3 May 1981
Due to contractual wrangles between the owners of Italy’s historic Monza circuit and FISA, the 1980 Italian Grand Prix had taken place at the Imola circuit, which had been hosting Formula One events since 1963 but never a championship round. Although Italian fans were outraged at Monza being dropped, Imola proved a popular race, a fast circuit with exciting racing and being just 30km from Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters, FISA decided to try and find a way of incorporating it into the calendar, and so the San Marino Grand Prix was born.
The Lotus 88 saga saw the iconic team elect to miss the Grand Prix altogether while readying a new car, while the controversy over Brabham’s suspension had disappeared largely due to everyone else now having it too. The new Toleman team with their Brian Hart-built Turbo engines were to make their debut, and aside from their drivers Brian Henton and Derek Warwick, there were two new faces in the paddock: Tyrrell rented their second car to local driver Michele Alboreto, who came with backing from a local ceramics firm, and ATS ran a second car for Swede Slim Borgudd.
Milanese Alboreto began his racing life as a student of technical design and built himself a Formula Monza car along with some friends in 1976, before moving to Formula Three in an old March chassis and coming second in the Italian championship in 1979. The following year he moved to EuroRacing and won four races and the European F2 title, moving to the Minardi team for 1981 and scoring their first F2 victory as well as competing in endurance racing for Lancia alongside Riccardo Patrese. Offered the opportunity for a short-term F1 drive with the struggling Tyrrell team for 1981, he got some local sponsorship together and rented the seat for the inaugural San Marino Grand Prix.
Karl Edward Tommy “Slim” Borgudd had always raced as a hobby alongside his main career as a drummer in his native Sweden. As well as his own short-lived bands Made In Sweden and Solar Plexus, Borgudd had played with Bjorn Ulvaeus’s Hootenanny Singers, which had led him to a few jobs as a session drummer for ABBA, but by that time he was beginning to take his racing career more seriously and was driving in the Swedish Touring Car Championships, and the Scandinavian Formula Ford series which he won in 1973. Moving up to Formula 3, Borgudd formed his own team in 1978 and won the Swedish title in 1979 as well as placing third in the European series. In 1980 his proposed move to F2 fell through leaving him without a drive, but he competed in the 1980 F3 Monaco race, which he finished while holding his car’s bodywork together with one hand. However, in 1981 at the age of 34, he had the opportunity to try Formula One with the ATS team, and (with the permission of the band) placed ABBA logos on the sidepods in a bid to raise the team’s profile and attract sponsors.
Ferrari were desperate to break their 1981 duck on their home soil and things looked good throughout practice and qualifying as the turbo engines made the most of the long sweeping expanses of the Imola track, and it was Tifosi idol Gilles Villeneuve who sat on pole position on Sunday morning, ahead of Carlos Reutemann, with the turbo Renaults of Arnoux and Prost making up the second row. Nelson Piquet lined up fifth next to the second Ferrari of Pironi, with John Watson back in the new McLaren MP4/1 seventh, Jones a lowly eighth and Patrese and Laffite rounding out the top ten. At the back, with Lotus freeing up two more grid positions, both Osellas and Salazar’s March had managed to qualify, as had Jabouille in his Ligier (18th). Slim Borgudd’s ATS was 24th and last on the grid, outqualifying his teammate Lammers who would watch the race from the pit wall in the company of Chico Serra (Fittipaldi), Siegfried Stohr (Arrows), Derek Daly (March) and both Toleman drivers.
Sunday dawned wet, and while the rain itself had stopped by the time the race began, the track was still wet and the teams all opted to start on treaded tyres, at least until the track began to dry out. Ferrari’s good showing in qualifying compared to their previous indifferent form was the talk of the paddock, with some suggesting they had turned up the turbo boost pressure giving them higher speeds but a high risk of breaking an engine over a long period – fine for qualifying laps, but how would they do in the race?
When the lights went out, Villeneuve maintained his first position despite Reutemann’s nipping at his heels, while Pironi got away like a scalded cat and blasted from sixth to second by the time the cars reached the Tosa hairpin. As the cars streamed through Tosa, Miguel-Angel Guerra’s debut came to an untimely end as he had a coming-together with Salazar’s March and was punted into the barriers at high speed. The unfortunate Argentine had to be cut out of his Osella and taken to Bologna hospital with severe leg injuries.
While all this was happening, and to the delight of the watching fans, the two Ferraris began to drive away from the rest of the field as, further back, Jones had got the bit between his teeth and charged up to fourth, scrapping with his teammate Reutemann over third place, but the Australian’s front wing had been damaged by an aggressive shutting of the door by Reutemann and he had to pit for repairs. Patrese was thus promoted to fourth, and the Italian took advantage of a mistake by Reutemann to take third a few laps later.
On lap 14, judging that the track was beginning to dry, Villeneuve came in for dry tyres but as he left the pits, it began to rain and, after staying out for two laps in case it was just a quick shower, the Canadian was forced to come back in to put his wets back on. Didier Pironi thus took over the lead, chased by Riccardo Patrese with Nelson Piquet storming up the field in his Brabham, followed by teammate Rebaque. Patrese’s heroics were no match for Piquet’s car, and the Brazilian was soon through and chasing Pironi, gradually reeling in the Ferrari until he was right on his tail. Pironi, who had slightly damaged his car early in the race, made things as difficult for Piquet as he could but the Brabham went past on lap 47 and Pironi began to fade as Patrese, Reutemann and Rebaque all muscled their way past in the remaining thirteen laps.
Nelson Piquet took his second win of the year with Patrese making his second podium visit of the year in second place and Carlos Reutemann third. Rebaque took fourth place in the second Brabham – a small consolation for his bad luck in Argentina – with Pironi nursing his car home fifth and Andrea de Cesaris scoring his first point for McLaren and McLaren’s first point of 1981 in 6th place, while Alan Jones trailed in 12th – again furious at Reutemann after their first-lap incident.
Piquet’s win saw him overtake Jones in the championship table and close to within three points of Reutemann, and Patrese fourth just 8 points behind Jones.
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