FEATURE BY CHRIS BALFE
Editor Chris Balfe remembers the 1984 Portuguese GP - Estoril, 21 October 1984 As they lined up on the grid no-one was willing to bet money on the outcome of this titanic duel. Between them, these two men had won 11 of the 15 races already held. Other than these two protagonists only three other men had won races that year: Piquet (Canada and Detroit), Alboreto (Belgium) and Rosberg (Dallas).
Blipping the throttles of their 1000 bhp turbo charged monsters, the result seemed to be a forgone conclusion. Alain Prost had taken 2nd spot on the grid alongside the ultra-fast (but largely unreliable) Brabham of Nelson Piquet. Five rows behind, sat the man who stood between him and his first World Championship crown! Niki Lauda.
In the run up to the Portuguese GP, Prost had won 6 GPs to Lauda's 5, one of the Frenchman's wins was the Monaco GP which had been held in atrocious weather. Indeed so bad were the conditions at the Monte Carlo event, that Clerk of the Course Jacky Ickx (a legendary wet weather racer himself) had stopped the race early. This historic decision had controversially cost Ayrton Senna his maiden win, and almost probably Prost his first championship. Because the race was stopped early (on the 31st lap) only half points were awarded. Thus Alain Prost received only 4.5 points rather than the usual 9. However, if we assume the race had gone the full distance, Senna would have won, although Prost would probably have picked up 6 points for 2nd.
Mechanical problems during qualifying meant that Lauda started from 11th position on the grid, however the Austria was philosophical. This after all was the man who had won the World Championship in 1975, and again in '77 and who but for the small matter of a near fatal accident would have won in 1976 too. Prost on the other hand was the young pretender.. yes he'd come damn close the previous year (losing out to Piquet) by two points! but many people still weren't convinced.
The task was simple. Lauda came to Portugal with 66 points to Prost's 62.5 - if (as expected) Prost was to win the race, Lauda would need to finish second in order to claim the crown. What made the forthcoming duel all the more interesting was that both Prost and Lauda drove the same car! the McLaren MP4/2.
Rosberg (Williams) made an amazing start, from 4th on the grid, closely followed by Mansell (Lotus) and Prost.
On the second lap, Prost swept past Mansell and set off after Rosberg. It took the Frenchman a little longer than anticipated, indeed it wasn't until the 9th lap (out of 51) that the Frenchman took the lead.
Lauda though was not having the best of times, by the time Prost was completing his 12th lap, the Austrian was still back in 8th.
Mansell and Rosberg were involved in the sort of scrap that nowadays have Max Mosley reaching for a pen and "new regulations" book. At one point the two were actually banging wheels - great stuff!
As Prost raced off into the distance - and surely championship glory - Lauda's problems continued. The Austrian's turbo boost didn't seem to be working. It took all "The Rat's" tenacity to get past Stefan Johansson's Toleman. Indeed Lauda was later to complain that the Swede's front wing had clipped his rear wheel.
Lauda now set off after Alboreto in the Ferrari, on lap 28 he made his move. Next up was Rosberg, followed (a few laps later) by Senna.
With eighteen laps remaining, Lauda had only one obstacle between himself and the 2nd position that would guarantee him the title! Nigel Mansell.
Mansell was almost thirty seconds ahead of Lauda at this point. This in itself presented the Austrian with a difficult task, on top of which was the (not altogether) small matter of getting past the Lotus driver.
Just as Prost must have been thinking that this was it, the fulfilment of his dreams, so it ended in tears.
Mansell's Lotus suddenly went into an inexplicable spin, from which the Englishman was lucky to recover. However his race was run, a brake calliper had got lose allowing the Lotus' brake fluid to leak away.
Thus (not for he first time that season) the two McLarens were running in 1st and 2nd. No matter how hard Alain might have been wishing for some minor problem to hit his team-mate's car, he knew it wouldn't happen - the MP4/2 was a reliable beast.
On the podium, Prost was broken hearted, so close yet so far. Lauda's 2nd place gave the Austrian 72 points, whilst Prost's win gave him 71.5. Thus Lauda had won the 1984 championship by half a point! Niki comforted the Frenchman and (rightly) predicted that the following year it would be his turn.
A dramatic end to a dramatic season! and such evocative names: Mansell, Senna, Prost, Rosberg, Piquet, Arnoux, and Berger.
So, who knows? If Mr Ickx had allowed the Monaco GP to continue, Prost might have had another title to his name. Then again, in 1988 when (thanks to the rule whereby only your best eleven results counted) Prost "lost" 18 points and the title, whilst Championship winner Senna dropped only 4.