Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, March 26, 1994
Formula One Racing: New Season, New Questions
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Alain Prost last week ended the suspense in the off-season Formula One saga of will-he-or-won't-he drive again. But on Sunday, the 1994 season opens in Brazil with other questions that could make or break Formula One racing as a spectator sport.
Prost undoubtedly made the right decision to stay in retirement after the problems he had last season with FISA, the sport's governing body. Formula One racing, however, has lost a great champion and with him a great rivalry between Prost and Ayrton Senna. The sport will have to offer great competiton to make up for it.
Last season, the sport came close to losing credibilty through the cloudiness of the now- defunct FISA's technical rules. But the new method of operating - directly through the Paris-based International Automobile Federation, or FIA - still has rules problems that could well explode starting with the season's first race, the Brazilian Grand Prix in São Paulo on Sunday.
At the heart of the current problem is a gas-pedal system known as "fly-by-wire." It involves an electronic accelerator that communicates with the motor not by the traditional mechanical cable method, but by electronic signals. The top teams Williams and McLaren use the system, while the smaller teams argue the legality of what they contend falls under the category of banned driver's aids.
The new rules were established in July without direct reference to the system. FIA subsequently issued a letter apparently outlawing "fly-by-wire." But a showdown lies ahead when track stewards check the cars in Brazil.
Another unknown factor is the refuelling that had been outlawed since 1983 due to the danger of fire. The system was revived in an attempt to bring more spectacle to a form of racing that is regularly dominated by the same few teams. It also gives teams with bigger engines, like the V12, a weight advantage that their V8 or V10 rivals have at the start of a race when their gas tanks are full. One team in particular, Ferrrai, is said to be likely to profit by the refuelling.
But while all teams agreed to the refuelling rule in July, many have since denounced the system as dangerous and unlikely to give anyone an edge. They will have the possibility of voting down the rule during the season, which creates another area of possible friction.
Other questions that will decide the fate of the sport involve human rather than technical battles.
Senna is the favorite to win the driver's championship, having inherited the Williams-Renault car of the two previous champions (Prost last year and Nigel Mansell in 1992).
But the preseason practice sessions have shown that his path will not be easy. At Imola earlier this month, it was the rising young German star Michael Schumacher in his Benetton-Ford who got the best time, ahead of Senna.
But Prost's departure has left Senna as the only driver previously crowned world champion. And it would appear unlikely that a driver like Schumacher can go from winning one race a season to winning enough races for the title. In 1993, Prost needed seven victories; in 1992, Mansell won nine races.
But in Formula One racing, anything is possible.
Some predictions for the coming season:
Schumacher will win more than one race in a season for the first time.
Jean Alesi, the Frenchman in the Ferrari, will win his first ever Grand Prix, and Ferrai's first since 1990.
Senna will have a difficult time winning the world championship, if he wins it at all, and will not repeat Prost's and Mansell's domination of the previous two years.
McLaren-Peugeot will be a strong contender for the places on the podium that are offered by the other top teams dropping out of races with blown engines and spin-outs. The untried Peugeot motor will fail less often through a blow out and more through development needs.
Refuelling will be the Williams team's undoing, as it is one of the weakest teams during pit stops.
McLaren will continue to set records for the shortest pit stops, even with the refuelling, because it is the strongest team in the pits.
The number of different drivers to win a Grand Prix in a single season will be the largest it has been in years.
Some of the most exciting teams will not be those that win races, but those that have in the past been eclipsed by the big teams and will this year be fighting for the fourth, fifth, and sixth places. These include Larrousse, Jordan and Tyrrell.
The sport's governing bodies will do their best to smooth out all rules problems in order to salvage a Formula One image that is becoming increasingly dark.
If not, they risk losing fans, and Formula One could go the way of the World Sports Car Championship, which died last year.
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