1981 Spanish Grand Prix race report

Ferrari win on power

Jarama, Madrid, June 21st

Last year the Spanish Grand Prix was the centre of a dispute between the Formula One Constructors Association and officialdom in the form of the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile, representing the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, who are the world ruling body of motoring sport. The Spanish club sided with the constructors against officialdom with the result that the race was declared null and void from the FIA World Championship series and Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo withdrew from the “pirate” race that was run. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the Jarama river was said to have flowed red with the blood from internal battles; in 1980 it could be said to have flowed red with the blood of FOCA for the paddock battle between the rebels and officialdom saw the virtual end of FOCA in their bid to take over all aspects of Formula One.

This year all was peace and quiet and FOCA now do what they are told by the FIA (or appear to!). In the FISA/FOCA agreement signed and sealed last winter the “Constructors” or “Bernie’s Boys” as they are known in the paddock are supposed to field a maximum of 18 cars, which together with the 12 “Manufacturers” cars (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Renault, Talbot, Osella and Toleman-Hart) make the total of 30 which is permitted for practice. FOCA had the problem of having 20 potential runners on their list so some “persuasion” was brought to bear within their ranks after trying to encourage Toleman-Hart to go away, without success. The result has been that March have reduced their entry from two to one, as have ATS, and in so doing Eliseo Salazar was transferred (with his money!) from the second March car into the lone Ensign car, which meant that Marc Surer was eased out into the cold. ATS were already easing Jan Lammers out of their team in favour of Tommy (Slim) Borgudd so their single-car entry was easily solved. There was a slight disturbance when the Spanish organisers allowed local man Villota to enter his Aurora Williams FW07 and tried to get rid of the lone ATS, but a short, sharp warning from FISA put a stop to that.

The regular morning test-session took place on Friday, starting a bit late due to the tardy arrival of the medical helicopter and while the pace was not particularly hot the weather certainly was. Lap times were anything up to two seconds slower than last year and while some people would like to ascribe this to the ban on sliding-skirts, and its reduction in the down-force generated by “ground-effects”, it is more likely due to the fact that everyone, apart from Toleman-Hart, was running on “production-racing” Michelin tyres rather than the best that Michelin or Goodyear used to supply. The “mickey-mouse” Jarama circuit, with its pretentious corner-names, like Nuvolari, Ascari, Varzi, Bugatti, etc., is fast down the straight but slow on the twisty bit so that average speeds are only just on 100 m.p.h. It is safe and clinical and there is plenty of room for bad drivers to spin off, which seemed to be happening regularly but the organisation stopped practice every time this happened in order to retrieve the damaged cars, which meant that time schedules ran later and later. Apart from the changes already mentioned all the teams seemed to be in pretty good order and everyone was shaping up nicely for the afternoon qualifying session of one hour. The Talbot-Matras (nee Ligiers) seemed ideally suited to the twisty little circuit and Laffite was in fine form, but brother-in-law Jabouille was way off the pace. While the Williams team was in its usual strong position, the Brabham team could not get things right and for a change the Alfa Romeos were looking promising, and the turbo Ferraris were as menacing as ever.

Ideally the one hour of qualifying practice should see all the fast teams getting into a rhythm that gets faster and faster as the minutes tick away, and sometimes the pace in the last few minutes becomes almost unbearable. Everyone is searching for detail adjustments that will gain fractions of seconds under braking for a vital corner, a few more r.p.m. down the straight, better acceleration out of a crucial corner, improved handling on key corners and so on. Invariably an improvement on one detail is at the expense of a deterioration in another, so drivers and engineers are continually juggling with all the variables trying to hit on a compromise that will improve their lap times. A team that is progressing in the right direction can be carried along by their own momentum, while others flounder about and make no progress. The one hour of timed practice has to see all the experiments of the morning session put to good use, and if you get Williams, Brabham, Lotus, Ferrari, Talbot, Arrows and Renault all on a faster-and-faster spiral during the crucial hour it becomes very exciting and quite a relief when it is all over. The most important ingredient for this state of affairs is “continuity” and “rhythm” and it only wants one false move to break the rhythm and that team is out of the running.

For the Friday timed-hour at Jarama this did not happen, and the way things are at present it is not likely to happen in 1981 like it did last year and the year before. First we have this abject nonsense of everyone cheating over the 6 cm. ground-clearance rule, by using hydro-pneumatic ride-height mechanisms (which Citroen are busy saying evolved from their production car technology!), then the absurdity of cars being checked on entry to the pits and if caught cheating the driver’s lap times are scrubbed. Add to this the Spanish organisers stopping practice every time a car spun off into the sand and sending out a break-down truck to collect the stranded car and you see that “continuity” and “rhythm” were the last ingredients of this timed hour of practice. Among the drivers to lose lap times because they were caught “cheating” were Reutemann, Patrese, Laffite, Tambay, Mansell and Giacomelli, through no fault of their own, but simply because their hydro-pneumatic mechanisms did not work properly. Many drivers did their coming-in lap very slowly, to make sure the suspension had risen fully and by the time they had been through inspection and returned to their pit the brakes had cooled off considerably which made it difficult for the Ferodo men to keep an accurate track on pad temperatures, which could have been vital in the high ambient temperatures. Among those who caused practice to be stopped were Serra (Fittipaldi), Salazar (Ensign), Borgudd (ATS) and Stohr (Arrows), so that nearly 1 1/2 hours went by before the 1 hour of timing was completed. Through it all the Williams team dominated, with Jones first and Reutemann second, but Laffite was up there with them in an exclusive 1 min. 14 sec. bracket, into which Alain Prost just scraped with his Renault. Surprise of the afternoon was Piquet’s lowly position, down in seventeenth position and the two Ferraris which were in mid-field for different reasons. Villeneuve was finding the handling to be pretty awful, while Pironi was in turbo trouble, his car running a higher boost pressure and cooking the turbo bearings. At the back of the field the Toleman-Harts were showing improvement in being among the tail-enders rather than way behind them. The McLaren MP4, apart from looking very neat and tidy, and aerodynamically clean, was going well in John Watson’s hands, but was having accidents in the hands of de Cesaris.

Bearing in mind the general chaos of the afternoon it was remarkable that a reasonably satisfactory end result was produced, but there was still another day to go. If Friday was hot, Saturday was almost unbelievable and the morning test-session was only 15 minutes late in starting, but the usual delays to collect crashed or broken cars soon extended this to half an hour. Gabbiani wrecked one of the Osellas, Pironi had another turbo-charger seize up and Warwick was restricted to a single timed lap as the intercooler on his Toleman-Hart had split. Villeneuve was applying mind-over-matter and forcing the ill-handling Ferrari to go quickly, whether it liked it or not and Mansell and de Angelis were looking quite promising with the Lotus 87s, now painted black and gold, the colours of their new sponsors.

The final, and crucial, hour of timed practice started at 1.25 p.m. instead of 1 p.m., which was not bad for Spain, but the “rhythm” was still being interrupted by the beam-checking of ground clearance in a lay-by at the pit road entrance. Fortunately everyone managed to keep-it-on-the-island so the hour went through without any breaks and the battle for pole-position was waged between Jones (Williams) and Laffite (Talbot), with Reutemann (Williams), Watson (McLaren) and Prost (Renault) hard behind them. Arnoux, in the second Renault (RE33) was in terrible trouble for a turbo-charger failed almost as soon as he started; he transferred to the spare car (RE27B) and the same thing happened, so all he managed was four laps. Villeneuve spent a lot of time in the pits having the front springs changed on his Ferrari, and Pironi was late out due to the time taken to replace the turbo-chargers on his car. He had not gone for long before the clutch packed up! Laffite was not only using a brand new car for this meeting, but also a revised Matra V12 engine with different camshafts which gave him another 600 r.p.m. at the top end, the maximum going up from 12,200 to 12,800 r.p.m. He was using it to good effect and got in the only lap in under 1 min. 14 sec., which put him on pole-position in a class of his own, while Giacomelli and Villeneuve got into the 1 min. 14 sec. bracket, along with Jones, Reutemann, Watson and Prost. Missing from the leading group were Arnoux, for reasons already explained, Piquet for reasons unexplained even though he did his time in the practice car with carbon-fibre brake discs, Patrese and Pironi and the two Lotus lads.

The outcome of the two rather unsatisfactory days of testing and qualifying was that all the usual runners were in the qualified twenty-four, Alboreto (Tyrrell) missing out this time, while Daly (March) got in, and Henton only being half-a-second away from getting the Toleman-Hart on the grid. After practice was finished five cars were drained of fuel and weighed, the regulation minimum being 585 kgs. Villeneuve’s Ferrari was 634 kgs., Laffite’s Talbot 594 kgs., Watson’s McLaren 593 kgs., Jones’ Williams 587 kgs. and Piquet’s Brabham (the T-car) 580 kgs. By filling the oil tank to over-flowing and the water system to bursting point, the Brabham team managed to make BT49C/9 record a “legal” weight, but there is no doubt that as driven on the track by Piquet it is under the minimum weight limit, but 1981 seems to be the year of the cheats. His lowly ninth place on the grid suggested that there was more to success than simple cheating!

In view of the possible midday heat and the attendance for the race of the King of Spain, it was planned to hold the 80-lap race in the afternoon, indeed late in the afternoon, at 4 p.m. This meant that the half-hour warm-up period was due at 1.10 p.m. after some Alfa-Sud saloon car racng, but due to cars demolishing catch fences it was 1.25 p.m. before the Formula 1 cars were allowed out for their final session. The Brabham team were still searching in the dark for ways of making Piquet’s car (BT49C/11) more competitive, Laffite was instructed to keep the Marra V12 down to 12,500 r.p.m., at least in the opening stages, the March team were in a new world, having to work on a Sunday, and there was conscernation in the Williams camp when Alan Jones went missing. He appeared after about five minutes to report that a nut had fallen off the throttle linkage on top of the engine, and the operating arm had become detached. By borrowing a screwdriver from a marshal and jamming the throttle slides partly open he had driven it back on the ignition switch. His only comment to his mechanics was “better to happen now than in the race”. Patrick Head’s feelings were “it should not have happened now”.

Hot was the word for the weather and at the Jarama autodrome there is precious little cover and not a shady tree within sight, for the track is built on open scrubland. The royal helicopters arrived majestically (they were big ones) and settled in the paddock area, raising clouds of dust and rubbish as well as blowing down advertising material and once the King and his party were ensconced in the air-conditioned control tower the 24 starters set off on their warm-up lap to form up on the grid, with a very confident and happy Jacques Laffite on pole-position. Everything was going smoothly and on time. The scintillating blue and white Talbot-Matra V12 led the field round on the parade lap in an orderly fashion and back on to the starting grid, where they paused and at that point the Talbot clutch began to drag and to stop the car creeping forward Laffite had to juggle his right foot between throttle pedal and brake pedal. The green light came on as Laffite was off balance and he muffed his start, but the rest did not, and in particular a little French/Canadian driver in car number 27 in the seventh row. Jones led away, Reutemann swerved round the Talbot and as the two Williams cars shot into the first comer there was a scarlet Ferrari with them! (And turbo-charged engines are supposed to be difficult to get off the line.) Round the back and into the twisty bits it was Jones, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Andretti, Prost, Watson and the rest and quite a few nose fins and nose wings had been pushed out of shape in the opening scramble. Villeneuve’s rear wheel had clipped the nose wing on Prost’s Renault, Pironi had bent his Ferrari’s nose wing on the rear of Patrese’s Arrows, and the Arrows caught its front on someone’s rear wheel. Everyone kept going. At the end of the opening lap it was still Jones, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Andretti, Prost, Watson, Giacomelli, Piquet, Patrese, Pironi and the luckless Laffite, but into the braking area for the first corner the Ferrari nipped by the Williams into second place. Alan Jones was in terrific form and waiting for no-one; with a clear track ahead of him he pulled away at half-a-second a lap and was in a class of his own. Equally, Villeneuve and Reutemann were pulling away from the rest of the runners, but the Ferrari was not getting away from the third place Williams. An interesting little bunch, comprising Andretti (Alfa Romeo), Prost (Renault), Watson (McLaren), Piquet (Brabham) and Pironi (Ferrari), were in the running for fourth place and Laffite was just beginning to gather himself together after his appalling start, picking off Giacomelli and joining the back of the queue for fourth place, albeit actually in ninth place on the road.

Tucked well down in the cockpit of his Williams, Alan Jones looked unassailable increasing his lead steadily and remorselessly so that a runaway victory seemed certain. Villeneuve was throwing the Ferrari about with abandon, enjoying himself while he could for there was no certainty that it would last out 80 laps, while Reutemann sat solidly in third place, as menacing as ever. In the queue behind, Prost did an audacious bit of overtaking going into the tight left-hand hairpin behind the pits, and got away with it, to Andretti’s surprise, and Piquet had long since dealt with Watson and had his beady-eye on the Alfa Romeo. Salazar in the Ensign in last place was about to be lapped by the leader. Approaching the end of lap 14 Jones suffered “brain-fade” (he could not put it down to anything else) and went into a comer a fraction too fast and under-steered himself off into the rough stuff! Fifteen cars went by before he could extricate himself and get back on the track, many of the drivers smiling to themselves as they went by, others wondering what on earth could have gone wrong with the World Champion. From his seventh row starting position Villeneuve found himself in the lead, the idea of having fun with the Ferrari while its tyres or engine lasted was now gone, there was victory to be had and that was serious business, with sixty-six laps still to go. He knew he could out-speed anyone down the straight, and there is nobody who is braver on the brakes, but round the twisty bits the Ferrari was no match for the handling of a Williams, Brabham, Talbot or Lotus. One of the key corners on the circuit is the steep downhill left-hand hairpin that exits steeply uphill, to begin the run round the double right-hand bend that leads on to the main straight. If he could hold off any opposition into this hairpin he could lead onto the straight and pull out six or seven lengths on maximum speed, which would be enough to keep ahead through the twisty bits on the back of the circuit. By adjusting his fore-and-aft brake-balance control in the cockpit Villeneuve gambled on extra braking on the front wheels, taking advantage of the downhill weight-transfer to the front tyres. He went to the point of locking-up the front wheels, for as he said later “I can live with front brakes locking-up, but rear-brakes locking on . . . no way”.

There was a long way to go and behind him was a row of determined, frustrated, slightly angry men all out to win, or at any rate some of them were. Reutemann was beginning to lean on the Ferrari and there is nothing more unnerving, while Piquet was all around Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, trying to get by. Laffite was pressuring Watson and de Angelis was corning into the picture. Prost was still holding a good third position, in spite of his front wing being all out of shape. Well over half a lap behind Jones was picking off the tail-enders one by one and had that look about him that suggested that he was going to be up into third place at least before the end of the race. With twenty laps completed there had only been one retirement, that of de Cesaris who had spun his McLaren MP4 off into the dirt, but Patrese was on his way out as smoke was pouring from the engine in his Arrows on the over-run. Cheever was in the pits having his throttle pedal linkage on the Tyrrell repaired, and Daly (March) and Tambay (Theodore) had also been in for repairs, while Jabouille was in for brake adjustments. Pironi had an “off” into the rough stuff and stopped for new front tyres and a new nose wing.

In his endeavours to get by Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, Piquet made a complete nonsense of it and cannoned into the Italian car and both went off the road momentarily, which allowed Watson and Laffite to go by, Piquet rejoining the race before a very angry Andretti, so that the order behind the first three was now Watson, Laffite, Piquet, Andretti and de Angelis, any one of whom could be fourth and it was Laffite who was out to do just that. Jones was now in eleventh place and closing on Giacomelli and Mansell, and at this point, Pironi rejoined the race, but four laps down after his long pit stop. Up at the front there was no change, Villeneuve was running the race to his own pace, which was relatively slow compared with practice, lapping around 1 min. 19 sec. to 1 min. 20 sec.; but that was not important, the main thing was that Reutemann was totally unable to do anything about the fast-slow tactics of the Ferrari. Suddenly third place became available as Prost rnisjudged his braking, locked his wheels and slid off into the dirt, being unable to restart his engine, and Watson found himself in third place, but Laffite wanted it even more. After the thump from Piquet’s Brabham, Andretti’s Alfa Romeo did not go so well and de Angelis overtook him and shortly afterwards Mansell did likewise. Jones had passed Giacomelli’s Alfa and was soon to overtake Andretti, which put him into eighth place.

Stalemate now settled in more or less right through the field, Villeneuve still leading and not putting a wheel wrong anywhere, nor giving an inch to the pressure Reutemann was applying through the twisty parts of the circuit. Each time down the straight the power of the turbo-charged V6 Ferrari pulled out a sizeable gap and there was nothing Reutemann could do, for after all Villeneuve was leading the race, and that was as a result of his meteoric opening lap. It’s no use being in sixth place when the leader spins off into the dirt. While Reutemann was suffering frustration watching the Ferrari pull away from him down the straight, Jones was suffering in the same way, for he had caught up with Pironi, who was four laps down, and try as he might he could not get by, which stopped his progress up through the field, for by now he should have caught Mansell’s Lotus. To add to the difficulties of the Williams driver, both were suffering gearbox trouble, or to be more precise both gearboxes were showing signs of suffering at their drivers’ hands. Reutemann was having to hold his in third gear, steering with his left hand, and Jones could not make second gear stay engaged, so dispensed with it altogether and consequently dropped back from his Ferrari. Reutemann was staying with his Ferrari, but even when lapping slower cars he could not find a way by, or rather, Villeneuve didn’t give him the opportunity. It was now half-distance, with 40 laps still to go. Reutemann was still up with Villeneuve, Laffite was hard behind Watson, who was sitting it out well, Piquet was a lonely fifth, followed by de Angelis, Mansell, Jones, Andretti, Arnoux and Giacomelli all spaced out, with the rest straggling along behind.

For no apparent reason Piquet suddenly shot straight off the road and out of the race on lap 44, and a short while later his young team-mate Rebaque retired with a broken gearbox. He had been worried that his brakes were not up to scratch and had been using the gearbox heavily to assist his stopping, and the gearbox had cried “enough”. Piquet’s disappearance elevated the Lotus lads into fifth and sixth places, and just when it seemed settled Laffite out-smarted Watson and took third place. Almost immediately the Talbot began to draw away from the McLaren and close up on the leaders, as Laffite let the Matra V12 run over its 12,500 r.p.m. limit. At the front Villeneuve was still in command and completely unruffled, running the race at his own pace, which may not have been as fast as people wanted, but there was nothing they could do about it. At the end of each lap, a third of the way down the main straight, the Ferrari was leading by three or four lengths and pulling away. Laffite was now worrying Reutemann, who had enough to do with the tantalising red car in front of him, without having the blue and white car dodging about from one rear-view mirror to the other. By lap 60 the three cars were nose-to-tail through the twisty bits and with a rush Laffite was past Reutemann, putting him so off balance that Watson went by before he recovered, and Laffite was now right under the Ferrari rear wing. When he gets roused Jacques Laffite is a real fighter, like a terrier, and now he was roused, but the cool Villeneuve was still unimpressed. He had lapped the slow tail-enders, but was now in sight of the not so slow ones and next in line to be lapped was Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo V12, so the French/Canadian cunning came into play. He knew that if he caught up with the Alfa Romeo that was nearly as quick as he was it would upset his rhythm and make opportunities for a slight misjudgement. The pack behind him were waiting for one false move, one muffed gear-change, one deviation off line, an error of an inch or two on a corner, a foot or two on braking, that was all they wanted. But he was not giving in to them and rather than take the chance of getting embroiled with Giacomelli the little “Cannuck” eased the pace ever so slightly.

By lap 65 we now had five cars nose-to-tail, the Ferrari, the Talbot, the McLaren, the Williams and the Lotus, and they were in sight of Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo on the back part of the circuit. But five laps later they had still not caught him, and indeed were not so close, and to be sure Giacomelli had not speeded up! For the final ten laps Villeneuve gave as fine a display of self-control as you could wish to see, with four cars pushing hard he picked his way through the corners without deliberately baulking them, but making quite sure there was not quite enough room anywhere for another car (unless it had been driven by a Villeneuve!). On the straight he unleashed the power of the turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre and pulled out six or seven lengths before the next corner. It was frustrating but beautiful to watch. It was all over. From the final corner he was gone, before Laffite had time to think about pulling out of the slipstream. A well-deserved tactical victory if ever there was one.

To listen to some people afterwards you would think it was immoral to have a car that was faster down the straight! Some people seem to think that motor racing is only about going round corners. Laffite merely said “The power of that Ferrari . . . poof!” and shook his head in disbelief. – D.S.J.