When I arrived in Argentina I began thinking about the old saying which goes “the Good Lord smiles on the righteous”. In South Africa (where you didn’t come), it poured with rain; in Brazil (where you didn’t come again), it poured with rain. In Long Beach (where you did come), we were bathed in sunshine. Surely, I thought, it won’t rain in Argentina. Well, it did. The two practice days prior to the Grand Prix were dank, overcast and full of intermittent showers. But thankfully, this “spell” was broken on race day and we were treated to some typical Buenos Aires weather with bright skies and a hot sun.
A great deal has happened since Long Beach, much on the two South American circuits but also plenty of activity, discussion and bickering in the paddocks. Naturally, by the time we arrived in Buenos Aires the focal point of attention was the “feud” between Carlos Reutemann, the local hero, and his team mate Alan Jones, this resulting from the Williams 1-2 finish in the Brazilian Grand Prix where Reutemann failed to allow Jones through to win (for whatever reason) against team orders. You will recall that Frank Williams was most insistent at a recent press conference in London that his drivers were only employees (very important employees, admittedly!) and they were highly paid for doing precisely the job they were employed to — and that included adhering to pre-arranged team instructions. Although Frank has insisted all along that this is an internal matter and that press speculation merely “stirs it all up”, I think you’ll agree that if he comes out publicly taking such a firm stand at a press conference, he can hardly complain when we all want to know what he proposes to do about a major exhibition of indiscipline as displayed by Reutemann in Brazil. In fairness to the Williams team, I think that their boss has made it very clear that Reutemann must abide by his commitment in the future and that a further breach might result in his being replaced. But in Argentina Williams was very keen to play down the whole affair and, although the drivers now both regard each other with a certain degree of caution, there was plenty of banter which relieved the tension of the situation.
The most amusing moment came during the second day of practice when some wag in the crowd opposite the Williams pit held up his own “pit board” reading “REUT-JONES”, indicating that was the order the Argentine crowd wanted them to finish the race. Frank Williams immediately responded by coming to the pit wall and holding aloft a board reading “JONES-REUT”, much to the vociferous disapproval of the crowds. Then the drivers joined in. Jones held up the same board, then Reutemann held up another board saying “REUT-JONES”. The crowd loved every minute of it, cheering or whistling contemptuously depending on which driver was in view. The sequel to that came on race morning during the untimed warm-up session when half a dozen other teams held up “JONES-REUT” boards to the crowd, all at the same time. You can imagine the reaction!
Thankfully, the problem of keeping his team in order didn’t arise for Frank Williams in Argentina. Reutemann, on his 39th birthday, finished second and took the lead of the World Championship for Drivers. Jones, hampered by a down-on-power engine, finished fourth in what he later described as “the most frustating drive of my whole career”. But the Williams team did at least maintain its record of bringing both cars home in the top six; second and fourth would have most teams doing backward somersaults of delight, so it’s a measure of the high standards set by the Williams team that they were rather disappointed with the outcome.
Of course, the Brabham BT49C which led the race from start to finish in the hands of Nelson Piquet attracted more than its fair share of attention. Gordon Murray had neatly side-stepped the current regulations concerning ground clearance in a very clever and, in my view, quite legal fashion. His clever system of hydro-pneumatic suspension allows the car to settle down to the point at which its side skirts are running to within an infinitesimal fraction of an inch from the ground, obviously, touching occasionally as do all the current cars under conditions of pitch and roll. When the car arrives in the pits, the bodywork and skirts are back to the regulation 6 centimetres above the ground, thus conforming to the rule that says the car should have this ground clearance when leaving and arriving in the pits. Of course, this is a very delicately balanced system and its legality at the time it arrives in the pit lane depends on the driver coming in very slowly indeed so that the air pressure over the body’s upper surface is minimal and the car doesn’t remain below the crucial 6 centimetres. The scrutineers at Buenos Aires were obviously quite satisfied that the car is legal because they rejected two protests on the subject, one from Williams during practice and one from Renault after the race. The same scrutineers decreed the Lotus 88 to be illegal, although they were fulsome in their praise for Colin Chapman’s ingenuity. That was no consolation for the very depressed Lotus chief who issued a very terse press statement which implied that the rest ot the Grand Prix world was “ganging up” on him. That, in turn, provoked the FISA President M. Balestre to announce that he was imposing a 100,000 dollar fine on Chapman for making what amounted to “scandalous and untrue” allegations about the integrity ot race officials! By the end of the weekend the whole affair was well and truly out of hand, even the French teams, who have hitherto been loyal to FISA, tabling a motion which objected most strenuously to M. Balestre’s approach to the whole situation. Anyway, almost all the teams were unanimous in their opinion that the FISA President should not act unilaterally in such a fashion, so its to be hoped that sanity and reason prevail in this matter when everybody cools down a bit and that Chapman’s implied threat that he might withdraw from Grand Prix racing over the Lotus 88 affair was made only in the heat of the moment.
In Brazil it was very pleasant to see Morris Nunn’s enthusiastic little Ensign team achieve a taste of success, the pleasant Swiss driver Marc Surer splashing home to a praiseworthy fourth place and taking fastest race lap as well! This was the best result achieved by former F3 racer Nunn’s team since he first tried his hand at the business of Formula 1 eight years ago, and it was achieved on a real shoestring budget. After a problem with their race engine, Surer was down to the team’s last DFV as he started the Rio race and Mo Nunn was keeping his fingers crossed that they would not need to stop to change tyres since he had only two spare wheel rims at his disposal! I have to record that the Ensign team’s sadly overworked DFV suffered a (not too serious) mechanical failure in Buenos Aires which caused Surer’s retirement from the Argentine Grand Prix, but although Nunn is short of money, he is absolutely determined to hang on in the Grand Prix game and Surer is racing in return for only his expenses. It’s so easy to write people off in this business, as many people once did Frank Williams, so perhaps if Ensign attract a really substantial sponsor they might make some progress. Remember, though, it’s not simply a case of obtaining a big budget, but the knack of spending it to best effect which is absolutely crucial to success, as Frank Williams indeed has demonstrated.
Shortly before I went out to the South American races I was flicking through the pages of Mike Hawthorn’s books Champion Year and Challenge Me the Race, good reads even by 1981 standards. I was reminded just how much racing has gone on in the Buenos Aires Municipal autodrome, in particular the historic victory of Stirling Moss in the spindly rear engined Rob Walker Cooper-Climax in the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix. Hawthorn recalls an air flight down to Buenos Aires in company with his team mates, their journey taking well over 30 hours in a propeller-driven Lockheed Constellation with little more than coffee and sandwiches to sustain them, and many stops en route. In 1981 an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 747 jet liner wafted us the 6,400 miles from Paris to Buenos Aires, non-stop, in little over 12 hours with all the creature comforts that you could expect in your own lounge at home. We live in a wonderful world, don’t we? Yours,