Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: Carlo Carluccio
Kent, the Garden of England is a beautiful part of the world. Crests and valleys define the topography and are as sensuous and curvaceous as a burlesque model. Early morning mists settle and fold into the creases of the land, and lift as a quilt when the land awakens. In October, it feels like a chapter in a Hans Christian Anderson story.
Reds, oranges, yellows, and browns all melt together in warm autumnal colours, almost contradicting the crispness of the morning as you surface from a warm sleeping bag, have a quick wash and saunter in with other racegoers to the greatest show on earth.
A programme bought, a cup of coffee to wash down a greasy bacon roll and the faint broken static of the tannoy system playing in the background, all essential ingredients for a British F1 race. Brian Jones, the legendary Brands Hatch commentator, started his day early and welcomed the fans to the 1985 European Grand Prix meeting. During his different announcements came confirmation that John Watson would be replacing an injured Niki Lauda at Mclaren for the weekend.
In life, time stands still for no-one and F1 was now witnessing the closing chapters of a remarkable career. A reigning World Champion, his 1985 season was plagued by extremely poor reliability; by the time Lauda announced his retirement in Austria, he had finished just two races all season. He won the next race in Holland, something which Alan Henry commented on “he drove brilliantly at Zandvoort, fending off Prost with all the ruthlessness of a twenty year old F3 new boy, a brilliant footnote by any standards.”
I stood at Clearways viewing the panoramic and remembered standing at this point watching Lauda winning the 1982 British Grand Prix. Merely three years later and the landscape had evolved so much.
At 10am, the pit lane opened and the first few cars sauntered out on to the track. Within minutes they were roaring up to the marshals post on the outside of Paddock Hill Bend before catapulting into the descent. Telemetry on the start-line showed that these +1200bhp missiles were crossing at 191mph!
The beautiful dart of the Brabham was followed by an unusual scent from it’s exhaust whereas the Williams-Honda shook the ground with its rumbling baritone. The beautiful lithe Ferrari needed to clear its throat and the Mclaren? Well it just circulated. It bore no drama, no menace and no ill will to anyone. It reminded me of a bumble bee, it’s bulbous design shouldn’t be able to fly, but against all known physical laws it did.
Then, finally, the very definition of speed rolled out. In the programme they wrote: “Little in Grand Prix racing is predictable. It is an uncertain world, but one thing we can all be sure of. In Ayrton Senna we are watching a miracle unfold. This man is special. Today he could be a winner. Such an explosive talent will always be exceptional.”
If there has ever been a better looking car than the black and gold Lotus, I have yet to see it, especially with that fluorescent yellow helmet as its focal point but it’s progress around the track held none of the drama of the other cars. The others looked like they were riding the roller coaster, Senna controlled it. Rose tinted hues transform the snapshots of the memory, but I’d swear that as his car came into view, it was preceded by silence from the crowds.
During the remainder of the session my father and I made our way round to Druids and then across to Hawthorn Hill – watching the cars – arguing over the merits of each approach. He preferred the smoothness of Alboreto and Prost and he spoke of how exquisite their gear changes were. He explained patiently how non synchromesh gearboxes worked and why these drivers were the epitome of this art, yet to my eye they were boring.
An unusual man, my father. Italian by birth yet he was non excitable. He much preferred the Mclaren way of racing as opposed to the theatre that Ferrari brought and maybe his time working on the original GT40 project back in the mid 60’s was behind the reasoning. For me, theatre was always important; clinical belonged in a hospital.
By the time final qualifying was starting, we were settled at Stirling Bend, the corner that follows Dingle Dell. My photography had improved since my original visit to a Grand Prix, but I would never trouble any definition of centralising the subject or even getting everything in focus!
John Watson famously remarked: “..round Dingle Dell dip into Dingle Dell I saw this car coming very quickly behind me. Just at the bottom of the dip Ayrton came through on the inside – I’d left him room. I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car.
It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle and the car appeared to be on a knife edge of being in control and being out of control. He got to the point of the track where he wanted to make his commitment to the corner. The car was pitched in with an arrogance that made my eyes open wider.
Then – hard on the throttle and the thing was driving through the corner. I had never seen a turbo car driven like that – for me it was a remarkable experience, it was a privilege to see.”
Sadly the only quality footage is from 1986 qualifying.
Senna became the first man to lap Brands Hatch at an average of over 140mph. He set his time on the second set of qualifiers at 1m 07.169. His team-mate, Elio De Angelis – a Grand Prix winner and pole sitter – recorded 1m 10.014..
Keke summed it up; “We can go quicker, but we ain’t going to beat Senna…”
Senna interview after qualifying
Sunday dawned in a similar manner to the previous morning, except there was heavy dew on the field where we had parked. A small pot of espresso was heated on a little camping stove and we enjoyed the black bitter taste before heading back into the circuit.
It remains one of the world’s greatest tracks, set in a natural amphitheatre, which allowed huge crowds to swamp the kidney shaped Indy circuit. Standing on the earth banks you could actually see into the cockpit and there was no need for Diamond Vision screens everywhere; because you could see everything. Perhaps most importantly, there was no ridiculous high fencing to keep the paying animals at bay. It’s ironic that Roman rulers paid for the games and chariot races to maintain rule over the minions by keeping them happy.
We settled for a position on the entry to Paddock Hill Bend for the race. It gave an uninterrupted view of the track from Clearways all the way round to Surtees before they disappeared from view once more. Dad returned with what is surely a staple food of all motor-sport venues, the burnt beef-burger with wet grey onions and dripping ketchup from a B grade horror movie!
I wouldn’t feed my cat this muck, yet at a race track it becomes part of the support cast.
The warm up had passed and the hope of Ferrari taking victory seemed as forlorn as ever. It was painful to watch, this historic giant of F1 was dying in the same manner as the patriarch and however much you loved the team, people feared for it’s future once the suits took over. Prost would need just two points from the last three Grand Prix to secure his first World Championship and his place in F1 history.
The majority of Goodyear runners lined up with a mixture of three C compound tyres and a harder B compound on the left rear. Only Prost, playing it ultra cautiously for the championship, decided to use a B compound on the front left. (Yes, good citizens of 21st century Formula 1, drivers raced with tyre wear uppermost in their minds.)
As the lights changed to green, the crescendo of noise amplified and they accelerated forwards. Rosberg was slow away forcing Prost who qualified behind him to take to the grass in avoidance. Rosberg’s engine finally caught up with the drivers instruction and vaulted forwards, but Prost would be left to be engulfed by the pack. He would pass the line after the first lap in 14th place.
Senna was resolute in defence through Paddock which forced Mansell to lift thus allowing Rosberg to dive for the inside. Mansell ran wide on to the grass around the hairpin and lost a further position to Piquet. This was the status quo for the the first few laps and Rosberg would harry Senna at every opportunity.
His most determined attempts were into Surtees but on the 7th lap the immovable object ran into an unstoppable force. Rosberg, took a tighter line into Surtees, Senna took his racing line and Rosberg spun across the track. Piquet presented with a stationary Williams couldn’t avoid him and broke his front suspension. Rosberg rejoined and made his way back to the pits with a slow puncture.
He re-emerged back in front of Senna and quite savagely defended the line from the leader. His speed though Graham Hill Bend seemed to be a touch slower than required and Mansell used his momentum to draw alongside and pass Senna into Surtees.
The place erupted and yet there was a resigned feeling amongst many that his car would expire, or he would hit the only piece of slippery white line in Kent that day and crash out; such seemed to be the way of Mansell. The old cliche “If he didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all” seemed to have been written for F1’s own Thomas Magnum. Still, as a collective, we screamed encouragement every lap he completed.
“I’d ruined my own race,” Rosberg said later, “so I thought I’d give my team-mate a hand..” Clearly though there had been more to it than that and made it clear afterwards that he had not been impressed with Senna’s driving. Senna, “He was complaining that I was weaving in front of him. I said, ‘Come on, I was in front – I do my own line’. There was no need for him to do what he did after his pit-stop.”
On the twelfth lap Alboreto made use of a 21st century race tactic (!) and stopped to replace his tyres. His exit from the pits was a little more circumspect than usual and I assumed it was the cold tyres. The next time he came into view he was followed by a gigantic white cloud of smoke. Prost only needed a fifth place finish or higher to secure his title and at this point, Mansell led from Senna, de Angelis, Johansson, Surer and Prost.
Rosberg had unlapped himself and drove flat out for the remainder of the race but on this day his times were being matched by Jacques Laffite in the Pirelli shod Ligier. Pirelli had been inconsistent throughout the season, but here at Brands, they seemed the better tyre to be on. Marc Surer in the Brabham passed Senna on Lap 35 and Laffite passed him on Lap 36; a completely unexpected top 3!
Lap 38, Prost stopped to change his tyres and resumed his race to the title. Laffite had to stop on Lap 51 and after a slow stop resumed in 8th place, breaking the lap record on Lap 57 with a time of 1m 11.526 and on Lap 59 this great drive came to a smoky end as his engine cried enough. Surer retired with a blown turbo in a similar fashion to Alboreto, after possibly his best ever drive.
Rosberg had caught up to De Angelis and Prost and passed them with barely any effort to claim the final podium position. Having been a lap down on the leader, his had been a flat out blast to pass the majority of the field.
But the day belonged to Mansell. With all the other distractions during the race, it was easy to forget him circulating alone and yet there was an assuredness to his drive that wiped the slate clean of all his other disappointments.
As the laps had been counting down, the normally reserved fans became more vocal until finally he passed the waving chequered flag and punched his arms aloft to an avalanche of noise. “No problems from the car at all but it seemed an awfully long race, running there in the lead, hoping it would stay together. I could see so much from the crowd, all their waving and everything, their support. And that moment on the last lap – coming out of Clearways and down to the line – is something I’ll never forget.”
Before the race Prost had said he wanted to win in style… and he did. It was just a pity that it was in a style of waiting for others to retire.
Following the Grand Prix, there was an overwhelming feeling that something had fundamentally changed that afternoon.
Mclaren may have won the drivers title and practically secured the constructors but their dominance had been lost. Williams had finally overtaken them and Honda, in a little over two years, had redefined Formula One engine technology and the others didn’t have an answer. What was perhaps most worrying was that the arrogant Europeans felt they didn’t need one.
Mansell had finally won his first Grand Prix and as much as it was a relief to him, it was also a relief to the fans. We finally had a British winner again, and he seemed to be the type that victory would indeed lift him to another level. The dynamics at Williams for next season would be fascinating, because, even then, Williams didn’t give a thought to the drivers. The team was christened Williams Grand Prix Engineering for a reason.
Little did we all realise as we left that afternoon, but another legend was born.