1982 South African Grand Prix flashback

Grand Prix flashback

Keke Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, Kyalami, 1982, 470150

Over on the F1 Fanatic Forum we’ve been discussing a surprising story on German webaite Auto Motor und Sport suggesting that F1 drivers are planning to go on strike at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Why? Well apparently they’re unhappy about the extra money the FIA demanded from them for their superlicences at the beginning of the year. Perhaps this was to marginalise the influence of their union, the GPDA. Other rumours suggest the FIA found itself with a budget shortfall for 2008 and is using over ?óÔÇÜ?Ľ1m from the drivers to make up the deficit. Either way, they’re not happy.

But the idea they might go on strike is crazy, surely? Perhaps – but it has happened before in another row over drivers’ licenses…

Superlicence row

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pf3FzetUUR0

A row brew up in 1982 over a new clause that had been inserted into the drivers’ superlicenses:

‘I am committed to the above team to drive exclusively for them in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship(s) until the [date].’
[...]
‘I will do nothing which might harm the moral or material interests or image of International Motorsport or the FIA Formula 1 World Championship’

The leading critics of the change in the superlicence included the more experienced drivers: Didier Pironi (Ferrari), Niki Lauda (returning from a two-year mini-retirement to McLaren) and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari). The latter had seen the consequences of a similar clause introduced in the North American National Hockey League and recognised that it would diminish a driver’s freedom to change team if he wished.

These three all refused to sign the new deal along with Rene Arnoux (Renault), Bruno Giacomelli and Andrea de Cesaris (both Alfa Romeo). But having voiced their objections to the governing body no agreement had been reached before the first race of the season at at Kyalami in South Africa.

The drivers’ representatives and the F1 Commission met on the Wednesday before the race (the Grand Prix taking place on a Saturday) and Pironi explained the drivers would not participate if the contracts were not altered.

FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre retaliated that no changes could be made without bringing the matter before the FIA Executive back in Europe – and that the drivers who had not got their licenses would not be allowed to compete. There would be no compromise.

A coach full of drivers and an empty track

And so at 7am the following morning the drivers arrived at the circuit to find Lauda and Pironi aboard a cream and burgundy coach, hired overnight by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. The drivers all boarded (except for Jochen Mass who arrived late at the circuit) and instead of going to the circuit to practice the drivers went to Sunnyside Park Hotel in a suburb of Kyalami.

Bernie Ecclestone was predictably furious and railed at the striking drivers:

We have been watching Ferraris for fifty years. Ferrari has had God knows how many drivers. They come and go but still all that people want to see is a Ferrari. They cannot see the bleeding driver anyway! Really, I ask you, what asset are they?

Meanwhile the ‘assets’ were preparing for a night in the hotel. The ringleaders reasoned that if all the drivers were given their own rooms, some would lose heart and make a break for it. So they locked themselves in a conference room. Derek Warwick said afterwards:

You know what was fantastic? I got to know my colleagues for the first time because, being a non-qualifier at the back of the grid, you don’t get a chance to speak to the guys at the front.

‘He ran like a chicken’

For entertainment Lauda told jokes, Giacomelli scribbled cartoons, and Elio de Angelis and Gilles Villeneuve took turns at the piano: de Angelis playing classical music, Villeneuve hammering out Scott Joplin ragtime tunes.

The only driver to abandon the strike was Teo Fabi, when Toleman boss Alex Hawkridge came to talk to him. According to Keke Rosberg (pictured above):

He ran like a chicken and lost our respect forever – not because he left, but because he betrayed us. He went straight to Ecclestone and Balestre, and told them everything we had discussed.

Fabi, for his part, insists the stories of him climbing out of a toilet window are exaggerated.

A practice session for one driver

Pironi met with Balestre again at 6am on Friday, and reported back to Lauda that no progress had been made. Practice began at 10am and the only car to venture out on track was Mass’s March – to which every team at the track held out a pit board.

An hour later the other drivers returned to the track. Mass, who insisted all along the strike was doomed to failure, later claimed they’d panicked after hearing he’d taken to the track. The drivers claimed they had obtained assurances from Balestre that none of them would be punished for striking.

The latter point certainly proved to be false – the drivers received a mix of $10,000 and $5,000 fines, and suspended race bands varying in length from two to five events.

But Mass’s insistence the strike would fail also proved wrong. In between the South African and Brazilian rounds (the Argentine round having been cancelled) the FIA Court of Appeal reduced the size of the fines and the length of the bans, and criticised FISA for attempting to censure the drivers.

Finally, the superlicence was amended to scrub out the clause that had been at the heart of all the trouble.

A repeat in 2008?

Would today’s drivers dare risk repeating such an extraordinary gamble as this? It’s hard to believe – but in the past 12 months we’ve heard about chief designers sending 780 page dossiers on their rivals down to the local photocopying shop, and the FIA president being embroiled in a sadomasochistic sex scandal. Bizarre things seem to happen all the time in F1 these days.

Any politically astute drivers may have spotted an opportunity to capitalise on the conflict between Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, which has echoes of Ecclestone’s conflict with Balestre around the time of the 1982 strike.

I wouldn’t bet anything on it of course, it’s probably just a scurrilous rumour, but one that gives a good excuse to rattle off one of F1’s more bizarre stories.

All the same I think when Robert Kubica sets off for Silverstone he should pack his poker set. Just to be on the safe side.

For more on the story of the F1 drivers’ strike at Kyalami see: “1982” (Christopher Hilton), “Villeneuve: The life of the legendary racing driver” (Gerald Donaldson), “Chasing the Title” (Nigel Roebuck) and The Official 1982 Season Review Video.

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31 comments on 1982 South African Grand Prix flashback

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  1. Ray said on 18th June 2008, 23:40

    Keith, if this is true, soon the FIA will be inviting no one to the press conferences haha.

  2. Wesley said on 18th June 2008, 23:57

    …Kimi can bring along a bottle of vodka for everyone while Massa does his Fonz impersonation.

    I don’t see this actually happening,I can understand WHY they are not happy with the FIA for making up thier losses on the drivers but,for all the money they make they should just shut up and drive.(the licenses are a drop in the bucket for what they make)

  3. I don’t think there’ll be any strike over the superlicences, simply because the drivers as a group are much less politically charged than they were 26 years ago. They may have reason to complain, but until they get the GPDA to be a stronger voice than it is, any eventuality that depends on the drivers acting in unison remains unlikely.

  4. Sush said on 19th June 2008, 1:06

    normally the teams pay for the drivers superlicence.

    hereby stopping any potential backlash.

  5. Journeyer said on 19th June 2008, 1:57

    Er, no, sush.

    The money used to pay for them comes from the drivers salaries. Sure, we can say it’s a drop in the wide financial sea for them, but I guess they’re against it as a matter of principle.

  6. I thought that Sutil was piano player, not violinist :-)

  7. Robert McKay said on 19th June 2008, 8:19

    If the story has even an inkling of truth, the drivers are very slow to react, given that the announcement of changes to the superlicence were made months and months ago.

  8. Doesn’t the fact that the teams effectively pay for the Superlicences mean that the drivers are being forced to stick with one team each year? It makes you wonder what deals go on when a driver (ie Alonso), decides he wants to move on.
    Also, presumably Super Aguri or Honda have paid for Sato’s and Davidson’s Superlicences, but if they are no longer competing, that is wasted money….
    I think if the GPDA were to be strong again, it would be a good device for ensuring Bernie didn’t get his own way in everything.

  9. Andrew said on 19th June 2008, 8:26

    How can the FIA be short of money with all the McLaren money in their coffers?

    Also, I think you mean Balestre rather than Briatore in the third to last paragraph.

  10. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 19th June 2008, 8:35

    Milos & Andrew – thanks for the proof reading! Sutil’s dad was the violinist I was thinking of.

    As far as Pitpass is concerned: Striking’s bad, mmm’kay (apologies to anyone who doesn’t get the South Park reference).

  11. Michael K said on 19th June 2008, 8:55

    Well for some drivers this is actually a significant amount of money. Don’t forget that there are only a few ones that make so much money that paying 100k+ for a year makes no difference to them.
    If Max wouldn’t have screwed the FIA over with Bernie, the FIA would never have a money problem in the first place. Just a 10% share of the TV money would do rather nicely…

  12. Journeyer said on 19th June 2008, 9:08

    Hmmm. I mentioned this on the forum, but I’ll repeat it here. Could it be that this is a springboard to a ploy to squeeze Max out? The drivers won’t be able to muster enough support for a strike unless the teams support them. We know that the teams are now anti-Max. If they go support their drivers, and say “If Max doesn’t have the support of the drivers, whom we support, he doesn’t have our support too.” Bernie may be pulling the strings on this one.

    And do note, Pedro de la Rosa from McLaren is currently the GPDA lead.

  13. Sush said on 19th June 2008, 10:27

    not all drivers are part of the GPDA though?

    Kimi, Massa and Lewis are not, I believe, correct me if i’m wrong (go on journeyer!, you know you want to!).

    so if the GPDA go on strike only they will race?

  14. Journeyer said on 19th June 2008, 11:06

    Hahaha, you’re hilarious, Sush! But yes, you’re right. :p

    That brings up a very interesting point: if the drivers go on strike ala 1982, will the 3 of them (as well as the other non-GPDA members) join the drivers, or stay with the teams? That depends on where the teams stand. If the teams support the GPDA, expect those 3 to join the picket line. Otherwise, they’ll stay as far away as possible from the others.

  15. I suspect in that situation, Raikkonen and Massa would stay with Ferrari because the probability of Ferrari rebelling against the FIA is remote. For all that the Ferrari leadership may have misgivings about Mosley, they probably know that the position that gives Ferrari the most strength is the one it is currently in. And with Badoer and GenĂ© on the testing roster, it wouldn’t even need to recruit anyone new in the unlikely event that its current racers did join the rebellion. Knowing replacements are easy for Ferrari to get – and that their pay packets are big enough that the licences really are drops in the ocean, Raikkonen and Massa will surely toe the line.

    However, not all teams pay for their driver’s superlicences. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sutil was one of the ones who has to pay for his out of his own pocket (though I’ve got no proof about which specific drivers pay for their own licence). If my suspicion is correct, I think he would join the strike despite not being a GPDA member.

    Hamilton will simply do whatever Ron tells him to do. Given that Ron is both a sworn enemy of Mosley and doesn’t like unnecessary conflict, it’s hard to read what he would decide in the situation. I doubt anyone other than Ron will be able to influence Lewis in either direction.

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