The Paul Ricard trick that nearly caused an F1 shock
Formula 1's last visit to Paul Ricard in 1990 nearly witnessed one of the biggest giant-killing performances of modern times, as Ivan Capelli came within three laps of a shock victory for the tiny Leyton House team.
In the end, the race got away from him thanks to fuel and oil pressure dropping in the closing stages. But even without the win, it has gone down as a true F1 classic.
Just a fortnight after Capelli and teammate Mauricio Gugelmin failed to qualify in Mexico, the billiard smooth French GP circuit was the perfect hunting ground for the aero of the GC901 car.
Things had been helped further ahead of the race by a change to the diffuser to make it work better – and on the weekend itself Capelli realised that a little trick of his through the famous Signes corner had the potential to help deliver something awesome.
"This car was only good on the very smooth circuits, which Paul Ricard was, even though the asphalt was abrasive," Capelli told Motorsport.com.
"We were very, very competitive in practice and I realised that there was a chance for us to save the tyres.
"To do this, I had to not take Signes corner completely flat because otherwise we would destroy the front left tyre. I know doing that gave us a chance to do the race without stopping, whereas everyone else had to stop."
Although Capelli qualified seventh, with Gugelmin three places further back, he was confident that the Signes trick, allied to the way the car was performing on long runs, left him a good chance of something good.
But there were some fraught moments before the start when technical chief Gustav Brunner suddenly started pushing for a change of car set-up.
Photo by: LAT Images
"Just before the race, there was what I would call a constructive discussion between Gustav and I about the car," added Capelli.
"Gustav came to me and said: 'Listen, the wind has changed a lot, there is a very strong sidewind, and I would like to put more wing on the front, to increase the level of downforce on the flap.'
"I was worried though and said: 'No, the car is so perfect and so well balanced. Don't touch the car because I feel the car is very competitive.'
"But Gustav insisted and we came to a very funny compromise. We put only one degree more flap just on the inside section, on the right of the front wing.
"We left the outside of the front wing the same. So it had an asymmetric set-up and this, in the end, was a very good solution."
In the early stages of the race, as the leaders pulled away, Capelli and Gugelmin knew that if they looked after the tyres, opportunities would come later on.
"It was a gamble. We decided not to change tyres and were careful early in the race, so as not to put any extra load on the Goodyears.
"I felt very well in the car and, when the others stopped to change tyres, I found myself in the lead.
"I led the race for 46 laps, so I was pretty convinced to win it. Although Prost was close to me, I thought he wouldn't want to take any risks in overtaking me because he had to consider the championship.
"But three laps before the end, when I was going around Signes, I saw the light of one of the oil alarms going off – plus I heard a bit of noise from the engine.
"I had no choice but to back off, and Prost seized his moment and took the lead. At that moment I was completely destroyed – because I thought that such a good opportunity would not happen ever again. I was miserable about not winning the race.
"But later, when I found myself on the podium beside Prost who had won the race and Ayrton Senna, who was third, I was quite happy. To be up there together with such great drivers and great personalities was something fantastic."
How Newey missed an F1 classic
By Edd Straw
It was the biggest moment of his Formula 1 design career to date, and Adrian Newey missed it. While Ivan Capelli came within three laps of winning the 1990 French Grand Prix driving the Leyton House CG901, the car's designer wasn't even in the country having opted to join Williams a matter of days before the trip to Paul Ricard.
"I was watching on television," says Newey, who despite Capelli losing the lead to Alain Prost's Ferrari when he lost fuel pressure on the 78th tour of the 80-lap race was still delighted with the performance.
"It was very satisfying to see that after going through the problems in 1989 and the first part of 1990, which were caused by the floor of the Southampton windtunnel that we were using being bowed, that we came up with a solution that worked and saw the car be genuinely competitive."
For Newey, the performance was vital in gaining the confidence of Williams co-owner Patrick Head, as it proved that his aerodynamic concepts could produce a frontrunning car.
"It definitely had an effect on Patrick," reckons Newey. "He was quietly impressed by that. That performance, and the speed at the next race at Silverstone, gave Patrick a degree of confidence that I did know roughly what I was doing, so he gave me quite a free hand in the layout of the FW14."
The FW14 of 1991 evolved into the all-conquering FW14B of the following season. Newey's car may not have won in France, but in the long run, that race was central to the success that was to come."
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