Argentine Grand Prix

Piquet makes up for his Brazilian mistake!

Buenos Aires, April 12th

From the start of practice for the Argentine Grand Prix, held at Aires’ Municipal Autodrome within the spacious Parc Alrnirante Brown, Nelson Piquet was without question the man to beat. Driving his Brabham-Cosworth BT49C fitted with the novel hydro-pneumatic suspension system which has caused howls of “unfair” from rival teams, the enthusiastic young Brazilian was absolutely determined to make up for the silly mistake he had made two weeks before when he’d started the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix on “slick” tyres, a tactical decision which turned out to be a woeful error of judgement. The Buenos Aires circuit had been resurfaced for a considerable part of its length since last year when the surface broke up quite badly in several places and this, combined with the effective way in which Gordon Murray’s new suspension system has circumnavigated the “skirt ban”, contributed to a pole position time which was a second and a half faster than last year! In 1980 Alan Jones was the fastest qualifier in 1 min. 44.17 sec. in his Williams FW07; this year Piquet’s Brabham BT49C recorded a 1 min. 42.665 sec. lap during the first timed practice session, held in comparatively cool conditions, and he was never really challenged from that point onwards.

Piquet was not without his problems, however. On one occasion he lost his brakes as he came into one of the tight infield hairpins, the pedal going “soft” due probably to some air in the system or a slight fluid leak. The Brabham careered off onto the grass, narrowly missing a photographer, before shuddering to a halt with its driver almost trembling with fright! The main opposition to Piquet’s Brabham came from the Renault and Williams teams, the French turbocharged cars running reliably throughout although not quite demonstrating the out-and-out speed which some optimists had predicted in view of the two long straights at Buenos Aires. Prost continued using chassis RE22B which had originally come to South America as the team spare and been taken over by him for the race at Rio while Arnoux was at the wheel of RE26B which had been rebuilt round a new monocoque following the startline shunt in Brazil. Prost qualified second fastest on Friday on 1 min. 42.981 sec., keeping his place on the front row despite failing to improve during the warmer weather conditions of the final session. Arnoux’s best was 1 min. 43.997 sec., good enough for fifth fastest even though the uncomplaining driver felt once again that he simply couldn’t “get with it” and wasn’t driving at anywhere near his best.

In the Williams pits there was an atmosphere of cautious optimism, the team obviously attracting a considerable degree of attention in view of the rivalry between its two drivers and the fact that Reutemann was trying for the umpteenth time to break the apparent jinx that has thwarted his efforts to score a home victory time after time. A brand new spare car (chassis no. 14) had been built up in time for the Buenos Aires race, but Jones and Reutemann stuck to their usual machines for qualifying. On Friday Reutemann managed a 1 mm. 43.935 sec. best before suffering an engine failure and this looked as though it would be good enough for third place on the starting grid until Jones bumped him back to fourth with an impressive 1 min. 43.638 sec., the fastest time for Saturday and set with only four minutes of that final session to go.

Neither Williams driver had been totally satisfied with their car’s handling and the atrnosphere between them and their rivals at Brabham, the next pit to theirs, was hardly improved when Frank Williams put in an official protest about the BT49C’s hydro-pneumatic suspension system on Friday afternoon following the end of practice. The normally calm Gordon Murray was “absolutely disgusted”, to use his own words, not because he did not agree that his system used a clever loophole in the rules, but because he had been told a fortnight earlier in Rio that Williams admired his interpretation of the regulations and would not be protesting it “because the FOCA teams should stick together!” The stewards considered the Williams protest, and rejected it, as they did one on the same subject from Renault after the race on Sunday, so they were in no doubt that they felt the Brabham system to be legal, even if few others (apart from Brabham) agreed with them.

Meanwhile, down in the Lotus garage there were some very long faces, for the scrutineers had not been as benevolent in the case of the new “twin chassis” Lotus 88, rejecting it when it was first presented. This left Colin Chapman completely drained and exhausted, for he felt that he had been the victim of something approaching a conspiracy and virtually said so in a rather hastily worded press statement which was released on Friday. Chapman was so disappointed about the failure to admit his new car that he left Buenos Aires before the end of practice and thus, for the first time in 22 years, was not in the pits to see his cars race on the Sunday. Of course, neither de Angelis nor Mansell were particularly happy either, for no development work has been done on the overweight type 81s over the past few months and they seemed real handfuls on the fast Buenos Aires course. Under the circumstances de Angelis did quite respectably to qualify tenth, although his 1 min. 45.065 sec. best was miles away from a competitive lap. Mansell was 15th on 1 min. 45.369 sec, despite clutch failure on Friday which indirectly contributed to gear selection difficulties.

Completing the top six, as if to emphasise the effectiveness of the Brabham BT49C suspension, was Hector Rebaque (1 min. 44.100 sec.) the little Mexican driving smoothly and tidily, his car not fitted with the experimental Weismann gearbox on this occasion. In seventh place on the grid was the irrepressible Gilles Villeneuve, running the gauntlet of a host of Ferrari engine failures and spectacular spins. His team-mate Pironi briefly tried the sole Comprex supercharged 126CX-V6 engine at Buenos Aires during untimed testing on Thursday afternoon, but this quickly broke a drive belt and was put away in the back of the garage. For the rest of the weekend the flame-spitting Ferraris were fitted with KKK turbocharged engines which seemed to be in major troubles every time one looked in the Ferrari pit’s direction. Villeneuve put on his usual display of never-say-die enthusiasm, although most people felt he was too near the limit for too much of the time; not for himself, you understand, but for the survival prospects of his troublesome racing car. His best lap was 1 min. 44.132 sec., quicker than team-mate Pironi who was 12th quickest on 1 min. 45.108 sec., conserving his best race engine for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

Despite grappling with brake and handling problems Rosberg qualified his Fittipaldi F8C well in eighth place on 1 min. 44.191 sec., the Finn being the last of the “hares” for behind him was a margin of almost a second back to Patrese’s Arrows A3 which just wouldn’t rev properly during the last session. John Watson had started off very promisingly in the new McLaren MP4, but his pit crew has wasted a lot of time attempting to isolate a handling problem which, on detailed examination, turned out to be caused by a broken shock-absorber. They subsequently failed to get back into the swing of things and the Ulsterman’s practice efforts in this new machine earned him a 1 min. 45.073 sec., eleventh quickest. That was substantially better than his youthful team-mate Andrea de Cesaris who spent most of his time spinning his older McLaren M29F and qualified 18th.

In the second half of the grid there were few surprises, although both Tambay in the Theodore and Surer in the Ensign were doing a good job of embarrassing several well-heeled and established teams. The Alfa Romeos were in dire trouble with both handling problems and a mysterious reluctance to rev, the latter fault being put down to a faulty batch of coils, and Mario Andretti tried a revamped 1979 chassis with different weight distribution and new profiles for its side pods, this machine dubbed 179D/1. In the end the American handled his regular 179C, starting from 17th place on the grid, five positions ahead of his equally frustrated team mate Bruno Giacomelli. The Talbot-Matra team had rather foolishly sent reserve driver Jean-Pierre Jarier home to France, feeling that Jabouille was now well able to cope with the business of qualifying for a Grand Prix. That they were wrong is not a reflection on Jabouille’s physical condition, but a reflection on the totally chaotic state the team found itself in. Neither driver could get his car handling remotely well and, for most of practice, the Matra V12s were spluttering on less than their full quota of 12-cylinders, the spare car being pressed into action regularly. Laffite was an ignominious 21st on 1 min. 46.854 sec. while Jabouille joined the hopeless Osella and March teams in the ranks of non-qualifiers.

The first pointer to troubles for Alan Jones came during the half-hour warm up session on race morning when the World Champion complained that his Williams’ Cosworth engine felt “really flat”. The mechanics pored over it, stripping the fuel injection system as they frantically sought to get to the root of the problem. There was no question of changing the engine in the time available, but they did the best they could and Jones went to the line with his fingers well and truly crossed.

When the race started, it was simply “no contest”. Piquet eased the Brabham BT49C into the lead from Jones mid-way round the opening tour and completed the first lap five lengths clear of Jones, Reutemann, Patrese, Arnoux, Prost, Rebaque, Pironi, Rosberg and Watson. There had been a bit of a “kerfuffle” at the start as Cheever’s Tyrrell burnt out its clutch on the line, the American driver getting away very slowly and holding up those behind him on the right hand side of the grid. Villeneuve had also had an appalling first lap, getting very sideways on the long flat-out right hander at the far end of the circuit, and coming through right at the tail of the field. On the second lap, with Piquet extending his lead with contemptuous ease and Reutemann shooting past Jones into second place, both Pironi and Mansell trailed into the pits to retire with expensive and spectacular engine failures.

By lap seven Piquet’s advantage was an amazing 12 seconds and the order behind him had settled down with Reutemann ahead of Prost and Rebaque, driving well, in front of Jones, Arnoux, Patrese and Watson. Tambay’s Theodore was throwing out a lot of oil smoke. Andretti’s Alfa sounded dreadful and Serra was regularly missing gearchanges as he came past the pits. On lap 13 Lammers decided that his ATS’s handling was so awful that he stopped to have the rear wing changed and two laps later Surer’s overworked Ensign retired with engine failure. Running so close to the back of the field that it was embarrassing, Laffite’s Talbot-Matra crawled into the pits and gave up the contest at the end of lap 19.

Meanwhile Piquet was more than 20 sec. in the lead and the Argentine crowd, who had vociferously been shouting their support for Reutemann became strangely silent as Rebaque not only caught their hero but slipped past him on lap 15 and began to pull away. There was an air of unreality about the proceedings now, for Rebaque may be a handy enough driver, but there is no way the Mexican is of the calibre of Reutemann, Prost, Jones or Arnoux and here he was in second place with these others strung out behind him. Jones, in fifth place, was handling Arnoux quite confidently and Watson was within sight of them both, then there was a gap to Patrese, Andretti’s rough-sounding Alfa Romeo and Tambay’s oil-throwing Theodore which was closely embroiled in a tussle with de Angelis.

From this point onwards the race degenerated into a tedious procession, its air of unreality partially mitigated when Rebaque’s fine efforts came to an end mid-way round lap 33. The rotor arm within the Brabham’s distributor broke and the second Brabham BT49C coasted to a silent standstill out on the circuit. That left Reutemann in second place from Prost, Jones and Arnoux and the race ran out processionally in that order with Piquet winning as he pleased to the accompaniment of a lot of “humphing and mumphing” about the Brabham’s suspension system. In the closing stages of the race de Angelis forced his Lotus 81 past Patrese’s Arrows to take sixth place, the latter driver plagued with wheel vibration and a sticking throttle which is something to be avoided on the fast sweeps of a track like Buenos Aires!

Patrese thus finished seventh ahead of Andretti, for Tambay’s Theodore had retired when its oil ran out and, Watson had stopped the new McLaren with a strange vibration at the rear. Villeneuve spent a frustrating afternoon sitting behind local hero Zunino’s Tyrrell until his Ferrari spun off with a broken driveshaft. Zunino, incidentally, was penalised a full lap for taking a short cut after a spin, so although one might have considered the 1981 Argentine Grand Prix a somewhat processional event, at least the officials were fair and dispassionate in applying penalties for those who offended! — A.H.