12 August 2014
In memory of... 1984
Forming something of a 'chalk and chalk' partnership with Lauda was Alain Prost, the 29 year-old Frenchman rejoining McLaren after three seasons at Renault - during which time he had established himself as one of Formula One's most complete drivers. Like Lauda, Prost had a reputation for being outspoken, and had been fired by Renault after publicly criticising the team's lack of development throughout his ultimately fruitless championship challenge in 1983. Also, like Lauda, Prost was an exceptionally intelligent driver. His smoothness behind the wheel was already a defining trait, but the 'tortoise and hare' perception that would come to define Prost's driving style later in his career was yet to take shape.
On the track, the season would prove to be a tour de force for McLaren, with Prost, Lauda and the reliable performance of the MP4-2 TAG dominating proceedings to an extent hitherto unseen in Formula One. The team scored 12 victories from 16 races, smashing the previous team record of eight wins in a single season achieved by Lotus in 1978. Prost also equalled Jim Clark's 1963 record for wins in a single season, taking the chequered flag seven times in total.
In a time before bulletproof reliability became the norm for leading teams, dominance was rarely measured by statistical oppression to the extent that we now take for granted. With tightened regulations reducing the amount of fuel permitted during a race from 250 litres to 220 for 1984, the balance between power and efficiency was particularly difficult for most teams to strike – and the season holds the record for the lowest average finishes in F1 history, with just 40.9% of race starts completing full distance. McLaren still suffered 11 retirements from 32 race starts, but compared to their rivals' repeat failings this was borderline invincibility.
These failings were especially prevalent in defending World Champion Nelson Piquet, whose Brabham-BMW was the outright fastest car in the field over a single lap - taking a record-equalling nine pole positions – but also the most fallible, suffering five straight engine failures to start the season and breaking down nine times in all. McLaren's happy marriage of speed and reliability was summed up by Clive James, who famously quipped, “anything as fast as the McLarens fell apart, anything as reliable finished later”.
The McLarens were still capable of demonstrating extraordinary supremacy on occasion though – particularly on gas-guzzling high-speed circuits where the efficiencies of the TAG engine were even more pronounced. Lauda and Prost scored four 1-2 finishes during the year, including lapping the entire field in South Africa, there were only three occasions where McLaren finished a race off the podium.
Given the pedigree of the contenders, it is no surprise that the fight between Prost and Lauda went the full distance. Each scored over double the points of third-placed challenger Elio de Angelis, and this was very much a private battle that dominated the narrative of the year. It was also a season of two halves, with Lauda suffering six retirements in the first half of the campaign (four mechanical, two driver error) to Prost's solitary breakdown in Belgium, and Prost subsequently enduring four retirements in the second half of the season as Lauda strung together an impeccable sequence of six podiums and three wins from seven races.
The iconography of the campaign is usually summed up in the classic Monaco Grand Prix, cut short at half distance for Prost to take a half-points victory from the hard-charging Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof, but there were other races to remember along the way. The season's reputation for high attrition can perhaps be best summed up by the back-to-back demolition derbies of the Detroit and Dallas Grands Prix in mid-season. In Detroit, Nelson Piquet led home a field of only five finishers as the narrow concrete circuit and warm conditions caused repeat failures by both man and machine. Two weeks later, Keke Rosberg scored the first victory for Honda's turbo effort by guiding his Williams to victory as one of eight drivers to survive sweltering conditions and a disintegrating circuit around the narrow streets of Dallas.
Neither McLaren would play a prominent role in the narrative of the American double-header, but from Dallas onwards the McLarens were irrepressible – winning seven straight races to the end of the season. Unlike in years such as 2009 or 1998 where a fast-starting team were caught in a development race, the gap between McLaren and their rivals grew as the year wore on. Prost took four wins to Lauda's three down the stretch, but with the lion's share of misfortune suddenly rearing its head on Prost's side of the garage, it was literally a win or bust second half for the Frenchman.
Prost had led the championship from the off after winning the opening race in Brazil, and held a 10.5 point cushion at the halfway stage of the season, but Lauda made a decisive move to the top of the standings after round 12 with a first home victory in Austria. A Prost-Lauda 1-2 for McLaren at the next race in the Netherlands secured the inevitable Constructors' title for McLaren and narrowed Prost's deficit to 1.5 points with three races to spare.
Engine failure at Monza at the very next race looked to have de-railed Prost's chances for good though. Lauda took the win and extended his advantage to 10.5 points with two races to spare. Given that Lauda had finished no lower than second at any race thus far, and was enjoying a streak of fine reliability, Prost's chances of overcoming the shortfall to secure his maiden title seemed slim. Nothing less than victory at the remaining two races would be good enough, and Prost's chances hinged on Lauda rediscovering some of his early-season fallibility.
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