25 March 1984
With the South African race moved back to allow its organisers to raise more sponsorship, Brazil once more saw the season opener, and fans turned out in their droves to cheer on local hero Nelson Piquet, freshly-minted double World Champion and a favourite to take victory here. With a field of 27 cars, there would just be one unfortunate driver sitting out race day, once again with the Friday and Saturday practice times providing the qualifiers.
As it turned out, Piquet’s new Brabham, which had not had as much testing as they would have liked, was plagued by technical gremlins and broke down entirely on Saturday with an engine problem, leaving him seventh on the grid and with a lot of work to do. Meanwhile, there was a terrific scrap for pole position between the usual suspects – Ferrari and Renault – and the resurgent McLaren-TAG and Lotus-Renault teams. When the dust settled, it was Elio de Angelis in the black and gold Lotus who sat on pole – his second ever – alongside Alboreto on his Ferrari debut. Derek Warwick began his career among the big boys by outqualifying his predecessor, Prost – the two lined up third and fourth. Mansell was fifth and would have been better but for a spin on Saturday, with Lauda’s McLaren in sixth. Alongside Piquet on row four was Patrick Tambay in the second Renault, with Rosberg and Arnoux making up the top ten. For much of the weekend, it looked like Jonathan Palmer’s RAM would be the sole non-qualifier, but ATS owner Günter Schmid contrived to get his sole entry disqualified for a minor infraction after unleashing a tirade against the stewards, who would probably only have fined them.
The season began with something of a whimper, as Andrea de Cesaris stalled his Ligier and aborted the start, instigating a half-hour delay while everyone got themselves sorted out again, and when the start was taken again, two drivers stalled: Johnny Cecotto and Nelson Piquet. However, the organisers decided to let this one stand and Piquet got going with a shove from the marshals, slotting into 24th place ahead of Cecotto and de Cesaris, starting from the pitlane. Up front, Alboreto had shot into the lead ahead of de Angelis, whose Renault began misfiring straight away. Prost had got away poorly and dropped back to 10th, while further back German rookie Stefan Bellof had got a flier, getting up to 14th from 22nd on the first lap. De Angelis’ engine problems saw him lose places to Warwick, Mansell and Lauda before the end of the lap.
So Alboreto led Warwick and Mansell at the end of lap 1. Prost and Lauda, meanwhile, were charging up the order in the McLarens, having spent the practice sessions working on their race setup rather than worrying about grid positions too much. Lauda caught and passed Mansell on lap 2 and set off in pursuit of Warwick. On lap 9, local debutant Ayrton Senna had the dubious honour of posting the first retirement of 1984, touring off with boost problems, and the following lap, Lauda literally shoved his way past Warwick, banging wheels with the Renault on his way past. Another lap later, and Lauda was leading as Alboreto spun on the last corner. He was, as it turned out, suffering from brake problems and spun again the next time he dabbed them, so tiptoed round to the pits for a fix. The mechanics tweaked the calipers and sent him back out, but it didn’t help and he came back round to retire. While all this was going on, Stefan Bellof’s impressive charge ended with a dud throttle and Mauro Baldi’s Spirit had an ignition failure.
While Lauda was leading from Warwick, Mansell found his mirrors full of Prost in the other McLaren, and the pair were followed by Tambay’s Renault, Arnoux’s Ferrari, de Angelis’ Lotus and Rosberg’s Williams. Behind him, Nelson Piquet moved up to 9th ahead of team-mate Teo Fabi on lap 17. On lap 29, the first tyre stops began – no refuelling this year of course but most teams had started off on soft tyres and planned for a quick change mid-race. Warwick and Mansell came in together and left in tandem after equally slick stops. Prost was next but his team struggled with a sticking wheel nut and he lost thirty seconds stationary. While he was stopped, Lauda pulled up behind him, causing consternation in the pit until he indicated he was coming in to retire with an electrical fault.
All of which put Derek Warwick in P1 for the first time in his career, and he had a thirty-second lead over second-placed Alain Prost, who was catching, but only slowly and, calculators out, commentators figured out that he wasn’t going to make it at this rate, and the other challengers were now dropping like flies. Arnoux’s electrics went on lap 31. Both Brabhams’ BMW engines expired together on lap 33. Mansell had a brake failure and went off on lap 36. Throughout which Derek Warwick was acting like he belonged at the front, calmly reeling off the laps to take a fine debut victory. Only he didn’t – with just ten laps to go, his front wishbone snapped, sending him into a spin, then limping round to retire, heartbroken. Patrick Tambay lost second place to Rosberg in the closing stages, only to run out of fuel two laps from the end anyway, to complete Renault’s afternoon.
Alain Prost was thus gifted the win on his debut – his second debut actually – for McLaren, with Rosberg wrangling an understeering Williams into second and de Angelis dragging a misfiring Lotus into third. Fourth came Eddie Cheever on his Alfa Romeo debut, fifth was Tyrrell debutant Martin Brundle and Patrick Tambay picked up the final point for Renault after being classified 6th despite his retirement, scant compensation for the team after coming so close to the win. The Arrows team, finishing 7th and 8th, protested Tyrrell’s result, saying that a refill of coolant water had actually been a sneaky refuelling stop, but the Tyrrell mechanics demonstrated that there was no connection between water tank and fuel tank, and the result stood.
Although only Tambay had run out of fuel (and that was blamed on a dodgy injection), despite the predictions of a fuel-economy apocalypse, most of the cars were getting pretty dry by the end. Except, if rumours were to be believed, the McLaren of Prost, which still had several litres spare…
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