Friday morning is notable for a number of spins and excursions onto the grass and through the cornfields. Teo Fabi spins at the Rindt Curve and goes backwards into the Armco, escaping unhurt, but his Brabham (BT53/5) needs new wheels, suspension members and other ancillaries, though the monocoque is undamaged. Bellof’s engine brakes in his Tyrrell and after laying a trail of oil he spins off into the in-field, ending up sharply against a tyre barrier, and de Angelis goes harvesting in the spare Lotus (95T/4) right at the end of the morning. His race car (95T/3) has already broken its Renault engine. In the first qualifying session it is soon obvious that the issue lay between Prost and Lauda with the McLaren MP4/2 cars and Piquet in the sprint Brabham (BT53/3). With Fabi’s car being repaired the two Brabham drivers have to share the T-car, so Piquet does his qualifying runs first and then the pedals and steering are re-adjusted to suit the little Italian and Fabi does his runs. Although Piquet is third, behind Prost and Lauda, there does not seem to be much anxiety in the Brabham camp over the fact that Piquet cannot have a final go for pole-position in the dying minutes of the qualifying hour. There is an air of tomorrow will be time enough about the team, the whole Brabham pit area exuding confidence, both from Gordon Murray about the car, and Paul Roche about the BMW engines. Piquet is always confident. The fastest lap in last year’s Austrian GP practice was 1'29"871, by Tambay in a Ferrari, and already Prost, Lauda and Piquet are into the 1'26"0, Prost’s best time of 1'26"203 representing an average speed of 154.193 mph. Apart from the Ferraris being desperately slow, for Ferraris, everything is pretty orderly, and it is a change to see Laffite up in the first ten with his Williams-Honda, while once again Ayrton Senna is up near the big boys with his Toleman-Hart. Saturday is clear and cool, and the crowds are swelling visibly, with much publicity being given to the possibility of Lauda winning his own Grand Prix, something he had never done. The morning test session goes off all right, apart from a few breakages here and there, some of which are repairable, and some are not.
Berger is unable to take part in the final hour, due to gearbox trouble, but he has qualified well on Friday, and Ghinzani has to miss the final hour due to trouble with the Osellas. To break into the 1'26"0 is the objective of the top runners, and de Angelis dies this with a splendid 1'26"318, which puts him third fastest overall, and Tambay got in a 1'26"748, still in the Renault T-car, so we now have five drivers in this elite bracket, which represents average speeds of well over 152 mph and the McLarens have pushed the speed-trap times up to 183 mph. Amidst all this high speed at the top end, the bottom of the grid is struggling along at an average of a mere 138 mph. The two Tyrrell-Cosworths are totally outclassed and neither Johansson nor Bellof ever looked like scraping onto the starting grid, there being 28 aspirants for the 26 places. For the first time since the Monaco GP in 1967 there is a starting grid without a Cosworth V8 engine on it. Historic indeed. In addition, it is going to be the first starting grid with a complete entry of turbocharged engines on it, and it is ironical that Ken Tyrrell is the leader of the turbocharged opposition some years ago, who said that turbocharging would not catch on. As if fate is against Tyrrell and his Cosworth engines, during the final qualifying hour Bellof is out in the spare Tyrrell car when the scrutineering lottery picks on number 4 to be weighed as it comes into the pit lane. It comes out at 537 kgs, 3 kgs under the legal weight, and no matter how the scales are surveyed the answer keeps coming up at 537 kgs, so the Stewards of the Meeting has no option but to exclude number 4 car from the whole meeting, as the rules require. So not only does the last Cosworth powered Formula One cars leave the scene through sheer lack of power, but the last one of all is disqualified for cheating. As if Ken Tyrrell doesn’t have enough problems with officialdom already, without being caught out on a simple thing like the weight during qualifying. Quite early on in the final hour on Saturday afternoon, Piquet has gone out in the Brabham T-car and posted 1'26"49, which is quicker than his Friday time, and then he goes out on his second set of qualifying tyres and does 1'26"173, which snatches pole-position away from Prost and there is nothing the Frenchman can do about it. That confident air in the Brabham pit on Friday afternoon is not illusory.
Sunday morning is a bit heavy and sultry, but fine weather is promised and during the half-hour warm-up period from 10.30 to 11 am there are a few problems, but with the race due to start at 2.30 pm there is time to sort them out. Prost has his Porsche engine blow up, and a new one has to be installed, and Winkelhock breaks his ATS gearbox and that has to be changed. For everyone else it is a case of final preparation for the race. In full race-trim lap times are some five seconds slower and the maximum through the pit-straight speed trap is down from 183 mph to a mere 175 mph. Before the competitors left the pit lane to go round to the formation grid, the FISA expects the current leaders in the Drivers World Championship to do a parade for the benefit of the spectators, but every time this has deteriorated into a shambles, with some drivers using the extra lap or two for test purposes, others undecide as to how many laps they are supposed to do, or how fast to go, and all told the whole thing is a joke. The public would probably appreciate the drivers going round slowly, without their protective gear, in the order of the points situation, but that seems to be more than Formula One is capable of organising. Eventually 25 of the 26 starters leave the pit lane and form up on the grid, the missing car being the ATS-BMW of Winkelhock. Having fitted another gearbox and re-assembled the whole back end the gear-selection does not work, and it is too late to start all over again. Piquet leads the field round on its parade lap and all 25 cars stop on the starting grid, the lights flashes and instantly there is a schemozzle in the mid-field as de Angelis fails to get his Lotus into gear and Tambay is blocked behind him. While Fabi and Rosberg jink around to the side, Laffite comes to a stop. The whole start has been unsatisfactory, and the starter aborts the start with the orange light, but the first few rows has long gone, racing away up the hill, while the rest trickles off, knowing there is going to be a re-start.
On that abortive lap the Dutchman Rothengatter, in the Spirit car, spins off onto the grass and while the cars are regrouped, he is towed back and dusted down and put back on the grid. The situation is quite clear, the race is going to be restarted as a new race, and the distance will be reduced from 52 laps to 51 laps. This time all goes well, and Piquet leads away, with Prost, Tambay, Warwick, de Angelis, and Lauda in hot pursuit. Things soon settle down into a Michelin race, as de Angelis drops back, and then it is Piquet and Prost out on their own, followed by Tambay and Lauda. Vying for fifth place are Warwick, Senna and de Angelis, the Lotus driver hanging on valiantly. By ten laps the Lotus driver has got the better of Senna’s Toleman and Warwick’s Renault and is in a strong fifth place, but a long way back from the leaders, Piquet and Prost being out on their own. Lauda has passed Tambay, which makes the Frenchman call at the pits for a new set of Michelins, and it begins to be noticeable that the wily Austrian is now matching the speed of the two tearaways who are out in front. As everyone in Formula One racing knows, never underestimate Niki Lauda, and when you realise that the leaders are not getting away from him and he is lying third you have to be prepared for anything. Ayrton Senna is doing a fine job in sixth place, hounding Derek Warwick, and the Hampshire man must be a bit piqued at seeing a Toleman-Hart in his works Renault mirrors so consistently, having left the Toleman team last year for a place in the Renault team. He stands the pressure for a number of laps and then dives into the pits for new tyres, leaving Senna in fifth place, but two laps later the Renault engine expires and that is the end of Warwick’s race. Already the field is depleted by others, the two Osellas going out early, followed by Laffite whose Honda engine failed, and then Rosberg simply gives up with depression at the way his Williams-Honda is going.
At the moment the Achilles-heel of the dominant McLaren-Porsches seems to be the McLaren gearbox, and the more power and torque that the Weissach Porsche engineers produce the more marginal becomes the gearbox. After only a handful of laps Prost is finding it necessary to hold his car in fourth gear, the two successive starts not helping matters. Piquet is still leading the race, driving on his mirrors, and setting his pace by the McLarens, for he can now see Lauda in third spot, but the World Champion is a master at letting the others set the pace, and he looks very comfortable out in front, with the two red and white cars from Woking equally space behind him. As he rounds the Rindt Curve at the end of lap 29 there is a trace of oil left by the broken Renault engine in the Lotus of de Angelis, which has trickled into the pits at the end of lap 28, with a merry little oil fire burning away around the back of the car. In a flash the leading Brabham gives a twitch, which Piquet catches instantly, but when the second place McLaren slides on the oil Prost only has one hand on the wheel, his right hand is on the gear lever, and that is his undoing; the McLaren spins and stalls on the outside of the curve without hitting the barriers, but the Frenchman’s race is over. It isn’t over for Piquet, however, for no sooner has one red and white car gone from his mirrors than another appears, as Lauda moves into second place, and of all the people in Formula One the last one you need in your mirrors is the crafty and experienced Lauda. We now have the two best tacticians in racing in first and second places and the gap is closing, which Piquet knows only too well as he looks in his mirrors each time on the run down past the pits. Piquet’s tyres are wearing down, having been stressed during his battle with Prost, whereas the crafty Lauda has preserved his during the opening stages, and he is now in good form. Closer and closer he gets to the blue and white Brabham as they come up to lap Alboreto’s Ferrari, and on lap 40 Lauda goes by into the lead, to the cheers of his compatriots.
Knowing he cannot fight back Piquet eased off to make sure of second place, but on lap 41 it is strange that Lauda has not lapped the Ferrari ahead of him, and he seems to have slowed at the same time as Piquet slows. It is the McLaren Achilles-heel, the gearbox. As he drives lap 42 Lauda virtually hears a bang from the back of the car as something brakes in the gearbox and he lifts off thinking it is all over, but then finds that the only thing wrong is that fourth gear is inoperative, though whether any broken bits are about to get tangled up inside he has no idea. With typical Lauda finesse and driving with velvet gloves, he nurses the car along without putting more strain on the gears than is necessary to stay ahead of the Brabham. There is no drama, no gesticulating, in fact no signs that anything is wrong, so that neither Piquet nor his pit staff could guess at anything amiss. It all looks as though Lauda is easing things off to cruise home ahead of the Brabham with its worn rear tyres. All this time Tambay has been going great guns since his stop for new tyres and has worked his way back into a fine third place, gaining as much as six seconds a lap on Lauda, but it all comes to nought when the Renault engine blows up on lap 43, almost within sight of the finish. Lauda has slowed down so much that Jonathan Palmer actually passes him with the RAM-Hart, and everyone thought the wily old bird was coasting home, including Piquet, otherwise he would have dived into the pits for a new set of tyres and gone like hell for the last 10 laps, and might even have caught the ailing McLaren. As Lauda crosses the line after 51 laps to win his first Austrian GP and his 23rd in total, mayhem breaks out in his gearbox and as he finishes his slowing-down lap and turns into the pit lane the jangling noise can be heard from quite a long way off. Only four cars complete the full distance, Alboreto’s Ferrari in third place, nearly a lap behind, and close behind him is Fabi’s Brabham.
The little Italian has stalled at the start and got going long after everyone has gone and then driven a tenacious race right up through the field, profiting every time someone retired. Patrese has struggled along manfully with his rather slow Alfa Romeo, and by keeping on pegging away has inherited fifth place, only to lose it on the penultimate lap when his car runs out of petrol losing him five places. For a change the backmarkers run reliably and consistently, and the two Arrows-BMWs finish within inches of one another in a race for the line and fifth place, the advantage just going to Boutsen, with Surer sixth. The two RAM-Harts also run right through reliably, which make a change for drivers Palmer and Alliot, but Arnoux’s performance in the Ferrari is best forgotten, finishing a lap behind the winner after a stop for new tyres. At least Alboreto salvaged third place, but it is black crepe armbands all round for the many Italians who has come to the Osterreichring. So intriguing has been the race between the two fastest men in the game (Piquet and Prost) and then the two master tacticians (Piquet and Lauda), that a lot of activity by lesser mortals is overshadowed. Senna’s performance with the Toleman-Hart is first rate, fighting off a strong challenge from Mansell, and then another from Tambay, but eventually the Hart engine loses power, and he stops before it blows up. Both of his challengers are let down by their Renault engines. From the back of the grid the smiling Rothengatter is delayed for a long while in the pits while the Spirit’s exhaust system is repaired, a legacy of his off-track excursion in the brief first race. He eventually returns to the track, far too far behind to have any hope of being classified but is still running at the finish. A very happy young man is Gerhard Berger, the last to be classified as a finisher, having lost a lot of time with gearbox problems, and doing most of the race without the use of second and fourth gears. To finish in his first Grand Prix, and his home Grand Prix at that, is a nice debut.