1980 United States Grand Prix West race report

Nelson Piquet in his Brabham BT49-Ford Cosworth, he went on to claim 1st position.

Nelson Piquet claimed a first win in the Brabham at Long Beach

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A young man on his way 

Long Beach, California, March 30th

The mark of success of an event is when it becomes established and accepted in a short space of time, with no doubts or discussions, and the Grand Prix at Long Beach in California is one such event. Getting a race organised around the streets of a city is a daunting and difficult problem, as the enthusiasts of the City of Birmingham know only too well, yet the Long Beach group not only got their race off the ground very quickly, but got it established and accepted by the hard-bitten world of Formula One almost instantly. The first race round the city streets was a Formula 5000 race in 1975 and the first Formula One Grand Prix was in 1976. Here we all were at the fifth Grand Prix to be held at Long Beach and the overall feeling was that the event was nearly as old as the Monaco GP! By all the rules and laws of this plastic age in which we live, a race round the streets of Long Beach doesn’t make sense. If anyone re-created the Long Beach circuit as an artificial Autodrome, with all the concrete walls, minimal run-off areas, cambered roads, changes of surface, blind brows, bumps, dips and hollows they would be “laughed out of court”. As I have said before, thank goodness the world of Formula One is full of hypocrites. I enjoy the Long Beach race and the circuit is much better than Monaco; long may it continue.

Thanks to package-tours and group-travel by air the arrival in California is well before the serious business of practice begins and there is no pre-practice testing allowed, as at Monaco, though some teams go off to various permanent tracks for private testing. Consequently there is the opportunity to investigate a little of California before the 10 a.m. practice session on Friday morning. As is accepted fact the entire Grand Prix entry was all set and ready to go under clear blue skies when the circuit was officially opened for the morning untimed session preparatory to the timed qualifying session in the afternoon. There were 27 drivers ready to do battle for the 24 grid positions, and if Mr. Ecclestone had got his way there.would have been 28 drivers. At the last minute he tried to bull-doze a third Brabham entry for the oval-track racer Rick Mears, but he was confronted with the rules he agreed to last year which called for three months advance warning for enlarging a team or substituting a new driver into Formula One. The convener of the closed shop found the shop door closed — and locked!

The previous Grand Prix was at Kyalami, 5,500 feet above sea-level, and there had been a lot of muttering about the unfair advantage that the turbo-charged Renault’s had had. Now we were at sea-level and all things were equal for all teams, while in addition the Goodyear Tyre Company had relented on their decision about supplying qualifying tyres and had come prepared to let everyone have special short-life tyres. This was a final fling, for it has been agreed all round that special qualifying tyres will not be used by anyone as from the next Grand Prix, which is in Belgium on May 4th. There was now nothing for anyone to gripe about. Turbo-charged 1½ litre engines, or 3 litre unblown engines, Goodyear tyres or Michelin tyres, race-worthy tyres or qualifying tyres, it was the same for everyone, so practice took a pretty serious aspect, and no-one had been trying the circuit previously.

There were a few changes to be seen, the McLaren team had invited Stephen South to stand-in for the injured Alain Prost and the ATS team had built a brand new D4 car and Jan Lammers was taking the place of the injured Marc Surer. The Brabham team were trying out a new gearbox on their spare car, Lotus had new gearboxes on their two cars to be used by Andretti and de Angelis, Renault were trying an AP power-assisted brake system on Arnoux’s car, which was a brand new car, Shadow had built up another car to replace the one destroyed in S. Africa, many teams were using bigger brake discs and extra cooling ducts and aerodynamic devices were going out of fashion; nose-fins were disappearing altogether on some cars and rear aerofoils were reduced to very small proportions on others, while sliding skirts and the efficiency of the mechanisms were still occupying designers’ minds. I often think it is very fortunate that the majority of teams do not have to think about engines, leaving it all to Cosworth Engineering, otherwise there would be an acute shortage of brain-power in some teams. On the other hand it makes you appreciate teams like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault who have to deal with all aspects of the Formula One car.


All the usual troubles arose during the morning session, with engines breaking, gearboxes breaking, cars being broken against the concrete walls, cars spinning, drivers complaining, drivers contented, drivers happy and drivers miserable, in fact, never a dull moment. There was certainly no shortage of enthusiasm and no shortage of “pressing-on”, even if some of it was regardless. When the excitement of the morning had dissipated and preparations were begun for the all-important timed session it was seen that Rosberg was to take the spare Fittipaldi car, F7/3, which is the first totally new 1980 car from the united forces of last year’s Wolf team and Fittipaldi Automotive. He had hit a wall in the morning and distorted the monocoque on F7/2, so it was put to one side. The reason he hit the wall was because he misjudged his apex on the right-angle bend leading onto the pit straight, his front wheel bumping the curb, which bounced the whole car off-line and into the wall on the outside of the exit of the corner. Reutemann was to use the spare Williams, number 6, as he had bent his own car, number 5 and it was taking time to fit new suspension parts. Mass was in the spare Arrows, number A3/1, as the engine in A3/4 had blown up.

Jody Scheckter in his Ferrari 312T5.

Jody Scheckter’s slow start to the season continued with 16th place in qualifying

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The Long Beach circuit is such that you have to work hard and concentrate hard even if you are going slowly, for there are so many sharp corners and hazards that a moment of inattention will put you in deep trouble. Arnoux was using the spare Renault RE22, as he was not fully convinced about the power-assisted braking on RE24, while Piquet was giving the spare Brabham, BT49/03, a try using the new Weisemann gearbox. Daly came in with a crumpled nose on his Tyrrell, and Watson was sitting patiently while the McLaren mechanics tried to stop M29C/2 from boiling. Laffite abandoned his Ligier after brushing a wall, and transferred to the spare car and Kennedy’s Shadow was wheeled in with the left-rear wheel at a drunken angle due to a broken upright. Giacomelli came in with the nose of his Alfa Romeo all bent out of shape and Stephen South bent his McLaren when he had to dodge Depailler’s Alfa Romeo which was travelling slowly and unexpectedly. Watson was in the spare McLaren so it was the end of South’s practice. Mass was still in trouble for the spare Arrows broke a drive-shaft universal joint. When it was all over there were no great surprises and the first six were Pironi (Ligier), Jones (Williams), Piquet (Brabham), Arnoux (Renault), Reutemann (Williams) and Jabouille (Renault). Those people who credited the Renault performance in South Africa solely to the altitude were having to think again, for both Renault drivers were up near the front in spite of a lot of brake trouble. At the back of the field were Lees, Kennedy and South, indicating that Formula One is not an easy game to break into.

The Saturday morning test-session saw most of the Friday troubles put right, though Rosberg was still using the spare Fittipaldi car. The AP power-assisted braking system was transferred to the spare Renault and Arnoux got back into his brand new car. Reutemann was back in his own car, as was Mass and everything went a lot more smoothly as everyone prepared for the final fling in the afternoon test-session. Apart from a good grid position netting the driver/team a lot of money from the FOCA kitty, it was also pretty vital for the race as overtaking through the streets is not all that easy, and there are sections where you can get badly held up by a slower car. The weather was staying perfect, with cloudless skies and everyone was wound up pretty tight. The Ferrari team seemed to be getting nowhere at all, and got in a flap when Scheckter’s car went sick and they had to prepare the spare car, number 042, in double-quick time. In Friday’s timed session Lammers had got the new ATS round in a very respectable time, which had given him eighth position overall, but whether it was significant or merely because a lot of drivers were still fiddling about with their cars was difficult to say. However, while a lot of people were still fiddling the young Dutch boy was out and away, improving on his Friday time and for a brief and glorious moment he held pole position! Drivers like Piquet, Arnoux and Depailler were getting on with the job, tough-eggs like Alan Jones were battling against the odds, in his case a recent attack of pleurisy and a still uncomfortable chest condition, the moaners were moaning, the “old women” were doing their knitting and the whole scene was completely satisfactory and pretty normal. A race for pole position was developing between Nelson Piquet in Brabham BT49/06 and René Arnoux in Renault RE24, two new cars on the Formula One scene. When Piquet stopped for a change of tyres the Brabham mechanics worked with a will, and as the young Brazilian took off down the pit road in a full-lock power slide, wheels spinning and revs up near the maximum, his mechanics grinned with delight for they knew their driver was “right on song” and determined to hang on to pole-position lap time. Arnoux was doing wonders with the turbo-charged Renault, and when he came in with the nose cone all smashed in a new one was quickly fitted and he was away again.

Patrick Depailler in a Alfa Romeo 179B.

Patrick Depailler showed the Alfa Romeo’s potential with 3rd on the grid

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Those who were not winning had good excuses ready, such as “poor traction”, “bad turn-in”, “no grip”, “not enough down-force”, “too much understeer”, “too much oversteer” and a whole lot more “gobble-de-gook” of modern technology. Those who had no ready-made excuse said the track got slower as the afternoon wore on! It looked to me as though Piquet and Arnoux were going faster and faster as the day wore on. When it was all sorted out Piquet was on pole-position by a whole second from Arnoux, but the little Frenchman had shown that the Renault was not to be ignored even on twisty circuits. The Renault team were more than delighted for even they thought the turbo-charged engine would be at a disadvantage on the slow corners. Lammer’s courageous efforts with the new ATS netted him an incredible fourth place overall, just behind the tenacious Patrick Depailler with the very healthy sounding Alfa Romeo V12 and all the “stars” and “prima-donnas” who know they can drive better than the Dutch F3 driver, and have better cars than the ATS, hid behind the excuse that the track had “become slower” just as they were ready for their great bid for pole-position. Some people will talk themselves out of anything, and some people believe them.


On Sunday morning there was the regulation thirty-minute warm-up in which the idea is to make a last-minute check on everything, running with full petrol load and on race tyres and if all the Saturday night work by the mechanics has been done well there should be no trouble. But the best laid plans . . . etc., etc. Piquet was about to overtake Daly when the Irishman made the fatal novice-mistake of trying to get out of the way, instead of getting on with what he was doing, and the result was an airborne Brabham and a bent Tyrrell. The Brabham was carefully checked for alignment and found to be OK, and the Tyrrell was straightened as well as possible. Alan Jones came walking down the pit road, having left his Williams by the track side with a seriously blown-up engine and Reutemann came to rest with the inboard universal joint broken on a drive-shaft. There was no time to change Jones’ engine so the spare car was prepared for him, while Reutemann’s broken pieces were replaced. The Ensign also broke a universal joint, and had new components fitted, this being MN11, the first of the 1980 cars. Scheckter was back in his own car, as were Laffite and Mass and once the Williams team were sorted out everything seemed to be in order. The three non-starters were Kennedy, Lees and South, and Fittipaldi and Regazzoni were on the back row of the grid. Geoff Lees had disappeared after the first day of practice, due to catching the fashionable Californian cold, and no-one seemed very interested in taking over his Shadow.

Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49-Ford Cosworth) leads Rene Arnoux (Renault RE20), Patrick Depailler (Alfa Romeo 179B), Jan Lammers (ATS D4-Ford Cosworth), Alan Jones (Williams FW07B-Ford Cosworth) and Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo 179B) at the start.

Piquet takes the lead after starting on pole

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The start for the Long Beach Grand Prix is situated on the bottom straight, leading towards the Queen’s Hairpin, but the timing line and finish line are still on the top straight, opposite the pits on Ocean Boulevard, so the race is actually 80½ laps in length. As at Monaco, or any other tight and twisty circuit, it is a terrible problem to find a suitable place to start 24 cars, with a 0-100 mph time in the region of 5 seconds, and not have them fall over each other at the first corner. The start was due at 2 pm and though the skies were still cloudless a light breeze was whisking the dust and rubbish about. All 24 cars left the pit lane to be driven round to the finishing straight where they assembled in grid order. When all was ready and 2 pm approached they set off in formation, led by Piquet in the blue and white Brabham, with John Watson’s McLaren needing a push-start. They paused at the starting lights on Shoreline Drive, the red light shone, then the green and 24 accelerator pedals were flattened as clutch pedals were released. Piquet and Arnoux were side-by-side round the hairpin, with the Brabham taking the advantage of the inside line, and Depailler driving through into second place. At the back of the field Andretti ran over someone’s rear wheel and bent his steering and Zunino dodged out of the way of what he thought was going to be an accident and hit the outside wall!

Up onto the top-straight to start the first timed lap Piquet led from Depailler, Arnoux, Jones, Giacomelli and Patrese. The number two Brabham of Zunino stayed down at the hairpin, Andretti was right down among the back-markers and the ATS came to rest on the top straight with a broken drive-shaft universal joint. At the end of the first full lap Piquet still led from Depailler, Arnoux, Jones, Giacomelli, Patrese, Reutemann and Villeneuve all nose-to-tail. Then came Daly, Pironi, Scheckter, Jabouille, Rosberg and Laffite all very close, with Regazzoni, Watson and Fittipaldi bringing up the rear. Mass was into the pits to change a punctured tyre and Andretti was in to withdraw due to the bent steering on his Lotus. One and a half laps gone and three cars out of the race already. There was no change on the next lap but by the end of lap 3 Piquet had pulled out a measurable lead over Depailler, and he was not waiting for anyone. Jones had overtaken Arnoux and had his sights firmly on the back of the Alfa Romeo, while Reutemann had pushed the second Williams car past Patrese’s Arrows.

On the fourth lap, as the mid-field runners braked for the hairpin before the bottom straight Giacomelli got his Alfa Romeo all crossed up and spun sideways and then rolled back across the track. All hell broke loose and while the unlucky ones ran into each other the lucky ones found a way through the melee. When the dust had settled Giacomelli had gone, heading for the pits for a new front, leaving Jarier’s Tyrrell minus a wheel, the de Angelis Lotus 81 with the right front corner smashed in, Reutemann’s Williams with a broken drive-shaft joint, and Cheever and Scheckter heading for the pits. The Osella had been punted up the back and Scheckter had put flat-spots on his tyres as he locked everything up in a panic stop. This little kerfuffle altered the whole pattern of the race from fourth place back, but out in front Piquet was completely unruffled and was pulling away beautifully, driving with lovely precision and looking the complete master of the situation. In the multiple accident de Angelis had suffered foot injuries and had been taken off to hospital and it was remarkable that no-one else was injured.

At 5 laps the scene was well settled, with the Brabham well ahead and going strongly. Depailler was still second and driving his heart out, but it was only a matter of time before he would have to give in to the pressure from the cool Mr. Jones. Arnoux was doing a terrific job hanging onto the Williams and behind them Patrese was being pressured by Villeneuve, which was not a healthy position to be in. All the way through the field there were little scraps developing, apart from Piquet who was well out on his own. Daly had his Tyrrell between the two Ligiers, all running nose-to-tail, Jabouille with fading brakes was hounded by Rosberg and Regazzoni, Watson and Fittipaldi were locked in combat. Scheckter and Giacomelli were well behind after their pit stops, as was Jochen Mass. By 10 laps we were down to 17 cars and of those Jabouille’s Renault was in the pits with boiling brake fluid. The Ligiers disposed of Daly’s Tyrrell and the Irishman fell into the clutches of the Regazzoni, Watson, Fittipaldi dice, for they had caught up and also enveloped Rosberg. Making up time from his pit stop Jochen Mass caught this lot, though he was a lap behind, so there were six cars involved in a pretty free-for-all scrap. On lap 18 Jones got past Depailler, to take second place and Villeneuve had long since dealt with Patrese and Arnoux and at 20 laps, or quarter distance, the order was the implacable Piquet commanding the whole scene, followed by Jones and Depailler, then Villeneuve and Arnoux, the Frenchman still refusing to give up trying, Patrese on his own, and Laffite on his own. There was now a sizeable gap before Pironi appeared, his Ligier having ruined its rear tyres, and then came the motley crowd with Mass working his way through them and Giacomelli having caught them up. Fittipaldi had got past Watson, Rosberg and Daly and was hanging on to Regazzoni’s Ensign, Jabouille was still in and out of the pits with his brake troubles.

John Watson in a McLaren M29C-Ford Cosworth.

John Watson hauled his McLaren from 21st to 4th

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By 27 laps Piquet was right behind the motley crowd at the back of the field, about to lap them, and as it was a pretty unruly crowd all engaged in their own battles, he had quite a challenge ahead of him. Time was on his side for he had a good lead over Jones, but there was no room for errors. One by one he picked them off, taking his time and never putting a wheel wrong and as he disposed of them they were automatically presented as an obstacle to the following Alan Jones. It took Piquet eight laps to work his way through the end of the field, but he was safely through and away, having shown intelligent caution in a tricky situation. Jones got through them all in six laps, but Piquet had the pace of the race so well in hand that he kept the same lead over the Williams. Laffite’s Ligier subsided down at the Queen’s Hairpin with a flat tyre on lap 37 and Depailler’s brave drive came to an end on lap 41 with a suspension breakage and a lurid spin. To consolidate his lead Piquet set a new lap record in 1 min. 19.830 secs on lap 38, which was a staggering improvement over the old record of 1 min. 21.200 secs set up by Villeneuve in last year’s race. The French-Canadian was driving his Ferrari harder than it really wanted to go and on lap 41 he was lapping Derek Daly when he tripped over the Tyrrell and damaged the Ferrari front wing. He shot into the pits for a new nose cone and took off like “Jack the Bear” in fifth place, but now a lap down on Piquet. He was in again on the next lap as the body work had not been fixed properly (the Ferrari team really are going to pieces). This time he rejoined the race, going as fast as ever, down among the motley crowd at the back. His efforts came to naught when a drive-shaft joint broke on lap 47 and on the next lap we lost another front runner when Alan Jones fell over Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo as he was lapping it. The collision bent the left side track-rod almost double and also bent the right-side one, so with wheels splayed out Jones had to abandon his Williams. As Arnoux had been forced to drop right back with failing brakes, Patrese had inherited places and with all the retirements ahead of him he found himself now in second place, albeit nearly a lap behind Piquet. The Brabham driver was still driving beautifully smoothly and was literally coasting along, any possible opposition having long gone. After his second accident Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo was too badly damaged to continue racing, though he limped back to the pits, thus avoiding the wrath of the burly Australian.

As Regazzoni hurtled down to the Queen’s Hairpin ar something like 170 m.p.h. he unaccountably lost all his brakes and went straight on. The Ensign struck the abandoned Brabham of Zunino, slicing everything off the right-hand side, and crashed head on into the barrier. Poor old “Regga” was trapped in the wreckage for a long time, while the rescue crew cut the smashed car to pieces to get him out. He was taken to hospital with leg and spinal injuries.

For Nelson Piquet the last quarter of the race was a mere formality and he cruised round as smooth as ever, with only Patrese on the same lap. For the remnants of the field, who were a lap behind it was a different story for third place was there to be taken by anyone who tried. Although Arnoux was still holding on to third place he was slowing all the time due to his lack of brakes so Watson overtook Fittipaldi, with his eye on that third place, but the Brazilian fought back and repassed. After his stop for tyres Scheckter had slowly clawed his way back up through the field and was not far behind the Watson/Fittipaldi duel, while Rosberg had dropped back to retire on lap 59 when his engine failed, and Daly was going slowly with fading brakes. On lap 63 Arnoux had his right-rear tyre fail and limped to the pits for a replacement, and this let Fittipaldi up into third place, with Watson fourth, the McLaren giving trouble with its gear selection. Scheckter was now fifth and the remaining runners were Pironi, who had lost a lot of time first with failing tyres and then a long stop for a tyre change, Mass, Daly, Arnoux and Jabouille, the Renault number one being a long way behind after stopping repeatedly to have the brake fluid changed to try and stop the overheating of the fluid.

Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49-Ford Cosworth), 1st position and Emerson Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi F7-Ford Cosworth), 3rd position on the podium.

Emerson Fittipaldi (left) celebrates with countryman Piquet

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In the closing stages Scheckter chased after Watson, occasionally getting very close to him but the Ulsterman held off the South African to the end of the race. Meanwhile Piquet had slowed right down and let Emerson Fittipaldi unlap himself so that he could complete the full 80 laps in third place. It was a moving scene on the winners’ rostrum as Nelson Piquet received the plaudits for his first Grand Prix victory, with his hero and idol alongside him, for every rising Brazilian racing driver must admire Emerson Fittipaldi who led the resurgence of motor racing in Brazil. The new star from Brazil was completely overcome by the occasion, but he earned his acclaim to the full, with pole-position on the starting grid, a new lap record in the race and a victory after leading from start to finish. One of today’s natural winners and I am sure Fittipaldi and all of Brazil are proud of him.