Rumbles under the roulette wheel

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The shape of things to come? That was the question on our minds as we surveyed for the first time the concrete jungle that made up the final backdrop to a somewhat lacklustre 1981 Formula One World Championship. The temporary 2.2mile, 14.corner track over car park and waste land adjacent to the flamboyant Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas in fact took on the appearance of a full-scale Scalextric track with high concrete blocks defining the course. These massive slabs were between three and five feet high, and often one’s view of a car would be confined to a glimpse of a crash helmet bobbing its way past. Not entirely satisfactory for those who had paid up to 250 dollars for one of the 45,000 grandstand seats.

However, spectators were the extras in what was ktended as purely a television spectacular. On British television in the week leading up to the first Caesars Palace Grand Prix — a track on which, incidentally, no one had actually raced in anger until the previous day’s Can-Am qualifiers, thus flaunting FISA rules — Bernie Ecclestone had said that he would like to see more Grands Prix in city centres.

Unfortunately, as a television spectacular the Las Vegas event didn’t quite come off. By all accounts the actual television coverage was poor — the UK received the race live for about two hours (“We even put back an edition of Tinker, Tailor” said the much maligned, but nevertheless enthusiastic Murray Walker) — with bad camerawork contributing nothing to what was a rather poor race. Before Mr. Ecclestone can continue to sterilise and package Grand Prix racing into pure television fodder, he’ll have to get the moguls to improve their camerawork, and also have cameras on the cars. That may help to appease the much maligned purists and enthusiasts such as ourselves, who view the Vegas contribution as the thin edge of the wedge. It won’t be many years before the majority of Grands Prix are held in car parks throughout the USA, if certain powerful people have their way. The unholy alliance between FISA and FOCA seems hell-bent on such a course.

It is unwise to stand in the path of “progress,” particularly when such matters are in the hands of a dictator. Having swept aside the challenge of Britain’s Basil Tye for the Presidency of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre is now completely out of control. At Las Vegas he announced at a press conference: “You (the press) have written that I am a dictator. I believe I am not, but as you see me this way then from now on I will act as you see me.” Monsieur Balestre claims for press conferences that his English is not good enough, yet he is able to correct his official interpreter and carry on perfectly adequate conversations with the likes of Ecclestone and Max Mosley.

As so often happens these days much of the talk at Las Vegas was about matters off the track, rather than on. The press was the mire of attraction on many occasions during the three days in the neon-lit city dedicated to bad taste — “If you don’t go to heaven then I think you come here Instead.” was the apt comment from Brabham’s Gordon Murray. At one stage some of the more visible pressmen were considering blocking the pit lane as a protest against being barred from wandering amongst the cars whilst practice was in progress, then a UK scribe was handcuffed and led away by the local police. The latter incident was fruitful in that it eventually resulted in the removal of armed gorillas from inside the course, the former proposed action would have proved nothing if not that race cars can run over so-called journalists as easily as they can slam into barriers.

It shouldn’t therefore have come as too much of a shock to hear from the Gallic megalomaniac’s lips that next year FISA would be forming its own system of accrediting motorsporting pressmen, thus effectively putting paid to the established International Racing Press Association — an organisation which is not above criticism but not sufficiently soon be banned. It sounds like a mild form of censorship, something that no doubt the organisers of the Vegas GP would have preferred after reading comments from Jacques Lafitte in an Italian newspaper. Having never seen the track, Lafitte was perhaps not in a strong position to describe the layout as having more in common with a go-kart track than a Grand Prix circuit. Caesars Palace as a result was threatening to sue the newspaper for a few million dollars, and because of this threat drivers decided to steer a middle course. John Watson however was concerned that the concrete retaining walls made many of the corners “blind” whilst young Marc Surer battling manfully against the quirks of the Theodore chassis and Avon tyres, simply said: “It’s OK, but not a real racing circuit,” However, the retiring — that in itself is now doubtful — Alan Jones had nothing to lose, and uncertainly a driver who thankfully never finds it necessary to mince his words. “A goat track they brought down from the mountains . . . really it should all have been put on to a stage,” were two of his more printable remarks.

It really wasn’t as bad as all that. The organisers had dune a first rate job in getting the work completed in time for Wednesday’s familiarisation session, and with the wise decision to make the track itself a more than ample 40 ft. wide with large sandy run-off areas, it was reasonably easy to overtake, even in the more Mickey Mouse sections, and lap speeds were much higher than predicted. Before practice the inevitable computer had predicted average lap speeds of around 85 m.p.h. In reality Carlos Reutemann took pole with a brilliant 1 min. 17.821 sec., an average of 104.917 m.p.h. That time was however the only highlight of a disastrous weekend for the morose Argentinian who after ten years striving for the World Championship crown saw it slip from his grasp. At 39 years of age it was possibly his last chance, and basically he had no one to blame but himself. Out-psyched, over-anxious Reutemann did not show the spark of a racing driver once the 75 laps began. Somehow he seemed to fight shy of close contact and cruised to a terrible eighth place, lapped in the process by team-mate Jones and overtaken by John Watson and Jacques Latitte after pitstops to change tyres. It was a very sad sight. His closest challenger for the title, Nelson Piquet. did not shine either. Not one of the fittest drivers and suffering from a painful back following an ill-advised visit to a masseur, the diminutive Brazilian hung on to the Brabham BT49 to take fifth place and the two points which ensured the title was his. It was literally a case of “hanging on” as heat exhaustion had taken its toll and he had to be lifted from the car at the finish. Although naturally delighted, Piquet would have probably preferred to have done so with more aplomb and aggression.

Aggression literally oozed from Jones. This was to be his last Grand Prix, although pressures may sconce this sometimes abrasive former champion decide to carry on. He was however determined that retirement or not, Las Vegas would be his race. In Jones’ mind there was no question of it. He was going to win right from the first day of practice, and in a crushing display of tidy, controlled driving he achieved his aim with ease. At times he looked to be the only race driver on the track.

If Jones does continue next year it would be interesting to see how he matches up against the the returning Niki Lauda. It would be a confrontation that we would relish as much as the Australian. Comebacks seem to be something of a vogue at the moment, and above the incessant rattle of gaming machines there was much speculation about the possible return of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt. The latter can be dismissed as pure rumour-mongering, for whatever motives we’ll never know although money will undoubtedly be an ingredient, but Stewart is definitely considering a return. Supremely confident that he can take on and match the current crop of drivers, the Scot frankly admits that although he is already a wealthy man the three million pounds he has been offered to return would nevertheless come in handy. However, with his usual candour Stewart says his gut feeling is not to step into a F1 car again.

Motor racing can at times be a dangerous drug, but for many purists the antcdote will undoubtedly be the projected series of Car Park Grands Prix. Still we will at least have the satisfaction of being able to tell our grandchildren about the challenges of the Osterreichring, Zandvoort or Nurburgring as they stare mindlessly at the slot cars winding around the city centre car parks of the world — rather like hapless rats caught in a complicated and fruitless trap. — M.R.G.