Meet the Trophies: Portuguese Grand Prix 1984
Expressions vary on Formula 1 podiums, but you can usually expect the face of the man on the top step – the winner – to demonstrate great joy.
Not so that of the driver who held this trophy aloft on October 21, 1984.
It had been a momentous season, one with many parallels in the present day: downsized turbocharged cars held sway, and, having banned mid-race refueling, the FIA also enforced a strict 220-litre limit on fuel capacity. Efficiency became as important as outright power – and one team had got the balance of its technical package exquisitely right, dominating from the off.
McLaren’s 1984 car, the MP4/2, had been three years in the making, and the journey had been difficult. We had introduced full carbonfibre construction to Formula 1 with the MP4/1 in 1981, but both team principal Ron Dennis and visionary technical director John Barnard were eager to take another huge competitive leap, aiming for vastly better aerodynamics and a unique, bespoke engine.
As Barnard drew an entirely new chassis to maximise the potential of “ground-effect” aerodynamics, using underbody airflow to boost cornering performance, Dennis assembled the other elements of the package. He convinced new partners TAG (still with us today, over three decades later) to invest in a Porsche-built turbocharged engine to replace the venerable naturally aspirated Ford V8, and he lured double world champion Niki Lauda out of retirement at the beginning of the 1982 season.
The development process was painful. The perfectionist Barnard had laid down very precise dimensions for the engine and frequently found himself at loggerheads with the Porsche engineers in Germany as they struggled to package it within the tight ‘silhouette’ he had drawn. There were teething troubles, too, with the new engine’s ultra-sophisticated electronic fuel metering system. Then in 1983 the FIA brought in a new rule to eliminate ground-effect, saying all cars had to have flat bottoms. Barnard had to return to his drawing board.
Throughout, Dennis held firm to his conviction that there should be no compromise. The pain would be worth it.
With rising star Alain Prost joining Niki for the start of 1984, the new MP4/2 immediately delivered. Alain won the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix and Niki did likewise in South Africa two weeks later. Never before had McLaren been so dominant. In all, we would win 12 of the 16 grands prix – seven for Alain, five for Niki.
Even so, it was Niki who led his team-mate by 4.5 points in the world championship as the field assembled for the final race of the season, the first Portuguese Grand Prix for 24 years, at the newly refurbished Estoril. One of Alain’s wins, at Monaco, only counted for half points because the race had been stopped early, and he had retired from both the Austrian and Italian Grands Prix while his veteran team-mate claimed the spoils of victory.
So, ahead of the start, there were nerves on both sides of the McLaren garage, as Alain lined up second on the grid alongside world champion Nelson Piquet while Niki started 11th after a troubled qualifying. On the ninth lap Alain passed Piquet; if he could hold on, he would win the world championship provided Niki finished no higher than third.
That position seemed a long way from 11th, but Niki drew inexorably closer. With 33 laps of the 70 gone, he passed the Toleman of Ayrton Senna for third. Now just Nigel Mansell separated him from his team-mate.
Mansell’s Lotus, though, was 30 seconds ahead and seemingly out of reach. Or was it? On lap 51 Mansell’s brake system sprung a leak and he spun off twice in quick succession, allowing Niki through.
Thus Alain won the race, but on the podium the biggest smile belonged to the man next to him – Niki, whose wife Marlene had come to watch for the first time since he made his comeback, and who had just taken the world championship by half a point.
“It’s not a disaster,” said Alain ruefully. “I’ll win it next year.”
And so he did…