From the start of practice for the Argentine Grand Prix, hold at Aires’ Municipal Autodrome within the spacious Parc Alrnirante Brown, Nelson Piquet is without question the man to beat. Driving his Brabham-Cosworth BT49C fitted with the novel hydro-pneumatic suspension system which causes howls of unfair from rival teams, the enthusiastic young Brazilian is absolutely determined to make up for the silly mistake he made two weeks before when he started the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix on slick tyres, a tactical decision which turned out to be a woeful error of judgement. The Buenos Aires circuit has been resurfaced for a considerable part of its length since last year when the surface broke up quite badly in several places and this, combined with the effective way in which Gordon Murray’s new suspension system circumnavigated the skirt ban, contributes to a pole position time which is a second and a half faster than last year. The previous year Alan Jones was the fastest qualifier in 1'44"17 in his Williams FW07; this year Piquet’s Brabham BT49C records a 1'42"665 lap during the first timed practice session, hold in comparatively cool conditions, and he is never really challenged from that point onwards. However Piquet is not without his own problems, on one occasion he loses his brakes as he comes into one of the tight infield hairpins, the pedal goes soft due probably to some air in the system or a slight fluid leak. The Brabham careers off onto the grass, narrowly missing a photographer, before shuddering to a halt with its driver almost trembling with fright. The main opposition to Piquet’s Brabham comes from the Renault and Williams teams, the French turbocharged cars running reliably throughout although not quite demonstrating the out-and-out speed which some optimists have predicted in view of the two long straights at Buenos Aires. Prost continues using chassis RE22B which has originally come to South America as the team spare and is taken over by him for the race at Rio while Arnoux is at the wheel of RE26B which has been rebuilt round a new monocoque following the start line shunt in Brazil.
Prost qualifies second fastest on Friday on 1'42"981, keeping his place on the front row despite failing to improve during the warmer weather conditions of the final session. Arnoux’s best is 1'43"997, good enough for fifth fastest even though the uncomplaining driver feels once again that he simply can’t get with it and isn’t driving at anywhere near his best. In the Williams pits there is an atmosphere of cautious optimism, the team obviously attracting a considerable degree of attention in view of the rivalry between its two drivers and the fact that Reutemann is trying for the umpteenth time to break the apparent jinx that thwarts his efforts to score a home victory time after time. A brand new spare car (chassis no. 14) is built up in time for the Buenos Aires race, but Jones and Reutemann stick to their usual machines for qualifying. On Friday Reutemann manages a 1'43"935 best before suffering an engine failure and this looks as though it can be good enough for third place on the starting grid until Jones bumps him back to fourth with an impressive 1'43"638, the fastest time for Saturday and sets it with only four minutes of that final session to go. Neither Williams driver is totally satisfied with their car’s handling and the atmosphere between them and their rivals at Brabham, the next pit to theirs, is hardly improving, when Frank Williams puts in an official protest about the BT49C’s hydro-pneumatic suspension system on Friday afternoon following the end of practice. The normally calm Gordon Murray is absolutely disgusted, to use his own words, not because he doesn’t agree that his system used a clever loophole in the rules, but because he was told a fortnight earlier in Rio that Williams admired his interpretation of the regulations and would not protest it because the FOCA teams should stick together. The stewards consider the Williams protest, and reject it, as they did one on the same subject from Renault after the race on Sunday, so they are in no doubt that they feel the Brabham system to be legal, even if few others (apart from Brabham) agree with them.
Meanwhile, down in the Lotus garage there are some very long faces, as the scrutineers were not as benevolent in the case of the new twin chassis Lotus 88, rejecting it when it was first presented. This left Colin Chapman completely drained and exhausted, for he feels that he is the victim of something approaching a conspiracy and virtually says so in a rather hastily worded press statement which is released on Friday. Chapman is so disappointed about the failure to admit his new car that he leaves Buenos Aires before the end of practice and thus, for the first time in 22 years, is not in the pits to see his cars race on the Sunday. Of course, neither de Angelis nor Mansell are particularly happy either, for no development work done on the overweight type 81s over the past few months and they seem real handfuls on the fast Buenos Aires course. Under the circumstances de Angelis does quite respectably to qualify tenth, although his 1'45"065 best is miles away from a competitive lap. Mansell is 15th on 1'45"369, despite clutch failure on Friday which indirectly contributed to gear selection difficulties. Completing the top six, as if to emphasise the effectiveness of the Brabham BT49C suspension, is Hector Rebaque (1'44"100) the little Mexican driving smoothly and tidily, his car isn’t fitted with the experimental Weismann gearbox on this occasion. In seventh place on the grid is the irrepressible Gilles Villeneuve, running the gauntlet of a host of Ferrari engine failures and spectacular spins. His team-mate Pironi briefly tried the sole Comprex supercharged 126CX-V6 engine at Buenos Aires during untimed testing on Thursday afternoon, but this quickly broke a drive belt and was put away in the back of the garage. For the rest of the weekend the flame-spitting Ferraris are fitted with KKK turbocharged engines which seem to be in major troubles every time one looks in the Ferrari pit’s direction. Villeneuve puts on his usual display of never-say-die enthusiasm, although most people feel he is too near the limit for too much of the time; not for himself, you understand, but for the survival prospects of his troublesome racing car. His best lap is 1'44"132, quicker than team-mate Pironi who is 12th quickest on 1'45"108, conserving his best race engine for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Despite grappling with brake and handling problems Rosberg qualifies his Fittipaldi F8C well in eighth place on 1'44"191, the Finn beings the last of the hares for behind him is a margin of almost a second back to Patrese’s Arrows A3 which just doesn’t rev properly during the last session. John Watson has started off very promisingly in the new McLaren MP4, but his pit crew has wasted a lot of time attempting to isolate a handling problem which, on detailed examination, turns out to be caused by a broken shock-absorber. They subsequently fail to get back into the swing of things and the Ulsterman’s practice efforts in this new machine earns him a 1'45"073, eleventh quickest. That is substantially better than his youthful team-mate Andrea de Cesaris who spends most of his time spinning his older McLaren M29F and qualifies 18th. In the second half of the grid there are few surprises, although both Tambay in the Theodore and Surer in the Ensign are doing a good job of embarrassing several well-heeled and established teams. The Alfa Romeos are in dire trouble with both handling problems and a mysterious reluctance to rev, the latter fault being put down to a faulty batch of coils, and Mario Andretti tries a revamped 1979 chassis with different weight distribution and new profiles for its side pods, this machine dubs 179D/1. In the end the American handles his regular 179C, starting from 17th place on the grid, five positions ahead of his equally frustrated team mate Bruno Giacomelli. The Talbot-Matra team has rather foolishly sent reserve driver Jean-Pierre Jarier home to France, feeling that Jabouille is now well able to cope with the business of qualifying for a Grand Prix. That they are wrong is not a reflection on Jabouille’s physical condition, but a reflection on the totally chaotic state the team finds itself in. Neither driver can get his car handling remotely well and, for most of practice, the Matra V12s are spluttering on less than their full quota of 12-cylinders, the spare car pressed into action regularly. Laffite is an ignominious 21st on 1'46"854 while Jabouille joins the hopeless Osella and March teams in the ranks of non-qualifiers.
The first pointer to troubles for Alan Jones comes during the half-hour warm up session on race morning when the World Champion complains that his Williams’ Cosworth engine feels really flat. The mechanics pore over it, stripping the fuel injection system as they frantically sought to get to the root of the problem. There is no question of changing the engine in the time available, but they do the best they can and Jones goes to the line with his fingers well and truly crossed. When the race starts, it was simply no contest. Piquet eases the Brabham BT49C into the lead from Jones mid-way round the opening tour and completes the first lap five lengths clear of Jones, Reutemann, Patrese, Arnoux, Prost, Rebaque, Pironi, Rosberg and Watson. There is a bit of a kerfuffle at the start as Cheever’s Tyrrell burns out its clutch on the line, the American driver getting away very slowly and holding up those behind him on the right hand side of the grid. Villeneuve also has an appalling first lap, getting very sideways on the long flat-out right hander at the far end of the circuit, and coming through right at the tail of the field. On the second lap, with Piquet extending his lead with contemptuous ease and Reutemann shooting past Jones into second place, both Pironi and Mansell trail into the pits to retire with expensive and spectacular engine failures. By lap seven Piquet’s advantage is an amazing 12 seconds and the order behind him settles down with Reutemann ahead of Prost and Rebaque, driving well, in front of Jones, Arnoux, Patrese and Watson. Tambay’s Theodore is throwing out a lot of oil smoke. Andretti’s Alfa sounds dreadful and Serra is regularly missing gear changes as he comes past the pits. On lap 13 Lammers decides that his ATS’s handling is so awful that he stops to have the rear wing changed and two laps later Surer’s overworked Ensign retires with engine failure. Running so close to the back of the field that it is embarrassing, Laffite’s Talbot-Matra crawls into the pits and gives up the contest at the end of lap 19.
Meanwhile Piquet is more than 20 sec. in the lead and the Argentine crowd, who vociferously shout their support for Reutemann becomes strangely silent as Rebaque not only caches their hero but slips past him on lap 15 and begins to pull away. There is an air of unreality about the proceedings now, for Rebaque may be a handy enough driver, but there is no way the Mexican is of the calibre of Reutemann, Prost, Jones or Arnoux and here he is in second place with these others string out behind him. Jones, in fifth place, is handling Arnoux quite confidently and Watson is within sight of them both, then there is a gap to Patrese, Andretti’s rough-sounding Alfa Romeo and Tambay’s oil-throwing Theodore which is closely embroiled in a tussle with de Angelis. From this point onwards the race degenerates into a tedious procession, its air of unreality partially mitigates when Rebaque’s fine efforts comes to an end mid-way round lap 33. The rotor arm within the Brabham’s distributor brakes and the second Brabham BT49C coasts to a silent standstill out on the circuit. That left Reutemann in second place from Prost, Jones and Arnoux and the race runs out processionally in that order with Piquet winning as he pleases to the accompaniment of a lot of humphing and mumphing about the Brabham’s suspension system. In the closing stages of the race de Angelis forces his Lotus 81 past Patrese’s Arrows to take sixth place, the latter driver plagues with wheel vibration and a sticking throttle which is something to avoid on the fast sweeps of a track like Buenos Aires. Patrese thus finishes seventh ahead of Andretti, for Tambay’s Theodore retired when its oil runs out and, Watson has stopped the new McLaren with a strange vibration at the rear. Villeneuve spends a frustrating afternoon sitting behind local hero Zunino’s Tyrrell until his Ferrari spins off with a broken driveshaft. Zunino, incidentally, is penalised a full lap for taking a short cut after a spin, so although one might consider the 1981 Argentine Grand Prix a somewhat processional event, at least the officials are fair and dispassionate in applying penalties for those who offended.