Few of those who have been critical of the decision to hold this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix there would deny that Sao Paulo’s superb 4.946 mile Interlagos circuit is one of the very best in the world. It winds its way through some fairly mundane surroundings in the Sao Paulo suburbs, but it is a most exacting facility which challenges driving skill with a large number of dauntingly quick corners and tricky sections of circuit. Originally it had been intended to hold the 1980 Brazilian Grand Prix at the Jacarepagua Autodrome just south of Rio de Janeiro, the unprepossessing venue at which Reutemann drove a Michelin-shod Ferrari to victory two years ago, but financial problems allied to physical decay at that circuit made this impossible. Thus, a return to Interlagos was instigated a year earlier than originally scheduled even though the FISA had clearly stated, early in 1979, that the circuit should be subjected to a major programme of resurfacing prior to the expected return of Grand Prix cars in 1981. The newly re-constituted Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, under the energetic presidency of Jody Scheckter, firmly hazarded the opinion that Interlagos, without a fresh track surface, was unacceptably dangerous and not a legitimate risk that its members should be subjected to. A vocal meeting and press conference, held in Buenos Aires a fortnight earlier, have revealed the GPDA to be evenly split down the middle for and against Interlagos and of course everybody eventually has turned out and performed as they almost inevitably always do under these sorts of circumstances. In fairness, however, nobody actually has explained just how FISA actually has sanctioned the Interlagos event given that they have had expressed reservations over the state of the circuit surface not twelve months earlier. Last year’s Interlagos race was dominated by the Ligier JS11 cars and this year the French blue machines continue to represent the Goodyear-shod contingent at the front of the field.
Although there is absolutely no doubt that Interlagos puts a tremendous strain on car and driver, pummelling the competitors over its many bumps as the chassis’ ground effect characteristics compress springs virtually solid, it has to be said that sheer brio and lack of inhibition is manifestly obvious amongst some of the younger drivers - and it is a factor which contributes to several notable practice performances. On the tyre-front, Michelin are still providing soft qualifying rubber for their four customers and the combination of this and the powerful 1980 1½ Renault turbocharged cars is quite unbeatable. Under untypically cloudy skies on Friday afternoon, Jean-Pierre Jabouille takes only five flying laps to establish a pole position time of 2'21"40, more than seven seconds faster over almost five miles than Laffite’s 1979 pole position time. To allay suspicions that these are merely fluke times, Jabouille manages a 1'23"0 lap on race rubber and when Arnoux records a 1'22"31 lap on Friday, it seems likely that the front row of the staggered grid will be dominated by turbo-cars on Sunday. However, Arnoux is to miss most of Saturday’s timed practice session after an engine failure has spoiled his chances of improvement. Arnoux’s chassis RE21 has suffered quite badly in Buenos Aires when the right hand front suspension has broken, losing a wheel and damaging the monocoque quite badly as the rocker arm and lower wishbone have been wrenched away. The chassis has been stripped down, flown back to France for repair, returned to Brazil and then rebuilt into a complete racing car in time for the start of practice at Interlagos. That, allied to the fact that the two French cars have to have their monocoques repaired locally after bottoming badly on Friday it’s not only the drivers who have hard work to do in Formula 1. Arnoux’s misfortune on the second day of practice allowes Pironi’s sheer flair and car control to reap the reward of second place on the starting grid.
The fast left hand corner after the Interlagos pits has been slightly reprofiled, giving it a more pronounced apex, but leaving it still flat out in fifth gear if one is extremely brave and driving a good car which is working properly. Pironi is one such fortunate driver, equipped with an excellent car in the Ligier JS11-15, and he is intent on making the best possible use of it. To watch the blue Ligier bobbing over the bumps at top speed into that corner and its confident driver hurling it through the turn with unshakeable confidence is truly exhilarating. Pironi manages a fine 2'21"65 which is the fastest time of the day in Saturday’s timed session while Jacques Laffite isn’t to be left behind and is well in contention wnh 1'22"30 which is good enough for fifth place on the grid although his final session has been abruptly interrupted when the oil pressure warning light has flashed on and he has abandoned his car out on the circuit. Subsequent examination has revealed the Cosworth DFV to have survived intact, the problem being that the small pipe to the oil pressure gauge has become disconnected. Generally speaking, although Goodyear’s racing staff has remained insistent that Michelin should hurry up and get rid of their special qualifying tyres, Akron fortunes looks pretty promising because there are several strong Goodyear runners near the front of the grid who look in good shape. Although the Ferrari 312T5 isn’t proving the most startlingly competitive Formula One machine of the season, the sheer determination of little Gilles Villeneuve works wonders as usual during practice. After his high speed accident whilst holding second place in the Argentine Grand Prix, Villeneuve’s 312-043 has been written off and the salvageable parts have been used to build another car round a new monocoque flown out from Maranello and completed in time for the start of Interlagos practice. Villeneuve has suffered an engine failure during the untimed session on Thursday and that has been repeated during Friday’s timed session, the T5s showing an appetite for flat-12s that runs against Ferrari’s trend of recent years.
The French-Canadian driver briefly tries the team’s spare car, complaining that the steering is diabolically heavy, but he is back in his regular machine for Friday’s timed stint and records a 2'22"17 which is second quickest behind Pironi in that session and third on the grid. If Villeneuve has had any inhibitions about Interlagos they aren’t evident watching him out on the circuit. Although he is by no means delighted with the handling of the T5, he emerges from the final session quietly confident, saying: I think we’ll do better in the race. Jody Scheckter’s attitude to the circuit has been well-publicised prior to his arrival at Interlagos, but the fact that he ends up eighth on the grid with a 2'23"02 best can not be attributed to the fact that he hasn’t been trying. He might well have made two mistakes, spinning on what he felt would have been his fastest lap on Friday and then getting badly baulked on what he hoped would be his best on Saturday. On one spectacular occasion the World Champion has found himself badly baulked by Lammers’s tardy ATS and has indulged in some automotive histrionics as he has endeavoured to vent his annoyance on the bewildered and uncomprehending Dutch driver. In the Saudia Williams garage, the customary air of optimism isn’t quite as buoyant as usual, both of the team’s drivers encountering problems on Friday. The two latest chassis were kept in 1979, FW07 trim following the hurried re-conversion from B specification in Buenos Aires and while Reutemann has remained with his usual FW07B/5, team leader Alan Jones has forsook his Argentine Grand Prix winning spare car car FW07B/6. On Friday Reutemann’s progress is interrupted by a major, spectacular engine blews up and Jones’s car has problems with its skirts failing to fall down cleanly over the bumps which naturally do not enhance its handling. On Saturday Reutemann stormes into contention with a 2'22"26 lap to earn fourth place on the grid, between Villeneuve and Laffite, but although Jones’s car is handling much better than on the previous day, the Australian complains that the engine is very badly down on revs.
He can’t improve on his tenth quickest time of 2'23"38, but Alan Jones is a no nonsense racing driver and when he says that something isn’t quite right with the car, the likelihood is that something isn’t quite right. He doesn’t whinge on like some of his contemporaries and, after the Williams mechanics change his engine on Saturday night, Jones proves his worth with fastest time in the race morning untimed warm up. In the Lotus camp a great deal of work has been done on the rear suspension of the two 81s, involving strengthened lower pick-up points for the inboard coil spring-damper units following the breakage on de Angelis’s car in Buenos Aires. The team still has their Lotus 79 development chassis on hand in case either of their drivers need a spare, but both drivers get through practice using their new cars although there is a certain amount of juggling gearboxes at one point during the weekend. De Angelis is brimful of confidence, lapping in 2'22"40 despite a handling imbalance that has been subsequently traced to worn out shock absorbers down one side of his car. The young Italian driver is delighted with his car’s performance and team leader Andretti, despite being handicapped with a misfiring engine, echoes the sentiments of his young team mate from 11th place on the grid with 2'23"46. There is a degree of disappointment in the Brabham camp for although Nelson Piquet has started off in fine style during Thursday’s testing, a whole host of minor problems have bugged the Brazilian’s progress in official practice with the smart Brabham-Cosworth BT49. On Friday Piquet damages the skirts on his car when he loses control and slides down a length of catch fencing. Later he has problems with an ill-fitting seat, his harness keeps working loose and the steering is too heavy for his taste. Eventually some confusion over tyres during the final session thwart his progress, for although he manages to get the correct combination together right at the end of practice, his fastest lap is set under yellow flags which indicate a spin into the barriers for Daly’s Tyrrell 009. His best time is 2'23"16. His team mate Zunino is well out of contention on this occasion, with a 2'26"53 best and a consequent starting place near the back of the grid.
Regazzoni does a commendable job with the patriotic liveried Unipart Ensign, qualifying on 2'24"85 despite a fuel system that has seemed reluctant to work properly with less than seventeen gallons in the tank. Young Alain Prost manages to get his McLaren M29B working very effectively over the bumps and ripples of Interlagos to record a 2'24"95, a time which eclipses team leader Watson by two and a half seconds. In fairness, the Ulsterman, who has started practice with his originally intended spare car, is forced to change back to his race machine after engine problems has intervened and has to make do with a different rear suspension set-up on that car. The fact, however, remains: Prost does a very good job finding a race set up on his M29B. Both Arrows suffer badly from their skirts riding up - and sticking up - over the bumps, Patrese recording a disappointing 2'25"06, half a second better than the genial Jochen Mass. All manner of minor problems buggs the Fittipaldi F7s of Rosberg and E.F., the Finn qualifying faster than his team leader although the local hero has started his home Grand Prix weekend on a bad note when he has crashed quite heavily following a tyre deflation on Thursday. Although the car has been repaired in time for official practice, the incident seems to set the Brazilian back somewhat and his chances are not helped when he suffers a water leak which cut short his timed session on Saturday. Towards the back of the grid Surer does a commendable job with his ATS, the yellow car having its suspension attended to on Friday night after a rear rocker arm has collapsed on him during that day’s timed session. Both Alfa Romeos are very definitely also-rans, Depailler in particular proving most frustrated with his car’s acute understeer problems. The two Tyrrell 009s are simply outclassed and outdated, but Jarier and Daly persevere gamely throughout the weekend and both get into the race, the Irishman after one slight collision with Prost and a spin into a tyre-faced guard rail, both in the final session. Non-qualifiers include Lammers in the second ATS, hard-trying Shadow DN11 drivers Kennedy and Johansson and the overweight Osella driven by the rather disillusioned Cheever
A staggered one-by-one start line up is employed at Interlagos, just as it has been in Argentina, so Jabouille’s Renault has a slight advantage before the starting signal is given. But the French turbo car is tardy getting off the line and Pironi is alongside it as they draw alongside the pit wall. But both Frenchmen’s efforts are eclipsed by the never-say-die Villeneuve who is quickly gaining a reputation for the best starts in the Grand Prix business. His Ferrari come rocketing up between the Renault and the Ligier, diving into the left hander after the pits well in the lead. Jabouille initially dropps back to fourth behind the two Ligiers. The McLaren mechanics wonder whether a new driving position might improve the performance of their tame Irishman, but he powers back into second place as they hurtle down the first long straight and is right with Villeneuve as they come up through the infield loops and out onto the start/finish straight to complete the opening lap. Third is Pironi with Laffite right on his tail and the remainder of the field already spacing out after that hectic five mile opening lap. Already there is one casualty, Reutemann’s Williams having broken a driveshaft as the Argentinian has snatched second gear accelerating off the grid. He limps round a single slow lap before pulling in to retire, just in time to meet a rather flustered Mario Andretti walking back to the pits after spinning his Lotus 81 off through the catch fencing at the first corner at the start of the second lap. The Lotus has tipped onto two wheels during its crazy excursion and the American has feared briefly that it would tip over - fortunately it has landed on its wheels, but very much the worse for wear. Jabouille closes up on Villeneuve as they go into lap two, passing the Ferrari at the end of the long straight and streaking away as the French Canadian eases up suddenly, dropping back quickly as he has sensed something is wrong with his car’s handling.
On lap five Pironi, who has dropped back behind his teammate, comes into the pits to investigate a violent understeer problem which has made him suspect that one of his Ligier’s skirts has stuck up. By the time he stops the skirt has fallen down again, so his team soften up his front rollbar and send him back into the race for a game chase back through the field. Further back in the field Regazzoni’s Ensign is fading after a promising start, dropping away with acute understeer and a misfiring engine, while Villeneuve is soon back to sixth place in close company with team mate Scheckter. Arnoux is up to third ahead of de Angelis and then comes Jones’s ill-handling Williams in fifth position, the Australian racing as best he can despite his problems. On laps seven and eight respectively the two Ferraris dive into the pits for fresh tyres, emerging at the tail of the field although Scheckter doesn’t have to worry for much longer as his flat-12 loses its oil pressure mid-way round lap eleven and he rolls to a silent standstill out on the circuit. The Ferraris’ problems heIp promote Piquet’s Brabham BT49 into sixth place behind Jones while the Arrows of Patrese and Mass are next, followed by the two McLaren M29Bs (Watson briefly ahead of Prost after a superb start) and the Fittipaldi F7s of E.F. and Rosberg. Both Arrows are understeering very badly and soon drop away to be passed by their immediate pursuers, while Watson is soon dealt with by his young team mate. Prost’s car showing a peculiar tendency to misfire at low revs when the fuel tank is full, this problem apparently curing itself after ten laps or so. Once Prost is through and away, Watson falls back to be challenged by the two Fittipaldi drivers who are running in close formation with Rosberg pressing his team leader hard. It doesn't take long for the determined Finn to have a go at Fittipaldi, diving inside him on the left hander at the end of the long straight with a forcefulness which sends Fittipaldi wide over a kerb, resulting in damaged skirts and a resultant pit stop for the Brazilian.
After the race there is an air of tension between the two Fittipaldi team drivers when they have returned to the pits, both uncompromisingly differing in their interpretation of the “whys and wherefores’ of the incident. Laffite’s challenge for the lead ends on lap 14 when a high tension lead comes adrift from his Ligier’s distributor, stranding him out on the circuit and leaving Jabouille to consolidate a commanding and very comfortable advantage. Arnoux is now second with de Angelis pressuring him determinedly, the young Lotus driver gradually realising that if he presses too hard with the understeer he is suftering with then his front tyres will not last the race distance. After working himself almost into Arnoux’s slipstream, a couple of lurid moments convince de Angelis that it is more important to be in the race at the finish, so he eases off very slightly and Arnoux pulls away. Further back Pironi and Villeneuve are showing real spirit as they carve their way up through the midfield runners, Riccardo Patrese proving particularly difficult to pass. Pironi takes four laps before he finds a way past the hard-driving Arrows pilot and Villeneuve’s determined efforts to get past Rosberg results in the Fittipaldi surviving a high speed spin at the fifth gear Curva de Sol which badly flat spots its tyres and takes its driver aback somewhat. Jabouille’s confident run towards victory comes to an abrupt end mid-way round lap 26 when one of the 1½-litre engine’s turbochargers fails and he is left to limp into a disappointed retirement. But for Regie Renault there is the consolation that Arnoux, running strongly in second place, can now take over at the head of the field. The Grenoble driver keeps control and, with de Angelis falling away over the remaining fifteen laps, Arnoux scores his first Grand Prix victory by a convincing margin of more than twenty seconds. Third place is earned doggedly by Alan Jones while Pironi, still hampered by acute understeer, finishes fourth.
Prost, driving with great maturity, refuses to be ruffled by Patrese as he races the Arrows for fifth place, eventually picking his moment and passing the Italian in an extremely confident fashion after he has watched and learned where the Arrows have handling problems. Surer does an excellent lob to finish seventh while Zunino is eighth ahead of Rosberg, Mass and the disappointed Watson. With characteristic determination, Villeneuve scrambles back to seventh place and is closing on Patrese when his Ferrari’s throttle sticks on a fast left hander and he spins wildly. Nursing his T5 back to the pits, Villeneuve is out of the race when it is found that the front anti-roll bar linkage has become deranged and has been fouling the throttle pedal. That is the fourth retirement from four starts in two races for the Italian team, underlining in dramatic fashion just how unpredictable and changing are the fortunes of Grand Prix motor racing.