1984: Year of the Rat


Not my cup of cake
Valued Member
Niki Lauda is perceived by many in F1 nowadays as a bit of a figure of fun, wandering round the paddock, expressing his opinion to anyone who will listen and making pronouncements about every driver whether they are interested to hear his pearls of wisdom or not. But in his day Niki Lauda was probably the fastest driver on the grid and without his horrific accident in Germany in 1976 would probably have won three World Titles in a row.

In 1979 Lauda decided he had had enough of F1 and at the end of free practice on the Friday of the Canadian Grand Prix claiming he was “fed up with driving round in circles”. Perhaps Niki just doesn’t like the Canadian race as he failed to turn up in 1977 having had a falling out with Ferrari over their choice of team mate for 1978 and their decision to run a 3rd car for Gilles Villeneuve at Iles Notre Dame. He had clinched the title in the previous race and was off to Brabham with the much-desired No.1 on his car.

In 1982 Niki decided to come back to F1. Perhaps he felt there was unfinished business but the most likely explanation is that his airline was struggling financially and some Marlboro cash would go a long way towards keeping his project afloat. Ron Dennis saw no problem in giving Lauda a drive and he teamed up with John Watson at McLaren. His traditional bright red helmet replaced by one with the colours of Lauda Air emblazoned on it, Niki proved that he had lost none of his race craft and, although still running a Cosworth engine against the powerful but fragile turbos of Ferrari, BMW and Renault Niki won two races in his comeback year.

1983 was less successful as the turbo cars dominated and McLaren were waiting for their Porsche designed Tag turbo engine to be made ready. Come season end the McLaren MP4/1-E made its debut and the team set about debugging the new machine for the 1984 season.

Lauda had a new teammate for 1984. John Watson was dumped in favour of Alain Prost, who became available on the drivers market under dubious circumstance, after Renault sacked him. Ron Dennis signed him up pretty sharpish and the “Professor” returned to the team who gave him his debut in 1980. Many thought the young star would show Lauda a clean pair of heels, the season turned out slightly differently.

With only Arrows and Tyrrell soldering on with the Cosworth engine, 1984 was the opening round of the F1 turbo arms race as Honda, Renault, BMW and Ferrari (amongst others) squeezed astonishing amounts of power from their 1.5 litre engines. Everyone expected the Renault equipped teams, Ferrari and Brabham (with BMW power) to be the pace setters with their greater knowledge of turbo engines, and Elio de Angelis duly took pole for Lotus Renault in Brazil with Alboreto’s Ferrari and Warwick’s works Renault 2nd and 3rd. Prost and Lauda in the MP4/2, a car specifically designed to accept the Tag turbo engine, lined up 4th and 6th. Niki commented “car, tyres, no problem… Only problem is Prost. He’s bloody quick”.

Perhaps to put his young team mate in his place Lauda rocketed away at the start of the race and by lap 12 was running second behind Alboreto’s Ferrari having scared Derek Warwick out of the way with an audacious overtaking manoeuvre. The race proved very attritional and at the end only 9 cars were classified and 8 still running. Lauda was one of the casualties, succumbing to an electrical fault on lap 38 whilst his teammate went on to win on his second "debut" for McLaren.

Off to South Africa, a high altitude circuit which suit the forced induction engines. Nelson Piquet’s pole time was nearly 7 1/2 seconds faster than Thierry Boutsen’s lap at the back of the grid. Lauda was again out qualified by Prost, but the Frenchman had to start in the spare McLaren when his racecar refused to fire up. Prost was to start from the pit lane, although was lucky to avoid a disqualification after a mix up at the pit exit which saw him initially line up at the back of the grid. A restart allowed McLaren to put him back into the pit lane, where he should have been.

The Brabham BMW’s blasted away at the start with Piquet and Teo Fabi running round in formation but the BMW engines proved fragile and both cars retired with compressor failures to leave Lauda to run home as race victor. The astonishing thing was that Prost had worked his way from the back of the field to stand on the second step of the podium. Back in 6th a young man called Ayrton Senna scored his first point in an F1 car for Toleman.

Mechanical gremlins hit both McLaren’s at the start of the European season in Belgium and Michele Alboreto took the first win for an Italian driver in a Ferrari since 1966. Prost dominated the next race at Imola, even surviving a spin on lap 23, to lead from lights to flag. Lauda, meanwhile, having started a few rows further back started the first lap 10th. By lap 15 he was challenging for 3rd when a piston failure ended his race. Alain now led Niki by 15 points in the Driver Championship with Lauda’s win in South Africa being his only points scoring outing.

In France Lauda got back to winning ways. Although only qualifying 9th the McLaren Tag was ideally suited to the high speed corners at Dijon and Lauda’s cause was further helped as Prost could only manage 7th after two pit stops to repair damage caused by a front wheel working loose. The gap was down to 6 points.

A wet Monaco anointed a new F1 star and proved crucial to the final result in the driver’s championship. The race was red flagged after only 31 of the scheduled 78 laps. Ayrton Senna passed Prost as they crossed the line for the start of lap 32 but as the race was stopped the result was taken from the previous lap. Given there were only 9 cars running less than half way through the race Jacky Ickx’s decision to end things wasn’t unreasonable. Lauda had spun off on lap 23, Prost was awarded half points.

In Canada Nelson Piquet celebrated his race win by standing on the podium wearing only one of his racing boots. A new oil cooler added to the Brabham to help with engine reliability heated the bulkhead next to the driver’s foot and heat up the pedals. Despite this Nelson managed to keep ahead of Lauda and Prost although Niki put the Brazilian under considerable pressure but having passed his ailing teammate on lap 44. WDC Update - Prost 32.5:Lauda 24.

The delights of Motor City lay next for the F1 circus. Nelson Piquet dominated the race around the streets of Detroit whilst the McLaren’s struggled with tyre wear. Prost eventually managed to struggle home in 5th, Niki retired on lap 33 with engine problems. Astonishingly Martin Brundle brought the Cosworth powered Tyrrell home 2nd to Piquet’s Brabham, although 1984 was not to be high point in the history of the Tyrrell Racing Organisation.

Staying Stateside F1 moved south to Dallas. Nigel Mansell put his Lotus on pole in the sweltering heat of Texas. An even greater problem for the drivers was the state of the track. It’s surface was starting to break up and repairs were being made only 90 minutes before the race was due to start. When the green lights came on the drivers forgot about such trivialities and set about running a motor race. Mansell led away, the two Championship protagonists, Lauda and Prost, were down in 5th and 7th respectively. Ultimately neither would finish, both hitting the wall towards the end of the race as the track fell to pieces. Keke Rosberg tiptoed his way to the race victory, Nigel Mansell meanwhile, having hit the wall and damaged his gearbox, attempted to push his car over the line. Collapsing by the side of his car the Englishman was whisked away to the circuit’s medial center to recover whilst Keke celebrated on the podium with Linda Grey aka Sue Ellen from Dallas.

Brands Hatch was little cooler than Dallas. Lauda commented after the race “this could be my last shot for the Championship. I’ve just got to stop messing around like I was in North America. A win is what I needed more than anything or it’s probably goodbye to any chances of the title.” The race was run in two parts after Jonathan Palmer crashed heavily bringing out the red flags. The second start proved too much for Prost’s gearbox and he retired on lap 37. Lauda was pressed hard by Piquet’s Brabham but a broken turbo vane slowed his car and he ended out of the points in 7th. Much to the delight of the British crowd Derek Warwick bought his Renault home 2nd with Ayrton Senna dragging a Toleman to places it should never have been with 3rd. WDC Update Prost 34.5:Lauda 33

Prost was on pole in Germany, Lauda, who struggled all season in qualifying, was down in 7th. De Angelis and Piquet attempted to halt the McLaren steamroller but both failed to finish. The race ran out with Prost first and Lauda second with Derek Warwick a distant 3rd. Prost looked to have reasserted his authority. WDC Update Prost 43.5:Lauda 39.

Niki Lauda had made his debut at his home race in Austria in 1971, paying to drive a March 711, but he had never won his home Grand Prix. He qualified 4th, right behind his teammate. After an aborted start Prost led off the line but Nelson Piquet took the lead before the first lap was over. Piquet started to work out a gap as Prost struggled with gearbox problems, having to hold his car in 4th gear and drive one handed. Elio de Angelis’ engine expired on lap 28 but instead of pulling off the circuit the Italian decided he didn’t fancy the walk back to the pits and drove round the rest of the lap depositing oil on the circuit. Piquet had a sideway moment at the Rindtkurve, Prost, still driving one handed when in 4th, hit the oil and spun off. Lauda was now up to second and set about catching Nelson. He passed him with 11 laps to go and started to pull away but then his gearbox box exploded internally. Niki fished around, found 3rd and 5th and decided to carry on. Piquet, thinking Lauda was cruising didn’t put him under any pressure and Niki won by 24 seconds. A home win at last.

McLaren, initially challenged by that man Piquet again, finished 1-2 in Holland; Prost leading Lauda home. This victory meant that McLaren had set a new record of wins in a single season, passing Lotus’ record from 1978. WDC Update Prost 52.5: Lauda 54.

Two other significant events unfolded at the Dutch Grand Prix, it was the last race for Tyrrell in 1984 after the FIA found fuel in the water-cooling “reservoirs” on Ken’s cars. The cars were disqualified and their record of entry in the 1984 Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships wiped out. Over at Lotus Nigel Mansell found out he was surplus to requirements as they had signed Ayrton Senna for the next season. Toleman reacted by giving his car to Stefan Johannson for the next race believing they had a contract with the Brazilian for 1985.

In Italy Ferrari win don’t they? Not in 1984. Lauda won and Prost failed to finish but events before the race decided the result. After the warm up both McLarens had engine problems. Niki was asked to run the spare, as there wasn’t time to change two engines. Lauda asked if Alain wouldn’t mind running in the spare as he quite liked how his car was running. Not a problem for Prost, he had won races in the spare earlier in the season and it had a brand new Tag engine in the back. The engine broke on lap 4. Nelson Piquet and Patrick Tambay led the race until both succumbed to mechanical problems leaving Lauda to lead home Alboreto in the Ferrari. WDC Update Prost 52.5:Lauda 63

With two races left it was a straight fight between the two McLaren drivers, no one else could come close to there pace and reliability. A win in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring would give Lauda the title. Prost had other ideas and led from lights to flag. Niki came home 4th, which could have been 2nd as Piquet and Alboreto both ran short of fuel as they approached the line but Lauda had made a mistake lapping a back marker and had spun. Prost received another boost as the decision on Tyrrell’s disqualification was ratified and Prost got a bonus point by being elevated from 5th to 4th in Detroit. The hand of Jean-Marie Balestre loomed large as the Championship lead was squeezed to 3 ½ points going into the final race in Estoril.

In Portugal, Prost won, Lauda was second. This hardly does service to a very exciting race. Keke Rosberg led for 8 laps before Prost carefully picked his way past. Having discovered he would be teamed up with Nigel Mansell for 1985 Rosberg decided to let him know who was going to be boss at Williams as Mansell came up to pass the Finn in his Lotus. After some wheel banging Mansell squeezed through to second, Lauda was 7th battling with Stefan Johansson’s Toleman. Niki eventually got past and put Stefan into the pits for repairs as a result. Alboreto was next and this put Lauda 3rd with only Nigel Mansell to get past for this 3rd title. If things remained as they were Prost was the Champion. Niki didn’t have to worry, Mansell’s brakes failed on lap 52 and Lauda was up to second. The race ran out with the McLaren’s driving round in formation. Lauda was the Champion by just half a point.

Afterwards Niki make the following observations about his teammate:

“Alain is extremely quick. Having him as a teammate has stimulated me, for sure, but it has also haunted me. There is no break in the pressure. He is always right there, always on form. In Qualifying he is unbelievable.”

“It is true that I was never in this position with a teammate before. Sometimes one of them would beat me, but I always felt it would be me in front next time. With Prost it’s different. I have had to drive faster and faster, better and better all the time. This has been the most satisfying season I have know.”

Niki Lauda – 3 times World Champion
Great read. As an F1 fan who is too young to see Lauda race, I've only heard stories from my Dad and watched the 70's and 80's season DVDs. Thanks for writing this up!
Quote: He passed him with 11 laps to go and started to pull away but then his gearbox box exploded internally. Niki fished around, found 3rd and 5th and decided to carry on. Piquet, thinking Lauda was cruising didn’t put him under any pressure and Niki won by 24 seconds.

Love it ... good old Nelson ...

Great write-up FB ...
Nice one FB

It's a pleasure to read a sound factual write up. In particular, the avoidance of unreasonable subjective or judgemental embellishment is excellent. A fine example to us all, methinks.:thumbsup:
With two races left it was a straight fight between the two McLaren drivers, no one else could come close to there pace and reliability.

Amazing how things have changed, it seems like at least one McLaren broke more often than not from your article and that was good reliability?!
It was a comparative thing sushifiesta. The Brabham was certainly faster in '84, the Renault probably was (at least at the beginning of the season) and the Williams had so much grunt the chassis couldn't cope. All were horribly unreliable, the McLaren was the "least worst". Then again, few of these fire breathing beasts were very reliable - happy days :D

To put it into perspective, there were 14 two cars teams and one single car team (who entered two cars at 5 races). The largest number of cars to finish any race was 13. Pretty high attrition rates.

One thing I did think was funny, Prost stopped at the French GP as the one of the front wheels felt odd. When the mechanic investigated there wasn't a wheel nut fitted. Some things at McLaren just don't change.
brilliant read FB.
The year was also crucial for Prost in terms of his development as a driver. Alain was very open about having learnt a lot from Niki.
Between Dallas in 1984 and Montreal the next year Prost's record reads as follows: out of 12 races Alain won six times and retired six times. No half-measure there, either he won or he failed to finish. It would have dawned on him that this is not the way to win a title.

For those who remember Prost as the "professor" it's easy to forget there was a far more aggressive style to his driving pre-1985, auda's lesson was important in driving home the importance of getting to the car to the finish in races you aren't likely to win, and the titles duly began to follow.
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