Inside Line: McLaren adventures in Mexico
Mexico’s return to the Formula 1 calendar in 2015 for the first time since 1992 has been achieved after an injection of both private and government money and the facilities have been comprehensively upgraded.
The Hermanos Rodriguez circuit had a reputation for being very bumpy, but the entire track has been resurfaced and changes have made to a number of corners including the famous Peraltada.
My first trip to Mexico was with McLaren in 1989 as a marketing person and I arrived with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, with strict advice to avoid ice or salad to try avoid Montezuma’s Revenge!
In those days there wasn’t quite the pressure to do so many sponsor activities and in the period leading up to the event there was some free time to go and explore.
It may not be a well known fact, but the third largest pyramid in the world is located some 40 kilometres north east of Mexico City. It is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico and was an opportunity not to be missed to explore, so in the company of McLaren’s directors Creighton Brown and Gordon Murray we set off on our adventure.
Pyramids have been built by civilisations in many parts of the world and the Pyramid of the Sun, at Teotihuacan was an ancient Mesoamerican city. The site covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometres and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC and Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at minimum the sixth largest city in the world during its time.
The challenge we couldn’t resist was to climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, which is some 75 metres (246 feet) high and with an angle of slope 32.494 degrees and had steps all the way to the summit. Having accomplished the exhausting feat of getting to the very top, when we reached the summit we were enthusiastically met by the hoards of young street vendors peddling the numerous varieties of cheap merchandise!
At the Marlboro pre-race press conference with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, there was the unique opportunity to observe the two McLaren world champions share the podium with five times world champion Juan Manual Fangio.
Fangio didn’t speak English, so his words were translated by a young interpreter. What made it fascinating was that if you closed your eyes and listened, not just to the voices, but also to the opinions and the way they were expressed, you would have thought that Fangio was the youngest!
I also remember that weekend going to a dinner with both drivers and the team management where Alain Prost bet Ron Dennis $1,000 to eat a whole bowl of hot chillies. Never one to turn down a bet, RD duly accepted.
Whilst he went a colour similar to the Marlboro red, drank numerous pints of water and went very quiet for a quite a long time, he duly demolished the whole bowl! I, having always liked hot food, would have duly done the bet for half the money!
On the track Ayrton Senna scored his 33rd career pole position, equalling the long standing record held by Jim Clark. However this was the time when his relationship with Alain Prost was continuing to free fall in a downward spiral.
For the race Ayrton chose medium compound tyres whilst Alain opted went for the softer compound in the hope of gaining a speed advantage. Despite the pole being on the “dirty” side of the track in Mexico, Ayrton made the better start and led into the first turn.
However, it all was to mean nothing as Stefano Modena spun his Brabham into Peraltada on the first lap and was tapped by the Ligier of Olivier Grouillard and finished against the tyre wall, which brought out the red flag to stop the race.
At the restart Ayrton again went into the lead, however Alain, with his softer tyres giving him better grip, soon moved onto the back of his team mates car.
It was in Mexico that Alain started to question the power of his Honda V10 compared to Ayrton’s. For a number of laps Alain was clearly faster through the final Peraltada curve coming onto the main straight, but he could not make an impression on Ayrton despite being in his aerodynamic tow on the 1.2 km long main straight.
In fact Ayrton was actually seen to be pulling away. However running so close to his team mate eventually had a detrimental effect on Alain’s tyres and he pitted for a change.
Unfortunately there was a mix up and the team mistakenly gave Alain another set of soft tyres instead of the mediums he had come in for and he soon had to pit again for another tyre change. Despite being on far fresher tyres than his team mate, Alain still lost ground to Ayrton, fuelling his claims that his engines were down on power compared to Ayrton’s. After the race McLaren team boss Ron Dennis publicly apologised for the pit stop mishap.
Two years later in 1991 Ayrton arguably had the one of the most spectacular accidents of his career. While attempting to take fastest time from the Williams drivers in the final few minutes of Friday qualifying, Ayrton tried to take the steeply banked right hander Peraltada in 6th rather than 5th.
As the rear of the McLaren became loose midway through the 180 degree turn, he realised he was running to fast and backed off, snatching 5th gear in an effort to retrieve the situation. However it was too late and the car spun out of control and was flipped upside down after slamming backwards into the tyre barrier.
Thankfully Ayrton was able to crawl from beneath the car and luckily no serious harm was done. It was after this accident that gave Ayrton further momentum to urge McLaren to push the development of their semi automatic gearbox, as he felt that the steering mounted paddle shift would have helped avoid the accident by his being able to have both hands on the steering wheel.
In 1992 the race was moved further forward to March. In the weeks leading up to the race Mexico City’s air pollution had reached a record level and city officials imposed emergency measures banning half of government cars and equipment from the streets.
Mexico City proper has a population of over 8 million, whilst the Greater Mexico City population is in the region of 21 million, making it one of the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. Therefore if you roughly estimate the potential number of cars on the road at the same time, then you can get an idea of the scale of the problem.
It could get so bad that cars with alternating number plates could only drive on alternating days. This was something we found to our cost after being stopped by a Policeman when unwittingly driving on the wrong day. After being fined and forced to park the hire car, a VW Beetle taxi miraculously appeared to take us to the circuit – what a coincidence!
And it is not hard to get lost either! I can remember it taking some three hours to get from the circuit back to the hotel through a whole series of wrong turns and when it goes wrong, it just seems to get worse. However I also remember getting a lift back the hotel once with Ayrton, who glided seamlessly through the traffic in less than 20 minutes, explaining that the key to Latin traffic was to blend and circumnavigate!
At the circuit extra safety measures had been implemented to the track, including the easing of the banking at Peraltada, making the corner a little slower. However for the second year running Ayrton had another bad accident, this time at the fast Esses.
In an effort to improve the handling of his McLaren, Ayrton was increasingly stiffening the suspension settings, however one of the severe bumps caught him out as he explored the limits during qualifying. The car broke away and slammed sideways into the barrier and Ayrton thought that he had broken both his legs, such was the violence of the impact as a lower wishbone speared its way through the monocoque.
In fact only the left leg was badly bruised around the calf muscle but it was bad enough to have Ayrton undergo hours of physiotherapy throughout the night by Josef Leberer, regularly massaging and applying ice. It was not the best way for Ayrton to celebrate his 32nd birthday!
The irony was that in order to take the pressure off hi leg and make the ride more sympathetic to his injury, the car’ settings were made softer, which actually allowed him to go quicker! However in the race he retired on lap 11 with transmission problems.
The race was dominated by the Williams’ teammates Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, with Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger, in the second McLaren, in third and forth respectively. After that, through a mixture of financial and weather pollution problems the race slipped from the Formula One calendar.
However no article on Mexico and McLaren is complete without mention of Jo Ramirez. Jo for many years was Team Co-ordinator responsible for the logistics which included the transportation of the cars, the equipment, the team and the hotels, effectively moving the army of the team around the world every other weekend.
Jo was also responsible for the distribution of the all important FOM passes and every race it was my role to collect those allocated to the sponsors. However to use the term ‘collect’ does not do justice to the negotiation that took place every race, where the demand of passes always outweighed the supply, which was somewhat reminiscent of a re-enactment of the biblical tale of the loaves and fishes!
Jo’s frequent response was a theatrical: “I don’t believe it!” A fine impersonation of Victor Meldrew (from the BBC comedy series of the time ‘One Foot in the Grave’), albeit with a Mexican accent!
Jo was a friend to both Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, as explained by Alain in the forward of Jo’s autobiography: “In the first year with Ayrton Senna, Jo always kept the balance between the two sides by cracking jokes in both corners and making the most of the humorous aspects.”
“During the second year, when the relations between Ayrton and I deteriorated, Jo who was close to Ayrton, as they could speak and wear in the same language, remained completely impartial. He never took sides, and even after I left to go to Ferrari he tried very hard to heal the rift between us – the sport needs men like Jo.”
No doubt Jo will be there in Mexico City!
Inside Line by Peter Burns (Bio here>>>)