The one that got away
Keke Rosberg: 1982 Belgian Grand Prix
Formula One’s most exciting racer had just been killed, but his heir kept focused and was set to score his first GP win… By Adam Cooper
The 1982 Belgian GP is, of course, remembered for the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Few recall that John Watson scored a canny win for McLaren the following day, and perhaps fewer still that Keke Rosberg very nearly scored his first grand prix victory for Williams, a year after he’d been struggling at the back of the field in an uncompetitive Fittipaldi.
Despite his lack of hard results, Frank Williams thought Keke was worth a punt and signed him as the replacement for the retired Alan Jones at the end of 1981. Keke faced a difficult job, for he not only had to step into Jones’ shoes, he was to be alongside Carlos Reutemann, who had already been at the team for two years and had very nearly won the title in ’81. However, the season had barely started when Carlos suddenly retired and Keke found himself the senior man in the team.
“I don’t think I joined as number two,” he recalls.
“I don’t think Frank had number twos or number ones. True, Reutemann had been in the team and was a proven winner. But I never thought I would not have the speed that Carlos had. Naturally, there was a lot to learn in a team of that capacity, but we had a fantastic gang: Neil Oatley, Frank Demie and Patrick Head really went to great lengths to teach and activate you. It was a little team that worked very well.”
Williams started the season with the final derivative of the hugely successful FW07, but for Belgium it introduced the new FW08, effectively the first all-new design for three years. It looked good in testing at Zolder and Keke was confident of a strong performance there come race weekend.
“The new car was quite a big step. We knew that it was mega quick. It was an era dominated by the turbo versus normally-aspirated battle, but at Zolder the turbos had less chance. There were just enough corners, and our ‘wing’ cars were very quick. I actually enjoyed Zolder, I used to race there a lot in Formula Vee and SuperVee.”
Keke qualified third behind the Renaults of Alain Prost and Rene Amoux. Naturally, Villeneuve’s accident was the story of the day.
“It was right at the end of qualifying, but I have no recollection of where I was — I guess I was in the pits. It’s always tough when something like that happens. In Gilles’ case it was probably less surprising than it would have been in someone else’s case, because he was fast and furious. I’d been with Gilles in Canada where he’d totalled seven cars in eight races! He was just fearless, completely fearless.”
As ever, the race went ahead, albeit without Ferrari. “I didn’t have a problem with that. We’d gone there to race. I didn’t even want to consider if it was correct or not correct. If the race is on, I race; if it’s not on I don’t race. I don’t take a personal opinion on that, because I want to block it away from me. I’ve always said that if your grandma died on Sunday morning, you’ve got to be able to race as if nothing happened.
“And I think that was one of my strengths – I could block anything from outside out of the way when action time came. Therefore it didn’t bother me. Of course, it did bother me that Gilles had died; but during the race it wasn’t an issue.”
Amoux led the early laps, but after he pitted with turbo gremlins on lap five, Keke slipped into the lead. He was chased initially by Niki Lauda, then by Watson in the other McLaren. He looked well set, however, until tyre problems intervened. This, though, did not come as a big surprise to Keke: “I think there was a new tyre from Goodyear. We decided to use it-but it was marginal.”
The new car also began to suffer brake problems, something that contributed to a crash for teammate Derek Daly. Eventually, Rosberg lost his rear brakes completely…
“That I don’t remember at all,” he says today. “And I still continued? What an idiot! Now I tell my kid, ‘If you have trouble with the steering or brakes, if you feel anything, stop immediately!'”
Watson’s charge was temporarily delayed when he saw a Williams in the Turn One catch-fencing. He assumed it was Keke and backed off. When he realised that it must have been Daly, he picked up the pace again and passed the crippled Rosberg with 68 of the 70 laps run.
“I lost it with two laps to go to Watson and Michelin. He was about 2sec quicker per lap for the last five, six, seven or eight laps, because I’d run out of rubber. I had nothing left on the tyres. So that was it. It was very disappointing because it could have been my first grand prix win.
“It was great to be second, great to score good points, but it was very bitter. I always remember that Frank was so disappointed; he hardly spoke to me after the race. That ‘One That Got Away’ really broke his soul. He was so competitive. I don’t know if he blamed me, or blamed the circumstances. I had a reputation for being very hard on tyres, and the tyres ran out, so everybody said, ‘It’s Rosberg and the tyres’. But it started to gel with the team after Zolder. It was then that the team started believing in the speed we both had.”
Keke went on to become world champion that year, although the fact that he scored only one victory in doing so earned him a footnote in the history books. Belgium was one of several races that might have changed all that
“That ‘one win’ thing doesn’t bother me. That year we had 11 different winners in 15 races. The driver with the most wins had two. So one wasn’t too bad!”
“It was an issue on Monday morning when I left Zolder. I had stayed Sunday night and I passed the track on Monday morning. There was just this huge pile of litter and Gilles’ helicopter. That’s all there was. Not a sound. That’s when it hit me. Hard.”
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