Monday 6 May 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XI - Dallas Grand Prix

One of the rare sights I have ever seen in F1 is the sight of a driver pushing his car to the chequered flag. These days, such a situation is rare. From what I have seen in the video archives and read in several articles, pushing a car was a normal thing to do for many drivers in the past, even more so when they were close to the finishing line.
In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I am looking back at the solitary race that took place at  a track where Nigel Mansell - after securing his first pole position, having driven a steady race fell unconscious due to exhaustion and dehydration near the start-finish line, while he attempted valiantly to race completion pushing his car.

Last year, United States hosted a Grand Prix in the state of Texas at Austin. It became an interesting race for many of the teams as drivers struggled with tyres because of relatively cooler conditions, as it took time for all the racers to warm up with new tyres. This is in contrast with the issues faced when the state of Texas first hosted a Formula One race. It was in the year 1984 at Fair Park, a 277-acre recreational and educational complex located in Dallas were hosts to a Grand Prix.

Dallas in a bid to demonstrate as ‘World class city’ hosted this race and the track was a street circuit of length just short of 4 km.  The circuit itself was not conducive for overtaking and the drivers had to rely on their sharp instincts to negotiate more than one sharp turn. With just two hairpin bends and short straights, this race was a challenge to the best of the drivers. Challenge is what champions thrive on, but this time they had an external challenge too – the hot weather.

The race was scheduled in the season where the summer was at its peak in Dallas. Commitments had been made and the commercialisation had just started in F1. Any new international venue was welcomed and at the same time attractive to the business of F1. And moreover, Bernie Eccelestone and FOCA were trying to find a home ground in North America.

There was no enthusiasm on the part of several teams to race under extreme heat than normal conditions which they were quite adapted to. Mind you, this was a street circuit and the heat did not help matters to the concrete laid on the public roads at Fair Park. After the Friday practice, there were noises to be heard complaining about the circuit, especially concerning the track being bubbly. Nelson Piquet, the then defending champion was most vocal – he wondered which among the three would break first; cars, the drivers or the track itself. In the end it turned out to be all the three at different times of the race.

Martin Brundle became the first of the casualties when he crashed his Tyrell into a barrier. He broke both his knees and spent rest of the race and season recuperating from that horrific accident. The battle for the championship was between the McLaren teammates – Nikki Lauda and Alain Prost, with Prost leading the championship. Under extreme hot conditions, the Lotus pair Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis secured 1-2 for the race. Ferrari was struggling but they did put up a good show as the Frenchman Rene Arnoux came fourth while the Renault powered car driven by Derek Warwick was to start from the third. The McLaren duo had to be content with five and seven on the grid sandwiched by Aryton Senna, who incidentally was in his rookie year.

With complaints about the heat becoming a threat to cancel this race, the organisers had agreed the race would begin at 11 am on Sunday and the practice was scheduled for 7 am. For few drivers this was way too early for scheduling a practice. Jacques Laffite, the French driver for Williams was in his pyjamas when he arrived at the circuit instead of overalls and helmet. Due to the damage made by the Can-Am racing the previous day, the practice was cancelled and instead the organisers were busy fixing up the circuit. The track was showing some degree of degradation and this called for fresh protests from the drivers led by Nikki Lauda and Alain Prost before the start. Who likes to lay on the line, the championships and more importantly the safety of the drivers?

With 80,000 disappointed fans at stake and the overall image of F1, there was no way the race would have been cancelled. Jimmy Carter, ex-US President was one among the elite celebrities who were invited for the race. Larry Hagman (Capt. Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie and J.R. Ewing in Dallas) waved the green flag to start the ninth round of the 1984 season.

The retirements started from the first lap and as the race (which began minutes after the track was repaired) progressed there were many added to this list. With heat taking a toll on driver’s concentration, there were errors made which costed the race for few drivers. Nigel Mansell could not sustain his lead, made a mistake by hitting the wall and thereby lost his position to Keke Rosberg. Keke Rosberg who had started the race from 8th on the grid was unstoppable just after half-way through the race. There were moments when Alain Prost looked good to win the race before he made an error and the lead and with it the race was once again for Rosberg’s to lose. After close to two hours of racing in extreme hot conditions, the Finn won the race, one lap short of the total laps. The drama wasn’t over – Nigel Mansell who had to settle for fifth position ran out of fuel on the last lap.  Mansell, out of his car started pushing the car to the finish line and in the process collapsed on the track out of exhaustion. He finished sixth out of eight drivers who managed to stay on the track till the end. 

Incidentally, Rosberg’s pace was so exemplary coupled with race attrition, he won it by a margin of approximately 23 seconds of Rene Arnoux, who finished 2nd in a Ferrari. The rest of the cars (six of them) were all behind Rosberg and Rene Arnoux by a lap or more. In a traditional Texan style, Rosberg wearing a Stetson hat looked relieved and visibly very fresh. It was later known to public that Rosberg had invested close to $2000 for a special designed water-cooled helmet, which did play a crucial role in keeping his head cool amidst chaos and heat during the race.
The Grand Prix in Dallas was a one-off event. With a narrow track lots of concrete falling apart, cars colliding with the protected fencing than ever seen in a previous F1 race and the heat (though this could have been worked out) were just too big reasons to be ignored and have teams visit the place next year. This race was replaced by the Australian Grand Prix in 1985 at the street circuit of Adelaide. 

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