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The 1980s: the best F1 decade ever?
With Rush and the Goodwood Revival getting us in the groove, and yet another Vettel win, we are all starting to wonder here whether racing was just, well… better in the past.
Last week we made the case for F1 in the 1970s. The Cosworth DFV had meant just about anyone who fancied it - and could finance it - could have a go at F1; big characters, big grids. The cars looked totally different each year. And they performed like it too, as there were no back-to-back champions in the 1970s.
The 1970s were F1’s wonderland. But the innocence was to be short lived. Time marches on. Today it’s the turn of the 1980s, the last time F1 cars were turbocharged as they will be next year. But while 2014’s 1.6-litre V6s will be turbocharged in the name of efficiency (notionally at least), appropriately in the ‘80s it was all about excess, all about power. The 1980s sneered at the 1970s; non-forced induction was for whimps.
The turbo era was also when F1 got its corporate on. Turbo engines weren’t cheap so teams needed to get the big boys to play and pay; Renault, BMW, Porsche, Honda, and of course Ferrari all developed winning turbos but they brought their big industry cultures with them. The cars changed too. Out went riveted aluminium and in came carbon fibre on the coat tails of McLaren’s revolutionary MP4-1. But that technology wasn’t cheap either so the teams had to dig deeper into sponsors pockets. Team’s identities started to disappear behind those of their ‘commercial partners’. Modern mega-bucks F1 was starting to emerge, so we had to hope the cars would be appropriately impressive. And, oh my, were they ever.
Just as the Cosworth DFV, the engine of the ‘70s, had made its debut in the 1960s, so the 1.5-litre F1 turbo made its debut in the 1970s, at the 1977 British Grand Prix in an odd, but far-from-slow car called the Renault RSO1. The race also marked the appropriately lurid debut of Gilles Villeneuve, so the Renault’s performance was overlooked. But the end was in sight for the DFV and Enzo Ferrari’s detested garagistas culture.
By 1979 Renault was winning F1 races with its own team and by 1980 Ferrari had joined it in recognising the potential fail in the ‘equivalence formula’ that reckoned a normally aspirated three-litre engine could produce as much power as a forced-induction 1.5-litre. It couldn’t. Not even close and although free breathing Cosworth V8s would power two Williams’ and one Brabham to world titles through ‘80-‘82, from 1983 on it was all about the turbos.
Once Bernie Ecclestone and Gordon Murray’s Brabham team had introduced in-race refuelling, there was little reason for the teams not to turn the wicks all the way up on the turbos. The craziest figure I ever heard was 1400bhp from the four-cylinder BMW in the back of Nelson Piquet’s Brabham BT52 in 1983, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that 1000bhp cars were starting F1 races in the 1980s.
BMW with its astonishing little straight four drew first blood with Nelson Piquet in 1983. Piquet, the ‘81 champion with Brabham (and like Williams’ 1982 champion Keke Rosberg another F1 dad, albeit maybe a tad less proud) was one of three drivers whose names would dominate the decade and would between them bag no less than ten world championships in the ‘80s and early ‘90s; Piquet, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Though both Brazilian, Piquet and Senna could not be less alike. The celebrated purity and dignity of Senna’s approach to racing and life was alien to Piquet. He could not be wounded off the track or on it because he largely didn’t care. He was sensationally quick however, brave too, once submitting to a lap around Silverstone in a Brabham-BMW in which the springs had been effectively removed to aid the ground effect. The vibrations made Piquet black out, but he kept his foot in. Hard to imagine Senna or Prost, with their more calculated approach to risk, submitting to a similarly crazy stunt. Intellectuals in comparison to Piquet, they were probably more alike than folklore suggests. Each knew when to drive with their head and when to give in to their hearts.
But turbocars took balls too. The ground effect underbodies introduced by Colin Chapman on the Lotus 78 and which, refined, took Mario Andretti to the 1978 World title in the Lotus 79, were not outlawed until the 1983 season. So early turbocars had almost limitless downforce to go with their almost limitless power. And there was none more destructive than the Ferrari 126C2, which in 1982 - after a Vettel-Webber style fallout - killed Gilles Villeneuve and would go on to maim teammate Didier Pironi. If Ron Howard is looking for a darker narrative for Rush 2, he need look no further that Ferrari’s 1982 season.
If the Ferrari 126C2, raw, unrefined and still wrestling with the concepts behind it, was the yearling of the turbo era then the McLaren-Honda MP4-4 was the billion-dollar stud horse. The most successful racing car of all time, winning 15 of the 16 races in the 1988 season (and losing the Italian Grand Prix through a freak accident), it took Ayrton Senna to his first world title, Gordon Murray to his last (he’d left Brabham for McLaren after securing two world titles for Piquet and Bernie) and the last for a turbocar (for now).
Senna, who had made his debut in 1982 in the lurid Toleman-Hart turbo, took the MP4/4 to the 1988 title, one of five driver’s titles McLaren would win in the 1980s. The others came in TAG-Porsche powered MP4s with Niki Lauda (‘84), Prost (‘85 and ‘86) and Prost again in 1989 in McLaren’s Honda-powered, normally aspirated V10.
McLaren were the team of the decade, playing the power game on and off the track. The arrival of Ron Dennis and his backers in 1981 wiped out not just much of the innocence of the team that had taken James Hunt to the ‘76 title (but little success since), but much of the innocence of F1 itself. We were well on the way to the arrival of the ‘brand centre’ in the paddock. In the 1990s it would be the turn of the drivers to raise their game and that would come with the arrival at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix of a certain Michael Schumacher.