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Manual gearboxes, Prost vs Lauda and a Senna masterclass: Notes on 80s' F1 classics

Ayrton Senna (L), engineer Gordon Muray (C) and French Alain Prost (R) listen to a Goodyear engineer during the first qualifying session of the Hungarian Grand Prix on August 11, 1989. JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU,PASCAL PAVANI/AFP via Getty Images

Last weekend, as part of its F1 Classics series, Star Select broadcast three GP races from the 1980s - Monte Carlo 1984, Jerez 1986 and Hungaroring 1989. To those who only read about and saw photos of F1 in the 1980s, before they were shown here in the mid-1990s, the sport appeared suffused with glamour, money, European royalty - and fast cars.

These F1 classics were a glimpse of the decade before the explosion of global sport through satellite television. The three GPs showed the undercarriage of this ludicrously-imagined caravan: its nuts, bolts, oilspills, blown tyres and busted radiators as well as the dangers that casually lay strewn around every corner.

They were, minus today's technology, a demonstration of the skills and iron-cast nerves of the drivers through the haze of bucketing rain in Monte Carlo, the heat-waves of Jerez and the narrow twisty-turny width of Hungaroring. At 200kph. Here are some rough notes off those three races.

• The drivers were macho superstars, but the TV commentators must be acknowledged as another level of hero. Without the voices of Steve Slater, Gerry Armstrong and others, to an amateur eye, F1 would be a series of cars going around - and round - a track. The commentators kept the geeks happy with the conversations about tyre composition and engine capacity. The casual viewer got to hear about the track, the intrigue, the drivers, the owners and slowly got sucked in. TV was F1's vehicle but the commentators were its fuel.

• At first sight, everything around Formula1 appears fragile, almost flimsy. The Monte Carlo streets are covered with lines marking traffic regulations that apply for the rest of the year. On a rainy afternoon, when the race begins after a 45-minute delay, who knows how drivers distinguish what is meant only for the race, and what isn't, off those lines on the road? Particularly as puddles keep forming and cars in front of them constantly spray their helmet visors with water off the road.

• There are no safety guardrails, no tyres on walls to cushion collisions in Monte Carlo's famous sections. The barriers are made of what looks like a single sheet of metal, or asbestos, who knows. Even the rain ponchos covering the race marshals appear to be the cheapest available on the market these days.

• In this humdrum curtain of grey, the driving is pure quality, with enormous control at high speed - even with the tails of cars jigging a little, the wet-weather wheels sliding, the car stays true to the race line. Niki Lauda is at the top of the driver's championship and sparring with Alain Prost. His horrific accident of a decade ago forgotten as he sees and squeezes through narrow gaps through which, honestly, Vespas couldn't pass, before his car packs up on him. Senna, in his debut F1 season, is hustling every car ahead of him, extracting speed from an engine that didn't appear capable of it. He closes in on race leader Prost at three seconds per lap, a bloodhound in the rain, senses on high alert. The race is stopped after 31 laps after Prost apparently made angry signs to the race director about the continuing downpour. Had they stopped at 32, Senna would have won.

• During the inaugural Spanish GP in Jerez 86, three green lights signaled go at the start. In 1996, it turned to five red, which is still used. The track temperature is 41 degrees but it is no excuse for a somnolent Ferrari pit stop for Michele Alboreto. Five people crowd around Alboreto's car around prompting the TV joke, "it takes three times more Ferrari mechanics to change a wheel than anyone else." By Hungaroring 89, Ferrari had got their pit stop down to under seven seconds, the first flicker of choreography at work. The 'world record' for an F1 tyre change is now 1.91 seconds from Red Bull.

• Everything in these classics was lower, and seemed heavier (other than the drivers). It was also more labour-intensive, a harder grind. The manual gearbox on the bumpy, twisty Jerez circuit in the southern Spanish countryside required thousands of gear changes. Senna's shoulders have hurt during qualifying due to handling both the g-forces and the changes of gear; the taller, larger Mansell is getting beaten up by the bumps.

• Plus the cockpit is so far ahead on the car/chassis that the driver's feet are positioned past the axel: in the case of a collision the first line of defence is certainly not the chassis of the car, rather the driver's ankles. There are discussions that a dramatic redesign was to be expected in the following season - 1987.

• Mansell and Senna go mano a mano for the line in Jerez; Senna's masterclass in muscling his way to the front of the field is premised on his philosophy: "If you don't get past in three corners, you never are going to..." He does. Mansell's smart tyre change eats up 29 seconds off the race leader over five laps. There's 12 seconds between Senna and Mansell, who's catching up at four seconds a lap, with four laps to go. Senna holds him off at the end by 0.14 seconds. It is the closest margin of victory in F1 since the 1971 Italian GP. On the final dash down the start-finish straight, Senna's tyres are shredded but he moves across the track, succeeds in blocking Mansell in the quicker car, edging him further away off a dead straight line to the finish. On the podium, the drivers hug each other.

• Senna's hands are taped, his right arm hurts so much that he can't lift it to wave, can't hold his hard-earned magnum of champagne.

• In Hungaroring, Mansell wins by a good distance, 26 seconds from Senna, after being 12th on pole. There are the most teams in a GP to date: the commentators said 18. These days it's 13 teams and a maximum of a 26-strong grid. Hungaroring is built on the Monte Carlo street circuit prototype in the village of Mogyorod, north of Budapest. No matter its 14 corners, the track is narrow, making it hard to overtake. TV's stopped showing lap numbers, so we're largely guessing. Frequent captions flash: Mansell is flying through / Fight between Patrese, Senna, Berger and Prost/ Nakajima in an accident/ Patrese out, water leak/ Berger out, gear box. Mansell home.

• For the first time we hear news about Ferrari's 'interesting new concept', the semi-automatic gearbox. One of the commentators purrs in anticipation, "Paddles on the back of the steering wheel that can be used or the car will change itself automatically if it is programmed to. It's new age computers, so many more things you can do with it." The other responds, "so much more to go wrong."

• Tobacco and liquor logos are splashed everywhere: John Player Special is part of the car finery, Malboro is everywhere within sight, plus Gordon's Gin, Martini, Tio Pepe.

• Then there is the long line of little teams, long gone: Toleman, RAM, Spirit, ZakSpeed, Eurobrun. Coloni, Lola, Onyx, Rial, Osella, AGS. Speaking of the Tolemans in Monte Carlo, it was said, "I don't think they've spent as much as Ferrari spend on sandwiches."

• Toleman's rookie driver had started Monaco 13th out of 20 in qualifying before he got up Prost's gearbox, so to speak. He finished second out of the eight cars left on the track. That rookie had rattled the rafters and his name was Ayrton Senna da Silva. In ten years, he would set F1 alight and then be gone, killed in a racing accident age 34. I'd stopped watching F1 after he died, the three weekend races brought the sport back to life again.