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#351 1981 British Grand Prix

2021-10-15 01:00

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#1981, Fulvio Conti,

#351 1981 British Grand Prix

Enormous is the only way to describe the size of the organisation behind this year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, backed by Marlboro and with th

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Enormous is the only way to describe the size of the organisation behind this year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, backed by Marlboro and with the support of just about every racing enthusiast in the country, all master-minded by the RAC Motor Sports Association. The pits and paddock become a veritable young town, with motor homes, tents, marquees, and trade vehicles as far as the eye could see, let alone all the competitors in the supporting races and all the cars in the parades. You certainly will not think that Great Britain is during a serious recession. The Formula 1 cars are scrutineered on Wednesday July 15th, preparatory to starting practice at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, and Team Lotus presents three Type 88B cars, the original test car and two brand new ones. They are passed by the RAC scrutineers, but nearly two hours later an official protest is handed in from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Talbot-Matra. During Thursday, while the Stewards deliberate and have discussions with the FISA representatives, the Lotuses take part in the morning test session and the afternoon timed session. The atmosphere in certain parts of the pit lane is rather like the weather, grey and cool! All this time the RAC Motor Sports Association has been standing by Team Lotus sure in the knowledge that any decisions make rested with the Stewards of the meeting. By Friday morning all the decisions have been turned through 180-degrees and the Lotus 88B is declared illegal and the times record by de Angelis and Mansell on Thursday afternoon are disallowed. All along the RACMSA thought that they have supreme power over their own Grand Prix, but it seems that someone read the rule-book incorrectly, as regards the running of a Grand Prix, and the FIA, through its FISA representative, can and do over-rule any decision made by the Stewards or the organisers, and the FIA-FISA deems the Lotus 88B to be a direct derivative of the Lotus 88 which the International Court of Appeal has already declared illegal and contravening the Formula 1 rules.

 

Meanwhile there are numerous rules in the book being flagrantly broken, like the simple one that says the driver’s name must appear on the bodywork of the car. You won’t find the names of Piquet or Rebaque on the Brabhams. The result of all this double-talk, gobbledy-gook and double-crossing is that Team Lotus has to do an enormous amount of work in a very short time, to convert the 88B cars into 87 cars, which is done by removing the aerodynamic sprung-structure·in its entirely and substituting conventional side-pods and rear aerofoil and changing all the ancillaries involved and generally re-jigging the whole car to suit a different conception; the prototype 88B/1 cannot be converted so major components like engine, gearbox, rear suspension are removed and the rest abandoned in a corner of one of the garages. The two new cars, numbers two and four, are converted, and number three, which is already in 87 form is brought over from the factory. There ends the latest chapter in the saga of the Lotus 88. For the rest of the very full entry things progress a bit more normally, though not very smoothly for some teams. Tyrrell brings along his brand-new design, designated 011/1, for Cheever to drive, but we are only halfway through the Thursday afternoon qualifying hour when he goes off in a big way at the Woodcote Chicane and bend it rather badly, so it is not seen again. Cheever did the rest of the meeting in an old 010 car. The Brabham team, with Gordon Murray in charge as Mr. Ecclestone is on a business trip in America, tries to stretch the rules to the limit and get Piquet on pole-position using the very powerful, but fragile, turbo-charged BMW powered BT50 and then to substitute their regular Cosworth-powered BT49C in its place for the race itself. It is a nice try but it doesn’t work, for the Cosworth-poared car is the faster of the two, but not fast enough to claim pole-position.

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Ferrari brings along an experimental car with a revised front and rear-suspension, number 051/B, and both Villeneuve and Pironi persevere with it during the two days of practice but do not make any startling progress and on Friday morning Pironi has the rear brakes lock up at Becketts Corner and spins off. The damage is superficial, and the car is out again in the afternoon with Villeneuve in the cockpit. In addition Pironi uses 053 and Villeneuve has a brand new car, 054, both being to normal specification. It is noticeable that the engines are running fairly low boost and are totally reliable, all the experimentation going into the suspension and handling. Among the French teams Renault are extremely happy while Talbot are in all sorts of trouble. The Renaults are very fast, very stable and handled well on Silverstone’s fast corners using new central-pillar mounted rear aerofoils for the first time and turbo-lag is not a problem with the absence of slow corners. Both Arnoux and Prost are in great form and apart from Prost’s engine expiring in a cloud of smoke at Copse on Friday afternoon they run well. Prost takes over the spare car, RE31, and goes just as fast, the two turbo-charged 1 1/2-litres ending up on the front of the grid. The Talbots (nee Ligiers) have a lot of trouble with bearings in the rear hubs breaking up, which give them a lot of headaches and work, and restrict the amount of practice both Laffite and Tambay can do. At the bottom of the scale the Toleman team looks to be making good progress and has three cars in the pits, the two used in Dijon (02 and 03) and the totally rebuilt original car (01). On Thursday Henton ends up in twenty-first position, which qualifies for the race, and the disqualification of the two Lotus 88B cars moves him up to nineteenth, but he then crashes heavily when something went amiss at the front end and the car is too badly bent to repair immediately.

 

This means he has to use the original car on Friday and it is nothing like as fast. To add to their troubles, they have to use some early prototype exhaust manifolding and on Friday afternoon, as Henton waits at the pit entrance for the ground clearance checking, the manifold splits and sets fire to the bodywork, which causes the fire marshals to smother the car in extinguishant. A few moments later Warwick’s car do the same thing while standing in the pits and practice ends with both Toleman cars covered in white powder and looking a sorry mess. Once again neither of them qualifies, this time more through misfortune than lack of speed. Not all the teams are in such dire trouble, though some are not as quick as they expect, or the Renaults go more quickly than anyone anticipated. McLarens got both their entries well up the grid, Arrows got Patrese back up where he belongs, principally by persuading Pirelli to supply them with tyres, and the two Williams drivers are fairly well placed, bearing in mind they are on race-duration tyres and not on short-life sprint tyres like the leading Michelin runners, notably Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Talbot. Goodyear has relented on their original decision of two teams and adds Lotus to their list, but the 88 saga negates any advantage this might have offered Team Lotus. With only Friday to sort out the hastily built 87 models de Angelis just scrapes on to the grid and Mansell is left out in the cold. For a change the Osella team gets a car onto the grid, thanks entirely to the co-opting of Jean-Pierre Jarier into the second car, and March gets into the race with Daly in a brand-new car schemed up by Gordon Coppuck and Adrian Reynard from the lessons learn with the original March 811. Like the Williams team who brings along four cars, 11 and 15 for Jones, and 12 and 14 for Reutemann, Alfa Romeo has four cars for Andretti and Giacomelli, one of them being a mixture of last year’s monocoque and a new rear end, the others being a mixture of this and that. Through it all both drivers qualify, within two-tenths of a second of each other which should prove something, but probably will not.

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Both practice days are grey and cool with the occasional sprinkling of rain, but luckily it did not affect the outcome at all and race day, which is Saturday July 18th, is warm and dry. The British Grand Prix is undoubtedly the biggest motor sporting event of the year in Great Britain and though it costs spectators a small fortune to attend they cannot complain of lack of entertainment, especially on race day. For three hours in the early morning there are coach trips around the circuit, then there is an hour and half to walk about in the pits, for those prepare to pay extra. At 10:00 a.m. there is a 20-Iap Formula 3 race, rather spoilt because practice which is in two parts has had one session in the dry and the other in the wet, so that some drivers are not as well placed as they should have been. At 11:00 a.m. there is a 20-lap Saloon car race and this is followed by a parade of the winning cars from the previous day’s race for sports/racing cars of the sixties. Just after midday the Formula One cars appear for their half-hour warm-up session and then there is a long lunch period, during which there are parades, air demonstrations, superkart demonstrations and a surfeit of eating and drinking. At 3:00 p.m. the Grand Prix takes place and when that is over there is a 12-lap race for historic cars. After that, if you are in a car, you join the queue to get out, or if you are in a helicopter you raise vertically above it all, or if you are on a motorcycle you wiggle your way between the cars in the traffic jam and disappear down the Buckinghamshire lanes. It is a busy day. Those who are lucky enough to have been at Silverstone on Thursday, and there are 9,500 of them, will have seen the Lotus 88B cars and the Tyrrell 011, while the 21.500 who are there on Friday see Arnoux take the turbo-charged Renault round at an average speed of over 148 m.p.h. His pole-position time of 1'11"0 is 148.664 m.p.h., while Prost’s best is 148.568 m.p.h. They are recording around 130 m.p.h. out of Club Corner, and 170 m.p.h. at Abbey Curve; 140 m.p.h. past the pits out of the chicane and over 120 m.p.h. out of Copse Corner.

 

Many people at Silverstone in 1981 are there in 1953 when Farina in the 4 1/2-litre Ferrari Thin Wall Special recorded Silverstone’s first 100 m.p.h. lap, long before the Woodcote chicane. The race-day warm-up for the Grand Prix cars allows time for a final run-on full petrol tank, with race-duration tyres and gives a good indication of what might be about to happen. Ferrari abandon their experimental car. Cheever is committed to his Tyrrell 010, Surer is in the new Theodore, Andretti has his Alfa Romeo engine fail, and De Cesaris spins off in the McLaren MP4/1 wiping off the aerofoils front and rear. Piquet is using the carbon-fibre brake discs on BT49C/11 for the first time in a race and is obviously well in with a chance against the turbo-cars. The BT50/BMW is on display behind the pits, unfortunately with the engine covered up, and Silverstone is well packed to capacity for what looks like being a good race. While the Alfa Romeo mechanics change the engine in Andretti’s car and the McLaren mechanics dust off the car of de Cesaris, all the drivers and teams are given two very important warnings. One is that the race will run for 68 laps, come hell or high water, rain or shine, storm or tempest, and the other is that in the case of accidents and yellow flags anyone seen overtaking under the yellow flags will be hauled into the pits very smartly by use of the regulation black flag and racing number of the culprit. It is all very straightforward and very clear. Right on time the twenty-four Formula 1 cars leave the pits and go round to the form-up grid, everyone being in good order and ready to go with Piquet and Pironi ready to jump the Renaults if they hesitate at the start, while Jones and Villeneuve will be sure not to miss any opportunities once the green light has come on. Arnoux leads them all round on the parade lap. They formed up on the grid, the red light is on, then the green and they are away amidst the wonderful noise that only twenty-four engines pushing out 500 plus b.h.p. each can make. It is Pironi that got between the Renaults, with Piquet close behind, followed by Villeneuve as they appear out of Copse and stream away up to Maggots Curve and Becketts.

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Twenty-three cars go by and then Alboreto appear going slowly with the clutch of his Tyrrell slipping madly. Before the end of the lap Stohr has crashed his Arrows, so as the race ends lap one, we are already down to 22 cars. Not a good start to the 68-lap race. Villeneuve is briefly past Arnoux on lap 1, so the order is Prost (Renault), Pironi (Ferrari), Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Arnoux (Renault). Turbo-charged cars in the first four places. Piquet is leading the rest and driving really hard, followed by Jones, Watson and de Cesaris. The lead that Prost has is already staggering and by the end of lap 2 it is almost unreal, he is just running away from everyone and with total ease. Arnoux has gathered himself up and snatches back his third place from Villeneuve and is hard after the other Ferrari, which he passes on lap 3. It now seems to be all over, the two Renaults are in full command and leaving the rest behind, and making it all look very easy, but Piquet is fighting hard, passing Villeneuve on lap 3 and Jones is really leaning on the Canadian as they go into Maggots on lap 4, but just failing to get by. As they pour through the Woodcote chicane to end lap 4 Villeneuve’s Ferrari hits the kerb with a rear wheel, which put it into a full-lock slide, but then its hard suspension makes it bounce on its soft tyres and then it is spinning in a cloud of rubber smoke. In the confusion the closely following Williams of Alan Jones hit the Ferrari fair and square as they skate into the catch-fencing, while John Watson stands on the brakes and pray. His prayers are answered for he comes to a virtual stop without hitting anything, but poor de Cesaris has little option but to dodge to the left, and that spins him into the retaining wall with a thump. Reutemann, Andretti, Giacomelli, Tambay and Laffite all go by Watson as he is regaining his breath, so that he drops from seventh place to tenth.

 

Jones and de Cesaris get out of their cars at once and end their race, but Villeneuve, who has kept his engine running during the accident, re-joins the track after everyone has gone by and tries to get the Ferrari back to the pits, because you never know, it might be possible to mend it and go on racing. It expires at Stowe Corner. On the very next lap Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo dies with gearbox trouble so with only five laps gone the field is down to eighteen cars, and of those Daly is already two laps behind after coming into the pits on lap 2 with gear-lever linkage trouble. At 6 laps order is regained, with the two Renaults sailing round in the lead and Piquet driving his heart out to keep them in sight. Pironi is fourth, Reutemann fifth, Andretti sixth and Watson already back to seventh place, the McLaren MP4 disposing of the two Talbot-Matras with consummate ease. Following come Rebaque, Patrese, de Angelis, Rosberg, Cheever, Borgudd, Jarier and Surer, with Daly a long way back but now going well. The troublesome opening phase is obviously going to continue for Tambay’s Matra V12 suddenly went flat, and he is into the pits for a change of plugs and then on lap 12 as Piquet approaches Beckett’s the front left tyre deflates on the Brabham and the car careered straight on into the barriers. Piquet is extricated by the marshals and removed by ambulance with suspected leg and/or ankle injuries, but while this is going on de Angelis overtakes Laffite and nearly collects the ambulance in so doing, so it is no surprise that he is very soon given the black flag. He storms into the pits and disappears from the scene pretty smartly, not waiting to be told what a naughty boy he has been. While this is going on Pironi’s Ferrari expires in a cloud of smoke and Watson, having passed Reutemann to great cheers from the crowd, suddenly inherits third place, to an enormous roar of approval from the crowd. Tambay disappears with a very flat-sounding engine and then a great stir goes through the crowd, for Prost is into the pits with his turbo-charged V6 engine off-song. Nothing could be done, either the ignition or the injection timing has gone awry, so the car is retired.

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Only seventeen laps have been run and the whole scene has changed, Arnoux is in the lead, Watson is second, but a long way back, followed by Reutemann and Andretti. So soon and the top aces have gone out, Piquet, Jones, Villeneuve and Prost, while Patrese and Laffite are simply not keeping up the pace. Not surprisingly, after so much excitement and turmoil the whole scene settles down with Arnoux majestically in the lead, Watson in a tenuous second place for Reutemann is not far behind in third place and no-one knows what goes on in the great Argentinian’s mind when he is racing. Andretti is a lonely fourth, followed by Patrese, Rebaque, Laffite, Cheever, Surer, Borgudd, Rosberg and Daly. A long way back after a pit stop to reset the rear aerofoil on the Osella is Jarier. For many laps nothing happen, the cars circulate regularly with the gaps between them gradually widening, and Arnoux lapping the tail enders. Rebaque stops for a tyre change, which drops him to the back of the field and Patrese eventually catches and passes Andretti, but it is hardly significant. Surer is having a real go in the Theodore to catch Cheever, and Daly is still going exceptionally well in the new March but handicaps by his long pit-stop. For lap after lap the leaders drone round becoming more and more space out, with onIy Watson, Reutemann and Patrese now on the same lap as Arnoux. The sunshine is warm and the whole scene peaceful and tranquil and few people notice Rebaque goes into the pits for another tyre change. The laps tick by and it is obviously going to be a rather dull Renault walk-over, with victory for Arnoux. On lap 50 he records his best race lap in a leisurely 1'15"067, if you can call 140.6 m.p.h. leisurely, but on lap 51 everyone seats up and a roar comes from the crowd. The Renault exhaust note suddenly lost its edge and two laps later the yellow, white and black car is slowing visibly.

 

The crowd raises and cheers Watson on to greater effort to catch the ailing Renault, to which he responds magnificently. By lap 57 he has the Renault in sight, but Arnoux is not giving up despite feeling totally depressed. He is really scratching round the corners, but it is all over for him, the McLaren simply gobbles up the gap and as they go away on lap 61 Watson is alongside and the cheer from the crowd says it all. Watson is in the lead on lap 61, with only seven to go and the designer of the MP4, John Barnard, with his two assistants head back to the pits from Copse Corner looking remarkably cool outwardly, but no doubt elated within. Poor little Rene Arnoux is desperately nursing his sick Renault along in second place, but as he starts his sixty-fifth lap, with only three to go, the engine gave up the ghost and he pulls off at Copse. A malfunctioning in the injection system has upset the mixture and some vital part inside the engine has cried enough. While everyone is jubilant to see John Watson ease home the winner, real sympathy goes out for Rene Arnoux. This leave Reutemann second and Patrese third, but only a lap after the Renault goes out the Arrows engine gives up and Patrese is out, so that as the chequered flag begins to be unfurled Laffite, who is a lap behind, finds himself in third place for Andretti has stopped when a clevis pin falls out of the rear end of the throttle cable on the Alfa Romeo, and within sight of the finish Marc Surer is forced out when the Theodore loses all its fuel pressure. Almost unrealises Cheever nearly catches Laffite as they cross the finishing line, both a lap behind Watson, so moved is everybody to see Watson win the British Grand Prix. The enthusiasm of the crowd all-round the circuit is memorable, not exactly rivalling the Itallans when a Ferrari wins at Monza, but nonetheless a splendid display of enthusiasm for a truly British victory. Marlboro are delighted as they not only sponsor the race but they sponsor the McLaren team as well. It is indeed a popular win.

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