The 65 year history of the Formula One World Championship has seen a myriad of scenarios play out over the years. Some seasons were remembered for close championship battles, others for multiple winners. Some seasons saw unbearable tragedy, and others saw bitter feuding between teammates. Some seasons saw incredible innovation, while others were marred by politics, protests, disqualifications and even driver’s strikes.
No season can compare with the perfect storm that was 1982 where we saw all of this, and more.
The 1982 stats will show that eleven different men won races, with five of those taking their first career victory. Two drivers were lost to fatal accidents, while another was left with career-ending injuries.
The driver that eventually won the title did so in a car that finished fourth in the Constructors Championship taking only one race win along the way. Controversy, debate, and political posturing seemed to rule the season from day one.
First, lets examine the backstory that led to this remarkable season in Formula One.
Prior to 1982, a battle had been brewing between the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) led by Bernie Ecclestone, and the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA), the sanctioning body for Formula One. The teams loyal to FISA consisted primarily of the factory based teams, including Ferrari, Renault, Talbot-Ligier, Osella and Alfa-Romeo, while the bulk of the British-based constructors aligned themselves with FOCA.
Between 1979 and 1981, Formula One seemed to be headed toward a split, similar to the CART/USAC situation that was playing out in America. FOCA teams went so far as to stage their own Grand Prix in 1981 under the banner of the World Federation of Motorsport. An agreement was finally reached prior to the 1981 season opener, and everything seemed to be settled for a time.
1982 also marked the beginning of the end for normally-aspirated engines in Formula One. Renault had introduced a turbocharged engine in 1978. Ferrari and Toleman followed suit for 1981. Brabham had contracted BMW to design a turbocharged engine while Alfa-Romeo was planning one as well.
A number of the constructor teams, still utilizing the venerable Ford-Cosworth, worked on chassis development to match pace with the turbo cars. McLaren had come into 1981 with the MP-4, featuring a tub constructed entirely of carbon fiber: a lighter, more durable, construction material than the honeycomb aluminum that had been the norm in F-1. Carbon Fiber was developed for the Aerospace industry, but its practical application in racing had not been explored yet.
The design was so ground-breaking that former Champion, Niki Lauda, was coaxed out of retirement to join the McLaren team. Lotus also introduced a carbon fiber car for 1982.
1982 regulations had banned the sliding skirts that made the ground-effects cars extremely effective, so the constructors began to find other ways to gain an advantage. Under the rules, the cars are weighed with all fluids full. Some of the more clever constructors came up with the idea of water-cooled brakes.
Large water tanks were installed onto the car which, when full, weighed in excess of 100 lbs. Because the brakes do not actually need water to cool, the tanks emptied quickly at the beginning of the race giving the cars a weight advantage.
Politics reared their ugly head at the opening Grand Prix weekend as the driver’s organized a strike in South Africa. The bone of contention centered around the new superlicenses that the drivers were required to carry. They contained a clause requiring a driver to stay with the same team for three to five years, effectively putting an end to the free-agent status that the drivers were accustomed to.
Showing solidarity, the drivers locked themselves in a large hotel suite together, as South African officials threatened to impound all of the equipment and cars if the Grand Prix was not run. At the eleventh hour, an agreement was reached and the Grand Prix ran as scheduled with Alain Prost taking the win for Renault.
The ripple effect of the drivers strike caused the organizers of the Argentinian Grand Prix to pull their support fearing another strike. The race was cancelled, and it would be two months before the cars saw action again.
In Brazil, Nelson Piquet crossed the finish line first in the Brabham followed by the Williams of Keke Rosberg. The race result drew a protest from the Renault and Ferrari teams, citing the water-cooled brake system as circumventing the rules. The process drug on for a few weeks, and the circus headed to America for the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Niki Lauda took the win at Long Beach followed by Rosberg. Gilles Villeneuve came home third in the Ferarri. The Ferarri’s podium finish prompted the Tyrrell team to file a protest stating that Ferrari’s use of a double-element rear wing violated the spirit of the rule. The stewards agreed and Villeneuve’s result was disqualified.
The decision was finally made on the Brazilian Grand Prix and both Piquet and Rosberg were disqualified. Third-place Alain Prost was credited with the win in Brazil which gave him a healthy lead in the point standings.
To make matters muddier, the McLaren and Williams cars of Lauda and Rosberg, both running with the water tanks, were not disqualified at Long Beach.
FISA made the decision to change the rule, requiring the cars to be weighed immediately post-race without topping off fluid.
The changing of the rules in the middle of the game enraged the FOCA teams. They requested a postponement of the upcoming race in San Marino in order to rework their cars to the new rule.
When the request was denied, the FOCA teams made the decision to boycott the race, and the San Marino Grand Prix took place with half the field missing.
With a diluted grid, the Ferarri drivers were easily the class of the field. Villeneuve was leading Pironi in the late stages when the team ordered the drivers to slow down and hold position. Disregarding the team order, Pironi passed Villeneuve on the final lap, snatching the win. Villeneuve was so angry with his teammate that he vowed never to speak to him again.
This turned out to be a prophetic statement when Villeneuve was killed during practice the following Grand Prix weekend at Zolder. The loss was devastating for Formula One, as Villeneuve was one of the true stars of the sport, beloved by fans and competitors alike.
The Grand Prix went on under a dark cloud with John Watson taking the win in the McLaren.
When the circus arrived at Monaco, what followed was easily the strangest Grand Prix in history. The Renault team swept the front row and Rene Arnoux led the first fourteen laps before crashing out of the race. His teammate, Alain Prost then began to dominate the race and led handily, holding back a charging Riccardo Patrese in the Brabham.
With only two laps remaining, rain began to fall and Prost spun, crashing heavily into the barrier. This handed the lead to Patrese on the final lap. Patrese spun in the wet conditions as well, stalling his engine in the corner.
Didier Pironi now inherited the lead with only a few corners remaining. Coming through the tunnel, Pironi’s car sputtered and stopped, out of fuel. This should have handed the lead to Andrea de Cesaris, but the Osella car was nowhere to be found. de Cesaris had run out of fuel as well.
Derek Daly, who was in fifth place, and a lap down, just moments earlier, now seemed headed for the win. Daly’s Williams car suddenly ground to a halt with a seized gearbox.
Calling the race for BBC television, James Hunt quipped, “Well we’ve got this ridiculous situation where we’re all sitting by the start-finish line waiting for a winner to come past and we don’t seem to be getting one!”
In the meantime, Patrese received a push from the race marshals and bump-started the car. He headed towards the finish line, thoroughly disgusted with himself for throwing the race away.
Patrese was shocked and confused when he was greeted with pats on the back and congratulations from his team. He had no idea that he had just won his first Grand Prix.
After the lunacy that was Monaco, the series moved back to North America as John Watson won in Detroit after qualifying 17th. Watson took over the points lead as the teams moved on to Canada.
Tragedy struck the Series again when young driver Riccardo Paletti was killed in an accident that occurred during the start of the race. Paletti had not noticed that Pironi had stalled on the grid, and plowed into the rear of the Ferrari. The car was engulfed in flames as track workers desperately tried to free him from the seatbelts. It was only his second Grand Prix start.
Nelson Piquet went on to win at Montreal, and Didier Pironi took a convincing victory at Zandvoort.
During the European swing, Lauda won in Great Britain while Rene Arnoux delighted the home crowd in France, taking the Renault to victory. With Prost ahead of Arnoux in the point standings, Arnoux balked team orders taking the win rather that allowing Prost through, setting up another uneasy situation between teammates.
Coming into Germany, Didier Pironi held a comfortable points lead for Ferrari.
His Championship aspirations ended when he had a frightening crash in qualifying at Hockenheim. The car was sent airborne, flying over Prost’s Renault, crashing heavily to the ground. Pironi suffered devastating leg injuries that ended his Formula One career.
A somber Ferarri team watched as Patrick Tambay, who had replaced Villeneuve, took the car to victory. Piquet had the dominant car of the race, but he was forced off course by a blissfully unaware Eliseo Salazar, running two laps off of the pace.
Piquet was so upset that he hopped out of his car and began punching and kicking Salazar while screaming at the Chilean driver. Another truly odd sight to see in Formula One.
With Pironi now out, the Championship was truly up for grabs.
The next two Grands Prix produced two more first-time winners, with Elio de Angelis claiming victory for Team Lotus in Austria, while Keke Rosberg took the win in his Williams at Dijon.
In taking his first career win, Rosberg capped off a run of nine different winners in nine consecutive races, a feat unequaled in Formula One to this day.
Having a rather consistent season up to this point, Rosberg suddenly found himself leading the Championship standings. Both Prost and Watson were within striking distance with with two races left on the schedule.
1978 Champion, Mario Andretti, who had left F-1 in 1981, was convinced to return to the series replacing Pironi. Andretti delighted the Italian crowd by putting the Ferrari on pole at Monza.
In the race, however, is was Rene Arnoux taking victory as his teammate, Prost, failed to score points. The result mathematically eliminated Prost from Championship contention.
Rosberg also failed to score, while John Watson brought the McLaren home fourth. This set up a two-man battle for the title between Rosberg and Watson.
The season finale was held on a temporary street circuit in the parking lots at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Rosberg needed to finish fifth to hold onto the title, while Watson had a much more formidable task ahead. Anything less than a win from Watson would hand Rosberg the title.
The Renault cars swept qualifying once again, but the tight nature of the race course seemed to favor the Cosworth-powered cars in race conditions.
Rosberg and Watson had both put up unimpressive qualifying laps, and Watson found himself mired in twelfth position in the early going. He had a tremendously spirited race, passing competitors at every opportunity working his way up to second in the late stages.
At the front of the field, there was an unlikely leader. Michele Alboreto, in the Tyrrell, found his car to be especially competitive on this particular race course as he stalked the Renaults, nipping Prost for the lead. Taking the top spot, Alboreto never looked back.
Alboreto became the eleventh different winner in 1982 beating Watson to the line by more than 27 seconds. Rosberg held on for fifth, taking the World Championship in a season like we have never seen before, and may never see again.