Reflections in the Transvaal

When I left England the trains were not running because the drivers had gone on strike; when I went into the Kyalami circuit on the first day of practice the Formula tears were not running because the drivers had gone on strike. In both cases the reasons were vague and varied and in both cases the disruption did nobody any good at all. In my book strikes are anti-social and from the first one I experienced, in 1926, to the South African one in 1982 they have always done more harm than good, and the 1982 drivers strike was no exception. If someone does not like the game or the rules of the game and walks out then good luck to him. I might not accept his decision but I do respect him for making a decision. Many years ago I turned up to race at what was billed to be a motorcycle road race to find that half the circuit was a cross-country track on loose gravel. Not being prepared to ride my Manx Norton on a gravel path I loaded up and went home. Three or four other riders did the same thing, but those who were prepared to mix a bit of moto-cross with road racing stayed and had a thoroughly good meeting. There was no question of a strike, we merely went away and left them to it.

I said in January Motor Sport that we shall be missing Alan Jones and Mario Andretti, and in South Africa we did exactly that. Jones was never one to follow the crowd, and made a big point of resigning from the Grand Prix Drivers Association GPDA, as he could not get along with the general air of trade-unionism. Andretti was prepared to support the GPDA but he had very strong views on strikes and would have no part of any such suggestion. The bone of contention centred around the FISA licence form which drivers had to sign before receiving their Formula 1 licence, but if the truth be known it went much deeper than that.

For some years now a number of drivers have been acting rather irresponsibly at times, especially as regards contracts that they signed and sealed. Some of them have happily signed a three-year contract and then before the time was up tried to break the contract and move elsewhere. Last year the GPDA organised strike action at the start of the Belgian GP and at the end of the year a number of them were very dilatory in making decisions as to who they intended to drive for, while others (Jones amongst them) messed everyone about over whether they were retiring from Formula 1 or not. In order to make out a cohesive programme for the season ahead the FISA needs to know what everyone is going to do by the beginning of December and for a time now all the manufacturers and constructors have conformed to this request even though it was not always in their best interests personally, but they realized that it was vital to the health of the sport in general. In order to try and get some sort of responsibility into the drivers a new form was drawn up in December, which was sent out before the end of the year and basically it called for the driver to say who he was driving for and for how long. There was no mention whatsoever of contract details regarding finance, in spite of what some of the media men said. Signing the form also commuted the driver to respect all the standing rules of FIA, just like anyone else getting a racing or competition licence. Some of the wording, especially as regards the legal side on insurance and claims etc., was not worded too well and was open to criticism. This form was sent out in English to drivers from Austria, Argentina. Italy, France, Germany, Chile, Columbia, Ireland, Finland, Brazil, Sweden and America so one hopes that they all had sufficient command of the Queen’s English to read clearly and comprehend. Once the form was signed the Formula 1 licence (called rather waspishly Superlicence) was issued jointly to the driver and the team to whom he was committed.

Now it is a well-known fact that certain team-managers and team-owners want to see drivers in the same situation as football stars, whereby a team can “arrange” a transfer and claim a large sum of money. Equally they want to be able to put their driver up for sale. Certain drivers are dead against this idea, and I am with them all the way.

Twenty-four drivers signed their FISA forms, duly filled in, and received their Formula 1 licence, but seven drivers read the form more carefully and could see that it was the thin end of a nasty wedge, heading towards the football mentality, so they refused to sign the forms. These were Lauda, Villeneuve, Pironi, Laffite, Giacomelli, de Cesaris and Arnoux and as the time for the South African GP was getting close FISA said to sign the forms and discuss the matter at Kyalami. The twenty-four who did sign, did so (a) without reading it, (b) without understanding it, (c) without appreciating the implications, and (d) without seeing the whole form, only the second page where they had to sign. One or other of these points seemed to apply in most cases, and some drivers were pressured by their team-managers to “…sign quickly, and return immediately…”

Preliminary discussions at Kyalami, between the end of the unofficial test days and the first day of practice, produced no real answer to various questions and on Thursday morning a motor coach was waiting just outside the paddock. As drivers arrived at the circuit they reached a picket line, where they parked their cars and climbed into the coach. When all but Jochen Mass were aboard, the coach was driven out of the circuit and down to Johannesburg to a hotel where a conference room was awaiting them; not to hold a conference with the Press or the organisers, but in which they locked themselves while Didier Pironi represented them at meetings with FISA officials, FOCA men and the race organisers. Pironi was in touch with Lauda by telephone (a Frenchman talking politics to an Austrian in English has got to be good for a laugh), and the newly-returned ex-World Champion conveyed the information to the rest of the drivers in the room. This nonsense went on all day presumably with no satisfaction on either side, but official words to the outside world were few and far between. The result was that no morning test-session took place and no qualifying after lunch. Kyalami was dead quiet and almost unreal. The drivers stayed locked in their hide-out all day and that night they “bunked down” on mattresses and camp beds, leaving their wives and girl friends to fend for themselves and sleep alone.

Next morning Pironi re-appeared to continue discussions and by about 10 am, he telephoned Lauda to say that all was well and they could come out of their funkhole. Quite what was decided was never revealed clearly, but FISA, FOCA and the South African organisers were all agreed that only a truce had been called in order to get the Grand Prix under way, and that immediately afterwards they would all be back to square one. The drivers seemed to think, or had gained the impression, that all was forgiven and they were going to get the FISA form altered. Anyone who thinks that he can go on strike, disrupt a whole day’s programme, seriously put at risk the whole meeting and upset hundreds of people and then get away scot-free must be very simple or naive.

One thing in the favour of the drivers was that once back at work they all did a fine job, and as a race the South African GP was really good, in spite of how had it may have looked on television, But once it was over twenty-nine of them had their Formula 1 licences suspended until an enquiry could be held. Jochen Mass never was involved, to his licence was not withdrawn, neither was that of Teo Fabi, as he had sneaked out of the strike-room and returned to the circuit ready to start work. Brian Henton also kept his licence as he was not involved and only stood-in for Patrick Tambay when practice finally got under way. The indignation of some people over the action of the Stewards suspending the licences the moment the race was over was truly laughable, showing a total lack of knowledge of normal procedures and the general sporting rules of the FIA as applied to any competition activity, be it Formula 1 or an Auto-test. The way some people seem to think that those in Formula 1 are above normal FIA rules is quite remarkable. It would do some people good to stop talking occasionally and spend a quiet hour or so reading the International Sporting Code as published in the Yellow Book (PSL Ltd. Price £11.95). These are the rules of the Federation Internatioule de l’Automobile, to which even FISA and FOCA have to conform, let alone mere individuals like Formula 1 World Champions.

The week after the South African GP a tribunal fined all twenty-nine drivers 5,000 (USA) dollars each, and those who had been involved in the trouble at Zolder last year were fined an additional 5,000 dollars. There were also various bans from races dished out, but these were suspended for two years. The 5,000 dollar men will forgo two races if there is any further trouble, and the 10,000 dollar men will forgo five races if they do not behave themselves.

Under the surface, or behind the scenes, there are other problems to be sorted out. The race organisers agreed to pay 875,000 dollars to FOCA for the full Grand Prix package, but due to the drivers strike they only got two-thirds of the show. Who will blame them if they only give FOCA two-thirds of the total fee? This shortage will be passed on to the teams so that their budgets will be short and only the drivers are to blame. Who will blame the team-owners for stopping the drivers’ pay? As I said, strikes do no good at all, and my feeling is that if Alan Jones had still been in the Williams team he would have gone out to practise on that first morning as soon as the track was open, and others may have had second thoughts. We are already missing Alan Jones. My sympathy goes out to the new-boys, like Guerrero, Boesel, Winkelhock, Fabi, Paletti, and Baldi. Their great moment had arrived, they were about to take part in a Grand Prix, only to find themselves locked away with all their heroes, like Reutemann, Piquet, Villeneuve, Pironi and Lauda. I wonder if they really understood what it was all about.

A great deal of sympathy was felt for the race organisers, for over the past less years, since Alex Blignault gave up heading the organisation, the South African Grand Prix has been balanced on a knife edge. The cost of flying the whole circus down to Johannesburg is enormous and gets bigger every year, and you cannot go on putting up admission prices. Blignault always reckoned that Kyalami could only hold 85,000 people, so the rising costs are met by sponsors and advertisers, but that in itself is a risky business. Last Autumn welcome information came from South Africa to say that the firm of Quindrick-Pointerware (a sort of Tupperware firm) had guaranteed to sponsor the race, so we saved the on-off, on-off situation of previous years. For 1982 everyone knew where they stood and it was all systems GO. And then the drivers nearly screwed it up. Someone once said that there was no such thing as bad publicity, and the days before the South African Grand Prix proved this. All the media flak, good and bad, as well as mighty indifferent, aroused everyone’s interest and when it was certain that the race would take place and practice showed that all the drivers were really getting stuck into the job, a capacity crowd turned up on race day and they were not disappointed. I heard afterwards that the television viewers were very disappointed, which is too bad, for I still think Grand Prix races should be run for those people who have paid good money to BE THERE. There is no substitute.

One nice innovation that the organisers did, which could well be copied by others, was to insert a loose leaf into the official programme giving the starting-grid positions and the lap times. This was done on Friday night and as we drove into the circuit on Saturday morning and bought a programme, there was the starting grid all nicely printed out for us. We already knew it, of course, but it must have given satisfaction to thousands of spectators who had only just arrived. RAC and Brands Hatch please note, and please do not say “it can’t be done” – the South Africans did it. I know that the announcer reads out the grid and practice times on the public address system before the start of the race, but how often have you missed a row or two because you could not write fast enough, or someone has made a noise or started up an engine while you are listening. While on this subject I am still waiting for the race organiser who runs off a copy of the official results and gives them away to spectators after a race who dearly want to know what happened to John Watson, or exactly where did Derek Daly finish, and was Pironi fifth or sixth. Announcer do their best with the public address system but there is nothing like seeing things printed out on a sheet of paper. I have suggested to public-spirited sponsors that they would do far more giving the spectators information rather than pouring it on the press. We get pre-race and race-day information from John Player, Marlboro, Gitanes, Ford, Saudia, Unipart, Renault, Ferrari and BMW, all of which makes good stories for the daily papers, but I know that a racing enthusiast would give anything to be able to get hold of some of this paperwork that is trampled underfoot in the Press room. The Marlboro dolly-birds, for example, spend a lot of time in and around the pits looking alluring and having their photographs taken to advertise the red and white brand. How much better if they were at the exits handing out the results as the spectators went home. It might even make some of the British give up smoking John Player Specials and change to Marlboro, but I doubt it would make the Frenchman give up his Gaulois and change to Gitanes. – D.S.J.