Amid the many things that happened on October 17, like Mark Taylor scoring 334 against Pakistan and declaring so he could sit alongside Don Bradman, today marked 40 years since the 1981 Formula 1 World Championship ended in one of the strangest places imaginable for something as big as F1…
In the parking lot of the Caesars Palace hotel & casino in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas came about in F1 because Watkins Glen, the regular host of the United States Grand Prix, hit financial trouble after the 1980 event (They couldn’t pay the teams their appearance fees) and as we now know, the New York circuit would never host another Grand Prix, so in stepped Caesars Palace, who offered to convert its parking lot into a temporary circuit with a capacity of 45,000, which was constructed in just 45 days, and looked as insane as it sounds:
Despite having the positives of a smooth surface, plenty of room for overtaking and run-off areas everywhere, it was just devoid of character, dusty with next to no grip, it was run in the sunny autumn weather of the Nevada desert, leaving some drivers suffering from heat-stroke, and it was an anti-clockwise circuit, with the G-Forces putting major strain on drivers’ necks as they wrestled those ground effect beasts, a condition which would later be coined as Las Vegas neck.
In fact, Nelson Piquet suffered so much pain he needed a massage from the masseur of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
Because it was Las Vegas.
Also, the great Paul Newman, himself a successful driver and team owner in addition to his acting career, was the race director.
Because it was Las Vegas.
Another odd feature of the weekend was that the race was run on a Saturday, because the casino needed the carpark back by Sunday morning, so the drivers were given an extra practice session on the Wednesday before the race, given the circuit hadn’t had a pilot event (Which would be a no-go for F1 today), while the Thursday was the regular practice day and the first part of qualifying, Friday was the second part of qualifying, and as previously stated, the Grand Prix was on Saturday.
Of course, that was all the backdrop for one of the great title fights seen in Vegas – Soon to be former World Champion Alan Jones’ Williams teammate Carlos Reutemann led Nelson Piquet (Brabham) by 1 point (49 vs 48), with Jacques Laffite (Ligier) 6 points behind the leader on 43, and with the scoring system of the day (9-6-4-3-2-1), if Reutemann finished ahead of Piquet he’d win the title, if Piquet finished in the points ahead of Reutemann, he’d at least win the title on a race wins countback 3 to 2, and if Laffite won the race with Piquet 3rd and Reutemann 4th, then all three drivers would be on 52 points, and the Frenchman, who would have taken his third win of ’81, would win the title on a countback of 2nd place finishes 2-1 against Piquet.
As it happened, Reutemann qualified on pole position alongside teammate Jones, who had announced his retirement from F1, and outright refused to help his teammate in the title race due an incident in Brazil earlier in the year, Piquet qualified on the second row alongside Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari, while Laffite’s slim title hopes looked dead and buried when he was starting from 12th, after switching to teammate Patrick Tambay’s car due to issues with his own machine.
However, as history now tells us, once Tom Jones did a victory lap in a chariot on the Saturday afternoon (Yes, that did happen), AJ shot straight into the lead at Turn 1 on the opening lap and was never threatened for the rest of the afternoon, as the Australian charged to his 12th and final Grand Prix victory by a comfortable 20 seconds to Alain Prost in a Renault, who had to make an unscheduled tyre change on Lap 32 and fought his way back, finishing only 4 tenths ahead of Italian Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo, who managed to take his only career podium despite a spin while sitting 4th on Lap 23, which bumped him down to 10th.
Nigel Mansell finished 4th for Lotus, and a physically rooted Piquet would crucially finish in 5th place, winning the 1981 championship by 1 point, giving Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham their first championship since 1967, after Reutemann’s race inexplicably went from bad to worse at every corner.
First, the Argentinian made a shocking start and fell to 5th by the end of the opening lap, then he began to suffer gearbox dramas, losing the use of 4th gear very early in the race, and from there he struggled to crack the points, his fate all but sealed when he was passed by Piquet on Lap 17, then later in the race he was passed by the recovering Prost and Nigel Mansell in a Lotus, and Reutemann would ultimately finish in 8th, one lap down on teammate Jones, although Williams had already wrapped up the Constructors’ Championship for the second year running.
Jacques Laffite would claim the final point in 6th position after an early charge through the field saw him sit as high as 2nd place when Prost had to make his tyre stop, but Laffite would need to make a tyre change of his own with 23 laps to go, bumping him down to 7th before he passed Watson late in the race to take the final point.
Post race, Piquet, who nearly didn’t finish due to physical exhaustion, vomited in his cockpit and had to be lifted to the podium to be crowned as world champion (15 minutes after finishing the race), while Jones, having won so comfortably, walked up to the podium with a can of beer in his hand as he accepted a laurel wreath over his head like a successful Roman general, alongside Prost and Giacomelli.
Other noteworthy moments from the race included Patrick Tambay’s high speed crash that obliterated the front end of his Ligier, Gilles Villeneuve being disqualified for lining up out of position on the grid, although he ultimately retired on Lap 22 due to an engine fire, and local hero Mario Andretti retired from 4th place on Lap 30 due to busted right rear suspension.
So it ultimately meant 5 drivers finished the season within a race win of each other; Piquet won the first of his three championships with 50 points, with Reutemann 2nd on 49, Jones finished 3rd on 46, Laffite on 44, and Prost finished 5th on 43.
Post Race Notes
A forgotten moment from the weekend was that Niki Lauda announced he would make a comeback with McLaren for the 1982 season, after retiring at the end of 1979, in which time he’d been running Lauda Air.
AJ’s win was the last time an Australian driver would win a Formula 1 Grand Prix until Mark Webber won the 2009 German Grand Prix, while it was the last time an Australian driver won for a British constructor until Daniel Ricciardo won the Italian Grand Prix for McLaren last month.
Jones very nearly made a comeback with Ferrari in 1982 after Gilles Villeneuve was killed at Zolder and Didier Pironi (While leading the championship) retired from F1 when he fractured both his legs in a high speed accident at Hockenheim, although he took too long to give an answer to the Scuderia, and it never happened.
Jones eventually made a full-time comeback at the end of 1985 with the newly formed Haas Lola team, getting to drive in the inaugural Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, and he eventually retired for good after the 1986 season.
Lastly, the infamous Caesars Palace parking lot would depart the World Championship after the 1982 season finale, won by Michele Alboreto for Tyrrell, in major part due to the massive losses incurred by the hotel due to the small crowds, while the track wasn’t as popular with the drivers as the season opening race in Long Beach, primarily for the reasons listed off the top, although the CART series would race in the parking lot in 1983 & ’84, before it was finally sent to the fiery pit from whence it came and covered with urban developments…..
One of which was The Mirage casino, robbed by George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the year 2001.
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