Every so often you’ll get a Formula One race that sees the rise of a star so bright you immediately know they will be a future world champion. The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix saw the rise of two names; one who would go on to be a three- time champion and one who would surely have been but for a tragic accident a few years later.
The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix weekend started with a literal bang thanks to Martin Brundle. The young Brit slammed his Tyrrell into the unforgiving armco at Tabac during practice. The impact was severe and Brundle was upside down but thankfully he wasn’t seriously injured.
Sadly for him, he was ruled out of the race due to suffering a concussion that made him forget what race he was even entered for. It was to be a great shame the race wouldn’t feature Brundle, given the performance team-mate Stefan Bellof would go on to produce.
Due to the tight confines of the track, Monaco could only feature a grid of twenty cars. This provided a few surprises on Saturday afternoons and 1984 was to be no different. Both turbo-shod cars of Eddie Cheever (Alfa Romeo) and Thierry Boutsen (Arrows-BMW) failed to make the grid, while Bellof’s Tyrrell became the only normally aspirated car to qualify for Sunday’s race.
Pole position went to Alain Prost, his first in the TAG-Porsche powered McLaren, where he was followed by Nigel Mansell in the beautiful black and gold Lotus-Renault. The rest of the top six was made up of the two Ferraris of Rene Arnoux and Michele Alboreto, and the Renault pair of Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay respectively. Reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet languished down in ninth place on a track he was never really at one with, while fellow Brazilian Ayrton Senna was a lowly thirteenth for Toleman in his first Monaco Grand Prix.
For race day the heavens had opened, leaving the track soaked and the field anticipating a tough afternoon around the Principality. The start had to be delayed for around forty five minutes due to the horrible conditions. There was also a request from Niki Lauda to wet the track in the tunnel. This was to prevent cars from skidding off on oil present on the track surface from the support races the previous day.
Prost led easily on lap one after contact between Arnoux and Warwick, who was pitched into Tambay, left Warwick with bruises and Tambay with a broken leg. It signalled the start of a truly chaotic day. As the race pressed on, Mansell began to pressure Prost and on lap nine found a way by the Frenchman to lead a Grand Prix for the first time in his career.
Prost was struggling with a misfiring TAG engine and was further hindered by Corrado Fabi’s stricken Brabham just before the entrance to the tunnel. The incident led to Prost hitting a marshal who was trying to push Fabi’s car out of the way. Thankfully he wasn’t injured.
This left Mansell sauntering off into the distance at a rate of two seconds per lap, only for him to spin off and hit the barrier on lap fifteen terminally damaging his Lotus leaving Prost to re-take the lead.
Slightly further back in the field saw Lauda pass Arnoux, with Senna on both their tails. Senna was showing extraordinary wet-weather ability, and he too quickly despatched Arnoux to begin hunting down both of the McLarens. It was to mark the start of a lengthy rivalry between Senna and Prost.
On lap twenty three Lauda spun off into retirement thanks to his carbon brakes locking continually, a result of the cool and wet conditions not allowing the pads to generate enough heat. The problem was also affecting Prost in the sister McLaren, which led to him furiously gesticulating to the stewards for the race to be stopped.
Several laps passed and Senna continued to hunt Prost down at a vast rate of knots, while he was chased by Bellof, who had risen from the back of the grid to run third. To this day the majority of Formula One fans can recall Senna’s tenacity as he ate into Prost’s lead, but many forget that Bellof, in his non-turbo Tyrrell, was catching the pair of them even faster. It was a truly remarkable performance from the young German, and one that marked him out to be one of the future stars of the sport, alongside Mansell and Senna.
Unfortunately for the pair the rain kept falling, and Prost maintained his protest about the race conditions. On lap thirty two the race was red flagged after clerk of the course Jacky Ickx ruled the conditions too dangerous to proceed in. This occurred before Senna stormed past Prost just before the finish line, leaving both men thinking they had won the race. It turned out Senna had been the mistaken one, perhaps caught up in the excitement of potentially taking his maiden win. The race was counted back a lap and the result taken from the order at the end of lap thirty one, meaning Prost took the victory.
Senna believed he had been the deserving winner and didn’t hide his aversion to Prost after the race. Much later it emerged that Senna had damaged the car’s suspension earlier in the race by clattering a kerb; mechanics at Toleman estimated that the car may only have gone on for another four or five laps before the stress would have snapped the suspension completely.
On top of Senna’s suspension woes, Bellof was catching the pair faster than Senna was catching Prost. It didn’t take much imagination to see Bellof powering past both of them to take an unbelievable win for Tyrrell, and their normally aspirated Cosworth engine. Had he managed it, he could well have clinched one of the most impressive wins of all time. Alas it was not to be, but two stars were certainly born on the streets of Monaco that day.
Controversy rained on the proceedings as much as the clouds had, as people began to suggest Prost, who had been powered by a Porsche engine, had been gifted the win by Ickx, a Porsche driver in Sportscars. Indeed, Ickx was suspended from his stewarding duties for not consulting the other stewards over the decision to stop the race, and questions were raised as to whether the race should have been stopped at all, given the rain wasn’t falling as hard as it had once been.
We will never know if Ickx acted irresponsibly to give Prost the win, but if he did he may have rather ironically cost Prost the championship, owing to the race only awarding half points due to it not making 75% race distance. Prost gained 4.5 points for his win, which left him trailing team-mate Lauda by half a point at the season’s end. Had he allowed the race to continue in Monaco. and left Bellof go, Senna would have retired due to his broken suspension, and the six full points for second place would have seen him leapfrog Lauda for the title. “You reap what you sow“, as they say.
Bellof too didn’t escape the controversy. Tyrrell were subsequently disqualified from the entire season due to weight infringements, leading to the team being stripped of all their results, including Bellof’s podium place. It was such a shame to see a fantastic drive get nothing in return.
Of the three men, Prost would go on to win four titles and eventually be joined by Senna at McLaren, Senna would win three championships before his death in 1994, and Bellof would sadly never stand on a Formula One podium again, for he was tragically killed in 1985 during a World Sportscar Championship race in Belgium.