#355 1981 Italian Grand Prix

2021-10-11 01:00

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#1981, Fulvio Conti,

#355 1981 Italian Grand Prix

Apart from one or two minor sponsors changing teams or spreading their largesse in other directions, and the arrival of one or two for a one-race deal


Apart from one or two minor sponsors changing teams or spreading their largesse in other directions, and the arrival of one or two for a one-race deal in advertising, everything is in pretty good shape on Friday morning when testing begins. It does not stay that way for long as Andrea de Cesaris crashes his McLaren MP4 and someone estimates that it is his nineteenth crash this season! The weather is heavy and sultry, as is the atmosphere in the McLaren team and they do not rush to repair it for the afternoon’s qualifying session. In fact, there are deep mutterings about putting de Cesaris out to grass and calling it a day. The qualifying hour has just got under way when everything stops as Pironi has gone off into the barriers in a very big way at the second Lesmo corner. Everything has seemed to be going perfectly for him, the speed feels right, the handling feels right and suddenly the front slides away and the whole of the left side of the Ferrari 126CK/054 is wiped off on the barriers. Pironi is unharmed and returns to the pits to say he has no idea what has happened. Quite unmoved he gets into his T-car (049/B) and proceeds to go even faster. Meanwhile Piquet is putting in his times in the spare Brabham with the carbon-fibre brake discs, and Reutemann is taking his time about going out and using up his two sets of tyres. In the morning Rebaque’s engine has broken and he is now waiting for the car to be finished off, after having the engine replaced. For the first time this year, in spite of an obvious Concorde Agreement rule, the Brabham cars have the drivers’ names written on them clearly, and Rebaque has his name on the T-car as well as his own, but does not use it. While Piquet is driving it, the Mexican’s name is taped over. The new Osella is giving a few problems of a teething nature, and Enzo Osella himself is helping the mechanics to bleed the brakes. Brian Henton has been going well in the morning test-session with number 5 Toleman-Hart, using the single-casting head-block-crankcase Hart engine, and looks a cert for qualifying within the chosen twenty-four, but a failure in the inter-cooler system forces him to transfer to the older spare car.


As is becoming familiar these days the qualifying hour lacks any sort of animation and it is no great surprise to find the two Renault drivers have done their job well and are first and second by a country mile being in a class of their own in the 1'34"0, while a very confident Reutemann is best of the rest. His team-mate, World Champion Alan Jones, is nursing a broken finger and some bruises and abrasions as a result of a public brawl in West London over a difference of opinion on driving manners in traffic. A look down the list of times makes an eyebrow or two rise when it is seen that Alboreto on Avon tyres is faster than Cheever on Goodyear tyres, both in 1981 Tyrrell cars. Not only do eyebrows rise in the Talbot camp when it is seen that Tambay is faster than Laffite, but the team management (Laffite!) decides they would swap cars for Saturday’s practice. On Saturday there is still no sign of Sunny Italy and the sky is very overcast, but at least the rain keeps off and it’s warm. To many people’s surprise the McLaren team repairs MP4/1 and de Cesaris is let out again and to his credit he covers 22 laps without an accident. Watson is soon forced to take over his T-car (MP4/2) as his race car (MP4/3) springs a leak of oil which necessitates removing all the underside of the car to get at it. In the pre-race blurb from Marlboro there is a great explanation about new megaphone exhaust pipes on the Alfa Romeo V12 of Andretti, which are said to give 15 bhp more and improve the pick-up from corners. During the morning Andretti runs with the megaphones, then stops and has a set of thin parallel pipes fitted in their place and tries again and that is the last we see of the trombones. In the Ferrari pits the Brembo brake men are giving a lot of attention to the brakes on Villeneuve’s car, though the Ferodo brake pad lining man is very happy with the temperature situation. Pironi is still in his T-car, his crashed one being beyond immediate repair, but he is in trouble with a failed turbo-charger bearing.


Considering that the KKK turbine/compressor unit is revolving at close on 100.000 rpm, and 90.000 rpm is quite normal, the plain sleeve bearings on which the shafts run need some very drastic lubrication to get rid of the heat. At the bottom end of the pits the Theodore team are in trouble as their number one car dies out on the circuit with ignition trouble, so Surer is having to use the spare car to decide on tyres and aerodynamic settings in readiness for the final qualifying hour in the afternoon. During the lunch-break (hard-work time for the mechanics and team personnel) the weather improves slightly and begins to get warm, though the air is hazy. After the total domination by the Renaults on Friday and the poor showing by Ferrari and Alfa Romeo (Villeneuve fifth, Pironi seventh and Andretti 13th) the crowd on Saturday is very poor and very quiet. Gone is the sight of the main grandstand (free on Saturday) full to overflowing, with screams and cheers every times Ferrari left the pits. The scene is very subdued and almost dull. Such is the slow pace of qualifying these days that seven minutes after the session started de Angelis is still preparing to go out, and Colin Chapman is not in a frenzy. This time last year they would have already got through two sets of qualifying tyres and the Goodyear depot mould have been hard at work to keep everyone supplied. Andretti’s Alfa is still running on straight exhaust tail pipes and Piquet is in his spare Brabham. The Theodore team has cured the ignition fault on their number one car and we have not been going long before Watson stops out on the circuit with an electrical failure. He gets back to the pits on foot and goes out in the T-car. In the Ferrari pits there is a certain amount of tension, for Pironi in his T-car (049/B) comes in saying the engine is vibrating badly and then goes off in Villeneuve’s T-car (052), whereupon the French-Canadian arrives in a cloud of smoke from a ruined turbocharger only to find he has not got a spare car any more.


He has to sit-out the rest of the qualifying time and watch Pironi trying to push him down the grid, which he finally manages to do. In the Williams camp Reutemann is in devastating form and has the Renaults on the run, eventually getting between them, though it must be admitted that Prost is thwarted by having a slight moment when overtaking de Cesaris, which results in the Renault bending a nose fin and damaging a wheel. Apart from the pain and inconvenience of the bandaged finger on his right hand, which hampers gear-changing, Jones is in further trouble when his engine blows up and he cannot get back from the far end of the circuit, to go out in his spare car. Like Villeneuve he has only used one of his sets of tyres, so we have the unusual situation of two drivers with tyres to spare. Giacomelli is in great fighting form and not only is he ahead of his team-leader, but he is also the fastest driver, which sounds good until you realise there are nine foreigners in front of him, from France, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Ulster. The first six on the grid are separated by two seconds, but the last six on the grid have only 1.3 sec separating them, and it’s supposed to be tough at the top! At long last one of the Toleman-Hart cars has scraped on to the grid, in twenty-third place, just ahead of Salazar in the Ensign. It’s fitting that it is Brian Henton who makes it as his enthusiasm has never wavered, even when the team has been in the depths of despair. Everyone in the team now realises that the real work now begins - qualifying for a race is the easy part! The six drivers who fail to qualify are covered by 2.3 sec and these are Surer (Theodore), Gabbiani (Osella), Warwick (Toleman-Hart), Stohr (Arrows), Rosberg (Fittipaldi) and Serra (Fittipaldi). In the closing minutes of qualifying Piquet disappears off the track in a cloud of dust with what seems to be a punctured right rear tyre, but later investigation shows that a stone has gone down the brake cooling duct, split the caliper and sliced into the wheel rim. Damage is minimal and it becomes apparent to everyone that Monza in 1981 is remarkably safe.

As everyone starts preparing for race day there is a rather sour note down at the back of the grid when someone in the Theodore team puts in a protest that Henton’s Toleman-Hart does not have its skirts fixed according to the letter of the law, even though the scrutineers have passed the car. The protest is thrown out but a lot of people take a poor view of the action, remembering that Toleman has withdrawn one of the cars from practice in the Belgian Grand Prix to allow the Theodore to take part, purely in a gesture of goodwill. It is interesting that many of the teams and people that really matter in Grand Prix racing have visited the Toleman pit to offer congratulations on them finally getting a car into the race. With a totally new and totally self-contained team, starting everything from scratch at the beginning of the season it has been a long, hard slog for them and lots of people are very appreciative of what it has meant. On Sunday morning the Italian skies are grey and while a goodly crowd fills the Autodromo it’s nothing like it would have been had Ferrari or Alfa Romeo been on the front row. The half-hour warm-up does not take place until after midday, as the race is not due to start until 3:30 p.m. Pironi is back in his own T-car (049/B), but 052 is prepared with both drivers’ names on it. When Pironi comes into the pits after a few minutes with a piston failed there is no delay, the car is whisked away for an engine change and the spare car remains with Villeneuve’s number on it. Andretti’s Alfa is showing signs of misfiring and the electrical system is being fiddled with and the Toleman team are a bit worried because a misfire creeps in after a few laps running. They are far more worried when Henton fails to reappear at the end of the half-hour, fearing the worst. The car is towed in at the end of the warm-up session and Henton explains that in his excitement he has locked up the brakes at one corner and slid off into the sand, but all is well. Reutemann has decided to race without nose fins, in the interests of reducing drag, but Jones decides to keep his on as it makes the car easier to steer into corners and he wants all the help he can get to overcome his damaged right hand.
The March team has made a little progress with their aerodynamic experiments and are happy to let Daly run without nose fins. The new Osella is quite good for a first time out, and has qualified easily, but needs better adhesion at low speeds, but the Renault team are quiet and confident, even though Reutemann is between them on the line-up. With very little warning or ceremony the cars leave the pit lane on their lap round to the starting-grid, so that there is none of the usual feverish excitement in the packed grandstands. In fact, you can feel that everyone knows that Ferrari do not stand much hope of success in this Italian Grand Prix, and they are all showing it. As the cars line up on the grid they disappear under a shower of well-wishers, hangers-on and publicity people, while long-suffering mechanics try to make any final checks that are needed. Jones is having his brakes bled. As 3:30 p.m. approach Arnoux, who is on pole position, is given the green flag to set off on the parade lap. When he reappears out of the Parabolica curve the tail of the field can be heard going down the back straight, for the three artificial ess-bends introduced into the circuit in recent years have really spread the field out. It is actually Reutemann who is first back to the grid, strictly against the rules, for Arnoux is being very intelligent and creeping slowly towards the grid with an eye on the mirror waiting for the tail of the field to catch up. Had he sped straight up to the grid he would have had to sit there for an unnecessarily long while waiting for the rest to arrive. Twenty three cars are lined up tidily, for Alboreto has disappeared into the pit lane, heading for the Tyrrell pit. Whether it is a product of the Renault turbo-charged engine, the Michelin tyres, the Renault chassis or the Renault drivers, or a combination of them all I do not know, but the two French cars shoot off the line when the green light comes on, whereas Reutemann is the first to move but then hangs back with spinning wheels, but Pironi is away in the sort of start that Villeneuve usually makes.
Only twenty two cars leave the grid to start the 52 lap race, for Rebaque’s Brabham dies on him and it’s wheeled across to the pit lane for attention. By the noise and excitement it’s obvious that a Ferrari is doing well, and sure enough it is Pironi in second place behind Prost at the end of the opening lap, followed by Reutemann, Arnoux, Jones and Laffite. Then comes Villeneuve, Piquet, Giacomelli and the rest, with Henton and Cheever bringing up the rear. Already by the second lap Prost is pulling away, but the cheers are still for Pironi who is holding on to second place, and when they have all gone by Alboreto and Rebaque leaves the pit lane to start their race. The Brabham sounds awful and sure enough expired half-way round the lap, while Alboreto settles down to a lonely race. As far as Prost is concerned it’s all over by lap 3, he is just motoring away into the middle distance and Arnoux is gathering himself up to join him. He passes Reutemann on lap 4 and Pironi on lap 5 and have left them all behind by lap 6. On this lap Villeneuve trails into the pits with smoke pouring from one of the exhaust pipes and his race is run. Close, bunched, slip-streaming battles are a thing of the past at Monza unfortunately, thanks to the likes of Jackie Stewart and his cohorts in the past, so the field of twenty-two cars is now pretty well spread out. It’s not so much a question of racing as seeing who can keep going and avoid any trouble or any unforeseen circumstances that might arise. Pironi’s initial spurt is now beginning to dissipate itself and Laffite moves up into third place, so we have French drivers and French cars from French manufacturers in the first three places, but it does not last as the Talbot-Matra is in tyre trouble and begins to slow visibly so that Reutemann moves his Williams back into third place and Pironi moves briefly into fourth, but not for long as Jones and Piquet are moving up pretty steadily. Now a new factor appears in the form of a light rain shower on the back leg of the circuit which makes the back straight and the Parabolica curve slippery and Reutemann is finding he cannot cope with the conditions like some of the others, due to having a diferent tyre choice on his car.
Jones is up into third place as Laffite and Borgudd slide off on the slippery surface. On the next lap Cheever spins his Tyrrell on braking for the Parabolica and as his clutch operation has given up when he leaves the start, he cannot avoid stalling the engine. Prost has already lapped him, and as Arnoux arrives he has to dodge to avoid the Tyrrell and the slippery surface catches him out and he slides off into the sand and is out of the race. The rain spreads across the corner of the circuit but does not cause any more problems, but on lap 14 Salazar has a big moment when a rear tyre goes down on the Ensign in the fast Curva Grande, after the pits, but it all comes to rest without harm. While others are being a bit cautious or sliding off the road on the slippery part of the circuit, Giacomelli is revelling in it and passes first Pironi and then Piquet, and when Reutemann drops right back because of the slippery part, Giacomelli moves into third place, to cheers from the crowd. Prost is way ahead and looking very secure, while Jones is equally secure in second place, but in the wet Tambay has moved up dramatically, passing Watson, then passing Pironi and then passing Piquet, leaving the Brabham and the Ferrari locked in combat while the Talbot-Matra is in fourth place. From third place Reutemann has fallen right back to eighth place, later blaming his tyres vehemently. On lap 20 Watson is scratching to keep up with Piquet and Pironi, and leaving the second Lesmo corner he runs a bit wide out to the left, gets two wheels over the edge and promptly spins. The McLaren goes right round as it slides across the track and hits the right-hand guard rail backwards, whereupon the entire engine, gearbox and rear suspension is torn off the monocoque. There’s an instant sheet of flame as the fuel pipes are torn off, then the automatic (mandatory) valves in the fuel lines snap shut and the fire goes out. The mechanical components slide across the track, causing Reutemann and Alboreto, who have been lapped, some anxious moments and the McLaren carbon-fibre monocoque slides to a stop with Watson more than somewhat dazed but entirely unhurt.
All the kinetic energy has been absorbed by the engine/gearbox unit tearing itself off the monocoque and going on its way. If the monocoque has had to dissipate that amount of energy Watson would have suffered badly. The near-miss puts Alboreto off the road and delays Reutemann, so that Andretti goes by him. In that part of the race which involves those who are clearly not going to win, there are various interesting things going on. The black Guinness sponsored March of Derek Daly is going extremely well, and has avoided its usual early-race pit stop. From his position near the back of the grid he has caught and passed both team Lotus cars, and while de Angelis puts up a fight and gets back in front again, Mansell goes into the pits to investigate some strange handling characteristics on his Lotus 87. This is on the lap on which Watson has his big prang, and after one more lap the Birmingham driver gives up as the car is undriveable. Although the Toleman-Hart has been lapped within twelve laps, it’s still running and has not made a pit stop. Henton’s whole idea is to keep it going at all costs, no matter how slowly, for you never learn anything in the pits. The engine is plagued by a continual misfire at high rpm but Henton is learning to live with it. On lap 23 Tambay’s valiant effort comes to an end when his left rear Michelin disintegrates and he’s off the track, and as he walks back to the pits from the north, Cheever is walking back from the south. As half-distance comes up (26 laps) Prost is out of sight of everyone and simply cruising round, while Jones is firmly in second place. Poor Giacomelli sees his gallant third place go when his Alfa stuck in fifth gear and he heads into the pits for help. This leaves Piquet in third place, followed by Pironi, then after a fair gap, Andretti, Reutemann and de Cesaris, the Italian with the funny eyes actually keeping his car on the track this time. Behind the McLaren comes de Angelis leading Daly, the Lotus driver beginning to drive with some enthusiasm and gain on the McLaren.
Lapped by the leader are Jarier in the new Osella and Henton, and the unfortunate Giacomelli who rejoins when his gear selection has been sorted out. There is another brief shower of rain on the same part of the circuit, but it has no dramatic effect and Reutemann now begins to speed up again and catches and passes Pironi, the Ferrari hampered by a damaged skirt caused by running over a kerb at one of the ess-bends. Daly’s good run comes to an end on lap 38 when his gearbox final drive unit gives trouble, and Patrese has already quietly gone after an unimpressive performance in his Arrows A3 also with gearbox trouble. Pironi’s unbalanced handling is slowing him a lot and Andretti catches up with him, but before the Alfa can go by its flexible coupling-cum-shock absorber in the flywheel breaks up and Andretti tours into the pits with an awful roughness going on behind him. As the laps run out the Renault never misses a beat and Prost never puts a wheel wrong, but Jones is slowing a bit with his engine going off song ever so slightly, but second place seems confirmed. Piquet’s third place is not so sure, for Reutemann is back in his stride and closing rapidly, but Piquet speeds up, actually making his fastest lap when he is alerted to the danger. De Angelis passes the ailing Ferrari of Pironi on lap 44 and as Prost starts his last lap it all seems to be over, but half-way round the final lap Piquet’s engine blows up very suddenly, oil pouring out of the bottom and smoke out of the top and he coasts to a stop with half a lap to go to the chequered flag. This lets Reutemann by into third place, giving Williams a 2-3 behind the Renault and making sure of the manufacturers’ championship win. De Angelis comes home fourth after a not very exciting race, and Piquet is fifth. In sixth place should have been de Cesaris in the McLaren, but on the last lap a tyre has deflated and put him off the track, through no fault of his own this time. Because the remaining runners are two and more laps behind, Piquet and de Cesaris who only have lost one lap by their misfortunes are classified sixth and seventh.

Jarier has given the new Osella a non-stop run on its first appearence, and Henton has raised the spirits of the Toleman team by keeping their car going for the whole race without a visit to the pits. With a turbo-charged car at the front, and a turbocharged car at the back, and another in the middle of the ten finishers the future for 3-litre unsupercharged engines does not look good, but doubtless the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV will survive to fight another day, and if Keith Duckworth has anything to do with it the fight will be a good one, but it cannot be ignored that the Cosworth has failed to win the last three races. Austria to Matra, Holland and Italy to Renault. The scene may not be wildly exciting but it does not lack interest.



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