The history of F1: the 1980s

19th November 2020
Damien Smith

“I will never drive a McLaren again.” Imagine had Alain Prost stuck to those words. After a maiden Formula 1 season punctuated by one too many accidents caused by car failures,  the little Frenchman with the massive talent was done with McLaren – or so he thought.


Instead, destiny had other, unexpected plans for the best, most complete F1 driver of the decade (well, for most of it). Prost would return in Marlboro’s Dayglo and white  – but only after its boss Teddy Mayer had made way for a single-minded, deeply ambitious visionary, who in harness with an equally focused and hard-edged designer, would raise the F1 game during the 1980s. Prost, Ron Dennis, John Barnard and TAG-badged Porsche turbo engines was the axis of a dream team for the decade of Cold War super-power.

But McLaren would evolve again into something even greater after Barnard left for Ferrari, when Honda’s V6 replaced TAG, and a young, mercurial Brazilian was teamed with (and ultimately against) Prost. Ayrton Senna and his colossal rivalry with the only man he truly respected and feared would really define this decade – for better and for worse.

Today, F1 in the 1980s is considered a halcyon time, recalled for brutal, untamed horsepower, a new breed of swashbuckling heroes and an increasing commercialisation of a global sport moving closer to the mainstream. But it’s on this final point that F1 was almost brought to its knees, by a drawn out (and terminally boring) civil war between governing body FISA, led by pompous, blazered president Jean-Marie Balestre, and the British-based FOCA teams, led by sharp-as-a-tack Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone. Guess who won?

Through 1980 and ’81, a fundamental battle played out over who would control grand prix racing. Yes, FISA (the sporting arm of the FIA), would retain control of the technical regulations, but crucially it was Ecclestone who grabbed what really counted: the commercial power that would make not only himself but also his rival team owners fabulously wealthy in the era of rampant capitalism. The seed was sown in the 1970s, but it was during the ’80s that F1 as we know it today really took root.


On track, the emerging Williams team and Brabham held power at first, propelled by the now-venerable Cosworth DFV and gripped by monumental ground-effects suction. Alan Jones edged Nelson Piquet in ’80, the Brazilian then claiming the first of his three titles the following season, before FISA, in an act conceived to undermine and weaken the FOCA DFV teams, banned ground effects at the end of ’82 on the grounds of safety.


It certainly had been a torrid time. Gilles Villeneuve tripped over Jochen Mass’s March in qualifying at Zolder and died in a horrible crash (if only he’d survived and raced on, to mix it with Prost and Senna), and Riccardo Paletti lost his life in Canada when his Osella slammed into Didier Pironi’s stalled Ferrari at the start. Then Pironi suffered career-ending leg injuries when he was launched over Prost’s Renault in the rain at Hockenheim. To cap the black mood, F1 lost one of its greatest agitators when Lotus founder Colin Chapman succumbed to a heart attack in December. Through it all, a record 11 drivers won races as Keke Rosberg – only once a winner that season – edged an unlikely title for Williams, the last for a DFV.


As the teams scrabbled to prepare new, non-ground-effect, flat-bottomed machines for 1983, manufacturer-backed turbo power was now essential if the FOCA teams wanted to maintain their competitive edge. Ecclestone had already moved fast to partner up with BMW, and Gordon Murray’s stunning delta-shaped BT52 would carry Piquet to another title; Williams plugged away with Cosworth until joining forces with far from proven Honda for ’84; but it was Dennis and Barnard who would really grab the initiative.


McLaren’s bounce-back had begun in ’81, once Dennis (with Marlboro’s help) had prised Mayer’s grip from the team. Barnard’s landmark carbon-fibre-monocoque MP4/1 pointed the way on future chassis design, John Watson scoring a memorable home victory at Silverstone. Then Dennis scored a coup by luring Niki Lauda out of retirement for ’82, the Austrian discovering to his surprise that his thirst for F1 had yet to be fully quenched. He won at Long Beach, just his third race back.

But the key that unlocked the rest of the decade was the moment Dennis persuaded Porsche to supply a turbo engine, paid for and badged by TAG, owned by Ron’s friend Mansour Ojjeh. Porsche was fully committed to its Group C sports car programme, but as it dominated Le Mans the company’s sound engineering would in parallel power McLaren to a string of F1 world titles – even if it was by stealth.

Prost could see what was happening at the team with which he’d started, now transformed in Dennis’s image. He’d become a race winner and title contender at Renault, but a dreadful lack of reliability, in-fighting with team-mate Rene Arnoux and further tensions with management left him frustrated – and crownless. To anyone who cared to look, his potential was clear, and it would be fully realised on his return to McLaren in ’84.

A shaken Lauda knew what he was in for straight away. The driver some had compared to a computer during his Ferrari days in the 1970s was now being outfoxed and plain outpaced by the ‘The Professor’, with his mop of curly hair and crooked nose. Niki couldn’t beat Prost on pure speed, so he drew on all that vast experience to maximise his scores – and nabbed a third and final title by just half a point. Prost was disheartened, but this vastly intelligent man had watched and learned. His time would come, as his friend Lauda said to him on the podium at Estoril.


Prost’s deserved first world title follow emphatically (and to no one’s surprise) in ’85, and another would come the season after – but by now the ever-shifting F1 sands had changed the landscape. McLaren-TAG was plateauing, restless Barnard was tempted by the lure of rejuvenating a misfiring Ferrari, and the Williams-Honda partnership was coming on song.


As Brabham began its slow decline, Piquet joined Frank Williams for ’86, beside a driver who was finally unleashing his own potency after five years of frustration at a Lotus team that never really believed in him. To Piquet’s annoyance, moustachioed Nigel Mansell became a thorn he could not ignore. In Patrick Head’s masterful FW11, the pair would go toe to toe, trading blows through the summer – until a dramatic decider in Adelaide, when a flailing Goodyear tyre would shred Mansell’s dreams. As Piquet pitted for new rubber in caution, Prost quietly stepped through to steal the crown. No longer blessed with the fastest car, this season was the confirmation of his understated genius.


But the following year he had no chance as the Williams-Honda combo stepped up again, Piquet ‘doing a Lauda’ by scoring his way to the title against a faster team-mate. Mansell had more wins and pole positions, but then blew it with a practice crash at Suzuka.


And now Dennis grabbed back the initiative, by luring Honda to McLaren. As Williams fell away (for now), the Marlboro cars ascended thanks to a collaborative effort between Gordon Murray, who had arrived from Brabham, and the well-honed team led by American Steve Nichols. The MP4-4 would set new benchmarks for excellence and domination.

Prost could have had an easier life by welcoming Piquet as his new team-mate (Lauda was long gone, having retired for good at the end of ’85), but instead he made the case for Senna. McLaren deserved the best, he said, it was clear which Brazilian was faster – and to his eternal credit, he welcomed the significant challenge he knew was about to land in a team that had revolved around him for four years.

Senna’s precocious ability was obvious in karts, Formula Ford and Formula 3 and only confirmed by a line-in-sand performance at Monaco for lowly Toleman in ’84. In the wet, the rookie had almost embarrassed Prost until the race was stopped early. The momentum had built during his subsequent years at Lotus, Senna proving a master over one lap and winning when he could, in a team that was already a shadow of its former self. Now he finally had his chance for a shot in the premier league.

Fifteen out of 16 wins, eight for Senna, seven for Prost, was the story of 1988. Only a clumsy slip from Senna as he tried to lap a backmarker at Monza prevented a Dayglo-and-white wash. Overall, there was little between them, although Senna’s astonishing 13 poles to Prost’s two gives an indication of who was out-and-out faster. But Prost actually outscored Senna over the season, even if the best-11-scores rule made the Brazilian champion, after a wonderful virtuoso drive at Suzuka.

There had been moments of tension – when Senna swerved towards a passing Prost at Estoril, almost putting the Frenchman into the pitwall. That overstepped a line still rarely only approached back then. But overall, the team-mates had remained exactly that through the season. That would change in ’89, devastatingly so.


Like Villeneuve and Pironi before them, Prost and Senna fell out at Imola as the latter broke a pre-race agreement on terms of engagement in battle. Turbos had now been outlawed, but if anything the new normally aspirated rules only enhanced the Honda advantage as its new V10 powered McLaren to greater heights. Sure, there were sideshow stories such as Mansell’s dramatic win on his debut in Barnard’s fabulous Ferrari 640 in Rio. But the main event through ’89 was always the second instalment of Prost vs. Senna. The bitterness intensified through the summer, to the point where Prost concluded with sorrow that ‘his’ team now belonged to another – and the only option was to head for the door, towards Barnard and Ferrari. But still there was a title to be won, and he did so in a most unedifying (and uncharacteristic) way. Alain knew what he was doing at Suzuka’s chicane when he turned in on his team-mate at low speed, and indeed had forewarned that Senna wouldn’t be coming past. As one walked away in frustration, the other charged back to win on the road – only to be disqualified for ‘cutting the chicane’ in his recovery, a lame technicality.

But really, who cared which of them prevailed? The loser, in an unseemly and petty climax at the end of a decade packed with drama and high-powered action, had been F1 itself.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 1980

  • F1 1981

  • F1 1982

  • F1 1983

  • F1 1984

  • F1 1985

  • F1 1986

  • F1 1987

  • F1 1988

  • F1 1989

  • Alain Prost

  • Ayrton Senna

  • Alan Jones

  • Keke Rosberg

  • Nelson Piquet

  • Niki Lauda

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