Michaele Alboreto, Alain Prost, Nurburgring, 1985

Alboreto wins – but Ferrari decline begins

1985 German Grand Prix flashback

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Italy is home to Formula One’s oldest and most successful team but its track record in producing world champion drivers is far less shining. Its last was Alberto Ascari with Ferrari 1953.

But 30 years it seemed as though Italy finally had another world champion on its hands – and one at the wheel of a Ferrari, no less.

Michele Alboreto’s victory in the German Grand Prix extended his championship lead as the 1985 season entered its closing stages.

An unloved venue

“Sanitised”, “anaesthetised”, “bland”, “featureless”, “a shadow”, “pathetic”, “Mickey Mouse”, “forgettable”. If you think today’s F1 fans give new tracks a hard time on social media, journalists 30 years ago were no kinder to the ‘new’ Nurburgring.

The Nurburgring hadn’t held Germany’s round of the world championship since 1976, the notorious race which was already doomed to be the last on the Nordschleife even before Niki Lauda’s fiery, near-fatal accident. Since then the race had been held at the Hockenheimring.

Fabi won a scooter for pole position
In the meantime a new, shorter Nurburgring had been built. Smooth, wide and bordered by ample run-off, it pointed the way forward for grand prix circuit design. But it offended those for whom the Nurburgring title had always been associated with the narrow, sinuous, tree-lined giant of a track.

The new Nurburgring held its first world championship event the previous year as a second German round of the championship titled the European Grand Prix. Lauda had spun on his way to fourth place while team mate Alain Prost won, setting up a final round showdown where Lauda triumphed.

But his 1985 title defence had been shot to pieces by chronic unreliability, and ahead of round nine in Germany Lauda informed his McLaren team boss Ron Dennis that he did not intend to race beyond the end of the season. He waited until the next round to make his decision public.

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Fabi takes shock pole position

1985 German Grand Prix grid

Row 11. Teo Fabi 1’17.429
2. Stefan Johansson 1’18.616
Row 23. Alain Prost 1’18.725
4. Keke Rosberg 1’18.781
Row 35. Ayrton Senna 1’18.792
6. Nelson Piquet 1’18.802
Row 47. Elio de Angelis 1’19.120
8. Michele Alboreto 1’19.194
Row 59. Riccardo Patrese 1’19.338
Alfa Romeo
10. Nigel Mansell 1’19.475
Row 611. Marc Surer 1’19.558
12. Niki Lauda 1’19.652
Row 713. Jacques Laffite 1’19.656
14. Andrea de Cesaris 1’19.738
Row 815. Thierry Boutsen 1’19.781
16. Patrick Tambay 1’19.917
Row 917. Gerhard Berger 1’20.666
18. Eddie Cheever 1’21.074
Alfa Romeo
Row 1019. Stefan Bellof 1’21.219
20. Derek Warwick 1’21.237
Row 1121. Philippe Alliot 1’22.017
22. Manfred Winkelhock 1’22.607
Row 1223. Francois Hesnault 1’23.161
24. Jonathan Palmer 1’24.217
Row 1325. Huub Rothengatter 1’26.478
Osella-Alfa Romeo
26. Martin Brundle 1’27.621
Row 1427. Pierluigi Martini 1’40.506
Minardi-Motori Moderni

Rain on Saturday meant the lap times from Friday’s qualifying session decided the grid – and produced a major shock.

Toleman, who had missed the first three races of the year, hadn’t started inside the front four rows all season and had only one car in the race. But it would start with all the others behind it, as an inspired lap by Teo Fabi put him over a second ahead of the best of the rest.

By coincidence Stefan Johansson’s Ferrari shared the front row. Johansson had been due to continue with Toleman who he had driven for at the end of 1984. However with their tyre supplier Michelin withdrawing over the winter and with both Goodyear and Pirelli unwilling to supply tyres, Toleman found themselves unable to race at the start of the year.

Only when they took over the Pirelli tyre contract for the defunct Spirit team were they able to join in. In a supreme irony, Toleman now gave Pirelli their first pole position for almost two years.

Prost’s McLaren, Keke Rosberg’s Williams, Ayrton Senna’s Lotus and Nelson Piquet’s Brabham made it six different cars in the top six places. Elio de Angelis and Michele Alboreto – Italy’s two championship hopefuls – lined up on row four.

Ninth on the grid for Riccardo Patrese was his best qualifying position of the year so far, and it came after the Euroracing-run Alfa Romeo team had reverted to its 1984 chassis. It later transpired they were one of two manufacturer teams preparing to quit F1 at the end of 1985.

The others were Renault. But for this race they had an extra, third car on the grid. While regular drivers Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay had the up-to-date RE60B chassis, Francois Hesnault had to make to with an upgraded RE60 which featured one further innovation – an onboard camera.

Renault had successfully gained the support of all the other teams to allow the grid to be expanded to 27 cars so they could run their extra car. While onboard cameras had been used in closed-cockpit racing for years, mounting them to open-cockpit F1 cars presented new challenges. Among which was how to keep the lens clean – Hesnault was under instruction to periodically pulls strips of clear film from the camera lens to ensure clear pictures were beamed back.

For his home race, Stefan Bellof had the use of Tyrrell’s only turbo-powered car. Ken Tyrrell had dropped his long-term opposition to running a turbo motor, but financial pressures and the fall-out over his team’s exclusion from the 1984 championship meant he was only able to obtain a single unit of year-old specification from Renault.

But Bellof’s 19th place on the grid was no better than he or Brundle had managed with either car. Clearly the turbo wasn’t the solution to their problems.

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1985 German Grand Prix

Senna led the field to the first corner
Fabi had crashed heavily during the wet qualifying session on Saturday, taking such a knock to the head that at one point he could not remember where he had qualified. And when he did take up his place at the head of the field his start couldn’t have been much worse.

The field was held for a long time on red, and as his car began to creep forward Fabi began to press the clutch in – just as the lights finally turned green. Johansson shot into the lead, but his car was stuttering on the up-shifts, so as they reached turn one it was Senna who headed the field with Rosberg in hot pursuit.

Alboreto had made a lightning getaway from eighth but as he arrived at the first corner his team mate was already turning in and the gap to avoid him was narrowing. “I thought, ‘Not Stefan, anybody but Stefan…'” he said afterwards.

The two Ferraris made contact, Alboreto’s front wing slicing his team mate’s right rear tyre, and condemning him to a slow limp back to the pits followed by a futile race at the back of the field. They weren’t the only team mates to collide at turn one: for once, crash magnet Andrea de Cesaris could point the finger at the other Ligier of Jacques Laffite for causing his early departure from proceedings.

Before the first lap was over Rosberg’s Honda-powered Williams had blasted him past Senna into the lead. Behind them came the title contenders – Alboreto followed by De Angelis and Prost. Piquet was next, though he was passed by Nigel Mansell on lap two, and Fabi had fallen to eighth.

Johansson had a spin
Senna kept Rosberg’s FW10 within range, and as the pair began lapping the slower traffic the Lotus filled the Williams driver’s mirrors. On lap 14 Senna tested Rosberg’s defences at the hairpin, and the next time by he made a dive for the inside. Rosberg saw him coming at the last moment and left Senna just enough room to squeeze by into the lead.

This was the fifth race Senna had led since scoring his breakthrough victory at Estoril in the second round of the championship. But time and again his car his Lotus had let him down and today was to be no different. On lap 28 he raised his right arm and coasted into the pits, a driveshaft having failed on his car.

The same thing had happened to De Angelis in practice, and a different problem halted his pursuit of vital championship points. The oil pressure began to rise in his Renault V6 turbo, and on lap 41 it came to a smoky halt.

By this point in the race more than half of the starters had dropped out. Brabham’s involvement in the race ended when Piquet’s BMW turbo failed on lap 24. The last of the Renault trio dropped out two laps later – Hesnault’s clutch failed after nine laps, but not before he treated television viewers to the first live onboard camera footage from an F1 race, including an overtaking move on Jonathan Palmer’s Zakspeed.

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The single Zakspeed retired from its home race on lap seven. The following lap saw both RAM drivers retire together on the approach to the Veedol chicane: Philippe Alliot lost oil pressure and Manfred Winkelhock’s final grand prix – he was killed in a World Sportscar race a week later – was ended by an engine failure.

Alboreto’s fifth victory was his last
Those at the head of the pack also had problems to grapple with. Alboreto’s Ferrari was smoking noticeably in right-handers – particularly the long turn before the pits – and Prost’s TAG-Porsche engine was lacking power. Even so they had closed on race leader Rosberg, presenting Alboreto with the tricky task of trying to pass him for the lead while not opening any doors for Prost.

The leaders were expecting to complete the race without a tyre stop, but Rosberg’s Goodyears were beginning to lose their adhesion. Heading into the fast Veedol chicane – which the front runners tackled flat-out in fifth gear in qualifying – Rosberg got off-line and rode the kerbs. Alboreto pounced, barging the Williams aside in the final corner, and the opportunistic Prost followed him through.

Rosberg pitted on lap 57, but was later forced to stop with fading brakes. Carbon fibre discs were in their infancy in 1985: Prost was another driver using them, but found his brake pedal beginning to go long. With ten laps he was pressuring Alboreto hard for the lead when his McLaren snapped into a spin at the final corner, forcing him to settle for second.

Mansell’s Williams held third but his lap times dropped off dramatically in the final laps as his Honda turbo lost boost pressure. He had Jacques Laffite filling his mirrors, and after holding the Ligier up to the tune of 20 seconds Laffite eventually slipped by to claim the final podium position. He lost further places to Thierry Boutsen and, on the final lap, Lauda, who had charged through the field after being forced to pit early due to a loose wheel.

Mansell collected the final point for sixth place followed by Gerhard Berger and Bellof. Brundle brought the normally aspirated Tyrrell home an unheralded tenth, three laps behind anyone else.

This turned out to be the final race finish for an engine from the Cosworth DFV/DFY lineage, which had been introduced 18 years earlier and won 155 races since. “I remember crossing the line in tenth and thinking what an amazing drive it was and nobody would ever recognise it or know it,” Brundle recalled recently.

Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi was classified 11th behind Brundle despite having stopped with a blown Motori Moderni engine. Nonetheless, this was the first official finish for the team in its debut season.

1985 German Grand Prix result

Pos.#DriverTeamLapsTime / Gap / Reason
127Michele AlboretoFerrari671hr 35’31.337
22Alain ProstMcLaren-TAG6711.661
326Jacques LaffiteLigier-Renault6751.154
418Thierry BoutsenArrows-BMW6755.279
51Niki LaudaMcLaren-TAG671’13.972
65Nigel MansellWilliams-Honda671’16.820
717Gerhard BergerArrows-BMW661 lap
83Stefan BellofTyrrell-Renault661 lap
928Stefan JohanssonFerrari661 lap
104Martin BrundleTyrrell-Ford634 laps
1129Pierluigi MartiniMinardi-Motori Moderni62Engine
126Keke RosbergWilliams-Honda61
23Eddie CheeverAlfa Romeo45Turbo
11Elio de AngelisLotus-Renault40Engine
24Huub RothengatterOsella-Alfa Romeo32Gearbox
19Teo FabiToleman-Hart29Clutch
12Ayrton SennaLotus-Renault27Transmission
16Derek WarwickRenault25Ignition
7Nelson PiquetBrabham-BMW23Turbo
15Patrick TambayRenault19Accident
8Marc SurerBrabham-BMW15Engine
9Manfred WinkelhockRAM-Hart8Engine
22Riccardo PatreseAlfa Romeo8Gearbox
14Francois HesnaultRenault8Clutch
10Philippe AlliotRAM-Hart8Oil pressure
30Jonathan PalmerZakspeed7Alternator
25Andrea de CesarisLigier-Renault0Accident

Alboreto’s title bid falters

Wary of running low on fuel and dropping beneath the minimum weight limit following Prost’s exclusion from victory at Imola, Alboreto came to a stop immediately after taking the chequered flag. His victory extended his lead in the championship over Prost to five points – and made up for hitting Johansson at the start. But it marked the high-point of his 1985 title bid.

He finished behind Prost in the next two races and failed to score at all in the final five as the Ferrari reliability which had served him well in Germany deserted him when he really needed it.

But Ferrari were also struggling with a car whose performance varied wildly from track to track. Uneven surfaces were a particular weakness: the smooth Nurburgring presented few such problems, but at Zandvoort, Brands Hatch and Kyalami he qualified on the eighth row.

It was the beginning of a long, largely barren spell for Ferrari. Having won the constructors’ championship as recently as 1982 and 1983, they would not be regular championship contenders again for more than a decade.

Alboreto’s career suffered with them. This was his final grand prix victory, and after three win-less years with Ferrari he saw out his time in F1 with the likes of Tyrrell, Arrows, Lola and Minardi. He went on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours with Audi was killed while testing one of their sportscars at the Lausitzring in 2001.

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “Alboreto wins – but Ferrari decline begins”

  1. FlyingLobster27
    4th August 2015, 12:23

    Nice review @keithcollantine, but there might be a few words missing in the last sentence, something like “win the Le Mans 24 Hours in a TWR-Porsche, before joining Audi and was killed” etc. Incidentally, one of his co-drivers in his 1997 LM win was… [drumroll] Stefan Johansson.

    1. FlyingLobster27
      4th August 2015, 12:28

      Actually, @keithcollantine, scratch that bit about him “joining Audi”, as he didn’t change team. Joest Racing ran the TWR-Porsches, which were converted to factory Porsche LMPs in 1998, then Porsche withdrew from prototypes at the end of 98. Joest Racing then took on one half, and the more successful half, of Audi’s challenge in 1999.

  2. Great reading. I really enjoy these historic pieces.

  3. Nice to read but:

    It was the beginning of a long, largely barren spell for Ferrari. Having won the constructors’ championship as recently as 1982 and 1983, they would not be regular championship contenders again for more than a decade.

    What about 1990 then? Prost was in title hunt until the penultimate round when Senna knocked him off. Ferrari was also close to clinching the constructors championship that year.

    1. I think by ‘regular’ he meant contenders for several years consecutively, instead of going from nowhere near McLaren to matching McLaren to dropping even further back between 1989-91.

    2. @matthijs From 1982 to 1985 Ferrari won two constructors’ titles, had one driver as runner-up in 1982 (who probably would have been champion but for a career-ending crash), another fighting for the title at the last round in 1983, and a runner-up again in 1985. As @Anto neatly explained, Prost may have been runner-up in 1990 but Ferrari weren’t “regular championship contenders” around that time. From 1986 to 1996 was a thin period for them.

  4. If you would like to read a little bit more about the development of the early in-car cameras in F1-

    They were using those Thomson units through 1988 before smaller, More aerodynamic units (Much like the one’s we see used today) were produced for 1989.

    1. Thanks! great stuff.
      Actually the cameras they used in 1989 look even smaller than the current ones haha.
      I do wonder when FOM will finally change the design, I’m sure they could be much smaller nowadays and just better overall.

      1. @mantresx The current T-cam is a similar size to the units used from 1989-1998 as it houses 2 camera units (Front & rear facing).
        The cameras they mount in other locations (Side of the chassis & nose) is much smaller than the previous units.

        The camera housings were designed with input from teams to ensure they were as aero neutral as possible. Also remember that its not just the camera that in the housings, They also hold the motor to move the roll of plastic film that helps keep the view clear.
        The T-cam also holds some extra electronics in the central section to operate the switch between front/rear facing shots & more recently some stuff that operates the thermal overlay cameras.

        They also have the moveable camera that is slightly larger due to the motor that moves the lens & I gather most of the teams don’t like running that as they feel it has a negative effect on aero. Force India seem to be the only team happy to run it (FI were pretty always good with letting us try new cameras).

        There is also a much smaller camera which they put in mirrors & on helmet’s but again its upto the teams to let you use those extra shots.

        Shame they don’t use that helmet camera more, I gather its a result of teams not wanting the aero over the helmet to be disturbed & because its some extra wiring that needs to be sorted out when drivers get in & out of the car.

      2. @gt-racer oh yeah you’re right I forgot they also had a rear facing camera and a rolling film :)

        So yes maybe the T-cam can’t get much smaller but IMHO instead of messing around with thermal, rotating cameras etc they should fix the basics first: resolution, night races performance (the colours always look washed out), even simpler things like actually making them waterproof (there’s always bubbles or drops stuck when it rains).

        It seems to me like they made a contract with a supplier several years ago and they’re stuck with the same manufacturer until it runs out… but of course I’m just guessing. Thanks!

        1. @mantresx The drops of water that stick on the image are sticking on the plastic sheets they put over the housings in the wet, Its been something that they have tried to fix for a long time.
          We introduced some non-stick plastic covers back in 2005 that were supposed to prevent things sticking to the cameras, Bizarrely they made the problem with the water much worse as the G-forces pushed the water to the edge-

          I’m pretty sure they will have full HD in-car cameras within the next 2 years. The reason they don’t already is that the last upgrade cycle (2009/2010) ended up been at an awkward time. Suitable HD lenses suitable to use were not widely available so they got the highest resolution native 16:9 units that were available at the time & upgraded all of the old units.

          As far as I am aware they don’t have contracts forcing them to a single supplier. Most of the trackside cameras tend to be Grass Valley/Thomson units simply because there the supplier the guys at the top prefer to use but there are also cameras from other manufacturer’s in use.

          Not sure what there using now but in early 2006 the main trackside cameras were upgraded to GrassValley LDK5000’s, The last upgrade probbaly would have been in 2010 ready to take the worldfeed HD for 2011 (Although the LDK5000’s were capable of outputting in HD they still woudl have upgraded).

        2. @gt-racer Again, many many thanks for sharing I always find little details like these fascinating, it’s great for us mortals to have these insights on an industry which only people who work or have worked there would know about.

          By the way Keith, sorry this conversation went completely off topic but it was worth it :P

  5. Whenever I look at these old results I thank modern technology for having only rarely a handful of retirements. Can’t think what storm F1 would have to face if it had 12 retirements in any race now.

    On top of that FE has produced a great video on their channel about the past season although I can’t help but think they are just plain wrong with their ‘this is the future’-shout. Obviously hybrid engines are saving more fuel and for the common car user wouldn’t even change a thing.

    1. @xtwl
      It added to the tension and uncertainty though, even if someone had a half lap lead you wouldn’t know if they’d make it to the end. For me it also added to the team side, you knew it was hard to build a car that was fast enough to win and strong enough to finish, with them pushing the limits of what was possible.
      I’ll just leave my rose tinted glasses here for now… :-)

  6. Alboreto had a real chance that year, but the Ferrari engine didn’t want it.

  7. High quality articles like that are the reason I keep visiting F1Fanatic multiple times a day, even when the F1 world is for holidays! Good job!

    1. @afonic Thanks very much :-)

  8. Great clip, it didn’t sound like Murray Walker though. Was that the case?

    1. No, Tony Jardine and James Hunt did the commentary for that race, Walker was commentating on the British motorcycle grand prix at Silverstone. Barry Gill was supposed to take over from Walker but he had a throat problem, so Jardine subbed for the sub!

  9. Keith, I think that you could have added to this article the reason why Ferrari’s reliability ended up taking a sharp turn for the worse in the final races, because this particular race was actually partially responsible for it.

    Forghieri has mentioned that, in the earlier part of the 1985 season, Enzo Ferrari became convinced that Borg Warner, who were supplying Ferrari with their KKK series turbochargers, were deliberately downgrading the quality of the parts they were supplying and were favouring the TAG-Porsche partnership.

    Although it may sound strange now, Ferrari did have grounds for believing that their suppliers were not treating them fairly – Metzger, Porsche’s engine designer for the TAG-Porsche engine, has admitted that the piston manufacturer Mahle were stealing information from Ferrari and Alfa Romeo and passing it onto him. Similarly, Bosch refused to supply Alfa Romeo with the latest generation of their electronic fuel injection systems, retaining those systems for the exclusive use of the BMW and TAG-Porsche outfits – although not an issue for Ferrari, who went with Magnetti Marelli, it would have entrenched suspicions that the German suppliers were favouring the German backed teams over their rivals in Italy.

    It seems that Enzo’s suspicions grew when, around the time of the German GP, he noticed that they were receiving an abnormally high number of defective turbochargers and, throughout that weekend, which lead Enzo to become convinced that the German suppliers for his team were trying to deliberately hobble Alboreto and engineer a victory for McLaren and the TAG-Porsche engine.

    Although Alboreto did win in the end, there was pressure from within Ferrari to cut their ties with Borg Warner, which lead Ferrari to make a hasty mid season switch to Garrett. As might be expected, the decision to change to a different turbocharger to the one that the engine had originally been designed around did not work well, with a knock on impact on both reliability and performance – it’s part of the reason why, somewhat ironically, Ferrari started having more turbocharger problems in the final few races after making the decision to switch.

    1. fascinating piece of history

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