A turbo was always going to win in the rarefied atmosphere of Kyalami. While the DFVs wheezed to 180mph at this high altitude, 200mph turbos greedily gobbled air forced down their throats. It was no contest.
And Renault had the most-sorted turbo. And they had Alain Prost, the form man of the closing races of 1981. The little Frenchman was most people’s pre-season favourite to secure the drivers’ title, while the big-budget French team was widely tipped to win the constructors’ race.
It was as simple as that.
Except it wasn’t — on all counts.
Prost did win in South Africa, but only after a startling comeback drive, unlapping himself and charging from eighth to first in just 29 laps following a left-rear blow-out at the 150mph Jukskei Sweep.
His pole-sitting team-mate Rene Amoux, meanwhile, was the victim of a foul-up that signposted the fraught season to come for the Regie.
Amoux was powerless to resist Prost, whose unscheduled pits-top had actually worked in his favour, clean, new, Michelins being the way to go on a track awash with rubber ‘marbles’. But he should have at least been able to vibro-massage his way round to second. Instead, an error by his team manager, Jean Sage, cost him a couple of championship points.
Such had been his cars’ advantage in this race, Sage simply could not believe his lap-charter’s assertion that Carlos Reutemann’s closing Williams was on the same lap as Amoux. To this effect, he hung out a pitboard that asserted Carlos was a lap down.
Which is why Amoux made no effort to keep him behind, losing second place with five laps to go.
Amoux wasn’t too disappointed, though. The prospects looked good.
They were. The yellow cars led at Imola, Monaco, Zolder, Detroit, Montreal, Zandvoort, Paul Ricard, Osterreichring, Monza, Dijon and Las Vegas. But only in France and Italy did they complete the job in what became a season of blown chances, blown turbos and blown tempers.