1981 Belgian Grand Prix race report

Carlos Reutemann in a Williams FW07C leads Nelson Piquet in his Brabham BT49C and Alan Jones in a Williams FW07C.

Carlos Reutemann leads Nelson Piquet (left) and Alan Jones

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A bit of a shambles

Zolder, May 17th

The two days of practice before the Belgian Grand Prix were not only a waste of time, they were farcical. Partly because of rules and regulations and partly because of the weather, but at least it was not due to any fault of the drivers, who were all getting on with the job in spite of the difficulties. This year’s “in-thing” is adjustable ride-height in order to cheat the 6 cm. ground clearance rule and the only teams who were not cheating were those who could not afford the mechanisms, like Ensign, or those who had enough problems, without adding new ones, like Toleman. All the regular and serious teams were cheating so openly that cheating now seems to be accepted as being legal. Systems for lowering the car once it was under way varied from hydro-pneumatic, though hydro-electric, to simple mechanical means and everyone seemed to think that the lowering of the car gave aerodynamic advantages, but one wonders whether the lowering of the centre-of-gravity of the car by 6 cm. (2.4 inches) did not have as great effect.

Because Team Lotus were back in the entry (after missing the San Marino Grand Prix) there were 31 aspiring competitors for this race and the recently agreed rules limit the number to 30 for practice, of which 24 can qualify for the race. The so-called “four-year stability on rules” would appear to have been modified already to a “four-day stability” and before practice was through it looked like becoming a “four-hour stability”. Among the major changes to the scene was the appearance of the new Renault RE30 cars, which are lighter, smaller, neater and more compact than the RE20 series, and have the turbo-chargers located low down alongside the engine, one on each side. The handling could not be made satisfactory, so they were abandoned in favour of the older cars, and various problems on Friday afternoon meant that Arnoux did not qualify. Rain on Saturday stopped all hopes for the unfortunate Frenchman. The teams of Williams, Brabham, Tyrrell, McLaren, Ensign, Fittipaldi, March, Alfa Romeo, Talbot-Matra, Ferrari, Arrows, Theodore and Toleman-Hart were not changed radically from the Imola race, but ATS had only one entry and put in Borgudd instead of Lammers, and Osella put in Piercarlo Ghinzani for the injured Guerra. Ferrari were still using KKK turbo-chargers, March had painted their cars all-black, Lotus were running modified (a continuous process) Type 81 cars, McLaren were restricting the MP4 carbon-fibre car, to Watson, Brabham were without Gordon Murray, who had contracted mumps(!), Fittipaldi were only running Rosberg’s car on Avon tyres, and Patrick Head was playing the role of “spectator” in the Williams pit.


The exhausts glow on the Ferrari 126CK of Didier Pironi.

The exhausts glow on Pironi’s Ferrari on his way to 8th on the grid

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During the hour of timed practice on Friday afternoon the cars were checked for 6 cm. ground-clearance as they entered the pit-lane from the circuit, not in an attempt to find out if they were cheating, for that was self-evident, but to check that their cheating-mechanism was functioning properly! Anyone who was caught out had his lap-times for that period out on the track erased. Among those who were caught were Alan Jones, just as he had recorded fastest time to that point, which handed pole-position to his team-mate Reutemann. Also in trouble was Laffite who arrived at the check with his Matra V12 blown-up, which was embarrassing because the Talbot relied on an engine-driven pump to maintain “regulation height”. March were not visibly cheating, but Daly’s car failed the clearance test and he didn’t realise it, so did not appreciate that he was not recording any times. The whole business was a sick joke and a rather poor circus-act. Add to all this the fact that Patrick Tambay was not allowed out in the Theodore due to the total mis-management of the rules by what is left of the Formula One Constructors Association, and you can see why practice could not be taken seriously.

On the Saturday someone else took a hand in the tragi-comedy. One of the Toleman-Harts had conveniently been obliged to withdraw, which allowed Tambay to join in and Arnoux was all set to go with the old Renault, when down came the rain. Cheever (Tyrrell) was the first to brave the rain and then one or two others joined in and even though the rain stopped there was still a lot of water about and those brave men who were having a go made an awe-inspiring sight. Although the track dried in places it never became totally dry and Jones and Villeneuve were terrific and their times would have got them onto Friday’s dry-grid, had they not already qualified. Although Arnoux was third fastest he was not quick enough, and poor Tambay didn’t really have a chance. Some of those who had already qualified well did not bother to go out, nor did some of those who had failed on Friday. To complete the total farce of practice, two hours after it was all over it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. But the rules had said qualifying would be at 1 p.m. and that was that. Some rules can be bent, some totally ignored, while others are inflexible. The paper-work side of Formula One is in an awful muddle and there are far too many rules and regulations.

Nigel Mansell in a Lotus 81B-Ford Cosworth.

Nigel Mansell qualified his Lotus 10th

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Sunday was anything but stable, there were rain showers in the offing and instead of concentrating on the job in hand a lot of people were letting their thoughts and ideas wander. Quite a few of the mechanics were getting very niggly over one of their number having been very badly injured [sadly, he subsequently died. – Ed.] in the pit-lane during practice, due to the ridiculous over-crowding and the totally inadequate size of the pit area, some of the drivers were ticking about the nonsense of the practice and entry rules which kept Patrick Tambay out, some of the relationships between teams and sponsors were not all sunshine and light, and Colin Chapman was busy trying to get people to understand about the Lotus 88. It was all a bit unstable, like a certain Belgian Grand Prix at Francorchamps some years ago when Hollywood was doing its best to foul up Grand Prix racing. The warm-up session passed off reasonably well, apart from Renault abandoning their new cars completely, leaving Prost the choice of RE22B and RE26B, and Ferrari running Villeneuve with a long-wheelbase car (052) and Pironi with a short-wheelbase (050). Just as this session ended a short, sharp shower of rain drenched everything, and then the sun came out! There was a really strong wind blowing so it did not need much imagination to see that anything nasty in the sky on the horizon would eventually arrive at Zolder.


The 70-lap race was due to start at 3 p.m. and accordingly the cars left the pit lane to do the lap round to the assembly-grid in front of the pits. During the morning the newly-formed Grand Prix Drivers Association, under Jody Scheckter, had made it known that some of them were discontented and unhappy about 30 cars being allowed to practise and wanted a figure of 26 accepted. They also intimated that a protest meeting would delay the start of the race. The organisers promptly issued a written warning that the race would start at 3 p.m., no matter what happened. Meanwhile the mechanics were planning a token-strike on the assembly-grid over the inadequate and crowded pit lane with too many non-workers in it. When the 24 cars were assembled, with Reutemann on pole position, a number of the drivers got out of their cars and assembled at the front of the grid, where the protesting mechanics were also gathering.

Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49C Ford) leads Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07C Ford) and Didier Pironi (Ferrari 126CK) at the start.

Piquet leads Reutemann at the race start

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Certain of the British FOCA teams threatened dire penalties if any of their staff, drivers included, joined the protests in an Ecclestone-inspired manoeuvre to make the whole affair look to be FISA and Ferrari orientated. Reutemann, Piquet, Watson, Jones, Cheever, Mansell, Rosberg, Alboreto, Serra, de Cesaris and de Angelis remained in their cars, and amid the confusion, with dozens of people still on the assembly-grid the signal to start the parade lap was given. Reutemann should have led the 12 pairs of cars round on an orderly lap, to arrive at the starting-grid ready to go. Instead, someone sent Piquet off first, followed by Reutemann and Jones, then Watson, Cheever, Mansell, Rosberg, de Angelis and the rest in a total muddle, bearing no resemblance to the starting grid. Piquet finished the lap thinking there would be another “assembly” and stopped beyond his grid-position and an official waved him on to go round again! Reutemann stopped on the starting-grid, as did the rest eventually, and Piquet arrived last and threaded his way through the field to the front. At least 75% of the people present were thinking there would be another “assembly” and a proper parade lap, but too late it was realised that the start proper was imminent. Patrese had stalled the engine of his Arrows, and a mechanic had climbed over the barrier to insert an air-line. The starting signal was given and in the melee Siegfried Stohr in the second Arrows dodged about from the middle of the grid on the opposite side of the road to the stationary Patrese and ran into the back of his team-leader, crushing the mechanic between the two cars.

At the end of the lap Piquet was leading from Pironi, Villeneuve and Watson but round the circuit black flags, were being shown, which meant ”watch-out, there will be a red flag at the start-finish line to stop the race”. Whether there ever was a red flag is open to doubt, and Piquet and Reutemann roared through to start another lap, by which time Pironi was slowing right down and swerving about to prevent anyone going by and the whole field came to a stop by the pits. Meanwhile the unfortunate Arrows mechanic was being helicoptered off to hospital with a broken leg and other injuries, and the two Arrows cars were towed away.

At 15.40 p.m. a restart was given for the remaining 22 cars, the Arrows team like a lot of others, having lost all further interest in the Belgian GP. This time all was well and Pironi (Ferrari-turbo) led from Reutemann, Piquet, Watson, Jones, Villeneuve, Laffite, Rosberg and Mansell. The lone Renault slid dejectedly into the pits with its clutch slipping. Jones soon disposed of Watson and an interesting four-cornered fight began, Pironi still leading with the turbo-Ferrari, followed closely by Reutemann, Piquet and Jones. Four hard-nuts with no love lost between them. This was going to be worth watching, for everyone else was being left behind, with Villeneuve not in the hunt in seventh place and a furious de Angelis being held up (or so he thought) by Cheever’s Tyrrell. At lap ten Reutemann was elbowed back unceremoniously into fourth place and on the next lap Piquet was given a bit of encouragement to take to the rough stuff, and Jones was second. But the turbo-Ferrari was still leading, but not for long as its brakes were overheating for the little 1 1/2-litre V6 does not have the over-run “pumping” effect of a 3-litie V8 engine. On lap 13 Pironi dropped to fourth place, for Laffite had come storming up in the Talbot-Matra V12, and it was all over. Williams were 1-2 in the correct order and the rest of the race was obviously going to be a mere formality. Behind the leading quartet Watson was leading Villeneuve in the second turbo-Ferrari and Mansell going splendidly in the Lotus 81/1, well ahead of his Italian team-mate.

Didier Pironi (Ferrari 126C) leads Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth), Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49C-Ford Cosworth) and Alan Jones (Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth).

Didier Pironi takes an early lead

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On lap 20 the unbelievable happened as Jones was rounding the fast right-hander leading on to the back straight. His car jumped out of fourth gear as he put the power fully on and instantly it ploughed straight on into the barriers, wiping off the entire left front corner and injuring the driver’s leg slightly. Now it really was all over and Reutemann cruised along serenely, totally unworried by the Talbot-Matra in second place or the Lotus in third place, or for that matter the McLaren, Ferrari or Lotus that followed. Pironi had dropped right back to seventh place, with feebling brakes, and Villeneuve in fifth place was little better off. A rather dull procession now took place, with little hope of anything changing, except that Pironi dropped even further back, and Watson had trouble selecting fourth gear and also dropped back.

At lap 52 a rain shower started, not enough to cause a tyre changing panic, and at lap 55 the chequered flag was flown and the whole sorry affair was closed down according to the rule-book which allows a race to be stopped after three-quarters distance, the results to be calculated on the positions at one lap before the cessation.

A very unsatisfactory Belgian Grand Prix fizzled out, though nobody offered the spectators a quarter of their money back; in Formula One money only moves in one direction. Some things were noteworthy, however, in particular the challenge of the turbo-charged Ferraris and the fact that they both finished, the Renault debacle, the praise-worthy drive of Nigel Mansell and the two new boys Alboreto and Ghinzani, who not only qualified to start, but also finished the race.

L-R: The Alfa Romeo's of Mario Andretti and Bruno Giacomelli.

The Alfa Romeo’s of Mario Andretti and Bruno Giacomelli run in formation – neither would score points

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Of the rule-breaking, the cheating, the chaos, the confusion, the mis-management and the accidents, the less said the better. It would be nice to think that the world of Formula One will learn from the shambles, but it is very unlikely. – D.S.J.