18 July 1981
Osella were back up to two cars for the British Grand Prix, with Jean-Pierre Jarier taking over car 32. Team Lotus appeared for their home Grand Prix with the latest version of their new concept, the Lotus 88B, which they hoped would be acceptable to the scrutineers. However, under pressure from Jean-Marie Balestre, the Royal Automobile Club declared the car illegal and black-flagged de Angelis who was already out on track, having set a qualifying time. The 88s had been built by cannibalising the 87s, so Lotus had no car for the race and a fuming Colin Chapman withdrew from the event, to the chagrin of Mansell, who had a spare 87 available for his first home race.
A stir of a different kind was produced by Brabham, who debuted their new BT50 car with BMW Turbo engine in Friday practice, though Piquet was back in the BT49c with its Ford DFV power for qualifying and the race.
Further British embarrassment came in qualifying when the front row was occupied by the two Renaults of Arnoux and Prost, fresh from their success at home and looking to take the fight to the British teams that had dominated F1 for so long. Piquet and Pironi lined up behind, with the McLarens of Watson and de Cesaris going well again on row 3. The Williams boys were poor in qualifying again, with Reutemann 7th and Jones 9th, split by Villeneuve’s Ferrari. Jarier qualified his Osella 20th on the first attempt (unlike teammate Gabbiani who didn’t make the cut), but even with the two extra grid slots vacated by Lotus, the Tolemans still didn’t make raceday. Salazar and Serra were the other non-qualifiers.
Prost got away well and took the lead, with Arnoux dropping back behind the two Ferraris of Pironi and Villeneuve – getting a great start to leap from 8th to 4th – but he soon recovered and on lap 3 he was back in second place. Shortly after that, Villeneuve clipped the kerb at Woodcote and spun, taking out Alan Jones and causing de Cesaris to brake sharply and end up in the fence. Villeneuve kept the car going but not for long, parking up at Stowe on the same lap. Now it was Piquet chasing Pironi for third, and he got past on lap five, after which the race settled down for a while until lap 12, when Piquet’s tyre blew spectacularly at Becketts and he crashed heavily, requiring a trip to hospital.
Meanwhile, John Watson was on a charge after dropping back to sixth. Overtaking Reutemann and Andretti, he moved up to fourth and set off in pursuit of Pironi. As the McLaren overtook the Ferrari, the Italian car’s engine blew, leaving Watson safe in third but some distance behind. On lap 17, it was Prost’s turn to have an engine blow, leaving him out and Watson up to second, but Arnoux was clocking off the laps with no worries. Reutemann had moved up to third, with Andretti, Patrese and Rebaque behind. Patrese got past shortly afterwards, while Rebaque had to stop for tyres and Laffite moved up into sixth. And so it remained until lap 50, when Arnoux’s Renault engine started sounding rough and Watson began to gain on him, before going ahead on lap 60, with just 8 laps remaining. Arnoux dropped out two laps later, but Patrese was denied a podium place with an engine failure of his own, so in the end it was only the first two drivers who finished on the same lap.
John Watson had salvaged British pride with his first win since 1976 and McLaren’s first since 1977, and other teams took note that the winning car, the new MP4/1 was the first carbon-fibre chassis design to win a race. Carlos Reutemann extended his championship lead with second, and Jacques Laffite stood on the podium for the fourth time in five races in third. Eddie Cheever finished well for Tyrrell in fourth, Hector Rebaque salvaged a couple of points for Brabham in fifth and a slightly surprised Slim Borgudd steered the ATS home for his first ever F1 point, and the team’s first of the year. Derek Daly’s March was 7th and Jarier’s Osella 8th (the team’s first finish of the year) were the only other finishers.
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