Sunday, 11 May 2014

Spanish Grand Prix memories

My greatest Spanish Grand Prix memory ever (really not very hard to guess!)

One of the unexpectedly lovely aspects that emerged from reflecting on the recent 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s tragic accident was the opportunity or excuse to relive some exceptional races. The late 80s through into the early 90s are the period when I first fell in love with Formula 1 and so it has been such a treat to rediscover the Senna Era all over again.

Huge plaudits to the Sky F1 team for running so many excellent tributes for Senna Week. In particular, The Last Teammate (looking at the events at Imola and the rest of the season through the eyes of Damon Hill and David Brabham) was a stunningly brilliant and understated piece of TV. But I also greatly enjoyed Prost on Senna (even if I did think at times there was a element of retcon on the part of Prost – old dogs and all that) followed by the re-run of the superb 1992 Monaco Grand Prix.

All of this along with watching random GP Season Reviews (we’re currently up to 1974) when we can’t quite face the next instalment of the riveting but ever so slightly bleak House of Cards, means that I have been thinking about the Good Old Days. Quite a lot. I've had some lovely feedback on my retro F1 posts so I have decided to look back at Spanish GP races of old (infinitely preferable than writing about another Mercedes front-row lock out).

Hamilton snatches pole from his team-mate. Again.

Spanish Grand Prix races often don’t get a good press. This is because they are fast. Its almost impossible to overtake. The weather is normally amazing so no panicky tyre gambles or aqua-planing ever takes place (although see 1996 below). But that’s not to say we haven’t had some blinding races in Spain. Here are my top three races:

3. Spanish Grand Prix 1981 (Jarama) 

Gilles Villeneuve keeping them all at bay

Ok I am slightly cheating here in that I don’t remember the race at the time but the husband would kill me if I didn’t include it. When he discovered I hadn’t ever seen this race, he went out and bought the video (it was 14 years ago!) and we watched the race together. To add the final flourish to this ever-so-romantic tale I think it was actually my birthday. Just as well I liked F1!

And what a race! Gilles Villeneuve’s greatest ever win is generally recognised to be up there in the pantheon of The Greatest F1 Races of All Time. It was probably the finest display of defensive driving that we will ever see in Formula 1. Villeneuve had qualified his Ferrari (a car so temperamental that Gilles himself nicknamed it ‘a hopeless fast red Cadillac’) in an impressive 7th place. His team-mate, the talented Didier Peroni, only could manage 13th on the grid.

Gilles made a sensational start and had scorched into 3rd place by the first corner. By the end of the first lap he pulled out of Reutemann’s slipsteam to move into 2nd place. On lap 14, Alan Jones made an uncharacteristic error and spun off handing over the lead to Villeneuve.

For the next 60 laps (yes SIXTY laps), Villeneuve clung onto the lead with Reutemann, Watson, Laffite and de Angelis all eventually joining the fray to make it a 5 way battle for the lead. Villeneuve had the power to pull away on the straights but at the corners the chasing pack were all over him. Somehow Villeneuve miraculously managed to stay in front of all those cars. There were no dirty tactics or any sudden weaving but he simply (though it wasn't remotely simple!) positioned his Ferrari to perfection around all the corners and kept supremely calm under The Most Intense Pressure. All five cars were still locked together as the chequered flag fell with just 1.24 seconds between them all making it the second closest race in F1 history at the time. The day after the race, the 'Commendatore' Enzo Ferrari (a notoriously difficult man to impress especially if you drove for him) compared Villeneuve to the legendary Tazio Nuvolari who had raced for Ferrari 50 years earlier.

Gilles celebrating the finest victory of his career

Tragically Villeneuve was killed the following year at Zolder while qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. Enzo Ferrari paid the following tribute:

"He left us for still unknown reasons. Destiny deprived us of a great champion, who I loved very much. My past is full of sad memories: my father, my mother, my brother, my son. I now look back on myself and see all the people I loved. Among them there is also this great man, Gilles Villeneuve."
2. Spanish Grand Prix 1991 (Barcelona)
Mansell v Senna

The inaugural race at the Circuit de Catalunya gave us one of the most iconic images in the history of F1 racing. That of Nigel Mansell’s Williams running wheel to wheel next to Ayrton Senna’s McLaren all the way down Barcelona’s 300km/h straight with sparks flying out of both cars.
Ayrton Senna was leading the championship ahead of Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese in the arguably stronger Williams-Renault. Berger lined up on pole in front of Mansell, Senna and Patrese. Mansell made a terrible start and was passed by Senna and Schumacher by the end of the first lap. Behind Berger a big scrap was opening up between Senna, Schumacher, Mansell and Alesi. But our Nige was a man on a mission. After he forced his way past Schumacher, he then homed in on Senna and we were treated to an electrifying battle between two giants of the sport. Watching it again, its fascinating to see that, even in the heat of battle with literally millimetres between the two cars, Senna glances over at Mansell – maybe in disbelief or grudging admiration or just to give him the eye or all three? But it was Mansell who triumphed this time round. Mansell and Senna both dived into the pits at the same time and Senna emerged out in front. As the rain returned, Senna had a dramatic spin dropping from 2nd to 5th and on lap 20 Mansell eventually caught Berger to take the lead who retired from the race with an electronic failure. There were constant reshuffles in the top order but in the end Mansell comfortably took victory ahead of Prost, Patrese, Alesi, Senna, and Schumacher.
The podium three of Mansell, Prost and Patrese

Aside from the mesmeric Mansell/Senna duel along the straight, I love this particular Grand Prix as it contained fantastic racing between Mansell, Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Berger and Alesi and Patrese – what a roll call of drivers. This race also kept Mansell’s title chances alive though ultimately Senna would go on to win his 3rd championship.
1. Spanish Grand Prix 1996 (Barcelona)

This is one of my favourite races EVER. It marked Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari. The fact he even won one race in the simply abysmal Ferrari F310 (he did of course go on to win two more races) was nothing short of astounding but more than anything else it was the way he won this race that makes it for me the best Spanish Grand Prix of all time.

The chaotic start which saw Jacques Villeneuve take the lead from Alesi and Hill

The all-conquering Williams FW18 had locked out the front row. It was expected to be a two horse race between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve (Gilles' son). Then it rained. And rained. And rained. At the start, Jacques Villeneuve jumped his Williams teammate Damon Hill to lead into the first corner ahead of Jean Alesi’s Benetton and the race almost didn’t happen at all for Schumacher with the Ferrari nearly stalling on the grid and he dropped to 9th

However just before the race, Schumacher had gambled on a full wet up and as the on-track conditions rapidly deteriorated he managed to recover to sixth by the end of the first lap.

Schumacher then put on a scintillating masterclass of wet-weather driving, managing to find lines that shouldn’t have been there, seeking out grip on the wetter extremities of the tarmac to wring every advantage out of his wet tyres. After Eddie Irvine spun and Damon Hill veered off track, Schumacher moved up to 4th and by lap 5, he overtook Berger for 3rd place. Schumacher was now lapping 3.7 seconds faster than the two cars in front, Villeneuve and Alesi. On lap 9, Schumacher audaciously passed Alesi on the outside and 3 laps later pulled an identical move on Villeneuve at exactly the same spot to take the lead of the race. Both moves were exquisite leaving the other drivers no room to resist.

Schumacher passes Villeneuve in a brilliant move

By the time Schumacher pitted on lap 24, he had opened up a jaw-dropping 40 second lead. By his second pitstop on lap 42, Schumacher had extended his lead to a minute and half. Not only was his Ferrari a vastly inferior car to others on track but during the race it lost a cylinder and also suffered a cracked exhaust. Schumacher’s winning margin could have been even bigger had he not eased off towards the end of a race that only 6 drivers finished. People talk rightly about Senna’s win in Donington in 1993 in similarly treacherous conditions but Schumacher’s spell-binding performance in this race was right up there.

The Regenmeister

Hmmmm today’s race has a lot to live up to now…

No comments:

Post a Comment