#350 1981 French Grand Prix

2021-10-16 01:00

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#1981, Fulvio Conti,

#350 1981 French Grand Prix

The most important aspect of the 1981 French Grand Prix is that it sees the return of the Goodyear Tyre Company to Formula One. It will be recalled th


The most important aspect of the 1981 French Grand Prix is that it sees the return of the Goodyear Tyre Company to Formula One. It will be recalled that they withdrew entirely last winter during the fracas between Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula One constructors and officialdom. Thanks to the support of Michelin, who agrees to supply everyone with tyres for a limited time, Grand Prix racing get under way this year with everyone on a standard production racing tyre, apart from the Toleman-Hart team who has a contract with Pirelli. Immediately after the Spanish GP it is announced that Goodyear will be back, but their support initially will be limited to two top teams not on a long-term contract with Michelin. That means Williams and Brabham, so clearly Goodyear are looking for instant success and are coming back to win, not to be philanthropic. Naturally enough Michelin responds by saying that from now on tyres will be a serious matter and development work will only be for their long-contract teams, principally Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Talbot. So, before practice begins for the French GP on the little Dijon-Prenois circuit there is quite a lot of wheeling and dealing on the tyre front. Goodyear are adamant, tyres only for Williams and Brabham. Michelin are persuaded to help out Lotus, McLaren and Tyrrell but the rest have to do what they can. March and Theodore agree to buy the new Avons, Ensign finds some old 1980 Goodyears in their stores and the rest has to buy the standard production racing Michelin as use by everyone earlier in the season. When everyone is on these production Michelin racing tyres it is all right, but with the favoured teams on special racing tyres and the Goodyear teams on the best that Akron can supply, the rest might just as well be on British Bergounogne or Kelly Springfields. Hardest hit are the Arrows team for Patrese is well able to make use of good tyres, so is handicapped badly; their second runner probably does not notice much difference, as would other slow runners.


The Williams and Brabham teams have a lot of work to do in resetting their cars to get the best out of the new Goodyear tyres and in other pits there is also a lot to do because of driver changes. In the Talbot team Jabouille retires gracefully and Patrick Tambay has taken his place and Marc Surer takes over the Theodore. The Osella team cannot find a second driver as their regular one, Angel Miguel Guerra is still convalescing and Georgia Francia is otherwise engaged, so they officially withdraw their second car. The McLaren team have a brand new MP4 to try out, Renault wind up tight to do well in their home Grand Prix and Talbot are equally conscious of the importance of the event. Ferrari has been testing at the circuit earlier and seems resigned to the fact that their cars do not handle well on the fast corners, so even their horsepower is not going to overcome this. Friday morning sees the rain pouring down relentlessly so that the hour and a half normally used for testing, prior to the qualifying hour in the afternoon, is a virtual dead-loss. Although the rain stops not many people are able to learn much. The Toleman-Hart team have enough troubles at the best of times, but the morning sees Brian Henton lying on his back and groaning with a severe attack of food-poisoning, while Warwick is in trouble with a faulty pressure release valve on the turbo system which leaves him with sky-high boost and he has to shut off before the engine blow apart. The afternoon is dry but cold and windy and qualifying has not been running for long before more rain appears, but luckily it does not develop and with the high wind the track soon dries. Alan Jones is having to use his spare car as his regular one has gearbox trouble and Piquet has to stop using the spare Brabham as it suffers a brake fluid leak, so he has to use his race-car. Add to all this the nonsensical ground-clearance checks at the exit and entrance to the pit lane and it’s a wonder that anyone gets anything useful done.


The Williams team are taking longer to adjust to the Goodyear tyres than the Brabham team, though they have both tested at Silverstone the previous week, and having no tyre problems on good Michelins the McLaren team makes the most of the situation and Watson is fastest of the afternoon with MP4/2, his usual car, trying out the new one in the morning. He is followed by the two Renaults and the two Ferraris, all on Michelin tyres best suiting to the occasion, but it is an artificial situation for Jones, Reutemann and Piquet should certainly  be amongst them and probably Patrese as well. Down at the back of the field Warwick is giving the Toleman team some encouragement, being ahead of Borgudd (ATS), Salazar (Ensign) and Surer (Theodore). Henton did a few laps but is still feeling very rough. Although it is not raining on Saturday it is very cool and very grey, with a strong wind blowing up the long straight, but at least conditions are stable and allow some reasonable testing and experimenting to be done, the Goodyear teams adapting to cross-ply tyres after half a season on radials. For a change the Renault team is having few problems and are very fast on the main straight, over 200 m.p.h. being spoken of by some rather suspect timing, but certainly they are up around 185 m.p.h. Mansell has to abandon his Lotus 87 when a fuel injector pipe break and causes a minor fire, though marshals swamps the whole car with fire extinguisher which gives the mechanics a lot of work to clean it all up. Then the red flag comes out and put a stop to practice. Villeneuve goes off into the catch-fences on the very fast downhill sweep of the last bend before the main straight, through trying too hard and overcooking it. He walks back to the pits but a break-down is needed for the Ferrari (052); even so it is cleaned up and straightened out in time for the afternoon practice.


Alan Jones is trying different things on his two cars, and generally preferring the spare car, which is number 11 that he crashed at Zolder earlier in the season, now all brand new after a total rebuild. Practice  resumes and Villeneuve goes out in the spare Ferrari (050) and Mansell goes out in the old Lotus 81/2 that the team has as spare. Pironi adds to the Ferrari troubles when he goes up the straight trailing a great plume of smoke as a piston melts, which means a panic engine change during the lunch hour, for Villeneuve has the spare car while his own is being straightened out. At the end of the pit lane the Toleman hopes are dashed when Warwick overdo things and hit the barriers, rumpling the monocoque of TG181B/03, but both he and Henton, who is now recovering, are keeping up with the tail-enders. In the Talbot team Laffite is flogging round and round, covering 51 laps during the morning, but while he is with the front-runners he is only just hanging on, and Tambay is down in mid-field still learning his way along with the Matra V12 engine, but enjoying every minute of it. Due to the delay in the morning the final hour for qualifying does not start until 1.20 p.m. instead of 1 p.m. and it is still cool and grey, but staying dry. The Ferrari mechanics get Villeneuve’s car ready in time but Pironi’s is still being worked on so he takes over the spare car (050). Mansell’s Lotus 87 is made ready and Watson is sticking to MP4/2. Work is going on to try and straight out Warwick’s Toleman, but it is a forlorn task and Jones is trying 15" diameter Goodyears on the front of his spare car, as against the normal 13" diameter front tyres. Arnoux is setting a cracking pace with his Renault RE33, completely happy with the performance and the handling, but Watson is equally happy with his McLaren MP4 and he is vying for pole position with the French team, for Prost is equally fast. In fact Prost equals Watson’s best time, which put him third overall.


As Watson records the time first, the order is Renault, McLaren, Renault, with Arnoux well ahead. Clearly the Brabham team is getting to grips with the new Goodyear tyres and Piquet is fourth fastest, behind the three Michelin-shod cars, but what is more important is that he is on tyres that would last the 80 laps of the race, whereas the Michelin runners are on short-life tyres especially for qualifying. Pironi eventually gets his own car back (053) with a new engine installed, but neither he nor Villeneuve can do better than mid-field times, in amongst the Alfa Romeos of Andretti and Giacomelli. Hopes are rising in the Toleman team for nearing the end of the timed hour Henton is in twenty-fourth place, the last one on the grid, but then in the final few minutes the Fittipaldi team gets Chico Serra out in their spare car, after his own wrecks its engine, and he just scraps onto the grid in twenty-fourth place, while Siegfried Stohr pips Henton by four-hundredths of second, to become the first non-qualifier. That the McLaren MP4 is going well and is very suited to the circuit is evidenced not only by Watson’s stormy second place on the grid, but also by de Cesaris claiming fifth place, ahead of Laffite and Reutemann. Practice has been anything but clear-cut so the starting grid does not really reflect the true situation as far as race fortunes goes, and during the morning warm-up on Sunday, when everyone is running in full race trim, which is to say with full tanks and on tyres that would last the 80 laps, a different picture emerges. Both Williams cars and both Brabham cars are faster than all the Michelin runners, of which Arnoux is the quickest but only in fifth place. The field of 24 cars is reduced to 23 before the end of the warm-up when Serra crashes his Fittipaldi too badly for it to be repaired on the spot and the teams’s spare car has a duff engine so that is that. Starting with this season, no reserve drivers are allowed any more so the grid is going to be one short.


Every time there is a lull in the Formula One activities a paddock gate is opened and a swarm of racing cars from a lesser category pounds round the circuit, these being for Renault 5, Alfa-Sud, Formula 3, Renault 5 Turbo, and Production cars and at midday when there is a pause for breath a great concourse of vintage, PVT and post-war Alfa Romeos parade round the circuit, among them Baron de Graffenried in a Tipo 159, Moroni in the factory P2 and Lurani in his Targa Florio car. The 159 can be heard all round the circuit and sounds glorious. Although the sun is shining when the cars leave the pit lane to go round to the assembly grid, it is not very warm and grey clouds are all around. Jones elects to race his spare car (No. 11) as it feels better on the fast corners; the Ferraris are running very low boost-pressure and there is an air of confidence in the Renault pits, but most people have their eye on Piquet who is lining his Brabham up behind Watson on the left of the grid, with the two Renaults one behind the other on the right-hand side. With very little fuss Arnoux leads the field on an orderly parade lap and back to the starting grid. The starter press the button to put the red light on, the green being due between 4 and 7 seconds later, but something is wrong with the electrics and the green light comes on with the red, they both flickers and without hesitating the starter hit the green button, which cancels the red. Poor Arnoux is bewildered by it all and muffs his start, but Piquet is off like a flash, swerving round Watson and into the lead. From eleventh place Villeneuve shuts down the outside and into fifth place! We all wonder how he does it and he says he goes when the red light goes out, not when the green comes on, but you would think he is wired in to the filament in the red bulb.
Many of the drivers are caught out by the erratic light signals, among them Alan Jones, and in the crowding away from the grid he hit Andretti’s Alfa Romeo with a front wheel and bent a steering tie-rod. By the end of the first lap Piquet is already well away from Watson but Prost is closing on the McLaren. In fourth place is de Cesaris, keeping out of trouble on the opening lap, Villeneuve is still fifth, Laffite sixth, Andretti seventh, Reutemann eighth and Arnoux a furious ninth. Jones is finding his steering a bit odd and at the end of the third lap he is into the pits to have a new tie-rod fitted between the right-hand steering arm and the steering rack. Meanwhile Piquet is streaking away from everyone and Prost overtakes Watson on lap 3 and instantly pulls away from the McLaren. There are no changes further down the field and, in fact, they are drawn out into a procession, apart from Hector Rebaque who is down in fifteenth place, but picking off the mid-field runners one by one. First Tambay, then Giacomelli, then Mansell, then Andretti who drops back, then de Angelis; it is the only bright spot to a rather dull procession. Alan Jones rejoins the race but he is three laps down and he is now running between his team-mate Reutemann and Arnoux, who are fourth and fifth respectively, the Renault driver getting past Villeneuve on lap 7. Reutemann is closing slowly on Watson, but not quick enough for Jones and on lap 15 the two Williams cars take the long right-hander at the end of the main straight side-by-side and rubbing tyres! Just behind them Laffite does the same to de Cesaris in a do-or-die effort to get past, which succeeds. By this time the Ensign disappears with a suspension failure and the lone Fittipaldi has also gone with a broken rear end that is letting the rear wheels steer as well as the fronts. At 20 laps Piquet is so far ahead he is in a race of his own and equally Prost is a long ahead of Watson. In fourth place Reutemann is falling back as his left front tyre comes up in a blister and he is going gently on the right-hand corners and trying to make up time on the left-handers.
Arnoux is still a fair way back in fifth place and Villeneuve is leading Laffite and de Cesaris. After a gap came Pironi being pressed by Rebaque, followed by de Angelis and trailing along behind came Andretti, Mansell, Giacomelli, Tambay, Patrese and Surer with Daly, Cheever and Alboreto already lap by the leader. Jones is into the pits again to change his front tyres, to try and improve the handling and a couple of laps later he is back again as he felt a front wheel nut is loose. It issn’t so he rejoins the race but is now four laps behind and right out of the running. The race now becomes rather uninspired, the only spark being Rebaque still passing people down in mid-field, claiming de Cesaris on lap 28 and sitting it out wheel-to-wheel with Laffite on lap 30, which now put him in seventh position. Piquet is now in a spot of trouble for his throttle slides are not shutting instantly when he take his foot off the accelerator pedal, which does not cause concern when he is alone on the track, but make it tricky when he is lapping slower cars. In second place Prost is also in trouble as he cannot select fourth gear, but Watson is all right in third place, though Reutemann has lost fourth place to Arnoux and is still nursing his blistered left-front tyre. Villeneuve’s sixth place disappears when his engine cut dead on lap 42, with some sort of electrical failure, so this promotes the hard-working Rebaque up into a worthy sixth place. Piquet’s hesitancy in passing slower cars allows Prost to close up on him, but not dangerously so, and equally Prost’s lack of fourth gear allows Watson to close up, while Reutemann repasses Arnoux. Down at the back of the field Surer has a spirited dice in the Avon-shod Theodore, racing wheel-to-wheel with Giacomelli’s works Alfa Romeo and getting the better of it. At 50 laps Piquet finally laps his Mexican team-mate, but has Alan Jones just behind, though four laps down, and Jonesey is all for going faster than the leading Brabham wants to, which is a bit unnerving for the little Brazilian, but he does not let it worry him.
With 30 laps still to run victory seems pretty,assured, but there was a Joker in the pack. On lap 54 rain spots began to fall as a big black cloud approach the far end of the circuit and a deluge moves relentlessly up the long straight. It takes about three minutes to arrive and by lap 57 the straight is awash and Piquet completes his fifty-eighth lap at a crawl, the car immersed in spray, to be greeted by the red flag, with black ones all round the circuit, which means the race was being stopped. He, and those on the same lap with him, pull in at the end of their fifty-ninth lap as the rain virtually obliterates everything for a few minutes; then it is gone, the sun come out and people and the track dry instantly. But it is too late, the organisers  stop the race in a bit of a panic. The rules say that if 75% of the distance has been covered the race can be considered finished, but less than that means that the remaining laps must be run when conditions allow and the overall result will be calculated from the additions of times for the two parts. Two more laps would have seen the 75% and victory to Piquet and his Brabham, but that was not to be, a further 22 laps have to be run with a restart with the cars lined up in the order they had finished the first part. As the rain came down de Cesaris goes into the pits expecting to change to rain tyres, and is there when the race is stopped which drops him from eighth to fourteenth place. The result of the first part is taken at the end of 58 laps. In a matter of minutes the rain has gone and within 30 minutes everything is drying rapidly. Before the restart the Renault mechanics cure the gearbox trouble on Prost’s car, the Brabham mechanics cure the sticking throttle slides on Piquet’s car, Reutemann’s blistered tyre is changed and the leading Michelin runners are fitted out with a softer compound set of tyres that would nicely last about 25 laps.
There have been nineteen cars classified in the first part and they line up in the order Piquet (Brabham), Prost (Renault), Watson (McLaren), Reutemann (Williams), Arnoux (Renault), Rebaque (Brabham), Laffite (Talbot), de Angelis (Lotus), Pironi (Ferrari), Mansell (Lotus), Andretti (Alfa Romeo), Surer (Theodore), Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo), de Cesaris (McLaren), Patrese (Arrows), Cheever (Tyrrell), Alboreto (Tyrrell), Jones (Williams) and Daly (March). The restart is given at 3:05 p.m. with the cars lined up on the grid in staggered pairs, but it is all over before the green light came on. The Goodyear runners are committed to relatively hard 80 lap tyres, while the Michelin men are on soft sprint tyres, the Akron firm having nothing suitable for such a short race, while the French firm has something for every occasion, and this was one of them. From the start Prost, Watson, Arnoux and Pironi surge away and Piquet strive valiantly to hang on to third place. Watson actually tries to pass Prost on the opening lap and nearly gets away with it, but runs wide and drops back. The 22 laps are a rather pointless formality and poor Nelson Piquet has to watch victory slip from his grasp as Prost disappears into the distance and likewise Watson into second place. He cannot keep up with Arnoux or Pironi, but has sufficient time in hand over them from the first 58 laps that he is still ahead on aggregate times. If anyone pass anyone during the 22 laps it is not noticeable and the order at the end of part two is Prost, Watson, Arnoux, Pironi, Piquet, de Cesaris, Andretti, Jones, Mansell, de Angelis, Rebaque, Cheever, Surer, Patrese, Alboreto, Reutemann and Giacomelli. On the opening lap Laffite hitss the back of Reutemann’s car, and deranges the front end of the Talbot, and Daly pulls out after seven laps when his engine begin to seize. From fifth place in the opening laps Reutemann has gradually fallen right to the back as his engine developes a chronic misfire with all the symptoms of a drastic drop in fuel-pressure, rather like Jones had suffered at Monaco. Not a Williams year this one.


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