17 October 1981
And so the teams came full circle, back to the USA for the last race of the season – the third season in a row that the final race had been held stateside, but the classic Watkins Glen circuit which had hosted the US Grand Prix so often in the past couldn’t meet its financial obligations for 1981, and as a replacement the Caesar’s Palace hotel/casino complex offered to convert its parking lot into a temporary circuit. The result was one of the oddest races that had ever been held, with a good surface but not many of the drivers thought much of the layout. “A goat track flattened out” was Jones’ typically direct view, while Laffite simply said it was “unsuitable”. There were two major concerns though – the desert heat of Las Vegas, even in October, and that the circuit was to be run in an anticlockwise direction, putting an unusual strain on drivers’ necks.
However, the interest both in the paddock and among fans was in the three-way title race that would be decided at the last race of the season. Coming away from Canada, Reutemann led the championship by just one point from Nelson Piquet, with Jacques Laffite six points off the Argentine’s total but on great form recently. For Reutemann and Piquet, it was a pretty straightforward head-to-head race; Piquet had won more races so would win a title tied on points, while Reutemann had only to finish ahead of the Brazilian to take the title after ten years of Grand Prix racing. Laffite had a slightly taller order, needing to either win with Reutemann/Piquet fourth or lower, or come second with neither of the others scoring. Nonetheless on previous form any of these outcomes seemed possible.
In amongst all of this, it was easy for people to miss the official announcement that Niki Lauda would indeed be making a comeback with McLaren for 1982, after his 2-year absence from the sport, while Patrick Tambay had been told by Ligier that his services would no longer be required in 1982.
Practise and Qualifying saw many drivers complaining about the heat and neck strain, but at the end of the session Reutemann sat on pole with Jones alongside. The Ferrari of Villeneuve was third, with Piquet fourth, directly behind Jones. So would Alan help his teammate by holding up Piquet? Not likely, said Jones. “I’m a member of the British Commonwealth and would find it unsporting to deliberately hold up other drivers.”. That, and he was still smarting from his confrontations with Reutemann earlier in the season, and wanted to win his final race. Prost and Watson made up row three, then Tambay and Mansell, with a frustrated Jacques Laffite back in 12th after having to use Tambay’s car and seeing his title ambitions take a huge dent. Rosberg finally managed to return his Fittipaldi to the grid, while Derek Warwick qualified for his first Grand Prix in the recalcitrant Toleman. Not qualifying for the race were the other Fittipaldi and Toleman cars, Borgudd’s ATS, Daly’s March, Gabbiani’s Osella and, again, Jacques Villeneuve’s Arrows. Home racers Mario Andretti (Alfa Romeo) and Eddie Cheever (Tyrrell) qualified 10th and 19th respectively.
When the lights went green, Jones put his foot down first and took the lead while Reutemann got it all wrong and dropped back to fifth behind Villeneuve, Prost and a fast-starting Bruno Giacomelli. Piquet had got away equally badly while Laffite had got a great start, so the order at the end of the first lap was Jones – Villeneuve – Prost – Giacomelli – Reutemann – Watson – Laffite – Piquet – Andretti. Within a couple of laps, Prost had got ahead of Villeneuve, who was holding everyone up in his dreadfully-handing Ferrari, and Laffite went ahead of Watson into the points, while commentators were speculating that Reutemann must be having car trouble as by lap 3 he had slipped to seventh, directly ahead of Piquet. The order stabilised for a while
until, on lap 17, Piquet simply drove past Reutemann, who barely even defended the corner, and Andretti followed through a few corners later dropping him to 9th. Piquet then reeled in Watson and overtook for 6th place, which became 5th on lap 22 when Villeneuve toured off with engine troubles. Laffite, however, was also on a charge and had taken third from Giacomelli and Andretti – widely rumoured to be retiring after this race as well – was in no mood to go out with a whimper and got past Watson and Piquet into fifth. Moments later, Giacomelli spun and promoted everyone one place, Andretti now fourth, Piquet back in fifth and Watson 6th with Reutemann 7th.
The Argentine had been anonymous so far, but when he overtook Watson the two championship contenders were again equal on points. Then Andretti was out with a broken gearbox, and Prost had to pit for tyres, promoting them all again, Laffite now up to second, Piquet third, but Mansell had got ahead of Reutemann, who quickly lost place to a recovering Prost and Giacomelli, who carved their way back up through the field to third and fourth behind Laffite, promoted to second and third when Laffite in turn pitted for tyres.
The closing laps saw Piquet drop back to fifth behind Mansell and Laffite recover sufficiently to take the last point from Watson, with Reutemann trailing in eighth ahead of the last finishers Pironi, Rosberg, Patrese and de Cesaris. Alan Jones, meanwhile, had been untouchable all afternoon and won his last race by a comfortable 20s to stand on the podium with Prost and Giacomelli.
Nelson Piquet’s 2 points were enough to win him the World Championship by a single point, but by the end of the race he was so exhausted he had to be lifted from his car and accompanied to the podium to be presented as the new champion. He sat in the press conference, dazed, and with his feet in a bucket of cold water, while Reutemann muttered something about handling problems and headed off to his hotel room.
|Drivers Championship Final standings|
|8||Elio de Angelis||14|
|=||Andrea de Cesaris||1|
|Constructors Championship final standings|