Roebuck's Legends: Elio de Angelis and the GP Drivers Strike

A controversial clause in the 1982 superlicence application form triggered one of F1's most infamous standoffs – it was all Elio De Angelis could do to ease the tension with sweet music

1982 South African GP drivers strike

Pironi, Lauda and Villeneuve in protest mode at Kyalami '82


Denis Jenkinson had Catholic tastes in music, as in much else. If his particular devotion was to traditional jazz – Sidney Bechet was up there with Rosemeyer, Gilles Villeneuve, Senna et al among his heroes – so also he loved to listen to Beethoven. And once in a while something quirky would catch his fancy: ‘Song for Guy,’ by Elton John was one such.

There is no vocal here, merely a piano solo, written in memory of a motorcycle messenger who worked for John’s company and was killed in an accident. For Jenks, this added poignancy to an already haunting tune. I put it on a tape for him with some Bechet, Beiderbecke, and so on, and he soon wore it out.

He was touched, too, to learn that ‘Song for Guy’ was played at the funeral of Elio de Angelis, that lovely man who died in a testing accident at Paul Ricard in May 1986. De Angelis, too, had adored this particular piece, and frequently played it himself. He was a wealthy young man, which is not uncommon among racing drivers, but also very cultured, which is. Natural ability in a car was but one of Elio gifts; many have said he might equally have had a successful career as a concert pianist.

This had come to the notice of his fellows in unusual circumstances. Prior to the 1982 season, the F1 drivers, as usual, received an application form for their ‘Superlicence’, and most blithely signed it without troubling to read the small print. Niki Lauda, though, noted a clause for which he did not care, and pointed it out to Didier Pironi, then President of the Grand Prix Drivers Association.


Lauda spoteed the contentious contract clause

Worrying to Lauda was the proposal that, in future, superlicences be issued to a driver and team; at its foot, the form read, “I am committed to the above team to drive exclusively for them in the FIA World Championship until the….19…” Niki didn’t go for that at all, envisaging trading between teams, with drivers being passed around like a tray of cakes.

Away everyone went to South Africa, but when the drivers arrived at Kyalami on the first morning of practice, they found a coach at the paddock entrance, which Lauda and Pironi invited them to board. Some, including Keke Rosberg, were reluctant, but only Jochen Mass refused.

“It was like a high point in Pironi’s life” Keke Rosberg

Once loaded up, the bus set off to Johannesburg, to the Sunnyside Park Hotel, where the drivers installed themselves, while Pironi, at the circuit, negotiated with Jean-Marie Balestre, President of the FISA (then the motorsport arm of the FIA), and Bernie Ecclestone, President of FOCA, these two in agreement for once.

Ecclestone, predictably, had snapped into combat mode from the first: if his Brabham drivers Piquet and Patrese were not on parade for the first session, he said, they were sacked for breach of contract. As 10 o’clock came and went, Nelson and Riccardo, like their colleagues, lounged by the pool, now apparently out of work.

Up at the circuit it was difficult to have too much sympathy for anyone save the spectators, who had not come to look at a deserted track.

Pironi was no more in a mood to compromise than either Balestre or Ecclestone. “It was,” commented Rosberg with evident distaste, “like a high point in his life.” Late in the afternoon the FIA stewards announced the race was to be postponed, and that an application was to be made to suspend the drivers’ licenses.

From the archive

This was followed by an asinine statement from Bobby Hartslief, the MD of Kyalami Entertainment Enterprises, which stated that none of the drivers would be eligible for the World Championship – ever again… He added that the teams would be looking for new drivers. “Wanted: 26 young persons seeking a new career in motoring. Experience of 1000bhp turbo engines an advantage.”

Back at the hotel, the drivers pondered their next move. Clearly they would now have to spend the night there, and Lauda decided that some sort of dormitory was the only answer; if they took single rooms he reasoned, unity would be lost, and with it the fight. Therefore he organised a small banquet suite, in which mattresses were installed.

Through the day, a gung-ho schoolboy atmosphere had prevailed, although the more junior drivers were mighty nervous as they contemplated the possible repercussions of going AWOL. Lauda and others stressed to them the importance of sticking together, and then Gilles Villeneuve found there was a piano in the room, and began playing Scott Joplin rags.

Periodically, Pironi would arrive with fresh news from the front, and Villeneuve would preface Didier’s announcement with the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth. Gilles’s sense of irrepressible fun was never more appreciated than that night.

Elio de Angelis

De Angelis was a calming figure in the midst of tension

Grand Prix Photo

Then, after a lecture on the finer points of Italian terrorism from Bruno Giacomelli, de Angelis moved to the piano, sat down, and began to play some Mozart. “Elio was a close friend of mine,” Rosberg said, “so I knew he could play the piano. But no-one knew he could play like that…”

The piano soothed everyone, and was later to serve another less spiritual purpose. When Arrows owner Jackie Oliver arrived with a local heavy and tried to force his way in, the drivers locked the door and shoved the instrument against it.

The next problem was the loo, which was across the hallway. Eventually it was decided to leave the ‘dormitory’ key on a plate in the middle of the room, and all present were put on their honour to relock the door and replace the key. All did – except Toleman’s Teo Fabi, who went out and didn’t come back.

“He ran like a chicken,” said Keke Rosberg,” and lost all our respect for ever not because he left, but because he betrayed us all. He went straight to Ecclestone and Balestre, and related everything we had discussed…” Late that evening the stewards declared that if the drivers turned up the following day, and at least 15 of them practised, the race would go ahead, after all. But it wasn’t until 10am that Pironi telephoned Lauda from the circuit to say that the drivers had won the day, and should immediately go up to the track.

After a night of indifferent sleep, and not really sure what had been agreed, they complied. A rather brief practice session, followed by an hour of qualifying, and that was it as far as race preparation was concerned.

The following day, Alain Prost drove one of his greatest races, puncturing a rear tyre while leading, crawling back to the pits, rejoining in eighth place, and taking the lead again nine laps from the flag. There weren’t too many smiles on the podium, though, for during the race a statement was issued by the stewards: “for the purpose of running a race, a temporary truce was called in the disagreement between the drivers and officials. The truce lasted until the end of the race, when it was terminated. This means that the position existed prior to the agreement is effectively reinstated. All the drivers named are suspended indefinitely.”

Duplicitous this may have been, but it was all hot air. When they got to Rio for the next Grand Prix, it was still Lauda in a McLaren, Rosberg in a Williams, Prost in a Renault, Villeneuve in a Ferrari, Piquet in a Brabham. And while most of the team owners may have been livid about the drivers’ behaviour, within a few weeks they went on strike again at Imola. And they didn’t relent.

“Funny, wasn’t it, that the drivers were so united at Kyalami?” mused Rosberg. “It’s about the only good memory I have of that weekend. That, and Elio’s playing…”