29 March 1981
The Jacarepaguá circuit in Rio de Janeiro had been finished in 1977 and used for the 1978 Brazilian Grand Prix, but since then the race had moved back to Interlagos. However, safety concerns with the inadequate barriers, bumpy surface and deep ditches and embankments (not to mention the teams’ discomfort among the favelas of São Paulo) led to the race returning to Rio for the 1981 season, to the delight of local hero Nelson Piquet’s fans.
Kevin Cogan had been unsurprisingly dropped by Tyrrell and the seat rented to Argentine Ricardo Zuniño for the two South American Grands Prix.
Because the circuit hadn’t been used for a few years, an extra familiarisation session was held, during which the splendidly-named Ricardo Londoño-Bridge drove the Ensign after buying his way into the cash-strapped team, but his decent performance was irrelevant after FISA declined to grant him a license and Marc Surer got his seat back. Similarly, Jean-Pierre Jabouille returned to the Ligier garage but, still in pain from his legs, handed the car back to Jarier for the weekend. McLaren withdrew their new car, the MP4/1, for further development after its abysmal showing in Long Beach, and Lotus brought their new 88 in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get it approved for the race, as well as a pair of 81s which were used in the race.
Well-heeled Argentine Ricardo Zuniño came from a farming family and only began racing at the age of 25. He initally made his name in sportscar racing, winning the national touring car championships and winning sponsorship from the Argentine Automobile Association to go to Europe at the grand old age of 28. During his third season of European Formula 2, in 1979, Ricardo briefly tested for the Brabham F1 team, and in September of that year happened to be in Canada as a spectator when Niki Lauda dramatically walked out of the team, and Bernie Ecclestone offered Zuniño the seat as he had at least sat in the car. He didn’t do well at such short notice but was retained for the last race of the year, a week later at Watkins Glen, where he qualified 9th and was offered the second seat full-time for 1980. However, his performances slipped during the first half of the season and he was replaced with Hector Rebaque.
Qualifying got underway amid rumours that the Brabham team had a new suspension system that lowered the car onto the track while moving, but maintained the mandatory 6cm clearance when stationary, but
no other team protested so local hero Piquet was able to use it to take a popular Pole Position at his hometown race. The Williams twins once again lined up second (Reutemann) and third (Jones) on the grid, with Riccardo Patrese impressive again in fourth, then Prost and Giacomelli fifth and sixth. Making up the top ten were Villeneuve’s Ferrari, Arnoux’s second Renault, Andretti’s second Alfa and de Angelis’ Lotus 81. Siegfried Stohr put the second Arrows on the grid in 21st, with Zuniño’s Tyrrell 24th and last. Missing the cut this time were both March cars (again), both Osellas and Jan Lammers’ ATS.
It rained on Sunday morning and, while the rain had stopped by race time, the track was still damp and most cars opted to start on wets. Piquet took a risk on slicks, as did Didier Pironi and Siegfried Stohr. Villeneuve got off to a flying start from seventh place, but unfortunately Prost got away badly from fifth immediately in front of him. Villeneuve lifted and was promptly rear-ended by Andretti’s Alfa,
which was catapulted over the Ferrari and into retirement, collecting Arnoux and Serra on the way, while Cheever and Stohr were damaged but able to continue. At the front, Piquet also got away badly on his slick tyres and Reutemann, Jones, Patrese, Giacomelli and de Angelis all got through ahead of the Brazilian to the first corner and the two Williams cars began to pull away again. De Angelis got ahead of Giacomelli to take fourth and when the Alfa spun off a few laps later, the Fittipaldi of Keke Rosberg was promoted to an unfamiliar fifth place – which was soon taken by a charging John Watson in the McLaren, then Jarier’s Ligier.
The order stayed the same until lap 29, when Jarier went wide and dropped behind an impressive Marc Surer and his own team-mate Laffite. As the rain increased, John Watson had a spin on lap 35 and Surer was up to fifth, before overtaking de Angelis’ Lotus for fourth place on lap 49 – a remarkable run in an underpowered car. Jarier overtook Laffite for fifth place, only to give it back again under team orders a few laps later. All attention now turned to the leading Williams drivers. Once again,
Reutemann led Jones but the Australian was the reigning World Champion and team leader and the expectation was that Reutemann would be ordered to move over. The pit boards went out doing just that, but Reutemann didn’t budge. “He must be waiting until the last moment to make a point” said everyone – but no. The Argentinean driver took the chequered flag, to Jones’ fury. Patrese finished an excellent third and Marc Surer took an equally excellent fourth ahead of Elio de Angelis’ Lotus and Jacques Laffite’s Talbot-Ligier sixth – team-mate and stand-in driver Jean-Pierre Jarier denied a point by team orders. Watson was eighth, a lap down, ahead of Rosberg, Tambay and Mansell. Nelson Piquet finished a distant twelfth, two laps down, and the last classified finisher was Zuniño, five laps down in the Tyrrell but satisfied to finish his first race.
As the drivers walked out onto the podium, it was quickly apparent that someone was missing: Alan Jones. Reutemann and Patrese enjoyed the occasion but trouble was clearly brewing in the otherwise dominant Williams camp.
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