1981 United States West Grand Prix race report

Race winner Alan Jones in a Williams FW07C.

Alan Jones opened his 1981 account with a win for Williams

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All is well with the world

Long Beach, California, March 15th

The Formula One season began in all seriousness at Long Beach, as the FISA have said all along that it would. Sixteen teams turned up with a total of twenty-nine drivers to do battle in practice for the twenty-four places on the grid. There was plenty to see, with new teams (March and Talbot, for example), new engines (Ferrari), new cars (McLaren), and new driver/car combinations. After the usual winter-time vacillation and uncertainty the scene now looked pretty clear, with Jones and Reutemann with the latest version of the Williams FW07, Cheever and Cogan in the Rent-a-Drive Tyrrell 010 cars, Piquet and Rebaque in the BT49C Brabhams, Watson and de Cesaris in the newly formed McLaren International team cars, Lammers in the ATS, de Angelis and Mansell in Lotus cars, Surer in the Ensign, Arnoux and Prost in the turbo-charged Renaults, Daly and Salazar in the newly-formed March team, Rosberg and Serra driving for Fittipaldi, Andretti and Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeos, Jarier temporarily replacing Jabouille in the new Talbot team, alongside Laffite, Villeneuve and Pironi with the blown V6 Ferraris, Patrese and Stohr with the Arrows, Guerra and Gabbiani with the Osellas and Tambay returning to the scene with the new Theodore TR3.

Since the withdrawal of Goodyear the tyre situation for some teams has been a big problem but Michelin came to the rescue with the production of a standardised radial racing tyre design, and they supplied everyone with a limited number of these, in order to get the season under way. Once the Avon production racing tyre is under way for the general run of competitors then Michelin will forge ahead with tyre development exclusively for Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Talbot-Matra, Lotus and Williams.


There was much work to be done on Friday, during the test-session in the morning and the timed session in the afternoon, because the Long Beach circuit cannot be used beforehand for testing as it comprises the normal streets of the City, like Monaco, so the tempo on the first day was one of settling in and sorting things out. In spite of all the political and legal wrangling during the winter, now that the first proper Grand Prix was on, everyone got stuck in and all seemed well with the world, except for one small blot on the landscape.

This involved the new twin-chassis Lotus 88 in which the aerodynamic functions had been isolated from the dynamic functions, which had been accepted and passed by the scrutineers, but was then protested by Colin Chapman’s “friends” and “rivals”. By lunch-time on Friday the Long Beach organisers had given Chapman the impression that the protest had been thrown out and the car was acceptable, so de Angelis started to practice with it, but then the fuel pump drive failed so he had to transfer to his Lotus 81 while repairs were effected. It was out again before the end of the afternoon but did not get any serious timed laps in. This short run showed up one or two teething-troubles and on Friday night there was some intensive machine-shop work being done in Long Beach to make bits and pieces. When the day was over the organisers announced that the protest had now been upheld and the Lotus 88 was “illegal”, but it could continue running until higher authority had made a decision.

As regards everyone else there were some clear messages to be read. World Champion Alan Jones was justifying his title and was setting the pace, with a best time of 1min. 20.911 sec. in a bracket all on his own. The Williams team in general were right on top of the situation with Reutemann up there in fourth place. Ferrari were back in the game with a vengeance with their totally new cars, Villeneuve being third fastest and Pironi fifth. Jarier was giving inspiration to the Talbot team, with their temporary Matra V12 power plant and got himself into second position overall, and Patrese was hurling the Arrows round to good effect. The Alfa Romeos were up there, as were the Lotus 81 cars, but the McLarens were looking a bit hopeless and the Renaults seemed to be marking time. The Scuderia Ferrari had started off with all their efforts centred on the Brown Boveri “Comprex” supercharging system, both drivers using this layout, but Villeneuve had the drive-belt to the supercharger break and while he was out in the T-car, fitted with twin KKK turbo-chargers he not only went a lot faster, but was faster than Pironi with the other “Comprex”.

Derek Daly in his March 811, failed to qualify.

Derek Daly got his season off to a poor start after failing to qualify his March

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For the Saturday morning test-session the weather was still fine, with blue skies and sunshine and the Lotus 88 was out again, but before long it was black-flagged off the course and ruled out, with no reason being given! Behind the scenes a lot of people were getting very hot under the collar while others were becoming very embarrassed. Ferrari were in awful trouble, learning the forced-induction route all over again the hard way, while Renault were looking on with a degree of sympathy having been through it all. Villeneuve’s car (051) had been fitted with the KKK system in place of the BBC “Comprex” while Pironi had taken the T-car (050) with KKK system and his own car (049) with “Comprex” was now relegated to the T-car position. All was going well to begin with and while not the fastest cars on lap time they were recording the highest terminal speeds on the bottom straight (171 m.p.h. against the average 162 m.p.h. of the others). You cannot extract 550 b.h.p. from 1500 c.c, without a few teething-troubles and Villeneuve’s run came to a stop when a sparking plug check revealed a piston disintegrating in number one cylinder on the right-hand bank. The car was wheeled away for an engine change and Villeneuve transferred to the “Comprex” car, but this refused to run properly and a fault was found in one of the injection pipes. By the time this was rectified the morning session was nearly over. Meanwhile Pironi had been reported losing oil round the circuit, and sure enough he came into the pits with oil running out of the gearbox due to a loose plug, so while one Ferrari was hoisted up in the air to be repaired, another was away in the garage area having an engine change and the third would not run properly. Not a Ferrari morning. It was not a McLaren morning either for the new “spaceage” MP4 was being abandoned as “needing more testing” and Watson transferred to his T-car, an M29F.

In the final hour, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., the final decisions had to be made and the fortunate twenty-four for the grid was to be decided. Now the pace got really frenzied and a good lap time on Friday began to look pathetic and hopeless. Alan Jones still set the pace and was the first driver to break into the 1 min. 19 sec. bracket, Mansell’s progress was halted for a bit when he ran out of fuel, Villeneuve was back in his KKK car with a new engine, and the scene was looking good, with Talbots pounding after Renaults; Alfa Romeos pounding after Ferraris; Lotus, Williams and Brabhams battling away, the World Champion setting the pace, the World Champion team still the one to beat and the glorious confusion of V6, V8 and V12 engines. Jones just kissed the concrete wall with his left rear wheel on the exit of the last corner and bent a suspension member, parking the car at the end of the pit lane and running back to get into the spare Williams car.

Didier Pironi in a Ferrari 126C.

Ferrari’s Didier Pironi qualified a disappointing 11th

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The spring sunshine in California can be deceptively hot and as regular readers will recall from my 1980 Long Beach report, I succumbed to the heat and became slightly delirious about “Jan Lammers being on pole-position and the helmsman’s face showing white at the wheelhouse.” As the sun got hotter this year I looked through the window of the wheelhouse and saw that the helmsman’s face was really white! As I went under I heard someone say that Patrese was on pole-position with a Beta-Ragno. That was bad enough, but worse followed, for beneath the orange and chequered-white colour scheme of the car was one of last year’s Arrows A3 cars. As the men in white carried me away I began to wonder whether Walt Disney and Hollywood were behind the whole Formula One business.


After spending Saturday evening at the midget-car meeting at Ascot Speedway, where they race eight abreast in full-lock power-slides with inter-locked wheels, on loose shale, sanity returned and Sunday morning dawned cool and clear. By mid-morning the sun was warming up nicely and at 11.10 a.m., in between all manner of other activities such as kart racing, sidecar racing and foot racing, the Formula One field had a 30 minute warm-up period. The Ferrari team had abandoned all activity with the Brown Boveri “Comprex” system (for the time being) and all three cars were fitted with the KKK system. Renault were not too happy for the car of Prost had a misfire which could not be traced, so they transferred him to the spare car (RE22B). Villeneuve had the choice of 049 or 051, and chose the former, while Pironi was driving 050, which had started the meeting as the “muletta”. The Brabham team had abandoned the Weismann transmission on Rebaque’s car as a small breakage had occured at the end of practice so they decided to “play-safe” with a Hewland.

Gilles Villeneuve walks away from his Ferrari 126CK that is being serviced by his mechanics.

Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari is prepared for the race start

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Ready for the 2 p.m. start all the cars left the pit lane and did a full lap, to form up on the dummy-grid on the top straight. When all was ready Patrese (he really was on pole-position, and the helmsman was deathly white) led them all down to the bottom straight. They paused, the red light was on, then the green and they were away in the mad rush down to the Queen’s Hairpin. Villeneuve was first into the braking area, and the last to use the brakes and was actually leading for about 100 yards even though he was slightly out of control as he went round on a very wide line. Patrese, Reutemann and Jones went through on the inside and were about to be followed by Piquet, Cheever, Pironi and Andretti when the little French-Canadian rocketed back on course and shot into fourth place as the field headed off through the twisty bits. Left behind at the hairpin were the Renault of Prost and the McLaren of de Cesaris, the Renault having spun in the middle of the pack. The remaining 22 cars were pounding away with Patrese leading them and driving confidently and neatly. It took only three laps for Patrese, Reutemann and Jones to break away from the rest of the runners and the Arrows driver had every reason to feel uneasy with the two rugged Williams drivers in his mirrors, but he seemed to have everything under control. On lap four Villeneuve ran wide on the long left-hander before the first hairpin and Pironi and Piquet nipped by, but did not leave him behind and with them was Cheever in the Tyrrell 010, carrying Cogan’s Michelob Beer sponsorship, and doing a very good job of work.

When the leaders lapped Rebaque, who had been in the pits, Jones got a bit baulked and lost contact with Reutemann, while the Argentinian profited from the interruption and got right on to the tail of the Arrows, but still Patrese was unruffled. De Angelis hit the wall on the exit of the last corner and ended his race opposite his own pit and not much later Mansell also struck a concrete wall and ended his race. Not a Lotus day. In fourth place overall was Pironi with the turbo-charged V6 Ferrari, with the proverbial “steaming mob” comprising Piquet (Brabham), Villeneuve (Ferrari), Cheever (Tyrrell), Andretti (Alfa Romeo) and Laffite (Talbot) hard on his heels. One could not help having a feeling of sympathy for Patrese because it could not have been pleasant having Reutemann that close behind, there being something relentless and ruthless about the Argentinian’s driving. On lap 25 the Arrows engine began to hiccough due to the fuel system playing up and Reutemann went by on the bottom straight, and on the next lap Jones went by and the Arrows was heading for the pits. With the race just one third run it was all over, the Frank Williams team were a majestic 1-2 and if their past record was anything to go by it was a mere formality for them to complete the 80 laps of the race. Unquestionably the saying “To finish first you must first finish” is totally true and the Williams team have demonstrated it in Championship races since Monaco last year.

Didier Pironi (Ferrari 126CK) leads Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49C) and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 126CK).

Didier Pironi leads Nelson Piquet’s Brabham

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On lap 32 Jones went by into the lead and it would have been nice to think that it was just Reutemann responding to team orders, but in fact it was due to Reutemann running a bit wide on the left-hander in the middle of the twisty bit of the circuit and Jones (ever the opportunist!) nipping up the inside. Now it really was all over, car number 1 was first and car number 2 was second and even Hollywood couldn’t improve on that, and after a couple more visits to the Arrows pits poor Patrese had to give up (and the helmsman’s face recovered its complexion). Back in the pack Villeneuve’s heroics ended with broken transmission and Piquet got the better of Pironi and was firmly in third place, but completely out of touch with the two Williams and was having an uncomfortable ride with a heavy gearchange which was bringing up a nasty blister on his right hand. Just after the half-distance Laffite misjudged his braking at the end of the top straight and rammed Cheever’s Tyrrell up the backside. The Tyrrell wasn’t damaged but the Talbot had its front aerofoil bent up and the mountings broken. As Laffite drove back to the pits hoping to have repairs effected, Giacomelli and Lammers caught him up and fell over each other trying to get by, so that all three turned into the pit lane at the end of the lap, the Talbot and ATS damaged beyond immediate repair and Giacomelli looking for a doctor as the impact had hurt his hand. The impact to the back of Cheever’s Tyrrell upset the gear-change mechanism and the young American from Rome began missing gear-changes so that Andretti’s Alfa Romeo quickly caught the Tyrrell and went by. Now the order was Jones, Reutemann, Piquet, Pironi, Andretti, Cheever, Tambay and Jarier, with Surer and Serra bringing up the rear and Arnoux and Rebaque a long way behind after pit stops. Both Cheever and Tambay deserved small medals for driving a nice race, the Frenchman doing an excellent job with a brand new car that was only finished the previous Monday.

The final result was still not settled, though there was little doubt about the first three places, but on lap 55 Pironi’s Ferrari faultered when the fuel pick-up system went on the blink and Andretti and Cheever went by. The next time it faultered Tambay was right behind and the Theodore punted the Ferrari fair and square but no damage resulted. On lap 60 Tambay got by the Ferrari into sixth place, but the turbo-charged V6 was suffering from the weak fuel mixture and on lap 67 Pironi headed up the pit road with the engine sounding a bit sick and a lot of flames in the left-hand exhaust megaphone. In the last ten laps Alan Jones eased right off, responding to a cryptic pit signal which read REVS-FUEL, making sure that he didn’t run out of petrol in the closing laps.

Jan Lammers in his ATS D4. He crashed out of the race on lap 42.

Jan Lammers takes flight in his ATS

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All was well with the world and the Williams finished 1-2 yet again, having finished last season with similar results in Canada and Watkins Glen. The courageous Piquet was a good third, Andretti a very satisfying fourth, the Alfa Romeo having run perfectly throughout the race, Cheever fifth and Tambay sixth, which brought huge smiles to the faces of Teddy Yip and Sid Taylor for the new Theodore had run perfectly on its first outing.— D. S . J.