In sharp contrast to previous years, the Formula 1 “close season” has been very much longer this winter, stretching from Kyalami in mid-October 1983 until the Brazilian Grand Prix opened the 1984 season on March 25th. In the past many teams have spent time moaning that the break is far too short, giving them nowhere near sufficient time to complete development programmes and construct new cars. Now for some, it seems that the gap is too long: many of those who complained on the previous count could now be heard grumbling that the off-season had been far too long! There are some contrary, forgetful people with short memories in this Grand Prix game.

Ayrton Senna in Toleman

To those watching with revived enthusiasm from the touchlines, the long winter break had borne worthwhile fruits. Instead of fumbling through the first few races relying on last year’s machinery, the vast majority of the teams had brand new 1984 cars all ready to race and, moreover, extremely well tested. There were lots of interesting new faces strapped into familiar cockpits, but probably the main technical interest surrounded how easily the engine manufacturers were going to cope with the problem of running a full Grand Prix distance (up to 200 miles) on the regulation 220 litres (49.5 gallons) of fuel without encountering consumption problems. Pit stops for refuelling are now prohibited by the 1984 Formula 1 regulations, but there is nothing to stop people running on soft tyres for the first part of the race and stopping somewhere beyond half distance for a set of fresh rubber. The much-discussed and debated question of the minimum weight limit came to the forefront of attention once again with plenty of rumour and speculation as to the way in which several teams would circumvent the spirit of the rules: water tanks for the injection system, or the brake cooling systems – or just water tanks for no real purpose apart from ballast – were regarded as the most popular choice.

First past the flag at the sun-scorched Autodromo Riocentro for the past couple of years has been Nelson Piquet at the wheel of a Gordon Murray-designed Brabham and, from the way in which he completed the ’83 Championship season at Kyalami last October, it was really rather difficult envisaging a change in overall form. However, the new BMW-engined Brabham BT53 didn’t take part in the recent week of testing at Rio, and although this factor didn’t prevent the brand new BT52 from scoring a début victory in last year’s race, the tempo of Formula 1 competition ensured that this feat wasn’t about to be repeated.

Visually similar to the BT52 from which it is developed, the Brabham BT53 is built round a totally new alloy monocoque with some carbon fibre composite panels, has a larger fuel cell than the BT52 and sports bigger side pods containing the turbocharger intercooler and water radiator. Aerodynamics and suspension geometry have been revised, although the inboard coil spring/dampers are still activated by push-rods. Piquet felt that the new car simply lacked test miles “but it really felt quite reasonable.” On the first day of practice, Piquet candidly confessed that he ran wide on one corner during what he otherwise felt would be his quickest lap, and his efforts were spoilt on the Saturday when his regular qualifying spare BT53 suffered engine failure as he started his quick runs, the Brazilian being obliged to take over his race car to establish a 1 min 30.149 sec best to start the race from ninth position.

The second Brabham seat will be shared this season by the two Fabi brothers, former European F2 Champion Corrado deputising for his brother Teodorico when CART racing obligations in North America make first call on “Teo’s” services. On this occasion it was T. Fabi at the wheel: hampered by throttle linkage and gearbox problems on the first day, he got his BT53 running well only to spin into the catch fencing at the end of the back straight during the final timed session. That meant he wound up a lowly 15th with a best of 1 min 33.277 sec, an untypically poor starting position for an Brabham-BMW.

With the Brabhams out of contention so far as the battle for pole position was concerned, the contest turned out to be between Lotus, Ferrari, McLaren and Renault. The weather, although pleasantly hot, was by no means as swelteringly oppressive as it frequently can be in these tropical regions, so there were no cases of overt driver fatigue or dire engine overheating. In the Lotus camp, the team’s French designer Gerard Ducarouge had produced another brand new design for the 1984 season, closely based round what he had learnt from the “interim” 94T which appeared in the middle of the ’83 season.

Powered by the latest Renault EF4 alloy block V6, the Lotus 95T looked visually very similar to its immediate predecessor but was aerodynamically different, obviously featured a bigger fuel tank, sported pull-rod suspension and was shod with Goodyear tyres in preference to last season’s Pirellis. The switch of rubber was an absolutely crucial factor which enabled both Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis to compete for the fastest times during qualifying, Mansell emerging at the top of the lists on Friday while his Italian team-mate beat him to pole position with a 1 min 28.932 sec.

De Angelis had changed the aerodynamic configuration of his car during the Friday untimed session, but Mansell didn’t think it was worth changing his until the break before the final qualifying session when he found his engine running hotter than his team-mate’s. His efforts to match de Angelis’ time came to an unexpected end as he spun wildly trying to find a way through between Alain Prost’s McLaren MP4/2 and the Ligier JS23 of Andrea de Cesaris. Mansell was left to ruminate quietly over the fact that he’d earlier inadvertently held up Prost’s McLaren when the Frenchman was going for a quick time – so he’d just been on the receiving end of a rather silly “tit-for-tat” response.

Mansell’s 1 min 29.364 sec earned him fifth place on the starting grid, second place on the front row falling to the smooth, stylish Michele Alboreto at the wheel of a new Ferrari 126C4. Last season Alboreto’s tidy driving earned him little in the way of dividends at the wheel of Ken Tyrrell’s Cosworth DFY-engined also-rans. This year, equipped with the very latest Formula 1 machinery, Alboreto’s efforts translated into a fine 1 min 28.898 sec – second quickest.

There were three 126C4s on hand in Brazil for Alboreto and René Arnoux to choose from, the two race cars fitted with large water tanks within the cockpit seats for the purpose of ballasting up their water injection reservoirs during the routine pit stops. Alboreto’s C4 was fitted with the latest Weber Marelli electronic injection system while Arnoux’s car featured the earlier Lucas system. Whilst the Italian driver enjoyed a relatively trouble-free run throughout qualifying, his French team-mate was bugged with minor problems. On Friday his engine cut out intermittently, due to probably a sticking valve somewhere deep in the fuel system, while he was badly baulked on Saturday and suffered a turbocharger failure for good measure in the final session. As a result, Arnoux wound up 10th on 1 min 30.695 sec.

Derek Warwick took full advantage of his highly competitive new Renault RE50 to qualify third in 1 min 29.025 sec, “although I went into the corner after the pits a bit too deep, spoiling my perfect line on my crucial quick lap,” he admitted afterwards. The new Renaults hadn’t looked an immediate threat for pole position from the start of practice, both Warwick and team-mate Patrick Tambay bugged by a feeling that the cars were “not quite right” and only improved during the final hour of qualifying, after the decision had been taken to change them back closer to the “high downforce” configuration which had been employed on the cars during the pre-race Rio tests.

This change improved the RE50 track manners quite considerably and Warwick’s 1 min 29.025 sec best was briefly good enough for pole position until de Angelis and Alboreto improved further. Tambay was left languishing in a rather disappointed eighth place on the grid, having managed a 1 min 30.554 sec best. “I can’t blame the car because it did a 1 min 29.3 sec in testing,” admitted the Frenchman very openly, “so I’m afraid we’ll have to put this one down to the driver!”

The McLaren International team rounded off the 1983 season with Niki Lauda producing a very encouraging performance at Kyalami, but most of his rivals had a clever explanation for his apparent “freak” outing. The team lagged behind slightly during off-season testing, the new John Barnard-designed MP4/2 only making its début at Paul Ricard a few weeks prior to the first race of the season. Obviously owing a lot to the prototype car which made its début at Zandvoort last summer, the latest McLaren is visually similar but features a lot of redesigning round a totally new carbon fibre composite monocoque. Considerable progress has also been made by Porsche on development of the TAG-commissioned V6 turbocharged engine and, from the outset of Rio qualifying, it was quite obvious that this car / engine / tyre combination was not only supremely competitive but also outstandingly reliable.

The presence of Renault refugee Alain Prost in the team really made Niki Lauda rise to the occasion, his performance in the race reminding us just what a fine driver he is when fully motivated. But for Prost’s unfortunate “moment” with Mansell’s Lotus, the Frenchman might have got his MP4/2 onto the front row: as it was he qualified fourth on 1 min 29.330 sec with Lauda in sixth place, working hard to keep up, on 1 min 29.854 sec.

In contrast, the Williams team was having a largely disappointing time with its Honda V6-engined FW09. This machine had also made an impressive début at Kyalami late last season, “Keke” Rosberg coming home an encouraging fifth, but over the winter the FW09 had received a new rear end with very effective pull-rod suspension – so effective that the front end of the car didn’t give a corresponding level of grip. The result, according to Rosberg, was acute understeer just about everywhere round the Rio circuit, a factor which kept the former World Champion’s best time down to 1 min 30.611 sec earning him ninth place on the grid between Tambay and Arnoux. Team-mate Jacques Laffite was hampered for much of practice by his race car’s reluctance to rev cleanly with the result that he could only manage 13th on the grid.

The two new carbon fibre composite Alfa Romeo 184Ts, despite being short on pre-event testing, proved a well-matched duo in the hands of Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheever although, between them, they suffered the usual high level of engine and turbocharger failures during qualifying and practice in typical Alfa fashion. Now looking unfamiliar in green Benetton livery, these new Alfas can run on Goodyear rubber since Michelin said that it couldn’t continue to service so many teams this season. Patrese and Cheever were both impressed with the levels of grip affordable by their new cars.

Andreas de Cesaris, looking unfamiliar and not altogether at home at the wheel of his carbonfibre composite Ligier-Renault JS23 managed to squeeze in 14th on the grid ahead of Fabi, while Brazilian new boy Ayrton Senna, winner of last year’s British Formula 3 Championship, held everybody’s attention with some aggressively positive laps at the wheel of his Toleman TG183B. Senna replaces Derek Warwick as Toleman team leader and he quickly underlined that he has all the hallmarks of a future Champion. He knows only one way to drive – flat out – and his intolerance over the Toleman’s also-ran status, as well as his dissatisfaction with Pirelli’s very troubled tyre situation at Rio, means that he’s going to be a bit of a handful for Alex Hawkridge and Peter Gethin to handle during his formative stage. The initial impression is one of a cocky youngster who could do with a clip round the ear – but watching him manhandle the Toleman round Rio left the writer suffused with enthusiasm.

Having said that, of course, we’re bound to say that Britain’s new hope Martin Brundle impressed us equally for totally different reasons. One has to accept that a taut, good-handling Goodyear-shod Tyrrell 012 is probably a nicer car to drive than a Pirelli-shod Toleman on which the tyres are delaminating almost before anybody looks at them, let alone tries to drive on them, but Brundle certainly took full advantage of his new-found situation. He was smooth, confident and unflustered from the outset, qualifying his Tyrrell in 18th position whilst modestly remarking “I think it will take me two or three races to feel completely at home. My heart still misses a beat when I get it into a slide!” But at the end of qualifying, with Stefan Bellof also qualifying his Tyrrell comfortably in 22nd position, Ken Tyrrell’s team was collectively grinning fit to burst.

The tail end of the grid had much the same look to it as in 1983, although the only team apart from Tyrrell still to rely on normally aspirated Cosworth power was Arrows – and it was only using its old A6 cars as a stop-gap measure until the BMW turbo-engined A7 is completed for the European programme. Mauro Baldi has now found a home in the little Spirit team, now employing Hart 415T engines, Piercarlo Ghinzani now has an Alfa Romeo V8 turbo in his Osella and Hart 415T engines powered both the John MacDonald RAM entries which made up the last row of the grid. Originally it looked as though 1983 European Formula 2 Champion Jonathan Palmer would be the unlucky “27th”, the sole man not to qualify, but Manfred Winkelhock’s ATS D6 found itself excluded from the meeting after a rule infringement during qualifying. The organisers’ decision to threaten exclusion after ATS mechanics pushed the German car, against stewards’ instructions, in the pit lane entrance was felt by many people to be carrying things a little far – but when team chief Gunther Schmid tossed his comments into the debate, the stewards hardened their resolve and the luckless Winkelhock found himself out of the race.

In the past one has always had to wait for the half-hour race morning “warm up” session to obtain an accurate barometer of true race form and, in the case of this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, nothing could have turned out to be closer to the truth. Lauda and Prost were comfortably quickest at the head of the field, a trend which was to be continued strongly once the race got under way.

The start turned out to be a protracted, delayed affair. With the customary carnival atmosphere absorbing the enthusiastic Brazilian crowd, it was a bit of an anti-climax when de Cesaris found he couldn’t select any sort of gear in his Ligier JS23 and began waving his arms frantically just before the green light was given. The “start delayed” signal was shown, so everybody switched off their engines and sat for the best part of another half hour in the blistering sun, filled-to-the-brim fuel tanks shaded by reflective asbestos sheeting in order that as little as possible of the 220-litre fuel load should be lost through vaporisation. Eventually everybody was given the signal to begin another parade lap, this being knocked off the total race distance which was now set at 61 laps.

This time 24 of the 26 runners got away cleanly, but the Brazilian crowd had no interest in the fact that Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari C4 had got the jump on its rivals and led into the first right-hander. Above the engines all that could be heard was a sigh of disappointment as it was seen that the World Champion Nelson Piquet had stalled his Brabham BT53 and been left behind along with Johnny Cecotto’s Toleman. Both cars eventually got away, aided by push-starts, but by that time the sleek Ferrari number 27 was leading off down the long back straight chased hard by Warwick’s Renault, the Lotus 95Ts of Mansell and de Angelis and a fast-starting Niki Lauda’s McLaren.

Lauda nipped through into fourth place by the end of the opening lap, but the race leader quickly got into a smooth, reliable rhythm and gradually began to ease his Ferrari away from Warwick’s Renault, the Englishman nonetheless feeling confident and content with his car’s behaviour. Lauda began to eat into Warwick’s advantage and outbraked the Renault going into the fast left-hander at the end of the back straight on lap 10. It was an overtly aggressive manoeuvre by the normally placid Austrian and the McLaren’s right rear wheel bumped Warwick’s left front in the process: “It may not have looked much, but it was quite a bang!” mused Warwick after the race.

Hardly had Lauda moved into second place than he found himself promoted into the lead of a World Championship Grand Prix for the first time since the summer of 1982 (Brands Hatch) when the leading Ferrari suddenly spun violently braking for the right-hander before the pits as Alboreto came up to complete his 12th lap. To the casual observer it simply looked as though the Italian driver made a straightforward error of judgement, but there was more to it than that as, after regaining the circuit in third place, Alboreto again spun wildly when he applied the brakes for the next corner. He cruised round to the pits where an initial inspection suggested that something might be wrong with the right front brake caliper: he resumed for another slow lap before retiring. Detailed examination revealed that one of the bolts holding the two parts of the caliper together had broken and the caliper had lost its fluid.

Alboreto’s misfortune left Niki Lauda in a commanding lead, with Warwick a comfortable second and Prost sizing up Mansell’s Lotus for third, eventually moving ahead of the Englishman on lap 16. Arnoux, Tambay and de Angelis were next up, while early retirements had already included Ayrton Senna’s Toleman-Hart (loss of turbocharger boost pressure), Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell (broken throttle cable) and Mauro Baldi’s Spirit (distributor malfunction).

Timing of mid-race pit stops for fresh rubber was a crucial aspect of team strategy, so when Warwick stopped (along with Mansell) at the end of lap 29 and managed to resume without losing what was now third place (behind the two McLarens), the Hampshire driver was clearly sitting pretty. When both the TAG / Porsche-engined cars arrived in the pit lane at the end of lap 38, the best-placed Renault was thus able to surge confidently into the lead. It now didn’t seem there was any way in which Warwick could fail to win his first Grand Prix at the wheel of a Renault, particularly as Prost’s stop took almost half a minute as one of the wheel securing nuts proved reluctant to tighten correctly. As for Lauda, his arrival in the pit lane at the same time as his team-mate hadn’t been the result of bad planning, simply bad luck. The Austrian was coming in to retire with what turned out to be a minor electrical plug failure between the wiring loom, and the battery. A bitter disappointment after such a smooth, confident performance which went a long way to re-establishing Lauda’s partly-forgotten reputation.

However, if Lauda’s retirement was a large slice of bad luck for the McLaren International team, it was quickly to be followed by a large slice of good luck. Warwick was gradually becoming aware of a vibration from the front end of his Renault, the cause of which became dramatically apparent to him when the left upper wishbone broke as he braked for the slowest hairpin on the circuit with 10 laps to go. Derek spun gently to the outside of the corner and then limped back to the pits where he retired – Prost’s McLaren boomed past into the lead in the process and from that point onwards the race was over. Almost certainly, the failure of the Renault was directly caused by Warwick’s earlier brush with Lauda’s McLaren, so the eventual outcome of the Brazilian Grand Prix was directly and ironically related to this incident.

Throughout all this drama at the front of the field, Williams team leader Keke Rosberg had been gritting his teeth and driving his Honda-engined FW09 as fast as he could all afternoon. In an effort to counter the inherent understeer, the front aerofoils had been set at quite a steep angle with the result that the FW09 now pivoted “nervously” round its front end. But the one thing that Rosberg clearly didn’t have to worry about was the Honda engine’s fuel consumption which was quite easily inside the 220-litre-per-race limit. For a short while it looked as though de Angelis might be able to counter-attack on behalf of Lotus, but the Italian driver complained that his Renault engine hadn’t been pulling properly from the start so he had to be content with third at the chequered flag.

Eddie Cheever drove smoothly at the wheel of the new Alfa Romeo 184T to finish fourth, Patrese having retired much earlier with gearbox trouble. In the closing laps of the race the American driver paced himself with reference to the Tyrrell of Martin Brundle which was close behind, the young Englishman having driven a copybook race on his first Formula 1 outing. The top six was completed by the unfortunate Patrick Tambay whose Renault RE50 seemed destined for a strong third place until it spluttered to a halt with just over two laps left to run: either the fuel injection system wasn’t picking up the last few pints in the tank or there was some similar consumption problem. Either way, it was a grim defeat for the Frenchman and a possible indication of more problems to come if one of these “fuel economy” Grand Prix should be closely contested right up until the final lap.

Behind Tambay, only the two Arrows A6 and Palmer’s slow RAM-Hart were running at the finish, a list of exalted names featuring in the retirement list including Arnoux’s Ferrari C4, Laffite’s Williams FW09, Mansell’s Lotus (which crashed), both the new Ligier JS23s (de Cesaris started his spare car from the pit land after the grid had finally been unleashed) and both the Brabham-BMWs. Nelson Piquet had hauled his way conscientiously through the field after stalling at the start, entertaining his compatriots in grand fashion but in fact doing no more than reasserting himself in the position he should have occupied in the first place. He eventually succumbed to engine trouble on the same lap as his team-mate Fabi stopped with turbocharger failure: it was as bad a race for the marque as one could possibly have imagined.