Sunday 19 December 2010

Looking back: 1981 - F1's strangest season

The recently ended 2010 season is commonly accepted as a great one. When thinking of great F1 seasons some readily spring to mind, such as the dramatic championship finishes of 1964, 1986 and 2008, or the competitiveness of 1974, 1997 and 2003, or even the drama and controversy of 1976 and 1989. The season of 1982 however tends to rise above others in such debates. It after all can boast no fewer than 11 different winners (for seven different constructors) in 16 races, no individual winning more than two of them. This all was alongside multiple acts of drama on and off the track, conducted in an atmosphere of extreme acrimony. Such is the myth that surrounds 1982 that it even had a specialist book about it written and published a quarter of a century later, by the sadly recently-departed Christopher Hilton.

However I feel that the season which preceded 1982, 1981, is somewhat forgotten about, and has a strong claim as a memorable and dramatic season. It can certainly match 1982 for controversy and acidity. Indeed, much of the 1982 politics were simply a continuation of those in 1981! The 1981 championship battle was tighter and went to the wire to a much greater extent than 1982's did. Plus the on track racing action (easy to forget in all of this) was generally much more diverting in 1981. It seems to have been lost in time somewhat that most of the races in 1982, i.e. the hour and a half on a Sunday, were soporific spectacles. And 1981 isn't far off 1982 in terms of variation of winners, no driver won more more than three races, the world champion totalled but 50 points, and in the final drivers' table no fewer than five drivers were within seven points of the top of the table. Eat your heart out 2010.

Even if one maintains that 1981 was not among the sport's greatest seasons, it certainly has a claim to being one the sport's strangest. It started with a race that never was in South Africa, attended by only 19 cars, the races were participated in by a field of cars, for the most part, in flagrant breach of the rule makers' flagship regulations, and it ended in a car park in Las Vegas, wherein the three contenders stumbled disastrously over the line, and Nelson Piquet claimed his first World Championship by a point, almost in spite of himself.

Moreover, at the outset of the 1981 calendar year it did not look like there would be an F1 World Championship at all, or at least not one as we know it. The close season was the height (or should that be the depths?) of the FISA-FOCA power stand off over control of the sport. It manifested itself with FOCA (led by Bernie and backed by many of the independent British teams such as Williams and Brabham) refusing to accept the new rules being introduced by FISA (the sport's governing body, part of the FIA, led by the autocratic Jean-Marie Balestre and backed by the 'grandee' manufacturers such as Ferrari and Renault) to ban skirts, part of the 'ground effect' that had dominated F1 aerodynamics from the previous couple of seasons, in order to reduce cornering speeds. An impasse followed, and FOCA announced shortly after the end of the 1980 season that they would run their own 'World Professional Drivers' Championship' - effectively creating a second World Championship.

The deadlock was broken, somewhat haphazardly, around the South Africa race scheduled for 7 February as the opening round that year. Given the ongoing stand off FISA decreed that the race would be postponed until April. However, the South African authorities did not find this acceptable for a number of reasons. Then a bizarre episode involving FOCA-aligned team bosses and a painting of a cow moved the matter on. At this stage the FOCA brigade, unbeknown to FISA, were on their last legs. Max Mosley said 'We had no money, no sponsorship, no tyres and the whole Establishment against us'. Then when he and others such as Colin Chapman were on a skiing trip in Austria in a restaurant they saw a painting on the wall of a cow being painted on by a group of people. Upon enquiry, the waitress said that this was about an ancient siege wherein the villagers were left with only one cow, and so to give the impression that they had plenty of food they painted the cow a different way every day and took it to where the enemies could see it. This gave Chapman the idea that the FOCA brigade should put on a race, to give the impression to FISA of FOCA having plenty, and Bernie and Max were sold on the idea.

It was on this basis that the FOCA teams turned up in South Africa to put on a race. While the race itself was underwhelming it created movement on FISA's side, with Renault in particular panicking at the apparent impending loss of TV revenue (that the next race was to be in the USA, a key market for the manufacturer, especially concentrated their minds). In Mosley's words 'it was a big bluff', but it did the trick. The various sides got around the table and gave us the Concorde Agreement, an agreement that was (and is) shrouded in secrecy but the essentials were that FISA would look after the rules and FOCA the deals, as well as that skirts would be banned and that cars' bodywork would have to be a minimum of 6cm from the ground. Everyone was happy it seemed.

So the F1 family, with cars in the new configuration, gathered at Long Beach at what was now the opening round of the World Championship (the South African round did not count). The Williams team, who had secured their first drivers' and constructors' titles in some style in 1980, looked even with the new rules like they intended to continue where they left off and claimed a one-two - favoured son Alan Jones leading home Carlos Reutemann. However, as early as the first practice session in Long Beach there were the first rumblings of the major controversy of the season, that would reduce F1 in large part to a laughing stock.

The Brabham team showed in opening practice at Long Beach that they didn't have much intention of honouring the '6cm rule' agreed to in the Concorde Agreement. Piquet's Brabham appeared on the track fitted with hydro-pneumatic suspension, designed to lower the car much below the specified 6cm while out of the track (and thus creating much more downforce from their shaped undersides) and lift the car up to the required 6cm when it was measured at rest. It wasn't ready to race at Long Beach, and in the next race, in Brazil, while Piquet qualified on pole he quickly dropped out of the running by unfathomably choosing to start on slicks on a streaming surface. However, come the third round, in Argentina, the absurd advantage their suspension offered was obvious, with Piquet disappearing into the distance to win and even his journeyman team mate, Hector Rebaque, able to run in a comfortable second before a broken distributor arm put him out.

Despite the considerable fallout to the Brabhams that ran away with the Argentinian race, and repeated protests by competitors, FISA absurdly capitulated (apparently amidst the threat of another FOCA walk out). They eventually declared that such suspension systems were OK so long as they weren't used to breach the 6cm rule! Brabham's rivals were therefore left with little choice but to honour the wheeze by imitation. Within a couple of races virtually the entire field was ignoring the 6cm rule that they'd agreed to a matter of weeks beforehand. Indeed, by the Belgian race, round five, crude driver-operated systems to change suspension levels were also declared as kosher, so long as the car cleared the 6cm ground clearance when stationary at measuring time! Doug Nye commented that 'it takes a fleet-footed scrutineer to measure the ground clearance of a 180mph motor car'. The continuation of rigourous checking of each of the cars' ground clearance by officials in the pits during each session multiplied the absurdity.

As Nigel Roebuck said, what followed was 'a sick joke of the season, in which every car blatantly flouted the rules'. And not only were the cars illegal, they were highly dangerous, and unpleasant to drive. This is because in order to maintain minimum ground clearance suspension movement had to be reduced to almost zero. This not only meant drivers were black and blue after being buffeted around in the cockpit (this in addition to the massive g-forces they had to sustain with the high cornering speeds) it also meant that the cars were destabilised by the slightest bump or clipping of a kerb, often completely losing adhesion and, as Martin Brundle might have said, going straight to the scene of the accident. Didier Pironi commented at Silverstone that when approaching the first comer 'the car is bouncing around so badly that it literally feels as if it may somersault'.

In among all of this, the drivers managed to create plenty of intrigue of their own, and not always for the right reasons. The Williams team followed up their one-two in the opening round with another in round two, in Brazil, which was actually their fourth one-two in a row. However, unlike the previous three, in Brazil Reutemann took the victory, which was not what was in the contract. It rapidly became clear that Carlos has done what Massa didn't do at Hockenheim this year, and had simply disobeyed the order to let team mate Jones past. While one could sympathise with Reutemann's view that we would have 'not been a racing driver any more' had he simply given up a victory, Alan Jones was also absolutely correct to say of Reutemann that 'if he didn't like his contract, he shouldn't have signed it'. In any case, it was now clear that both Williams pilots had designs on the 1981 World Championship, and neither could count on any support from their team mate to achieve it.

Piquet, with his trick suspension, waltzed off with the Argentinian round, as mentioned (Reutemann and Jones were 2nd and 4th respectively), and Piquet then made it back-to-back wins with a fine, combative drive to win in the rain at Imola. Another big story at the Imola round was the new turbocharged Ferrari properly announcing itself to the world, and the Scuderia therefore announcing they were in the road back to the front after a disastrous 1980, wherein they'd been seriously left behind in the ground effect game (due in part to having an engine too wide to maximise the aerodynamics). Gilles Villeneuve qualified on pole in Imola (odd to think that was one of only two pole positions in his F1 career), and his team mate Didier Pironi led the race in fine style only to lose out late on after his tyres went off and one of his skirts was damaged (fixed skirts, as opposed to sliding skirts, were also now kosher). Indeed, while it was Renault who brought the turbocharged engine into F1, it was arguably Ferrari that ensured that it would become de rigueur in the eighties. Their first turbocharged engine had an acceleration and lack of throttle lag that put the Renault engine to shame, and this was put to good use by Villeneuve in Monaco and Spain, winning both rounds. Such success for a turbo engine on tight, twisty tracks certainly made the Cosworth engined runners take notice. Unfortunately Ferrari's 1981 challenge faded after Goodyear returned to the sport mid-season, re-creating a tyre war and forcing Michelin, who supplied Ferrari, to run softer compounds which the Ferraris tended to wear out rapidly. Plus, for all its engine power, its chassis was rather agricultural: designer Harvey Postlethwaite, who joined the team early in the season, reckoned it only had around a quarter of the downforce of a Williams or Brabham.

Before Villeneuve's two wins there was time for a shameful weekend for F1 - round five at Zolder in Belgium. Herein Carlos Reutemann, while exiting the narrow pit lane in a practice session, blamelessly hit an Osella mechanic, Giovanni Amedeo, who had fallen in front of him, and Amedeo died of his injuries not long afterwards. In response to the safety concerns raised by this there was a mechanics protest on race day, gathering at the front of the dummy grid not long before the warm up lap was scheduled, which some drivers left their cars and joined. However, the pig-headedness of the organisers and teams meant that the warm up lap was signalled to start as scheduled, with many cars either empty or not fired up, resulting in an immensely disrupted, disordered and fragmented formation lap. Riccardo Patrese in his Arrows had stalled his engine on the grid in the delay, and amid the confusion his chief mechanic Dave Luckett, like many others expecting a 'proper' formation lap to follow, had run onto the track to attempt to restart Patrese's engine at the back of the car with an air jack. Astonishingly though, the race started just as he did so, and the other Arrows, driven by Siegfried Stohr who had qualified in mid-pack, hit the back of Patrese's car, and Luckett. Fortunately Luckett's injuries amounted to just a broken leg. To compound this farce the race was not stopped by the orgainsers, despite Luckett lying stricken on the track, and only the sensible actions of Didier Pironi, lying second, in slowing and stopping the field himself after passing the accident scene, brought the race to a halt.

Carlos Reutemann came through all of this to win decisively when the race proper did start, his second win of the year. He looked at that stage for all the world the 1981 champion, having seemingly shed the inconsistency and psychological frailties that had too often held back his supreme driving talent. Indeed, after the British Grand Prix he was 17 points clear at the top of the drivers' table with only six rounds remaining (and nine points for a win), and it seemed he couldn't lose. Unfortunately, his previous weaknesses then returned at precisely the wrong moment.

He only gathered six points in the remaining races, and his driving seemed to betray an anxiety and uncertainty for the most part, certainly come race day. Admittedly it wasn't all his fault, at Germany he drove very well in taking the fight to Prost's Renault, but was let down by his engine. But at Austria he drove consistently but not very fast to come fifth, a long way behind Jones and Piquet. Then at Zandvoort he inexplicably drove into the side of Jacques Lafitte in a ham-fisted passing attempt, putting both out. This meant that his championship lead was now eaten up, Piquet drawing level with him.

Then at Monza Carlos appeared to be on the up again, putting in the lap of the season to split the turbocharged Renaults at the front of the grid, and looking confident out of the cockpit as well. However, come race day there was enough rain at various points to make the track treacherous, and Reutemann, not helped by ultra low downforce settings, seemed particularly spooked, at one point losing five places in one lap. He was rather lucky to inherit third place in the end, after Piquet retired late on. At Canada, having qualified second, there was more rain on race day, heavy this time. Reutemann in the face of this seemed to be a beaten man before the race had even started, shaking his head in despair in the cockpit while sat on the grid. After leading away he was fifth by the end of lap one and nineteenth after six times around. In the end he came in an almost unnoticed tenth, three laps adrift of winner Lafitte. Admittedly Goodyear did not have a great rain tyre, but Piquet and de Angelis, also on Goodyears, were only lapped once.

It was a weakness that dogged Reutemann throughout his F1 career, that he didn't often show stomach to fight and to make the best of things when not everything was perfect. As Patrick Head recently commented 'he (Carlos) saw driving a formula one a sort of art form, and it only gave him pleasure if it was perfect, and if it wasn't perfect he didn't want to play, and the problem is he couldn't get it perfect enough times'. Williams' mid-season switch from Michelin to Goodyear tyres also seemed to unsettle him.

This all left Carlos one point ahead of Piquet going into the last race, to be around a car park in Las Vegas. Jacques Lafitte also had a mathematical chance at the title, having scored points consistently and taken advantage of his improved Matra-Ligier package in the second half of the season. It is here in Vegas that Reutemann slumped to new, unfathomable, depths.

Reutemann's chief rivals for the championship were for the most part Piquet in the Brabham, and Carlos's team mate Alan Jones. Piquet had a rather messy season, certainly less impressive than his 1980 canvas. After an impressive opening, claiming two early seasons wins that have been mentioned, his season entered a trough at Zolder, where he crashed out, claimed that Jones had helped him off the road, and then aimed a series of threats and barbs in Jones's direction via the press. But as Nigel Roebuck pointed out: 'if this is all an elaborate plot to 'psych' another driver, it is misplaced when aimed at a man like Alan Jones. It...merely made him more determined than ever. If he could humiliate Piquet he would do so'. It came to a head in Monaco, where Piquet, his driving ragged, was frightened into a barrier and out of the lead of the race by Jones.

Piquet did settle down somewhat eventually and scored more consistently in the second half of the year, though the feeling persisted, as Autocourse recorded, that 'the Brabham BT49C was even better than the Brazilian made it look'.

Indeed, the consensus was that Alan Jones was the driver of the year, and perhaps even better than in his championship year in 1980. He was the year's most consistent competitor and front runner, and surely would have retained his title but for bad luck, for example losing sure wins at Monaco and Germany with a mysterious late race fuel pick up problem (though he also threw away a sure win in Spain after atypically leaving the road while leading and under no pressure). He was also central to the year's most absorbing wheel to wheel action, in addition to his Monaco dice there were legendary scraps with Alain Prost in Germany and the Netherlands.

This was also the season in which Alain Prost announced himself and his immense talent to the front of the F1 pack. He in his turbocharged Renault were the pace setters of the second half of the season, taking three fine wins and two second places, and finishing within seven points of the top of the table. Indeed, had the car been more competitive in the first half of the season, wherein they'd been caught on the hop by the allowance of devices to lower the suspension (they'd foolishly designed their car assuming a 6cm ground clearance!) meaning Prost only scored four points in the first seven rounds, Prost could well have claimed his, France's, Renault's and turbocharging's first World Championship. As it transpired each had to wait.

So, back to the final round at Las Vegas. Many thought the twisting 2.3 mile track around the Caesars Palace car park an absurd place to decide a championship, with Jones stating that it was 'like a goat track, dragged down from the mountains and flattened out'. On the credit side though, the surface and organisation were generally good, and the average speed was a bit higher than expected.

It was also going to be a test of stamina, as a left-handed track. This stacked the odds in Reutemann's favour because, as Villeneuve commented, 'he is much stronger than Piquet'. Reutemann's taking of an easy pole position seemed to further make things a foregone conclusion.

But come race day Reutemann put in one of the most mysterious race performances in the sport's history. He essentially faded to nothing, in a fashion that has never been fully explained. He was down to fourth at the first corner, and to fifth at the end of the first lap. On lap 17, with the championship at stake, he let Piquet pass him with all the timidity of one being lapped, before eventually finishing a lapped eighth. Carlos afterwards did say something about poor handling and gearbox problems, but these do not explain his extreme lack of fight. Nigel Roebuck reckoned 'he drove like a man who had suddenly realised he did not want the World Championship'. In truth, it was just the latest example of Reutemann squandering his talent, deciding he wasn't interested when things weren't perfect.

Lafitte drove tenaciously up to second for a time, but his tyres went off and a pit stop dropped him out of championship contention. This left Piquet only needing a point for the title. But like Reutemann he was showing signs of falling over the line, though in his case for physical reasons. Hopelessly unfit and semi-comatose towards the end, he faded down the order to fifth late on and came oh-so-close to being passed by the sixth and seventh placed cars on the last lap, which would have lost him the championship to Reutemann. But, driving by instinct, he squeaked home in fifth and thus took the title.

While all this was going on Alan Jones simply disappeared into the distance to take the win, in what at the time everyone thought was his last race before retirement. It confirmed his status as driver of the year, and most thought this was appropriate.

The strange, but exciting, conclusion to the title battle seemed to sum the 1981 season up.


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  3. Good article. But Jones driver of the year? Really?. It must be a joke. Lost wins in San Marino and Spain, only for their mistakes. Races where I finish without points. Reutemann was better than Jones this season but then could not withstand the pressure and fair champion was Piquet who managed a strong closing year.-

    1. Hi Ramiro. Thanks for your kind words, glad you liked the article. On driver of the year, yes Jones made mistakes but so did others, in Piquet's case you have him crashing out in Monaco and Spain as well as making the inexplicable decision to start on slicks in the wet in Brazil.

    2. thanks for your reply. Piquet made mistakes, but recovered and had a brilliant second half of the season. Jones is difficult to consider as the best pilot in 1981, because it was overtaken by his teammate. Remember that Jones, by contract, was the number one driver at Williams and had much more support than Carlos. Nor should we forget that Reutemann remain in a difficult situation in the team after Brazil.

    3. Yes I agree on Piquet, in that his second half of the year was excellent (indeed I say that in the article) but the first half weighs against him a bit more in judging his season as a whole. On Jones-Reutemann, yes Reutemeann was often the faster qualifier but it's hard to cite many 1981 races that he was quicker than Jones in. There was Argentina, but Jones had engine problems that day. There was Brazil but Jones claimed he was just sitting behind waiting for the team order. As for his number one status in the team etc, Williams certainly never tried to impose team orders after Brazil (understandably) while Frank Williams always insisted too that after fining Reutemann for disobeying a team order he didn't make a great deal of it, calling the arguments about it 'boring'! He did admit though that he didn't realise until it was too late the emotional support etc Reutemann needed from his team.