A series of more or less obscure points continue to surround the background of the arrest of American oil tanker magnate David Thieme, one of the main sponsors of Lotus. It is only certain that he ended up in a prison in Zurich at the end of last week following a complaint from the Swiss Credit Bank, to which he allegedly did not repay several million borrowed. The Zurich judicial authorities have announced that the precise reasons for David Thieme's arrest will be revealed immediately after the conclusion of the first phase of the, for now, secret investigation. However, the possibility of his imminent release is ruled out. According to the Zurich press, David Thieme is accused of very serious economic crimes; otherwise, provisional release would have been granted. According to the widely circulated Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Thieme is alleged to be involved in risky speculations in the oil market. A few days before his arrest, in a desperate financial situation, David Thieme reportedly attempted to flee to Argentina. On Wednesday, April 15, 1981, it is also learned that a company in Basel has joined the complaint from the Swiss Credit Bank. According to Swiss journalistic sources, the closure of all David Thieme's offices is imminent. The embarrassing situation of the sponsor, however, does not seem to have put Lotus in difficulty. Colin Chapman, who is in Paris for the meeting between FOCA and FISA to appoint members of the Formula 1 Commission, reportedly stated that his team will continue its racing activities as usual. Lotus is expected to conduct some tests at the Paul Ricard circuit between April 22 and 24. However, the English constructor is in a dispute with Jean-Marie Balestre, president of FISA. He refuses to pay the $100.000 fine imposed on him for statements made in Buenos Aires, and for this reason, they want to exclude him from the Formula 1 Commission. On Thursday, meanwhile, Michelin is expected to announce which teams it will officially equip from the San Marino Grand Prix. On Saturday, April 18, 1981, the meeting between FOCA and FISA in Paris concludes after three days of discussions. The composition of the special commission to study the problems of this sport is established, and President Balestre closes the meeting by stating that peace is still in force among the various parties, and the suspensions of Brabham are perfectly regular. And then, with a magnanimous gesture, he pardons the $100.000 fine imposed on Colin Chapman. All's well that ends well. But to cover their internal games, for their dirty political maneuvers, FISA and FOCA should not deceive the fans.
"The engineer Forghieri, let this Ferrari go, let it win again".
Meanwhile, Formula 1 moves to Romagna, and you can feel it. The Ferrari engineer smiles and says quietly to the mechanics:
"We'd better move, guys, otherwise they'll eat us alive here".
It is enough for Ferrari and Renault to take to the track for the first free practice on Wednesday, April 22, 1981, ahead of the San Marino Grand Prix, to attract crowds to the stands and along the curves of the Dino Ferrari circuit. All the teams were supposed to be there, but there seem to have been shipping problems from England, so those who can will arrive in the coming hours, as the track is booked until Friday evening. However, the occasion is good to present the debut Grand Prix dedicated to the small Republic of San Marino. Enzo Ferrari was supposed to be there too, but the Modena constructor, not feeling very well in the cold weather, reluctantly withdrew (the circuit is named after his son Dino). Piero Lardi represents him, thanking everyone, and then representatives of various organizations speak, from the San Marino automobile federation to the Minister of Tourism of the Republic, to the president of the Automobile Club of Bologna, to the administrator of the racetrack. A great race is expected, a great audience that probably only this area can offer to motorsports. Above all, it is hoped that the race will be the first of a long series in the coming years. All good intentions, but it remains to be seen what Bernie Ecclestone, president of FOCA, will think, to whom, just in Imola, his favored venue for organizing this race until last year outside the official calendars, is preparing a nasty surprise. Despite the pacifist statements of Jean-Marie Balestre, president of FISA, according to whom everything is fine and Ecclestone's Brabham is perfectly legal, unfriendly receptions are expected for the cars entrusted to Nelson Piquet and Hector Rebaque. Jean Sage, sports director of Renault, declares:
"Balestre's announcement was made on a personal basis. We manufacturers do not agree at all; the Brabham cars are irregular. And we hope they are not allowed to race with the hydro-pneumatic suspensions and soft side partitions they adopted in the first three championship races".
The same opinion is held by those who will be responsible for technical checks. Engineer Cadringher of Csai confirms:
"We will not accept any pressure, and we are preparing to carry out very serious checks. We are studying a series of measures to take for the controls. And the regulations must be strictly adhered to. We will not let any derogations pass, not even a millimeter on the measurements, and no personal interpretation of the technical rules. Whoever is found in violation must comply, otherwise, they will not participate in the Grand Prix".
While these threatening clouds loom for Brabham and for anyone who may have followed its example, Ferrari seeks to improve its turbo cars. Gilles Villeneuve drives a car with a reinforced chassis and some new aerodynamic solutions. For example, the side fins are made of plastic, less rigid than those used before. The data used to explore new paths are, among other things, processed with computer systems installed recently in Maranello by Olivetti, the technical sponsor of Ferrari. The presence in Imola of Piero Lardi, head of the sports section of Ferrari, allows for discussion of the future of the Maranello team. A future that, as far as drivers are concerned, seems to be fairly calm.
"There are no problems for Pironi. The Frenchman has a two-year contract with us, so he will also race with Ferrari in 1982. As for Villeneuve, his two-year contract expires at the end of the season. As usual, towards the end of May, we will start negotiations with the Canadian driver. We will see what his demands are and also our needs. Only after an open conversation with him will something be decided".
According to some rumors, Villeneuve has already signed an option with Alfa Romeo: this seems premature for now. However, it is known that the fiery Canadian driver would like to engage in activities beyond Formula 1, and this could be a problem for his stay at Ferrari. It will be seen, however, at the end of May. Returning to the tests, the French car, driven by Alain Prost, runs longer and also sets the best time, completing the lap in 1'35"80. A time that is about two seconds lower than the track record set last year. It should be noted that the Imola circuit has been slightly modified and now seems faster because the Acque Minerali chicane has been made easier: now it is taken in second gear, instead of first as in the past. The cars of the English teams are stuck in customs in London due to a strike, so free practice for the San Marino Grand Prix remains reserved for Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo, and Osella. On Thursday, April 23, 1981, however, rain limits the activity of mechanics and drivers. Only in the late afternoon, some drivers complete a few laps without forcing, as evidenced by the times. Prost, with the Renault Turbo, completes four laps (best time 1'51"60), Guerra, with the Osella, completes only two (2'00"81), and Andretti, with the Alfa Romeo, completes eight (1'53"63). A glance is enough to notice that Alfa Romeo has brought a car to Imola with a type of suspension similar to those used by the contested Brabham of Nelson Piquet. Engineer Carlo Chiti, head of the sports activity of the Milanese company, had threatened several times to follow the path indicated by the designer Gordon Murray if measures were not taken to block the outlawed car. And he kept his promises. It is difficult to say now whether the system tested by Alfa is identical to that of Brabham. In any case, the result should be the same: the car lowers while racing but remains the regulatory six centimeters above the ground when stationary. It would be a matter of pneumatic shock absorbers, with variable travel, controlled by air pressure. For now, the new Alfa will only be tested, and it is not certain that it will race on May 3. The Milanese company only wants to be ready in case the sports authorities do not block the Brabham in time. The same thing, however, in a less flashy way, is being done by other teams, such as Talbot and Osella.
The Turin constructor confirms having a Brabham-like solution (in the Volpiano workshop) but for now, it will carry out tests with the usual cars, hoping to obtain valid data for comparison with the car used on the same track last year. Ferrari and Renault, moreover, have already tested cars with soft skirts, even if the official excuse was not to ruin the rigid ones. While at Imola, the most important topic remains the Brabham case, in Paris, the FIA court meets to discuss that of the Lotus 88, not admitted to the first three world races. Colin Chapman, supported by four lawyers, tries to convince the federal judges that he is on the side of reason. The role of the accuser is supported by all the other teams. However, the FIA Court of Appeal definitively judges the Lotus 88 illegal. The decision is made on Thursday at midnight after fourteen hours of discussions. The English constructor had presented the new car, a double-chassis model, at the United States West Grand Prix, but the board of sports commissioners had prevented the departure of the model 88 driven by Italian Elio De Angelis. Chapman had then appealed to the sports commission of the American federation, which, meeting in Atlanta, had sided with him. Subsequently, however, many Formula 1 teams had applied to the Supreme Judge of motorsport, the FISA Court of Appeal, which has now expressed its final judgment. Commenting on the decision of the sports court, Chapman says that he will be forced to consider a possible withdrawal from racing.
"I do not have any car, and I know nothing about my sponsorship".
He adds, referring to the ongoing investigation in Switzerland into the main sponsor of Lotus, the American billionaire David Thieme, who was arrested two weeks ago following a complaint from a Swiss bank and released on Thursday. One of Chapman's closest collaborators, Andrew Ferguson, clarifies that this decision does not mean a complete withdrawal from racing and attributes this withdrawal to the impossibility of having two competitive cars ready in time after the judgment of the Parisian court. Furthermore, it is revealed that Lotus has hastily produced the new type 87, which represents a compromise between the model 88 and the previous 81 and, it is assured, does not violate international regulations. The new car is tested for the first time on Tuesday, April 28, 1981. On Thursday, April 30, 1981, at the Dino Ferrari racetrack in Imola, the first part of the San Marino Grand Prix takes place, the fourth race of the Formula 1 World Championship scheduled for Sunday, May 3, 1981. It is not a race between drivers and cars but a duel between sports authorities and Brabham. A fight without quarter, the outcome of which will certainly influence the race. If the technical commissioners succeed in proving that Bernie Ecclestone's team's cars are irregular and impose the removal of the hydro-pneumatic suspensions used so far, the race will certainly be more interesting and, above all, honest. If, on the other hand, despite all the stratagems adopted (among other things, two perfectly flat concrete platforms have been built on which all cars will be repeatedly checked), Brabham is not caught in the act, all the other teams are ready to use similar systems to achieve a ground effect as when they had the infamous skirts. In this second case, however, once again, the FISA will demonstrate its powerlessness against the constructors. Technical inspections, which are supposed to start at 10:00 a.m., will be of decisive importance. The controversies, the surprising announcement that Lotus has withdrawn from the first race dedicated to the Republic of San Marino, do not seem to have diminished the fans' interest in the race. A full house is expected in Imola.
"The result expected from Imola to settle the dispute between FISA and FOCA has been partly achieved".
This is stated in the statement issued on Friday, April 1, 1981, by the press office of the Dino Ferrari racetrack in Imola regarding the irregularities in the cars entered in the first European race after the three American ones.
"During the discussions that lasted for many hours yesterday and today, both parties have shown a great willingness to reach an agreement that guarantees the best conduct of Formula 1 races in the future as well".
"The FISA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, has made efforts to overcome obstacles, while the constructors have agreed on the need to respect the regulations agreed upon. In practice, as for the side skirts that determine the height of the cars from the ground, it has been decided to make them less elastic, in order to achieve, with less ground effect, those guarantees of greater safety that are important to both FISA and FOCA. The decisions made in Imola will be valid for the other Grands Prix of the Formula 1 World Championship".
In this way, the participation in the San Marino Grand Prix of the contested cars by the race commissioners was guaranteed. If this agreement had not been reached (and Enzo Ferrari seemed ready to return, after a brief appearance on Thursday, to meet Ecclestone again), there would have been a new split between the two federations. From the checks carried out on Thursday evening and Friday by the technical commissioners, numerous cars appeared to be illegal. For one reason or another (movable lower side skirts, seals on horizontal or vertical planes, movable flaps on the front wing, height correctors in the suspensions), Williams, McLaren, Brabham, ATS, Fittipaldi, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Arrows, Osella, and Theodore were incriminated. Then the agreement and the modifications with the stiffening of the side skirts allow all cars to participate in the timed practice sessions, which, of course, are delayed from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Only FISA cars participate in the free practice sessions (Villeneuve is the fastest, with a time of 1'35"632), and to give the other English group cars a chance to practice, another hour is granted (from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.). All drivers take to the track except for Warwick, as a fire breaks out on his Toleman and long work is necessary, and Pironi, forced to use the third of the cars brought for a problem with the engine suffered in his own. Subsequently, during the tests, the fastest is the Frenchman René Arnoux with the Turbo Renault, who laps in 1'35"281, at an average speed of 198.426 km/h, beating Gilles Villeneuve by 0.194 seconds. The Canadian driver, in turn, precedes Alain Prost, the other Renault driver, by only 0.004s. In practice, a success of turbocharged engines over naturally aspirated ones, as in fourth place is Carlos Reutemann, ahead of Didier Pironi, the other Ferrari driver. Then follow the reigning World Champion, Alan Jones, ahead of Riccardo Patrese, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, and Mario Andretti. All's well that ends well.
Or at least it should, given that once again Formula 1 is at risk of falling apart. After the agreement signed in Paris a few days before the start of the races, the signs of a new rupture between FOCA teams on one side, sports authorities, and legalist teams on the other, had already occurred in Long Beach and in South America due to the Lotus 88 and the Brabham. With the case of Colin Chapman's car resolved in court, declared illegal, what remained to disturb the atmosphere was the issue of Nelson Piquet and Hector Rebaque's cars, which used ground effect thanks to adjustable hydro-pneumatic shock absorbers and flexible skirts. With the return of races to Europe for the unprecedented San Marino Grand Prix, it was presumed that another dangerous case with unpredictable consequences would erupt. And punctually, the problem arose on Thursday, the day scheduled for checks. A serious situation that - as mentioned - raised fears of a new split among the various teams. If Brabham could continue to race with impunity (and win) with its illegal systems, chaos would have ensued. And at this point, credit must be given to the Italian sports authorities (officials, technical commissioners, and sports officials) if everything has been resolved in the best possible way. The danger persists, and it is not certain that in the upcoming races, there will not be a return to controversies and discussions, but at least some principles have been officially established that cannot be ignored from now on. The chronicle of these feverish hours is full of events that we briefly summarize. Documented and prepared, the Italian commissioners implemented a plan that eventually saw them prevail over the constructors who intended to continue circumventing the regulations. It was a matter of finding a way to exploit the internal rivalries between the various teams to achieve the goal. Essentially, it was done as in a labor negotiation. The control officials used an iron fist, striking any irregularity, even the smallest and irrelevant, to achieve at least the abolition of the soft skirts, which were practically the basis for the performance of some cars.
After thorough checks, it was found that almost all cars used some prohibited systems. Flexible skirts, shock absorbers that lower the cars to the ground during racing, and forbidden aerodynamic devices. Only Renault and Toleman were found to be perfectly compliant. Other single-seaters were deemed out of place due to small prohibited aerodynamic appendages. In a stern statement issued on Thursday night, sports commissioners forced all team officials to work to bring the cars into compliance. On Friday morning, however, the FOCA teams, not willing to accept these impositions, in an obvious attempt to continue on their path, threatened not to take part in the practice sessions. And indeed, they did not line up on the track, while the legalists carried out free tests. Meetings, discussions, many words, but the sports commissioners held firm. FOCA (and this is a behind-the-scenes detail that is only known after the checks) sent legal representative Max Mosley to negotiate. First, he asked to turn the San Marino Grand Prix into a non-championship race, reserved for Group 8 cars, i.e., free formula, which would have allowed them to continue with the illegalities. Rejected, Mosley reappeared threatening the English teams' withdrawal from the circuit. But here too, the sports authorities acted wisely: they allowed them to act as they pleased but pointed out that the organizers would have had the right to seek redress (there is a fine of $20.000 per car) in case of non-participation in the race. At this point, FOCA had to give in and asked to go on the track with another round of free practice in the afternoon, and then the usual hour of official qualifications. In short, for Ecclestone and company, it was a defeat for once. Some clarity that can only be good for Formula 1. And so, on Saturday, May 2, 1981, Ferrari red is back in fashion. The Maranello team conquers, with Gilles Villeneuve, the pole position in the San Marino Grand Prix, the fourth race of the Formula 1 World Championship, which will offer an interesting and balanced race at Imola, thanks to the regained regularity of the cars. An performance level, after a year, that confirms the work of Ferrari. It hadn't happened since May 1979 (Scheckter in Monte-Carlo with the 312-T4) that Ferrari started in first place, and for the Canadian driver, it is the second time he achieves such a result (the first was in Long Beach in the same year).
However, it must be immediately said that this pole position does not guarantee success. Ferrari has quickly regained competitiveness, but it does not yet have that precise quality called reliability, and this will have to be taken into account during the race. The car produced in Maranello can currently be considered only a dangerous outsider. The favorites for the prediction are always the Williams of Reutemann, starting in the front row alongside Villeneuve, the turbo Renaults of Arnoux and Prost, both lined up in the second row, and finally, the new McLaren MP4 of John Watson, showing further progress. Piquet achieves the fifth position with the Brabham: the superiority demonstrated in Argentina has disappeared, nullified by the adjustment of the car to regulatory norms, at least as regards the rigid side skirts. However, Saturday is a generally positive day for Italian colors. In addition to Ferrari, first with the little North American and sixth with Didier Pironi, there is the always combative Riccardo Patrese in ninth place, and there are the Alfa Romeos of Giacomelli and Andretti in eleventh and twelfth places. And then again, De Cesaris fourteenth, debutant Alboreto seventeenth, and Cheever nineteenth. Both Osellas driven by Beppe Gabbiani and Angel Guerra are also present. Quite honestly, the Turin-based constructor says that if there had been the Lotus, the qualification of its cars would have still been problematic. But, for the moment, it is among the protagonists, and this is already a significant improvement. Unfortunately, Sigfried Stohr is out. Still, the Rimini driver is particularly unlucky, and due to various problems with his Arrows, he fails to qualify. Speaking again about Ferrari, which laps with Villeneuve in 1'35"576. The main problems still concern the reliability of the turbos. The Canadian, immediately after setting the best time, is forced to return to the pits due to the malfunction of the turbine. The same happens to Pironi. The two drivers should use the cars with the elongated chassis in the race (through a spacer of 15 centimeters placed between the gearbox and the engine that in the future can accommodate the oil tank). This version seems to have a better balance due to a different weight distribution. It is not certain that in the race, Villeneuve and Pironi will both start with this solution (the Canadian conquers the pole position with the reserve car, which has a traditional chassis). However, the experiment is judged more than interesting. Carlos Reutemann says:
"With the Ferraris, there's nothing to be done in terms of speed. I will run my race as if they weren't there. I won't try to match their pace right from the start to avoid compromising the final result. I'll have to watch out for the Renaults and Piquet's Brabham".
So, this will be the theme of the race. It remains to be seen if Villeneuve won't find himself without the possibility of escaping the pursuit that a large group of followers will make without holding back.
"I'm happy, and I don't care how the race will end. I believe that this pole position is already a great result and a significant satisfaction. We have shown that we are back at the top. I gave my best, but it's easy to go fast when the car is good. I don't want to make predictions, and I don't even ask to be classified among the top six, I don't care. In Formula 1, only winning matters, or at least stepping onto the podium".
Gilles Villeneuve, sweaty, exhausted but with a beaming smile, welcomes the media, asking him about the reasons for his performance and his opinion on the race. The Canadian's great joy contrasts with the bitterness of Didier Pironi, who is not at all happy with the sixth position.
"I've had four races where things haven't gone well for me. When my car is perfect, something always happens that doesn't allow me to go fast. I hope for better times".
Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari's technical director, makes calm statements:
"I would be content to finish the race with the leaders, in the same lap as the winner. We still have a lot of work to do, a huge amount of testing and experience, but we have already had confirmation that we are heading in the right direction. I would like at least one car to finish the race".
At Alfa Romeo, engineer Chiti rightly does not give up on controversy.
"The cars respond well to adjustments, so we know where to work. I'm just sorry that in the last quarter of an hour, many cars started sparking on the asphalt. This means they continue to cheat, lowering the skirts, even if the effect is no longer what it used to be. These Englishmen scratch in every sense, on the ground with the cars and metaphorically speaking".
Regarding irregularities found in the tests, it seems that Arrows, Talbot, and Fittipaldi were found with skirts running low. No measures have been taken, but sports commissioners who will meticulously check the cars at the end of the race reserve the right to act on Sunday: surprise disqualifications are not excluded. Meanwhile, the engines of the top four in the two days of testing have been sealed and will be checked later. On Sunday, the audience in Imola will cheer for Gilles Villeneuve. And who knows, maybe Niki Lauda will too. The former Ferrari driver makes his debut as a commentator for Italian television. Speaking about his rumored return to racing, the Austrian says:
"I have to admit that I have renewed interest in Formula 1, but I have several problems to solve. I run a company with thirty employees, and I would have to find a trustworthy substitute. Also, I would like to have a good car. However, it doesn't seem to me that things have changed much since I stopped. I think I could achieve good results".
On Sunday, May 3, 1981, it is very wet, but by mid-day, the rain has stopped, though the skies are still gloomy and there seems little chance of the weather improving. During the half-hour warm-up session, Prost is in the spare Renault, Watson is in the original MP4 McLaren while the new one is having its engine changed, both Ferraris are in short wheelbase configuration with new engines installed, running on a lower boost pressure as evidenced by the waste-gate spring pressure adjusting screw, and Fittipaldi has some wet-weather Avon tires that look suspiciously like Goodyears. The start is not due until 3:00 p.m., and as that time approaches and cars are made ready, the choice of wet or dry tires is still wide open, for it is not raining, and there is just a chance that it might stay dry. After some dickering about on the grid, the scene ends up with only three cars gambling on starting on dry-weather tires, Rosberg, Tambay, and Surer, and the rest are wondering how long their treaded tires would last if it does not rain. Villeneuve leads them away on the parade lap to the accompanying shouts and applause of the very partisan crowd. They all arrive safely back on the grid, except that Prost is already in trouble, his gearbox having broken first gear. As the back-markers come to a stop, the red light comes on and almost instantaneously turns to green in one of the quickest starts we have ever seen. Everyone gets away, the two turbo Ferraris going straight into the lead, with the two Williams right behind them, Jones having made a meteoric start from the fourth row. It is joy day for Italy as Villeneuve and Pironi lead the race, but already others are in trouble for Guerra has been shuffled off the track, and in the crash, he has injured himself in the leg, while poor Prost is right at the back of the field with his gearbox making horrid noises. Some people have given the turbo Ferraris a life of five laps in the lead; others have exaggerated as far as 12 laps in the damp conditions. At five laps, the order is Villeneuve, Pironi, and it is the same at twelve laps, the two Ferraris looking to be in complete control, which is more than can be said of some of the other competitors. Alan Jones hits his teammate up the tail, and while Reutemann continues unhurt, the World Champion has to stop at the pits for a new nose cone, and while he is in, the car is changed onto slick tires as the track is drying out quite fast.
Watson tries to drive through on the inside of Arnoux’s Renault, on the left-hander by the pits, and seems to forget about the vast aerofoil stuck out the front of the MP4, and it gets wiped off on the Renault’s left rear wheel, which makes the Ulsterman return to the pits on the next lap for a new nose and aerofoil. Prost retires with a wrecked gearbox, and Laffite retires with bent front suspension when he also savaged Arnoux’s Renault, as Watson has done, and come off second best. Poor Arnoux is now handicapped by a bent wheel and a broken exhaust pipe but decides to carry on. Reutemann is limited on how hard he is prepared to drive by a worrying vibration which may, or may not, have been emanating from tires moving on the rims, so Patrese is able to pass him and take third place on lap 6. The Italian crowd cannot ask for more, a Ferrari in the lead, a Ferrari in second place, and an Italian driver in third place. In the opening laps, Villeneuve is finding his car tricky to drive as the power characteristics of his new engine give all the power rather suddenly at the top end of the rpm range. There is no lack of power; it is merely a bit sudden, and this makes it difficult to drive smoothly, so Villeneuve is conscious of giving his rear tires a hard time. When he comes up to lap Jones and Tambay, the Williams driver having rejoined the race in 19th position, Villeneuve merely pulls out and runs round the outside of them on the long left-hander after the pits. There is no shortage of power in the Ferrari. From his pit signals, he can see that Patrese is gaining on both him and Pironi, and as the track is now nearly totally dry, he assumes that the Arrows A3 is not consuming its rear Michelin wets so quickly as the Ferraris are. From what he can see of the sky, it looks as though it is going to continue drying up, so at the end of lap 15, he dives into the pits for dry-weather Michelins, leaving Pironi to hold the Fort, which he does admirably. The stop is not one of the Ferrari team’s best efforts, and Villeneuve rejoins the race in 13th place and covers one lap to find the rain has started again, so immediately shot back into the pits for another set of wet Michelins and rejoins the race again almost a lap behind Pironi. Meanwhile, Jones, Tambay, Watson, and Surer all stop to change over to wet Michelins. In the meantime, Nelson Piquet and the Brabham are looking very smooth and very confident.
Piquet has not made the best of starts and is ninth on the opening lap, slightly hemmed in by some mid-field runners, but he soon gets clear of them and joins the leaders in fifth place by lap seven and then passes Reutemann to take fourth place, and with Villeneuve stopping at the pits Piquet is hoisted up into third place, not too far behind Patrese. Six laps are all he needs to catch and pass the Arrows A3 and take second place, and now Pironi is not so happy in the lead. Being followed by Patrese in an Arrows A3 is one thing, to be followed by Piquet in a Brabham is something else altogether. No doubt Pironi wishes his teammate is up there to help him, but the little French-Canadian is down in 12th place, but going like a ding-bat as always. The rain is stopping, but the track is not drying, so it is a question of how long wet-weather Michelins are going to last. Rosberg never gets a chance to try the Avon wets as his Cosworth V8 blows up on lap 15. We are now at half-distance, which was lap 30 and a turbo-charged Ferrari is still in the lead, and the second one is lapping faster than anyone else in the race. Anyone with the future at heart must have been very concerned. The Alfa Romeo fans are totally depressed for neither Andretti nor Giacomelli have been in the picture from the very start; Andretti has retired with gearbox trouble and now Giacomelli ran into Cheever while the Tyrrell driver is trying to overtake and both cars are damaged and put out of the race. At the back of the field Tyrrell’s new-boy Alboreto is doing quite nicely in his first Grand Prix and is holding off Gabbiani’s Osella until lap 32 when they literally fell over each other. At the front Pironi is more than aware that Piquet has him all lined up in his sights, but he can not do anything about it as his rear tires are wearing badly and limiting his performance. Earlier, he has lapped Tambay in the Theodore, and the Frenchman has nipped in behind and gets a tow from his compatriot’s red car. When Tambay sees Piquet getting closer in his mirrors, he gets really close to the back of the Ferrari and seats there for three or four laps until he feels that Piquet is ready to pounce on the Ferrari. Then as they leave the right-hander by the pits, Tambay pulls out alongside the Ferrari, as if he is going to try and overtake, leaving the place clear for Piquet to slot into, and then pulls the Theodore back in behind the Brabham, thus maintaining his tow. It is a delightfully intelligent and calculated maneuver so typical of the character of Patrick Tambay.
Two laps later when Patrese’s Arrows appears in the Theodore’s mirrors the Frenchman gives way in a similar clean-cut and clear move. Reutemann is still in fourth place and a fair way back in fifth place comes Hector Rebaque doing a neat and tidy job in the number two Brabham. Behind him is Andrea de Cesaris in Watson’s old M29F McLaren having an excellent drive, after mixing it with the two Alfa Romeos he gets away from them and also gets past the ailing Renault of Arnoux. Behind them all Villeneuve is gaining ground rapidly, setting the fastest race lap on lap 46, just after he moves up into seventh place. As the Ferrari at the back of those who are all on the same lap is gaining ground, the Ferrari at the front is losing it, and Piquet goes by into the lead on lap 47 and two laps later Patrese relegates Pironi to third place. It was clear that the Cosworth powered cars are easier to drive on balding rear Michelin wet-weather tires than the turbo-charged Ferrari, and of course, Villeneuve has the advantage of a new set of tires at his second stop. It has not rained any more, but the track has not really dried out. As poor Pironi is forced down to fourth place by Reutemann, Villeneuve moves up to sixth place, ahead of de Cesaris, and starts to aim for Rebaque’s fifth place. At this point Watson is also going very quickly, relative to the conditions, and records the second fastest race lap, but he is two laps down on the leaders. Before Villeneuve can do anything about Rebaque the Ferrari’s clutch started to slip, so that is that, and anyway the young Mexican is not waiting to be caught and as they start the last lap he slips neatly past the ailing Pironi to take a well-earned fourth place. Nelson Piquet has driven yet another wise, intelligent, and smooth race in a style that is fast becoming his trademark. You cannot argue about Patrese’s second place and the performance of his Arrows, even if you have wanted to, while Reutemann’s third place scores his 14th successive finish in World Championship races, every one of them in an honorable position. Finally, a real Formula 1 race. The San Marino Grand Prix, beyond the controversies, restores part of the image that the most advanced expression of motor racing had lost for some time. Endless emotions, plot twists, thrilling overtakes, uncertain battles, and an enthusiastic crowd provided all the ingredients for a race that has no equal for at least a season.
The race's verdict ultimately gives the victory to Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian, delivering a monumental, intelligent performance, now poses a threat to Carlos Reutemann's lead in the World Championship standings, having overtaken Alan Jones, who this time is delayed due to a collision in the early laps with his teammate's car. The rivalry between the two Williams drivers is intensifying. And behind them, a sensational Riccardo Patrese makes his way, finishing second at the checkered flag, confirming his recent excellent results. Covered in cups, trophies, and medals, honored by the Regent of the Republic of San Marino, chased by fans and journalists, Nelson Piquet perhaps takes more time to leave the racetrack than to win the race. With a face that oscillates between a handsome, wild, mysterious look and a smile, Piquet clearly expresses his hope to benefit from the now undisguised rivalry between Reutemann and Jones.
"As long as they quarrel among themselves, it's fine for me. It was still a hard-fought victory. Slippery asphalt, occasionally poor visibility, intermittent rain, many dangerous opponents – all put me and my Brabham to a tough test. Only five laps from the end, when I had a decent lead, did I realize that the first place wouldn't slip away. A satisfying win after so much controversy".
At the start, it seemed like Piquet had some difficulties in the third row.
"Yes, it's true. Perhaps Villeneuve slowed everyone down because he didn't get away immediately. Probably, I could have squeezed in to gain some positions, but I would either end up on the grass or collide with someone else. I chose to wait - too risky. But don't talk to me about the world title now. It's too early; anything can happen. Thinking about it would be useless. Better to live day by day".
Once again in a good position, Riccardo Patrese now holds a significant place in the championship standings. But the Paduan driver doesn't want to talk about the race for the world title at the moment.
"I did my best, and I'm happy. Some might have hoped because, in the end, I caught up with Pironi and Piquet. But it was the Frenchman slowing down the pace. I had my hands full keeping the car on the track, as the rear tires had practically turned into slicks".
However, the main interest of this race lies in the Ferraris of Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve, finishing fourth and seventh, respectively. In retrospect, for the Maranello team, it can be considered a big success that surpasses the most optimistic predictions. Ferrari narrowly missed a sensational victory. Only a daring decision by the Canadian driver, a major protagonist nonetheless, and a trivial problem that delayed the Frenchman deprived the Maranello team of the joy of triumph. Nevertheless, it is comforting that the engines, perhaps aided by the cold temperature at Imola, held up until the end. There is no celebration with champagne for Ferrari for Pironi's fifth place and Villeneuve's seventh. Engineer Forghieri had said beforehand that he would offer a few bottles of precious French wine if one of the Maranello cars had brought the Canadian or the Frenchman to the podium, at least for the third place of honor. But satisfaction at the end of the race is evident from the tired faces of the entire team. No one expected such performances, and no one would have thought on Saturday of staying in the lead for so long and coming so close to success. Indeed, there were concerns about the engine's reliability. However, the engines proved to be powerful (perhaps too much for the wet conditions) and resilient. Gilles Villeneuve, indomitable, with his mind fixed on victory that continues to elude him, is angry.
"I had bad luck again, but I don't think I made a mistake. When I decided to stop, I saw that Patrese was gaining ground, and Jones, with slicks, was keeping up with my pace. So, I took a risk. Unfortunately, it started raining again right after, and I realized I had been fooled. I returned to the track after the second pit stop with anger. I didn't spare the car. I was almost spinning, and the engine held up well. But with the damp but not too wet asphalt, the tires deteriorated, and I struggled to stay on the track. The clutch burned out at the finish line. Still, I'm very satisfied with the car".
On the other hand, Didier Pironi is more cheerful and composed:
"I understood it wasn't necessary to change tires when I saw that Watson with slicks was slow. I don't understand why Gilles came back in. I also had my problems. With water, the turbocharged engine suddenly releases all its power, putting you in difficulty with grip. We still have some issues to resolve, but overall, I'm very satisfied. I believe we can soon aim for a victory. The side skirt must have broken at the start due to contact with Rebaque's Brabham. Too bad".
And Mauro Forghieri adds:
"At the start, we chose an intermediate solution because it gave us more guarantees. I think the cold weather influenced the engine's performance, but I don't know in what way. We will, in any case, have time to conduct more tests. Pironi didn't know he had a damaged side skirt and kept signaling to us. He thought there was some issue at the rear. Then, his brakes also wore out, and the tires deteriorated. He couldn't resist Piquet and the others who overtook him. Nevertheless, for us, the San Marino Grand Prix was full of satisfaction".
Patrese's second place, De Cesaris's sixth place, and the placements of the Ferraris are not enough to say that the San Marino Grand Prix ended positively for Italian colors. Better results could have been achieved if the drivers had behaved reasonably, avoiding eliminating each other. It's difficult to determine blame and responsibility, but it can be said that certain unpleasant situations shouldn't have occurred. What happened during the race caused considerable displeasure at Alfa Romeo. Ettore Massacesi, president of the Milanese team, doesn't seem to have appreciated, for example, Bruno Giacomelli's exit. The Brescia-born driver collided with Eddie Cheever, who was trying to overtake him. Bruno and the Italo-American driver were in eighth and ninth positions. Each of them, naturally, provides a different version of the events.
"At the Tosa corner, I was ahead. Due to the wet conditions, my car skidded slightly, but I controlled it and went up the hill, keeping my trajectory. Suddenly, I felt a big hit on the left rear side, and I found myself careening on the track before violently hitting the guardrail. I was at about 200 km/h".
After getting out of the cars, Eddie and Bruno didn't spare each other violent criticism.
"Giacomelli made a mistake skidding, and I tried to take advantage. On the ramp, when I had pulled alongside him, he suddenly closed on the left, and I couldn't avoid the collision. I don't understand why he turned left when the corner was to the right. My mistake was not assessing that Giacomelli was in front".
A misunderstanding also led to an early retirement for Beppe Gabbini and Michele Alboreto, who collided again at the Tosa corner. The Piacenza-born driver had been following the Milanese debutant for several laps and, trying to overtake him, positioned himself on the inside.
"I was passing him, but, during braking, my wheels locked. There was nothing I could do to avoid him".
The two, disappointed because they were having a great race, later apologized to each other. It's worth noting, however, that the Osella team, qualified with two cars, seems to have made some progress. Unfortunately, though, on the first lap, Angel Guerra, signaled by Salazar, fell victim to an accident. The Argentine driver collided with the guardrail, getting trapped with one foot in the sheets. Immediately freed, Guerra was transported to the emergency room, where, after eight X-rays, a fracture to the left ankle was found. He received a plaster cast and was taken to the CTO hospital in Turin for further examinations.