Prost wins at Spa – with a little help from a friend
Getting the best out of team-mates is a tricky balancing act, particularly in the most competitive of organisations, but in 1987 McLaren had a notably harmonious driver pairing when Stefan Johansson joined Alain Prost in the Woking squad, the two men combining mutual respect with genuine camaraderie. And in that year’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, Stefan was pressed into service to help Alain win in the most technically unusual circumstances imaginable.
By 1987 it was clear that the McLaren-TAG technical partnership was nearing the end of its competitiveness. The bespoke Porsche-built TAG turbo V6s were still forces to be reckoned with in a race situation, but in high boost qualifying trim they were being outpaced by the rival Honda V6s used by Lotus and Williams.
That reality was emphasised on the superfast Spa-Francorchamps track where Nigel Mansell’s Williams took pole position on 1m 52.026s while Prost (1m 54.186s) and Johansson (1m 55.781s) could only manage sixth and 10th respectively. By then, of course, senior McLaren insiders knew that a deal had been done to move the team into its own Honda era in 1988.
For some insiders, the main story of the weekend was the collision and subsequent confrontation between Nigel Mansell’s Williams and Ayrton Senna’s Lotus, a spat which reached its crescendo when Mansell strode into the Lotus pit and grabbed the Brazilian by the collar. Only the prompt and effective intervention of three burly mechanics saved Senna from possible harm.
That collision left Nelson Piquet’s Williams ahead, but he succumbed to an engine management system problem. That left the two Ferraris at the head of the pack, but with Michele Alboreto suffering a c/v joint failure and Gerhard Berger’s engine giving up, suddenly Prost popped up at the head of the field. It was a typical Prost performance; unflustered, unobtrusive and yet wonderfully effective. From then on he simply concentrated on conserving the machinery, looking after tyres, brakes and gearbox in his own signature style.
“I have a remarkably superb car,” beamed Prost as he stepped down from the winner’s rostrum after successfully completing his afternoon’s work. “As soon as we got through the first corner, where I was pushed off in last year’s race, I felt very confident indeed.”
Less than half a minute behind in second place, Johansson felt equally satisfied with his own performance. The Swede pulled through the field with a blend of speed and restraint which some of his more experienced rivals might have usefully imitated.
On lap 26 of the 43 lap contest, Prost set the fastest lap but at about this time he began to fret that he might be running too hard as the onboard computer had failed and there was no way he could be certain that he had sufficient fuel to get him to the finish. Yet a slice of characteristic McLaren resourcefulness went some way towards resolving the problem.
From the pit wall, Prost’s engineer asked Johansson to set his boost pressure to the same level as Prost’s and then report the consumption figures from his car’s fuel computer which the team immediately relayed to Prost.
“That was a good idea,” admitted Alain, “but the trouble was that for most of the race I couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I just assumed that the calm mood of the guys on the pit wall meant that everything was going pretty much to schedule.”
In so many ways it was a reprise of his victory in the previous year’s Australian GP at Adelaide, the win which sealed his second world championship. That day, his McLaren-TAG’s fuel computer told him his tanks were dry and he completed the last three laps pretty much on thin air. At Spa, Prost wasn’t taking the chance, but it was that clever thinking from the guys on the pit wall that turned a problematic race into a near-certainty. All in all, a classic example of McLaren at work. And thinking on their feet.