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

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. DaveW said on 17th May 2011, 15:00

    Great article. Well written.

    A lot of people lost their lives along the way to the sport becoming thrilling but basically devoid of mortal fear. Those who continue to believe that F1 fundamentally should be about extreme risk and danger, and tsk tsk drivers for suggesting incremental safety improvements, are only afforded that opportunity by much terrible sacrifice.

  2. sennaboy3 said on 17th May 2011, 15:13

    An even more tragic weekend would come the following year with Villeneuve’s accident…

  3. alelanza (@alelanza) said on 17th May 2011, 15:24

    I was only 4 at the time, but i have seen the full race and I agree that the most striking thing was how poor safety measures were. Safety car and pitlane speed limits were still years away.
    One thing I’d like to comment on, if i recall correctly at some point all drivers got back in their cars and went out for a lap but then Piquet overshot his gridspot and had to go for another lap, i think it was at this point when other drivers shut off their engines to prevent overheating, and Patrese was one of them. THen he was unable to get it restarted, and we know the rest of the story.
    The other thing to add is that i think after this Stohr’s career took a dive, he had had a hard time catching up to Patrese but was probably starting to do well in the car, however the italian psychologist turned racer was probably never the same after Zolder.
    This brings up a question regarding onboard starters, it seems to me that during this period teams were already using external starter devices similar to the ones we see nowadays, however last night i was watching Monaco 82 and after Arnoux spun and stalled going into the piscine chicane Hunt stated the cars did have onboard starters but that they weren’t very good, so does anyone have more info on those during the early 80s?
    I also agree on comments here regarding how political F1 was back then, does anyone remember another F1 period in time more turbulent politically than early 80’s? not to mention all the various clever rule interpretations and penalizations leading to results being changed weeks after the races were done.
    Last thing to note about Zolder 81, i remember Jones in the lead losing it in turn 4. All else being equal, had he not done that he would have won a second championship in a row. Then again he did something similar in Jarama that same year

  4. andymidnite said on 17th May 2011, 17:01

    After reading this I thought I should recommend a BBC doc called “Grand Prix: The Killer Years” Really gives you a perspective on the dangers of the sport inherent up until basically Senna’s death in 1994. Let’s hope that will be the last death we have to witness in F1!

  5. Poor Siegfried Stohr, he looks absolutely mortified.

  6. AJB said on 17th May 2011, 19:03

    Sometimes you can watch old F1 on youtube and be sad or nostalgic for a lost era, but emphatically not when it comes to the organisation of the races. It’s a sobering reminder that safety is as much about having good communication and enforced procedures as it is about having big runoff areas.

    It would be laughable to see that half formed up grid or an ambulance tooling around the track with the cars still racing if it wasn’t such a serious situation. At least the drivers had the same sense that Tour de France riders have for sitting up and slowing down when the situation is getting stupid.

  7. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 17th May 2011, 21:09

    Two of these articles in a week :( Not good. Still, makes for a great sense of perspective.

  8. I think what Frank Williams says is true now than before, with regard to his team. It’s a pale shadow of its former self, it relies on pay drivers and is now in threat of being overtaken by a steadily improving Team Lotus. Think Sir Frank Williams has now well and truly lost his motivation.

  9. Marijn said on 9th May 2012, 10:00

    I was 11, I was a big F1-fan already, started to follow it since ’79. But I didn’t see this race because I live in The Netherlands and back then we didn’t have F1 on TV, except Zandvoort and Monaco I believe.

    Nobody mentioned this point: Patrese started to wave his arms frantically around 1’20 in the clip. The race is started around 2’00. That’s 40 seconds that Patrese is signalling, very clearly, thats he has a problem and that he won’t be able to start. But the organisers still go ahead with it! Crazy, unbelievable, what a mess. Even for that age, with much less regard for safety, this is simply idiotic.

  10. Ernesto Piquinza said on 17th July 2012, 13:47

    That was a very sad weekend for Reutemann, as the after race podium photo shows. He was demolished after the qualifying session and felt unable to stay at the circuit.
    Before the race at Monza, he went to a liitle town in the north of Italy to pay his respects to the young mechanic’s family.

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