13 September 1981
After a politics-induced year at Imola, the Italian Grand Prix was back at Monza and fans packed the circuit for what promised to be an exciting and decisive race with an astonishing seven drivers still in with at least a mathematical chance of taking the title. With a maximum haul of 27 points available for winning the last three races, 24 points covered the table from Reutemann and Piquet tied on 45 points, via Laffite (34), Jones (31) and Prost (28) to Watson and Villeneuve tied on 21. McLaren had patched up their differences with de Cesaris, so the Italian was able to make his first appearance at Monza.
The Renaults were at the sharp end of qualifying again, with Arnoux on pole and Prost third, split by a determined Reutemann second. Laffite was fourth, Jones fifth, Piquet sixth, Watson seventh and then the Ferraris of Pironi and Villeneuve. All was set for a battle royale at the front with all seven championship contenders in the top nine. Celebrations at the back of the grid too as Brian Henton dragged his Toleman onto the grid for the first time, in 23rd place, just outqualifying Salazar. Joining Warwick on the pit wall would be Surer and Gabbiani, Both Fittipaldis, now deeply off the pace, and Siegfried Stohr who had had a dramatic accident in qualifying and was shaken but otherwise fine.
Pironi made a great start from 8th to go fourth at the first corner behind Prost, Reutemann and Arnoux, and by the end of the lap he was second. However, it wasn’t to last: Arnoux came back past into second on lap five, while Gilles Villeneuve’s engine let go and he retired from the race on the same lap, his slim championship hopes now over. A few laps later, Cheever spun out in the Tyrrell, leaving it by the side of the road, and Laffite began dropping back with a slow puncture which ended his race shortly afterwards as it began to rain.
The two Renaults led from the two Williams cars, but not for long; Arnoux got unsighted on Parabolica and went out after swerving to avoid Cheever’s abandoned Tyrrell, so Prost was left way out ahead on his own. As the pack chased, John Watson had a big shunt – clipping the kerb coming out of Lesmo 2, he did a neat pirouette and smacked into the Armco at over 100mph. The car broke in two in a burst of flame, with the rear wheels and gearbox skittering across the track and clipping Alboreto just hard enough to end his race. Watson emerged a little shaken but unhurt, the benefits of the McLaren’s revolutionary carbon-fibre chassis were demonstrated to all, and everyone else got through the debris – though Reutemann had to swerve across the grass and in doing so lost a place to Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo, who was serenely rising through the places and was now third.
However, as if the racing gods had decided Monza hadn’t had enough drama yet, into the pits went Giacomelli with a jammed gearbox and up into third went Piquet, with Reutemann chasing. The Argentinian was steadily reeling in the Brazilian, but it looked impossible he could catch him in the last couple of laps – until Piquet’s engine blew on the very last lap. Reutemann lunged past, as did de Angelis and Pironi. Prost took the win with Jones second and Reutemann third, de Angelis fourth, Pironi fifth and Piquet a stunned sixth. De Cesaris rewarded McLaren’s faith by being classified seventh (which could have been sixth but for a last-lap puncture), a dejected Giacomelli 8th, Jarier 9th in the Osella and 10th and last but finishing nonetheless, Brian Henton in the Toleman.
So, with the European season done and two flyaway races in Canada and the US to go, the championship field was down to “only” five – Villeneuve and Watson’s challenges having ended in dramatic fashion. Prost’s third win of the season – more than anyone else so far – put him up to third, equal on points with Jones but getting the nod on race wins, while Laffite dropped to fifth and Reutemann eased back into a three-point lead over Piquet. Renault went up to third in the Constructors’ Championship, and with their ten-point haul Williams all but confirmed the title: Brabham would need to finish 1-2 in both remaining races with Williams not scoring to overtake them by one point.
In the days after the race, Italian driver Siegfried Stohr announced he was hanging up his helmet, mentally shattered by his horrific accident with Dave Luckett in Belgium, and his own crash at Monza. A pity for a driver in his first season of F1, but no-one could really blame him.
|3||Alain Prost||37 (3 wins)|
|4||Alan Jones||37 (1 win)|
|8||Elio de Angelis||13|
|=||Andrea de Cesaris||1|