1980 South African Grand Prix race report

Renault untouchable 

Kyalami, Saturday March 1st

On arriving in Johannesburg before the race there was a strange feeling that nothing was happening, unlike the previous years when the atmosphere was charged with racing tension. By mutual agreement the Formula One Constructors and the tyre companies had decided against pre-race tyre testing and development sessions. Previously most of the important teams have been out in South Africa for two or even three weeks before the Grand Prix and on the financial side them has previously been a lot of searching and negotiation for a race sponsor and there has been a lot of publicity of the “is it on” or “is it off” variety so that by the time race-week arrived the local newspapers had charged the air with slot of race-fever.

This year there were no problems over race sponsorship, the Nashua Copiers Company, a South African firm making plain-paper copying machines, committed themselves to a five figure sum to support the event. With none of the teams arriving before the beginning of race week and no testing being permitted until the Wednesday them was very little to get worked up about. Unofficial practice was allowed from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday and almost everyone was out on the track, but trouble was rife, some teams like Lotus and Fittipaldi having engine trouble, others being undecided how to deal with the long straight versus the slow parts of the circuit. McLaren started off badly when Alain Prost had a head-on crash into the barriers at the Leeukop hairpin when “something came undone” at the front end of the latest C-version of the M29 and it understeered off the track out of control. The new French Formula One driver escaped with minor damage to his legs.

On Thursday morning the official test session was delayed while a few of the cars played games with cameras strapped to a Renault and an Ensign, to fake-up some close dicing and overtaking. When the serious business began Jones was seen to be in his Williams he had steered into third place in Brazil, saving his brand new car for the timed session while Regazzoni was giving the second of the Unipart-sponsored Ensigns (MN12) a shake-down run as it was only completed the day before. Although times did not count for the starting grid, the fact that Nelson Piquet was fastest caused a few eyes to be turned onto the Brabham pits.

In the afternoon, official timed practice was held for one hour, the morning hour and a half being deemed sufficient for getting things sorted out, though many teams were far from being organised. With a fairly cool atmosphere and not suffering from the lower air pressure at the 5,500 foot altitude of Kyalami, the Renault team soon set a fantastic pace. Both Jabouille and Arnoux were down into the 1 min. 10 sec. bracket while everyone else was scratching to get into the 1 min. 12 sec. bracket. However, the Renault team were not without trouble, for they were using some new rear wheels and Arnoux had one come loose, due to faulty manufacture. Fortunately he sensed something was wrong almost at once and stopped to investigate, and then drove slowly back to the pits.

In this all-too-brief hour for qualifying with the possibility of there being 27 cars on the track, it is important to get into a rhythm both in driving and making small adjustments. Hopefully the big adjustments are made in the morning test session. Depailler’s Alfa Romeo broke and stopped just after Sunset Corner, safely out of harm’s way, but nonetheless practice was stopped while breakdown truck towed it back to the paddock. Hardly had practice restarted than Piquet had a spin under braking for Clubhouse Corner and yellow warning flags upset the rhythm while he sorted himself out. Shortly after this Prost had another accident, this time in McLaren M29/1B, when the rear suspension broke. Once again a car was wrecked through no fault of the driver, and much later it was discovered that he had fractured his left wrist! Yellow flags were in evidence once more. Then with a bare quarter of an hour to go Marc Surer crashed badly into the retaining wall at Clubhouse Corner and practice was stopped while he was extricated from the wreckage of the new D4 ATS. The right front corner of the monocoque was badly crushed and Surer was trapped with his legs in the twisted wreckage. It took a long time to get him free and off to hospital, where it later transpired that both ankles were broken, one rather badly. The wrecked ATS then had to be carried away and the catch-fences replaced, so that by the time practice re-commenced for the final 14 minutes there was little hope of anyone getting into much of a rhythm.

The Renaults had annihilated everyone, with Jabouille recording 1 min. 10 sec. exactly and Arnoux 1 min. 10.21 sec. Their nearest rivals were Piquet (Brabham BT49/4) 1 min. 11.87 sec. and Laffite (Ligier JS11/15/03) 1 min. 11.88 sec. Everyone else of note was well into the 1 min. 12 sec. bracket and others were four and five seconds slower than the turbo-charged French cars. Only 24 of the 27 entries were going to qualify for the grid and on the times from this first session Lees, (Shadow) and Surer (ATS) and Kennedy (Shadow) were going to be left out, while Watson (McLaren) was the last man on the grid. As Surer and Prost had been eliminated by their accidents it meant that Kennedy was odd man out.

The aerodynamic “fashion” for the Kyalami circuit was to run without front nose fins and with the smallest possible rear aerofoil, all in the interests of maximum speed, relying on the down-force from the under-car air for cornering, but striking a nice balance between speed and cornering was not easy. While most teams were trying the effect of no front fins, even Renault with their surplus of power trying the idea, Alfa Romeo were using front fins on their normally bare nose-cone.

After practice Renault were very happy, saying they would have been “very unhappy if we were not happy”, as the turbo-charged 1½-litre V6 engine could maintain its sea-level 515 b.h.p., whereas the normally aspirated 3-litre engines that relied on the 14.7 p.s.i. of atmospheric pressure at sea-level had to make do with the 12.8 psi. available at Kyalami and even the best Cosworth V8 was down to something like 435 b.h.p. While all the 3-litre brigade were prepared for the Renaults to be fast, they did not expect them to be nearly two seconds faster than the best 3-litre. Although the timed hour had been continually interrupted and much of the rhythm had been lost, it was little consolation.

Friday morning was alas warmer and this gave “the rest” some encouragement, for the turbo-charged engine’s efficiency drops off rapidly with a rise in ambient temperature. The Renault’s inter-cooler system has to work overtime anyway, without the added handicap of high ambient temperature. When it became known that the French team had recorded their times on tyres that would do the race, there was further gloom. Although Michelin had qualifying tyres available, Renault did not use them preferring to set the pace on a type of tyre that would last the race, as the Goodyear runners are having to do. It looks as though the French tyre firm will soon be joining Goodyear in the elimination of the freak qualifying tyre, regardless of any complicated rules dreamed up by FISA.

With Prost in the pits with his arm in a sling, the McLaren hopes rested on Watson and the team had repaired M29/1B so that the Ulsterman had two cars at his disposal. There was no question of Surer being in the pits, nor of the latest ATS being repaired, but Lammers had been brought in with the spare ATS in a forlorn hope of qualifying. The team had withdrawn their second entry before practice started, but the young Dutch boy had turned up anyway. You can always tell when a team is getting desperate for they try something unconventional that was never written down in their test-schedule, and often the move is inspired by a sneak look at what someone else is doing. When Scheckter set off minus the front aerofoil on his T5 Ferrari, and remember that it is a very large full-width affair, it was clear that the team had lost their way. The South African did one lap and came straight in, not even bothering to try a flat-out run past the pits. Later on Andretti went out in his Lotus 81 without the rear aerofoil, but not for long! This sort of thing pleased and amused people like Patrick Head of Williams and Gordon Murray of Brabham, for they could confidently forget any possibility of Lotus or Ferrari suddenly challenging them. The existing challenge from Ligier was much more important, even though the French team’s manager was getting a bit cocky. Nelson Piquet was really happy with the Brabham BT49, even though it could not match the Renaults for sheer speed, but Alan Jones was not so happy with the Williams, for while the car seemed to be generating the required aerodynamic down-force, the centre of pressure was too far forward, which made for a skittish back-end and oversteer. To have improved the oversteer by increasing the angle of the rear aerofoil would have lost speed on the straight, which wasn’t enough anyway, so a fine line between speed and balance was sought. The previous day some improvements had been made to the new car, which Jones was intended to race, and reluctantly Reutemann tried it; reluctantly because he doesn’t like driving other people’s cars. His lap times improved so the modifications were done to his car and he was then faster than Jones, when he thought he had reached his limit!

Experiments were still going on in some teams with and without front nose fins, and some really small ones were appearing on some cars, but Alfa Romeo stuck to their large swept-forward ones while all about them was a sea of indecision. The Arrows team had arrived with a long shapely tail out behind the gearbox on their A3 cars but soon experimented with no tail at all and then settled for a short stumpy tail. All to do with centres-of-pressure and aerodynamic stability and balance. Just before the morning test-session ended Villeneuve returned to the pits on the pillion of a motorcycle, his Ferrari engine having blown up.

The final hour of qualifying was nice and warm for the spectators but much too warm for the engines, but even so the Renaults were still the fastest by a long way, with Arnoux quicker than Jabouille this time. They were much slower than the previous afternoon, but they could afford to be, for the 3-litre opposition made no dramatic improvements, while many of them were a lot slower. Villeneuve was using the spare Ferrari, and just when Scheckter felt he was making a bit of progress, his engine blew up, so both Ferrari drivers were down on the fifth now of the grid. Having the Renaults and all those Cosworth powered cars in front was one thing, but having an Alfa Romeo in front of them was something else. It was the courageous Patrick Depailler who got his V12 Alfa Romeo in front of the Ferraris, alongside Alan Jones on the fourth row. The tenacious little Frenchman (shades of Jean Behra) is getting more fit, following his long spell in hospital, but is still far from 100%. His will-power and determination are an example to many totally fit drivers. The swarthy little Piquet was all on his own with his Brabharn BT49, fastest of the 3-litre cars, but he had the two Ligiers right behind him and then the two Williams drivers.

As expected Kennedy (Shadow) and Lammers (ATS) were the two non-qualifiers, with Lees outpaced in the other Shadow but in the race thanks to the withdrawal of Prost and Surer. Once again the Renaults had dominated practice running on race-quality tyres, so no-one could complain about unfairness; the griping was tuned on to the turbo-charger, but only by the also rans, for teams like Ligier, Williams and Brabham were conscious of the fact that the Renaults were going to be handicapped on wiggly circuits like Long Beach, Monaco and Brands Hatch, and when they were the Renault team did not gripe about unfairness. Among the more intelligent thinkers (and there are not too many of them in Formula One), there was a sneaking feeling that perhaps the turbo-charged engines were not going to be as handicapped on slow corners as in the past, for they were performing pretty well on Kyalami’s slow corners. Another disquieting thought was that the Renault chassis gave away nothing to anyone, and if watched closely it held the road and cornered far better than a lot of the opposition. A careful analysis made you wonder if perhaps their advantage was not simply engine power at altitude. Never having seen the drivers of the turbo-charged Renaults in competitive 3-litre cars it is difficult to assess their ability, but Jabouille’s quiet smoothness is such an integral part of the turbo-charged scene that it is deceptive. Arnoux’s flair and dash are obvious as is his ‘feel’ for the turbo-charged engine, which calls for a different driving technique to a Cosworth V8, or Ferrari 12-cylinder.

Race day was Saturday, as always, and not Sunday as a lot of 1980 calendars make out, and the South African sun came out strongly to start the morning. This encouraged the Renault opposition, but their hopes were soon dashed when clouds began to appear and the temperature dropped. The half-hour warm-up session did not take place until noon, the morning being occupied by a happy Historic Racing Car Handicap and a demonstration in which a vast collection of assorted old cars were driven for fun by their proud owners, from single-seater Cooper-Climax to MG Magnette Saloons, all mixed in together in an inconsequential five lap race with a massed start. To get race-week underway there had been a National race meeting at the circuit the previous Saturday and all the winners were now allowed to do a parade lap in front of the Grand Prix crowd. After the Formula One warm-up session a huge collection of MG cars, from a J2 to the latest B took the drivers round on a parade lap, Jody Scheckter experiencing the exhilaration of being passenger in the 1933 J2 Midget of negligible performance! This parade also showed the strong support that MG has in South Africa, though whether it will continue for a Japanese MG is doubtful.

The 78 lap race was due to start at 2.15 p.m. and when the cars set off from the pits to go round the circuit to form up on the grid, all 24 were present and correct. Villeneuve and Rosberg sneaked in an extra lap, and then the long 1 x 1 grid was formed with Piquet, Laffite, Pironi, Jones and Villeneuve wondering if they could “jump” the two Renault’s when the starting signal was given, and have a moment of glory by leading for part of the first lap. Jones was in the latest Williams FW07, Villeneuve was in the spare Ferrari, Jarier and Daly were giving the new Tyrrell design its debut race, Regazzoni was in the first of the 1980 Ensigns, and Watson was in the M29B McLaren that Prost had crashed on Thursday afternoon.

Unlike British commentators the South African one did not get over-excited at the count-down for the start of the pace-lap and he sent the field on its way without making people think the race had started. The Lotus of de Angelis proved difficult to start and the rest had long gone before he got away. As the 23 cars arrived on the grid the young Italian was still charging along trying to catch up, but he was too late and had to take the start from the back of the grid. When the green light came on Alan Jones made a searing getaway, passing his team-mate and Laffite and was alongside the Renaults as their turbo-chargers took hold. Then it was all over, the two French cars powered away into the lead and headed the very frustrated field into the first corner and down the steep hill of Barbecue Bend. In beautiful formation the two Renaults led the opening lap with contemptuous ease, Jabouille leading Arnoux in strict team order. They were followed by Jones, Laffite, Reutemann, Piquet, Villeneuve, Scheckter, Pironi, Jarier, and the rest, with de Angelis trying hard to make up for his handicap. On lap two de Angelis was so busy passing a group of cars up the hill to Leeukop hairpin that he arrived going too fast on the wrong line and there was nowhere to go. He locked-up the brakes and spun off into the dirt, and out of the race. Make haste slowly, young man.

It did not need many laps to see that the Renaults were pacing themselves on the speed of their followers, thus easing the strain on the turbo-charged engines, their tyres, brakes, fuel consumption and so on. They could easily have pulled away at a second, or two seconds, a lap thus opening up a big gap, but they didn’t. Jones and Laffite were appearing to be keeping up with them, but what was happening was that the Renaults were waiting for the Williams and Ligier. Waiting, but not to be caught. This you could tell by the exhaust notes of the Renaults, never giving an indication of being “hard on” or “hard off’, always smooth and gentle, and the attitude of pitch and squat was negligible, indicating no desperate measures on brakes or accelerator. The followers presented a very different picture, all harsh and angry, with the drivers doing all they knew to maintain the pace. The way the two Renaults cruised through some of the corners was almost insolent, Arnoux keeping station directly behind Jabouille in a beautiful example of team-driving; he was never too close, never alongside, never too far back, butt just right, leaving all the pace-making and line to Jabouille like a number two driver should.

On lap eight Laffite scratched his way past Jones to take third place and we had French drivers and French cars first, second and third. Reutemann did not maintain the pace of the two hard men in front of him, but settled back in a comfortable fifth place ahead of Scheckter, Piquet, Jarier and Pironi, while further back Daly led Giacomelli, Patrese and Mass. Then came Fittipaldi, Zunino and Andretti, followed by Regazzoni, Depailler, Rosberg, Villeneuve (after an excursion off the track on lap three dropped him to the back), Watson, Cheever and Lees. On the next lap the scene at the back had changed, for Cheever crashed the Osella at Crowthorne, and Villeneuve and Depailler disappeared into the pits. The Ferrari driver started on different tyres to Scheckter and they were hopeless, so he now stopped for a different set. Depailler’s fuel mixture was all up the spout and he stopped to have it adjusted, but it only made the misfiring worse. On lap 11 Patrese crashed at Crowthorne Corner, like Cheever, both drivers being caught out by erratic brakes, and the next one to go was Scheckter when his Ferrari engine went on to 11-cylinders, due to a broken valve spring or something similar.

Up at the front the two Renaults were still droning round at their ease, leaving Laffite to set the pace and he was driving his heart out but could not know just how easily the Renaults were staying ahead. The Ligier was superior to the Williams on handling and Jones was losing contact with the blue and white car, but nevertheless holding on to fourth place. Derek Daly stopped briefly at the end of lap 18 to say that his gear-change was playing up, but he was sent back into the race and told to make the best he could. This dropped him from ninth place down to 18th place, last of the non-stop runners with only Villeneuve and Depailler behind him. The Ferrari was still not handling very well so Villeneuve could do little to improve his position, while all the fiddling with the Alfa’s injection system only made things worse, and Depailler was in and out of the pits on nearly every lap. Andretti was having a miserable drive down among the tail enders, the Lotus losing out on speed on the straight, and then an exhaust manifold pipe split, which didn’t help matters, and Regazzoni passed him with the Ensign. At the back of the field Rosberg and Watson were having a jolly little dice among themselves.

Villleneuve despaired of his Ferrari’s handling and made another stop for yet a different set of tyres and as he accelerated away from the pits something broke inside the transmission (not a drive-shaft as the race-information office stated) and the Ferrari stopped instantly with no drive to the wheels. On lap 35 Alan Jones ground to a halt with a broken gearbox, the oil having leaked out from a split in the cooling system. This let Reutemann up into fourth place, but no challenge to Laffite. Still the two Renaults droned round in formation. As they lapped the back markers Arnoux took no chances, biding his time to overtake and then shooting back into position behind Jabouille with no strain at all, indicating just how effortless their domination was. Laffite was always there in third place looking for a ray of hope, but none came. Even when Arnoux dropped a fair way back, waiting to lap Regazzoni, there was no hope for the Ligier driver, for at the same time he was having to wait to lap Daly. The complete rear aerofoil broke off Giacomelli’s Alfa on lap 39 and he stopped at the pits to have a new assembly bolted on, dropping from 12th to 16th and last place.

Jean-Pierre Jarier had been driving a good race with the new Tyrrell, holding fifth place, but on lap 56 he was forced into the pits to change the rear tyre and the Tyrrell team took the opportunity to change both rears and the left-front while he was in. This spurred on Piquet and Pironi who had been following Jarier, but the Brabham was wearing out its left-front tyre so the Brazilian was having trouble fending off the Ligier driver. Down at the back of the field Rosberg and Watson were still having a ding-dong, and when they were being lapped by the ding-dong of Piquet and Pironi the scene got quite animated. It was a perfectly fair free-for-all with no-one needing to give way and on Iap 59 as they all scrabbled into the Leeukop hairpin Rosberg’s Fittipaldi ended up in the catch fences and broke the steering connection on the left front wheel. Piquet and Pironi were away, leaving Watson on his own.

As Jabouille started lap 62 his right-front tyre burst, due to picking up a nail or similar sharp object off the track and he had a very busy time bringing it all to rest at the foot of the hill. His task was not made any easier by having one rear shock-absorber out of action, it having broken its mounting quite early in the race. As in Brazil, René Arnoux now inherited the lead, while the saddened Jabouille walked back to the pits after yet another certain victory was snatched from his grasp. This meant that the Piquet/Pironi battle was now for fourth place, and the Ligier driver did an audacious bit of overtaking braking for the Leeukop hairpin, but Piquet was not giving up and scrabbled back in front. Reutemann’s third place was in jeopardy for his car was feeling odd and he was convinced the left-front tyre was failing, so he stopped on lap 64 to have it changed. It later transpired that the right-rear tyre was losing pressure and the right-hand side skirt was wearing away. This stop let Piquet into third place and Pironi fourth, but the Frenchman was still trying to get by the Brabham again.

Through all the troubles and retirements Jochen Mass had driven steadily and consistently and was now in fifth place, with Reutemann behind him after his stop. Once more Pironi made a concerted attack on the Brabham and forced his way by, now into third place, and this time Piquet had to give how best for he could see his left-front tyre was completely worn out and he could hardly restrain the Brabham on right-hand bends, so he settled for fourth place with only eight laps left to run. With six to go Reutemann snatched back fifth place and with Jacques Laffite still driving his heart out in second place, René Arnoux chalked up his second victory with the turbo-charged 1½-litre Renault. As Reutemann had overtaken Mass, the Alfa Romeo of Giacomelli ground to a halt after the esses, and at the end of the race Depailler did one more lap in his misfiring Alfa and picked his young team-mate up to return him to the pits.

French 1-2-3, Winner Rene Arnoux in a Renault, 3rd placed Didier Pironi in his Ligier and Jacques Laffite (2nd) hidden behind trophy.

French 1-2-3, Winner Rene Arnoux in a Renault, 3rd placed Didier Pironi in his Ligier and Jacques Laffite (2nd) hidden behind trophy.

Motorsport Images

But for the puncture suffered by Jabouille the race would have been a total annihilation by the Renault team; as it was it ended in a total annihilation by the French, with French cars and French drivers first, second and third. It can all be traced back to General de Gaulle, when he sanctioned the initial government backing of the Matra team, which encouraged the state-owned ELF Petrol and oil company to put an enormous effort into building up Frenrch drivers and teams. Matra were followed by Ligier and Renault (and Talbot are in the offing) and there never has been a shortage of French drivers in Formula One. Arnoux, Laffite and Pironi have all benefited from ELF support in their formative years and now with the Renault-ELF team and the Ligier-Gitanes-ELF team they are reaping the benefit and paying back to France some of their benefits. — D.S.J.