Curacao 1985

voor het eerst naar Curaçao met

36 years ago today, the stars of Formula 1’s primary feeder series headed off to the Caribbean not for a holiday, but to do battle on the streets of a country that had never seen motorsport on its shores before

Saudi Arabia proved racing on its streets was possible by joining the Formula E calendar in 2018, and is now set to host a Formula 1 grand prix for the first time this December. That one has happened after the other is not a coincidence.

Countries bidding to host major sporting contests often hold some kind of ‘warm-up’ to prove they’re up to the task, and when the Lesser Antillean island of Curacao invited the International Formula 3000 grid along in October 1985 it did so with F1 in its sights. If it could make a success of hosting its understudy, then attracting the world championship should be possible.

At that point it was a territory within the Netherlands Antilles, only gaining autonomy within the Netherlands in 2007, and had financial prosperity through the discovery of oil fields nearby mined by the likes of Dutch Royal Shell and then PDVSA.

There was an air of mystery about the grand prix even until the week of the race itself, with a long-haul flight taking F3000’s European crews over to the island and only getting there in the very early morning. Bleary-eyed drivers and mechanics stepped off the plane to a wall of humidity, sand and a massive, billowing oil refinery.

The track wound its way around the streets of downtown Willemstad, the beach-side capital city on the southern coast where for tourists and the Venezuelan oil workers a common street saying was: “So cheap, give me two!”

Once the track was completed on the Thursday morning of race week, it was time for the first track walk. Expectations arose of chaotic scenes due to the narrow straights and corners where there was not immediate marshal access, but with the local marshals trained by Sports Car Club of America, who were helping to run the event, it was agreed that disruption could be regulated with black flags being waved to summon everyone to the pits as soon as a car came to a stop anywhere on track.

Across the weekend that only occurred a few times, with two one-hour practice sessions (with no recorded times) on Friday preceding Saturday’s action that centered around qualifying. Being by the Caribbean Sea, with just 70 meters separating the track from the water at some points, it meant the asphalt was coated in a fine layer of sand half of the time and when exposed was instead being weather-worn by the salty sea air and sun. It made for a super low grip surface similar to what Sochi is infamous for, but with the chemical binding agent simply evaporating in the tropical heat rather than ‘pooling’ on the surface as bitumen does in cooler climates to create slippery surfaces.

As a result of this battle against grip, and as F3000 was a totally open formula at the time, teams realised that to avoid wheelspinning they would need to play with the gear ratios. This shook up the competitive order as the heavier cars had more traction, particularly in undulating sections where downforce was essential to keeping planted to the track.

Factory Ralt driver Mike Thackwell, the 1985 title runner-up, was quickest to adapt and took pole by over a second. He was using half of the gears available, and while his talents were obvious his Ralt RT20 also had a competitive advantage as tuning had got its bottom-end power lower than its rivals and therefore making it more driveable once the right foot was on the throttle pedal.

The lack of squirming as the New Zealander threaded his car about was helped by using Bridgestone’s qualifying tyres, which were quicker to warm up the core of than the lighter equivalent tyres supplied by Avon. While the two brands brought a different compound for race use, the need for grip was so much that drivers chose to race on the stickier qualifying tyres.

Lola’s factory team ran on Avons, but the T950 chassis’ weight meant Alessandro Santin and Gabriele Tarquini were also pretty rapid. The star of qualifying behind Thackwell though was Genoa Racing’s Ivan Capelli, second fastest in a March.

Thackwell set the pace in warm-up too, but the electrics in his Ralt fried when sat in the October heat and left him stranded on the grid during the wam-up lap of the grand prix. Capelli therefore inherited the front starting spot for the 58-lap race.

Qualifying results

2CapelliGenoa RacingB+21.400s
3LangesJordanB+gap unknown
4DannerBS AutomotiveB+gap unknown
5A FerteOnyx RacingA+gap unknown
6PirroOnyx RacingA+1 lap
7SantinLolaA+2 laps
8JonesOnyx RacingA+2 laps
9BallabioSan Remo RacingB+7 laps
10BertuzziSan Remo RacingB+7 laps
NCBorguddRoger Cowman RacingA+23 laps
RetM FerteOrecaA
RetLeoniCorbari ItaliaA
RetDaccoSan Remo RacingB
RetLivioCorbari ItaliaA
RetDumfriesBS AutomotiveB
Fastest lap: Nielsen, 1m44.725s   Key: Avon (A), Bridgestone (B)

fotopagina 1985