This is a new series on Badger GP that takes a fond look back through the ages, picking some of the greatest drivers, cars, races and personalities from a decade.
First up, think back to a time when hairspray was at the top of shopping lists and MTV actually played music videos….it’s the 80’s Lucky Dip!
Driver – Nigel Mansell
“Our Nige” started his F1 journey in 1980 under the watchful eyes of Colin Chapman at Lotus, it wasn’t the most prosperous start to grand prix racing though – it could be more apt to say it was “a pain in the backside”, his debut for the team resulted in first and second-degree burns on his derrière due to a fuel leak in the cockpit. Not one to complain, he just kept driving and would have seen out the whole race if it wasn’t for an engine failure forcing him to retire.
His thick-skinned tenacity got him a full-time seat at the team ahead of the ’81 season after Mario Andretti jumped ship to Alfa Romeo. It was a period of up’s and downs, the highlight being a first podium in Formula One with 3rd place in Belgium. Despite that, he still had critics who were verbal in their displeasure of Mansell getting the drive over Jean Pierre Jarier, frequently being outperformed by his Italian teammate Elio de Angelis didn’t help his cause either.
Colin Chapman saw past all of that and felt invested in Nigel, so much so, that ahead of ’82 he was offered a 3-year deal that would not only give him equal footing in the team but also make him a millionaire – he didn’t take it, not initially anyway. The wording in the contract wasn’t to Mansell’s taste, he said it made him feel “uncomfortable” – a quick rewrite was all it took to get things back on track…Until the untimely passing of Colin Chapman that is.
’83 and ’84 were mixed for Mansell, his performances on track were improving each season with more podiums to add to his tally, but it became it clear that without Chapman it was time to move on. A young Brazilian named Ayrton Senna joined lotus for 1985, paving the way for a move to Williams and the birth of “Red 5”.
After a tricky start, including an incredibly fast accident during practice for the French Grand Prix, it all came together at the end of ’85 – a career high 2nd place in Italy was followed by back-to-back wins at Brands Hatch and Kylami. It was the perfect dress rehearsal for the next two years.
In 1986 Mansell truly arrived, his Williams-Honda was a car capable of race wins and he found himself locked in a battle with not only Alain Prost for the world title, but also his new teammate Nelson Piquet. Tempers flared within the team after Piquet took aim at his education and family throughout the year. Things came to a head at the finale in Adelaide with Mansell looking odds-on to become champion for the first time..then the infamous tyre blowout on the main straight decided his fate as runner-up.
Another title challenge in ’87 solidified Nigel’s racing credentials – he won more races (6) than eventual champion Piquet and it could have gone down to the wire again, but a crash at Suzuka meant that he was unable to stop his rival claiming his third and final title.
’88 was a year of domination for McLaren, who’d taken the Honda power that Williams had enjoyed for the previous few years. Where did that leave Mansell? The answer was nowhere, the title race was out of reach as he claimed only 12 points throughout the season. His time with Williams came to an end and Ferrari came knocking.
The final year of the 80’s started off with a bang, quite literally. Throughout testing the revolutionary Ferrari 640 was as reliable as a chocolate fireguard. Mansell realised it would be a year of development, so was as surprised as anyone to find himself winning the opening round of the ’89 season in Brazil, another victory in Hungary meant that he finished the 80’s strongly with another highly respected team. His finest hour wouldn’t be for a few years though – but that’s a story for another time.
Car – McLaren MP4/4
Drivers: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna // Races: 16 // Wins: 15 // Pole Positions: 15 // Fastest Laps: 10 // One-Two Finishes: 10
It needs no introduction really, probably the most dominant car in the history of the sport; the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 was designed by Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols on the back of a disappointing 1987 season. They got their act together immediately with this one though as after only a few laps in pre-season testing, Alain Prost reportedly told Team Principle Ron Dennis the car would win the world championship.
A large part of its success came from the 1.5L Honda turbo that brought many a race win to Williams in the years before. Fortunately for McLaren, even before the 1988 season, attention from the majority of teams had been on developing regularly-aspirated engines ahead of the turbo ban for ’89. Because this was such a world beater, McLaren simply had to put it in their cars and watch them take the chequered flag. Because of the performance and reliability (only four retirements all year) work could begin on the following year’s V10 almost instantly.
Visually, it remains striking to this day, Murray’s low-line concept had been used in its infancy with the Brabham BT55 some years earlier. The theory behind it involved lowering the car’s height and minimising the bulk of the chassis at the front by a third. That in turn would not only make the car more aerodynamic, but allow the extra air passing over the rear wing to create more downforce allowing corners to be taken that much faster too
The stats speak for themselves, but to give it some context; in the second race of the season at Imola, the MP4/4 secured another front row lock out in qualifying, Senna and Prost managed to post times in the 1:27’s – no other car got below 1:30. Just think of that for a second, when you do, you’ll realise that even Schumacher’s period of domination and Vettel’s RedBull reign were eras in which the competition at least had a chance.
Race – 1989 Japanese Grand Prix
The McLaren duo of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost made sure the 80’s ended in memorable fashion with a race clouded in controversy. As is always the case with two competitive drivers in a championship-worthy car, there’s going to be a coming together at some point, verbally, or in this case, physically.
For Senna, it has been a season of frustration; when he wasn’t winning, he was retiring, which meant the numbers game employed by Prost had allowed him to open up a 16 point lead at the top of the standings. Only two straight victories for Senna would be enough for him to win the title (points were taken from the 11 best results, not the entire season like now).
Prost got better traction off the line and raced into a comfortable lead despite starting behind Senna. Following the trend of the previous two years, the McLarens raced off into the distance, eventually the Frenchman’s gap dwindled, and after withstanding pressure from behind on laps 40-42 it looked like he was going to be able to hang on and claim his third drivers championship. These things never run smoothly though do they? On lap 47, when approaching the final chicane, Prost left a gap…we all know what Senna think’s about those; “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver”.
Obviously they came together, Prost was unwilling to let him past and some even say he turned in on Senna deliberately. A retirement for both would leave him as champion, so he’d be losing no sleep over the altercation. For Senna, this was a nightmare scenario though, he demanded the marshals push his car away from what was deemed a “dangerous area” and onto the escape road, driving past the champion-in-waiting in the process.
The Brazilian carried on despite having to pit for a new nose, he caught up to race leader Alessandro Nannini and passed him (without issue) at the exact same spot where he’d been entangled with Prost. A couple of laps later, he claimed the chequered flag and took the title race to a decider in Australia.
Enter FISA (now FIA) President Jean-Marie Balestre; The podium ceremony was delayed by 20 minutes while heated discussions took place between all parties. At the time, no one knew what was being said, but many feared politics were at the heart of it – they weren’t wrong. A statement was released disqualifying Senna on the grounds of rejoining the track after using the escape road – breaching Article 56 of the FISA regulations.
The title was Prost’s and to add salt to the wound, the appeal McLaren lodged to get the result overturned, resulted in Senna having all of his past grievances brought to light and faced a six-month suspended ban and a $100,000 fine – his response was that he was being treated like a “criminal”. While the Frenchman took his newly won title to Ferrari ending a turbulent couple of years at McLaren, Senna didn’t forgive, nor did he forget as it came full circle at the very same track just 12 months later.
Person of influence – Professor Sid Watkins
Truth be told, the late Professor Sid Watkins could claim a position of influence in any decade between the 70’s and 00’s such was his legacy. He factors specifically here because the groundwork he laid out upon his arrival was first implemented and directly affected the sport from this point forward.
For those who don’t know – Sid Watkins was originally brought into the sport in ’78 after Bernie Ecclestone offered him the role of Chief Medical Officer. Following the death of Ronnie Peterson at the Italian Grand Prix, Watkins saw safety facilities were desperately lacking and called for better equipment, an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter all in preparation for the very next race..he got it all and his demands are now commonplace throughout Formula One and professional motorsport.
When the 80’s came around, deaths in the sport were still common place, Giles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti both lost their lives sadly, but the treatment they received at the scene of the accident far surpassed anything seen before, making their chances of survival that much greater. Villeneuve had a tube placed in his windpipe and was airlifted to hospital, without which he’d have died there and then. Paletti might too have survived, as Watkins was there giving him life saving treatment less than twenty seconds after his accident thanks to the medical car. Tragically, complications from a fire in the cockpit meant that Watkins couldn’t do anything about smoke inhalation.
He’s left a legacy far exceeding just saving drivers at trackside, he introduced the missing element to a sport that seemed either proud to be dangerous or too naive to care. The stats since his arrival paint a pleasing picture; just 5 drivers lost their life under his watch. Of course, his medical assistance goes hand in hand with the improved safety of cars themselves but unquestionably it’s changed the way the sport is viewed.