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Imola 1982

Some may think that the farce of the Indianapolis Grand Prix last year, when the Michelin runners withdrew from the race after the warm up lap, was the first time such a thing had been seen in F1. In fact, the events were similar to what happened at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1982.

That was the year when it became apparent that the teams were going to have to have a turbo engine to stand any chance of winning races. Renault had demonstrated the enormous power available from turbo engines and Ferrari had seized upon the idea and looked set for the title as a result.


Gilles Villeneuve in the turbo-engined Ferrari of 1981

Other teams, mostly the British-based ones, had been unable to find turbo engine suppliers and were soldiering on with the Cosworth. But they were also finding some clever loopholes in the rules to keep up with the turbos. At the time, the cars were weighed after all liquids had been replaced and so some bright spark (it was Brabham who thought of it first) invented “water-cooled brakes”. The idea was that you topped up the water tank before the race, the water promptly ran out during the first few laps, thereby allowing the car to run at less than the legal minimum weight. Top up the tank before the post-race weighing, and everything was legal again.

In classic style, the FIA stepped in and banned the idea by insisting that the cars be weighed without liquids being replaced after the race. Since topping up had been allowed for years, this amounted to a mid-season change in the rules and the British teams objected. The debate became so acrimonious that there seemed a chance that the FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) teams might even split from the FIA to start their own championship. And, to show how serious they were about the matter, the FOCA teams boycotted the Imola GP that year.

Seven teams turned up for the race but only two, Renault and Ferrari, stood any chance of winning; the others were tail-ender teams. So the race was really between four cars, and this became two after the Renaults had self-destructed. Gilles Villeneuve led Didier Pironi in what was becoming a Ferrari demonstration.

Until Pironi passed Villeneuve, that is. There had been a pre-race agreement between the drivers that whoever was leading after the first few laps would win the race. Villeneuve assumed that Pironi was putting on a show for the crowd and he willingly joined in, passing and being overtaken again and again. Then came the final lap and Pironi unexpectedly passed the Canadian one last time and took the flag.

Imola 1982

Pironi wins by stealth

Villeneuve was furious and refused to speak to Pironi from then onwards. And the argument may have had some part to play in Villeneuve’s crash and death at Zolder two weeks later.

The cause of this non-race disappeared in the meantime. Realizing that the FIA was not going to retreat from its position, the FOCA teams gave in and accepted the rule change. And, incidentally, that is why even today the teams are not allowed to touch the cars after the race. Funny how such long forgotten incidents shape the world we live in.

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