lap, Ayrton Senna also stops due to a lack of oil pressure in the engine lubrication circuit. In the 40th lap, Niki Lauda overtakes Nelson Piquet. 

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The Brazilian, to reach the finish without changing tires, had decided to increase the pace. Patrick Tambay, Michele Alboreto, Teo Fabi, and Riccardo Patrese follow. Only the top three drivers are on full laps. In the 42nd lap, at the exit of the Bosch curve, Lauda loses the fourth gear. The Austrian raises his arm to indicate the intention to retire, but miraculously manages to engage both the third and fifth gears. Therefore, the McLaren driver decides to continue the race. In the next lap, Patrick Tambay, who was third and had good chances of taking the lead given the difficulties of the top two, is forced to retire due to a Renault engine failure. In the remaining laps, Niki Lauda is forced to reduce his pace, but he is not attacked by Nelson Piquet, who is unaware of the technical difficulties of the McLaren. In the 49th lap, Riccardo Patrese runs out of fuel because he hadn't lowered the turbo pressure earlier. This allows the two Arrows drivers, Thierry Boutsen and Marc Surer, to contend for fifth place. Niki Lauda wins the Austrian Grand Prix for the first time, crossing the finish line ahead of Nelson Piquet and Michele Alboreto. Teo Fabi finishes the race in fourth place, despite starting from the last position after having trouble at the start. The fifth and sixth positions allow Arrows to score their first points with the BMW engine. He had won in circuits around the world. He only lacked, to complete a prestigious list of achievements, the Austrian Grand Prix, his home race. 

 

And Professor Niki Lauda fills the gap with a splendid race, characterized by skill, sensitivity, cunning, and courage, thus taking the lead in the World Championship: 48 points against the 43.5 of Alain Prost, his rival and teammate at McLaren. It is a success built with patience and tenacity. A success that arises like a mosaic: commitment, physical and psychological preparation, will. And now, at 35, Lauda has secured his third Formula 1 world title. A remarkable comeback after abandoning racing for two seasons and returning to the track to start over, even against the skepticism of those who didn't believe in him. Lauda crosses the finish line waving his right hand. He is happy. Around the Austrian driver, a crowd erupts in jubilation, with applause from both old and new fans, the approval of those who may have never liked him but respect him. Austrian and Italian flags, as well as Ferrari flags, wave for him, shaken by fans who haven't forgotten the successes and satisfactions achieved with the Maranello team. Lauda's victory on the spectacular Zeltweg circuit—like many times in life—depended on the troubles of others: his competitors were eliminated by accidents, breakdowns, and errors. But this is precisely the key to explaining the success of the Austrian driver who, while not the fastest overall, handles the car better, seizes opportunities, and makes fewer mistakes. Therefore, it is a success also due to reliability. And to think that at a certain point, just after taking the lead and surpassing Piquet, who had been in the lead until then, Lauda feared being forced to retire.

 

"I heard a terrible noise. It seemed like the gearbox was exploding, and I thought I would have to retire. I even signaled to the cars behind me to pass, and I felt a great sadness inside me. Then, almost miraculously, the gearbox started working again, and the McLaren began to move almost as before. When I realized that even Piquet couldn't catch up, and everyone else was far behind, I managed the advantage. I couldn't have defended against an attack because I was without fourth gear".

 

Lauda remains realistic, as is his habit.

 

"Of course, now my position is better. But it's useless to talk about the championship already. There are still four races to go. I just have to try to win again in Zandvoort. If I manage to win in the Netherlands too, then the situation will be different. This time, however, it was very tough; I drove the last laps with my heart in my mouth. The whole season was at stake. It went well".

 

The race didn't end well for Prost, a driver who is certainly not favored by luck. Second until lap 28, behind Piquet, the Frenchman went off the track but later denied making a mistake.

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"There was oil on the track left by De Angelis' Lotus engine, at the Rindt corner, just before the pit lane. No one signaled the danger with the appropriate flags. I saw the Brabham skid, almost sideways. I was driving with one hand; I kept the right one on the gearbox because the fourth gear had been popping out since the beginning. I couldn't correct the trajectory or shift to third gear. I spun, and then my McLaren leaned against the guardrail, in the opposite direction to the track. The championship is not compromised, but now everything becomes more difficult".

 

Piquet, however, partially contradicts Prost's account:

 

"The Frenchman made an incredible mistake. The yellow and red flags to signal oil on the track were clearly visible. I slowed down, and despite that, I almost went off. He tried to pass me and couldn't control his car anymore. For me, he handed the World Championship victory to Austria".

 

Alain Prost doesn't despair; he believes he can still recover, engage in a great battle with his teammate. But before leaving the circuit, with a dark expression, he lets slip a half-admission of his weakness.

 

"In all these years, Niki Lauda has learned to win World Championships, I have only learned to lose them".

 

For the first time in a while, smiles can be seen at Ferrari. Alboreto's third place is like a breath of fresh air, even though no one in the Maranello team is deluding themselves. The placement was mainly determined by the troubles of other competitors. Everyone applauds the Italian driver. Michele raced in precarious health because he had a fever the night before and was weakened. His race was exemplary, also because the car still showed poor road holding.

 

"The engine was really fantastic, but in terms of grip, we are still far behind. I'm happy with the result; I would have signed for this third place blindly before the race. Now we just have to work".

 

For Arnoux, another dull race. The Frenchman probably made a mistake in choosing tires, using a set that was too soft and deteriorated quickly. The Ferrari driver had to stop at the pits to change them, and his pursuit became futile as he climbed to seventh place. In the end, even the harder tires, the same ones used by Alboreto, were completely ruined. However, bad luck also struck the French driver. Just before the race, a fuel tank rupture was discovered on his car. Arnoux had to race with the reserve car, and this certainly did not help him have a good race. Engineer Forghieri reiterates:

 

"We absolutely don't want to delude ourselves because we know very well that we haven't solved our problems yet. There has been a slight improvement, especially in tire utilization, but we have to make a great effort to try to climb back up".

 

Even less optimistic is the analysis of the sports director, Marco Piccinini:

 

"We owe the result mainly to the driver. Here in Zeltweg, we haven't shown that we are competitive. On the contrary, it seems that the gap between the best and us has further increased. Let's not despair, but it's clear that it will be difficult to turn the tide".

 

The only positive words for Ferrari are spoken by Niki Lauda when asked for an opinion on the Maranello team.

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"I am convinced that Ferrari will recover well. This year has gone like this; McLaren is clearly superior to everyone. But I think that by the end of the season, Ferrari fans may still have some small satisfaction. It's not a fight for the World Championship, but it would be enough to regain the serenity and the performance of the cars. Then, another year will see. Formula 1 is like this, with ups and downs. You can't expect a team to always stay at the top. We must also consider the work done by others. And it must be said that in our championship, many major car manufacturers are now directly or indirectly involved. It's difficult to emerge, especially it's problematic to remain always at a certain level".

 

It ended badly once again for Alfa Romeo. Cheever retired from the race while in a good position (he was ninth) from the early stages; Patrese finished tenth but stopped on the track, a lap and a half from the end, due to a lack of fuel. The Italian driver had fought to reach fifth place, perhaps wasting too much of the precious fuel that the Milanese team's engine easily swallows, and then he was forced to stop. At least both drivers have been confirmed for next year. For the first time since his return to Formula 1, Niki Lauda finds himself at the top of the World Championship standings. It's a position that the Austrian driver doesn't fear. Every time he has reached it, except for 1976 (the year of the terrible Nürburgring accident, when he left the title to James Hunt, giving up racing in Japan on the waterlogged track), he has always managed to achieve the final goal. But Alain Prost, his great rival in the family challenge, believes that power can wear down the nerves of those who hold it.

 

"Now it will be Niki to bear the weight of responsibility, all the pressures that someone who is the top candidate for the title is subjected to. I, on the other hand, can concentrate on the fight, prepare for the decisive attack. I had a lot of bad luck, always, even in Austria. Two broken engines on Saturday and before the race, the gearbox that didn't work during the Grand Prix".

 

Lauda doesn't think the same way:

 

"Even one point of advantage can be decisive. I, halfway through the season, was quite far behind. I seemed clearly detached. I recovered, and I'm satisfied. I think Prost is still superior in terms of speed per lap, but I don't think I'm inferior in the race. There are no special secrets: just use your brain and not just press the accelerator".

 

Lauda has achieved a very important goal in Zeltweg. His stay in the English team for next year was problematic. Ron Dennis, McLaren's manager, given Prost's positive results, wanted to halve Lauda's salary. The British executive had sounded out the environment; he had also talked at length with Marco Piccinini, sports director of Ferrari, to find out if there was any truth in the rumors that the Maranello team was interested in Lauda. All this to propose a much lower figure than the one requested by the driver. Now Ron Dennis will be forced to reconsider his plans because a World Champion Lauda will become an indispensable element for the team, especially for sponsors who see him as a safe investment. Niki now seems to be in an iron barrel, even if the feat is not yet complete.

 

"Four and a half points of advantage are not an abyss, but they will allow me to drive with a certain tranquility. Now it is Prost who has to chase, and I can assure you that it's not easy when there's the pressure to absolutely achieve results. If I don't have mechanical problems or unexpected accidents, now I can manage this small advantage with the possibility, if the opportunity arises, to deliver the final knockout. Prost is a tough opponent, perhaps the most difficult to overcome that I have ever encountered. However, I believe that at this point, he has become more vulnerable".

 

Departing for Salzburg, where he will rest for a few more days in his home, Lauda begins to take stock. 

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Another victory, after the four already conquered during the season (South Africa, Dijon, Brands Hatch, and Zeltweg), and the third world title could be his. In addition, he would reach a total of 23 in the special ranking of multi-victorious drivers, alongside Jack Brabham and Jackie Stewart. Juan Manuel Fangio, with his 25 victories, still seems distant. Furthermore, the Austrian can count on a contract for the next year equal to the current one, rumored to be $3.000.000 per season. An increase compared to the amount that was offered to him before he fought for the World Championship. The discussion remains open for a possible move to another team. The rumors about his intention to return to Ferrari are not entirely baseless. A driver of Lauda's caliber, especially as a test driver, could have a decisive impact for a team going through a crisis, and the excellent third place of Michele Alboreto in Austria has certainly not lifted it. Mauro Forghieri himself, after complimenting the Italian driver for his placement, says after the race:

 

"Of course, there are few champions like Lauda".


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