Monday, 9 March 2015

1980: Argentina Grand Prix

The first Grand Prix of the 1980 World Championship was anything but dull. Taking place at the Municipal Autodrome in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the number 15 version of the Oscar Galvez circuit, the track surface may have been far from ideal, yet it helped to create an entertaining spectacle, that just 13 days into the new year, gave a reasonable indication of what was to follow in an exciting decade for the sport.

The Daily Mirror's Adrian Brown described the close season movement of drivers as musical chairs, with only Ferrari, Renault and Arrows retaining both their drivers from the season before. Arguably the strongest team was Williams, who had ended 1979 with five wins out of the last seven races, had gone well in testing, and now had the backing of Saudi Arabian airline (Saudia) and Leyland Vehicles amongst others. Australian Alan Jones, who had won four of those races in 1979, remained in the team, with Clay Regazzoni moving to Ensign when it became apparent that the team owner Frank Williams was after Argentinian Carlos Reutemann.

"If you can get two No. 1 drivers then you've got an obligation to do just that," Williams proclaimed on the eve of the new season. "There are only sixteen races on the calendar and it's our aim to win all of them". Strong words indeed, although you could understand his bullishness, given the drivers he had at his disposal and the superiority displayed by Williams in the latter half of the previous campaign. Assessing the opposition, Williams declared that Ferrari and Lotus would be the greatest threat. It didn't quite work out that way.

For Ferrari, 1980 would signal a fall from grace of dramatic proportions. With defending champion Jody Scheckter in their team, along with Gilles Villeneuve, there were high hopes for the new Ferrari 312T5. "We at Ferrari are in fairly good shape with our new car," Scheckter revealed before Argentina, "although bad weather has meant we haven't done as many test miles as I would like. But I would say the improvements over last year's car are enough to keep us up front". The reigning champion also predicted a hard fought season ahead, with Williams identified as a particular threat. As the season progressed, Scheckter's toughest battles turned out to be with his own car.

Lotus too would have a disappointing year in their new 81 model. Despite battling to gain the services of Elio de Angelis from Team Shadow - fought out in the High Court, as Shadow appealed unsuccessfully that the Italian had already signed a deal with them - Colin Chapman's team struggled to live up to Williams' pre-season statement. Mario Andretti would gain just a single point in the season, with de Angelis (Reutemann's replacement) finishing on the podium just once, and even the introduction of a third driver in Nigel Mansell did little to bring any cheer during a turbulent year.

There were other teams that were hopeful of giving Williams are run for their money. If Renault's turbo charged RE20 could stand the heat of the first four races in Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and America (Long Beach), then many journalists were highlighting Rene Arnoux and Jean-Pierre Jabouille as title candidates, yet it would be from Europe onwards that the team would struggle.

Brabham had returned to a Ford-Cosworth engine at the end of 1979, and now had Nelson Piquet as their No. 1 driver due to the retirement of Nikki Lauda after the switch. And Ligier, with Didier Pironi (moved from Tyrrell) and Jacques Laffite at the helm, were confident of building on their 61 points of 1979, although the team had only been able to test the new JS11/15 briefly pre-season.

Britain was initially only represented by one driver, McLaren's John Watson a lone figure, as the press bemoaned the lack of opportunities for men such as Rupert Keegan, Geoff Lees and Stephen South. "The foreigners have the money and sponsorship to grab the drives in most of the British-built Grand Prix cars," wrote the Daily Express' David Benson, and although the men mentioned in the article did get some race experience during 1980 - along with Mansell and Tiff Needell - it was a pretty lean time for any British Formula One fans.

The bookmakers were seemingly confident that the winner would come from one of three men. Villeneuve was installed as 3/1 favourite, with Jones at 7/2 and Scheckter 4/1 narrowly behind, as the drivers arrived in Argentina ahead of what was supposed to be a sixteen race season; eventually the Spanish Grand Prix was stripped of championship status due to a FISA-FOCA dispute, and the Las Vegas Grand Prix never happened.

There were a few changes for the 1980 season. Drivers would gain points from their best five races in the first seven races and best five in the last seven (as opposed to four in each half as had been the case in 1979). Staggered starts on the grid, as had been used at Monaco before, were also introduced, meaning a distinct advantage for the man on pole position who would start ahead of the second-placed qualifier rather than level. And custom made qualifying tyres were on borrowed time due to the expense, Goodyear not taking any to the opening Grand Prix, with Michelin also expected to follow suit shortly afterwards.

It was when practice sessions and qualification got under way that the fun and games truly commenced. At first all seemed to be running smoothly, Jones showing his potential in qualifying when he clocked a lap time of 1.44.17 in comparison to the mark of 1.46.91 set by Laffite a year before. But it soon became apparent that not all was well with the track surface, something that was perhaps not totally unexpected. Just a month earlier, Renault had run practice sessions on the circuit and reported that the track had broken up. The authorities acted by resurfacing the track, but it appeared that the new surface was just as susceptible to crumbling.

Understandably the drivers were not too impressed. Believed to be led by Emerson Fittipaldi and Scheckter, rumours began to circulate of a potential boycott of the race if the situation was not improved, leading to some frantic repair work overnight in order to get the event on.

On top of their Argentinian concerns, the drivers were also in discussions regarding the lack of safety of the Interlagos track in Brazil (the location of the next Grand Prix), the Grand Prix Drivers' Association passing a motion declaring the venue as unsafe. FOCA president Bernie Ecclestone was heavily involved in the rumpus over Interlagos, with an increasing amount of pressure placed on the constructors to get their drivers to comply. A messy start to a season that hadn't even seen a chequered flag waved in anger yet.

Qualification gave an early indication that Jones and Williams had carried on their good work from 1979, the Australian on pole ahead of the Ligiers of Laffite and Pironi. Conversely the Ferraris of Villeneuve and Scheckter were 8th and 11th respectively, with Piquet 4th, and the Lotus pair of de Angelis and Andretti in 5th and 6th. On a circuit that promised an exciting afternoon, with plenty of overtaking opportunities on the straights where speeds of 180mph could be reached, and a tricky infield area (made much more taxing by the poor road surface), the next 53 laps would make compelling viewing for the 80,000 crowd in attendance.

For a race that would in the main be gripping, the start was a fairly sedate affair, although Arnoux had to enter the pits even before the green light (the Frenchman would retire after just two laps, his Renault minus one wheel). Jones maintained his position at the head of the field during the opening lap, with Piquet edging ahead of Pironi and Laffite to take second place. The biggest moves were made by Reutemann (10th to 5th) and Scheckter (11th to 6th), although Villeneuve's progression from 8th to 5th was slowed when he left the track. It was a sign of things to come.

Arnoux was not the first man out of the race, Tyrrell's Jean-Pierre Jarier forced out after just one lap, with Pironi's afternoon also cut short due to engine failure. Pironi's team mate was having a much happier time of things though. Laffite, who had won two races in 1979, moved past Piquet to take second place at the start of lap 6, but even at this early stage it looked like Jones' race to lose.

The excitement behind Jones was an appetiser for what was to follow, with Piquet, Lafitte and Reutemann involved in a three-way battle on the straight for second place. As James Hunt commented, some cars, such as Piquet's Brabham and the Williams', were able to gain a lot of ground on the fast straights, whereas others handled the tricky infield better, a point made just after Piquet had retaken second place and both he and Laffite had to immediately shut the door on Reutemann.

Laffite would soon regain second though, as behind him Piquet and Reutemann became involved in another tussle for third. It looked as if the Argentinian had got the better of his Brazilian rival on the straight, only for Reutemann to lock his front wheels, forcing him to take a trip across the turf, an excursion that would lead to the Williams man visiting the pits to get grass removed from his radiator.

Reutemann's slip pushed Villeneuve, Scheckter and Keke Rosberg into the points, the latter driving for Skol Fittipaldi, a team formed between the merger of the Fittipaldi and Wolf teams. By lap 13, Jones was continuing his relentless drive out front. At this point, Murray Walker played his commentary jinx card, stating that Jones was seemingly on his way to a sixth Grand Prix victory. Walker was ultimately right, but Jones was about to emphasise just how difficult driving conditions were about to become.

Throughout the race the track had been breaking up, leaving some areas covered in gravel and being compared to marbles, with the car tyres simply unable to grip the surface. Apparently coasting in his Williams, Jones hit one such area on a bend, leaving the track temporarily before rejoining. No great harm had been done, as Jones retained his lead, yet the incident was the first of many involving a driver unable to control his car on a slippy section. Conditions were not ideal, but you had to admit that it made for compelling viewing.

What had looked like a profitable day for Williams was soon put into doubt in a short space of time. Reutemann exited the race, the man racing in his own country cutting a disconsolate figure after engine failure had seen his dreams of winning at home destroyed. Soon after, Jones came into the pits, a plastic bag removed from his radiator intake, pushing him down into fourth, behind Laffite, Piquet and Villeneuve. Things were about to get even more engrossing.

As lap 20 began, the first five cars were covered by ten seconds, and with the track deteriorating lap by lap, the outcome of the race was uncertain. A mistake by Villeneuve at the chicane saw the Canadian cut across the grass once more, allowing Jones to narrow the gap, with the superior pace of the Williams on the straight allowing the Australian to take third place. But a spin by Jones on one of the marble areas gave Villeneuve the chance to overtake once more, and the theme was set for the next few laps.

Villeneuve returned the compliment, again leaving the track at the chicane, Jones taking the opportunity before setting his sights on Piquet. All three cars sat in a line, the kind of contest that can make Formula One so riveting, with each driver aware that any slight mistake on the dodgy track would be seized upon by a nearby rival. Jones' extra power pushed him past Piquet, as he set his sights on Laffite. Piquet would soon have other concerns with Villeneuve.

Piquet left the track at the same place that had seen Villeneuve go off twice, the Ferrari moving into third for a brief moment, only for Villeneuve to over cook a corner and let Piquet back in. The road surface was obviously far from the required standard, but you couldn't argue with the fact that it was contributing greatly to a race that spectators could not take their eyes off for one moment.

"This is really too exciting for me, I can't handle this," said Hunt, as another slip from Piquet saw him drop back to fourth, and lose a lot of ground on his rivals. As all this was going on, Jones had pulled right up to Laffite, the Ligier simply unable to compete with the thrust of the Williams on the straights, and on lap 30 the Australian had regained the lead.

Laffite's race was run shortly afterwards, his engine blowing thus promoting Villeneuve to second. With a four second gap to Jones, Villeneuve still held hopes of challenging for the highest position on the podium, but soon any chances of a close finish were extinguished when the Canadian crashed after a suspension problem. As long as Jones didn't make any errors then the race was now as good as his.

Indeed the remaining laps did turn into a procession for Jones, as he understandably nursed his car around the track, to steal the expression adopted by Hunt. There was still some action behind the leader; Scheckter failed to finish, his engine overheating and in turn giving an insight into the kind of season Ferrari were about to endure; the Alfa Romeo of Patrick Depailler also experienced engine failure, although the fact that the Frenchman had started the race was something of an achievement, after he had broken both ankles in a hang gliding accident in the previous summer.

In total Jones led for all but eleven laps of the race, which may sound as if his afternoon was simple, but a trip to the grass, a spin, and a pit stop were evidence of an eventful 75 minutes or so. As Juan Manuel Fangio waved the chequered flag, Jones could finally relax, his sixth Grand Prix win and his fifth in his last seven giving him the ideal start to his championship season.

There were some notable achievements behind Jones. Both Piquet and Rosberg made the podium for the first time, with Irishman Derek Daly finishing in a career best fourth place in his Tyrrell. Alfa Romeo's Bruno Giacomelli claimed two points for fifth position, and in sixth place was a young Frenchman named Alain Prost, the debutant putting down an early marker down for the rest of the decade.

And so a season that would often entertain had the most appropriate of starts. In Argentina Jones did not have everything his own way but triumphed in the end, very much a mini representation of the campaign as a whole. It would be a championship of incidents and accidents, trials and tribulations, as often seemed the way in Formula One during the early part of the decade. The sport may have been far from perfect, but it certainly kept you enthralled.

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