#342 1980 United States Grand Prix

2022-08-15 01:00

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#Third Part, Fulvio Conti,

#342 1980 United States Grand Prix

The games have already been played for the Formula 1 World Championship, won by Alan Jones. The one on Sunday, October 5, 1980, at Watkins Glen is the


And he adds:


"All this if no agreement is reached. And we will have our World Championship in any case. Never before could Formula 1 have attracted the public's interest as much as next year. There are major car manufacturers, six different types of engines (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Renault Turbo, Cosworth, Matra, Brian Hart Turbo), three major tire companies. If we were all together, we would have the biggest World Championship ever seen. If we are without FOCA, it might be a difficult year, but we will overcome it. The others, on the other hand, will not survive".


On what basis can he make these statements?


"It's simple. We already have seventeen registered cars, and maybe more will join. We have signed agreements with dozens of circuits and contacts with others. At this moment, Ecclestone, on the other hand, only has the possibility to race on four tracks, not even very safe ones: Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Las Vegas, and maybe Donnington in England. This is the current situation, but in three months, it could still be changed in our favor because some teams might switch to us. All this without considering what we can legally do against the pirate federation. Let's not forget (and here Balestre shows a letter from the French Minister for Energy just received) that many governments have pressured national Automobile clubs to achieve energy savings. An alternative championship, therefore, would have few chances of surviving".


Therefore, it is a real ultimatum that Jean-Marie Balestre launches on the eve of the decisive meeting. In the six points, the president of FISA lists the concessions he would be willing to make if FOCA were to capitulate. What could happen then at 6:00 p.m. after the meeting at Place de la Concorde and after the press conference that Ecclestone will hold on behalf of FOCA an hour earlier at the Hotel de Crillon, announced with a telex to all concerned? The possibilities are many. At the limit, Balestre himself could be sacrificed, who in the end begins to be an uncomfortable figure even for the FIA, of which FISA is the sports emanation. It is said that the president of the FIA, Baron Von Metternich, went to London to Ecclestone and expressed his embarrassment for the situation in general. It is also said that in recent days Balestre and Ecclestone had reached an agreement, then canceled at the last moment for reasons not well understood. A damned deception that could destroy Formula 1. And, in fact, on Friday, November 21, 1980, the sensational conclusion of the Formula 1 meeting causes great surprise to everyone. It was thought that the meetings at the FISA headquarters would somehow lead to an agreement between Jean-Marie Balestre's legalists and the dissidents of FOCA. Instead, a complete and official rupture is recorded: FISA announces its program for the 1981 World Championship, and if FOCA is consistent with itself, it will immediately start its own World Championship. Formally, this split is a real disaster. If the two parties do not reach a reasonable peace (the doors are still open to FOCA because Balestre announces that any registrations will be accepted at least until the end of the year), those who will suffer the damage, perhaps irreparable, will be motorsport, and everyone will have to take their respective responsibilities. If you look inside the folds of this absurd situation, something positive in what happened can be glimpsed. If FISA has the strength to stand firm and keep its promises, it could be the beginning of a new era, much clearer than the last, from 1965 to the present day, a period in which political and regulatory leadership, especially in Formula 1 (but evil has attacked motorsport in general), has been nebulous, often in the hands of unscrupulous people, dominated by partisan interests. To make this partial victory over FOCA render, therefore, FISA and Balestre will have to set up competent and honest technical and sports committees, regulate Formula 1 in a way that no subterfuge is possible, and punish any type of indiscipline in the most severe way, without distinctions. Only in this way will the war against English assemblers be definitively won. Having said that, it is necessary to try to understand what will happen in the immediate future.


Friday evening, immediately after the announcement that FISA does not accept FOCA's proposals (even though the English constructors had made significant concessions such as giving up skirts starting from European races), Bernie Ecclestone is rather shaken:


"I don't understand why Balestre wanted to provoke a definitive break. We could have come to an agreement".


It's possible that Ecclestone, to save face, is now forced to launch the alternative championship that has been threatened multiple times. However, it is certain that the FOCA is in difficulty. The circuits that can host outlaw races are very few (three or four at most), despite the voluminous list presented by Ecclestone himself. To race on all other tracks, dissidents will have to take organizers to court, and we know how lengthy these procedures can be. Not to mention all the minor difficulties they will encounter, such as organizing timing, recruiting race officials, and so on. Additionally, the FOCA also has a significant chance of not securing television coverage for all its races, leading to a decline in interest that will make even naive sponsors like Parmalat, supporting Brabham, reconsider, as the media might not follow a championship without Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Renault, and Talbot-Ligier. If Ecclestone is truly the shrewd businessperson he is said to be, he will have to find a solution for a return to the mainstream. However, not in the way he tried before the Friday meeting, presenting a series of proposals that would have allowed him to maintain or even definitively gain decision-making power in a short time. The owner of Brabham, as well as his followers (the team principals of Lotus, Arrows, Williams, Tyrrell, McLaren, Ensign, ATS), cannot ignore that clear regulations and support for Formula 1 from major manufacturers (even if they come and go in racing) are only beneficial for everyone. So, we can only wait, hoping that time brings wisdom. More compromises, more makeshift solutions, would likely only prolong the fights and discussions for months, causing irreparable damage. Besides, the disputes, the spite, the attempts to put the opponent in difficulty are turning into a kind of bewildering farce that has surely disgusted even the most passionate fans. But it is necessary to follow the events day by day and record the evolution of the situation. On Thursday, November 27, 1980, the FOCA issued an incredible statement, announcing that it would not compete in 1981 with the World Federation of Motor Sport because the contracts with the Grand Prix organizers would be invalidated, having been signed with the FOCA and not the newly outlawed federation. Apart from the audacity with which this new move was announced (the WFMS was invented by Ecclestone), one could think of it as a formal acknowledgment by the FOCA that it had lost the battle. But no, on Friday, November 28, 1980, Bernie Ecclestone explained that it was only a fallback recommended by lawyers.


"If you read the contracts we have signed, for example, with the organizers of the French Grand Prix, you will see that one of the clauses to participate in the specific race is that the cars must comply with the regulations in force at the time of signing".


What does this mean? It's simple. On the day the FOCA and the French organizers signed the document, the cars were running with the infamous miniskirts. Therefore, at this point, the FOCA will register its cars in the legal World Championship of the FISA and then, through its lawyers, request that the terms of the contract be respected. Ecclestone (or rather the heads of the various English teams that are part of the FOCA) is trying to trade peace by retaining the miniskirts, as he had requested in Paris before the total breakdown. The possibility of reaching a compromise again (abolishing the miniskirts only from the first European race, the Belgian Grand Prix) is also supported by Frank Williams, one of the tough figures in the FOCA.


"I am convinced that a solution will be reached. A single Formula 1 World Championship can be achieved".


Therefore, it is reasonable to expect the registration of FOCA teams in the FISA World Championship in these days. The first signs, after all, were when the Roman driver Elio De Angelis declared on Wednesday that he intends to participate only in the legal championship. De Angelis himself had so far supported the FOCA's position and had spoken only echoing Colin Chapman. 


The fact that De Angelis made these commitment statements means that Colin Chapman is ready to enroll in the FIA World Championship, managed by the FISA. Even though the war between FOCA and FISA is still raging, and uncertainty looms over the next World Championship, Formula 1 does not stop. The teams must try and try again, preparing the cars for 1981, which will certainly be different from those of 1980. On Tuesday, December 2, 1980, officially for some Goodyear tire tests, but also and above all for meticulous aerodynamic and mechanical experiments, three of the most important teams, Williams with Carlos Reutemann, Alfa Romeo with Mario Andretti, and Brabham with Nelson Piquet and Hector Rebaque, take to the track at Paul Ricard. From Wednesday until the end of the week, Tyrrell, McLaren, and Osella are expected. Williams provides the biggest surprise, the newly crowned World Champion, considered one of the most uncompromising teams in the FOCA coalition, is fighting for the retention of miniskirts on Formula 1 cars. Despite supporting one of the toughest stances, Frank Williams, represented here by his chief engineer Patrick Head, tests a car with fixed side appendages. Not a real car without miniskirts, but certainly a preview of what the Williams could be without the movable side partitions if the English constructor were to join the FIA World Championship. What does this move mean? That Williams is fighting with the FOCA alongside Ecclestone, but, being the savvy organizer that it is, is ready for any eventuality. 


The commitment is significant. It is enough to say that one of the two reserve cars driven by Reutemann (a true traveling laboratory) is equipped with highly sophisticated equipment. One of these, using a radar-type wave focused on a tire, allows knowing the exact temperature of the rubber at any moment. The Brabham, which mounts a four-cylinder BMW turbo engine on one of Piquet's cars, also uses similar means. On the nose of the car, on the inner part, special sensors are installed that transmit hundreds of data via radio to a computer located in a top-secret van. Only Alfa Romeo does not present any news for the moment, but the Milanese manufacturer will probably have something to show on Wednesday because the new car built at Autodelta is expected to take to the track with Bruno Giacomelli (who arrived in France on Tuesday evening). Waiting to see it in action, Andretti drives for a long time with a modified 179, from which the miniskirts have been removed. All the teams present have the opportunity to test the new smaller-sized tires that Goodyear, in compliance with the FISA regulations for 1981, has already prepared. These are significantly smaller tires (26 inches in diameter compared to the previous 28) that almost resemble those used in Formula 2 and make the cars look smaller and more compact. On Wednesday, December 3, 1980, the sun and the blue sky of the French Riviera do not mitigate the cold: the icy air coming from the mountains where it has snowed, behind the Le Castellet circuit, takes your breath away as Formula 1 testing continues. Mario Andretti, bundled up in a red windbreaker and covered with a long scarf, looks like an old lady.


"My feet are blocks of ice: I have never missed the warmth of Arizona, which I left last week, so much. But, despite everything, I do not regret making this choice. Working with Alfa Romeo, seeking new goals, stimulates me, makes me feel young".


There is a bit of discontent at Alfa Romeo. The fact of having to start over with the abolition of miniskirts and the adoption of smaller tires, when the car had become more than competitive, discourages the mechanics, although the technicians are confident. Mario Andretti confirms:


"It's true: now everything will have to be redone. Every detail changes. Before, with movable side partitions, you drove on rails. Now the sensitivity of the driver becomes important again. Anyway, I don't feel discouraged because Alfa Romeo has an excellent chassis and an exceptional engine. There will be a lot of work, but we must not despair".


What do you think Alfa Romeo's position will be in the next World Championship?


"It is difficult to answer this question at a time like this when nothing is certain. If I weren't optimistic, however, I wouldn't have accepted to race for the Italian team. It was right to abolish the miniskirts because they were dangerous, and it is not true that this way the technical development of the cars has been stopped. Mechanics will become more important, there will be developments in other directions. Competitiveness is always alive in Formula 1; in fact, engineers will have to study other solutions, and I am convinced that there will be surprises for everyone".


Andretti's opinion is fully shared by Bruno Giacomelli, who remains undaunted even as difficulties increase, and his dream of aiming for the world title next year appears more blurred and distant in this situation.


"If we had continued as in the past season, we wouldn't have had many problems. We had worked hard and extensively to reach the top with significant sacrifices. Now we find ourselves in the position to start over. But that doesn't mean we're abandoning the field. Personally, I race in Formula 1 because I intend to win the world title sooner or later. With this goal in mind, nothing can stop me. The only thing I hope for is that the uncertainties end as soon as possible, that playing with our fate at a political level stops. The struggle between FOCA and FISA is absurd".


What do you think of the turbo engine?


"Well, I like it. Our naturally aspirated 12-cylinder engine is the best one could wish for. On the straight, however, in the last races, the Renault Turbo was pulling away inexorably. This means it can have much more power than traditional engines. I hope, therefore, that soon Alfa can also put its turbo on the track. And let's hope it's more reliable than the others because the only real problem with these engines is durability. When we have it available, we'll adapt to driving it; it's not a problem".


The situation in Formula 1, already chaotic and uncertain due to the struggle between sports authorities and the association of constructors, becomes even more precarious since Thursday, December 4, 1980. The announcement that Goodyear has decided to abruptly leave the world of Grand Prix racing does not come as a surprise, as the American tire giant had already hinted that if FISA and FOCA did not reach an agreement soon, it would stop supplying its tires to teams participating in the World Championship. However, it was thought that the threat was only a decisive attempt to finally bring peace to such a conflicted environment. Instead, Goodyear has gone from words directly to action, and now the majority of Formula 1 teams are without tires. What could happen? There are multiple possible solutions. The first (and also the most desirable) is a reconsideration by the American company if FISA and FOCA find an agreement immediately. On Thursday, in London, Frank Williams says:


"We will go to Akron immediately to ask, even on our knees, that they stay in the races. Otherwise, it will be a disaster for everyone, the end of Formula 1".


Bernie Ecclestone, who will certainly be part of the delegation to the Goodyear headquarters, shares the same opinion. Knowing the seriousness of the American company, however, it is likely that the answer will be negative, even though it seems strange that Goodyear announced its withdrawal just when many teams at Le Castellet are testing new-sized tires built specifically according to FISA regulations for 1981. Another possible hypothesis is that Michelin (which, for the moment, does not release any official statements) takes on the onerous task of supplying tires to all Formula 1 teams. Working in a near-monopoly (not forgetting Pirelli) could be enticing for the French company, although there is a problem for such extensive production.


If neither of these two solutions is adopted, one can only think, though it seems absurd, of the impossibility of holding the World Championship and perhaps even all the other championships of the minor formulas. Among so many disconcerting political news, at least one sports-related announcement was made on Thursday. Renault officially announces that, for 1981, alongside René Arnoux, they have signed the twenty-four-year-old Frenchman Alain Prost, who is leaving McLaren. The French team has thus significantly strengthened, and the fact that the signing has been announced these days means that there is optimism that all problems will be overcome soon. Ferrari did not participate in the tests in France, but they are present the following week, from Wednesday, December 10, to Friday, December 12, 1980, when Gilles Villeneuve looks at the Paul Ricard circuit from the end of the pit straight. A Ferrari appears from the corner. The car is immediately recognizable for its vibrant red color and the turbo engine's sound, which, while maintaining the characteristic whistling of supercharged engines, still has something of the full roar of the old and glorious twelve-cylinder boxer.


"This Pironi goes fast: it will be a nice battle to stay ahead of him next year".


The Canadian does not get into the car. Ferrari's tests end shortly after noon. They began on Wednesday morning. The technical director, Engineer Forghieri, leaves after a few minutes:


"I have to get to Clermont Ferrand for a visit to Michelin. So, I'm in a hurry. I can briefly summarize these test days. The car and the engine are progressing. There are still many things to do, several tasks pending, but I believe we are on the right track. Ask the drivers, anyway. It seems to me that they are quite satisfied".


Gilles Villeneuve responds:


"Of course, there has been progress. The turbo engine's response is slightly quicker; the overheating problems are now less severe, almost resolved. Obviously, with this temperature, everything is easier. It will be necessary to check the car in a race, and probably we will have to wait for the first race, in Argentina, to have a definitive answer. But I am convinced that we will start fairly well compared to our competitors".


Villeneuve speaks from the time of 1'05"7 set on Thursday, as this is the new unofficial record for the small Paul Ricard track for cars without miniskirts. The record was set last week by Reutemann with the Williams, which had lapped with miniskirts in 1'03"1. Considering that there is a very close four-second gap between cars with movable side appendages and those without, on average, it can be seen that Ferrari is clearly ahead of everyone. Renault, for instance, with Arnoux, had recorded a time of 1'06"5.


"But you shouldn't get many illusions because I set the record using very soft, qualifying tires. Many other cars will approach it and maybe beat it shortly. Everyone is marching fast".


Who is Villeneuve talking about? The cars belonging to FISA-affiliated teams or those belonging to FOCA? Even though many English teams have not yet adhered to the legal World Championship, they are testing single-seaters without miniskirts (and with Michelin radial tires) these days. Williams did it, now Tyrrell and Lotus are doing it at Le Castellet with Eddie Cheever and Elio De Angelis. According to the Italo-American driver's opinion, Tyrrell even goes faster without miniskirts. Gilles Villeneuve continues:


"I don't want to hear about FOCA and FISA, political wars: these are matters that disturb me, that make me lose concentration. I only hope that everything gets sorted out, that a regular World Championship can be held. And I want to be in top form because I intend to win a world title".


But aren't you afraid? All the accidents you've had, including the last frightening crash in Imola, haven't taken away Gilles' desire to take risks?


"Not at all. I don't remember. If I hadn't forgotten everything, it would be a big problem. I know very well that sooner or later, I might even get hurt, maybe break my legs. In Imola, at the moment I flew off, I was convinced I wouldn't come out unscathed. Instead, it went well. I have participated in forty-five Grands Prix and have had several accidents. Making an honest proportion, assuming I reach a hundred races, I might be involved in about ten off-road excursions or different kinds of trouble. Sooner or later, something might happen. It's part of the game, of this profession I chose voluntarily. The only thing I hope for is not to end up like Clay Regazzoni. I couldn't race anymore".


Gilles Villeneuve's philosophy is quite chilling, but if he wants to win the world title at all costs, if he wants to win races, why did he sign with Ferrari, which many consider, now that it is embarking on the turbo adventure, a team with temporarily uncertain future?


"I had an option with Ferrari, and the team offered me the maximum contract. I couldn't refuse. In any case, I would have signed anyway: it's the best team".


Didier Pironi arrives, having finished the tests. He didn't go fast (1'09"16) because he only had to check some details.


"How do I get along with Villeneuve? For now, very well. Yesterday we even exchanged cars. A democratic way of doing things. Then, we'll see in the race. For now, we keep each other company even in Monte Carlo, where we both live. And we don't even go around hitting motorists like someone else did…".


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