1984 Dallas Grand Prix: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

The round that almost broke F1: the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix was held on a crumbling track, in wilting heat, and with the threat of a driver walkout. But when the green light appeared, the race was on

1984 Dallas Grand Prix

Senna and Lauda go wheel-to-wheel at the start of the race

Grand Prix Photo

Some weekends you can come back from a Grand Prix with a notebook relatively clean. There will be a lap chart in there, of course, together with notes and quotes, but in the normal course of events there will be pages free.

Once in a while, though, this is not the case. And I find, looking back to the Dallas Grand Prix in 1984, that even before race day I was into my second notebook. Wherever you went that weekend there were folk anxious to share their thoughts with you.

Seven years have passed since Formula One last took its act to the USA, yet in 1984, remarkably, there were three North American events in four weeks, the last of them this new one in Dallas, at that time even better known for the doings of JR than for the assassination of JFK.

This race was intended to be the first of many, the promoters told us. Dallas was a city awash with cash, and the local populace voracious for anything new, particularly something European, and therefore a touch exotic. It would be a huge success.

In some ways, it was. Unlike Las Vegas or Detroit, the people of Dallas undeniably did get behind the race, the real high-rollers shelling out $20,000 apiece for hospitality suites plus another five grand for air-conditioning, which was about as optional as car plugs at a Mandelson press conference. Dallas in July was like a furnace.

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It had been hot as hell at the Las Vegas races, but that had been an arid desert heat; summer in Texas meant crippling humidity, but suggestions were ignored that the race should be scheduled later in the year. Keeping the cars that side of the water, following the Montreal and Detroit races, made sense financially, so that was that.

The whole deal made sense financially, in fact. Why else would the race have been able to sidestep an FIA rule demanding that a new Grand Prix track should first stage a smaller meeting to prove its suitability? As in the case of Vegas, money spoke louder than rules.

Keke Rosberg squarely blamed the F1 establishment, rather than the Dallas organisers. “Of course there shouldn’t be races like this, out of the blue, but the fact is, we’re all whores, aren’t we? If the money’s right, we’ll turn up anywhere and do our stuff…”

Made up of roads at the tatty end of town, within the State Fair Park, the track was quicker by far than most ‘street’ circuits, and the run-off areas were anything but generous. There was, too, something of a clash of cultures. “Hold it there, boy!” a State Trooper hollered at Michele Alboreto, as he toured the track in a Ferrari 308. “There’s a limit of 20 right here! You wuz goin’ 30 at least…”

Almost to a man, the drivers were appalled by what they found, and at a press conference made their feelings plain. “In Formula One, it’s not only the engines that whine,” reported the Dallas Times Herald.

Out they went, on Thursday morning, to try the track, and soon they were saying it was even worse than they had suspected. “The only thing good about remarked it,” Prost, “is that suddenly Detroit is not so bad…” Elio de Angelis described it as, “A complete joke in every way.”

“At least we have some hope here, because the race will be a lottery.”

Not all condemned it, though. “Actually, I don’t think the bumps are as bad as at Detroit,” Rosberg said. “Driving here is not a pleasure, but I’m not too worried about the safety aspect.” And Derek Warwick, team leader at Renault, was quite upbeat: “It’s bloody dangerous, but as a track not had quite challenging, in fact.” Nigel Mansell, too, took a positive attitude: “It’s the toughest place I’ve ever been to, but we’ve got to make the best of it, haven’t we?”

People change, don’t they? Those many years ago here was Mansell looking on the bright side, and debutant Ayrton Senna by no means the perfectionist we were later to know. Simply not fit enough, Ayrton was quick in the Toleman-Hart, but 10 laps were enough to exhaust him. And imagine this: on Friday he went out to practise, put the brakes on at the first turn and found he couldn’t see anything, for his helmet had slipped over his eyes. In his eagerness to get going, he had forgotten to, tighten the strap.

Niki Lauda’s McLaren-TAG was fastest in that first, unofficial, session, and his time was to stand as the fastest of the weekend, for by the afternoon the temperature was up to 107, and the track surface was beginning to break up. “They always say that for a quick lap you have to be out at the right time,” Prost murmured.

“Here that means when there are no wrecks on the track…” One of those, sadly, was Brundle’s Tyrrell, Martin suffering fractures to his feet which pain him to this day.

Both Mansell and Warwick were scintillating in qualifying, finishing up first and third, with Nigel’s Lotus team-mate, the reluctant de Angelis, between them. Fourth was Rene Arnoux’s Ferrari, followed by Lauda, Senna, Prost and Rosberg.

The latter was actually in optimistic frame of mind. The Williams of that year, the FW09, was perhaps the worst-handling machine the team has ever produced, and that, together with the ‘light switch’ power delivery of the Honda V6 turbo, made for a nightmarish car in these conditions. “Yes, but it’s like that everywhere,” Keke cheerfully said. “At least we have some hope here, because the race will be a lottery.”

For race day, the scheduled start time was 11 o’clock, with the warmup at seven. That being so, Jacques Laffite sought to introduce an element of levity by showing up in his pyjamas. It raised a laugh, as Jacques had hoped, but not for long: since qualifying, a great deal had happened to the track, and none of it was good.

Unfathomably, late the previous afternoon, the organisers had gone ahead with their plan to run a 50-lap CanAm race, and the heavy sportscars had chewed the track surface to rubble. Some drivers, led by Lauda, now turned militant. As resurfacing work began with epoxy cement, Niki said no, they were by no means certain to race. The warm-up was cancelled, to allow the cement to dry, but in the heat it didn’t cure properly. “Look,” said Renault team manager Jean Sage, “in places you can lift the stuff with your fingers…”

“Is there a feeling among the drivers,” a perceptive local reporter said to Rosberg, “that you don’t want to race?” Keke’s answer was to the point: “We don’t want to break bones! To race is crazy, but there are 28 countries waiting for TV, and 90,000 people around the track here. We have to bite the bullet. But where are our wonderful people from the FIA? Not here, because it’s too bloody hot for them…”

Once the decision to race had been taken, the drivers asked for 10 laps’ acclimatisation, in lieu of the cancelled warm-up, but were told that TV schedules were too tight for more than three. Thus, they ran those, then came to the grid. And what they gave us was an incredible Grand Prix. “Look at them,” commented a spectating John Watson. “Racing drivers again! Show them a green light, and instinct takes over.”

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He was right. From the outset, all 25 of them went for it, with Mansell at the front, threatened by Warwick – who fell foul of the crumbling surface as he was taking the lead, and hit a barrier. At the halfway point Mansell also clouted a wall, and had to pit for tyres, at which point Rosberg took over for a dozen laps, before ceding the lead to Prost – who then, to the astonishment of all, clipped the concrete 10 laps from the end.

There were many wonderful performances, notably from Arnoux, who had to start from the back when his engine refused to fire, yet scythed through to second. But on a track surface which put 13 drivers into the wall, Rosberg’s victory was perhaps the greatest of his career.

Keke was aided, it must be said, by a skullcap through which chilled liquid circulated. Although these are used routinely by the NASCAR drivers, who race all summer long in the Southern states, only Williams had given thought to them for the Dallas Grand Prix.

On the Monday morning, the man from the Dallas Times Herald recanted somewhat. “All complaints aside,” he wrote, “when these chaps climb into the cockpit, they flat go racing. There’s no pouting there…”

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