may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
~e. e. cummings~
Fearless, ambitious and self-assured, they sat side by side on the front row of the grid. Ayrton Senna was young, only 25, and hadn’t yet reached his prime. Nigel Mansell at 32 was obviously not yet past his. The pair had won their first two races that year and both were hungry for more. Directly behind them was 39 year old Keke Rosberg in his last race for Williams. Way down the grid in 16th place was triple world champion Niki Lauda, driving the closing race of his long and illustrious career.
In November of 1985, the Formula One circus descended on The Land Down Under for the inaugural Australian Grand Prix. It was hot, dry and dusty and the city of Adelaide was euphoric at the opportunity to take their place on the world stage. The World Championship title had already been wrapped up by Alain Prost, driving for McLaren. He had nothing left to prove, but the younger and less experienced were keen to demonstrate their superiority over their rivals.
Senna’s qualifying lap had been breathtaking, his wheels sliding sideways as he threw his gorgeous black and gold Lotus from curbing to curbing, every line immaculate, every corner taken on the limit. He was the only driver to set a time below 1:20, a massive eight tenths faster than Mansell.
Race day dawned, the cloudless blue sky an early indicator of scorching temperatures as the day progressed. The green track was still being rubbered in so tyre wear was as yet unknown as there had been rapid changes to the surface during practice and qualifying. The twisty track and high temperatures were both expected to take their toll on brakes.
As the lights went to green and the pack accelerated down to the first corner, Nigel snuck ahead of Ayrton for the lead. Ayrton was fastest overall but the Williams was superior down the long straights. With visions of multiple laps stuck looking at the rear of a Williams, Senna decided to make his bid for the lead early. The race was only a few corners old when Senna pushed Mansell wide and attempted to pass him on the inside. Mansell ended up in the dirt and Senna had to brake hard for the corner. Keke Rosberg threaded the two of them to come out ahead and Senna was back to where he didn’t want to be…behind a Williams. By the end of lap three a broken transmission had bought Mansell’s race to a premature end.
Senna impatiently followed Rosberg, bemoaning the time lost on the straights despite his superior speed through the corners. Their cars flicked from one side of the track to the other in unison, twitching as they hit the bumps and sliding going around the curves. This mesmerizing mechanical ballet went on for multiple laps until suddenly a five-second gap materialized between the two front runners. The Ferraris were already pitting for fresh rubber and both Senna’s and Rosberg’s front right tyres had started to grain. The gap between Senna and Rosberg continued to lengthen until by Lap 28 Rosberg had a ten-second advantage. During this time Niki Lauda inconspicuously leapfrogged the pack and was up to fourth place.
The gap between Senna and Rosberg then started to close and shortly Rosberg was again vulnerable with mobile chicanes in the form of backmarkers now impeding his progress. Rosberg was struggling to hold Senna behind him until Senna, in his enthusiasm to get past, hit the curbing hard which launched his car into the air. After a bouncy trip through the dust he re-joined the race. It was then Murray Walker noticed some paper stuck in his left-sided air intake…
On Lap 35 Senna is again the fastest man on the track, no obvious suspension or brake problems resulting from or causing his off-track excursion and by Lap 40 he was again set on trying to pass Rosberg. Concentrating on timing his overtaking manoeuvre he failed to notice that Rosberg was preparing to pit. As Keke slowed to enter pit lane, Ayrton’s right front wing made contact with Keke’s rear wheel, resulting in the Lotus spinning off the track. Senna was fortunate not to hit any unmovable objects but he was now forced to limp around the track with his stricken wing before he could pit for a replacement. When Senna rejoined after pitting Rosberg is leading, Lauda has dragged himself up to second but Senna isn’t far behind him. There are 36 laps left in the battle and Senna is 40 seconds behind Rosberg…he could still win the race.
On lap 51 Senna passed Lauda for second place, now only 30 seconds behind Rosberg and clear air in front of him. The gap dropped by 2 seconds on the following lap – is Senna going faster or is Rosberg slower? The question was answered within a few minutes when Rosberg pitted again…only managing a mere 11 laps on his second set of tyres! His car sits stationary in the pits for what seems like an eternity as his mechanics struggle with a jammed tyre before he is finally released. While waiting a bottle of water is poured down the front of his racing overalls to try to cool him as the temperature has hit a scorching 35 degrees C.
Senna hadn’t managed to shake Lauda and it is now Senna tyres which start to grain, his car snaking sideways even when accelerating down the straights. He is holding up Lauda who has yet to pit at all, driving so smoothly it looks like his tyres will last for the whole race! On Lap 56 Lauda easily re-passed Senna who couldn’t fight for his place because his tyres were lacking any resemblance of grip. The pair are ten seconds behind Rosberg. Murray Walker voiced my feelings exactly when he said he wished it was possible for all three drivers to win! Then Lauda’s McLaren was in the wall…brake failure bringing his final race to an abrupt halt.
Rosberg had changed his tyres only eight laps before but he was already pitting again for new rear tyres and now it is Rosberg who is chasing Senna, the new race leader. Rosberg has new tyres but Senna is still struggling for grip, his right rear tyre clearly grained and rippled. He is unable to slow down to try to clean them up because Rosberg already has the Lotus clearly in his sights. Within a couple of laps Rosberg’s brand new rear tyres are also graining. He has plenty of time to slow down and clean them up as there are still 20 laps to go in the race, but instead he lines up to attack Senna and passes him easily. Senna now gives in and pits for new tyres as it is clear he will never be able to keep up with Rosberg with the ones he has on. Unbeknown to him, as he pulls into pit lane his engine gives an ominous puff of white smoke…and it was obvious he had blown his engine…obvious to everyone but Senna as he had been slowing down at the time and hadn’t noticed the loss of power. Senna’s engineers take off the engine cowling…Senna gesticulating and not getting out of the car. After a prolonged pit stop Senna eventually re-enters the race but within a few corners there is smoke emanating from the rear of the car and it is obvious that his engine isn’t capable of taking him anywhere.It looked like the race was all wrapped up but there was one last battle yet to be played out. Guy Ligier had fired Andrea de Cesaris when his unfortunate habit of destroying cars started causing budgetary problems for the team and replaced him with Philippe Streiff. Streiff was already 30 years old but this was only his sixth race in F1. His teammate was 42-year-old Jacques Lafitte, who had achieved six of Ligier’s seven wins over the years. Lafitte would drive as fast as his car was capable of driving. Unfortunately, his Ligier didn’t go as fast as he would have liked but with multiple retirements he was now in second.
There were only two laps to go when he began to get hassled from behind by his junior teammate. Lafitte shut the door on him soundly but Streiff was oblivious to the not very subtle hint and kept trying. James Hunt was hoping that the rivalry was friendly….but unfortunately it wasn’t! Despite having no hope of passing, Streiff attempted to do so, and in the process his front left wheel made contact with the rear of Lafitte’s car. Fortunately, Lafitte didn’t sustain any damage but Streiff severely damaged his suspension. He trundled around the track at a pedestrian pace, his left front wheel bouncing about like a yo-yo as his suspension quickly disintegrated. Nursing his car to the finish he just managed to retain his third place. Thankfully for those concerned Guy Ligier wasn’t in attendance that weekend…I’m not sure what he would have said (or done!) to his two drivers fighting physically over 2nd place and risk getting no points at all. Ligier had only managed 13 points all year so 10 more points catapulted them up the table to finish the season in 6th place in the constructor’s championship.
For the remainder of the race Rosberg was able to cruise, over a minute ahead of Lafitte in second place, saving his engine, his tyres and his brakes to get to the finish for his fifth win for Williams. In the end experience won out over youth, but even experience couldn’t stop engines blowing up, brakes failing, and tyres graining…well, not completely anyway. However experience could help lessen the risk, the knowledge that sometimes just sitting back and biding your time could give you victory in the end.