23 January 1982
The 1981 race had fallen victim to FISA-FOCA politics but was back on the calendar for ’82 in its usual January slot. In fact, with several teams yet to finalise their sponsorships and chassis/engine combinations so early in the year and instead running modified 1981 cars, it felt a little like a pre-season get together rather than the first race of the season. Arrows had already had a problem as driver Marc Surer had injured himself in a test accident earlier in the week, so the team turned to Patrick Tambay.
If the FISA-FOCA politicking had died down in 1981 when it became clear that the year was not to be the turbo benefit everyone expected, another problem reared its head in Kyalami. Sharp-eyed Niki Lauda had spotted a clause in the superlicence forms that would tie drivers to their teams for a number of years – this would not allow drivers to move to better teams, while allowing teams to effectively cut out a driver by “benching” him while the licence agreement prevented him from leaving. Lauda spoke to Didier Pironi, head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and the two of them organised a drivers’ strike, bussing everyone to a nearby hotel, with the exception of Jochen Mass (who was staying elsewhere and hadn’t arrived at the circuit) and Teo Fabi, who was persuaded by his Toleman boss to stay and test the car. The teams reacted angrily – Bernie Ecclestone announced that both Piquet and Patrese were fired, while other teams pointed out that around 150 drivers had got superlicences, and they would just hire new ones. Thursday practice passed with not a wheel turned. Friday came and Jochen Mass arrived and he and Fabi attempted to get some laps in, but the cars were pulled in as negotiations continued.
Eventually, it was agreed to drop the offending clauses for this weekend, and come to some agreement in the six weeks before the next race in Argentina, and practice could begin. Patrick Tambay, however, had changed his mind about driving the Arrows and announced – again – that he was retiring. Arrows now needed to find a third driver within a week and turned to Brian Henton, in Kyalami as a spectator after being dropped by Toleman. And then Formula 2 team owner Willi Maurer appeared with an injunction saying he still had Roberto Guerrero (and his substantial personal sponsorship) under contract and so the Ensign team were forced to pack up and head back to Lichfield to sort everything out.
Finally, some racing could actually occur. The high altitudes of the Kyalami circuit gave the turbo cars an advantage of some 100hp over the atmospheric cars, and although the restricted practice times (and a mid-qualifying rain shower) had led to a bit of a shakeup in the order, the top six grid positions were filled by turbo cars: 1980 winner Arnoux on pole, then Piquet in the new Brabham-BMW, Villeneuve third, Patrese fourth, Prost a disappointed fifth and Pironi sixth. Top non-turbo was Keke Rosberg in his first race for Williams, with team-mate Reutemann alongside and Watson and Alboreto rounding out the top ten. Returnee Lauda The turbo advantage was such that even the Tolemans went well; Teo Fabi didn’t qualify but Derek Warwick was an impressive 14th, Neither Arrows had qualified, and Henton and Baldi would join Fabi on the pit wall as well as Riccardo Paletti and the unfortunate Guerrero.
Race day was hot, and the atmospheric teams would be hoping that the fast turbo teams would end up overheating and dropping out. When the lights went green, Arnoux got away well but Piquet, unused to a standing start with turbo lag, didn’t – dropping to sixth while Prost shot up the other way and entered the first corner second, tucked in behind Arnoux. Meanwhile at the back, Mansell’s Lotus stayed firmly put in 18th with an electrical fault, and the unfortunate Jarier was nerfed into the catch fencing at Crowthorne as everyone else bundled past. The French cars soon began to pull away, and the leaders sorted into a Noah’s Ark formation: behind the two Renaults were Villeneuve and Pironi, then Patrese and Piquet in the Brabhams. A large gap was developing to the first of the atmospheric cars, Reutemann and Rosberg, and the Renaults looked in fine form as they simply drove away from the rest of the field. Piquet disappeared with a brake failure on lap 4, and then three laps later Villeneuve’s turbo expired extravagantly and Reutemann and co were promoted to battling for fifth place.
By lap 12, the Renaults were already among the backmarkers, with Prost still worrying at Arnoux’s heels and on lap 14 he got past and immediately began to pull away. Further back, Niki Lauda had been working his way up from 13th on the grid and was now 8th and closing on the Williams pair. On lap 18, the debut of the BMW Turbo engine came to a premature end as Patrese toured in with a broken turbocharger. This left the field strung out – Prost pulling away from Arnoux, who in turn led Pironi by some way, and then a long gap back to the first of the Cosworth runners – Reutemann – now in fourth place. Pironi was having tyre wear issues and pitted for a new set of boots, but a jammed wheelnut meant his stop was a disaster and dropped him right out of the points and moved the Williamses up to third and fourth. Perhaps the “run steady and hope the turbos retire” strategy was the right one after all.
And so it stayed for some time, until on lap 41, with a massive lead, Alain Prost got a puncture and began to tour in to the pits for a change of tyres. The tyre in question disintegrated just as he reached the pits, but he kept it going and managed to pull up to his garage for a replacement as Arnoux blew past. Prost exited the pits a lap down following an inspection of his car for damage caused by the tyre blowout, and set about trying to regain a points position. Similarly charging was Pironi after his own delay and the two Frenchmen were carving their way through the field like hot knives through butter. Soon Pironi arrived behind second-placed Reutemann just as Prost caught up to the Ferrari; both went past at the same time, then Prost overtook Pironi to recover second place at the same place one lap later.
With eleven laps to go, Arnoux began to slow, getting huge vibrations from his tyres (despite Michelin’s assurances that they would last the race) and Prost was able to catch and pass his team-mate for the lead, while Pironi dropped back with engine trouble before having to come in for an inspection. With ten laps left, Prost led a slowing Arnoux, with Reutemann chasing, Rosberg in fourth place and Niki Lauda on a charge in fifth. The Austrian maestro overtook Rosberg and began to chase Reutemann, who in turn was catching Arnoux. Just four laps from the end, he caught him and, thanks to confused signals from the pit wall indicating to both Arnoux and Reutemann that the Argentine was unlapping himself, he breezed past with no resistance to take second place.
Alain Prost won a remarkable victory, his fourth career win, with Reutemann second and Arnoux a disgruntled third. Niki Lauda and Rosberg satisfied with fourth and fifth in their first races for their new teams, and John Watson taking the last point and meaning that Renault, Williams and McLaren were the only constructors scoring.