A gamble that didn't pay off

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The 1981 World Championship decider played out amid the glamour of Las Vegas. It sounded like a good idea; the reality was quite different
By Nigel Roebuck

It was at Monza in 1981 that I asked Chris Pook how ticket sales were going for the inaugural Formula 1 race in Las Vegas. “Terrible,” he muttered, and I was amazed. Ever since its announcement, after all, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix had been hyped to a degree unknown in F1: it was going to be a sell-out, the biggest and best Gran Pree in the history of mankind…

Or maybe not. After a week in New York, I flew to Vegas a few days early – for reasons I cannot remember, much less comprehend – and thus was there before the F1 fraternity arrived. Staying at the very plush, very reasonable MGM Grand, on the first morning I wandered across the road to Caesars Palace – or, to be more precise, to the hotel’s car park, in which this newest Grande Epreuve was to be run.

There I saw US colleague Pete Lyons, who had given up F1 reporting five years earlier. “Is this,” he said, as we looked over the bland expanse of concrete blocks laid out in the car park, “the way GP racing is going?” Looks like it, I said. “In that case,” he replied, “I’ll be seeing you.”

We didn’t know the half of it, did we? Perhaps, in this era of flashy, government-funded white elephant tracks spread across the globe, the reaction to Las Vegas’s attempt at an F1 circuit might have been more measured, but you need to keep in mind that as we gathered in Nevada 30 years ago we had lately visited the Österreichring, Zandvoort and Monza.

Proper circuits, in other words. Now, for the title-deciding finale, we were in a car park in this neon nightmare of a desert town, and it was like Romanee Conti in a plastic beaker. Gordon Murray, on hand to help Brabham’s Nelson Piquet beat Williams’s Carlos Reutemann to the title, took one look and retired to his (darkened) hotel room, emerging only when necessary.

Still, if F1 didn’t take to Vegas, it was mutual. Not many of the local populace had the remotest interest in the race, even situated as it was in the middle of town; fewer still bought tickets.

I had some insight into this within minutes of arriving, as I checked in at the MGM. “What’s this thing at Caesars?” a scowling man asked me. “It’s the last F1 race of the year,” I said, “to settle the outcome of the World Championship.” “Jesus,” said the man, “I wouldn’t even care if it was the American championship…”

So there was an early hint that perhaps here was a place not ready to embrace F1 racing, and, as one who has always adored being in the USA, for once I felt like an alien. Most people in Vegas found racing cars a noisy distraction, far preferring to settle their rolls of fat on stools and feed quarters into machines. In 1946, my guidebook told me, Las Vegas had been nothing more than a ‘small, sleazy oasis in the Nevada desert’. Thirty-five years on, it wasn’t small.

*

Still, there were consolations. Gambling pays for everything in Vegas – I remember being startled by the rows of slot machines at the airport – and consequently hotels, restaurants and shows were way less pricey than expected. In the local paper I saw an ad for a small club, away from the glitzy part of town, took a cab there, and paid ten bucks to see Tina Turner – lately parted from Ike, and rebuilding her career. There weren’t 50 people in the place.

Late that evening I popped into a liquor store for a bottle of Dewar’s; it was a vast and silent place, and the only other people in there were Mark Thatcher and his security team, presumably paid for by you and me. Thatcher, it turned out, was being employed by NBC for the weekend.

By the Monday – race day, unusually, was to be Saturday – the drivers and team personnel were starting to arrive in town, virtually all of them staying at Caesars Palace, so at least the track was conveniently to hand. I asked Rob Walker what he thought of this addition to the calendar.

“Well,” he said, “I suppose it’s rather marvellous that if one’s taken short in the paddock, one can use one’s own bathroom…” Later he would offer an inimitably droll explanation for the vast bedroom ceiling mirrors: “Presumably that’s so you can shave in bed…”

As for the alleged ‘circuit’, the drivers allowed that the surface was first-rate, but there any enthusiasm rested. Alan Jones, on the cusp of retirement, was typically to the point: “It’s like a goat track, dragged down from the mountains and flattened out. What a bloody place to be ending your career…”

Jacques Laffite, still in with a mathematically distant shot at the title, simply dismissed the track, saying it was not only unsuitable for F1, but unworthy of staging anything calling itself a Grand Prix. His remarks were picked up by the Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport, and when they were published Caesars Palace announced a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the journal. In the town made famous by Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, criticism was clearly not to be tolerated.

I had expected Gilles Villeneuve to hate the circuit on sight, but he thought it not too bad. “There again,” he grinned, “maybe I’m biased because I’m in a Ferrari – here the corners are slow for everyone!

“I’ll tell you what,” he added, “it’s going to take a lot of stamina, 75 laps of this track. For one thing, it’s bloody hot; for another, your neck muscles get used to clockwise circuits – and here it’s the other way round. For sure, Carlos is going to be champion, because he is much stronger than Piquet…”

No argument about that. Piquet was never the fittest of drivers, after all, and Reutemann looked to be in one of his unbeatable moods. In qualifying at Monza he’d produced what Villeneuve rightly called ‘the lap of the season’, setting second-fastest time in his Williams-Cosworth, and splitting the turbocharged Renaults of René Arnoux and Alain Prost. And now, in very different surroundings, came another scintillating lap: set on the first day, it would remain unbeaten. Everything pointed to one of those Reutemann weekends, when the rest were wasting their time, and most onlookers were hoping it would turn out that way.

Some, like Jones, weren’t bothered either way. If Alan loathed Piquet, he had no time for Reutemann either, and would not be volunteering to ‘help’ his team-mate. Which of the two, I asked, did he hope would take the title? “Neither…”

Even then Max Mosley was saying spectators didn’t count for much any more, that the future success of F1 lay in television coverage, and the Caesars Palace GP brought that home. It was like being at the filming of a TV special, rather than the settling of a World Championship, and for those in the grandstands it was a dead loss.

Some indication of the lack of interest in, not to say knowledge of, F1 was gleaned in the betting shops, only a few of which offered odds on the race. I ventured into one, and after perusing the chalk-written board and disregarding the likes of Peron, Grabbiani, Munsell, Stohr (who wasn’t even racing) and Cheevers, I went with Jones, offered at 4/1.

Although Alan, the reigning champion, had had poor luck through 1981, he had driven even better than in his title year, and I had a feeling he was going to walk his last race. Actress Susan George, a Williams guest for the weekend, strengthened my resolve when she told me she’d never seen Jones lose a GP. I could hardly resist advice like that – and, as it turned out, my winnings compensated in part for the hundred dollar bills removed from my pocket earlier in the week.

Had I bet on the championship outcome, my money would have been on Reutemann. He was on pole, followed by Jones and Villeneuve, and although Piquet was in fourth he had looked perilously frail in practice, while it seemed that Laffite, only 12th, could be discounted.

As well as that, there was Reutemann’s demeanour in the build-up to the race. Given the pressure of the championship one might have expected him to be even more reclusive than usual, but in practice Carlos behaved like a man who knew he had the title in the bag. The three title contenders appeared on a TV chat show the night before the race, and he ruled proceedings. The tension was in the faces of Piquet and Laffite.

Carlos apart, the outstanding performance in qualifying had come – predictably – from Villeneuve, who, as at Monaco earlier that year, had wrestled his unwieldy Ferrari 126CK into third on the grid, en route achieving angles extravagant even by Gilles’s normal standards.

“You put on new tyres,” he said, “and it’s OK for four laps – after that, forget it. It’s just like a fast, red Cadillac, but it flexes so much that it’s incredibly forgiving. I can get so sideways I’m almost looking over the rollover bar – and still it comes back! Mind you, I’d sooner have it vicious, with some grip…”

In the paddock there was general delight that Derek Warwick, after a nightmare debut season, had qualified his recalcitrant Toleman-Hart.

When I found Derek after the session, he looked like a man on pole: “It’s so long since I’ve raced I’m worried about my fitness – particularly at a place like this. I’ll just do the best I can…

“Whatever happens I stand to make some money out of this. At mid-season Jackie Oliver bet me I wouldn’t qualify the Toleman at any race this year. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘how much?’ ‘Whatever you like,’ he said, ‘a thousand, 10, 25…’ So we settled on 25 grand – and there was a witness! You can keep your betting shops…”

It was as well that Warwick’s wager hadn’t required him to finish a race in 1981, for the Toleman retired with gearbox problems, one of 13 cars which failed to make the flag. How easy it is now to forget that cast-iron reliability wasn’t always the way of it in F1.

*

This was, of course, the year of ‘hydraulic suspension’, a ruse concocted to get around a new ruling from FISA (then the sporting arm of the FIA), which required cars to have a ground clearance of not less than six centimetres. It was checked assiduously when cars came into the pitlane, and invariably all was legal – but what made it farcical was that on track the cars, by means of hydraulically lowered suspension, were visibly skimming the ground. Thus every competing car was illegal, and everyone knew it, but as long as no one was caught…

In this specification, the cars were horrible to drive. “They have to change,” said Didier Pironi. “I feel so stupid when I’m in the car, raising the suspension for the test in the pits, in front of all the spectators. How ridiculous! As for driving, there’s no feel in the cars now they have no suspension movement. They are brutal to drive.”

“The hydraulic suspension is a joke,” agreed Reutemann. “Everyone wanted to lower cornering speeds, but all we’ve done is make the cars more dangerous! They’re legal in the pits, and on the ground when they’re running – it’s a joke.”

Another not around at the end of the race was Villeneuve, whom the organisers had belatedly disqualified for not lining up straight on the grid. No matter: the Ferrari pulled off on lap 23 – rear end ablaze – before Gilles could comply.

In many ways, location being only one of them, this was one of the oddest GPs I ever saw. At no stage did Reutemann or Piquet figure – indeed, when Villeneuve vanished from the lap charts, his third place was taken over by Laffite, the only title contender who seemed to be racing. Piquet at this point ran fifth, Reutemann seventh.

For Carlos, it went mysteriously wrong from the start. While Jones burst into the lead, his team-mate was down to fourth by the first corner, and by lap three had fallen to seventh, ahead of Piquet, who also made an atrocious start. One point ahead going into the race, Carlos had only to finish in front of Nelson to be sure of the title, but when the Brabham got alongside the Williams he didn’t so much as defend.

Jones, bull-strong as ever in the draining conditions, won by 20sec, with Prost second, Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa third, Mansell’s Lotus fourth – and Piquet fifth, which paid two points and allowed him to snick ahead of Reutemann to become World Champion.

Carlos, lapped, trailed in eighth, and his performance that day remains as unfathomable as any I’ve known. His face revealed nothing as he took off his helmet and balaclava, but he seemed fit enough, which was more than could be said of the semi-comatose Piquet, whose head had lolled against the cockpit side for half the race, who had to be lifted from his car at the end.

It was some time before Nelson was recovered enough to attend an informal press conference: he seemed pretty much out of it as he slumped there, bare feet in a bucket of cold water.

His was the title, though, and as Jones – more than a little ridiculous with a Caesars Palace crown of laurels askew on his head – took the plaudits, Reutemann quietly packed his gear. After mumbling something about handling problems, he disappeared to the silent balm of his hotel room, almost unnoticed. There was always a certain nobility about Carlos, and his private tragedy that afternoon was the more poignant for being exposed in a place as pitiless as this.

Jones, though, was in celebratory mood, having dominated what he believed to be his last GP. And now here was Thatcher at his most self-important, which was very self-important indeed.

At that time Mark was dabbling with motor racing, and if he invariably came across as a man of quite remarkable charmlessness, this was no deterrent to certain grandees of the paddock, who fawned over him without shame.

Not all, though. TV crew in tow, NBC mic in hand, elbowing ordinary humans out of the way, he strove desperately to get to the winner, incisive question at the ready. “Were tyres very important in the race today?” he said, gravitas written all over his face, and Alan, bless him, didn’t let us down. “Oh, absolutely,” he replied, deadpan. “You see, they kept the wheels from touching the ground.” It wasn’t a long interview.

Something else I recall from that afternoon was a remark from another driver – one who had failed to qualify for the race. “What,” he said, “was Reutemann playing at? Piquet had to get past him – all Carlos had to do was put him in the wall, and he was champion…”

I was lost for words, and so was Carlos when I mentioned it to him. To win a title like that, he said, wouldn’t have been winning anything. No one would’ve known, the other driver had said. “I’d have known,” said Carlos.

Not long after that Reutemann announced his retirement, and Keke Rosberg, who’d finished 10th that day in Vegas, went swiftly into action.

“The ’81 season had been the worst of my life,” he said. “I was 33, I’d been around a long time, and the Fittipaldi gave you no chance to show people how you could race. I couldn’t see where I would get a good drive. I had talked to Frank, but he said his team was settled for ’82.

“When I heard about Carlos’s retirement, I thought, ‘I bet that wasn’t in Frank’s plans’, and got in touch. Later he asked me to test at Ricard, and it went well. Finally Frank called me – he was off to Saudi Arabia, in a rush. ‘You can have the drive,’ he said. I said, ‘We haven’t even talked about money or anything – but… I’ll take it!’”

Twelve months on, in Las Vegas, Rosberg won the championship. And F1, mercifully, took its leave of Bugsy’s favourite town.

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