Saturday, 5 March 2011

Looking back: F1 wizards' first visit to Oz

As you're no doubt aware by now the Bahrain Grand Prix has been postponed, possibly to be shoehorned back into the calendar later this year. The season's opening round will instead take place in Australia on 27 March, around the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. Seems something much more appropriate about that.

The Australian race is one of the most eagerly anticipated rounds of the season, such is the atmosphere and local enthusiasm it always engenders (it's a pity therefore that it currently seems to be under threat). F1 was nevertheless fairly slow to discover the potential of an Australian race, with the first visit there as late as 1985. What's more, anticipation of the initial visit was accompanied by considerable scepticism from the F1 circus. But on arrival this gave way rapidly to huge enchantment, probably of an even greater intensity than the Melbourne round currently enjoys.

When the first Australian Grand Prix, to be held around a street circuit in Adelaide, was placed as the final round on the 1985 calendar misgivings were widespread. F1's recent record at the time on newfangled street tracks was far from good: the Dallas round of the previous year wherein the track had fallen apart over the weekend, and there were several other organisational difficulties, was fresh in the memory, as were similar problems at Detroit and Las Vegas. Indeed, the record of such rounds even going ahead was somewhat patchy, such as the Flushing Meadows street race in New York which had been on the calendar for three years in a row and had yet to become a reality (and it still hasn't).

And that wasn't the end of the complaints, in Alan Henry's words in Autocourse: 'a trip to the other side of the world was not generally deemed to be high on the list of the average F1 mechanic's priorities at the end of a gruelling season'. Further, the whole idea of going to Australia, and specifically to Adelaide, seemed rather far-flung at the time. As Ann Bradshaw commented: 'not only hadn't we been to Australia, none of us knew where Adelaide was. We'd barely heard of it...'.


1985 Australian Grand Prix BBC Highlights

It turns out none of them need have worried. As Alan Henry said: 'never has a race been anticipated with so many misgivings - yet, on the day, been accepted with so many unqualified accolades of international approval'. Everything about the new round and venue seemed to be perfect, including the organisation, the facilities, the circuit and, most of all, the tremendous local enthusiasm and atmosphere.

Mal Hemmerling, the event's Executive Director, and South Australia Premier John Bannon were keen to change Adelaide's image of a rather sleepy cousin of Sydney and Melbourne into something a bit more racy. Having decided upon holding an F1 race to this end, and negotiated the particulars with Bernie, 'they had one thing in mind' said Bradshaw 'to make sure it was the best Grand Prix - and it was'.

Bradshaw went on to say that upon arrival in Adelaide in 1985: 'it was party after party...everything was to do with the Grand Prix...every shop window was full of Grand Prix stuff...Adelaide was open-armed...Adelaide was the race and the race was Adelaide'. That it was the end of term, the drivers' championship long since wrapped up (Prost in his McLaren having claimed that two rounds before), as well as that it was the last race for teams such as Renault (for the moment) and for drivers such as Niki Lauda (for good this time), only contributed to the party atmosphere. Lauda, not usually one for hyperbole, opined afterwards that: 'The Aussies put on the best show of the season...everything was beautifully and professionally organised, and I've never in my life seen so many rapturous fans...the tremendous atmosphere got to all of us. Everyone you met gave the impression of being happy that these twenty-six clowns had turned up. Whenever you turned on a TV set....every channel seemed to be covering the Grand Prix'. Some 120,000 spectators were in attendance for the race.

The facilities were magnificent, and despite the pits being entirely temporary, to be taken down piece by piece when the race was over, they put to shame most of the facilities available at permanent circuits on the calendar at the time. Motor Sport reckoned that they 'ranked with the very best in the world' and Keke Rosberg observed: 'the impression is not one of a street circuit, with working conditions like this, they are much better than we have just about anywhere'.


On-board footage of Patrick Tambay lapping the Adelaide circuit in 1985

And the Adelaide circuit itself was, in Murray Walker's words, 'a beaut' (see the above film for on-board footage provided by Patrick Tambay). It was a combination of a permanent track through Adelaide's Victoria Park horse racing track and wide city streets around the park. But the F1 fraternity was especially pleasantly surprised by the track's average speed, which was much higher than they had grown used to at street circuits (for example, the winner's average speed here in 1985 was 95.71 mph, compared with 86.02 mph at Monaco and 81.70 mph at Detroit that same season).

The Adelaide circuit contained two fearsome left-right sweeps, as well as a spellbinding fast back section, with Jones Straight and a tremendous and challenging right flick preceding the longer Brabham Straight (or Rundle Road preceding Dequetteville Terrace to give their local names!), which saw the cars reach top speed for several seconds. And this section was followed by a big stop into Dequetteville hairpin, a great overtaking opportunity, and one that ensured that F1 races at Adelaide invariably packed in more overtaking than the previous half dozen races combined.

In addition to all of this, in 1985 the sky was blue and the sun was warm throughout, and the F1 circus couldn't believe their luck. Rosberg, having been challenged that his praise was him just being polite in front of the locals, replied: 'Take it from me, the F1 fraternity is one of the rudest in the world. If we thought it was bad, don't worry - we would have said so. But we think it's the best.' Lauda summed the whole atmosphere up by saying to his trainer Willy Dungl: 'My headache's gone. My bellyache's gone. Can't you do something about it?'


Ayrton Senna's pole-winning lap in qualifying

So to the on-track action. In fact, the F1 folks did find something to complain about, the track surface. It wasn't breaking up, as it did in Dallas, or as indeed it did at Spa earlier that year. On the contrary, it was exceptionally smooth and slippery. Therefore in the first day of practice most drivers were bolting on the unusual combination of hard race tyres on the rear and soft qualifying tyres, usually only good for a lap, on the front. Otherwise, drivers tended to find that their front tyres hadn't even worked up to temperature by the time their rears were worn out!

The pole was eventually claimed by Ayrton Senna in his iconic black and gold Lotus, his seventh pole out of the sixteen rounds that season. Indeed, 1985 was the year that Senna properly announced himself to the world, having taken his first ever F1 win, in Portugal, (and another, at Spa, later in the year) and being one of the year's most consistent pace setters. Unreliability and struggles to get his 220 litre petrol ration to go the distance precluded many other strong results. But even among these efforts his performance in qualifying in Adelaide was stunning, the car somehow being directed in the correct line despite constantly being on its tip-toes at the outer edges of adhesion (footage of the lap is above). He ended up a full seven tenths of a second clear of Nigel Mansell's Williams, who lined up second.

Mansell, and his team-mate Rosberg who was starting third, were clear favourites for the race however. The Williams Honda had started to go well in the second half of the 1985 season. Its Honda engine clearly had straightline speed and fuel economy that were the envy of the field, and it had latterly added reliability to its armoury. Mansell had won the previous two races, the first of the two being his first ever Grand Prix win, and his resultant growth in stature and confidence was almost visible. Indeed, this was just the start of the Williams Honda, particularly in Mansell's hands, dominating the sport for the next two years (with spectacularly bad timing, this was to be Rosberg's last race for Williams, him having agreed some races before to join McLaren for 1986).

And Mansell got the jump on Senna at the green light, but Senna wasn't willing to let matters rest there as he forced his car up the inside of Mansell's a few corners later. Mansell did not cede the corner, and the result was that Mansell was forced off the road and had to retire a lap later with a damaged crownwheel and pinion, while Senna, who had lost momentum in the incident, continued in second place behind Rosberg.

Needless to say, Senna and Mansell differed in their assessment of who was culpable for the contretemps, and little was anyone to know that this would be the first of many such run-ins between the two!

The race for a time settled into something of a pattern, Rosberg looking comfortable in the lead, as Senna behind, while possibly faster over the lap as whole, could not get on terms with the Williams Honda on the straights. Alain Prost and Marc Surer, going very well in his Brabham and outpacing team-mate Piquet, followed at a distance in third and fourth. But far back, Niki Lauda, who had started in 16th place, had noticed something: 'I noticed very early on that the rear tyres on Johansson's Ferrari (who at the time was running ahead of Lauda) were disintegrating rapidly. You'd better watch what you're doing, I said to myself. I turned turbo boost down...and took great care when accelerating. Despite this, I worked my way up through the field comparatively quickly and was soon in sixth place. I noted that my tyres were still in excellent condition, so I went back up to normal boost and eased myself into the lead group. It is possible that I was the only driver that day who took sufficient care of his tyres.'

Despite Lauda's prodigious use of his loaf, Rosberg and Senna still looked untouchable at the front, especially when Prost, lurking in third place, had his TAG Porsche engine unglue itself spectacularly on Brabham Straight at a third distance.

Rosberg's lead over Senna had stretched to around 10 seconds at lap 26, but then Senna gradually hauled Rosberg back in and by half distance was looking for a way past. This was despite Senna's driving being notably ragged and error-ridden, including one particularly spectacular flight over the kerbing going onto Brabham Straight. Then a bizarre sequence of events was to leapfrog Lauda up to the leading pair. On lap 42 Rosberg slowed suddenly, intent on entering the pits for a tyre change. This however caught the closely-following Senna unprepared and he lost half of his front wing as the front of his car tickled the back of Rosberg's (indeed, the contact was so light that Rosberg literally had no idea it had happened until being told about it after the race). Senna pressed on for a lap with his damaged car, as Rosberg was serviced with new boots, but then next time around Senna, instead of entering the pits for repairs, missed the pit entry while violently understeering onto the dusty verge outside of the final corner, this time ripping off what remained of his front wing. He eventually made it into the pits next time around, but by this time Rosberg, complete with new tyres, was with him before he'd even pitted.

After a lengthy pit stop Senna emerged in third place behind Lauda, Surer having retired with engine failure at around the same point (he was potentially on for a race win, as things transpired, had he kept going). But Rosberg and Senna were to further play into Lauda's hands as they, in Niki's words: 'killed off their tyres in the shortest time imaginable, (they) went in for a change, and drove so wildly when they came back out that their tyres were beginning to deteriorate within another fifteen laps'.

While Senna re-took second place from Lauda on lap 50, his rear tyres were already showing markings associated with excessive wear and graining. And then, but 11 laps after his previous stop, Rosberg pitted for his third set of Goodyears. A long stop dropped him down to third, now behind Senna and Lauda. Then, astonishingly, three laps later Lauda took advantage of Senna's poor care of his tyres by neatly outbraking him at the end of Brabham Straight to take the lead (from 16th on the grid remember). Lauda, taking up the story, said: 'As I did so (took the lead), I felt that surge of excitement that Formula 1 can bring. Marvellous, I thought, just look how you've managed to put one over on the others simply by using a bit of brain power. I was so delighted with myself and my performance and the feelings of tearing around that fabulous circuit.' All of a sudden, a fairy tale ending to Lauda's career in his last race before retirement looked on the cards.

It was an all too fleeting hope however. Lauda had been having brake problems for a number of laps, and had been pumping on the pedal furiously to get response from them. Then, on lap 57, Lauda, again taking up the story, was 'doing 190 mph at the end of the straight. I hit the brakes. Nothing happens. I pump again - still nothing. A third time - only the rear brakes hold. And block. The car is thrown out left. A wall.' Lauda's McLaren gently scraped along this wall, detaching both the car's front wing and its left-front suspension, thus putting him out.

Equally suddenly therefore, we seemed to be back where we started, except with Senna now ahead of Rosberg at the front. Rosberg rapidly worked his way onto Senna's tail, but in doing so appeared to damage his rear tyres once again. But just as we were poised for an intriguing battle for the remaining 20 laps with two drivers on tyres in an equally bad way, Senna's engine faltered on Brabham Straight, losing three of its six cylinders. He waved Rosberg through and trailed slowly back to the pits, eventually to retire.

This gave Rosberg the race on a plate, leaving him with a lead of almost a lap over Jacques Laffite's Ligier in second, who had worked his way up to that position largely through others' attrition. Rosberg even allowed himself a third tyre stop, changing the rears only this time, before cruising home in first place.

Ligier nevertheless provided some fun before the end. With Laffite second and new-boy Phillipe Streiff third, it was to be their best result in some time. Streiff however closed rapidly on Laffite late on, and despite team orders telling him to hold station showed every intention of getting past. He then, on the penultimate lap, contrived to drive into the back of his team-mate under braking at the end of Brabham Straight. Laffite went on unabated to finish second and Streiff was lucky to be able to hobble through the last lap and a bit with his left front wheel hanging off to retain his third place at the end.

The scorers were completed by Ivan Capelli keeping out of trouble to bring his Tyrrell home in fourth place, showing the sort of talent that eventually won him a move to Ferrari, Stefan Johansson in the Ferrari in fifth, and Gerhard Berger coming in sixth in the Arrows, having had a somewhat rough and tumble race after starting in an impressive seventh place.

In subsequent years Adelaide continued to be a fixture as the last F1 race of the year, as well as be by far the most widely anticipated event. It also saw some of the sport's most notable dramas, most memorably when Mansell's championship fight was ended by a spectacular puncture on Brabham Straight in 1986. Adelaide held its last F1 race in 1995 (and no fewer than 220,000 people turned up to watch it!), and hereinafter the Australian round was whisked away by Melbourne and its dollars. And while there's a lot to be said for the Melbourne round most of those who remember the Adelaide race cannot help but feel a twinge of regret at its passing. With the possible exception of Watkins Glen, no event has captured to the final race of the F1 calendar quite like Adelaide.

Full 1985 Australian Grand Prix results on Wikipedia

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