1982 South African Grand Prix flashback

Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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 $1m 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

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.