#364 1982 Detroit Grand Prix

2021-04-18 00:00

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#1982, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Alessia Bossi,

#364 1982 Detroit Grand Prix

Wednesday 26 May 1982 Joanna, the wife of the late Gilles Villeneuve, goes to Maranello, at Ferrari, where she receives an emotional welcome especiall

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. The original plan is to have an unofficial test-session for the Formula 1 teams on Thursday, for acclimatisation and a general bedding-in of the circuit, so everyone arrives in good time, everyone that is except the Toleman-Hart team. Their transporter had trouble returning from Monaco and was late back at the factory which put them behind schedule so they withdraw their two entries for Warwick and Fabi.


When the final closing of the roads is achieved on Thursday morning and the installations are finally inspected by FISA officials there is a lot found wanting in the way of escape roads and barriers and by the time all the problems have been dealt with, the idea of a test-run for the Formula 1 cars has to be called off. It is a good thing that we can bend rules and regulations and manipulate procedures to suit ourselves, otherwise there might not have been a Grand Prix through the streets of Detroit. Do not ask how a Formula One race, counting for World Championship points, could be held on a circuit not previously used for racing. Do not ask how it could be run in an anti-clockwise direction. Do not ask how the organisers were able to close roads and disrupt the traffic flow in the city. Do not ask how we got away with two qualifying sessions on one day. Do not ask how we came to have three World Championship events in one country. Do not ask how we could have a round in the World Championship without the current World Champion taking part. Do not ask how we had a race for Renault 5 saloons through the streets of a city owned by Ford and General Motors. A bit wild and woolly at times and a bit chaotic, but you must expect that if you race through the streets of a city, and what a nice change from plastic autodrome racing and clinical facilities. There is nothing clinical about the Detroit circuit or the pits but in view of the temporary nature of the whole thing it is all adequate and a triumph for the Detroit Renaissance Grand Prix Inc. There is a big area of Detroit on the edge of the river facing Canada, just near the tunnel that joins the two countries, that has recently been totally rebuilt by local industry and its centre-piece is the 73-storey Renaissance Centre which is a pedestrian-oriented complex of offices, shops, restaurants, marketplaces and a gigantic hotel. The sort of thing artists draw and call a city of the future and at which we fall over laughing and stumble back to our old-fashioned towns. Everyone is entitled to laugh, but the Renaissance Centre is actually there, even if it does seem unreal.


The committee of townspeople who formed Detroit Renaissance Grand Prix Incorporated 1982” had the idea of running a motor race around the streets surrounding the Renaissance Centre and in true American fashion if you are going to be a bear, be a grizzly, they opted for a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix, and got it. To suggest that Mr. Henry Ford II has more influence in Detroit city than the Chairman of British Leyland does in Birmingham, might be unkind, but it is a fact. It needed a Government act to allow the city streets to be closed to the public for a start. The circuit is laid out around the city area on the edge of the Detroit River with the 5-tower Renaissance complex in the centre, providing all the administration, living and working facilities that anyone can desire. The starting area is on the road alongside the river and leads into a long sweeping left-hand hairpin made up of two corners in one and the route then runs back parallel to the start area, all this being laid out in a huge car park with the aid of concrete blocks. The return run is along Atwater Street tea 90-degree turn to the right up a side street, another 90-degree right into Woodbridge Street, up past a church to a very tight left-hand hairpin on a piece of dual carriageway, immediately followed by a right turn, then a left and a sweep across to another main street. A short straight leads to a left turn down another side street to the next crossroads where it turns right onto Lamed Street for a longish straight to another left and right to change onto the main Jefferson Boulevard dual carriageway which presents a short straight to a double-left over some tram-lines to dive down a narrow slot under a bridge and a short straight down to the riverfront. Here a tightening left hander takes the course into a tunnel, three lanes wide, on a right-hand curve and up a short straight to a very tight ess-bend on to the road along the edge of the river that leads back to the start area. Instead of a full-blooded blast past the pits, a tight second gear chicane slows the cars by the pit-lane entrance and they have to accelerate hard over the finishing line to start another lap with the double left-hand sweep.


Wild and woolly street racing with bumps, surface changes, tarmac, concrete, manhole covers, solid walls and a tunnel, what more can you want? Lots of people have been complaining about featureless autodromes and artificial circuits. There is not much that is artificial about the Detroit downtown street circuit. If anything it is a bit too real for some people. On Friday morning there are still some areas lacking sufficient safety precautions for the spectators and the drivers want more spherical elasticated attenuators (bundles of old car tyres) in some of the escape roads. All this take time so the regulation test-session from 10:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m. is scrubbed as is the qualifying hour from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. By the time everything is arranged to everyone’s satisfaction there is only time for an hour of testing from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. As no-one has driven round the circuit by this time it is a case of getting stuck inns quickly as possible. Spins, trips up escape roads, brushes with walls are the order of the day and there are some breakages. Jarier stops with the left-hand upper mar rocker-arm suspension member of his Osella torn from its bearings. Arnoux bounces his Renault off a wall and crumples the rear end, which stops practice while the wreck is removed. Meanwhile Prost is in trouble with the electrics on his Renault so he takes the spare car, which means Arnoux has to sit and watch. Monsieur Bernard Hanon, the number one man of the Regie Renault, is in the pits watching it all. Everything gets going again for another twenty minutes, only to stop again when Jan Lammers crashes his Theodore and brakes his right thumb. He is soon in the hospital centre being cared for while the wreckage is removed and we have another ten minutes of free-for-all and the day’s activity ends at 5:25 p.m. It is difficult to assess the overall mood for it varies from frustration to disbelief through disgust and depression but after the dust has settled most people accept the whole situation for what itis. Niki Lauda sums it up well when he says everyone should get stuck in and get on with the business for we are lucky to be allowed to race Formula 1 cars in a city in 1982. The plans for Saturday are altered to allow two separate one-hour sessions, both to count for grid-positions, with a four-hour break between them.


No more testing or practice, it is all going to count for real. Interspersed is to be activity for R5 Renault saloons, Formula Atlantic cars and old cars, all of which are due to have a race at some time or another. Now that the business is getting serious it is time to take stock of the men and the materials in the pit lane, and another delay of an hour to make more modifications to the circuit amenities and safety aspects gives plenty of time for this. Though the atmosphere above is grey and gloomy there are quite a few bright spots on the ground. The Brabham team has the same four cars they have used at Monaco, with two BMW-powered ones for Piquet and two Cosworth-powered ones for Patrese, with the latter using carbon-fibre brake discs and pads on both BT49D cars. The Williams team has their normal trio of FW08 cars, number 2 having been returned to the experimental department, and the T-car is trying out some French-made carbon-fibre brake discs and pads for the first time in public, though they have been used in private testing previously. McLaren International has juggled their cars around a bit, Watson now having MP4/5, Lauda MP4/4 with which he has won at Long Beach, and MP4/6 the newest car is now the team's spare. Ferrari has two cars for Pironi, still a lone entry, with 126C2/059 to normal specification and 126C2/056 with an entirely new front suspension on it. As with other designers, Mauro Forghieri has found that a strong rocker-arm suspension system is no longer necessary with the stiff springs and minimal movement in use today, so he has followed the Brabham, Tyrrell, Williams and Talbot route of light tubular wishbones and a transverse diagonal pull-rod to operate the inboard spring unit. Both the Talbot team and the Alfa Romeo team has taken a backwards step since Monaco, the French Gitanes team bringing two old JS17 cars for Lafilte and Cheever, with a single new JS19 car as the T-car, this being 01 which Cheever has driven at Monaco, while the Italian Marlboro team has three cars to normal Tipo 182 specification, with no sign of the narrow B-series car.


Theodore are looking more confident with a second TY02 car on their strength for Jan Lammers, running on Goodyear tyres, and Ensign has modified the rear end of their car to take Michelin tyres, which means new wheels made in a hurry for them by Dymag, and new rear uprights and suspension members to accommodate the different wheels and to keep the track the same, all of which is done in the few days between getting back from Monaco and leaving for Detroit. With no previous knowledge of the Detroit circuit everyone has come in a flexible state of mind, ready to alter and improvise as knowledge is gained, though with the shambles of Friday little is learnt and most drivers have to plunge into the first qualifying hour blindly, which makes a change. Quite early on Piquet has to abandon BT50/2 out on the circuit with engine trouble and BT50/3 is not performing properly so the reigning World Champion is at the bottom of the list. Spins and slides into escape areas are still the order of the day and meth and eyeballs are rattling badly over some of the bumps, not because of the bumps but because of the lack of suspension travel on the cars, due to designers’ obsession with ground effect. Even now there are people who fail to appreciate what Colin Chapman is open with his twin sprung structure Lotus 88. The Renaults with their Monaco type engines are going well, even with the tight twists and turns and Prost is setting the pace but in places he has to play with the accelerator pedal like a trials driver to get adhesion over the ripples. Detroit streets are melting because everyone works very hard. Watson follows Serra’s Fittipaldi for two laps, wondering how to get by and just as he decides to pass, the Brazilian driver assumes he’d give up trying and the two cars collide with the McLaren being left in the middle of the road rather the worse for wear. Practice is stopped while the bent car is retrieved and then we get going again to conclude the first hour with Prost at the head of the list and Piquet at the bottom. Rosberg has made third fastest time in Williams FW08/1 with the carbon-fibre brakes and as soon as he stops 1 ½ gallons of oil are poured into the oil tank and the water-ballast tank is filled to the brim, the time taken to do this suggesting it has been completely empty.


All this is in case the car has to be weighed, and when it isn’t a long-suffering mechanic has to remove the extra oil with a syringe and pump the water tank dry. In fifth place is Manfred Winkelhock with one of the ATS cars, a good effort sake has got stuck in while others are messing about, having accidents or mechanical trouble. With Piquet, Patrese, Lauda, Watson, Alboreto, Arnoux, Daly, Mansell, de Angelis, Giacomelli and Laffite not performing as they should, Winkelhock is eleven places higher than he should have been, so good luck to him. With the agreed four-hour break before the second qualifying hour it is going to be 3:20 p.m. before activity resumes and during the lull the rain arrives. It is just an intermittent drizzle at first, but it develops into a consistent drizzle and as far as the starting grid is concerned it is all over and Nelson Piquet and de Villota are the odd men out as the regulation number on the grid is twenty-six. Nowhere in the rules and regulations is there provision for the World Champion not qualifying for a race, so Piquet is destined to be a spectator, which is bad enough for him personally and a pain for the Brabham team, but total disaster for the BMW factory. Not surprisingly when the pit lane opens for the second qualifying hour there is no-one waiting to go out. Eventually one or two appear and splash round on threaded rain-tyres, but even Lauda, who recorded the best lap, is 18 seconds slower than he has been in the morning. Even at this reduced pace an accident causes practice to be stopped, as de Cesaris spins his Alfa Romeo in the tunnel and hits the wall. With the pits being open to the skies, like Silverstone club-racing in 1948, it is all rather depressing and pointless and the general feeling is that if it rains on Sunday everyone will stay in the hotel and watch proceedings from their bedroom windows. One thing about a great pedestrian complex like the town-within-a town Renaissance Centre is that you could wander about in it for days on end and never know it is raining. Even the open-air restaurant has a glass roof high overhead, almost out of sight.


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".


And Patrese?


"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, morning is perfect, with not a cloud in the sky and the sun is warm. The river is filling up with small “me too” type boats too low in the water and too far out to see much, and Dodge Motors hired a fine old triple-decker ferry-boat for an enormous party that you can hear in full swing from the shore, even though it is anchored out in mid-stream. The Detroit river is very wide, probably nearly ¾ mile, so there is room for all the boats anchored in the middle leaving a wide channel for fire boats and rescue launches alongside the circuit and another wide channel on the Canadian side for the passage of large cargo vessels going about their normal business. From 11:20 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. is the regular F1 warm-up period, after the old-car race in which Englishman Murray Smith in his Jean Behra F2 Porsche Special beat Joel Finn in a rear-engined Cooper-Climax. Prost seems more intent on making a film for Elf than doing any serious race-preparation, driving round with a large camera fixed to the roll-over bar of his Renault. Pironi is driving the modified Ferrari but there are no carbon-fibre brakes in the Williams or Brabham pits and Piquet is having to answer a barrage of inane questions from the media while the BMW people try not to be seen. For once the Osella team has got both of their cars into a race only for fate to decide otherwise. Jarier’s car comes to a stop out on the circuit with a broken fuel line which causes a minor fire and marshalls douse everything with extinguisher powder which puts the fire out but makes the car unserviceable, while Paletti has an accident on the last ess-bend, losing a wheel in the process. With only one spare car it is decided that Jarier should take it for the race and everyone warn the Osella team not to use the car covered in fire extinguisher powder, even though it is cleaned off, for some of it could have got into the throttle slides and solidified which would cause them to jam, which is what happened to David Purley at Silverstone a year or two ago.


By the time we got through the Renault 5 race and prepared for the start of the first Detroit Grand Prix a strong breeze arises and grey clouds cover the sky and all the boats bobs about on the river. Only 25 cars leave the pit lane on the warm-up lap round to the assembly grid, for Paletti is still awaiting for repairs to his car to be completed. Only 23 actually line up as Jarier hits a wall in the lone Osella, due to a tyre deflating, he claims, and Winkelhock has a steering arm break. He gets the ATS back into the pit lane and another one is fitted hastily and he rushes round again to take his place on the grid. Too late to join in, Paletti's car is finished, so the numbers are changed to 31 and Jarier takes it over and waits at the pit exit to join the race after everyone has gone by. He is now in his third Osella. The sun appears as the 24 cars prepare to set off on their parade-lap behind the Renault of Alain Prost and it is a very odd grid that has team managers and mechanics a bit confused. ATS has a car at each end, as does Renault, while Brabham only has one car and that in mid-field, and McLaren has five rows between their two cars though Lotus has theirs side by side. Guerrero in the Ensign is well up and Alboreto is much further back than usual. In orderly fashion they do their parade lap and with Jarier waiting in the pit lane the 24 starters return to their positions on the grid. The red lights come on, then the green and Prost shoots off into the lead hotly pursued by de Cesaris and Rosberg. Everyone makes the first corner with a little bumping and boring though nothing serious but when the tail-enders arrive at the tight hairpin Baldi’s Arrows A4 bounces off a number of cars and puts himself out of the race. His main victims are Boesel’s March which limps round to the pits to retire with damaged right rear suspension and Alboreto’s Tyrrell which has a bent steering tie-rod. This is replaced at the pits, losing the Italian two laps. Salazar’s ATS has also been struck and after the second lap he is into the pits to have a bent rear suspension rocker arm replaced.


Henton’s Tyrrell is also struck but does not stiffer any damage. Meanwhile Prost is pulling away in that dull, relentless manner that is becoming his hallmark while Rosberg, exuding fire, is trying to get past de Cesaris and on the third lap has no difficulty in doing so as the Alfa Romeo brakes a drive-shaft joint and the young Italian tours into the pit lane to retire. On the same lap Jarier retires at the pits, having joined the race after everyone has left the grid, the engine of the last remaining Osella being as flat as a pancake. Winkelhock has failed to complete the second lap due to his steering becoming deranged again and he ends up amongst a wall of tyres, so with the race on its fourth lap we have lost Baldi, Boesel, Winckelhock, Jarier and de Cesaris, while Alboreto and Salazar are in the pits undergoing repairs. Prost is simply running away from everyone, as is Rosberg and Pironi is leading the rest more or less in grid order. As Guerrero starts lap 7, in 11th place he is closely followed by de Angelis, Mass, Watson, Patrese and Surer and he gets the Ensign a bit sideways on the long double first corner in his endeavours to stay ahead and de Angelis nudges him with the Lotus which punts the blue and white car into the air, to land heavily on its right rear corner and bend the suspension. Mass and Watson dodge successfully but Patrese runs into the tyre wall and takes the right front suspension, hub and wheel off the monocoque. With two derelict cars more or Iess on the apex of the corner the race organisers panic and stop the race. As the leaders come into the final chicane they see the black flag and at the start line the red flag is being shown so most of them pull up on the starting grid while one or two go into the pits. Contrary to the rules a lot of the cars have work done on them while the corner is tidied up and it is over an hour before the race restart. The 18 cars that remain are lined up in the order at the end of six laps and the event becomes a two-part race. Prost finishes the first part in 11'40"582 so this time is subtracted from two hours and part two is to run for approximately 1 hr. 48'20"0 assuming he leads for the rest of the time.


If not the time-keepers have to work out the time left depending who is in the lead as the two hour total approaches, for according to the rules whoever is to win must not drive for more than two hours. The original idea of it being a 70 lap race had long gone by the board as the average speed estimate was a mile out before practice had begun. During the hour delay the media wet its knickers and radio and television time is fast running out, while local television fills in with a replay of the exciting finish to the recent Indianapolis 500 miles race. After another parade lap we are off again, as before with Prost running away from Rosberg and Pironi leading the rest. Mansell has been well placed in the first part in fourth place, but he muffs the second start and round the first lap is hit by Arnoux which puts him right off his stroke. In trying to make up for starting at the back Alboreto runs into the back of his team-mate’s Tyrrell and Henton’s car suffers a broken rear aerofoil mounting. As a race it all seems to be over for Prost is uncatchable, even by Rosberg and the Williams has outpaced all the others by the sixth lap in the second part. However there is some excitement for third place as Pironi (Ferrari) cannot shake off Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo) and Cheever (Talbot) and at the back Mass (March) is holding up Mansell (Lotus), de Angelis (Lotus), Watson (McLaren) and the two Tyrrells, Henton’s car having its wing wobbling from side to side. On lap 10 of the second part, Watson suddenly gets into a remarkable rhythm in his McLaren, which is performing perfectly, and in one lap he passes both Team Lotus cars, and on the next lap he is past the March of Jochen Mass. At the same time the leading Renault begins to slow dramatically as the fuel-injection system plays up and it falls back into Rosberg’s clutches. The tail-enders are still dropping by the wayside, de Angelis when his Lotus suffers clutch and gearbox trouble, Salazar when his ATS steering brakes and he hits a wall and Henton when he has to stop at the pits for a new rear aerofoil. Unfortunately there is not another identical one available and the only one they have completely upset the balance of the car so the Derby driver continues at a reduced pace, not really enjoying himself.


Watson really gets the wind in his sails and passes Arnoux’s Renault, and then Laffite’s Talbot and Daly’s Williams in quick succession, by which time Prost has lost the lead to Rosberg as the Renault lost power. We have covered seventeen laps into the second part of the race so a vigorous and healthy Rosberg leads the ailing Prost with Pironi, Giacomelli, Cheever and Lauda stuck up behind and the sun is out and all is well with the world. By 21 laps Watson is on the tail of Lauda’s McLaren but at the same time the slowing Prost has been caught by Pironi and his group. Lap 22 finishes with the Renault between Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo and Cheever’s Talbot but then the Alfa driver makes a nonsense and after Lauda and Watson have taken him he tries to retake them and hits a wall and meanwhile Prost is now behind them all and goes into the pits at the end of the twenty-fourth lap (thirtieth overall). Two laps later the scene looks settled with Kosberg out on his own followed by Pironi, Cheever, Lauda and Watson, with Laffite and Daly following and then Alboreto, Mansell, Arnoux, Mass and Surer with Surer and Henton a lap behind. But one lap later a remarkable thing happens. Watson overtakes Lauda, Cheever and Pironi all in one lap, not in a scuffle as seemed probable, but one at a time, each under braking for a different corner. Even Watson isn’t sure how it happened, he is just into a nice rhythm and does not want to spoil it, but exactly what the others are doing is hard to understand. Not only is John Watson now in second place but he is still going splendidly and is hauling in Rosberg. Clearly Watson’s McLaren is in superb condition and all the variables such as tyres, brakes, balance and adhesion are on his side, whereas those on the Williams are not so nicely co-ordinated. Relentlessly Watson bores down on Rosberg and sails by into the lead on the thirty-first lap (thirty-seventh overall) though the Williams driver still has a time advantage from the first part. Lap by lap Watson pulls away, thus reducing this time advantage and at the same time Rosberg is hampered by a reluctant third gear and is having to change from second gear to fourth gear.


Inspired by his team-mate’s performance Lauda pulls his finger out and flashes by Cheever and Pironi into third place and the young American driver responds by passing the Ferrari so the order is now Watson, Rosberg, Cheever, Pironi, Laffite, Daly, Alboreto, Mansell and Arnoux though the Frenchman is in similar trouble to Prost with his Renault losing power and is soon to go into the pits for help. In despair the Renault team changes all the fuel-injection and electronic gizmos that are changeable, on Prosts car, and with new tyres, he rejoins the race many laps in arrears but going perfectly. Arnoux’s trouble is a cooked sparking plug, which takes time to find. Rosberg’s front tyres are wearing thin and Lauda is catching him rapidly, the reluctant third gear not helping either and at the start of lap 35 (41) Lauda makes an uncharacteristic nonsense in trying to out brake Rosberg and comes off second best with a trip into the guard rails. On the same lap Laffite hits Pironi’s Ferrari up the back and takes the Talbot’s nose cone off and bends up the right-front fin, but keeps going while the Ferrari goes up an escape road but rejoins the race. Cheever gets by the ailing Williams and Rosberg is still holding a slender time advantage over Watson, but on lap 38 (44) Watson leads on the road and on time so all he has to do now is to keep out of trouble. Alboreto tries to out-brake Daly at the chicane before the pits and locks up and slides nose first into the tyre wall, and Mansell comes to rest as his Cosworth engine gives signs of seizing. The two Renaults are running again, but many laps behind, and just to show that the trouble has been cured Prost records a new lap record on lap 45, but as his heel injury from Monaco is hurting he runs the rest of the time in spasmodic bursts of a quick lap then some slower ones to rest his foot, then another quick one and so on. Watson goes on and on majestically, looking so safe and confident, yet smooth and fast and without doubt when John Barnard’s McLaren MP4 goes right it goes very right and Watson drives it as well as anyone.


This is one of those days. The first six cars, plus one, are deflected directly from the finish into a scrutineering compound where the petrol is pumped out and the car weighed. The McLaren (Watson), Talbot (Cheever), Ferrari (Pironi), Williams (Rosberg), Williams (Daly), Talbot (Laffite) and March (Mass) all pass the weight check satisfactorily though the March and one of the Talbots transgress a measurement check on aerofoil height and width but are let off with a warning. The two-part race gives the time-keepers some headaches but they sort it out admirably and in 1 hour 58'41"043. Watson has covered 62 laps, eight short of the number specified in the regulations, but FIA rules call for a race to be stopped at the required number of laps or two hours, whichever comes first and time has won. Twelve cars have finished, but nine have crashed or been involved in accidents which suggests that the long period of clinical autodrome racing we have been through has bred a rather sloppy and inept type of Formula One driver to say nothing of designers with minimal safety factors. Perhaps if street racing continues to take over from autodrome racing, standards will change. High speed circuits like Osterreichring, Silverstone or Monza have never encouraged slipshod driving or design. For a first attempt the Detroit Grand Prix is a bit of a shambles at times but enjoyable nevertheless and I am sure the organisers will learn from their mistakes. 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.


©​ 2024 Osservatore Sportivo


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