1981 Austrian Grand Prix race report

Jacques Laffite Ligier JS17.

Jacques Laffite claimed his first win of the season for Ligier

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Qualifying

The pits and paddock were well filled by Friday morning, to see the start of testing under blue skies and in warm sunshine, though there was a small gap where the Fittipaldi team should have been. Although they assured some people they would be there they opted out at the last moment due to financial problems. This meant that there were only twenty-eight drivers to compete for the twenty-four grid positions, Rosberg and Serra being the absentees. While this made no difference to the front half of the grid, it affected the tail-enders and the non-qualifiers. There was a slight delay in starting the testing session due to the radio communication with the BMW M1 coupe course car malfunctioning. We had barely got going when yellow lights flashing up the hill past the pits indicated trouble at the artificial ess-bend at the top. Rebaque had been following his team-leader past another car when the Mexican misjudged things and bounced off the road, wrecking the left-front suspension on the Brabham. He took over the spare Brabham when he walked back down the hill and meanwhile Piquet in the lead Brabham was setting a pretty cracking pace.

Everyone was going through the motions of trying to balance drag against speed to give the best lap times, and those cars that had too much drag in the form of their plastic skirts rubbing on the ground were spending a lot of time in the pits having new rubbing strips fitted. Others were re-thinking on gear ratios, for every year someone over-estimates how fast they think their cars will go. Everyone knows that the average speed is well over 140 mph, so some of them get carried away into thinking their cars are going to do over 190 mph, and then seem surprised when they find their top gear ratio far too high. Pironi returned to the pits on foot, with a detailed explanation of what had happened, but the Ferrari team did not seem impressed and when the car was brought back the front was bent and the wheels splayed out, which told their own story. The Ferrari team had brought along two revised cars (050 and 051) on which the front half of the monocoque had been redesigned and the rear end had yet another method of holding everything in place, this time by means of a single large dural plate. The spare car (054) was to the original specification with the rear end hung on a magnesium-alloy casting.

The afternoon qualifying hour started 17 minutes late, to make up for the morning delay, and while Villeneuve got on with qualifying in 050/B, Pironi had to wait for nearly half the session until his car (051/B) was repaired. In the Brabham camp Rebaque’s car (BT49C/12) was still being repaired so he went on using the spare car (BT49C/9) until it was needed by Piquet.

The Brazilian’s own car (BT49C/14) was using an engine that had done quite a mileage and it began to show signs of fatigue, so he took over the spare car but that seemed equally tired so the whole team, packed up well before the end of the timed hour, with not a very impressive result. Meanwhile the Renault team were in full swing and both drivers were way out on their own, there being a bare three-tenths of a second between them, with Arnoux (RE33) just that much ahead of Prost (RE32). In third place, with only a handful of laps, was Villeneuve in the turbo-Ferrari, his very fast lap coming just before the engine blew up! (Did we say the 126CK engine was reliable?). With his delayed start Pironi never got into the picture, but the two Williams drivers were hammering on as hard as ever, Jones using both his own car (number 16) and the spare car (number 15), while Reutemann stuck with number 14.

Elio de Angelis driving a Lotus 87-Ford Cosworth.

Elio de Angelis qualified his Lotus in 9th

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As far as the majority of the field were concerned there were few surprises, or even disappointments. The Toleman team were not showing the improvement expected by this time in the season, though they were happier with the cooling system on Warwick’s car (TG181/04), which had a new system of engine water radiators in each side pod with intake charge inter-cooler radiators underneath each one and the oil radiator moved to the nose of the car where it was incorporated with a new front aerofoil. All this brought oil, water and in-going charge temperatures down significantly so that they can now proceed with higher boost pressures. The Tyrrell team were running their new car (011) on new Goodyear tyres, thanks to influence with the American firm by their ex-driver from Scotland. However, Alboreto was still using Avon tyres on the old 010 car.

It was very warm and in spite of this the turbo-charged 1½ litre cars were going very fast, which seemed to demoralise everyone else, so that this important hour lacked any sense of urgency, even though it meant a lot of money for those up at the front of the grid, and the opportunity to race or not, to those at the back of the grid. As explained elsewhere the checking of ground-clearance as cars re-enter the pit road and the limitation of two sets of tyres per driver, has taken all the sparkle out of the “qualifying hour” and the message seems to be sinking in.

On Saturday morning there was not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was soaring. The ravages of the previous day had been dealt with, new engines had been installed, suspension members replaced and problems worried over, but it all made surprisingly little difference to the overall situation. The turbo-charged Renaults and Ferraris were still the ones to beat and Jones, Reutemann and Piquet were the ones who tried hardest to do so. However, a new factor entered on the scene in the shape of a Talbot-Matra V12 driven by Laffite, for he not only got among the faster Cosworth powered cars, but began to beat them. Reutemann was going great guns when there was an almighty bang and his Cosworth engine blew up, the Williams arriving back at the pits with a hole in each side of the crankcase. The Williams mechanics set to immediately to change the engine in time for the afternoon qualifying hour. By 1 pm it was getting very hot indeed, but not as hot as one of the turbo-chargers on Pironi’s Ferrari (the spare car, as his own was already in engine trouble) and his practice stopped once again while mechanics in asbestos gloves set about changing the unit.

Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 126CK), retired in the pits.

Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari is prepared in the pits – he would qualify 3rd

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Suddenly there was a mild panic and everything stopped, for a deer had appeared out of the woods up at the top of the circuit and had jumped over the fence and on to the track. It took nearly half-an-hour to round it up and despatch it back into the woods, during which time the whole world of Formula 1 came to a complete standstill ! Not that it was news, but de Cesaris had crashed on his opening lap, and was not being allowed out in the spare McLaren, and when practice resumed de Angelis went off the track in his Lotus 87 and bent the rear end. The two Renault drivers were so fast, or rather the cars were, that everyone seemed resigned to being unable to match them. Not so Laffite, who was using a different tyre to the other Michelin running Talbot-Matra, was responding to this. While others were bouncing and swaying on their rigid suspension systems the Talbot was looking very good and a lot more stable than anyone else. Michelin were not convinced about the use of this new tyre, but Jean-Pierre Jabouille, who now has a lot of say in the team management, was adamant about using it and brother-in-law Laffite was happy to go along with the idea. The result was fourth fastest overall, fastest non-turbo-charged car and faster Cosworth-powered cars. The Williams tried hard but could do nothing about it, nor could Piquet, so the grid took shape depressingly French as far as the British teams were concerned, with Renault first and second and Talbot fourth. With Villeneuve in third place with his Ferrari we had manufacturer’s cars in the first four places with Reutemann as first of the Cosworth kit-car constructor’s representatives. The Alfa Romeo team were not in the running, Andretti using a car with the latest rear suspension and Giacomelli using one with the old original rear suspension, but the V12 engine just did not give the power required for this fast circuit.

John Watson at the wheel of a McLaren MP4/1-Ford Cosworth.

John Watson could only manage 12th for McLaren in qualifying

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Down at the back of the grid there was gloom in the Tyrrell camp as Cheever was getting nowhere with the new car, in spite of the used tyres. To crown it all Alboreto scraped into the field with the old car on Avon tyres, which pushed Cheever down to the first non-qualifier ! At this point the young American had already despaired of the new car and had transferred to the old spare car, but it made little difference.

Daly got the black March comfortably into the race, with nineteenth place on the grid and Salazar was just in twentieth place, with the Ensign which brought a smile to Morris Nunn’s face. Mere hundredths of a second eliminated the two Toleman cars showing that it is as tough at the back as it is at the front. Smiling to himself in fourteenth Jean-Pierre Jarier with one of the Osella cars, ahead of works cars from Brabham, Alfa Romeo, Talbot and McLaren, Enzo Osella seemed a bit confused by the whole business.

Race

Alain Prost (Renault RE30) leads Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 126CK) Rene Arnoux (Renault RE30) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier JS17 Matra) at the start.

Alain Prost takes the lead at the start

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The race regulations had said the Grand Prix was to be over 54 laps, but this was a mistake and a correction was issued changing it to 53 laps, to keep it within the specified maximum race length of 320 kilometres. With the start due at 3 pm the “warm-up” half-hour was scheduled for ten minutes past mid-day on Sunday, by which time it was very hot indeed. Renault were particularly worried about their Michelin tyres, unconvinced that the left front one, which does most of the work on the long downhill right-hand bends, was going to stand up to the job.

Jabouille was perfectly happy about the Talbot and its tyres, but the Ferrari drivers were not convinced about theirs. Villeneuve did only one lap before the right-hand turbine exploded, so while it was changed he went out in the spare car, just in case something awful had happened. This meant he had no chance to try his own car in full race conditions.

Eliseo Salazar driving an Ensign N180B-Ford Cosworth.

Eliseo Salazar retired his Ensign on lap 43 with an oil pressure issue

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Jarier came in with smoke pouring from the left-hand exhaust of the Cosworth engine in his Osella, so the mechanics had a rush to change the power unit, and the Ensign was using oil badly but nothing could be done as they did not have a spare engine. Daly was going to have to race the spare March, as the previous day a tyre tread had come off a rear tyre while at maximum speed and damaged the rear end of the car, apart from giving the Irishman a very busy few moments keeping the car on the track.

At the prescribed time everyone left the pit lane and set off round the circuit to line up on the dummy-grid opposite the pits, but only 23 cars returned. The Theodore (TY/03) of Marc Surer came to a stop with ignition failure. A course car towed him the rest of the lap and the Theodore team fell on it to try and find the trouble, but starting time was approaching so they were forced to wheel the car back into the pit lane and miss the start. [In the German Grand Prix report Surer was said to have crashed due to a moment’s inattention. It later transpired that the accident was caused by the collapse of the front suspension on one side. Also the car was TY/02 not TY/03 as stated, and the accident left them without a spare car for Austria as TY/01 is in the middle of a total rebuild to the latest specification. After returning home Surer discovered he had broken a rib, and drove in Austria in some discomfort.

Race winner Jacques Laffite in a Ligier JS17, followed by Nelson Piquet in his Brabham BT49C.

Jacques Laffite keeps his Ligier ahead of Nelson Piquet

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The two Renaults led the field round on the parade lap in good order and all twenty-three cars took up their positions on the starting grid, with Rene Arnoux in pole position on the right, Prost on the left and Villeneuve’s red Ferrari behind the Renault of Arnoux. Reutemann and Prost began to creep forward as the red light came on, then Arnoux began to inch forward, but Villeneuve did not move. As the green light came on the Ferrari went off like a rocket straight past both Renaults and up the hill into the lead. The large Italian element in the crowd were delirious and on the top straight we could see the red car well ahead of the two yellow, black and white ones, while another red car was in fourth place. Pironi had come through from eighth place on the grid, passing Laffite’s Talbot-Matra V12 and all the Cosworth powered cars ahead of him. At the end of the opening lap the order was Villeneuve (Ferrari), Prost (Renault), Pironi (Ferrari) and Laffite (Talbot-Matra V12). The car manufacturers were dominating the scene. Reutemann and Jones led the “special builders” and the Cosworth brigade.

Up the steep hill went the Ferrari, but into the braking area for the Hella-Licht ess-bend it was all out of control and went straight on through the escape road. Reutemann did the same thing and right at the back of the field Siegfried Stohr spun his Arrows car. Lap 2 saw a whole change of scene for Villeneuve was now sixth and Reutemann eighth, while the two Renaults just disappeared into the distance. Pironi was not only holding third place, but holding up Laffite and Piquet, who were anxious to get by and get at the Renaults, but the Ferrari driver was not interested. Down at the back of the field Daly had set off from the start with his engine only firing on seven cylinders and had returned to the pits, while the Theodore mechanics had found a broken rotor arm in the ignition system on their car. They got the car started with a new rotor and Surer joined the race from the pit road, only to have the engine die again within a few hundred yards; the trouble was deeper than just the broken rotor arm. Daly’s trouble was eventually traced to a duff sparking plug and the black March rejoined the race, but four laps down.

Gilles Villeneuve in his Ferrari 126CK.

Villeneuve crashed out on lap 11

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The two Renaults were cruising away into the distance, while Laffite and Piquet were being held back by Pironi’s Ferrari, and after Jones and Reutemann had got past Villeneuve’s Ferrari, which was looking very unstable under braking, the two Williams cars joined the queue behind the other Ferrari. Rebaque and Andretti both made quick pit-stops for minor engine problems and by lap 8 the Renaults were out of sight before Pironi and his entourage arrived. Then in one vicious thrust Laffite, Piquet and Jones all dived past the Ferrari and on the next lap Reutemann was by. Villeneuve was in trouble with his fore-and-aft brake balance, the warm-up trouble with the turbo-charger preventing him trying the car in race trim, and one by one other drivers got by him. First Patrese (Arrows), then Mansell (Lotus) and next in line was Watson (McLaren) but before the Ulsterman had a go the Ferrari went off the track at the Bosch curve and destroyed itself against the barriers, all the corners being knocked awry, Villeneuve stepping out unharmed.

On the face of things it looked as if the Renaults were going to have a runaway victory, especially as the sky had clouded over and the temperature had dropped dramatically, but Laffite had other ideas and slowly but surely he was reducing the gap between himself and Arnoux in the second Renault. At first it was not really clear whether the Renaults were perhaps easing off, having built up a large margin, but then the gap kept reducing and Laffite was lapping consistently more quickly than the turbo-charged cars and the Talbot-Matra was not having understeer problems on the downhill bends like the Renaults and most of the other cars were having. The other Talbot in the hands of Tambay was into the pits on lap 16 with hydraulic trouble, its suspension staying “up” instead of “down” on the hydro-pneumatic cheating mechanism to dodge the 6 centimetre ground-clearance rule. Piquet, Jones and Reutemann could do nothing about the flying Laffite, and could barely keep him in sight, running fourth, fifth and sixth as they were. After a long pause Pironi arrived with Mansell, Patrese and Watson close up behind him and de Angelis catching them up. On lap 17 Mansell got by the Ferrari and pulled away to good effect, leaving the others to find a way by. This put him in a firm seventh place, which he was holding well, only to have the engine fail on him on lap 24. Although Laffite was closing on the two Renaults steadily there was no guarantee that he would be able to do much about it if he caught them, but nonetheless the situation was interesting. As Prost got to the top of the hill at the start of lap 27 the left front suspension on his Renault collapsed and he skated to a stop and out of the race, leaving Arnoux in command, but now on his own against the ever-closing Talbot-Matra. Tambay had rejoined the race with the other blue and white French car, but he now had to give up as the car lost all its hydraulics but Laffite’s car was running perfectly.

Watson had got past the Ferrari chicane but Patrese and de Angelis were so busy fighting each other that they were making no impression on Pironi and Salazar had come up from the back of the field and joined in the fun, while Daly was also in there with the March, even though he was a number of laps behind. Pironi was as imperturbable as ever, leading this bunch for lap after lap. The two Italians were getting very irritable with each other, and in consequence not concentrating on the job of getting by the Ferrari, and Daly and Salazar were enjoying themselves hugely, not normally having a chance to dice with a group of cars. The Chilean Ensign driver had a large blister on his left front tyre, so on right-hand bends, he was deliberately throwing the car into a big oversteer to reduce the load on the blistered tyre, and on one lap he overdid it while in the middle of a pack at about 140 mph but managed to catch it.

Jacques Laffite in his takes the chequered flag Ligier JS17 Matra for the win.

Laffite shows his joy as he crosses the line

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Laffite was now right behind the Renault but Arnoux was not going to give the lead away without a fight and for six laps the two French cars were nose-to-tail, with Laffite looking for an opening and Arnoux making sure there wasn’t one. Patrese and de Angelis had finally got past the Ferrari and Salazar was now tucked in behind it, and when Arnoux came up to lap them on lap 39 he hesitated for just a moment and that was all Laffite needed. The Talbot-Matra was through and into the lead. It was now all over, though Arnoux hung on as best he could but the front end of the Renault was not holding the road like that of the Talbot. Behind these two was a pretty subdued precession of the Cosworth runners, in the order Piquet (Brabham), Jones (Williams), Reutemann (Williams), Watson (McLaren) and de Angelis (Lotus). Patrese disappeared with an expensive bang in the engine of this Arrows on lap 44 and at the same time the tired old engine in the Ensign cried enough.

The fire-extinguisher in the side pod had come adrift and was blocking off air to the oil cooler, which did not help and it was running out of oil anyway. Waston’s McLaren split an exhaust manifold pipe which sounded awful, but did no harm, while miraculously his young Italian team-mate was still circulating and had not been off the road. Giacomelli arrived in the pit lane followed by an enormous firework display behind his Alfa Romeo, from burning magnesium caused by the base of the Alfa engine dragging on the ground and before the fire caught hold he jumped out while the fireman doused the car in extinguisher.

A joyous Jacques Laffite romped home to win the Austrian GP, the seventh different winner of World Championship races this season. The gamble that he and brother-in-law Jabouille took on the Michelin tyre situation was well justified, while Renault could only wonder if they had done the right thing in releasing Jean-Pierre from his contract with them. The Williams team finished fourth and fifth, a result that many others would love to achieve, but they were far from satisfied; at least the cars had run faultlessly for a change. Piquet was a fairly subdued third. Lafitte was delighted with his car, the Talbot-Matra V12, which once was a Ligier-Cosworth V8 (!) had behaved perfectly throughout, and had he not been held up by the Pironi’s Ferrari he could have led the race for more laps that he did. Of all the drivers who ran at close-quarters with Pironi’s Ferrari, and there were many of them, they all agreed that the power is phenomenal but the handling is diabolical and they all hope that the engine never gets into a good chassis. DSJ.

Results

Jacques Laffite, 1st position, Rene Arnoux, 2nd position and Nelson Piquet, 3rd position on the podium.

Laffiet celebrates with Piquet (left) and Rene Arnoux (right)

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Austrian Grand Prix – Formula One – 53 laps – Osterreichring – 5.9424 kilometres per lap – 314.947 kilometres – Warm and overcast

1st: Jacques Laffite (Talbot JS17/04) 1 hr 27 min 36.47 sec. – 215.698 kph.
2nd: Rene Arnoux (Renault RE33) 1 hr 27 min 41.64 sec.
3rd: Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49C/14) 1 hr 27 min 43.81 sec.
4th: Alan Jones (Williams FW07C/16) 1 hr 27 min 48.51 sec.
5th: Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07C/14) 1 hr 28 min 08.32 sec.
6th: John Watson (McLaren MP4/3) 1 hr 29 min 07.61 sec.

Fastest lap: Jacques Laffite (Talbot JS17/04), on lap 47 in 1 min 37.62 sec. – 219.142 kph.

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