There is no peace in the restless world of Formula 1: FOCA President Bernie Ecclestone directly enters the controversy against the Lotus 88, the car considered legal by the Atlanta court to which Colin Chapman had turned after being prohibited from participating in the United States West Grand Prix. Ecclestone, in a press conference, says that Formula 1 constructors will meet on Tuesday, March 24, 1981, at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro to draft a complaint document to be presented to the Brazilian technical committee. In essence, the owner of Brabham wants to prevent Chapman from fielding the Lotus 88 in the Brazilian Grand Prix. According to Bernie Ecclestone, Colin Chapman's appeal was a ploy aimed solely at creating a precedent, and the Brazilians are not obliged to respect the decision of a U.S. court. Regardless of the outcome of the Tuesday meeting, Elio De Angelis' Lotus 88, which arrived at the Jacarepaguá circuit on Saturday, March 21, 1981, will still be able to participate in unofficial practice on Wednesday. On Thursday, January 26, 1981, at the Jacarepaguá circuit, Carlos Reutemann (who had won the last race held on this circuit with Ferrari) clocks a time of 1'37"486. An outstanding result, improving the official track record by almost six seconds. Almost all teams take advantage of these free practices to fine-tune their cars, and on Friday, March 27, 1981, with the first qualifying session, history could change. It is worth noting that Elio De Angelis, with the controversial Lotus 88, sets the fifth fastest time. Chapman's car will be the focus of the FOCA meeting and risks being sidelined again. Ferrari limits itself to testing a new body for better turbo engine cooling. The Comprex is not used for now. Villeneuve does not complete many laps due to some electrical issues. The Jacarepaguá Autodrome is located in a large basin about thirty kilometers from Rio. A kind of large go-kart track (on which no Formula 1 race has been held since 1978) with immense stands, 5030 meters long, almost facing the ocean, with green and undulating hills behind. When the sun beats down, a day of free practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix, the circuit becomes a furnace. The people of the Circus seem defeated by the heat. But not everyone. In a corner of the Ferrari box, with helmet and overalls, without a drop of sweat, is Gilles Villeneuve, ready to get in the car. Five minutes of time. And an opportunity to talk. Ferrari, despite not achieving concrete results, made an impression at Long Beach. Will it be a satisfying season for Villeneuve and Ferrari?
"It's too early to give a definitive answer; the United States Grand Prix test cannot be considered. That is a too peculiar circuit. A valid test could be this Brazilian one. The heat and the rather fast track will provide the first significant answer, especially for us and our turbo engines".
The Ferrari engines have caused a sensation...
"I must admit that I, too, was surprised. In terms of construction and technology, the engine is almost perfect now. And it has impressive power. We lack, compared to Renault, the reliability of small details. But unfortunately, this will come only with time".
About time. It has been said that you have already signed an option with Alfa Romeo for 1982. Is there any truth to this?
"No, absolutely not. My brother Jacques was supposed to go to Alfa, to drive in Formula 3. I, for the moment, wait to talk to Enzo Ferrari, which will happen after Monte-Carlo. Only then, if I don't reach an agreement, will I look around".
Your main goal is always to become world champion. If Ferrari doesn't offer you that chance?
"I believe Ferrari can bring me the title. This year, however, I would be satisfied with winning a few races. Then, of course, if some success comes, we can think about the title...".
Is there a problem with Pironi? Didier is also a dangerous rival.
"It's not a problem. Pironi and I get along very well. Whoever proves to be faster will be ahead. It's the law of this sport".
Who is your favorite for the world title? Gilles Villeneuve closes his eyes, reflects for a moment, then naturally declares:
"My favorite is Gilles Villeneuve. I have confidence in him, and I know that one day he will be world champion one way or another. I'm not afraid of anyone. When I started racing with snowmobiles, I told everyone that I would become the best, the fastest. Few believed me. But in just two years, building my sled on my own, I became a champion. And so it will be in Formula 1, even if I have to build a custom car. But I think a Ferrari is more than enough".
The Brazilian Grand Prix will also take place without the Lotus 88. On Friday, March 27, 1981, at the beginning of the first qualifying session, exactly the same scene as fifteen days earlier in Long Beach is repeated. As soon as Colin Chapman's revolutionary double-chassis car, driven by Elio De Angelis, takes to the track, the sports commissioners display the black flag with the order to return to the pits immediately. In essence, the car is again deemed irregular. This decision was reached after exhaustive discussions, lively controversies, and uncertainties. On Thursday, the 88 had been deemed by technical commissioners to comply with Formula 1 rules: the stationary car was 6 centimeters off the ground. In free practice, the Lotus was able to run, but the sports commissioners realized that at speed, the side panels of the bodywork repeatedly touched the ground. Consequently, the car was excluded from official qualifications. The decision, of course, provokes Chapman's anger, who rushes to the control tower of the circuit to protest. The Lotus owner comes out even more upset, while his friend Bernie Ecclestone smiles at the Brabham box. The FOCA president is a true phenomenon: he managed to outsmart Chapman without any risk. His team had not filed a complaint against Lotus (as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Osella, Williams, McLaren, Talbot, and later Renault did). And, as if that were not enough, Ecclestone also avoided challenges to his cars, which have adjustable gas shocks considered illegal. What will Chapman do? Will he insist on the 88, or will he accept defeat?
For now, he has to settle for what De Angelis and Mansell can achieve with the old 81, which is not much. The Lotus remains far from the times set by the two dominators of the trials, Carlos Reutemann with Williams (best time) and Nelson Piquet with Brabham (second). The duel between the two South American drivers is spectacular from the first laps. In the end, the chronometers stop at Carlos's unleashed 1'35"390. A time that improves on the record set in 1978 by poor Ronnie Peterson (1'40"45). Piquet also goes under 1'36"0, while Jones precedes Prost with the rediscovered Renault Turbo, Patrese, now a regular at the top of the rankings, Andretti with Alfa Romeo, and Villeneuve with the Ferrari Turbo. The Italian cars, all in all, show that they can compete at a high level, even if they have not been very fortunate. Ferrari, in particular, limits its tests to a few laps. Gilles Villeneuve, immediately after setting the seventh time, is forced to return to the pits because the fire extinguisher in the cockpit has activated. After cleaning the car, the Canadian takes to the track to improve, but three laps later, he is stopped by the interruption of the tests due to a minor accident. The same can be said for Didier Pironi. The Frenchman puts two wheels of his 126 CK on the grass, sucking dirt into the car with damage to the turbo. Pironi then gets on the reserve car, which is not set up for him, only marking the seventeenth time.
"I hope to do much better on Saturday, as the car is very fast".
The Ferraris, in fact, record the highest speeds on the short straight in the pits (220 km/h). English cars reach about 210 km/h, and Renaults reach 218 km/h. As for Alfa, there is a certain satisfaction, as the cars start to be well-adjusted. Engineer Carlo Chiti launches the usual criticisms against the manufacturers of outlawed cars ("Brabham touches the ground even in the pits") and rightly calls for greater respect for the regulations.
A difficult moment, however, for Osella, which occupies the last positions and, with two not very experienced drivers like Guerra and Gabbiani, lacks references to adjust the cars. There is no doubt: the Brazilian Grand Prix should also be a matter between the Williams drivers (Jones and Reutemann) and the number one of Brabham (Nelson Piquet). This, at least, based on the two days of tightly contested trials on the difficult Jacarepaguá circuit. On Sunday, March 29, 1981, the Autodrome will be crowded with a colorful crowd who came to witness the possible victory of their idol, the twenty-eight-year-old heir to Emerson Fittipaldi. The cheers for Piquet, a former promising tennis player who was also an excellent football player as a child (he was nicknamed Mazzola on the beaches of Rio), are as lively as those accompanying Flamengo to the Maracanã stadium. But the task of the South American seems tough. He will have to face two exceptional drivers, those Jones and Reutemann who lately, thanks to the reliability and competitiveness of their Williams, have lost very few beats. And it's not enough. Behind Nelson Piquet, other drivers with ambitions for success press, from Riccardo Patrese, who has confirmed himself among the fastest, to the Alfa Romeo men, who have found their way back to the front rows. And then there are the outsiders, namely the Renaults of Prost and Arnoux and the Ferrari of a Villeneuve who always drives on the edge with a car of enormous potential but dealing with setup and resistance issues. Piquet, the son of the former Brazilian Minister of Health, nevertheless gives, in the last qualifying session, a sample of the fighting spirit that accompanies him. Meter by meter, seeking impossible trajectories, he manages to gain a pole position that alone is an important conquest, even psychologically. Reutemann, almost convinced that he cannot be surpassed, remains unpleasantly surprised, also because Nelson places his winning lap in the last minutes of qualifying. The race will probably repeat the theme of Long Beach: Piquet in the role of the hare (instead of Patrese) and the two Williams chasing, hoping for a mistake or some trouble for the rival. Patrese, for his part, appears very focused, while the Alfa Romeo cars are more competitive than in the United States. Thanks to Andretti (who finds the right adjustments) and Giacomelli, who, by moving the wing forward, makes the right move.
At Ferrari, they gain experience: adjusting and using the turbo are complicated. The cars run little, and Pironi will have to be content with starting far from the front. An inevitable cost when venturing into new fields (see Renault). However, Ferrari, even though it has just arrived in the realm of turbocharged engines, seems to be already thinking about an evolution of the material it possesses. A engine equipped with a double Comprex is under consideration, as was done for the KKK turbo. The new solution would have two advantages over the one currently used: less weight and better load distribution. Villeneuve and Pironi argue that the car with the Comprex is unbalanced, and due to the significant weight of the device mounted above the engine, it is difficult to control the car during braking. So, the technicians in Maranello would have studied this double Comprex, made in Maranello, to be placed on the sides of the six-cylinder. With this solution, the weight would be reduced by about 12 kilograms. In addition, the engine would be attached directly to the chassis (now separated from the oil tank). The latter would be placed around the gearbox (a solution adopted by the majority of English cars). Result: a shift in the center of gravity of the 126 CX and greater balance, more grip, and perhaps better traction of the wheels. On Sunday morning, before the start of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Emerson Fittipaldi officially bids farewell to racing and his audience. The Brazilian takes to the track driving the car he himself built, now entrusted to Rosberg and Serra. Fittipaldi makes a blunder because the car, after starting well, begins to sputter and stops in the middle of the track. The commissioners must then recover the car with rescue vehicles, and Fittipaldi completes half a lap on a tow truck amid the laughter and jeers of the spectators. In the meantime everybody hurriedly adjusts their cars as best they can during the half hour warm-up session and the rain is still falling steadily as the 24 competitors take their places on the starting grid. To the complete and utter amazement of their rivals, Brabham team decides to start Piquet’s pole position BT49C on slick dry-weather tyres, a tactical decision made by race manager Alistair Caldwell in conjunction with Nelson himself. In third position Alan Jones can be seen chortling away to himself beneath his helmet, rightly convinced that this outlandish decision destroyed any chance of Piquet being a threat to the Williams team, while in the pit lane Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone is almost quivering with annoyance over what he can see is a particularly stupid course of action.
Once the starting signal is given, Reutemann makes a perfect start and Patrese comes rocketing through ahead of Jones as they accelerate into the first right hand corner in a ball of spray. Piquet is bravely trying to hang on, but it is a totally vain ambition, and Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo is right with them as well. But, further back, chaos has erupted on the starting grid as somebody spins Arnoux’s Renault, Andretti’s Alfa Romeo vaults over Villeneuve’s rear wheels and Rebaque’s Brabham does the same to Andretti. The rest of the grid scrambles past on the grass and, when the mud has settled, Andretti, Arnoux and Serra are out of the contest and both Cheever and Stohr are recovering after quick spins. They chase off after the rest of the field as marshals clear up the wreckage before the leaders come through for the first time. Halfway round the circuit, Jones neatly outbrakes Patrese for second place, so the two Williams FW07Cs complete the opening lap in 2-1 formation, the World Champion following in his number two’s wheeltracks, and Patrese is well ahead of anybody else. Giacomelli is fourth from De Angelis, Rosberg, Villeneuve, Watson, Prost, Surer, Laffite, de Cesaris and Jarier, the second Talbot-Matra driver going for all he is worth and passing cars left, right and centre. With Piquet floundering about at the tail end of the field on his slicks (one wonders why the Brabham team does not call him in for wet-weather tyres), there is absolutely nothing for the Williams due to worry about, so Reutemann and Jones settle down to lap smoothly and steadily, the World Champion dropping back slightly from his team mate so he can run in cool air and not risk overheating his engine. Patrese can’t stay with them, but the Arrows is getting away from the rest of the field with ease, and Giacomelli really has to work hard for the first few laps, eventually succumbing to De Angelis at the end of the long back straight mid-way through lap four. By lap seven the Italian V12 is coasting into the pit lane for the first of a number of pit stops to get to the bottom of an irritating misfire. The mechanics are eventually able to trace the problem to a faulty coil, but by the time his has been rectified, Giacomelli is way out of the running. At the end of lap 10 Villeneuve heads towards the pits where he has a new nose section fitted and optimistically changed onto slicks, thinking that the rain will ease up further.
Just as he rejoins, the rain increases in its intensity, so there is no way he is going to make up any of the ground he has lost. Nonetheless, his spirited driving keeps the spectators entertained for another 15 laps before he crawls in to retire finally with major turbocharger failure. Meanwhile, Pironi has been lapping gamely on his slicks and is doing his best to keep out of the way of the leaders when they lapped him at the 20 lap mark. Unfortunately, he moves a little too far off the tenuous, semi-dry line as Prost’s Renault moves up alongside him, hits a puddle and shoots back across the track to T-bone the innocent Renault. Prost’s car is pitched briefly onto two wheels as the Ferrari collides with it and in a couple of seconds, the two drivers are climbing ruefully out of their cars which have shot off the circuit into the catch fencing. By lap 25, Jarier has forced his way up into sixth place and his Talbot-Matra is challenging Watson’s McLaren very hard. Surer has moved up to seventh, driving the Ensign neatly and tidily, while Laffite has faded to eighth and Rosberg is even further back now, troubled by understeer every time the rain eases slightly and his rear tyres can grip the track slightly better. De Cesaris has spluttered to a standstill with electrical problems right in front of the pits, Rebaque is in and out with a variety of problems which include clutch bothers and the problems which include clutch bothers and the need to clean out his Brabham’s throttle slides following a trip down the grass, and Piquet is into the pit retaining wall, Villeneuve bends his Ferrari nose section on the rear end of Prost’s Renault, trailing round at the back. Tambay’s Theodore sideswiped Stohr’s Arrows as the Frenchman lapped his rival, the Italian spinning off as a result, while Mansell is struggling round in 11th place in a car which has been damaged in a spin during the warm-up session and isn’t handling properly. By half distance the Williams cars are simply cruising in first and second places and Patrese is equally comfortable on his own in third spot. But a really ferocious battle is brewing up behind De Angelis’s fourth place Lotus 81, Watson fighting energetically to keep Marc Surer’s Ensign behind him while both Laffite and Jarier are also looking for a way past the Ensign, Laffite having moved ahead of his team mate once again as understeer on the near-drying track had hampered the second Talbot-Matra. On lap 35, Watson spins off at the end of the long back straight, quickly recovering in eighth place, but Surer and the two Talbots are well ahead of him by the time he has settled back into the rhythm of the race once again.
Rebaque eventually crawls in to retire with throttle and suspension problems and, as the rain comes down again even harder, Laffite’s engine begins to misfire and Jarier moves back in front of him on lap 47. The Williams team by this stage has the race completely under control and, with no other car challenging them and with Jones less than seven seconds behind Reutemann, Frank Williams exercises his contractual discretion and hangs out a sign to the Argentinian driver indicating that he should concede the lead to his team leader. On four occasions this sign is produced, but Reutemann continues to come round ahead of Jones and as he completes his 62nd lap the chequered flag is produced since the wet conditions have allowed two hours to elapse before the scheduled 63 laps have been completed. Reutemann thus wins his third Brazilian Grand Prix by 4.43 sec. over his team leader. Patrese finishes a smooth and confident third while Surer displaces De Angelis with just over ten laps to go, the happy Ensign driver scoring the best ever finish for the Walsall-based team and recording fastest lap in addition. De Angelis is fifth while Jarier responds to a signal from the pits and drops back, as instructed, behind Laffite who thus takes sixth place at the finish. A major miscalculation by Nelson Piquet conditions the Brazilian Grand Prix. Despite the rain, which had started falling half an hour before the race, completely soaking the track, Piquet decided to start with dry tires. All his rivals (except for Pironi and Stohr) wisely chose the special rain tires. Perhaps the South American hoped the rain would stop. However, the water continued to fall, and the result was catastrophic for Nelson. At the start, Piquet got it all wrong. His Brabham skidded wildly on the slippery asphalt, giving way to the Williams drivers, Carlos Reutemann and Alan Jones. Furthermore, the slowing Brabham triggered a situation involving three cars: Gilles Villeneuve with Ferrari slowed down, Mario Andretti with Alfa Romeo rear-ended him, and the Canadian in turn ended up on René Arnoux's Renault. Only Villeneuve managed to recover but with the front wing bent from the impact. Before the start, Nelson Piquet argued with Bernie Ecclestone, the owner of Brabham. When the car was already on the track, the experienced English manager ran to his driver after checking the tire choices of other drivers and told him to use rain tires. The Brazilian looked around, glanced at the sky, wiped the rain-soaked visor of his helmet with his gloves, and then said, shaking his head:
"No, I know this area well; it will stop raining immediately, and I will have a big advantage because I won't have to stop at the pits to change tires".
Ecclestone and other Brabham technicians insisted, but Piquet did not change his mind. And so, he missed a magnificent opportunity to win. Later, he admitted:
"It was all my fault; I really thought the track would dry up".
The Brazilian's sensational error allowed Reutemann to win without too many problems. However, the Argentine couldn't fully celebrate the victory, as his win caused a dangerous fracture within the Williams team. In the final part of the race, prompted by Jones, who signaled from the cockpit of his car, the team displayed a sign that read: 1st Jones, 2nd Reutemann. It was an invitation to respect this finishing order. Carlos ignored the order five times, taking advantage each time to distance himself from his teammate. On the podium, Alan Jones, visibly upset, barely shook hands and immediately left. Reutemann candidly stated:
"But I was busy driving and didn't see the sign. It was already difficult to stay on the track".
The World Champion later met with Frank Williams in his van. When he emerged, he said:
"Reutemann did not obey team orders. I couldn't risk jeopardizing everything to pass him. Of course, I will remember this episode. It means that from tomorrow, I will have to consider Carlos an opponent like everyone else, rather than a teammate. The championship, however, is long, and we'll see who comes out on top".
In ten editions of the Brazilian Grand Prix, the Argentine has won four times, twice with Ferrari, once with Brabham (the first time in 1972, in a non-championship race), and now with Williams. The race lasted one lap less than the scheduled 63 because, having reached the maximum limit of the two hours provided by Formula 1 regulations, the race director displayed the checkered flag. However, Reutemann and Jones completed an extra lap; Williams was unaware of the decision, and Carlos preferred not to stop for fear of a final surprise (especially from Jones, as tensions were running high within the English team). Behind the Williams duo, an Italian, Riccardo Patrese, finally returned to the podium. The Paduan had an exemplary race, content with controlling the situation, as there was nothing Arrows could do in the wet against the Williams of Reutemann and Jones. The third place, achieved with great maturity, partially rewarded him for the disappointments and, above all, the missed victory in the United States. Patrese drove very well and, especially in overtaking the lapped cars, did not take unnecessary risks.
"I had a small problem with the clutch, but I must admit that I could have attacked a bit more. However, the Williams were too fast; I hardly saw them. Besides, I don't like driving in the rain much, so after a good start, I decided to follow Jones and Reutemann. This result is a beneficial boost for my morale and the entire team".
Elio De Angelis also achieved a good placement with the Lotus 81. The Roman could have finished fifth, but he had to concede the fourth position to a unleashed Marc Surer. The Swiss, comfortable in the wet, put on a show, engaging in some of the most beautiful duels of the race. First, he overtook Watson, who had hindered him for several laps (the Irishman eventually went off the track with the McLaren), then chased De Angelis and overtook him, resisting with his Ensign even the attacks from Laffite and Jarier's Talbot Ligier. Otherwise, the Brazilian race offered few emotions and, above all, was unkind to Italian teams, stranded in the rain. For Ferrari, Villeneuve, with the car in crisis due to the starting incident, held on until lap 9 in sixth place. The car, with the bent wing, had strong oversteer, and the Canadian had to return to the pits on lap 10. After replacing the specific aerodynamic part, Gilles restarted but later had to abandon definitively due to the faulty operation of the valve regulating the turbochargers. Disappointed and nervous, Gilles Villeneuve blamed the race officials for the initial incident:
"You can't line up in the rain with two meters between each car. It was inevitable that there would be some accidents. Fortunately, nothing serious happened. As for the Ferraris, we are still in a transitional phase. You'll see that soon we will fight with the best".
Didier Pironi's race also ended before the end. The Frenchman, fitted with dry tires by Maranello technicians, had been running in the last positions from the start. Pironi did his best, with acrobatic maneuvers, but on lap 19, he lost control of his 126 CK, hitting Prost's Renault head-on. Alfa's race was also in crisis. Andretti was immediately out (Mario underwent a medical examination for back pain), and Giacomelli was delayed by mysterious troubles. Initially, engineer Carlo Chiti spoke of possible sabotage with the introduction of foreign substances into the fuel, then attempts were made to change the alternator, but the defect did not disappear. In the end, the malfunction was discovered: a faulty coil. After replacing it, the car ran perfectly again, but the race was already over. As for other Italian drivers: De Cesaris had an engine failure in his McLaren after nine laps, Stohr hit a guardrail on lap 20 due to worn tires. The only truly unfortunate one was Eddie Cheever. The Italo-American, involved in the initial collision with Chico Serra's Fittipaldi, found himself with a suspension in disarray and had to return to the pits. After a quick repair, he restarted but could do nothing more. The case of the Lotus 88 is not closed yet; Colin Chapman does not give up. After having his car disqualified for technical irregularities in Long Beach and Jacarepaguá, he will present his revolutionary car with two chassis again for inspections in Buenos Aires, hoping to be allowed to race. In a crowded press conference held on Saturday night, the constructor explained the reasons that convinced him to insist on his position:
"I have spent tens of thousands of pounds and twenty-two months of work to make this car, and no one has given me a precise reason for its illegality. Technical and sporting commissioners first accepted it and then rejected it, but only under pressure from other teams and Bernie Ecclestone. I neglected the development of the 81 to create the Lotus 88, and now I find myself with disillusioned technicians, mechanics, and drivers. It's not fair; I am on the side of reason. In the end, everyone will have to recognize that I did not intend to distort the regulations, that I did my job by rightly interpreting the rules".
Colin Chapman is no newcomer. He deserves much admiration for what he has done in the past and for the innovative technical solutions he has always developed (from the monocoque to the same side skirts). However, as an actor, he is worthless. His performance leaves much to be desired. The Lotus boss claims that no one has clearly told him why his car is irregular, that the representatives of the teams that officially protested against the Lotus 88 were unable to provide valid justifications, and that no point of the regulations he would have violated has been found. Some might believe him, but not those who heard all the curses his colleagues threw at him in Long Beach during a meeting that lasted a whole morning, with very clear words and no half measures. The definitive exclusion of the Lotus 88 (and Chapman is so sincere in this matter that he already has the model 87 almost ready) is a good step towards respecting the rules and greater credibility for Formula 1. The next step should be the elimination by Brabham of the pneumatic suspensions that allow Ecclestone's car to lower itself during the race until it touches the ground with the side skirts as if it had miniskirts. In this sense, the legalistic manufacturers would have expressed themselves in a meeting held in recent days (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Renault, Talbot, and Osella) with the unconditional support of Frank Williams.