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Close Thing in Portugal


The Portuguese haven’t played host to a Formula One Grand Prix for more than twenty years, so they can be counted as beginners. They have had beginner’s luck. This afternoon’s race is not only the last of the season, it will also decide the world championship. Usually the matter is settled earlier on. This time the main contenders are racing right down to the wire, and the wire is made in Portugal.

To make things even more excitingly comprehensible for the locals, the main contenders number precisely two: Niki Lauda and Alain Prost. Lauda is from Austria, Prost is from France, and they are both driving McLaren cars powered by TAG-Porsche turbo engines. But there is no real need to remember any of that stuff. All anyone needs to grasp is that, of the two cars which look like packets of Marlboro cigarettes with a wheel in each corner, number seven is driven by Prost and number eight by Lauda.

Lauda, nicknamed King Rat, is a scarred old rodent who has been world champion twice before. Prost is the fresh-faced broken-nosed young challenger reaching for his first title. ESTORIL DECISIVO! Let’s get started.

But not so fast. Grand Prix races are held on Sunday, with the Friday and Saturday for qualifying. This time, however, an extra Thursday of familiarisation has been tagged on the front, because nobody has previously seen the Estoril circuit, which the Portuguese were still constructing on Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning not all the large pieces of earth-moving equipment had left the perimeter and there was wet paint everywhere.

But the police were ready. The Portuguese gendarmerie are a high-profile body of men and here was a chance to strike paramilitary attitudes in a macho atmosphere. Here was a chance to stop people with insufficient credentials from going through gates. The lower ranks, of whom there were hundreds, had truncheons hanging from their belts. Their senior officers toted swagger sticks.

The top cop of all had a grey uniform that looked as if Mussolini had designed it personally in 1938: forage cap peaked high at each end, dark glasses, shaped battledress fitting tightly over the corset, high spurred boots and a riding crop. The horse to go with all this was nowhere in sight. Probably it was back at headquarters watching the show on television — always supposing headquarters had a television. In my hotel there was only one TV set, occupying a room of its own.

On this evidence, Estoril was a bit of a back number. But the Formula One teams have the high-tech wherewithal to insulate themselves from almost any environment on earth. Behind turrets of piled tyres, the giant transporter vans open up directly into the pits. In the middle of each team’s enclave sits the car, cocooned from the world. In the car, cocooned even from the enclave, sits the driver, who can be contacted only by a radio link plugged into his helmet.

Outside his car Alain Prost looks like Charles Aznavour’s even smaller brother being pursued by a hundred photographers. Inside the car he is just a pair of eyes. So is Lauda, but his eyes chill you: left browless by the fire that so nearly killed him, they look like agates set in ivory.

Before Thursday’s practice started, their eyes and numbers were the only things that made the two front-runners look different. Then it was only the numbers. When the turbo engines started up, it was a brave policeman who didn’t blink. The circuit has a longish straight past the pits and the rest of it is kinky. The first cars out went around the two miles of kinky bits in not much more than a minute and then headed back down the straight towards the blinking policemen. Accelerating hard in top gear, they shrieked past at about 180 mph with plenty of urge in hand.

Even if you have experienced it before, a shock wave of that size breaking a few feet from your nose makes you want to go home or at least crouch behind something solid. The humbler policemen showed signs of wanting to stop guarding the edge of the track and move back a bit to start guarding the grandstand, but their officers, far in the rear, frowned at them.

Familiarising themselves with the course, some of the drivers got very familiar indeed, especially Prost, who got more familiar than anybody. But Lauda wasn’t much slower by the time the session ended.

More police having arrived during the night, Friday dawned to grey clouds overhead, disgorging rain on a grey cloud of law enforcement at ground level, including a lot of dog-handlers and their dogs, which had all been to snarl school. By this time there was so much security that only the racing drivers could move about unchallenged. Not even they were allowed to move without their cars, and the cars weren’t allowed out because of the wet track.

To while away the delay, some of the mechanics started to play football on the straight in front of the grandstand. The police drew truncheons, moved forward dramatically and confiscated the ball. The Lotus driver Nigel Mansell vaulted the pit wall to demand the ball back. A police dog panicked and bit its handler firmly in the behind, to loud cheers from the Portuguese punters. Then all the cars went out on rain tyres for another hour of non-qualifying practice. Bolder spirits changed to slick tyres and duly spun off, collecting in small shy groups around a corner still full of water.

At lunchtime the glum sky was partly cheered up by a lone light aircraft pulling a sign saying VEHICULOS USADOS GARANTIA. In the McLaren team’s mobile restaurant, three well-bred female chefs called Liz, Sally and Heather dished up a cordon bleu meal to Prost and Lauda who sat chatting amicably while the media locked outside invented stories about their bitter rivalry.

When the afternoon’s qualifying session started, more rain started with it. This was serious, because whoever put in a fast lap before the track was wet might nab the pole position if it stayed that way. ‘Queek! Queek!’ squealed Nelson Piquet in the Brabham pit. He was calling for a set of qualifying tyres — thin, sticky slicks. These were hastily bodged on but it was too late. Berger’s ATS rammed a fence and knocked out a marshal with a flying stone. The cars came back to the pits and an ambulance went out instead.

As things stood, all the new boys who had tried hard early on were in the top positions. When everyone got going again on the damp track the aces, hampered by rain tyres, couldn’t get their times down to match the rabbits. But the sun having peeked out as the end of the session neared, Piquet changed to slicks and warmed them up for a few laps so as to be ready if the track dried. It did and he put in a quick one. Prost and Lauda also switched to slicks and got out in time to go faster still, but Piquet would have gone fastest of all on his last lap if he had not steamed into a hairpin and found one of the Renaults parked neatly across it.

Harder to fathom but even bigger than the Prost/Lauda story has been the story of how Piquet would have been world champion for the third time this year if only his Brabham hadn’t kept coming undone. Two wins have been small reward for eight pole positions. Either Prost or Lauda must win the championship in Estoril, but if Piquet keeps going he could easily win the race. This might puzzle the Portuguese, but since Piquet is a Brazilian and therefore practically one of their own, no doubt they will soon understand.

Yesterday the sun shone bright. Piquet went straight out on one of his two permitted sets of qualifying tyres and notched up a time that only Prost could beat. Lauda went backwards with a sick engine. Then Piquet put on his other set of qualifying tyres and pipped Prost, taking his ninth pole for the season.

The pretty 18-year-old Milanese who hands out a motor scooter for every fastest qualifier gave him his ninth motor scooter. They have seen a lot of each other this year and she also holds his can of Pepsi after he puts on his helmet. With his helmet off, he looks like Dudley Moore at death’s door. It’s the adrenalin: the thrill turns him pale.


Before dawn last Sunday the vendors of cakes and fizzy drinks were already in position beside the roads leading to the circuit at Estoril. They had built their tabhernas out of tatty canvas and trestle tables, unpacked their not very appetising goods and made fires from the empty boxes. They weren’t rich, and in the morning most of the people who bought what they had to sell weren’t rich either. A lot of people came by car but almost as many came on foot, looking bedraggled and stepping carefully, because not all the mud had dried to dust.

Slogans daubed on walls exhort the Portuguese to live always in the spirit of some day or other in April. It’s a worthy sentiment, but the occasional splurge can’t hurt. The international Grand Prix circus is the biggest splurge there is. ‘Blam blam!’ yelled an outlandish engine being tested in the distance. Money was being burned. The traffic jam inched impatiently towards it. The pedestrians shuffled dust. The police were outnumbered — always a sign, in Portugal, that the crowd must be very large.

Sustained by the drinks and cakes bought at the road-side — the cakes, in particular, were evidence that the wonderful Portuguese folk traditions need to be supplemented by soulless modern merchandising as soon as possible — the punters filled the grandstands to be regaled by one last morning of untimed practice. Grid positions had already been decided but here was an indication of how fast the cars would go in race trim. Lauda needed this practice because the engine of his McLaren had been giving no end of trouble and if he finished more than one place behind his team-mate Prost the World Championship could still slip away. Prost, on the other hand, seemed to have the race sewn up, unless the unlikely occurred and Piquet’s Brabham held together.

Those among the spectators who did not already know could now receive valuable training in how to tell the cars apart. They all look like a bobsleigh being humped by a lawnmower but luckily they advertise different things. The red-and-white McLarens are mobile hoardings for Marlboro cigarettes. The blue Brabhams plug Parmalat sliced ham and the yellow Renaults remind Europe about the virtues of Elf petrol. Only the Ferraris look exactly like themselves —bright red and very pretty. They even make a pretty sound, loud but sweet like an apocalyptic coffee-grinder.

The Renaults were loudest and not sweet at all. Punters without earplugs found their knees turning to jelly. Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay drove the Renaults very quickly but nobody believed they would hold together. The Renault team has a bigger fuel refrigeration plant than anybody else, more radio links, more computers, more of everything. But it has made life too complicated for itself. The Renault organisation is mighty in committee but when the driver is alone in the car there is suddenly nobody out there he can depend on.

All this determinism was academic, however, because fortune, in Formula One Grand Prix racing, has no tides that can’t turn as fast as dice can roll. It is true that you can do everything right and everything will still go wrong, but it is equally true that even the best laid plans sometimes work out. Only two years ago the Williams team had been so dominant that they had lingered too long before switching to turbo engines. They would know how to deal with success if their recent marriage with Honda suddenly came right. The Williams pit was full of Japanese mechanics wearing the green and white overalls of the Saudi sponsor.

The Williams drivers, Jacques Lafitte and Keke Rosberg, are French and Finnish respectively. The car is still not quite all there but Lafitte had been going fast and Rosberg faster still, although his car had done all it could to stop him. Between the two qualifying sessions it needed to be rebuilt. All through the second session it misbehaved and with only a few minutes to go it conked out completely, leaving Rosberg the only non-qualifier and with a long cross-country run back to the pit so that he could jump into the spare car and put in one desperate last lap against the clock, the odds and common sense. To qualify at all in such circumstances would have been an achievement. But he snatched fourth place on the grid — clear proof that the erstwhile world champion was fully capable of becoming that again, if only they would give him the wheels.

Practice ended and the cars came in to be either confidently polished during the lunchtime hiatus or else frantically rebuilt. An RAF Harrier performed prodigies of mid-air dressage to help take the onlookers’ minds off the traditional cakes they had been eating. The policemen looked up longingly at such a potentially definitive instrument of crowd control.

When the cars came out of the pits after lunch, Nigel Mansell’s Lotus had ‘Good luck Nigel’ chalked on its tyres. Next year he drives for Williams but he looked keen to depart in glory. They all parked on the grid and settled down for the mandatory half-hour of being swamped by the media. Tunnelling through the legs of photographers, I arrived at the side of Piquet’s pole-position Brabham to find the still-current world champion strapped into the cockpit and being consoled for the pressures of fame by Emanuela, the girl who has by now given Piquet so many motor scooters that she has become part of his life. She gently caressed one of his BMW driving gloves and stared deep into his tinted visor.

The silver foil spread over the Brabham’s fuel tank would have kept off sunlight if the scrum of media had allowed any through. The French media, as always, focused on Prost to the exclusion of the world. For him it was a dubious privilege, because those chaps would have woken up Napoleon for an interview on the night before Waterloo. Much farther back, Lauda said the necessary but not a word more. Mr Minimax long ago found the secret of hiding without running. You can get near him, but you can’t get to him.

Twenty-six engines fired at once and the field toured round the circuit while the Portuguese fans told their girl-friends by sign language that this wasn’t the race, it was only the warm-up lap. Then the green light shone and it was the race. The clutch dropped on a grand total of at least 15,000 unmuffled horsepower. Piquet was slow off the mark and Rosberg came belting through behind Prost, then beside him, then past him into the first corner. Trying hard to restore his squandered advantage, Piquet overdid it and spun on the first lap. By the time he had straightened himself out he was far down the field, which was led for the early laps by Rosberg, Prost, Mansell and Ayrton Senna, a young man who has made the Toleman look fast and might stun the world next year when he goes to Lotus, always provided that they get their act together.

Lauda was a long way back, stuck in the traffic. Up at the front, Rosberg’s turbo spat flame in Prost’s face but the dream couldn’t last. Prost’s McLaren was simply less of a handful and he took Rosberg without trouble at about the same time that Mansell put in the fastest lap and got set to take Rosberg in his turn. This manoeuvre, however, proved to be not so smoothly negotiable as Mansell would have liked. Rosberg had not forgotten how Mansell held him up in Dallas. Nor, reputedly, was the Finn exactly thrilled by the prospect of having the abrasive Englishman for a team-mate next year. When Mansell moved out to go past Rosberg he found Rosberg behaving as if Mansell wasn’t there. Mansell had to drop back smartly or face totalisation at 190 mph plus. Really the two of them should try to have a drink together this Christmas.

Eventually Mansell got past Rosberg and established himself not all that far behind Prost, who was romping along an open road. Lauda was back in eighth position behind Johansson’s Toleman. Johansson, a London-based Swede with a big blond smile, was under no obligation to move over. Lauda was up against it. The gap between him and Prost lengthened to 27 seconds. More important than the distance between them was the number of cars filling it. One car was enough to screw Lauda’s chance and there were six of them.

The race was more than a third over, a dozen laps went by with Lauda still stuck, and Prost’s lead over him stretched to 33 seconds. On every lap at the same spot, Lauda pulled out beside Johansson but couldn’t outbrake him. In a similar crisis at the Nurburgring, Lauda had got impatient and spun, but not making the same mistake twice is one of the secrets of his mastery.

Precious time went by while he waited for his chance. Things happened to other people — Alboreto’s Ferrari went past Rosberg, Lafitte came into the pits, Warwick went up a slip road, the mortified Piquet got lapped by Prost — but nothing happened to Lauda. Then it did: he saw some daylight and went through it. By now he was 42 seconds adrift from Prost but he was a place closer. Then Alboreto went backwards, de Angelis’s Lotus did the same, and Lauda was three places closer: Prost, Mansell, Senna, Rosberg, Lauda.

Mansell, however, was still running strongly only half a straight behind Prost. Standing at the pit wall while Mansell went past down the straight was a character-building experience, because to dodge the bumps on the grandstand edge of the track he came booming down the near side right under your nose, obviously with every intention of winning the race. If he did that and demoted Prost to second place it would be OK by Lauda, but for Mansell to finish between Prost and Lauda would give the championship to Prost.

None of this would apply, of course, if Lauda couldn’t get past Rosberg and Senna. But Rosberg by now had done the impossible too long, which left Senna. Lauda went past Senna and that made Mansell the key man in the world championship. Lauda, 4½ points ahead of Prost, needed the six points awarded for second place if Prost got the nine points for winning. Only if Prost came second could Lauda take the championship from third place. So Lauda must have been willing Mansell onward even as he chased him. The statistics said that Mansell’s Lotus would fall apart, but what if they weren’t right?

Lauda was 27 seconds behind Mansell with about that many laps to go. If he chased Mansell too hard, Lauda might break something. If he didn’t chase Mansell hard enough, and Mansell’s car failed to disintegrate as expected, the championship was lost. Both boldness and caution were thus Lauda’s enemies. He held steady through the mental turmoil. Under far less pressure, Alboreto spun of and stirred the dirt. Standing at the pit wall and bracing myself for the usual shock of Mansell’s transition down the straight, I suddenly discovered him arriving in the pits behind me. The piston in one of his front brakes had jumped out of its calipers and his race was over. He stepped out of the car and disappeared under an avalanche of media. When the Lotus mechanics dug him out I asked him, perhaps tactlessly, for a one-word interview. He gave it to me.

At 60 laps with 10 to go, it was Prost, Lauda and the rest. Lauda was 40 seconds behind Prost but it could have been 400 as long as his car held together. Both of them turned down the boost to save fuel and avoid stress. The Grand Prix year spiralled gently to an end. Prost won the race and Lauda won the championship. The new boy won the battle and the old hand won the war.

On the victory dais, which advertised Portugal’s SG Export cigarettes, Prost, Lauda and Senna spurted champagne over one another’s overalls, which advertised Marlboro cigarettes in each case. None of them actually smokes but the advertiser is no doubt confident that the consumer will fail to draw the relevant conclusion. Prost, a gentleman though French, behaved impeccably, smiling with a mouth full of aloes.

Rosberg, the only heavy smoker in the field, was eighth. Piquet finished a lap behind. Mechanical unreliability had cost him the season but losing this race might for once have been his fault. He looked sallow, but then he always does: not just from adrenalin poisoning but because of danger from young women.

The last I saw of Piquet, he had taken refuge in the back of the Brabham team transporter while the Portuguese young ladies came at him three deep. Not three deep one behind the other: three deep one on top of the other. He was still their world champion. While Piquet signed the programmes, T-shirts and bared wrists of the lucky ones, Portuguese policemen dressed as paratroopers threw the unlucky ones out of the van into the struggling mass below. Crowd control had at last come into its own.

Observer, 21–28 October, 1986