Formula 1

Has Mercedes dodged its Monza 1988 moment?

Aug 4 2020
By Edd Straw

Mercedes has now won all four races staged in the 2020 Formula 1 season, meaning it remains on target for the unprecedented achievement of a clean sweep of victories – especially as at Silverstone last Sunday it dodged the ‘black swan’ that once tripped up Ayrton Senna as he and McLaren chased this record.

No team has ever swept a world championship season, although you can argue that Alfa Romeo in 1950 and Ferrari in 1952 achieved this given the Indianapolis 500 was an anomalous points-paying race in those days that had nothing really to do with the rest of the season.

The closest any team has come in the modern era is McLaren in 1988, which won 15 out of 16 races but lost the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. At that race, Ayrton Senna spun after clipping the front-left wheel of stand-in Williams driver Jean-Louis Schlesser at the first chicane while leading, four laps from the finish. It allowed Gerhard Berger to head home team-mate Michele Alboreto for a famous one-two for Ferrari.

Italian Grand Prix Monza (ita) 9 11 9 1988

Perhaps by making it to the finish line first despite a puncture, Mercedes and Hamilton have effectively survived their brush with a similar incident, which Wolff labels as a ‘black swan event’, in this case an unpredictable situation with serious impact.

“I know that I get lots of criticism when I point out that black swan events happen, that once you think everything is smooth and you’re just cruising into the sunset these things can unfold,” said Wolff when asked by The Race if what happened at the end of the British Grand Prix was justification for his oft-stated ‘leave nothing on the table’ mentality.

“We could have easily lost two cars today, out of the points. And then the so-called Mercedes dominance would have vanished in a second. We would still have had the fastest car at Silverstone but come home with zero points.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

“This is what I’m always pointing out, the championship isn’t over until it’s mathematically impossible for anybody else to catch us, and the race isn’t over until the flag drops.

“So in that respect I’m not happy that my predictions come true sometimes for us but that’s also what I love about motor racing, that it’s just very unpredictable until the end.”

The Monza ’88 example is an illuminating one that justifies the desire of the team to leave no stone unturned. While it’s usually characterised as an unfortunate encounter with a cack-handed backmarker, there was far more to what happened than that.

Towards the end of that race, Senna was concerned about Berger, who was five seconds behind at the point of the collision having closed the gap from a peak of 26 seconds.

While the McLaren had the quicker car, Senna harboured fuel concerns thanks to having to run a more rich fuel mixture after team-mate Alain Prost retired with 17 laps to go. Prost lost a spark plug, which was suspected to be thanks to overheating, leading to the precautionary instruction issued to Senna. Running a richer fuel-to-air mix means less oxygen to react in combustion, meaning better control of temperatures, but it also meant the Brazilian was having to use more fuel.

Although the collision (below) is usually blamed on Schlesser, Senna could have avoided it had he left enough space for the Williams driver to get round the second part of the corner. Having seen Schlesser make the mistake and lock-up, Senna could have been aware of this risk and not taken the second apex at the chicane. After all, Schlesser – who was a very competent driver and went on to win the World Sportscar Championship twice – could not have been much more out of the way.

The reason Senna perhaps didn’t leave the space was his desire to minimise time loss to Berger. Perhaps without the concerns about fuel, that would never have happened? It’s a classic ‘what if’ but the desire to press on clearly played a part in the collision happening. Situations in races can arise for all manner of reasons – Wolff’s black swans – hence the desire of Mercedes not to relax despite a decisive pace advantage.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

There’s still a long way to go before Mercedes can achieve a clean sweep, as although the number of races this year is uncertain should will still be at least another 12 grands prix – potentially two more beyond that.

But the combination of Hamilton making it to the line despite the puncture and the fact Max Verstappen and Red Bull gave away time by taking a pitstop to chase fastest lap, means that through a combination of judgement and luck, Mercedes has dodged the first black swan.

The question is, how many more will it have to dodge in 2020?

Jean-Louis Schlesser Ayrton Senna collision Monza Italian Grand Prix 1988 McLaren Williams F1

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