ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 38 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Then and Now

  by Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.

With the return of Formula One to the United States for the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, it is instructive to look back at the Life and Times of Formula One as it existed the last time the circus was on American soil, running through the streets of downtown Phoenix, Arizona, for the US Grand Prix of 1991, and inquire whether we are better off in Formula One now than we were then

Eric Bernard A snapshot taken of Formula One as of the 1991 Phoenix US GP reveals how much has changed and how much has remained the same in these last nine years. The 1991 Phoenix race was the last of three held at that venue and the poor attendance in 1991 (rumored to be 35,000, down from 95,000 in 1990) was so appalling that it has literally taken a decade for the organizers of Formula One to summon up the courage to take another stab at testing the waters of the huge but apathetic American market for Formula One.

But in retrospect, given what we now know as Formula One in the Year 2000, most fans today would have given their eye and teeth to see the variety of cars and interesting drivers that made up the grid of the 1991 US GP, which was held on March 10th as the first race of the season.

First, the people. The 1991 US Grand Prix was Mika Hakkinen's debut in Formula One, driving a Lotus-Judd; the now-stupendous qualifier was only able to eke out thirteenth place on the grid that day and went out after 60 laps of the 81-lap race with an engine failure, finishing where he started - in thirteenth place.J.J Lehto Interestingly, Jean Alesi was the only other driver who participated in the 1991 US Grand Prix that is still driving in Formula One, qualifying sixth in his Ferrari but in the end finishing just ahead of Hakkinen in twelfth place. Alesi had spectacularly led the 1990 Phoenix US GP in his blue and white Epson-sponsored Tyrrell-Ford, which was really the first race where people stood up and took notice of the young Frenchman.

But this was the era of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost; indeed, the Championship for the 1990 Season had ended in Suzuka when Senna punted Prost's Ferrari off the track on the first lap as Payback for a similar stunt by Prost on Senna in 1989 at Suzuka, when Senna and Prost were teammates at McLaren. By 1991, Prost was in his second year at Ferrari and at Phoenix Senna was about to begin what would be his final World Championship winning year, with the dominant McLaren MP4/6-Honda that had been winning both the Drivers and Constructors Championships since 1988.

The 1991 US Grand Prix also saw the debut of the Jordan team in Formula One, Eddie Jordan showing off his pretty, emerald-green Seven Up liveried Jordan 191-Ford, that would be driven only once by Michael Schumacher for his debut in Formula One later on in 1991 at Spa.

Mika HakkinenAnother striking aspect of the 1991 US Grand Prix was the entry list - both the size and variety of teams participating. There were 26 cars qualified of the 30 plus cars available (today there are 22), and many of the engine suppliers were doing then what Bernie Ecclestone is asking them to do again now: sharing the wealth with more than just one "factory" team. There were two Minardi-Ferraris on the grid; Honda had a new V12 for the McLaren MP4/6 but supplied Tyrrell-Honda with the hand-me-down V10 used by McLaren in 1990, the Mugen-Honda arrangement of the time.

The legendary Mercedes-Ilmor engine that has dominated the last two years of Formula One and given Mika Hakkenin his back-to-back championships was several years off in the future, but the spiffy looking pale blue and green Leyton House-Ilmor car, driven by Mauricio Gugelmin in the 1991 US Grand Prix was an early look at the work of the now-famous engine makers, Mario Illiem and Paul Morgan; In addition to Jordan, Ford supplied Lola and AGS; Dallara-Judd and Brabham-Yamaha fielded two cars each; Ligier-Lamborghini and Footwork-Porsche had one-car teams; Williams FW14-Renault, with two cars, were poised to challenge McLaren-Honda.

Nigel MansellIn addition to this variety of machinery, if you had been one of the stalwarts lucky enough to be at Phoenix that day, you would have seen not only relative rookies like Hakkinen and Alesi, but legends-to-be like Senna, Mansell, Prost, Piquet. Indeed, the staying power of the interesting group of drivers that took the grid that day is remarkable. Martin Brundle (Brabham-Yamaha) is ITV's successful F1 commentator; Roberto Moreno (Benetton-Ford), Mauricio Gugelmin (Leyton House-Ilmor) and Mark Blundell (Brabham-Yamaha) all went on to successful careers in CART and are still driving there; Michele Alboreto (Footwork-Porsche), J.J. Lehto (Dallara-Jedd) and Emanuele Pirro (Dallara-Judd) also remain active drivers at LeMans and elsewhere in sports cars, with Alboreto being one of the drivers on the winning Audi team this year at LeMans.

Gerhard Berger, who was Senna's teammate at McLaren then, now is the sporting director of BMW and spearheads the revival of Williams in Formula One. The colorful Bertrand Gachot was also in this Phoenix race, driving the one Jordan 191 that qualified for the race. Later on in 1991, Gachot would find himself imprisoned for spraying pepper in the eyes of a discourteous London taxi driver, a much storied incident that coincidently led to both Michael Schumacher and Alex Zanardi getting an opportunity to substitute for Gachot in the Jordan while he was cooling his heels.

P.M ChavesSenna opened the 1991 Season with four straight victories for McLaren-Honda, the first one coming at Phoenix, amidst the buildings, the concrete barriers, the fences and the right-angle turns on city streets. The cars ran to a 3.5 litre non-turbo formula, with Honda and Ferrari going with V12's and the challenging Williams-Renault developing a V10 with a novel feature now commonplace - the semi-automatic transmission that was a primitive precursor of the now-universal paddle system. The sounds emitted by the high-pitched shrieking Honda V12 as it accelerated and shifted down, manually, were truly extraordinary at Phoenix, where these incredible sounds bounced off the walls of the cityscape.

Although the cars had already become 'billboards in motion' by 1991, they were less so than now. This was obvious from the white and Marlboro-red cigarette pack paint scheme, Marlboro's prime team in 1991 was not Ferrari but McLaren (the same was true of Shell, now a Ferrari mainstay) and only modest-sized Marlboro stickers were found on the Ferrari. Agip, Fiat, Goodyear and a large Ferrari decal adorned the Ferrari's flanks, where Shell, Fedex and TicTac can now be found.

Roberto MorenoIn 1991, there was much empty advertising space on the mid-grid cars. Today, virtually every body-part of the Telephonica-sponsored Minardi has a logo on it. The steering wheels of the time were not yet full of buttons and LED displays; the Ferraris of Prost and Alesi boasted a prancing horse in the center of the "Momo" steering wheel, and Senna had a typical "Honda" symbol on his steering wheel as if it were mounted on a passenger car. Another feature now gone was the shower of sparks flying off the titanium end plates of the cars on a full fuel load, as they bottomed out on manhole covers or bumps.

The people behind the scenes at the various teams in 1991 have a longevity in Formula One at least as great as the drivers. Adrian Newey, who had come from Leyton House and would ultimately go to McLaren, helped Patrick Head design the Williams FW13 that challenged McLaren for the championship in 1991 and finally pulled it off in 1992; Gary Anderson (npw with Jaguar) designed the Jordan 191; Rory Byrne and John Barnard designed the Bennetton B191; the late Harvey Postlethwaite designed the Tyrrell 020 that ran successfully at Phoenix (finishing fourth and fifth) and elsewhere that year.

Stefan JohanssonInterestingly, given the importance attached in today's Formula One to refueling and to parity in fuel mixtures, 1991 was a time when refueling was not permitted during pit stops. The capacity of the fuel tanks on the cars was unrestricted so the cars began with 210 liters of fuel or so, which acted as weight penalty to those with gas guzzling engines. The fuel company sponsors - Elf, Agip, Shell and BP - all developed special mixtures. Today, Formula One, the most sophisticated of all the open-wheel formulas, uses pump gas as the fuel of choice and refueling is de riguer again, having been re-introduced in 1994. For better or worse, in modern Formula One, pit stops for refueling and the choice of a light or heavy fuel load are increasingly becoming the one variable in pit stops that can make or break a driver's race.

As for the tires, Goodyear and Pirelli competed against one another, with Goodyear supplying most of the teams and Pirelli supplying Benetton, Dallara, Brabham and Tyrrell. Today these two suppliers are out of Formula One altogether.

The pit stops of the 1991 Season were kind of rag-tag affairs, a form of controlled chaos. There were no pit speed limits so the cars just came storming down the pit lane, where, typically, 14 to 16 crew members awaited them, with an additional crew member manning the fire extinguisher off-stage: 3 people for each wheel, a jack-man front and back, a lollipop man and a miscellaneous crew member cleaning out the radiator and wiping off the windscreen. The wheel changers signaled by raising their hands when their particular wheel was done.

Stefano ModenaIn the Portugese Grand Prix at Estoril later on in 1991, Nigel Mansell's right rear wheel fell off just as he accelerated away from his pit box with a wheel nut missing, the crew members having crossed up their hand signals; as Mansell buried his helmeted face into his gloved hands in disbelief, the pit crew simply trundled down to the car and finished their work right there in the middle of the pit lane, dragging the acetylene tank with the air-gun hose behind them, lifting the rear of the car by hand by grabbing the wings and suspension, exposed to whoever or whatever was coming in off the track. And all this in short pants! For all of the Herculean efforts of the team, Mansell was ultimately black-flagged for this catch-as-catch-can pit stop.

The 1991 US Grand Prix race itself turned out to be a walkover for Senna; he led every one of the 81 laps, having sufficient time in hand to pit for tires (a 16 member pit crew changed 4 Goodyear tires in 7 seconds) and still not relinquish the lead. But along the way there was much dicing behind Senna, even between teammates, as would be customary throughout that year. Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese, teammates at Williams fought so hard for third position in the opening laps that Patrese ended up locking up and going off onto the escape road after a banzai charge: it would be most unlikely that Frank Williams would allow Ralf Schumacher and Jenson Button that kind of latitude today.

Thierry BoutsenAlesi and Prost (then and now on the same team) were Ferrari teammates through most of 1991 and were at close quarters with one another throughout 1991, and at Phoenix, Prost at one point used Alesi as a blocker to pick off Piquet's Benetton. In the Phoenix race, Prost had the kind of Ferrari pit stop that Eddie Irvine had at Nurburgring in 1999 and Ruben Barrichello had at Canada in 2000 and, after the fumbling with tires was over, he came out of the pits in seventh place.

After a spirited drive back up through the field, Prost finished second, 16 seconds behind Senna; only four cars - Senna, Prost, Piquet (Benetton) and Stephan Modena (Tyrrell) - were on the lead lap and only 12 of 29 entries were classified; in fact, only 9 cars were actually running at the end. Among the first six finishers were two Japanese drivers, Satoru Nakajima (Tyrrell-Honda) in fourth place and Aguri Suzuki (Lola-Ford) in fifth place.

Eric van de PoeleBut it was in the closing moments of the podium ceremony that day in Phoenix that the usually formal and old-fashioned Ron Dennis did something entirely out of character for him that typifies how different Formula One has become since then. Senna had taken off his famous yellow helmet with the green stripe and had mounted the podium with rivals Prost and Piquet at his side. Jean-Marie Balestre, who was to be deposed as the head of the FIA later on that year in favor of Max Mosley, was also on the podium. After the national anthems were played and the trophies handed out, Ron Dennis, with incredible determination and gusto, proceeded to chase his star driver Senna all over the podium with the champagne, pouring out every last drop (with customary Dennis thoroughness) over Senna's head or down the back of his neck. Balestre also joined in dousing Senna; somehow, I cannot imagine either Ron Dennis or Max Mosley doing the same thing today.

Is it just that Ron Dennis is older and wiser now? No. Sadly, there is a more fundamental missing element: Delight. The joy, the Pure, unadulterated fun that was Formula One, for them and for us, then, seems to have been lost somehow now.

At Indianapolis, they have built a very grand-looking elevated podium that may well end up as the site of the champagne and trophy ceremony after the upcoming US Grand Prix. Over 200,000 people have already bought tickets for the US Grand Prix race at Indy, which would make it the best attended Grand Prix of the year. It would do everyone good if the kind of sheer joy on display the last time Formula One came to America erupts again on the grand podium at Indianapolis.

Champagne, anyone?

Thomas O'Keefe© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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