Mike Lawrence has written an article for Pitpass.com in which he writes about the growth of the test team in F1 over the years. He goes back to the days when it was three mechanics and a dog – all very interesting stuff – and then follows the gradual development into large teams of professional engineers and experts.
In the course of his article, Mike mentions being present when Martin Brundle and Ayrton Senna had their first tests with Tyrrell and Toleman respectively. Apparently both drivers were immediately so quick that the teams became excited at their finds and the two were signed up promptly to race in the approaching season. The rest is history, of course.
This made me think about how chance decisions can make differences in a driver’s career, however. At the time, one would have thought that Martin had been given an excellent opportunity; Tyrrell were one of the great teams, a bit down on their luck in recent years but able to bounce back at any moment, surely. Ayrton’s choice seemed a lot more risky – Toleman were new to the game and had not impressed in their first few years.
Tyrrell’s expected revival never happened in the event. They had begun the long slide into eventual withdrawal from F1 and, during his time with the team, Martin never had a car that could compete with the best. From there he went from one team to another, always managing to be there at the wrong moment, putting in some excellent performances but never really having a shot at the championship.
Meanwhile Ayrton was to achieve wonders in his debut year, the Toleman coming good at last, and he would have won at Monaco had not Prost frantically waved to the organizers to stop the race for rain (it had been raining all race long and was actually easing up at the time the Frenchman decided it was too dangerous to carry on). Senna was gaining on him by seconds every lap, however, and we all knew who would have won if the race had not been stopped. It was not long before Ayrton was snapped up by the big teams and the championships began to roll in.
At the time of their first F1 tests, there was not much to choose between the two drivers. I was following F3 quite closely at the time and it was obvious that Senna was gifted – but Brundle was as well. They had a real battle for the British F3 championship, leaving everyone else in the dust, and Senna’s eventual triumph was not by a huge number of points. It was quite possible that such tiny winning margins were the result of differences in capability of their cars, and so we withheld judgement as to which of the two would do best in F1.
To speak of Brundle in the same breath as the master himself seems ridiculous now but things could have been so different had Martin’s luck been better. I have no doubt that Senna’s talent would have forced him to the front sooner or later but, if Martin had been the Toleman driver in 1984 and Ayrton in the Tyrrell, the Brit might well have become the Brazilian’s main challenger in later years.
On such hazards of fate are careers built or destroyed. Derek Warwick’s F1 reputation was ruined by his move to Renault just as they changed from having the best car to one of the worst. Mario Andretti, nothing if not a journeyman driver, became champion thanks to being at Lotus when Chapman produced the 79. The list of broken dreams and lucky strikes goes on and on.
What’s done, is done, however. And, if Martin had become a big star, perhaps we would never have come to know his wry humor in his role as a commentator for television. Perhaps all is for the best.