9 May 1982
FOCA’s bluff had been well and truly called at the San Marino Grand Prix with the absence of most top teams not affecting gate receipts in the slightest, several FOCA-affiliated teams breaking ranks and Niki Lauda showing up in the pits to vocally complain about being denied the chance to race – not to mention the sponsors were unhappy at spending money for the cars not to be out on track showing the name. So everyone was back for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Last year’s race had been a tragic farce, with the death of Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo in practice followed by the organisers making a mess of the race start and Arrows mechanic Dave Luckett being very fortunate to only suffer broken legs as a result. $1.2m had been spent on the circuit since then, including widening the pit lane and pit wall to avoid a repeat of the Amadeo incident.
What the fans were mostly interested in, though, was the fallout between VIlleneuve and Pironi (the two apparently still not on speaking terms following the San Marino race), and who would replace Carlos Reutemann at Williams. Since his departure, rumours had been rife, with Nigel Mansell, Derek Warwick, Jean-Pierre Jarier, test driver Jonathan Palmer and even Emerson Fittipaldi mentioned. But the answer in the end surprised most: Derek Daly, who had endured a trying 1981 with March before beginning 1982 with the Theodore team. Teddy Yip was delighted for Daly and happily allowed him to go, bringing in Dutch veteran Jan Lammers instead. As well as a new driver, Williams had a new car, the FW08 finally ready to go after much testing. Alfa Romeo, likewise, had a new version of their car, the narrow-bodied 182B. The March team expanded to three cars to accommodate heavily-backed Spanish driver Emilio de Villota; the third car was named a “LBT March” for sponsorship reasons and crewed by the Formula Two Onyx team, and ran with the spare number 19. Brabham were back to their BMW-powered BT50 after some stern words from the Bavarians.
Emilio de Villota had first made a career in touring cars, before in 1976 turning to single-seaters and racing in the British Formula Libre championships. The following year, he purchased a Brabham BT44 chassis to enter his home Grand Prix as a private entry but failed to qualify. However, the experience convinced him to try again and he set up his own team with considerable backing from Iberia airlines to run a McLaren M23 chassis for much of the latter end of the 1977 season, but again with little success. Turning away from the official F1 championship, de Villota had more success in the Aurora AFX series, still run to Formula One regulations, where he was crowned champion in 1980, driving a Williams chassis run by the RAM management team who took over March the following year. It was March that gave him his latest shot at F1 at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Dutchman Lammers had just never had the breaks in Formula One, and despite having put the sluggish ATS in fourth place on the grid in Long Beach in 1981, had only had three more races for the team before being let go and had not succeeded in finding another team for the rest of the season. His callup by Teddy Yip was widely regarded as being his last chance to make it in Formula One.
Qualifying came, and despite the circuit’s nature evening out the gap between the Turbos and Cosworths, Renault dominated the day with Prost and Arnoux on the front row, followed by Rosberg and Mauda. Pironi and Villeneuve meanwhile duelled over row three. Eight minutes before the end of the session, with Pironi currently fifth, Villeneuve came across Jochen Mass’s March at Butte. Villeneuve jinked left to avoid Mass, Mass jinked left to make way, and the Ferrari’s front-left wheel hit the right-rear of the March, launching Villeneuve into the air. His Ferrari cartwheeled across the soft ground, the nose was torn off and the Canadian flung bodily from the car, his helmet coming off in the process. Mass stopped to render aid, as did Watson and Warwick, arriving on the scene shortly after, and Villeneuve was airlifted to hospital with a broken neck. At 9.12pm, after extensive consultations and testing, the 32-year-old driver was pronounced dead. A shocked Ferrari team withdrew from the event, and the grid all shuffled up two places to compensate. No thought was given to cancelling the race – after all, it was just a tragic accident like so many others in the sport’s history. Alboreto and de Cesaris thus filled row 3, with Derek Daly 13th in his first Williams start and the traumatised but blamless Jochen Mass and Mauro Baldi the two non-qualifiers who were promoted to the grid.
Race day came and on the surface it was business as usual, though many of the drivers were more pensive than usual. Last year’s startline antics were not repeated and everyone lined up successfully for the start, though Mansell’s clutch slipped on the parade lap and he had to hold it on the brake for the start. At the front, everyone got away cleanly, Arnoux taking the lead from Prost while Rosberg got a great start to take second. Mansell, however, stalled at the start from 7th place and in the process of avoiding him Giacomelli, arriving from 15th at speed, clouted Laffite’s Ligier, which in turn bumped into Salazar’s ATS. Laffite’s car wasn’t seriously damaged, but the ATS put a wheel on the grass, speared back across the track and karmically took out Giacomelli’s Alfa. Mansell was then given a push by the marshalls and got moving, as was Warwick who had likewise stalled. ATS’s bad weekend got worse when Winkelhock pulled off before the end of lap one with a broken clutch. Similarly, Mansell had just caught up to the back of the field when his clutch disintegrated entirely and he was out too.
Up front, two smaller groups were developing; Arnoux leading Rosberg, with a gap back to Prost, Lauda and de Cesaris, then a longer gap back to Alboreto and the rest of the field. Prost didn’t seem happy though, and Lauda and de Cesaris soon got by, while Arnoux was likewise having trouble holding Rosberg back. A lap after Prost dropped back, Rosberg cut inside Arnoux at Kanaalbocht and Arnoux toured in to the pits at the end of the lap, arm raised, with 3 of his 6 cylinders not firing. Frantic repairs were made and Arnoux sent out again. He was back in again on lap 8 to retire. Prost, meanwhile, was dropping back and came in for new boots to see if that helped, It didn’t.
Up front, Rosberg held a commanding lead with Lauda nibbling away at it, closely followed by de Cesaris, whose new Alfa was going very nicely indeed. Next came Patrese’s Brabham, with Watson in the second McLaren following, then Alboreto in the Tyrrell. All became a bit static, with the most interesting action between Piquet in 7th and Laffite and Cheever in the Ligiers following him, but that was short-lived as Piquet also came in for fresh rubber. De Cesaris rose to second after Lauda had to swerve to avoid a spinning backmarker, while Alboreto’s race ended with a smoking engine, followed by team-mate Henton a lap later.
De Cesaris’ good day came to an end on lap 34 when his gear linkage came apart, and Lauda’s chase of Rosberg was falling apart as he had wrecked his tyres avoiding Chico Serra’s spin. Team-mate Watson, on fresh rubber, was storming up the field, though, and got past Patrese for third before being waved past by Lauda. The race was settling into a procession as most drivers began preserving their tyres. Patrese spun into a tyre barrier on lap 53, Prost – running well down the order now on his *third* set of tyres – did similar on lap 60, while a lap later Derek Daly followed suit under heavy pressure from Eddie Cheever over fourth place.
Rosberg’s tyres were fading and his brake pedal wasn’t working properly, so Watson was able to quickly close the gap and put the Finn under pressure – Rosberg buckled, slid wide at the Kleine Chicane and Watson was through, pulling away from the Williams in the last few laps to record a fine victory, seven seconds ahead of Rosberg. Lauda was third, over a minute behind, then Cheever, de Angelis and Piquet made up the final points – the defending champion finally breaking his 1982 duck.
In scrutineering, though, Lauda’s car was judged to be just 2kg underweight and he was disqualified (Watson’s was just 1kg over the limit), which moved everyone up a space and gave Chico Serra another point for Fittipaldi.
It had been a difficult weekend for Formula One as a sport. It had been four years since the death of Ronnie Peterson at the Italian Grand Prix of 1978, two since Patrick Depailler’s death in a testing accident, and Gilles Villeneuve had been a popular figure both in the paddock and among fans.
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