Piquet takes the title, finishing third after tactical drive — Prost retires with turbo failure — Arnoux never in the hunt — Patrese wins at last — De Cesaris’s best finish yet — Lauda stars in McLaren-Porsche — Tambay on pole in Ferrari swansong
Report: NIGEL ROEBUCK
‘Sometimes you have to give up something you want, to be sure of something else,’ said Nelson Piquet last Saturday afternoon. ‘For sure it was hard to lose a race I know I could have won easily — but if it meant being certain of the championship, what did winning one race matter?’
The new World Champion simply flayed everybody in the South African Grand Prix. Second in qualifying, he took his fuel-light Brabham-BMW into a paralysing lead from the start, kept that lead through his pit stop at one-third distance, sacrificing it only when he knew that finishing fourth or better would do the job. As it happened, he surrendered it to team-mate Riccardo Patrese, but it was of no particular consequence. Anyone bar Alain Prost would have been waved through in the circumstances, and the Frenchman, turbo gone, was in the pits, watching his dream evaporate yet again. And Nelson’s other rival, René Arnoux, had gone out early in the proceedings, having never seriously figured. Finishing, therefore, was the thing, and the Brazilian cared not when Andrea de Cesaris took his Alfa Romeo through into second with but two laps left. Four points were enough. In the end it was all very calculated. It would have been good to see a World Champion clinch it by winning the final race of the year, but Piquet’s stupefying display in the early laps left its mark.
Title, then, to Nelson, and race to Riccardo. The Italian drove a perfect back-up race, and few begrudged him a victory after a season of appalling fortune. De Cesaris, too, drove splendidly in a car not truly worthy of six points. Derek Warwick finished well again, fourth for Toleman, and a delighted fifth was the outgoing World Champion, Keke Rosberg, who had his problems with the Williams-Honda on a highly impressive debut for this latest of the turbo cars. Towards the end of the race Keke won an on-off battle with Eddie Cheever’s Renault, which lost revs but nevertheless took sixth. On the pole, and running in a Ferrari for the last time, was Patrick Tambay, but the Frenchman was never a contender in the heat of race day. This was a Michelin afternoon, and Tambay’s Goodyears were not a match for the radials. From the start he was also down on power, being passed in a straight line by Alfa, Renault...and McLaren-Porsche. Piquet’s title and Prost’s disappointment were the stories of the day, but running them close was an exhilarating display by Niki Lauda, who set fastest time in the morning warm-up and shone in the race. Twelfth on the grid, he quickly moved through the field, passing the likes of Tambay, de Cesaris and Prost to challenge Patrese’s second place. A botched pit stop meant that another charge was necessary, and this Niki produced, closing to within four seconds of the lead with seven laps to go. At that point, sadly, a turbo let go, but make no mistake: Lauda will be faster in 1984. For Piquet, next season is a world away. For Prost, Arnoux and the rest, it cannot come too quickly.
So, at last, to Kyalami, for round 15. For the third year on the trot the World Championship would be resolved at the last race of the season—and this time at a circuit worthy of such an event. The contrast between this season’s climax and those of the last two years could hardly have been more pronounced. Instead of the neon nightmare of Las Vegas and its silly little car park we had the prim, rather dated, atmosphere of a Johannesburg suburb and the wonderful sweeps and swoops of Kyalami.
We had three men in contention for the title, one a former World Champion, the other two desperate to take it to France for the first time. Three extremely different characters here: the Brazilian who knows nothing else but motor racing, whose expression changes from Reutemann-like grimace to broad white-toothed grin in a split second; the Frenchman with half nationalised French industry riding on his back, whose mood was haunted a few weeks ago, yet now, when it most mattered, was relaxed and serene; and the other Frenchman, the outsider — in more respects than simply the World Championship — who worked his car perhaps harder than anyone —and had the car to take it. All three came to Kyalami knowing that this could not be a ’points’ race. Yes, tactics could play a part, but the bottom line was that they had to go for a win. Prost, for example, knew that second to Piquet — as at Brands Hatch — would not do. Three points separate first and second, but there were only two between Alain and Nelson. And the Brabham driver knew that nothing less than victory in the race would assure him of victory in the World Championship. Finishing second, with Prost third, would leave them level on points — but the Renault man would take the title by virtue of more race wins, four to three. For Arnoux, the whole thing was easy: go for it, as he always does. Anything less than nine points was useless to him, for Prost was eight ahead. All he could do was pray for the retirements of his rivals. Until the race at Brands Hatch, three weeks ago, there was a fourth contender, of course, but Patrick Tambay’s championship aspirations ended there. Twenty-four hours later so, too, did his Ferrari contract. Italians can excel at kicking a man when he’s down, as Inter-Milan have so frequently demonstrated, but Tambay came to South Africa full of resolve. He was looking for work, and a good showing at the last race would do him no harm; and he was looking to show Il Commendatore that certain people have been passing on bum information. Marco Piccinini, presumably, had his reasons for easing Patrick out of Ferrari, but at the weekend it was abundantly, embarrassingly, clear that no one on the team’s racing — stress racing — staff agreed with the decision.
Tambay, however, at least knew where he stood now, and approached the weekend with a light heart. If Ferrari had decided to do without a test driver for 1984, well, so be it. From the second he climbed into the 126C3 at the beginning of testing, Patrick was the fast man at Kyalami. Not having been at Kyalami for more than 18 months, the teams were granted two full days of testing at the beginning of the week, and Tambay ended each with the quickest time. By the end of Tuesday he was down to 1m 06.86s (only half a second from Arnoux’s 1982 pole time with the ground effect Renault), and well clear of Elio de Angelis, whose Lotus-Renault was second fastest, on 1m 07.51s. After the Italian we had Arnoux, Laffite (back from nowhere in his first run in the turbocharged Williams-Honda), Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Lauda, Patrese, de Cesaris, Rosberg, Warwick and Cheever. On Thursday, the opening day of qualifying, Tambay maintained his position: 1m 07.631s on his first set of qualifiers, then 1m06.841s on the second. That looked like pole for the day, until Piquet, once more fastest of all through the speed trap, hurtled round in 1m 06.729s... In the Ferrari pit Tambay’s mechanics went through their usual routine, to the casual observer a programme of Latin madness. Once Patrick’s car had been re-tyred with the used inside pairs from the first two runs, the boys got to work, sloshing water over the Goodyears, applying what look like giant hair-dryers (which actually suck away hot air) to the radiators. Then, with but a few minutes of the session remaining, the air starter was applied and a very composed Tambay went out once more. There was only one lap left on those tyres, but the moment had been chosen perfectly. Patrick had a clear track, and the result was a stunning 1m 06.554s. His mechanics went barmy, and his rivals shot — unsuccessfully — at the time for the remainder of qualifying. While all this was going on Tambay’s team mate was a very unhappy man. Not only had he been unable to match Patrick’s pace: now he faced a problem which could perhaps make him a non-starter in this, the most crucial race of his life. Arnoux had been down to a low ’seven’ on his first set of qualifiers, but the Ferrari coasted to a halt with a dead engine as he warmed up for his second run. It was an electrical fault, no big deal, but René was understandably furious at being stranded out on the circuit at a time like this. The car finished up in a dangerous position, but Arnoux had to work very hard to persuade the marshals that it should be moved. Unfortunately they eventually started this when he was not expecting it, and the rear wheel of the C3 ran over his foot. René hobbled back to the pits, immediately plunging his foot — his right foot — into a bucket of cold water. Even so, the swelling was very apparent in short time, and Arnoux was clearly in very considerable pain. No bones were broken, but bruising was severe, and doctors also believed that a nerve had been pinched. As the first day of qualifying came to a close, it was by no means certain that Ferrari’s title contender would be able to take any further part in the Kyalami weekend. ‘I’m going to drive tomorrow, see how it feels,’ said René. ‘Maybe they give me a shot of novocaine to deaden the pain, but I don’t really want that because it also deadens the feel in the foot — and this is my brake and throttle foot...’ You had to admire Arnoux’s courage on Friday. The pain was still there, and he limped badly, but at least he was able to get his driving boot on. In the morning he put in a few hard and fast laps, reporting that it felt not too bad. And in the afternoon he pared a tenth from his previous best. His grid position — fourth —was not improved, but psychologically it was important. By race day, he said, the doctors expected the pain to lessen considerably.
The atmosphere in the Ferrari pit was curious indeed through practice. Arnoux was their man with a shot at the title, the man who would be staying with them next year, yet it was abundantly clear that more important to them by far was that Tambay should win this, his final race with the team. No one, Piccinini apart, was taking any particular trouble to conceal his loyalty to Patrick. You can drag a dog to water, Marco, but you cannot make him drink...
‘The car is fabulous,’ said the man on pole position, who sat in his car through the last 30 minutes of practice, fresh qualifiers mounted, waiting to see if his time would be beaten. ‘There was no point in going out for the sake of it, risking an engine. I am very sad to be leaving Ferrari. What I would love is to lead all the way tomorrow, but if it is very hot I think we shall be in tyre problems...’ Would he be helping Arnoux? ‘No,’ came the short and swift reply. ‘I think I have sacrificed enough in this team, don’t you? There was a prize of $3,000 for the pole. Patrick gave it to the mechanics. First and fourth and mixed emotions for Ferrari, then. Between them came the two Brabham-BMWs, with Piquet heading Patrese. As at Brands Hatch, the blue and white cars ran with large, Ferrari-style, wings, and for this crucial race at Kyalami they had revised oil cooling. Everything else was as before, for a championship decider is no place for experimentation.
Qualifying started ominously for the team, both drivers suffering engine failures on Friday morning. But the cars were consistently right on the pace, Nelson always looking like the only genuine threat to Tambay’s pole position. On Friday afternoon (much hotter than the day before), the Brazilian really worked away. Over the start line the Brabham-BMW was timed at better than 185mph, building up to almost 200 before braking for Crowthorne, and this was faster than anything else in the place. On faster overall lap time, though, Nelson was three-hundredths away from his best time on Thursday.
‘I’m happy enough,’ he remarked afterwards. ‘For sure Tambay is very strong here, but if it is very hot for the race I think Michelin will be in better shape than Goodyear. I hope, any way...’ For Piquet, the World Championship was clearly a matter of less moment than for his two rivals. Yes, it would be nice to have the title again, but on the other hand it would mean a lot of interviews, doing things other than driving, boring stuff like that.
Patrese was a man possessed in the final session. His tenure of the second Brabham may well be coming to an end, so he also had something to prove. On Thursday afternoon he had lost a turbo while sweeping through the kink before the finish line on his quick lap, therefore finishing the day in only 12th spot. In the last hour his desperation was awesome. Not once, but twice, he exited the daunting downhill right-hander at Barbecue with all four wheels on the Grass. The run-off area at this spot (where Peter Revson lost his life nine years ago) is minimal, and reports of Riccardo’s acrobatics impressed even Keke Rosberg: ‘That is a baaaad place to try that sort of thing...’
Slowest of the would-be World Champions in qualifying was Prost, but this surprised no one, least of all the man himself. The Renault V6 simply will not accept huge dabs of ‘qualifying’ boost like the Ferrari and BMW engines, and with a pit straight as long as Kyalami’s Alain always doubted that he would be out-and-out competitive in practice.
‘You know,’ he said on Friday afternoon, ‘if you look at our season, you can see that usually we have been fourth or sixth, something like that, where last year we were usually first and second. In the races, though, we have been more competitive — and much more reliable than last year.’ Prost spent a lot of time in each of his RE40s, and was happy with both by the end of qualifying: ‘The balance and handling are perfect — as good as in Austria...’ And, of course, we remembered well what happened there. Alain ended up fifth on the grid, and would surely have been higher had he not goofed on choice of Michelin qualifier in the last session. No matter, he said, he had a good feeling about the race on this, a circuit he loves. Eddie Cheever, however, was far less content, qualifying only 14th in his final drive for Renault. Down on power during the first morning, he had a turbo change before the timed session but was still 400 revs down. ‘As well as the engine, I can’t get the thing to handle. Down through Barbecue, for instance, the front just washes out every lap. Each time I say to myself that I’m going to have to lift off — and each time I grit my teeth, hold on and just make it through. I’m in trouble, no question about it. The settings on my car are pretty much the same as Alain’s, yet his seems to be handling beautifully.
By any standards, the Williams-Hondas made a notable first appearance, qualifying sixth (Rosberg) and 10th (Laffite). Keke was fairly downbeat about it all, but his delight at being competitive again was very evident. ‘I’m not surprised that we’re so well up because that’s what I’d expect from the Williams team, but what makes it more impressive is the fact that we’ve been on race boost the whole time.’ The Honda doesn’t like the wick being turned up yet, but next season will be OK. ‘It’s a bit frustrating in qualifying, actually, because the engine doesn’t really seem to get going on the first flying lap. On the second it really screams along — but by then the qualifiers are gone...’
During the final session Rosberg was involved in an incident with Manfred Winkelhock, the ATS driver deliberately banging wheels with Keke as they went slowly through Sunset. ‘I was in his way, I guess, and he was mad at me... Well, it s been a long season, you know, and this was my last chance to give something back to him!’
Rosberg lost time during the morning with a persistent misfire, traced finally to a sticking wastegate valve. In the afternoon he therefore decided to run on race tyres first, switching to qualifiers after understeering off — without damage - at Sunset. The FW09 is one of those cars which looks ‘right’, and the team’s first experience of running a turbo has so far been remarkably painless. Jacques Laffite was very excited indeed during testing: ‘I hadn’t driven the car at all before we came here, you know, and immediately it felt good. I was not really surprised by the horsepower, but what really impresses me is the cornering speed possible when you have so much power available. That was really my first big impression: it was like being back in a wing car. Laffite’s taste has always been for understeer in a race car, and he found this the predominant characteristic of his FW09 — until the heat of Friday, when it began to oversteer a little too much for his liking, dropping him from seventh to 10th on the grid.
The biggest jump on Friday was by Mansell, who moved the Lotus-Renault 94T up from 17th to seventh, his time almost two seconds quicker than that of the opening day: ‘Thursday was a disaster,’ Nigel remarked. ‘The boost fell right away during my first run on qualifiers, so I had to run the spare for the second — and the engine in that had a misfire. The mechanics changed the engine in my race car overnight, but this morning there was no power over ten-two. It’s an intercooler problem, we think...’
In the last session all was well. Mansell chose the right Pirelli qualifiers for the day and vaulted from row eight to row four. Elio de Angelis, by contrast, opted for different tyres and slipped from eighth to 11th. The Italian had starred during testing, being beaten only by Tambay’s Ferrari, but was unable to approach that time during qualifying. ‘I don’t understand this business some times. We are using more boost than in testing — and going slower...’ Part of the problem was traced to a split intercooler on Thursday night, and the following morning Elio was pleased, fourth in the unofficial session. But his time there stood as his best of the two days: in the afternoon, when it counted, he went wrong on tyre choice.
‘I don’t know where I’ll be next season,’ said Manfred Winkelhock at a pre-race press conference, ‘but for sure I can find a better situation than this—and I’ll take a BMW engine with me...’ Manfred’s relationship with Gunther Schmid has never been of the best, but he was pleased with the ATS during qualifying, eighth fastest overall and among the very quickest through the speed trap. ‘Not even one turbo failure,’ he grinned. ‘A record, huh?’
Even by his own standards, Andrea de Cesaris was scary during practice. As a matter of course he had two wheels on the grass at the exit of downhill Barbecue, and the Alfa looked at all times to be on the verge of a large accident, twitching and darting all over the place. It made a big impression on the other drivers. ‘I tell you, I followed him at one stage,’ remarked Cheever, ‘and in the end I let him go. I didn’t want to be part of his shunt.’ And Warwick suggested that, in a couple of places, Andrea’s anatomy was especially well developed: ‘He’s the one bloke in this business who’s at 110% every second he’s in a car...’
In truth, the Alfa looked very much a handful at Kyalami, and de Cesaris’s effort in the last session was something quite amazing, an improvement of well over a second on what was acknowledged to be a slower day. ‘I would have been faster in the first session,’ commented Andrea, ‘but a turbo went in my race car, and I had to use the spare — which I didn’t like. We’re not so good at qualifying speeds, but I’m happy with the car on full tanks. The race could be good for me...’
Mauro Baldi was almost as spectacular as de Cesaris out on the circuit, but his efforts were to nothing like the same effect. More than a second slower than his team-mate, he qualified only 17th, slowest of all the turbo runners.
Apart from the sparkling display by John Watson during the early laps at Monza, the McLaren-Porsche has so far been something of a disappointment, but practice at Kyalami suggested that the gorgeous-looking car might be starting to come good. And when one bears in mind that the Bosch Motronic engine management system on the cars costs little less than the entire Hart turbo engine programme, that had to be good news for those who write the cheques...
Niki Lauda’s car had revised intercooling in South Africa, enabling it to run some 30deg cooler than Watson’s. During the first untimed session Niki’s name topped the list for a while, but the car could not match the qualifying pace of Ferrari, BMW, Renault and Honda. ‘It’s not bad,’ the Austrian said, ‘But it all adds up to nothing very exciting. Full tanks and race tyres, better.’
Watson had all the qualifying troubles, complaining of poor pick-up from his ‘hot’ engine. Virtually as quick as Lauda on the first day, it was John’s misfortune to come upon the Rosberg-Winkelhock wheel-banging match while going for a time on his first set, of qualifiers. Understandably, he failed to see the funny side of that, after which his second run was blighted by a misfire, caused by a broken water pipe. That left him 15th on the grid, three places behind Niki.
Toleman’s week did not begin well. During testing both drivers had alarming experiences, Bruno Giacomelli pulling up unscathed on the Monday when a rear suspension pick-up point pulled out of the chassis, and Derek Warwick crashing the following day at Clubhouse. ‘We don’t really know what happened,’ he explained. ‘It seemed that the rear brakes locked up on their own as I approached the corner. It could be that the brake fluid boiled, created pressure within the line, which expanded and blew the brakes on. That happened to us at Silverstone. And this time I think that when they clamped on I panicked and stood on the brake pedal — which also locked the fronts up.
Just before it hit the barrier I remember thinking ’this is going to hurt...’
After qualifying Warwick was a little despondent. ‘I’ve got the latest demon tweaked engine in my car — and I’m losing about seven-tenths of a second to Bruno down the length of the straight. We’ve taken downforce off the car to improve it down the straight, but Bruno’s car is consistently quicker at the very top end, from the start line down to Crowthorne...’ All in all, Derek was very disappointed with 13th on the grid, Giacomelli three places behind him. Through the very fast Jukskei Sweep, however, the Tolemans looked among the very stablest cars in the place.
How times change at last. At Kyalami there were only nine normally-aspirated cars, and you began to notice the cars high-pitched scream of DFV and Alfa V12 as you once cocked your ear at the unusual drumming throb of a turbo. Two Tyrrells two Arrows, two Ligiers, two Osellas and one RAM March. With only 26 cars present, all looked certain to start, but the Italian cars ‘qualified’ only by virtue of their rivals’ charity. Corrado Fabi and Piercarlo Ghinzani should have been excluded under the ‘110% rule’, but the other team managers all signed a bit of paper consenting to their inclusion.
Fastest of the non-turbo drivers — as he should have been — was Michele Alboreto, less than three-tenths ahead of his hard-trying team mate Danny Sullivan, whose car he took over during the last session, feeling that his own was down on power. The Tyrrells were 18th and 19th. During a lull in practice an Italian photographer asked Marco Piccinini for permission to take pictures of Alboreto sitting in Ferrari number 27. ‘Robespierre’ (as the Italian journalists now refer to the Ferrari team manager!) agreed, but his mechanics would have none of it... After the Tyrrells we had Boutsen’s Arrows heading the rest, followed by Jarier’s Ligier, Surer’s Arrows and Boesel’s Ligier. Kenny Acheson, this time using a Williams-loaned Cosworth in his RAM March, qualified 24th, easily quicker than the Osellas, and everyone was pleased to see this pleasant man in a race with John Macdonald’s car.
During race week at Kyalami a pattern of weather became clear: hot sun and a little breeze through most of the day, giving way to cloud, then sometimes rain and thunder in the late evening. Always, though, the sky was blue once more as we awoke, and it was the same on race morning. It made sense to leave Johannesburg early, beat the traffic, for there had been forecasts of enormous crowds. South Africa, after all, had been without top-level motor racing for nearly two years — and this was also the World Championship decider. As it was, though, the roads were easy, the race attendance healthy but not spectacular.
In the paddock nearly ail the heavy money for the title was on Piquet. Hardly anyone seemed to be talking about the race itself. No, the championship was the thing, and as you talked to people about their hopes for the race, you became aware all over again of the general animosity — among other teams towards Renault, which had its roots in the FISA-FOCA War of 1980-81. No one forgets where he buried the hatchet.
‘I don’t think anyone has anything against Alain,’ commented Keke Rosberg, ‘but Renault have tried every political manoeuvre in the book. What’s more, if they don’t do it this year, they’ll never do it, because in 1984 the whole world is going to be turbocharged...’
As the morning wore on, it began to look like a straight battle between Piquet and Prost for the 1983 World Championship. The day was building up to greater heat even than on Friday, and that suggested a ‘Michelin’ race, bad news for Arnoux, who also had his injured foot to worry about. René’s great friend Didier Pironi was in the Ferrari pits throughout, offering advice and encouragement, but the atmosphere was anything but light. ‘This heat was just what we didn’t want,’ grimaced Tambay. ‘Thursday was perfect for us, but yesterday I ran hard with Nelson for about 10 laps. We were pretty even, but I had a blistered rear tyre at the end of it, and it looks like we will have to go to a harder compound for the race. It is hotter than ever today.’ The warm-up brought incident aplenty, on track and off. Poor Watson sat in the pits throughout, his troublesome engine refusing to fire up, and Rosberg suffered a blown engine, the first major Honda problem the Williams team has experienced. Down at Crowthorne Winkelhock had a spooky moment indeed when the ATS had a suspension breakage at the left rear. If the overall feel of Kyalami is reminiscent of Oulton Park in the late fifties, the ambience in the pits is not. Pit lane itself is very narrow by contemporary standards, and not really suitable for nine-second mid-race fuel and tyre stops. As a consequence there was considerable apprehension about the possibilities of an accident, and pit lane was closed off to all but essential personnel — drivers, team managers, mechanics and, if there were any about, rock stars.
This has been the way of it for some time now, and no one with any sense raises strong objection. You see FOCA passes in unlikely hands sometimes, but there it is. Bernie Ecclestone keeps a sharp eye open for persons who should not be in the pits, and on Saturday morning removed a pass from one such, who apparently responded by trying to remove Bernie’s head from his shoulders. And there were reports of similar unpleasantness from other parts of pit lane. ‘It’s a great circuit,’ commented one Formula 1 luminary, ‘but everything else about the place is Hicksville, isn’t it?’ Anyway, through the tension a list of times emerged, and there at the top of it was the name of Niki Lauda, cautiously pleased with the feel of his car. Patrese followed, and then came the contenders, Piquet and Prost, with de Cesaris and Tambay next up.
The chequered flag went out, and pit lane filled up with cars once more. The punch-ups ceased, and mechanics went to work. A BMW course car set off round the track in the wrong direction...
Crowthorne seemed like the place to be for the race, and there soon became apparent that the concern for safety felt so keenly for the pits area did not extend to other parts of the circuit. Just this side of the armco were several small children (all with track passes, of course...), and I pondered a driver’s chances of being rescued from a burning car by marshals in shorts and sandals. Was it not here, exactly 10 years ago, that Mike Hailwood saved Clay Regazzoni from just such a predicament?
The narrowness of pit lane had caused team managers to agree a list of planned pit stops, this an effort to ensure that no two cars were receiving fuel and rubber at the same time. I got hold of a copy of this list, and noted that Brabham had a stop ‘booked’ for lap 27, one-third distance only. Who would be the hare? That question was very quickly answered. At the green both Piquet and Patrese burst past Tambay to lead the pole position Ferrari into Crowthorne, and when the pack reappeared… of lap one a clearly audible gasp from the stands greeted Nelson — already nearly two seconds clear! Another half-second was added to the lead on lap two, after which it went up to 4.1,4.8, 5.8, 6.9...
Light fuel load or no, Piquet’s early laps were quite simply stunning. His sixth required less than 70 seconds, and would stand as the fastest of the race. ‘We had decided that I would really go for it in the beginning,’ he said later, ‘and try to build up a lead big enough to last through my pit stop.’ And as he continued to pull away by around a second a lap, it was a policy which looked like succeeding. Quite apart from anything else, the sight of the white car receding into the middle distance must have had a profoundly demoralising effect on Prost, who was hampered in his attempts to keep in touch by de Cesaris’s hard-to-pass Alfa. Not until lap eight did Alain find a way through, and by then Piquet was far out of his sight. While the Brabhams established themselves as comfortably the fastest cars in the race, plenty was going on behind them. At the beginning of lap two, for example, Laffite’s first turbo race came to an early conclusion when the Williams-Honda slithered off at Crowthorne, wrapping itself up in the catch fencing, Jacques was quite unhurt, but livid. ‘I was on the left of the track, and Cheever was alongside me. His front wheel was between my wheels, and slowly, slowly, he pushed me over to the left. I cannot brake or he jump over me and we have a big accident so I finish up with two wheels off the track in the dirt and... I spin and it is finished...’ At the end of lag eight Arnoux’s Ferrari came slowly into the pits, and now we knew for sure that the title fight was down to two. From the start René had never been higher than seventh: ‘My left front tyre began to go down after only two laps, and I knew I would have to stop soon. But then the engine blew out all it's water...’ His team mate was hardly any better off. At the end of the first lap Tambay was passed on sheer straightline speed by de Cesaris’s Alfa and Prost’s Renault. ‘It was a bit like Monza all over again — no straightline speed,’ Patrick explained. ‘Because of the heat we ran Bs on the front and As at the rear. That was probably the best compromise, but hard tyres at the back gave us a traction problem out of Leeukop and onto the long pit straight — so that didn’t help the straightline speed either, and neither did the fact that we ran more wing to try to compensate for the hard tyres! But the boost pressure was down right from the start of the race...’ The pace of Piquet apart, it was the progress of Lauda in the early laps which really caught the eye confirmation of his performance in the warm-up. From his 12th starting spot, Niki was up to sixth after only half a dozen laps, and on lap nine moved past Tambay for fifth. The McLaren-Porsche truly looked like a competitive race car for the first time. Ten laps: Piquet — 11 seconds — Patrese — three — Prost — de Cesaris — Lauda — Tambay — Rosberg — Cheever — Warwick — Mansell.
After a bad start, Nigel’s Lotus was now effectively the only one in the race, for de Angelis had already made the first of three pit stops to investigate a severe misfire which would retire him before half-distance. While Piquet continued to pull effortlessly away, Prost tried desperately to get on terms with Patrese, pulling back a tenth here and there. It was obvious, however, that the Renault had no answer to the Brabham-BMWs — indeed the yellow car’s third place was not to last long, for Lauda had now disposed of de Cesaris’s Alfa and had his sights set on third place. This was Niki driving with an aggression we have not seen for a long time, and doing it, as ever, with perfect line and judgement. On lap 17 he passed Prost into Crowthorne, and immediately began to chisel at Patrese’s second place! For Watson it was an unhappy day. Immediately before the start there was yet more trouble from the engine in his race car, and John had to move hurriedly into the spare. As the field had burbled through the final parade lap the number 7 McLaren was at its tail, but when the cars formed upon the grid Watson, instead of starting from the back, unaccountably threaded his way through to his original position. That meant the black flag (as it did for Winkelhock at Zandvoort), and a sad end to a frustrating week for John. As the all-important lap 27 approached it became obvious that Piquet had done enough. Unless there were a problem with the wheel changing, the number 5 Brabham would be able to Pit without losing its lead. Lap 27 came and went, however, and Nelson came in at the end of 28. The work was beautifully done; no jammed wheels, no spilt fuel, no faulty air hammer (as at Brands). In 11.90s the Brazilian was on his way, and as he turned into Crowthorne second-placed Patrese was still four seconds in arrears. The Renault pit now knew for sure that all was lost for their man. Unless Piquet encountered a major problem, Prost was never going to get on terms, and such was Nelson’s superiority that he was in a position to take it relatively easily. As well as that, Prost was falling off the pace, dropping away from Lauda each lap, plainly in some sort of trouble. The regular drumming of the Renault V6 was gone, its boost pressure falling.
Lap 33 brought pit stops for both Lauda (third) and Rosberg (seventh), and both were detained for longer than they would have wished. Three of the McLaren’s wheels were swiftly changed, but the right rear proved obstinate, and the luckless Austrian was stationary for 25 seconds before getting the signal to depart. Now Niki started his charge all over again, back in seventh place. The Williams team had known that their stops would not be very fast. ‘The thing is,’ Patrick Head had said, ‘I didn’t design the car with refuelling in mind, because we didn’t really expect to race it this year. We’re probably going to lose out there...’ Rosberg had started the race with Goodyear As all round, and very soon he knew that he had been too conservative. At the stop they gave him an A and three Cs, and the Williams-Honda was a much more competitive proposition thereafter. ‘It was terrific for a bit after the stop,’ said Keke, ‘and I started to catch Warwick quite quickly. But then the intercooler got full of dirt, and the engine started misfiring. I dropped the revs to ten-two and finally to nine. That let Cheever past me, but it ran fine after that and I was able to get him again before the end of the race.’ At the end of lap 35 Prost brought the Renault into the pits. I looked at my list. According to the plan, he was seven laps early. His mechanics went to work on the wheel changing, but what was this? While the car was up on its jacks, Alainflicked off his belts, stood up in the cockpit and stepped out! ‘The turbo was finished,’ he remarked sadly. ‘Eddie was due in very soon, and there was no chance to work on my car. Anyway,’ he concluded, ’there would have been no point. I wasn’t going to score any points...’
All Prost could do now was sit in the pits, listen for the sound of Piquet’s BMW, hope for a change in its exhaust note. And that came, too, although not for any reason which could raise Renault hopes. Nelson now knew that his only rival for the championship was out: 42 laps remained, and he turned down the boost. De Cesaris dropped from third to fifth with his pit stop on lap 41, and after Tambay’s stop four later the two looked set to resume their lengthy duel. This was not to be, however for the Ferrari was in even more trouble: ‘After the stop the throttle lag increased a lot,’ Patrick reported,’ and the boost pressure began to drop. I think the by-pass lust got stuck. That was it. Done. Finished.’ Tambay’s last drive for Ferrari ended by the side of the road at Clubhouse on lap 56.
In the 20 laps after Prost’s retirement Piquet rolled off the pace to an amazing extent, particularly once one had grown accustomed to the blistering speed of the blue and white car in the earlier part of the race. And now, as the 60-lap mark approached, Patrese had caught right up with his team leader. At the end of lap 60 indeed, it was number 6 which came through first. Was this intended? Was Piquet really surrendering a Grand Prix victory? It was hard to believe in such iron discipline, but quite clearly this was the case, for when an inspired Lauda caught up with the Brazilian, the Brabham-BMW kicked again, and held the McLaren at bay. ‘I eased off, for sure,’ grinned Nelson afterwards, ‘and I think maybe I eased off a little too much! Eventually I let Niki through — I knew I could afford to finish fourth, if necessary. Then de Cesaris caught me, and I began to worry about how far Warwick was behind him. But the pits gave me the gap, and I knew I was safe... Here I was not concerned about winning the race. The only thing in my mind was the championship.’ On lap 68, therefore, there was a roar from the crowd as Lauda took the McLaren-Porsche into second place. Was it possible that the Austrian could score a sensational last-minute victory? The gap to Patrese was a little over four seconds, but then the Brabham began to inch away. As they started their 72nd lap there was smoke from the back of Niki’s car, and he reappeared, pulling off near Clubhouse with a broken turbo. Bitterly disappointed, he left immediately for the Kyalami Ranch. Two laps left. Patrese, fingers crossed for a finish at last, came through, with de Cesaris now second, 10 seconds behind. But Piquet was still there, braking, changing gear, feeding in the power with almost exaggerated care. ‘That,’ said Rosberg later, ‘is how you win World Championships...’ And so it finished.
An exultant Patrese took the flag for only the second time this season, having driven a perfect race. In the early laps he had assumed second place behind Piquet, ready to protect his team leader from an attack which never materialised. Earlier the team had agreed that if the two should be running first and second in the late stages, with no threat to Nelson’s championship, then there would be no objection to a win by Riccardo. And everything worked out to perfection. Out of the Kink came number 5, and as Piquet approached the flag every member of the Brabham team was on the road, waiting next to the man with the flag. Nelson passed through what remained of the track, waving clenched fist in delight. He might have said that the championship was not that important, but its true worth became apparent now. Between the Brabhams, of course, we had Andrea, who had driven perhaps the best race of his life, hard on it from green light on, never letting the Alfa’s wayward handling get the better of him. And Warwick took points for the fourth race on the trot, his Toleman-Hart never allowing him to fight with anyone, but getting him to the line once more. Giacomelli’s car, by contrast, came to a fiery halt in the closing stages, turbo gone. The Brabham team apart, perhaps the happiest group of people afterwards was to be found at Williams. Keke had finished fifth on the debut of the Honda-powered car, and when did a team ever get a turbo car to the finish on its first appearance? ’This has been a very big day for Williams-Honda,’ beamed Frank. ‘I can’t tell you how much we’ve learned this week, and now we’ve got the winter to work with that. If we hadn’t brought the new cars here, we’d have lost five months’ knowledge, waiting for Rio...’
Cheever’s last race for Renault yielded one point, and Eddie said it had been a frustrating afternoon, engine a thousand revs down for most of the way. Just out of the points was Sullivan, who had driven with furious throttle-stabbing energy for the whole distance. Team mate Alboreto led the Cosworths for most of the race, but his final drive for Tyrrell ended with a blown engine. Eighth and ninth, regular as ever, were the Arrows of Surer and Boutsen, Thierry’s engine sounding dreadful during the closing laps. And we must say a word about Acheson, the last man to be classified. Yes, he was six laps down, but this was his first Grand Prix, a long afternoon’s work in great heat, with a single set of Pirellis for the entire race. It was a good showing. During the closing laps the fastest car on the circuit was Mansell’s Lotus. Early in the race Nigel had a long stop for repairs to broken gear linkage, and later he needed two tyre stops. For all that, he drove on hard, setting the third fastest lap of the race on lap 60, his time beaten only by Piquet and Lauda. As the dust settled through the’ paddock, the joy and pain of a long campaign won and lost was all around. The Brabham mechanics grinned with pleasure at their man’s success, tackled the job of loading up with recharged enthusiasm. How many other teams feel so strongly about their driver as to start a fan club for him? And at the other end of the paddock, Prost and Larrousse faced dour French journalists. This was an inquest, nothing less. How had Renault managed to fail yet again? Alain had led the championship since April, had won more races than anyone else, yet had lost the title at the last. Was it overkill? Was Renault perhaps too big, too unwieldy, too over-organised ever to beat the inventiveness of an outfit like Brabham? Gordon Murray is a man always looking for what Mark Donohue christened ‘the Unfair Advantage’, and very often he finds it, leaving others to follow. The BT52 has not always been the best chassis this season. The BMW Cylinder turbo has often been outgunned. But when it mattered, with the season drawing to a close, Paul Rosche found a lot more horsepower, and that was the turning point. The blue and white car was faster than anything else for the last four races of the year, and Piquet made the most of it. With the finishing post in sight, Renault faltered and Brabham did not. It was that simple.
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission
- Riccardo Patrese (Brabham)
- Andrea de Cesaris (Alfa Romeo)
- Nelson Piquet (Brabham)
- Derek Warwick (Toleman)
- Keke Rosberg (Williams)
- Eddie Cheever (Renault)
"Everything went perfectly: car, engine and tyres. We had agreed to let Nelson get away right from the beginning. He was carrying very little fuel, so my job was to stay behind and try to make things difficult if any of his rivals happened to get any ideas of chasing him."
"In the first half of the race everything went exactly as we had anticipated: Nelson was able to put Prost exactly where he wanted him. After the pit stops were completed I had been told that I could assess the situation. If Nelson was safelyin the first three places, then I could think about looking after myself."
"When he started to slow I was winding him in at two seconds a lap. I pulled alongside him coming on to the long straight and made a signal. He waved me on, he was happy to let me go, so I did. I was able to reduce the boost, like Nelson was doing, but I watched the pit signals very carefully. If Nelson had dropped lower than fourth place, I was ready to stop completely so that he could move up into a higher point scoring position."
"I wasn't really worried about [staying with the team] before this race. Now, after winning, I'm even less worried."