On this day in 1981: F1′s fiasco at Zolder

1981 Belgian Grand Prix flashback

Nigel Mansell, Carlos Reutemann, Jacques Laffite, Zolder, 1981

Nigel Mansell, Carlos Reutemann, Jacques Laffite, Zolder, 1981

F1 counted the cost of a tragic and shambolic weekend at Zolder 30 years ago today.

Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo lost his life in an accident during practice. And viewers looked on in horror as the race began as another mechanic, Dave Luckett, was still on the grid, and was struck by one of his team’s cars.

The row over ‘ground effect’

The 1981 season began with the FIA fighting a battle with many teams over ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics.

The sport’s governing body wanted to ban the skirts used to generate increasingly high cornering speeds. Rules had been drawn up stating the gap between bodywork and road must be no less than six centimetres with suspension at its lowest point.

But by the time of the fifth race of the year at Zolder in Belgium, the reality was virtually every car on the grid failed to conform to the new regulations. Most passed the scrutineers? checks in the pit but were clearly illegal on track.

A ban on skirts, if successful, would put greater emphasis on engine power to the detriment of those teams using customer Cosworth V8s, such as Lotus, Williams and Brabham. These teams, under the banner of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA), wanted to ban the immensely powerful and expensive turbo engines which had been introduced by Renault and, for the first time in 1981, by Ferrari.

Beneath all of this lay a power struggle for control of the sport between the FIA, led by Jean-Marie Balestre, and FOCA, led by Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone. The FIA were siding with the manufacturer-run teams in an attempt to topple Ecclestone.

Giovanni Amadeo

Alan Jones, Williams, Zolder, 1981

Alan Jones, Williams, Zolder, 1981

The narrow pit lane at Zolder had long been criticised. Team managers and mechanics perched on a thin ledge while timing their cars and holding out pit signals. A few weeks before the 1981 race, its organisers announced that new pits and a wider pit lane would be built for 1982.

During Friday afternoon practice, Giovanni Amadeo was struck by Carlos Reutemann?s Williams in the pit-lane. He slipped from the ledge by the outer pit wall, and fell into Reutemann?s path.

The other half of the pit lane was taken up by parked race cars, mechanics and a sea of hangers-on. Reutemann had no time to brake and no room for him to swerve in avoidance.

Amadeo suffered a double skull fracture and, though attempts to resuscitate him in the ambulance were successful, he was not expected to survive. The sad announcement came after the race weekend had finished.

The order after Friday?s official session was Reutemann, Piquet, Pironi, Patrese, Watson, Jones, Villeneuve, Cheever, Laffite and Mansell. Saturday?s rain storm made this the grid.

1981 Belgian Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Carlos Reutemann
Williams-ford
2. Nelson Piquet
Brabham-Ford
Row 2 3. Didier Pironi
Ferrari
4. Riccardo Patrese
Arrows-Ford
Row 3 5. John Watson
McLaren-Ford
6. Alan Jones
Williams-Ford
Row 4 7. Gilles Villeneuve
Ferrari
8. Eddie Cheever
Tyrrell-Ford
Row 5 9. Jacques Laffite
Ligier-Matra
10. Nigel Mansell
Lotus-Ford
Row 6 11. Keke Rosberg
Fittipaldi-Ford
12. Alain Prost
Renault
Row 7 13. Siegfried Stohr
Arrows-Ford
14. Elio de Angelis
Lotus-Ford
Row 8 15. Marc Surer
Ensign-Ford
16. Jean-Pierre Jabouille
Ligier-Matra
Row 9 17. Bruno Giacomelli
Alfa Romeo
18. Mario Andretti
Alfa Romeo
Row 10 19. Michele Alboreto
Tyrrell-Ford
20. Chico Serra
Fittipaldi-Ford
Row 11 21. Hector Rebaque
Brabham-Ford
22. Beppe Gabbiani
Osella-Ford
Row 12 23. Andrea de Cesaris
McLaren-Ford
24. Piercarlo Ghinzani
Osella-Ford

Dave Luckett

On Sunday things started to go wrong just before 3 o?clock ?ǣ at which time the race was scheduled to go live to the world.

After the drivers arrived at the grid, many climbed from their cars in protest with the aim of delaying the start. The drivers were unhappy with the organisers? refusal to listen to their requests the day before for the maximum number of cars allowed to take part in qualifying to be reduced from 30 to 26. This refusal was the final straw and mechanics and some team owners promptly joined them on track.

The delay and ensuing confusion caused many drivers to become agitated and engines began to overheat. By the time all the cars were on the gird, Ricardo Patrese?s Arrows had stalled and he began to wave his arms in warning to those behind him.

In a scene of pure horror, his mechanic Dave Luckett jumped down onto the track to help start the car just as the race was about to start.

Cars dodged around the stricken Arrows until, in a horrible coincidence, Patrese’s team mate Siegfried Stohr arrived, and ploughed into Patrese and Luckett.

Nigel Mansell witnessed the carnage on track. In his autobiography, he said: “I was right behind them and watched this horror show play out in front of me. I was sure the guy was dead and I thought he?d probably been chopped in half.

“I was numb in the car, my legs wouldn?t work, my arms wouldn?t work and I felt rigid with fear. I felt sick and I was crying my eyes out inside my helmet. I didn?t know what we were doing there. I thought, ??We?re driving these machines that kill people. That?s two people this weekend?.”

Despite Mansell’s fears, Luckett survived with broken legs.

Autosport’s race reported noted: “It appears there was some confusion among the teams as to whether there would be another orderly, warm up lap, or the start of the race. Whichever, the track was out of bounds when Luckett went to restart Patrese?s car. In fact, the TV cameras clearly showed that Jones, behind the Arrows, was already reacting to the green light before Luckett reached Patrese.”

This video shows what happened:

No signal to stop

Nelson Piquet, Brabham, Zolder, 1981

Nelson Piquet, Brabham, Zolder, 1981

An ambulance was on the scene within seconds but the race was allowed to continue. Yellow flags were waved but at the end of the second lap, Nelson Piquet was leading by more than ten seconds.

No signal was given for them to stop and it wasn?t until Ferrari’s Didier Pironi slowed down and stopped to applause from the pits, that the organisers were forced to stop the race.

Forty minutes later, when Luckett had been taken to hospital, the cars re-assembled on the gird, minus the two Arrows.

Reutemann led the re-start, but Pironi flew down the inside towards the first corner and was ahead. Piquet and Alan Jones squeezed through but it was short-lived, as Piquet crashed into the catch fencing at the chicane and stormed back to the pits. Jones? gearbox failed soon after and he ploughed into the barriers and badly burned his thigh when the gearbox oil leaked into the cockpit.

Reutemann regained the lead and kept it until, after 55 laps, rain began to fall and the Belgian Grand Prix was brought to an end. Two-thirds distance had been covered and full championship points were awarded. The rain had stopped by the time the half-hearted presentation took place.

It was Reutemann?s 15th consecutive points finish and his 12th and final victory. It was Mansell?s first podium finish.

In his autobiography, Nigel Mansell says: ??It began to rain and as the downpour got heavier the race was cut short. Carlos Reutemann was declared the winner with Jacques Laffite second in the Ligier and I was third. I felt on top of the world. It was an overwhelming experience. The swing of emotion I had experienced in two hours, from the shock and paralysing fear at the start to the ecstasy at the end, was enormous.??

Carlos Reutemann, Williams, Zolder, 1981

Carlos Reutemann, Williams, Zolder, 1981

His car may have won, but Frank Williams was far from happy. He summed up the fury at the needless injury and bitter wrangling over the technical rules, saying: “Why do people part with money to come in and watch this bloody fiasco any more? Can you give me an answer to that? Because I can?t give you one.

“And I?ll tell you something else. I can?t think of a good reason to persuade my sponsors to stay involved in it, either.

“You can only suppress hypocrisy and lies for so long in this world. Eventually it all bubbles to the surface, and we?ve got it now. We?re paying for the past.”

1981 Belgian Grand Prix results

Pos Car Driver Team Laps Difference
1 2 Carlos Reutemann Williams-Ford 54 1:16:31.61
2 26 Jacques Laffite Ligier-Matra 54 36.06
3 12 Nigel Mansell Lotus-Ford 54 43.69
4 27 Gilles Villeneuve Ferrari 54 47.64
5 11 Elio de Angelis Lotus-Ford 54 49.20
6 3 Eddie Cheever Tyrrell-Ford 54 52.51
7 7 John Watson McLaren-Ford 54 1:01.66
8 28 Didier Pironi Ferrari 54 1:32.04
9 23 Bruno Giacomelli Alfa Romeo 54 1:35.58
10 22 Mario Andretti Alfa Romeo 54 1 lap
11 14 Marc Surer Ensign-Ford 53 2 laps
12 4 Michele Alboreto Tyrrell-Ford 52 2 laps
13 31 Piercarlo Ghinzani Osella-Ford 50 4 laps
6 Hector Rebaque Brabham-Ford 39 Accident
25 Jean-Pierre Jabouille Ligier-Matra 35 Transmission
21 Chico Serra Fittipaldi-Ford 29 Engine
32 Beppe Gabbiani Osella-Ford 22 Engine
1 Alan Jones Williams-Ford 19 Accident
8 Andrea de Cesaris McLaren-Ford 11 Gearbox
5 Nelson Piquet Brabham-Ford 10 Accident
20 Keke Rosberg Fittipaldi-Ford 10 Gearbox
15 Alain Prost Renault 2 Clutch
30 Riccardo Patrese Arrows-Ford 0 Collision
29 Siegfried Stohr Arrows-Ford 0 Collision
DNQ 18 Derek Daly March-Ford
DNQ 16 Ren?? Arnoux Renault
DNQ 17 Eliseo Salazar March-Ford
DNQ 9 Slim Borgudd ATS-Ford
DNQ 33 Patrick Tambay Theodore-Ford
DNQ 36 Derek Warwick Toleman-Hart
DNQ 35 Brian Henton Toleman-Hart

Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.

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36 comments on On this day in 1981: F1′s fiasco at Zolder

  1. Jimmy said on 17th May 2011, 9:04

    Hey Cari great article! Just wondering about rows 4 and 5 of the gird with eddie cheever down twice :)

    Keep up the good writing!

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 17th May 2011, 9:14

      I’ve made the change on the grid.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 17th May 2011, 13:53

      A stunning article. A real horror moment when you see how these guys were still racing around the scene of that accident.

      No safety procedures at all. And we discuss weather Monaco will be safe enough with using DRS. Look at that complete disregard of safety 30 years ago

  2. Graeme Hunter said on 17th May 2011, 9:04

    I was nine, and the start-line incident horrified me, I didn’t watch F1 for about a year afterwards, having started watching when I was four. Obviously as a fan of motor-racing at that time, I’d seen plenty of crashes, but this was something different, really affected me.

    • Fixy (@fixy) said on 17th May 2011, 14:52

      I can imagine. Looking at it now, knowing that poor man was going to be hit, it still makes you feel very bad, and imagine how bad Stohr must have felt, you can see how desperated he is there.

      • TFLB said on 17th May 2011, 17:32

        Apparently Stohr was never the same driver after that, he could never get it out of his mind and eventually lost motivation.

  3. Damon (@damon) said on 17th May 2011, 9:35

    It’s incredible that even though I was born in 1983, I’m more familiar with the names on that 1981 grid than I am with today’s grid.

  4. David B said on 17th May 2011, 9:51

    I was 9 also, and it was the second GP I saw in my life. Very sad weekend.
    At that time races were so poor in logistics and organizations, comparing with today. Not to say about safety of tracks and cars.
    Nevertheless f1 was much more fascinating and “human” than today: drivers and managers were much more “easy” to speak with, brands and marketing were not the masters of paddock, teams were more like little companies than big multinationals…

  5. Dr. Mouse said on 17th May 2011, 9:53

    I had never heard about this… I was born November ’81, but still I would have expected to hear about it from someone at some point.

    It does make you realise how safe F1 is now. It will never be 100% safe when you are hurtling around a track at 200mph with another car inches away from you, but at least there’s unlikely to be incidents like this again…

  6. SparkyJ23 (@sparkyj23) said on 17th May 2011, 10:10

    I’m old enough to remember this at the time – we thought He’d been cut in half.

    If that happened now what chance you think the footage survives on youtube for longer than a day?

  7. Christian said on 17th May 2011, 10:54

    I love how people today moan that “F1 isn’t what it used to be” and there were no scandals “back in my day”. I hope this article goes some way to disproving that.

    • Fixy (@fixy) said on 17th May 2011, 14:57

      Those you said are aspects that have certainly changed, not for the better. But I’ve never heard anyone saying safety has not improved.

    • Changes in safety do not necessarily require changes in commercialization or team attitudes. More money has meant more impetus for safety improvements, but safety itself doesn’t have to mean boring drivers or races.

      Plus, it’s clear that the level of safety in post-race parties is quite low now…

    • Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 17th May 2011, 21:42

      I think you guys have missed his point. He’s not saying that people are moaning it’s too safe, he’s talking about the background technical arguments that turned into a war over the ownership of the sport. Exactly what is going on today!

  8. Mike said on 17th May 2011, 11:20

    It’s incredible to see people runs so easily back onto the track, having had that happen only moments before. Insane.

  9. LucaBadoerFan (@lucabadoerfan) said on 17th May 2011, 11:50

    that was a very well-done, informative article – thank you carl. sadly, continuing with osella – riccardo paletti would be killed at the circuit gilles villeneuve (who himself died at zolder in ’82) a year later, in only his first race with a full grid, which i believe was witnessed by his mother, who was due to go to new york with him two days later, to celebrate his twenty fourth birthday.

  10. damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 17th May 2011, 12:16

    Brilliant article Cari! :)

    That start-line accident is absolutely horrific. You can see how distraught Stohr was – and I felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than thinking you’ve just killed another human being.

    And I can’t believe I’d never heard about the death on the Friday! Either I’ve miraculously never come across it online, or it was not big news. Horrible stuff. I’m so glad F1 is as safe as it is now, but things like this can still happen.

    • Fixy (@fixy) said on 17th May 2011, 15:01

      You can see how distraught Stohr was – and I felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than thinking you’ve just killed another human being.

      As I knew what would have happened and as the mechanic was hidden behind Patrese’s car, I was more shocked for Stohr, as he looked, obviously, as you said, distraught.
      I wonder if Patrese had seen his mechanic was behind him and was aware of the accident.

  11. silencer said on 17th May 2011, 12:23

    thanks to youtube; today we have a medium to watch all those great F1 moment from the past.

  12. HounslowBusGarage said on 17th May 2011, 12:28

    Thanks for the interesting but rather depressing article, Cari. That was a horrible weekend; I remember it well.
    Looking at the RAI clip, I can’t believe how primitive the facilities were, that pit lane is pathetic. Was there a pit lane speed limit in operation at the time?
    Zolder didn’t seemt to have the track width or infrastructure to deal with a Grand Prix. It looks as though the ambulance did a complete lap of the circuit to get Luckett back to the pits, as well.
    The following year’s race of course was another bad one for Zolder.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 17th May 2011, 20:59

      Was there a pit lane speed limit in operation at the time?

      No, that didn’t come along until 1994 following the incident in the pit lane at Imola that year.

  13. sumedh said on 17th May 2011, 13:46

    Brilliant article!

    And what a track is that? Only Monaco on the current grid is narrower than that.

  14. Michael Griffin said on 17th May 2011, 13:46

    Brilliant article Cari, great read.

    Amazing to see from one article how much F1 has changed in 30 years. Pity the teams still seem to be as childish as ever though.

  15. leroy (@leroy) said on 17th May 2011, 13:54

    Great article. I wasnt born yet and didnt know about this crazy weekend until now. It’s amazing what it takes to get people to change!

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