#342 1980 United States Grand Prix

2022-08-15 00:00

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#1980, Fulvio Conti,

#342 1980 United States Grand Prix

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


The games have already been played for the Formula 1 World Championship, won by Alan Jones. The one on Sunday, October 5, 1980, at Watkins Glen is the final act, but it practically doesn't matter; it will simply be run to fulfill a formality. This time, the spotlight is on Nelson Piquet, eliminated from the fight by what many in the field describe as a low blow. The Brazilian driver comments:


"To be World Champion, you need to be competitive throughout the season, and I haven't been. For me, it has still been a very valid year: I always tried to race as fast as I could, but also intelligently, so that I could go all the way. But I think I gave my best, even though a bit of regret is fully justified".


It's clear that such a disappointment stings, even when you possess Piquet's fair play: it's not just about what happened at the start of the last Grand Prix, but also the fact that Piquet's car broke down, putting the driver in a position where he could no longer compete.


"Throughout the season, such a thing never happened, and it had to happen on this occasion. Oh well. As for tomorrow's race, I expect to have everyone against me. On my part, the Williams, Ligier, and Alfa Romeo will certainly be advantaged".


Regarding Alfa Romeo, there is a significant development: Giacomelli sets the fastest time in the qualifying rounds, and it's the first time such an event has occurred. Despite Jones' tremendous effort, he failed to achieve the top position (even if only by a few hundredths), while Reuteman and Arnoux performed very well. However, the final act of the World Championship is devoid of real interest, as the result is practically a foregone conclusion. Thoughts are already turning to the next year. Piquet is asked if he intends to change teams, but evidently, he is quite content because he responds:


"I will certainly stay with Brabham next season; I have already received confirmation".


On Saturday, October 4, 1980, an Italian driver and car secure the pole position in Formula 1. It hasn't happened for years: Bruno Giacomelli with Alfa Romeo confirms this prestigious result at the end of the United States Grand Prix trials. The Italian driver, in the final qualifying session, lowers the circuit record, which he already owned from Friday, twice more and confirms himself ahead of everyone for the race. Giacomelli keeps his composure despite a constant stream of very dangerous incidents and eliminations, making the most of the power and stability of his car. As mentioned, an incredible series of off-track excursions makes the trials dramatic, and numerous drivers take thrilling risks. Jacques Laffite, who went off the track on Friday, won't be in the race because he suffers from neck pain due to the impact and can't drive the car. Alain Prost shouldn't be at the start either, as on Saturday, he is involved in a similar incident (suspension failure of his McLaren) and sustains a hematoma to the head. Also, due to mechanical failures, Cheever (twice, he couldn't even participate in the final qualifying round, which was suspended eight minutes before the end), the Swede Rosberg, the young New Zealander Thackwell, and Gilles Villeneuve end up off the track. Particularly spectacular is the Canadian's crash, as his Ferrari, at about 200 km/h, skids for about a hundred meters against the guardrail at the entrance to the straight of the pit lane, a repetition, albeit less serious, of the impact he had endured during the race in Imola. Immediately afterward, almost in the same spot, Rupert Keegan with his Williams crashes, but fortunately, no driver suffers physical harm. Behind Giacomelli are Piquet and Reutemann and the very skilled De Angelis. The Roman also has the opportunity to have a good race. Less well, as usual by now, the Ferraris relegated to the eighteenth (Villeneuve) and twenty-third place (Scheckter). On the other hand, the performance of the young De Cesaris is excellent once again, tenth with the second Alfa Romeo. The atmosphere in which the race takes place is that of a circuit outside of time, disputed, which may be abandoned starting from next year. But Watkins Glen is a tradition and will attract at least 200.000 people. The Formula 1 Grand Prix is the only attraction for a depressed area that relies on summer tourism and agriculture. Some grapes are produced, and wine is made in some valley nearby. 


Among the labels, there is also a grandiose Great Western, a kind of Champagne from the state of New York. In truth, it seems like we have gone back thirty years in time, or even more: there is a deputy sheriff who is the national champion of speed in drawing his gun, one of those big Colts that recall the Wild West. People are camped in fields, in the woods, in the mud. Next to luxurious motorhomes, there are small Canadian tents and even sleeping bags. Even the Formula 1 circus seems only camped. Many teams use the remains of the material used in the season; there are not many spare engines; damaged cars are patched up as best as they can. In short, there is an air of demobilization. And in this atmosphere, even if denied for the moment by the party involved, the rumor of Emerson Fittipaldi's probable retirement in 1981 circulates more and more insistently. On race morning, it's interesting to note that spectators are decidedly thin on the ground, a reflection, perhaps, that people accent prepare the able to put up with the ever-spiraling costs involved in attending some Grand Prix races. The camping sites, normally overflowing with enthusiastic American supporters, are at most comfortably full, and there are worrying empty patches in the main grandstands opposite the pits, which can hardly have suffused the organizers with financial optimism. By the time the grid forms up in front of the main control tower, the weather has become pleasantly sunny, although it's still cold enough for everybody to be weaving furiously on the parade lap in an effort to warm their tires to somewhere near operating temperatures. There is much speculation on this. Giacomelli's moment of truth. He falls foul of the first corner, a resurfaced section of track that has accumulated large build-ups, oldest on its outside lip. As the lights on the gantry overhanging the track turn green, the Alfa Romeo team leader performs a copybook start and blasts down into the first corner, well and truly establishing the lead. Jones, anxious to underline his status as a worthy World Champion, comes hurtling through from the third row, slicing into second place under braking for the corner and then sliding wide across Piquet's bows, running the Williams onto the grass. The Australian backs right off, nursing his machine back onto the circuit in 12th place as Giacomelli leads the field away up the hill and through the chicane. Further back, de Cesaris and Arnoux also go a mowing in a cloud of dust, but they coax their cars back onto the tarmac, and everybody completes the first lap without incident. 


Piquet makes a desperate effort to displace the leading Alfa Romeo first time round on the main straight, but Giacomelli makes his car as wide as possible, knowing full well that he has the ability to pull away once he gets a flier, and the Brazilian isn't quite close enough to have a try second time round. Third is Reutemann, then Pironi, de Angelis, Rebaque, Watson, Laffite, Andretti, Keegan, the head-down Jones, Villeneuve, Surer, Cheever, Patrese, Daly, Scheckter, Mass, de Cesaris, Arnoux, Fittipaldi, Rosberg, and Lammers, with Jarier last, a long way back. The first major incident of the race comes on the third lap when de Cesaris gets flustered after his bad start and rams the rear of Daly's Tyrrell under braking for one of the slower corners. The Alfa Romeo retires on the spot with quite severe frontal damage while Daly lasts another lap before his mount gets away from him under braking for the right-hander beyond the pits, and he spins wildly off the circuit. Subsequent examination reveals the Tyrrell to have sustained a bent rear suspension link in the collision with de Cesaris, as well as having a very obvious oil leak. With Giacomelli pulling steadily away from his pursuers, Piquet seems secure in the moment in second with Reutemann, Pironi, de Angelis, Watson, Rebaque, and Leith. Jones is lapping at a tremendous rate, not simply content to sit back and bemoan his error at the first corner, and he dearly feels that there is every chance of getting back among the front runners. It doesn't take him long to slice past Laffite and Watson, gaining another place when the impressive Rebaque finds his too-soft tires wearing badly and pulls into the pits for rubber. By the time ten laps are complete, Piquet is being pressured quite hard by Reutemann, and Jones is now lapping at record speeds, smashing the official record time after time as he chases after the Lotus, then picks it off, and sets off after Pironi's. Although Giacomelli is now comfortably out of sight in the lead, Jones has clearly not given up hope, and a tremendous battle is warming up for second place as Piquet comes under increasing pressure from Reutemann. As he begins to experience a loss of adhesion from the soft compound tires he is using as well, on lap 25, with Jones through to fifth place and jostling Pironi, Piquet tries a little too hard as he swings into the first right-hander. 


His Brabham spins over the kerb into the grass where it stops with its nose touching a catch fence. Mindful of his machine's vulnerability in this position, Daly's Tyrrell has fortunately moved by the marshals; otherwise, it will be T-boned by the Brabham. Piquet urges them to push-start his car, which at least means that he can crawl back to the pits, out of harm's way, where he retires with the skirt system on the BT49 smashed beyond repair. This leaves Jones to dispose of Pironi on lap 28 and Reutemann two laps later, presenting the World Champion with an open track to Giacomelli's leading Alfa Romeo. It would have been interesting to see whether Jones can catch - and pass - the Italian, but the crowd is going to be denied that entertainment when the luckless Giacomelli has his simply die under him with electrical failure. Alan Jones and Williams honor the World Championship they had already secured a week in advance with another splendid victory to conclude the season. The Australian driver clinched his fifth win of the season, crossing the finish line ahead of his teammate Carlos Reutemann. It was a clear success, determined by the driver's skill and the excellence of the car. Jones, in fact, had a rather poor start, went off track at the beginning, ending up in the grass to avoid being touched by other cars that had squeezed him. 


After the first lap, he found himself in the eleventh position. The newly crowned World Champion staged a remarkable comeback and ultimately prevailed over all his opponents. However, his success was facilitated by the retirement of Bruno Giacomelli, who, with an excellent race performance, had given the impression of finally being able to bring Alfa Romeo to victory. The driver from Brescia, starting from pole position, quickly pulled away and soon established a significant gap over Piquet, Reutemann, and Pironi who were closely pursuing him. Unfortunately, Giacomelli's dreams of victory were shattered by a technical failure. Giacomelli, who had started the race very well, confirming his temperament without any fear of the more qualified opponents alongside and behind him, saw his Alfa Romeo take the lead on the starting straight and enter the first right turn in command. From that moment on, Bruno, driving with great accuracy and precision, stayed in the lead, gaining a considerable margin over Reutemann, who was the first of the pursuers. A maximum margin of 13 seconds for the Milanese car was recorded when suddenly there was a breakdown that took away the dreams of victory. Bruno Giacomelli said, as soon as he returned to the pits at the end of the race:


"The appointment with victory is only postponed. I am satisfied, in any case, even though I cannot really say I was very lucky. I am satisfied mainly because the car is performing well: we only lack some small details, and a bit of good luck. However, we are ready, as we have demonstrated thoroughly. I hope that this time no one criticizes me: I made no mistakes, the retirement was not my fault. I felt the car suddenly fail, and there was nothing more I could do; I had to pull over. I must say, moreover, that I was driving with extreme confidence, saving tires and engine and never pushing to the maximum. If that issue hadn't happened, no one could have caught me".


Despite the satisfaction with the excellent performance of the car, there is still some disappointment within the Alfa Romeo team. The technical director of Alfa Romeo, Engineer Chiti, stated:


"These defects could be caused by vibrations. However, we are on an excellent path, and I'm only sorry that the championship is already over, so we won't have any more chances. In any case, Alfa is working on the new car, the 180, which is almost ready and should be even better than this one. We have a few months for thorough testing, and we will enter the first races of the World Championship with the desire to make up for what happened in these last races".


Despite Giacomelli's misfortune, both the driver and the car have reached, albeit at the end of the season, an excellent level of competitiveness. Giacomelli's unexpected retirement certainly cleared the way for Jones. However, before reaching the top positions, the Australian overtook numerous opponents with thrilling overtakes. Among his victims were Watson, Rebaque, De Angelis, and then Pironi and Reutemann. Piquet, who had been one of Giacomelli's closest pursuers, also retired early from the scene. 


The Brazilian, following Bruno closely, likely made a mistake, and on lap 25, while in second place just ahead of Reutemann, he spun at the corner following the pit straight, ending up in a tailspin, and his car crashed into the barriers. Piquet tried in vain to restart, was pushed by the marshals, but could only reach the pits with a non-functional car. Piquet was excluded from the race and forced to retire immediately. Behind the winner, Reutemann acted as a shield, and Pironi secured an excellent third place. Elio De Angelis delivered a brilliant performance with a Lotus that did not prove to be exceptionally fast. Nevertheless, the young Roman managed to maintain his starting position, and his fourth-place finish is one of the best of the season, confirming De Angelis's potential as the likely lead Lotus driver next year. Regarding the race, there is not much else to say: the Ferraris had a lackluster performance, never managing to stand out. Villeneuve fought as usual, managed to climb to seventh place thanks to the retirements ahead of him, but then, first due to a spin and later due to a puncture in the left rear tire, he went off track at the chicane and was forced to retire. Scheckter drove consistently but was lapped several times, finishing in tenth place with three laps behind Jones. As for Patrese, the driver from Padua once again had no luck. After a few laps (exactly on lap 17), he ended up in the barriers because the brakes of his Arrows failed. A few words for Cheever, who had a decent start but retired early due to a suspension failure, and for De Cesaris, who couldn't even complete two laps. 


The young Roman, perhaps betrayed by emotions, went off track at the start along with Jones and then re-entered late, in the last positions. However, he then collided with Daly, and both he and the Irishman went into the grass, miserably concluding the race. The Formula 1 World Championship thus ended in the most normal way, repeating the dominant theme of the entire season: Jones always ahead of everyone with Reutemann behind him, almost protecting him from every assault. The positive aspect is Pironi's third-place finish, confirming himself as a combative and speedy driver. Next year, if the cars from Maranello perform better and if the turbo delivers the expected results, Ferrari will surely return to the top, just like Alfa Romeo should remain at the top, despite being deprived of an almost certain victory this time, as often happens in motorsport, due to a rather trivial failure. When the race director at Watkins Glen lowered the checkered flag, he unintentionally performed a historic act for Formula 1. With this gesture, he definitively bid farewell to the World Champion Jody Scheckter. It was indeed the last official race for the thirty-year-old South African. One hundred and ten Grands Prix, ten victories, one world title in nine years of activity. A record that honors a driver who has always been, for better or for worse, since his debut with McLaren in 1972, among the great protagonists. Wealthy, fulfilled, happily married, and father of two children, Scheckter maintains the decision to retire announced in Milan about two months ago. Some have said that substantial offers might have convinced him to stay. But Jody has no intention of going back on his word. It is possible that he will take to the track a few more times, as he probably will on October 25 at Donington, England, alongside Jones, Daly, and Watson, with four Rally champions for a cross-discipline challenge on the circuit and on the road driving a Mazda. However, with Formula 1, he has closed the chapter.


"I would have liked to retire differently, at least with another victory. I didn't manage, partly because of the car, and partly because resignation had taken over in me. At Watkins Glen, I intended to give it my all, and I swear I tried my best, especially in the early laps. However, towards the end of the race, I must admit, I didn't feel like taking unnecessary risks while fighting in the rear. It's a pity; I hope the fans remember me, how I was when I won".


Are you disappointed with Ferrari, do you regret anything?


"No, absolutely not. I won a World Championship, and the Maranello team is undoubtedly the best in Formula 1. You can't always be the first; it would be inhumane. Continuous dominance would take away all the interest in the races. I already see next year the duels between Giacomelli's Alfa and the other driver chosen by the Milanese team and Ferrari. Because I am convinced that the cars from Maranello will return to the top. With two guys like Villeneuve and Pironi, there will be sparks".


Does it bother you to be replaced by Didier Pironi?


"All the opposite: I was the one who proposed the name of the French driver to Ferrari. Or at least, I was one of those who supported him. In Pironi, I see myself when I was young, great determination, a strong spirit".


And now, what will you do?


"A week or two of vacation, then back to work. I have to start everything from scratch. And when I do something, I want to stand out, in sports as well as in business. I will deal with advertising, public relations, any interesting proposals. For the time being, as long as they want me, I will continue to be the president of the GPDA, the Drivers' Association. With my experience, and being outside the game, I will make life difficult for the constructors, organizers, and sports authorities. I just hope that my former colleagues will follow me".


What advice would you give to Ferrari to quickly become competitive again?


"You can't give advice of this kind to Ferrari. It's a team that always works to the best of its abilities. And then, I believe that Enzo Ferrari himself directly motivates his technicians. I think that in these days in Maranello, they are not resting on the laurels of the past. They are probably already focused on the cars for the next year".


So, the retired Scheckter is starting a new life. His time at Ferrari has also helped him to smooth the edges of a sometimes too aggressive temperament, to find dialogue with those around him. Certainly, we will see him again in the world of racing, albeit in a different role, as a successful man.


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