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#344 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix

2021-10-22 01:00

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#1981, Fulvio Conti, Nicola Carriero,

#344 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix

For most Formula 1 teams, the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix represents the second event on a three-race schedule which will mean them operating away from

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For most Formula 1 teams, the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix represents the second event on a three-race schedule which will mean them operating away from their European bases for the best part of five weeks. The World Championship season got under way with the United States (West) Grand Prix through the streets of Long Beach, California, on March 15th and then stopped off in Brazil on its way through to the Argentine Grand Prix, scheduled for Buenos Aires on April 12th. From a logistics point of view this operation placed an enormous burden, operating so far from home for such a long time, but the well-oiled transportation system which has been developed by the Formula One Constructors Association meant that every car which had been in Long Beach for that race was lined up in its pit garage at the Autodromo Riocentro in time for unofficial testing on the Wednesday prior to the Brazilian race. The 5.031-kilometer Rio circuit has not been used as the country’s Grand Prix venue since 1978, when Carlos Reutemann scored a very convincing start-to-finish victory at the wheel of his Ferrari 312T2 shod with Michelin tyres. In 1979 and 1980 the race took place at Sao Paulo’s spectacular Interlagos circuit, infinitely better from a racing point of view but obviously not offering the same commercial possibilities for those whose business minds have a hand in controlling the destiny of Grand Prix racing. What is more, FOCA’s boss Bernie Ecclestone told us that the race has been signed up to take place at the Rio Autodromo for the next two years as well, so unless we are overtaken by an Orwellian fate, 1984 will mark the return of the Brazilian Grand Prix to its traditional home in Sau Paulo. Of course, in the three years which have passed since the last Brazilian Grand Prix at Rio, a lot of new drivers have arrived in the Grand Prix firmament, so this unofficial Wednesday session is welcomed by most teams.

 

New faces include the little-known Colombian Ricardo Londono-Bridge, who bought his place in the works Ensign team, but after he collided with Rosberg’s Fittipaldi during one of his slow laps, Morris Nunn is informed that his new recruit will not be allowed to practice in the official sessions on Friday owing to the fact that he didn’t provide the necessary information to FISA in order that a decision be taken as to whether he qualified for the appropriate competition licence or not. Marc Surer is thus reinstated as the car’s official driver, while another fresh face on the scene is the optimistic Jean-Pierre Jabouille who tried out his Talbot-Matra JS17 on Wednesday and decided to drive it in the official practice sessions, much to the chagrin of Jean-Pierre Jarier who is also allowed some laps in the spare and is kept on hand as the team’s reserve driver. Further down the pit lane Colin Chapman’s interesting Lotus 88 is once again proving to be the focal point of attention, the scrutineers deferring their initial decision on the car’s eligibility until they have the chance to confer with the stewards of the meeting. Encouraged by the favourable judgement received when his Long Beach appeal is considered by ACCUS (the national sporting authority of the United States), Colin Chapman is initially optimistic in Rio when the scrutineers and stewards accept his new car as legal and give it a scrutineer’s label which means that it can run during official practice. To the team’s consternation, on Friday the scrutineers reappear and ask to examine the car once again. They ask to check that the car conforms to the regulation which states that, with tyres deflated on one side, the bodywork does not touch the ground. This they do, using sponsor’s spokesman Francois Mazet in the cockpit to simulate the weight of a racing driver. The Lotus 88 is legal. The scrutineers then rock it backwards and forwards; it is still legal. Then they press up and down on the bodywork and, when the car touches the ground under these artificially contrived circumstances, it is immediately deemed illegal and excluded from further participation in the meeting.

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Sure enough, there have been protests from rival teams, but they are simple and straightforward, claiming that the Lotus 88 does not comply with the rules relating to aerodynamic coachwork. There does not seem to be any reason why this humiliating, somewhat amateur and badly organised second examination of the car needs to take place. Perhaps the fact that most of the key race official involved speaks only Portuguese, and the FISA rules say that the English translation of their regulations is the one which must be used to adjudge disputes, contributes to the problems. There are many other teams who feel that the Lotus 88 affair is throwing everybody off the scent of another car which is attracting more than its fair share of attention from rival teams, the Brabham BT49C with its hydro-pneumatic suspension which allows the car to sink very close to the ground at speed, well below the 6-cm minimum clearance required when the car is leaving and arriving in the pits. All sorts of allegations are being bandied round including a suggestion that the car does in fact touch the ground systematically, which is prohibited by the rules. Brabham designer Gordon Murray stands his ground calmly, saying that he can prove that his system is legal and will do so to a FISA enquiry, if necessary, but that doesn’t mean he is prepared to have all his rival team engineers crawling all over the car in the Rio paddock. After all this argument, it is quite a relief to get on with timed practice which take place, in well-regulated FOCA style, on Friday and Saturday in warm sunshine. The battle for pole position rages for two days between Piquet and Reutemann, the Williams driver ending up fastest on the Friday with 1'35"390, only to be pipped by Piquet who squeezes in a 1'35"079 best the following afternoon. There are more sideways glances from the Williams pit as the Brabham BT49C achieves this time, the feeling being so would we if we were running with that sort of ground clearance. 

 

But the fact of the matter is that Nelson Piquet, the man who has replaced the retired Emerson Fittipaldi in the affections of his home crowd as their national motor racing hero, is on pole position for his home Grand Prix and the entire Brabham team, from the agitated Bernie Ecclestone downwards, are grinning like Cheshire cats. They haven’t enjoyed a trouble-free run by any means, for fuel system bothers on Piquet’s regular race car oblige him to use the spare on Friday, and his team mate Hector Rebaque suffers a major oil leak, apparently from the clutch, before his experimental Weismann gearbox is changed for a conventional Brabham-modified Hewland unit on the second day. Of course, Rebaque can’t keep up with Piquet, qualifying the second Brabham down in eleventh place and reminding everybody that one factor that helps the Williams team to win the World Championship ahead of the Brabham team is the fact that the former has two drivers, both of whom are easily capable of winning. More than ever, the Rio race will underline just how this lack of a strong number two handicaps the Brabham team before they even start a race. Jones is almost a full second slower than his team mate in practice, qualifying third although he is never really happy about the understeer his car seems to be displaying on the constant radius corners of the Rio circuit. In fourth place is Riccardo Patrese, underlining the form he displayed at Long Beach and looking very confident with his Arrows A3. That means that the first four places on the grid are taken by Cosworth-engined, FOCA-supported entries, making a nonsense of those who predicted that the highly powered turbocharged machines would run away from the 3-litre V8 opposition on Rio’s two long straights. Alain Prost is the fastest turbo-engined Renault driver, managing a 1'36"670 in the team’s spare car on Saturday after suffering oil system problems in the gearbox of his race car which probably contribute to the failure of fourth gear the previous day.

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By contrast, the normally enthusiastic Rene Arnoux, simply can’t get with it on the first day and, although on Saturday he speeds up to qualify eighth on 1'37"561, no sooner has he done this than he slides off the circuit into some catch fence poles which breaks the left lower front suspension wishbone and rumples the monocoque slightly. For the rest of the day, he is obliged to practice in Prost’s discarded race car. Neither Giacomelli nor Andretti have any complaints about the behaviour of their Alfa Romeo 179C V12s, although they are not running quite as quickly as they hoped. They are, however, running quite reliably which is a pleasant contrast to 1980 and the Italian qualified sixth on 1'37"283 with Andretti three places further back on 1'37"597. In addition to Arnoux, they are split by Gilles Villeneuve’s KKK turbocharged Ferrari 126C which returns a precarious-looking 1'37"497, seventh quickest, which is more a reflection on the very powerful engine and the driver’s lightning reflexes rather than any pleasant handling characteristics on the part of the chassis. For this weekend the Comprex pressure-wave supercharging system is shelved and all three Ferraris appear equipped with KKK turbocharging systems. Apart from reliability problems with the Comprex system, its installation is higher in the car than the KKK turbocharger which gives an adverse effect on the machine’s handling. A twin Comprex system is currently under development, but meanwhile both Villeneuve and Pironi concentrate on the turbocharged machines. Villeneuve’s energetic approach almost gets out of hand on lap one when the cockpit fire extinguisher triggers itself as the French-Canadian is rounding the right hander before the pits. The Ferrari goes bounding down the grass, crumpling the lower edges of its skirts, but otherwise remains intact.

 

Pironi, by contrast, has persistent engine problems in his car and then spins off during Saturday morning’s untimed session, badly damaging the underside of the monocoque as well as the inlet tract for the wide 120-degree V6 engine. He is thus obliged to change to the team’s spare car, in which he qualifies on 1'38"565, and retains this machine for the race. Both de Angelis and Mansell are struggling round with their outdated Lotus 81s, the Lotus team leader frustrated that he is not going to be given a crack with the 88, and they work hard to record tenth and thirteenth times respectively, a particularly commendable effort from Mansell whose car seems plagued with endless brake problems as well as an electrical gremlin which is causing the engine’s rev limiter to cut in at too low a limit. Others in the middle of the grid include Rosberg’s Fittipaldi F8C, a disappointed 12th with 1'37"981 which he manages on Friday, being unable to approach within a second of this the following day, Cheever’s Tyrrell, 14th with 1'38"160, and Watson’s McLaren M29F one place behind the young American. The new McLaren International NP4 does not make a reappearance for this race as it still needs to undergo some more testing, but the team is confident that it will appear for the Argentine Grand Prix two weeks later. Surer qualifies the Ensign one place ahead of Patrick Tambay’s new Theodore, which must have satisfied Mo Nunn since Theodore patron Teddy Yip severes his connection with the Walsall company to set up his own team operation, while both Serra’s Fittipaldi and Stohr’s Arrows A3 qualify comfortably. Right at the back is Ricardo Zunino, who rents the second Tyrrell 010 to run alonside Cheever, and the second Talbot-Matra JS17. This has been finally qualified by Jarier during the last hour’s practice when the team’s management gets the message, a little late in the day, that Jabouille is simply going to get into the race.

 

By the end of the untimed session on Saturday morning, he doesn’t manage to break the 1'40"0 barrier and is complaining that he has trouble moving from the throttle to the brake fast enough to be competitive. To many onlookers, that has been obvious from the start of the unofficial testing on Wednesday, so why the Talbot team takes so long to get the message is difficult to say. Jarier eventually manages a 1'39"398 best, recorded on a lap when he bounces down the grass opposite the timing line and breaks the throttle linkage as he attempts to power his way out of this predicament! He then has to take over Lafitte’s original race car, which his lacklustre team leader abandons during the morning session with major engine problems, and Jarier manages a few laps in this machine once a replacement Matra V12 is installed. Laffite, incidentally, can’t work out why he is so far off the pace with a 1'38"263 for 16th fastest, much to the frustration of the pleasant Frenchman. Non-qualifiers include Jan Lammers in the ATS D4, Jabouille, and the two Osellas of Guerra and Gabbiani. Enzo Osella can’t afford to take his engineer to Brazil and then he himself succumbs to the heat and has to stay in his hotel on Saturday, leaving his two novice drivers in the company of their mechanics for the final timed session. No wonder they fail to qualify! Slowest of all was Salazar’s March 811, there being a considerable degree of behind-the-scenes aggravation following Derek Daly’s accident in Friday morning’s untimed session. A front lower wishbone mounting tears out of the side of the monocoque, depositing an irate Daly against a barrier and rendering the car hors-de-combat for the remainder of the weekend. Team chief John MacDonald has some very uncomplimentary things to say about designer Robin Herd. Unexpectedly, race morning dawns grey and overcast with a depressing cloud of rain hovering over the Rio area.

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Everybody hurriedly adjusts their cars as best they can during the half hour warm-up session on Sunday and the rain is still falling steadily as the 24 competitors take their places on the starting grid. To the complete and utter amazement of their rivals, Brabham team decides to start Piquet’s pole position BT49C on slick dry-weather tyres, a tactical decision made by race manager Alistair Caldwell in conjunction with Nelson himself. In third position Alan Jones can be seen chortling away to himself beneath his helmet, rightly convinced that this outlandish decision destroyed any chance of Piquet being a threat to the Williams team, while in the pit lane Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone is almost quivering with annoyance over what he can see is a particularly stupid course of action. Once the starting signal is given, Reutemann makes a perfect start and Patrese comes rocketing through ahead of Jones as they accelerate into the first right hand corner in a ball of spray. Piquet is bravely trying to hang on, but it is a totally vain ambition, and Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo is right with them as well. But, further back, chaos has erupted on the starting grid as somebody spins Arnoux’s Renault, Andretti’s Alfa Romeo vaults over Villeneuve’s rear wheels and Rebaque’s Brabham does the same to Andretti! The rest of the grid scrambles past on the grass and, when the mud has settled, Andretti, Arnoux and Serra are out of the contest and both Cheever and Stohr are recovering after quick spins. They chase off after the rest of the field as marshals clear up the wreckage before the leaders come through for the first time. Halfway round the circuit, Jones neatly outbrakes Patrese for second place, so the two Williams FW07Cs complete the opening lap in 2-1 formation, the World Champion following in his number two’s wheeltracks, and Patrese is well ahead of anybody else. Giacomelli is fourth from De Angelis, Rosberg, Villeneuve, Watson, Prost, Surer, Laffite, de Cesaris and Jarier, the second Talbot-Matra driver going for all he is worth and passing cars left, right and centre.

 

With Piquet floundering about at the tail end of the field on his slicks (one wonders why the Brabham team does not call him in for wet-weather tyres), there is absolutely nothing for the Williams due to worry about, so Reutemann and Jones settle down to lap smoothly and steadily, the World Champion dropping back slightly from his team mate so he can run in cool air and not risk overheating his engine. Patrese can’t stay with them, but the Arrows is getting away from the rest of the field with ease, and Giacomelli really has to work hard for the first few laps, eventually succumbing to De Angelis at the end of the long back straight mid-way through lap four. By lap seven the Italian V12 is coasting into the pit lane for the first of a number of pit stops to get to the bottom of an irritating misfire. The mechanics are eventually able to trace the problem to a faulty coil, but by the time his has been rectified, Giacomelli is way out of the running. At the end of lap 10 Villeneuve heads towards the pits where he has a new nose section fitted and optimistically changed onto slicks, thinking that the rain will ease up further. Just as he rejoins, the rain increases in its intensity, so there is no way he is going to make up any of the ground he has lost. Nonetheless, his spirited driving keeps the spectators entertained for another 15 laps before he crawls in to retire finally with major turbocharger failure. Meanwhile, Pironi has been lapping gamely on his slicks and is doing his best to keep out of the way of the leaders when they lapped him at the 20 lap mark. Unfortunately, he moves a little too far off the tenuous, semi-dry line as Prost’s Renault moves up alongside him, hits a puddle and shoots back across the track to T-bone the innocent Renault. Prost’s car is pitched briefly onto two wheels as the Ferrari collides with it and in a couple of seconds, the two drivers are climbing ruefully out of their cars which have shot off the circuit into the catch fencing.

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By lap 25, Jarier has forced his way up into sixth place and his Talbot-Matra is challenging Watson’s McLaren very hard. Surer has moved up to seventh, driving the Ensign neatly and tidily, while Laffite has faded to eighth and Rosberg is even further back now, troubled by understeer every time the rain eases slightly and his rear tyres can grip the track slightly better. De Cesaris has spluttered to a standstill with electrical problems right in front of the pits, Rebaque is in and out with a variety of problems which include clutch bothers and the problems which include clutch bothers and the need to clean out his Brabham’s throttle slides following a trip down the grass, and Piquet is into the pit retaining wall, Villeneuve bends his Ferrari nose section on the rear end of Prost’s Renault, trailing round at the back. Tambay’s Theodore sideswiped Stohr’s Arrows as the Frenchman lapped his rival, the Italian spinning off as a result, while Mansell is struggling round in 11th place in a car which has been damaged in a spin during the warm-up session and isn’t handling properly. By half distance the Williams cars are simply cruising in first and second places and Patrese is equally comfortable on his own in third spot. But a really ferocious battle is brewing up behind De Angelis’s fourth place Lotus 81, Watson fighting energetically to keep Marc Surer’s Ensign behind him while both Laffite and Jarier are also looking for a way past the Ensign, Laffite having moved ahead of his team mate once again as understeer on the near-drying track had hampered the second Talbot-Matra. On lap 35, Watson spins off at the end of the long back straight, quickly recovering in eighth place, but Surer and the two Talbots are well ahead of him by the time he has settled back into the rhythm of the race once again. Rebaque eventually crawls in to retire with throttle and suspension problems and, as the rain comes down again even harder, Laffite’s engine begins to misfire and Jarier moves back in front of him on lap 47.

 

The Williams team by this stage has the race completely under control and, with no other car challenging them and with Jones less than seven seconds behind Reutemann, Frank Williams exercises his contractual discretion and hangs out a sign to the Argentinian driver indicating that he should concede the lead to his team leader. On four occasions this sign is produced, but Reutemann continues to come round ahead of Jones and as he completes his 62nd lap the chequered flag is produced since the wet conditions have allowed two hours to elapse before the scheduled 63 laps have been completed. Reutemann thus wins his third Brazilian Grand Prix by 4.43 sec. over his team leader, Jones shrugging philosophically once it is all over while remarking that he knows now that he will have to race Reutemann in future just as if his was a car from a rival team. Reutemann explains to Frank Williams that he intended handing the lead to Jones on the very last lap - but there wasn’t a last lap, so to speak. Patrese finishes a smooth and confident third while Surer displaces De Angelis with just over ten laps to go, the happy Ensign driver scoring the best ever finish for the Walsall-based team and recording fastest lap in addition. De Angelis is fifth while Jarier responds to a signal from the pits and drops back, as instructed, behind Laffite who thus takes sixth place at the finish. A fuming Watson is eighth behind Jarier and the remaining runners are Rosberg, Tambay, Mansell and the crestfallen Piquet who has stayed on slicks and is now two laps behind. It is the fourth successive 1-2 finish for the Frank Williams cars in a World Championship Grand Prix, following the two North American events at the end of the 1980 and the recent Long Beach race in California, so the team has proved its undeniable quality irrespective of the mix up which has caused Reutemann to win and not Jones. In these circumstances in future, Frank Williams will have to insist on an immediate response by his drivers to obligatory pit signals and one wonders whether Reutemann will be disciplined for winning the Rio race against team orders, however inadvertently he may have done it.

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