Wednesday 26 May 1982 Joanna, the wife of the late Gilles Villeneuve, goes to Maranello, at Ferrari, where she receives an emotional welcome especially in the racing department, when she meets the mechanics who had worked with the Canadian driver. The presence of Joanna Villeneuve, who has lunch with engineer Enzo Ferrari, is also due to bureaucratic and legal issues for the definition of contracts. On the Fiorano track, meanwhile, the tests for the double American trip of the next races begin; on Thursday 27th May 1982 Pironi tests the two Ferraris to be sent to North America and also the modified 126 C2. In the meantime, the Modenese team is also completing an information tour to know the availability of the various drivers.
Among others, the Dutchman Jan Lammers and the Englishman Derek Warwick would be contacted, but the most probable names for Villeneuve's replacement starting from the European races seem to be the Swiss Marc Surer and the French Patrick Tambay. Two days later, on Friday May 28, 1982, the investigation of the inquiry commission constituted by the International Federation of Automobile Sport (Fisa) is made public after the accident of which the Canadian Ferrari driver was a victim on May 8 in the Zolder circuit, during the official tests for the Belgian Grand Prix. Driving error on the part of Gilles Villeneuve. The conclusions of the commission are made known in a statement that among other things specifies:
"What caused the accident was a driving error by Villeneuve. Jochen Mass has been completely exonerated from any responsibility".
The commission of inquiry - according to Fisa - has not found any fault in the safety systems of Villeneuve's car and has recommended immediate measures to reduce the risks caused by the use of special tires during the tests and to improve the general safety standards.
"It is unfair to place all the responsibility for the accident on Villeneuve. In my opinion there is not enough evidence for such a judgment: as far as we could see and understand, there was a misunderstanding between the Canadian driver and Mass. In short, a fatality for which it is very imprudent to express such heavy judgments. Of course it is easy to pass judgements when someone cannot defend himself. I went through some very difficult moments for this very reason and I understand very well the whole issue".
Riccardo Patrese comments, hot on the news of the conclusion of the inquiry of the Fisa technical commission, in Paris, on the tragic accident in Zolder. the driver from Padova is among the most qualified to express an opinion on this sad affair, having been accused, and acquitted with full formula, after the fatal accident of Ronnie Peterson in Monza, of being the main responsible for the accident on the Italian track.
"I would not have behaved like Gilles. On these occasions it depends a lot on the temperament of the driver. Villeneuve was a generous man, a man who never wanted to be second to anyone. And probably his temperament led him not to evaluate the overtaking exactly. In his place, I would have braked and tried to block, without thinking that that was the last useful lap to make a qualifying time with the special tires. But this is a subjective thought, and if we were to question ten drivers we would probably have ten different answers. It is true that the fastest line was on the left and that Mass, by moving to the right, tried to facilitate the overtaking maneuver. So I approve the fact that the German driver was not blamed for anything. At the same time, however, to put all the responsibility on Villeneuve seems to me at least a bit exaggerated. It was a fatality. If we were to repeat the same mechanics many times, it would probably always end up in a different way. These are things that unfortunately happen in motor racing".
To those who point out to Riccardo Patrese that the commission of inquiry has also launched an appeal for safety, the Paduan driver answers with extreme honesty:
"This is another matter that goes beyond the Villeneuve accident. The problem of safety must be dealt with at the table and not under the pressure of a tragic event. I have heard that, in all likelihood, an agreement has been reached between Ecclestone and the other constructors to raise the weight of the cars to 550 kg. I don't want to comment on this, but I just want to say that I don't care. We just have to try to make safer cars, that do not have too high a speed in corners and that do not force the drivers to drive in an unnatural way, as it happens now".
In the meantime the Ferrari tests continue and on Monday 31 May 1982 it tests a car with new technical solutions: it is a 126 C2, equipped with a new longitudinal gearbox that modifies the weight distribution and the rear aerodynamics of the car. Didier Pironi completes the test, covering only about fifteen laps, the best of which is 1'08"12. At about 6:40 p.m. a fire stops the car. On Sunday June 6, 1982, the seventh round of the Formula 1 World Championship is held at the Detroit street circuit in the USA. The Ferrari will be in the race, as well as in the following race in Montreal the week after, with only one car entrusted to Pironi, but from the next Dutch Grand Prix, scheduled for June 26, the French Patrick Tambay will drive the second Ferrari in the remaining tests of the Formula 1 World Championship. The official news is given on June 1, 1982 by Ferrari, in a communiqué thanking Count Van der Straten, whose sporting sensibility allowed Tambay to interrupt the Can-Am season with the Vds team. Tambay arrived in Maranello in the morning to meet with the Ferrari managers. A few days later, Niki Lauda will confirm to have had contacts with Ferrari to return to the Maranello team. The Austrian champion will say:
"Yes, it is true, I was approached by Ferrari in Monte Carlo and we talked about this possible return, but I have not yet decided anything, we will have to wait until September".
If this passage will be realized, Ferrari has already prepared the team for 1983 with the confirmation of Didier Pironi and the clamorous engagement of the two times Austrian World Champion, after this last one had divorced in a rather abrupt way after the last title. In the meantime, in the United States, and exactly in the world capital of the automobile where Ford, General Motors and all the most important American car brands operate, Formula 1 also arrives. But the street circuit prepared with great means among the skyscrapers that line the Detroit River finds many objections. The safety measures put in place are not considered sufficient by the majority of the drivers who on Sunday will have to compete in the US Grand Prix, the seventh round of the World Championship:
"The escape routes are insufficient. A concrete wall and some old tires ten meters from the possible exit route are real traps. If changes are not made, I won't get in the car. We would need nets like those used on aircraft carriers to stop airplanes".
Michele Alboreto argues.
"The curve at the end of Jefferson Drive is very dangerous".
Niki Lauda echoes him. And then there's a tunnel, streetcar tracks that cross the track, manholes, jumps, undulations, the road surface that is sometimes concrete and sometimes asphalt, joined by strips two or three centimeters higher. In short, everything that shouldn't be there, at least for ground effect machines. The drivers will meet to decide a common attitude. Moreover, on Wednesday, June 2, 1982, it is not even known if free practice will be carried out, as the track has not been finished. There is still controversy, therefore, in addition to the controversy that will certainly be aroused by an attempt to reach an agreement the week before between Enzo Ferrari and Ecclestone on the regulations, which is only known later. Preventing any action by the internal Federation, and changing course with an inexplicable reversal, the two parties prepared a plan that aimed to end the quarrels but did not seem to take into account the problems of safety, so much so that there was no mention of the possible suppression of miniskirts, which would remain in force.
After having placed so many vetoes with its sport director Marco Piccinini, for the reduction of weights, Ferrari would have accepted to find a common ground to save the turbo engine: the only one to maintain its position, for the moment, seems to be Renault. More generally, in order to block the dangerous initiatives of the Fisa president Jean-Marie Balestre, the constructors try to find a technical agreement valid until 1985, since in that year the current regulations, blocked by the Pact of Concord, will expire. Faced with the unanimity of the parties, Balestre will not be able to intervene until the expiration of the contract. Just for this reason, on Sunday June 6, 1982 in Detroit there will be another meeting of the people in charge of the various racing teams, in which the Formula 1 technicians will show themselves oriented to lower the weight of the cars from 585 to 565 kg starting from July 1, and then reduce it from January 1, 1983 to 535 kg. Should be confirmed also the reduction of the maximum capacity of the fuel tank, 225 liters, in order to inflict a modest handicap to the turbo engines, which consume more.
This agreement between Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Osella and Ats on one side and the Foca manufacturers on the other, could offer a real compromise to rebalance the values in the field, and make competitive almost all the cars. Obviously, among the clauses there are weight controls also during the tests. However, there is still no mention of safety issues and, in particular, the abolition of miniskirts and ground effect to reduce cornering speed, which is considered one of the main causes of the most dangerous accidents. It appears, however, that Ferrari has raised the issue in recent communications to Fisa and other manufacturers. In the meantime, in Detroit, after the controversy raised by the drivers, the Americans are reduced to working around the clock in the last days before the Grand Prix, and the tests are inevitably delayed. On Thursday, for example, the training sessions were cancelled because the organizers, in order to finish the safety work on the track, proposed to postpone the start at 4:30 p.m., but the time was considered too late by the teams.
The responsibility lies with the International Federation, which granted the clearance for the race without the necessary checks. Nonetheless, the race seems to be raising a lot of interest for the Americans. On Friday morning, although it was not known when the cars would take to the track, the grandstands are almost full and no one pays too much attention to the representation of the thirty-nine laid-off Renaissance Center employees (the huge complex that promotes the event) who demonstrate in front of the entrance to the Westin Hotel, the organization's headquarters. But the race is a real bargain: $800,000 to build the track, $2.8 million in total overhead and an expected revenue of four million.
"Formula 1 is still a lucrative endeavor for everyone. But that doesn't mean you have to accept certain risks, especially from us. If we didn't object, these days, they would have made us run into a real trap. As it is conceived, the circuit is outlawed, completely. We should pack up and leave, but how? Then all the blame would be ours. So let's try to limit the damage, suggesting temporary modifications. However, the discourse must be continued in general on the whole problem of safety".
Explains Didier Pironi, president of the drivers' association, who then responds to the question about a possible agreement of the manufacturers for the weight and the regulations until 1985:
"These proposals must still be, approved by the Formula 1 committee and they only tend to rebalance the situation, i.e. to put an end to the controversy. It would already be a step forward, but it is not enough. We met on Friday, we of the drivers' board, myself, Laffite, Prost, Lauda, Mansell and Alboreto, in the presence of Balestre, just to discuss. We renewed our requests, which concern in particular the abolition of miniskirts".
Is the problem of safety felt by the team managers?
"I don't know if all manufacturers have the same scruples. At Ferrari, everything possible has always been done to build strong cars. Sometimes we have given up certain advantages in order to be safe. But sometimes not even the careful choice and testing of materials, the most technically valid creations can avoid damage. When you compete on certain tracks, when you are forced, in order to be competitive and not to be taken by the nose, to follow dangerous roads, you also have to deal with the unpredictable. Unfortunately".
Starting from the Dutch Grand Prix, on July 3rd, Didier will have a new team mate, is he satisfied with Ferrari's choice?
"It was myself who encouraged the signing of Patrick Tambay. He is a very good driver, even if for a long time he has not had the chance to demonstrate his value. With the Maranello cars, which are always the same for the two drivers, he will be able to play his cards right. For me it will be an advantage in the set-up of the cars, with the work divided in two. I believe that Ferrari is now very competitive. I am optimistic. The new front suspension and the longitudinal gearbox should give us very good results. Our weak point was the road holding and the deterioration of the tires. With the new systems we should have solved this important problem".
If on the one hand the drivers' board seems very united, now that he has won his first Grand Prix, Riccardo Patrese is even more alone. Success provokes envy and the Paduan, with his introverted character, has never done anything to be liked. It is an effort that probably costs him too much nervous energy and many drivers do not forgive him this apparent haughtiness. With De Cesaris, after the quarrel of Monte-Carlo, he doesn't speak anymore; with Piquet he has team relationships but not true friendship. Perhaps in order to emerge, to be at the top of the class, this is necessary, or at least a certain toughness is necessary to give one's best. But, in reality, to Patrese having finally achieved success in Formula 1 has done him good:
"Monte Carlo is part of the past. The only thing that has changed is that now I know I can win. I have broken a spell. From this moment on, I take to the track without fear, aware of my possibilities, since I have a competitive car, the Brabham. Unfortunately, in this sport it is not only important to be good, to be prepared, but above all you need a good car, and my greatest merit up to now was to be appreciated as a driver even when I had a very poor car. This was my first real affirmation".
Riccardo has lived a lot of time in Formula 1 with anger, with the unsatisfied desire to win a race: now that he has reached the objective, doesn't he fear to have been unloaded?
"On the contrary. I am at peace, but more concentrated. Monte Carlo has made me realize that one can always hope, just as many times I have been desperate. But I'm not just going to accept what's coming, I'm going to go after it".
As a driver does he compare himself to anyone?
"Honestly, no. I can say that I don't feel like I look like poor Villeneuve. Last Saturday's accident at the Nurburgring gave me another demonstration of how you should never be dominated by the car. These are dangerous contraptions and the best way to survive is to never go over the limit. On that descent of the German circuit I made a mistake: not a driving error, but an error of judgement. I wanted to set a record and I didn't control myself. It's easier, in a certain sense, to exceed the car's possibilities and your own, than to not reach an optimal level. And it pays off. An accident like that can't be told twice".
Formula 1 and World Endurance Championship, isn't that too much of a risk?
"I am a Formula 1 driver in a priority way. Then I have a commitment with Lancia for endurance racing, because I am a professional. However, the latter is subordinate to the former. In any case I don't think about the world titles, at least for the moment. Theoretically I can win both, but everything will be decided only at the end of the season".
Could the Detroit street circuit make Riccardo Patrese make progress?
"I hope so, but it won't be easy, even if the Brabham will allow me to fight in the first positions. There are six or seven cars and as many drivers vying for victory. Renault, Niki Lauda with McLaren, Alfa Romeo, Williams and even Ferrari. In short, we are just at the beginning. It seems to me that, despite everything, it will be a good championship, exciting".
A prediction for Sunday?
"I refuse to make any. Let's just say that I expect to be on the podium twice here and in Montreal. The maximum would be to get points, but I'd settle for less. That doesn't mean that I'm starting out with the idea of aiming for a comfortable placing. You always take to the track with the idea of crossing the finish line first. But everyone does that, even me when I could barely qualify".
Insensitive to any reasonable concern, Formula 1 continues its march and on Sunday, June 6, 1982, the seventh round of the World Championship will be held on the streets of the automobile capital, among skyscrapers, nets, guardrails, sidewalks, concrete walls and a few piles of old tires. However, a few old tires piled up in the most dangerous parts of the circuit will be enough to decrease the criticism and above all to avoid any danger for the running of the Grand Prix. In light of this, Didier Pironi will say:
"Almost all the modifications we asked for have been carried out. I personally would prefer the Nurburgring. Such a race does not have much technical content and the role of luck will also be very important".
But for Niki Lauda the biggest problem remains the jumps encountered along the track:
"You often have to change your trajectory in order not to stress the car too much on certain undulations of the terrain. I am not thrilled with the track, but it cannot be very dangerous because you go slowly. However, it is worse than the one in Long Beach".
It is even positively surprised Elio De Angelis, who hastens to say:
"It's better than I thought. There are difficult corners and you have to try to avoid the tricky jumps. However, I think we can have a good race".
A more in-depth analysis is instead that of the Alfa Romeo drivers, who are less diplomatic but more sincere. Andrea De Cesaris is rather harsh:
"I don't like it. I find the track absolutely unsafe. It lacks escape routes and, in general, space in the corners. The track also says very little on a technical level. It feels like riding in a city queue between traffic lights. Continuous acceleration followed by violent braking. There is also the risk of collisions. There isn't a fast curve that takes the driver and the car to the limit. You just have to be careful not to give the car too much confidence to avoid ending up against a wall".
And Bruno Giacomelli is of the same opinion:
"There is a lot of improvisation and such a circuit is antithetical to current technical trends. We make cars that are faster and faster on the curves, and then we go racing in the alleys of a city. To hold this kind of race it would be necessary to go back to the cars of twenty years ago and then, perhaps, we would all have fun".
Riccardo Patrese also seems to be rather worried, as he does not believe that not reaching high speeds is a safety factor.
"In the event of a driver error, there shouldn't be any particular problems because the car would be under control anyway. The worst risk is that of a mechanical failure, which would magnify any slightest accident".
From a strictly technical and sporting point of view, the day could reserve one of those Grand Prix fought from the beginning to the end, or at least with a surprise conclusion. It could be the race of Alfa Romeo, of its first victory: the Milanese company, showing its recent progress, has again its drivers in the first rows. On the contrary, the relationships of the last few years seem to change with a small decrease of Williams and Brabham. In the midst of so many pretenders, Ferrari also fits in well. Didier Pironi seems to have acquired a new confidence and determination that he had not been able to express next to poor Villeneuve, at least until the Imola episode. The Maranello car, given by now for granted the reliability of the powerful turbocharged engine, is now subjected to a careful series of modifications and improvements ranging from new front suspensions to a more effective aerodynamics, and it would not be a big surprise if the French driver would again bring home precious points for his personal conquest of the world title.
The same effectiveness of Ferrari, with a higher top speed, is also achieved by Renault. It was argued, at the beginning, that the supercharged engines were not suitable for slow and winding paths like the city ones, but this is now a fairy tale to forget. The advent of electronics, for the regulation of the intake and the consequent increase of the response speed of the engine allow to fully exploit the higher power. For these reasons Alain Prost and René Arnoux can also be considered among the major favorites for the victory. And it is in fact the small but untameable Prost, still sore on the right foot due to the terrible accident in Monte-Carlo, to take the pole position in the first round of qualifying that takes place Saturday morning, instead of Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
In the hour of timed times, interrupted for ten minutes due to an accident between Watson and Serra (both drivers were unharmed, but their cars were damaged; it was worse for Jan Lammers, who during Friday's free practice, with the Theodore, hit the wall, injuring his wrist and not being able to take part in Saturday's qualifying), the exciting Italian domination of Friday was not repeated. De Cesaris goes down to the second place, while Giacomelli is sixth, De Angelis is eighth, Patrese fourteenth, Albereto two places further back, Paletti and Baldi respectively twenty-third and twenty-fourth. Lauda, tenth, does not seem too much at ease, as well as Laffite who is in front of Eddie Cheever.
Third and fourth are Rosberg and Pironi, while Arnoux is quite late, being fifteenth at the end of the qualifying. Toleman is not present because it has decided not to face the North American trip to improve the TG181B, while Ensign, present with Roberto Guerrero, starts to use Pirelli tires instead of Avon. However, Nelson Piquet is in the most serious crisis of all: with the last time he should have postponed the possibility of qualifying for the second round with his Brabham powered by the new Bmw turbo. But bad weather is unleashed on Detroit during the second practice session scheduled from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., and the rain prevents the drivers from improving. So the World Champion remains incredibly out of the race. Nelson Piquet, reluctantly, will have to observe a day of rest. Leaning against the pit wall, the Brazilian will watch the race without giving the impression of enjoying himself too much, after explaining the reasons for the exclusion:
"I was left stranded due to engine failure after a few laps of practice, on the other side of the circuit. It took me a long time to get back to the pit and when I started the mule engine I immediately realized there were other problems. I thought I would qualify with the car powered by the Cosworth engine in the afternoon session. Unfortunately, it started raining and I couldn't even attempt to get a valid time".
Isn't it humiliating for a World Champion to be left out of a race?
"Why? It's not my fault. We chose to go with Bmw on the turbo engine path and now we are in the experimental phase. It's logical that there are drawbacks".
But does it have to be Nelson Piquet who does all the testing?
"I started it and it is normal that I continue. On the other hand, if Patrese had been forced to take my place, all hell would have broken loose, at least in Italy. It doesn't matter to me: I've already won a title and since I'll be racing until I'm forty, I have all the time I want to try to win it back".
Would Nelson have liked to take to the track in Detroit to try to at least achieve a partial success?
"If I'm being really honest, I'm always disappointed not to be in a race. This is the first time in my career, since I started racing, that I've had something like this happen. This race, however, did not attract me much, the reasons we all know. It is certainly not the circuit of Le Castellet or Imola, a dangerous track and not even too much fun".
Since he is now out of the race, what is Piquet's prediction for the world championship?
"I still put my money on Prost. He's a guy who travels fast and has brains. He never commits any improprieties and he's a humble, nice guy".
"Riccardo doesn't need encouragement, he knows what he wants. Theoretically he has a chance to fight for the title and I don't think he'll let it slip away".
Someone claims that at the end of the season he might switch to Alfa Romeo. Is there any truth to that?
"I don't know anything about it. I feel good at Brabham and if something unforeseen doesn't happen I wouldn't have the intention to change, as a team it is certainly among the best and the most competitive".
Sunday, June 6, 1982, despite the difficulties, the race begins. Not for Paletti, who during the warm-up goes off the track with his Osella because of the loss of a wheel, while his teammate Jarier, during the reconnaissance lap, punctures a tire and is forced to go back to the box, before starting late. At the start the fastest is Prost, while De Cesaris is good at holding off Rosberg's attack. Since the first minutes it is impressive to see the single-seaters darting on the toboggan in the streets of Detroit. The cars graze the concrete walls and the guardrails, the drivers are forced to face some blind corners. The track is very narrow, and this immediately claims its first victims: during the first lap Alboreto touches Daly and both have to stop at the pit.
Then also Baldi and Boesel stop because of a collision, and Winkelhock, that in the tests had emerged with the Ats, after hitting a guard rail. At the second lap also ends the race of De Cesaris, as the young Roman driver is forced to retire because of the failure of a driveshaft on his Alfa Romeo, and of Jean-Pierre Jarier with the Osella. Therefore, behind Prost comes Rosberg. The Finnish driver is ahead of Pironi, Mansell, Giacomelli, Cheever, Arnoux, Lauda and Laffite, who are travelling at a distance of a few meters from each other. Rosberg tries to get closer to Prost, but the Frenchman resists well. At the seventh lap the East USA Grand Prix is stopped by the race director with a red flag, because at the end of the pit straight De Angelis, with his Lotus, tries to pass Guerrero's Ensign, but the South American closes the gap. The two cars touch, the Italian goes ahead, Guerrero turns around. Watson and Patrese arrive: the Northern Irishman brakes to the limit, but the Paduan, preferring to avoid the obstacle, ends up against the tires piled up in front of a concrete wall as further protection.
The cars partially obstruct the track. In addition, on the left side of Patrese's Brabham there is a fire and the marshals come into action with the fire extinguishers. White clouds obscure the scene, and the situation becomes frightening. The stop sign avoids dramatic consequences. The minutes pass slowly and the stop lasts more than an hour, while a second start of the Grand Prix is prepared, which will be divided into two heats, also considering the difficulty that the organizers find in moving the damaged cars. The drivers will line up on the grid according to the place in the standings they occupied at the time of the stop, and the classification will be drawn up by the sum of the times. At this stage, many teams would take advantage of the opportunity to refit already damaged cars.
"I made a cut".
Niki Lauda would tell, joking. Winkelhock, Patrese and Guerrero reposition themselves on the starting grid with their respective mules, but the race direction does not allow them to resume the race. At the new start Prost takes the lead followed by Rosberg, Pironi, Giacomelli, Cheever, Arnoux and Lauda. In a few laps the French Renault driver accumulates an advantage that puts him for the moment safe from Rosberg's offensives. Behind them Pironi, Giacomelli and Cheever engage in a fierce battle. Didier's Ferrari seems slower but overtaking on this track is impossible. After the restart Nigel Mansell quickly loses several positions, so as to collapse in eighth position. Who takes advantage of this is above all René Arnoux, who takes one position from Lauda, placing himself sixth behind Cheever. At the twelfth lap Arnoux slows down because of some problems to the electronic control unit of the injection of the turbo engine, and Lauda passes him. Few more laps and also the Renault of Prost enters in crisis.
The French driver starts losing ground to Rosberg, who ends up catching up with him. The plot twist is in the air: the Finnish driver tries a couple of times to overtake in impossible points, then he finds an opening on lap 23, but Prost remains first in the ranking for the addition of times. However, already at the twenty-fourth lap the advantage of the Finn rises up to cancel the advantage of Prost at the moment of the interruption of the race. Behind, Giacomelli is also in difficulty: the Italian driver skids at the Atwater corner, and Cheever doesn't miss the opportunity to overtake him; at the next corner also Lauda passes the Alfa Romeo driver from Brescia. In the meantime the difficulties continue for Prost, who in a few laps is overtaken by Didier Pironi, Eddie Cheever and Niki Lauda. The Frenchman, however, thanks to the advantage accumulated in the first part of the race, remains third, before being overtaken also by Giacomelli and Watson, who is beginning to emerge from the back, with thrilling overtakes. At the thirtieth passage the McLaren driver passes Giacomelli, who tries to pass him on the inside, but the Northern Irishman closes the trajectory and the two cars collide: on the Alfa Romeo a suspension breaks and Giacomelli ends up against the barriers.
"The Northern Irishman had made two mistakes in the previous corners and I thought he was in trouble".
Bruno Giacomelli explains.
But the Northern Irishman of the McLaren is anything but in trouble, and continues a comeback that leads him to overtake first Lauda, after dueling with him for three laps and passing each other twice, then Cheever and then Pironi, more and more in trouble. Also Lauda overtakes the Ferrari of the Frenchman. New twist of fate at the thirty-eighth lap: Rosberg loses ground and Watson overtakes him. Two laps later, at the 41st lap, Lauda makes a mistake in overtaking Rosberg, ending up at the wall: Cheever takes advantage of it and manages to overtake the Finnish driver. Behind Pironi is the author of a spin, in which he loses a position in favor of Laffite. At the 43rd lap Watson manages to gain a sufficient margin on Rosberg to be considered the first in the ranking.
At the forty-eighth lap a light contact between Laffite and Rosberg does not force the Frenchman to retire, on the contrary he is also able to pass the Williams driver. One lap later Pironi passes also Rosberg and, at the fifty-second lap, Laffite as well, since his Ligier is damaged. Laffite will be passed by both Williams, while Rosberg is also passed by Daly: the Finnish driver, sixth on the track, is fourth in the classification. At the 62nd lap the end of the Grand Prix is declared, for the two hours of race are reached, and John Watson, started in 17th position, then in 13th when the start is repeated because of the accident between Patrese and Guerrero, wins for the fourth time in the world championship, ahead of Eddie Cheever, Didier Pironi, the two Williams driven by Rosberg and Daly and Jacques Laffite.
Watson, thirty-six, considers himself simply a laidback man, a professional driver far removed from the stereotypical, public image of the Formula 1 star. He has won four races in a career spanning almost ten years with one hundred and twenty-eight Grands Prix behind him. When he was in the minor formulas he was aggressive, then he was almost always considered a wingman, an ideal teammate for those who had greater ambitions; his colleagues considered him an intellectual because he read many yellow books. When, at the beginning of the season, he knew that he had to share the McLaren with Niki Lauda, he did not worry about it:
"I go my own way".
And suddenly Watson became a candidate for the world title. He is the only one to have won two races on the track this year (apart from Prost, who was awarded one victory) and his advantage in the standings, six points over the second, which is Pironi, is quite substantial. But Watson isn't making plans:
"Not even a thought, because it's too early".
And to those who ask him what is the secret of this late success he replies:
"Experience. I am the oldest in Formula 1 after Laffite. I won because I took a calculated risk with the tires, choosing the hardest compounds, as I did in Zolder. Lauda wanted them softer and he was wrong".
Isn't it embarrassing for Watson to undermine the ambitious Austrian's leadership position on the team?
"It's more embarrassing for him and for McLaren. However, there is no rivalry between us and we would never do anything unfair to each other. Giving each other battle yes, but honestly".
Why did John wait so long to come out during the race?
"For twenty laps I studied the good spots to overtake. Then, when I saw that someone was starting to have problems, I attacked. Everything went well for me; at the start I wasn't optimistic".
What changes now for Watson?
"Nothing, I just have a few more doubts. I like to drive and I would never want to retire. But one day I may have to. And to make such a decision would take something special, a total fulfillment".
World title? Watson isn't budging. However, there is someone who is close to his heart, Barbro Peterson, the widow of the Swedish driver who disappeared, his long-time partner, who has set him conditions: she will marry him only when he stops racing. Eleven classified cars out of twenty-six matches, the race broken in two by an accident, an impressive series of eliminations. Luckily no driver was injured and so the first Grand Prix of Detroit is exalted as a great race, made more exciting by the surprise victory of the Northern Irishman John Watson, by the excellent second place of the young Eddie Cheever, by the third place of the Ferrari driven by Didier Pironi, after that at the end of the race the American driver is forgiven an irregularity on his car.
Cheever fears to be disqualified, after the technical control it is discovered that the rear wing is irregular by seven millimeters, but the commissioners turn a blind eye, and inflict to the French team a fine of 10.000 dollars for a refill of gasoline. Cheever's placing in Detroit certainly pleases Talbot and its sponsors, but it also opens the eyes of those in the team who hold the power, that is, his teammate Laffite, and the sporting director Jabouille, brothers-in-law and allies since the beginning. Asked what is the best thing about the team, Cheever answers candidly:
"Laffite and Jabouille. Their advice is very precious to me".
Before the race in the United States, Lauda, looking for confirmation for his tire choices, went to consult with Eddie. And Cheever, who had opted for the hardest compound of his Michelin tyres, replied that they were so-so, because they were a bit hard. Lauda, uncertain, opted for the softer tires and made a mistake. Cheever could have switched to Williams, if he had waited, last year in Las Vegas, to sign for Ligier. But he preferred the certain to the uncertain, because the British team had yet to complete its plans.
"I just hope to get some good results until the end of the season. Then we'll see. I'm enjoying driving, I'm gaining experience. Ligier has the potential to reach the top again. In 1981 Laffite won in Montreal. It was a race on a wet track, but our car on this track always proves to be good. So I hope to score points on Sunday as well".
One step at a time, therefore, waiting for developments. Four years earlier, Cheever, very young, also managed to obtain a contract with Ferrari to use the Formula 2 engines. The road is always open. It was supposed to be another race for the Italians, but Patrese was immediately eliminated, De Cesaris broke a driveshaft, Giacomelli paid in the duel with Watson, Baldi flew over three other cars because of a collision with Boesel, and De Angelis, after having messed up with Guerrero, broke the gearbox. The Osella, which had qualified both cars, practically did not compete: Paletti was the victim of an accident in the morning, during the warm-up, destroying the car, and was disqualified by the Turin manufacturer who saw him in shock, while Jarier, after puncturing during the reconnaissance lap, was immediately stopped for electrical problems. A real disaster. Balance sheet in credit only for Ferrari with the four world points conquered by Pironi. The turbocharged engine of Maranello is the only one not to have problems, and the result on a circuit that theoretically was unfavorable is considered excellent:
"We did our best, the new front suspension behaved perfectly. The car was a bit understeery but corner entry has improved. City tracks can be interesting and spectacular. However, we should take an example from Monte Carlo and Pau, where the organization is exceptional. We had to fight a lot for the safety protections and we risked not to run".
On the championship, Pironi declares:
"I am more and more optimistic because I got four placings out of six races run. Now it will be on faster circuits where the turbo engine should have more advantages. I could have aimed at the second place, but Laffite crashed into me and made me lose ten seconds".
The same Laffite and Giacomelli accuse the Ferrari driver of having hindered them irregularly in the first part of the race.
"I don't think I committed any improprieties. Otherwise five cars would not have overtaken me. It's clear that in the straights I was recovering".
But the risks were many, too many not to criticize the nonchalance with which Formula 1 is put on the public square.