Long Beach street circuit
The off-season between Alan Jones winning the final race of 1980 at Watkins Glen in October and the teams’ return to the US in March 1981 had been fraught, to say the least. The ongoing struggle between organisers FISA and the teams represented by FOCA had resulted in the latter trying to set up their own breakaway series, while FISA moved the Argentine and South African GPs out of their traditional January/February slot to a March/April slot to avoid a long gap between races. The Buenos Aires circuit organisers agreed, but the South Africans didn’t, and instead the South African Grand Prix took place in its usual January slot without FISA blessing, without championship status, and without FISA-loyal teams Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Goodyear, fed up of being associated with such a political, petty mess, withdrew from the sport in December, leaving Michelin as the sole tyre supplier but on 4 March the Concorde Agreement was signed which promised to end the squabbling and return focus to the racing.
Amid a pitlane full of new technology and designs as teams sought to find the best way to make a car go fast without the newly-banned sliding skirts, Lotus debuted their revolutionary new Lotus 88 in Friday’s practice. An innovative design concept with an outer “wraparound” chassis providing a ground-effect outside of the main chassis, the car was approved by FISA and the scrutineers and ran on Friday, but before Saturday practice a protest from the other teams was upheld and the team had to revert to the conventional Lotus 81 for qualifying and the race.
Qualifying saw Alan Jones trading fastest laps with surprise package
Riccardo Patrese in the Arrows and in the end it was the Italian’s orange car which sat on pole – the first for both him and the team. The two Williams cars of Jones and Reutemann were second and third, with Piquet’s Brabham, Villeneuve’s Ferrari and Andretti’s Alfa Romeo making up the top six. Nigel Mansell started his first full season well in seventh. Tyrrell were running two local drivers in Eddie Cheever and Kevin Cogan. The former qualified well in 8th place, but Cogan became the first driver ever to fail to qualify in a works Tyrrell. He was accompanied on the pitwall for the race by both March drivers, the Osella of Guerro and Stohr’s Arrows (a contrast to Patrese’s heroics).
At the start, Gilles illeneuve got a flyer in the Ferrari and briefly took the lead, but outbraked himself into Queens Hairpin and dropped to fourth. Further back, de Cesaris misjudged braking into the same corner and ran into the back of Prost’s Renault, which collected Hector Rebaque’s Brabham on its way into the wall. De Cesaris and Prost were out on the spot, but Rebaque was able to limp back to the pits for new tyres.
Patrese led the Williams pair with Villeneuve keeping a watching brief ahead of Piquet and the second Ferrari of Didier Pironi. Pironi managed to get past both to go third, but the Frenchman then began holding up a queue of traffic. On lap 17, Piquet finally got past Pironi and Ferrari’s misery was compounded when Villeneuve went out with a broken driveshaft. 8 laps later, Reutemann finally bullied his way past Patrese and shortly the Arrows car’s fuel system gave up the ghost and the Italian’s fine drive was over.
Reutemann now led teammate Alan Jones by several seconds, but the Australian world champion began reeling him in by half a second per lap. A lot of speculation about team orders requiring Reutemann to move aside for Jones was about to be answered – except it wasn’t: Reutemann slid wide lapping Marc Surer’s Ensign and Jones nipped through and began pulling out, while Reutemann was also stretching out a lead over Piquet’s Brabham.
The race leaders settled in to clock off the laps, but there were still battles going on further down the order: Jacques Laffite’s Ligier and Eddie Cheever’s Tyrrell were scrapping over a points finish when the Frenchman ran into the back of the Tyrrell just after the pit lane entrance. Laffite was out with an irreparably bent nose, while Cheever limped back round to the pits – but just as he moved across to take the exit, Bruno Giacomelli approached in the Alfa Romeo and tried to take Cheever and the backmarking ATS of Jan Lammers on the inside. As soon as he realised Cheever was trying to pit, he attempted to bale out of the move, but collided with the ATS and both were out. Cheever lost fifth place to Andretti, but was then promoted when Pironi’s Ferrari sprang an oil leak – only to lose second gear while overtaking, a major problem on this street circuit.
Alan Jones took the win; his second in a row, and the third consecutive Williams 1-2, by 9 seconds, with Nelson Piquet a distant third in the Brabham. Mario Andretti took a popular fourth place in his first race for Alfa Romeo, while fellow home-boy Eddie Cheever dragged his Tyrrell across the line in fifth. Patrick Tambay picked up the last point for Theodore, on the team’s debut. Chico Serra in the Fittipaldi and René Arnoux’s damaged Renault were the last classified finishers in 7th and 8th.