The final podium of Stefan Johansson’s Formula 1 career was a byproduct of masterful planning, strategy, deft driving, and more than a handful of luck.
The Swede’s finest years in F1 had passed by 1989, when he was signed to drive for the new Onyx Grand Prix team as it made the foreboding leap from F3000. A veteran of F1’s craziest turbocharged era, with stints at Ferrari and McLaren, Johansson was a perfect driver choice by the small band of upstarts.
Designed by Alan Jenkins, the sublime Onxy ORE-1 chassis, powered by Cosworth’s 3.5-liter DFR V8, was never going to bother the high-dollar teams, and the outfit had another challenge to face as F1 instituted pre-qualifying sessions to trim an overabundance of entries down to the 30 allowed to take part in the event.
As a new team, Onyx — Johansson, and teammates Bertrand Gachot and JJ Lehto — would be forced to venture out with the other circumspect programs prior to the opening practice session where only the four fastest drivers would be allowed to join the 26 guaranteed entries. And, once Saturday’s official qualifying took place, the four slowest were culled from the field, adding a second barrier to break through for those who escaped the pre-qualifying cut.
Altogether, the rigors of earning a spot on starting grid for each Grand Prix made for a harrowing experience inside the cockpit. It also made for a remarkable achievement as Johansson went fastest in pre-qualifying by more than a half-second at the daunting Estoril circuit in Portugal before claiming 12th in qualifying proper.
Despite the impressive run, his chances for meaningful advancement in the 71-lap race were slim without some form of alternate plan to leap ahead of the front-running entries from McLaren, Ferrari, and Williams, among others. The scheming started Friday morning.
“It wasn’t really a hundred percent unexpected, to be honest,” Johansson said. “We always felt that if we could get within the top 10, 12, a podium could be on the cards, if you put your game plan together properly. And we definitely did this time.
“We basically focused on the race from the beginning, once we got through pre-qualifying, which was brutal back then. What I used to do all the time with the Goodyear guys was, I always relied heavily on them because, obviously, they knew more about the tires up and down the pit lane than anyone else.”
The decision was made to pick one set of tires and put it through a curing process known as ‘heat cycling,’ where a driver heads out, turns a few laps at a controlled speed to build a moderate amount of heat into the tires before pitting and removing the set for later use. The effect is akin to a baseball pitcher or football quarterback knocking the shine off a new ball before it’s thrown to get maximum performance from the device.
In racing, especially during an era where older tire technology was at play, knocking the shine off of a new set of rubber and letting it sit and cool before being called upon could offer extended life and grip … if done properly.
“So basically, we put a heat cycle in on Friday morning on the set that was going to be our race set; and we put another three laps, just to get a little bit of heat in the tire; and then we let them sit,” Johansson continued. “We did the same on Saturday, and that would be the race set. So when the race starts, they’ve already cured a little bit. They were maybe a couple of tenths slower than they would be brand new, but we figured if I really, really nursed the car the whole race — not hustle it, but just drive it super smooth and gently — we could get to the end on one set of tires.
“That was our game plan from the beginning, and that’s what we did. We really executed perfectly.
“Everybody else had to come in for tires and we went from whatever…I got up to seventh, I think, just on passing people on the road anyway. But then, when the other guys had to come in, we passed them on the road, obviously, and made it to the end.”
If there was a flaw in the Onyx team’s Estoril strategy, it was found in the punishment delivered to the left-front tire on the rapid clockwise road course. Taking a pit stop off the schedule helped Johansson to motor by those who sat idle as new tires were installed, but the toll was paid with the left-front Goodyear as it was worn down to a dangerously-thin degree well before the checkered flag came out.
“The left-front, because of that very, very long right turn before you get to the main straight, put such a load on the left-front. I could see the steel canvas when I was driving!” he said. “The last 10 laps, it was literally down to the steel, and I was just waiting for the thing to go, ‘Pop.’ But thank God it lasted to the end. Kind of a funny story with that, at the end there.”
F1’s late and tyrannical leader Jean-Marie Balestre was not amused by the dramas that followed Johansson’s incredible run to third behind former McLaren teammate Alain Prost and race winner Gerhard Berger from Ferrari.
“So we made it,” he continued. “Then I ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap, so the car stopped on the track and I was late to the podium, and Balestre was all pissed off with me. I was like, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do? I can’t help that the car ran out for fuel.’
But then we got to scrutineering, and because it had worn so much of the tires, it was right on the limit on the weight.”
The late and beloved former F1 chief steward Charlie Whiting ensured that the fairytale Onyx finish — its one and only podium, and the 12th and final for Johansson during his star-crossed career — stood without incident as the car rolled onto the scales.
“And I’ll never forget, because good old Charlie Whiting, who was a good mate, he was like…Everybody was so happy that we — all the guys, because we were all guys that’d known everybody for years — had such a great day and everything else,” he said. “So Charlie was… He was leaning over and he put his right knee just slightly on the scale while he was talking to the guys that were doing the reading to make sure we got through. [He said], ‘Yeah, you’re good. Let’s go.’”
Reality would make an unwelcome return after the trip to Portugal as Johansson’s Onyx failed to make it out of pre-qualifying for the final three rounds of 1989. From standing on the rostrum at Estoril to missing the show in Spain, Japan, and Australia, Johansson’s fortunes at the Onyx team took another turn for the worse as a new backer and team principal swept in during the offseason, which resulted in the program’s collapse after just two races in 1990.
The Swede would make one more F1 start in 1991 for the Footwork Grand Prix team, but if we’re talking about highlights in a F1 career that got its start in 1980, the Hail Mary result at the Portuguese Grand Prix with the little Onyx outfit is where the last bit of happiness resides.
“Yeah,” he said, “it was a great day.”