Taken from the January 1998 issue of Motor Sport
Much has been made of the controversial last lap at Jerez, in which Jacques Villeneuve plainly offered no resistance to Mika Hӓkkinen and David Coulthard, who swept through for a 1-2 finish. No one seriously doubted that an ‘accommodation’ had been reached between Williams and McLaren before the race, but it was fatuous to suggest that Frank Williams had made a present of the race to Ron Dennis even before it began.
The way I read it was that McLaren simply undertook to keep its drivers from hindering Villeneuve in his fight with Michael Schumacher, and this they did in the first part of the race, when Hӓkkinen, in particular, was quicker than Villeneuve, yet did not attempt to displace him.
After Schumacher’s infamous barge into Villeneuve, the Canadian’s car, although still serviceable, was damaged, and as he reeled off the remaining laps, the McLarens closed in. “I would,” Jacques said, “have looked bloody stupid if I’d gone off on the last lap, trying to hold on to the lead. With Michael gone, all I needed for the championship was one point, so it was better to let Mika and David through.”
Ferrari, seeking perhaps to lessen the opprobrium heaped on Schumacher, made a big issue of this ‘collusion’, suggesting that the McLaren drivers had held up Eddie Irvine, to prevent his threatening Villeneuve. And while that was palpable nonsense, the FIA nevertheless announced an investigation, which exonerated Williams and McLaren.
Levels of acceptable behaviour have indeed changed in Grand Prix racing. At Suzuka, for example, Irvine comprehensively held up Villeneuve, allowing Schumacher to break away, and afterwards there was much celebration of this Ferrari ‘team work’. Back in 1975, though, at Watkins Glen, Clay Regazzoni delayed McLaren’s Emerson Fittipaldi while Niki Lauda went clear and received the black flag for his actions. Bad sportsmanship, they called it then.
Similarly, Villeneuve’s decision to think of points, rather than worry about a race win, broke no new ground. At Kyalami in 1983, Nelson Piquet, in much the same position as Jacques, opted for just that policy.
That year, in which the turbocharged cars finally took complete hold, the World Championship decider involved three drivers, Alain Prost (Renault), Piquet (Brabham-BMW) and René Arnoux (Ferrari).
In late August, the title had looked like a shoe-in for Prost, who led by 14 points with three races to go, but if Renault were smugly confident, Alain himself emphatically was not.
“The Renault people thought I was crazy when I said we would lose the championship to Piquet and Brabham, but from somewhere the BMW engine suddenly had a lot more power in those last few races. I said, we can’t get pole position anywhere, because our engine won’t accept a lot of boost, so Piquet will always start ahead of us – and with his power he’ll be impossible to pass in the race. But Renault were simply too complacent, too big to respond quickly.”
In other ways, too, Prost was in an invidious position. At Brabham, Piquet was endlessly indulged, and was relaxed at Grands Prix, while Alain – with the weight of the Regie, indeed the whole of France, on his back – looked ever more haggard.
Then there was Arnoux, with his unsophisticated manner, scruffy appearance, and darting, suspicious, eyes. When the mood was on him, he was about as quick in a racing car as anyone I have ever seen, but most saw the championship battle as essentially between his two rivals.
As the season wore down, Prost’s fears were increasingly realised. In Italy, where the tifosi saw him as the obstacle between Arnoux and the World Championship, they took against him with particular venom. There were anonymous letters, phone calls, even threats of kidnapping and worse. At Monza, Renault hired bodyguards to protect him.
That weekend Alain retired with turbo failure, and Piquet won as he liked. A fortnight later, at Brands Hatch, he did the same, with Prost second. Ahead lay only the final race. “People say I should feel pressure,” Prost said, “but I don’t. Yes, I’m two points ahead, but the Brabham-BMW is on another level now. Only luck will win me the championship…”
At the time folk said that was defeatist talk, but Prost knew what he knew. In the first nine races of 1983, he had out-qualified Piquet seven times; in the last five Nelson had been quicker on every occasion. On power, the Renault was now no match for the Brabham-BMW.
The Kyalami weekend went more or less as Alain had suspected, though pole position, surprisingly, went to none of the chief protagonists, Piquet qualifying second, Arnoux fourth and Prost fifth. Fastest of all was the urbane Patrick Tambay, newly fired by Ferrari for 1984, and of a mind to prove this a poor decision.
As for Arnoux, he put himself out of contention in practice. An electrical problem stranded his car on the circuit, and as marshals pushed it to safety, Rene contrived to have his right foot run over. For the rest of the weekend he was in agony.
Not that it made a lot of difference, though, for he was out of the South African Grand Prix, engine blown, within a few minutes of the start. And by then Prost also knew that he was not to be World Champion. Running third, he had the Brabham-BMWs of Piquet and Riccardo Patrese ahead of him, and Nelson, starting with a light fuel load, was lost in the distance.
Shortly before half-distance, Prost cruised into his pit, popped his belts, and stepped from the Renault, which had lost turbo pressure. Afterwards, he and competitions boss Gérard Larrousse sat around awkwardly in the paddock, surrounded by the Gallic press. Alain, hunched, chewing his nails, never looked more haunted.
“You know what? There is a house newspaper in the Renault factories, and it said I had stopped not because of a problem with the car, but because I didn’t want to look bad! Some of the press said that, too. Renault pushed too hard. They flew half the journalists in France out there, so I suppose in those circumstances it wasn’t easy to write the truth…”
Once Prost was out, Piquet had only to score three points, and he duly backed off. In the closing stages, he allowed team-mate Patrese to pass, then Lauda’s McLaren, then the Alfa Romeo of de Cesaris, dropping back to the fourth place he needed – which became third when Lauda retired.
Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone was not amused – “I don’t pay drivers to lose races” – but Nelson couldn’t have cared less: “You get paid so little by Bernie that you have to get something else out out of it – and I wanted the championship…”
A couple of days later, Prost was fired by Renault, the Regie illogically choosing as scapegoat its greatest single asset. In point of fact, as Alain says, they did him a favour, for he immediately signed with McLaren, and his great years were launched.
The sting in the tail is that Prost still regards that lost 1983 World Championship as his biggest regret, for he has always felt it was not a fair fight. In an official Renault publication, issued in 1997, he said: “To this day I still consider we won. Everyone knew the fuel used by Piquet’s Brabham was not legal and, from the summer onwards, the lead we had built up was steadily nibbled away.
“We could have protested: I wanted to, but Renault management didn’t, and at the time I didn’t have enough weight to influence the decision. Renault deserved the title, and yet we didn’t win it. We parted company on that false note, which is why, 10 years later, it meant so much to win my fourth World Championship in a Williams-Renault…”