1981 South African Grand Prix

A pointless exercise

Kyalami, Johannesburg, February 7th

Notwithstanding the lack of support from Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Talbot Ligier, the Formula One Constructors Association entered a total of nineteen drivers for this year’s South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, although whether FISA will ever formally regard it as the first round of the FIA World Championship is hard to say. With no Goodyear company to supply tyres, no FISA blessing and the absence of the aforementioned teams FOCA were nonetheless determined to put on a race and all the cars had to run on “production” Goodyear G50 hard compound tyres supplied for the occasion by Ecclestone’s tyre distribution company. Several teams were worried that these tyres would overheat as they were designed with softer sidewalls than last year’s Grand Prix tyres. The British F1 series for which they were designed last year had regulations which specified the cars to run without side skirts.

When practice began on the Thursday prior to the race, the battle took up where it left off in Montreal at the end of 1980, the Williams FW07Bs of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann facing a strong challenge from Nelson Piquet’s Brabham BT49. There were three Williams machines at Kyalami, including the new number 10 for Reutemann, and they had all been modified to take the latest specification Cosworth DFV engine with its revised water and oil pumps. Consequently the water radiators had swapped sides, right to left, and the oil radiators had been moved similarly left to right. Jones was troubled during the first untimed session when his car’s brand new engine proved reluctant to rev properly, so top gear was changed only for the World Champion to find it running up to 11,000 r.p.m. on the straight which was more than he would have liked. He also ran out of petrol on the circuit and then tried the spare car, finally ending up with the third quickest time of 1 min. 13.28 sec. for the starting grid.

Nelson Piquet emerged quickest of all, lapping in 1 min. 12.78 sec. on Thursday, looking as smooth and unruffled unusual. In fact most of the decent laps were recorded in that first session because on Friday there was only a “gap” in the clouds of twelve minutes or so before the heavens opened and practice was almost washed out. In any event, with only a single full set of wet weather tyres available for each car, few teams wanted to risk damaging this precious rubber in case it rained on the day of the race. That turned out to be a very prudent course of action!

Reutemann qualified second on 1 min. 12.98 sec., splitting Piquet and Jones, but the Argentine driver spun off into the catch-fencing on Thursday afternoon at the very fast Sunset corner, slightly damaging FW07B/10 and shaking himself up enough to feel groggy for the rest of the day. In the battle for the privilege of being “best of the rest” behind these three established front runners, Finnish driver Keijo Rosberg came out on top with the new, revamped, and much lighter Fittipaldi F8C although he admitted that he couldn’t make a direct comparison between this and the car he raced last year because they were running on such differrent rubber. But Rosberg was obviously delighted with his fourth quickest time of 1 min. 13.29 sec., thereby beating the Lotus team leader Elio de Angelis who took 81/3 round in 1 min. 13.47 sec.

Nigel Mansell, in the second Lotus, got to grips with Kyalami in promising style and lapped in 1 min. 14.36 sec., separated from his team-mate on the grid by Patrese’s Arrows A3 and Zunino, who was drafted back into the Brabham team for the occasion to replace Hector Rebaque who was back home in Mexico suffering from hepatitis. Mansell felt that he could have gone even quicker but for a problem with one of his sets of tyres with which he lost about 700 r.p.m. in a straight line. By the time he came into the pits and changed onto a fresh set, the rain had started and any chance for improvement was lost. In the McLaren camp young Andrea de Cesaris was quicker than John Watson, but the Ulsterman had suffered a typically disappointing couple of days. Both were using M29Cs to 1980 specification, the rear suspension intended for the new John Barnard F1 car unable to be tested owing to the discrepancy in size between these “stop gap” Goodyears and the tyre dimensions specified under the new FISA regulations for this season. De Cesaris went off at the Esses on Thursday, so he took the spare car during the timed session, quickly having to share it with Watson when the fuel metering unit seized on the latter’s race car. De Cesaris eventually managed a 1 min. 14.39 sec. best, but Watson couldn’t get the car to handle to his liking and was near the back on 1 min. 15.25 sec.

Between the two McLarens were Jan Lammers, back in the ATS team with D4/04 on 1 min. 14.85 sec., Siegfried Stohr’s Arrows A3 (1 min. 14.93 sec.), Eddie Cheever’s Tyrrell 010 (1 min. 14.95 sec.), Serra’s Fittipaldi and Surer’s Ensign, both of which failed to break the 1 min. 15 sec. barrier. Cheever spent a great deal of time swapping round between his two machines 010/2-2 and 010/3-5, both of which were fitted with widely varying suspension set-ups, although the choice as to which he would use in the race itself was made for him when he spun the latter car across the main straight into the opposite guard rail leaving the pits during Saturday morning’s pre-race warm-up session, his Tyrrell thrown sideways on a puddle at the side of the soaking track. In fact Cheever was fortunate to emerge from the car unhurt, having to leave one of his driving shoes trapped in the footwell as he made his escape!

In the second Tyrrell entry for this race was South African lady Desire Wilson who made such a name for herself in the British national F1 series last season. Even the normally impassive Ken Tyrrell grudgingly confessed that he was quite impressed with Mrs. Wilson’s tenacity, although she got a good lecture after a couple of skirt-bending spins during practice. Her best lap was 1 min. 15.56 sec., quicker than both the Marches and Geoff Lees in the old Shadow DN12/1 which had been resurrected for the occasion and dubbed a Theodore!

The Marches were numbered 811/RM02 for Daly and RM03 for Salazar; the “RM” standing for RAM Racing’s involvement in the protect. Despite the enormous amount of work put in preparing them for Kyalami, the Marches were far from race-ready and their practice story was one long catalogue of gearbox troubles, brake problems, porous oil tanks and split fuel collectors which resulted in the entire petrol tanks being taken out of both cars for attention. In addition to that, the aerodynamic side pods seemed to be developing so much downforce that they were pulling themselves off the underside of the car! Daly was nevertheless quite enthusiastic about the “basic feel” of his new car while Salazar did his best, although he felt unwell, and was allowed to start at the back of the grid even though he hadn’t managed to record a single complete lap time during the two qualification sessions owing to his multitude of mechanical problems. Geoff Lees was horrified that no work had been done to the Theodore Shadow since he last drove it at Ricard last year, and wished that he was away testing his Formula Two Ralt-Honda!

Although the rain was absolutely teeming down on Saturday morning all nineteen cars readied themselves for the pre-event warm-up in which Cheever had his accident and Jones had a spin which tore off a skirt. When it came to the start of the race the drivers were still faced with a gamble as to whether they should run on grooved rain tyres or dry weather slicks. The rain was still falling, but the sky had brightened a little and there was a feeling that things might dry out. In the event Piquet stayed on wets. Reutemann changed to slicks at the last moment. Jones kept to wets, de Angelis to slicks and Rosberg the same. It seemed like an outside chance for those on dry rubber, but that’s the way they started.

After the usual parade lap the starting signal was given and Piquet rocketed away into an immediate lead, completing the opening lap several lengths ahead of de Angelis and Lammers, the ATS driver making a startling getaway from well back on the grid. Going into Crowthorne corner, at the end of the long start finish straight, to start the second lap, Lammers (on rain tyres) tried to outbrake de Angelis, but the Lotus team leader wasn’t impressed, pulled across on him and the two cars collided. The Italian’s car continued without any apparent damage, but the little Dutch driver found himself swooping onto the loose “run off” almost out of control with a broken left steering arm and damaged left rear suspension. Fortunately, the remainder of the closely knit pack managed to avoid him and Lammers limped precariously back to the pits where repairs were effected.

De Angelis managed to keep his second position for four laps, although Piquet was romping away in the lead, but finally Watson forced his McLaren ahead of the Lotus and then Jones, who’d missed the change from first to second gear coming off the starting line, followed him through to take third. Mansell briefly held fourth before Daly came roaring through in the New March for his brief moment of glory. Meanwhile Reutemann and de Angelis slipped and slithered their way back out of the top six, taking things relatively carefully on their slick tyres. But it was obvious, even at this early stage, that the racing line was drying out and notwithstanding Piquet’s tremendous progress, those who had opted for slicks had made the correct decision.

On lap seven Stohr survived a quick spin at Clubhouse after being tapped from behind by Lees’ Shadow, the Italian coming back onto the circuit without stopping and almost collecting Cheever’s Tyrrell in the process. On lap 17 Jones stopped for dry tyres, dropping from third to tenth, and then the World Champion blotted his copybook three laps later when he spun into the catch-fences on the outside of Clubhouse corner. Thinking there was no prospect of his continuing the race, Jones undid his belt and climbed out to assess the situation. He stopped immediately found the car was still driveable, so he climbed in and, with aid from the marshals, got it going again. He stopped immediately in the pits, both to have his harness refastened and for a damaged rear wing to be replaced, and then resumed lapping near the tail of the field.

As the circuit started drying out properly, both Reutemann and de Angelis were able to reassert their presences in the race. By lap 25 the order was Piquet, Watson, Zunino, Reutemann and two laps later the leader finally decided the time was right for him to stop for dry tyres. That gave Watson two glorious laps at the front of the field, but then he too stopped for dry tyres and Reutemann surged past into the lead.

From that point onwards the race’s pattern was simple and straightforward. Although Piquet rushed back to consolidate second place from de Angelis, there was no way in which he could make up the extra ground to Reutemann, the Argentinian driving shrewdly and quickly enough to fend off any potential challenge. Thus, with the top three positions sorted out, barring unforeseen mechanical failure or accident, the remaining attention focussed on Rosberg’s efforts to fend off Watson for fourth place. The Fittipaldi F8C’s handling suddenly started to go awry and the Finn couldn’t work out precisely what was wrong, although he suspected it was a puncture. In fact it was the metal exhaust pipe cover on the rear bodywork which had worked loose, blowing up to blank off part of the air stream to the rear wing. As it was right in the centre of the rear body section, Rosberg obviously couldn’t see this in his mirrors, but his pit could see what was wrong and held out a signal saying “OK” and so he pressed on regardless. But Rosberg could feel his car oversteering more than he would have liked, so Watson caught right up with him in the last ten laps, trying to pass on either side. On the last lap Watson pulled his McLaren alongside going into the Esses, but there was no way through and he had to settle for fifth place, a few lengths behind the Fittipaldi.

While Reutemann took the chequered flag Alan Jones was watching proceedings from the side lines, having retired his Williams with deteriorating handling due to skirt damage after 62 laps. Patrese’s Arrows completed the top six while Cheever, Zunino, Serra, Mansell and Daly were also running at the finish, the last-named with a badly bent steering arm sustained when Cheever collided with him earlier on at the Jukskei kink. — A.H.