I would think without doubt we were the worst team in racing prior to 1977," Charles Crichton-Stuart was saying at dinner the night before the Long Beach Grand Prix. He was referring to Britain's Williams team, on which he serves as timer and de facto public-relations man. How times have changed. Australia's Alan Jones won the Formula I world championship in 1980 in a Williams car, and of Sunday's race Crichton-Stuart said, "If Alan finishes, he'll walk it—just disappear into the distance."
Crichton-Stuart foretold only half the story. Jones did finish, and he did win easily, and comfortably in second place was Carlos Reutemann of Argentina in the Williams team's second car. They walked it but good.
To say team owner Frank Williams has been tenacious would be to understate the case. During a decade of struggle in Formula I, he was often described as "enthusiastic," meaning that he was a consistent loser. In 1978, Williams' stick-to-it-iveness paid off. He discovered Saudi Arabia, and vice versa. Saudi companies began putting sponsorship money into his cars, and Williams reciprocated by converting the financial backing into victories. When the checkered flag fell on the Williams racers Sunday, waving with it from the Williams pits were the Union Jack and the Saudi flag—wielded by a nephew of King Saud.
This was the first Grand Prix of the year, which made Long Beach the cockpit of the latest round in the ongoing power struggle in the sport. The combatants are FISA, the organizing body of Formula I racing, which is controlled by the French, and FOCA, a group of team owners, all British. At Long Beach the feud intensified with the Brits fighting among themselves. More precisely, they ganged up on their most famous member, Colin Chapman of Team Lotus.
March 23, 1981
It was Chapman who, in 1978, had led the movement to ground-effect cars equipped with "skirts" that make them hug the road like limpets. It was over the skirts that FOCA first tangled with FISA. FISA prevailed and banned them for 1981, to Chapman's anger and dismay—so he up and changed the state of the art, which is why his natural allies had at him.
At Long Beach, Chapman unveiled the Lotus 88, a car only a designer could love—or understand. It has two separate chassis and two separate suspension systems, one for the wheels and body, and another for the driver and engine. The Lotus mechanics rarely removed the body panels in public, which led to speculation that there were four more little wheels under there somewhere, and maybe even another little driver. Everyone assumed the point of this exotica was to make an end run around the anti-skirt ruling. The Long Beach race stewards decided they couldn't decide whether the car was legal or not and announced that they were going to let FISA decide the matter sometime in the future.
The teams aligned with FISA—France's Renault and Talbot-Ligier, plus Italy's Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Osella, all of which protested the new Lotus—were snickering over the irony of FISA ruling on the legality of a car created by one of FOCA's erstwhile leading lights. Said one Renault crewman, "All winter Chapman was publicly leading FOCA's fight to keep ground-effect cars, while he was secretly—how you say—making an illegitimate baby in the back room."
For all the attention it got, the Lotus 88 was only tangential to the feud. Jones, sounding off on the subject, railed, "FISA is a bloody French conspiracy. The French have never won a world championship, and now they're trying to legislate themselves into one." Jones accused FISA of trying to devise rules that would favor the Renaults, which, because they are turbocharged, have more straightaway speed than the British cars. But even this was getting at only the tip of the iceberg. The unseen bulk of the problem is—what else?—money.
FOCA wants to hold down costs by stabilizing the rules governing car design. FISA maintains that ground-effect cars are already too expensive, that banning them will restore economic sanity to Grand Prix racing, in which the cost of fielding a car for the 15-race Formula I season is more than $3 million.
It's a shame that this economic warfare has come to taint a sport that can attract 120,000 fans, as was the case Sunday. Those fans were on hand to see a spectacle that derives its appeal from bravery and skill, not from digits penned in ledgers. Long Beach is the only place on this continent where one can see the world's finest drivers close up on an urban circuit and hear, say, a V-12 Alfa engine at full song, its thunder reverberating off high rises adjacent to a blue Pacific harbor.
Mario Andretti, America's favorite international race driver and 1978 world champion, was happy to be back in a competitive car after two years of driving losing Lotuses. He now races for Alfa Romeo and is philosophical about the bad years. "The disappointments in Formula I are so many, the rewards so few," he says. "When you finally see the rewards, they're so overwhelming that with one good weekend you forget 30 bad ones."
When Andretti, who is 41, decides to retire, ready and able to step into his shoes as America's representative on the Grand Prix circuit is Eddie Cheever. Though only 24, Cheever already has five years of European racing experience. Andretti was born in Italy and brought to America when he was young; Cheever, in contrast, was born in Phoenix but has lived most of his life in Rome. This year is Cheever's first in a competitive car; he drives for Britain's Ken Tyrrell, who has groomed the likes of three-time world champion Jackie Stewart.
Mercifully, when the flag fell to start the 80-lap Long Beach race, the FOCA-FISA affair was put aside. Pole sitter Riccardo Patrese of Italy led the race for the first 24 laps in his Arrows-Cosworth, but only because Reutemann and Jones let him. Then Reutemann passed Patrese, and Jones overtook them both, driving aggressively but smoothly, as is his style. In the end he beat Reutemann by 9.19 seconds, finishing the 162.61-mile race in 1:50:41.33, an average speed of 87.60 mph. He was asked if he had any trouble getting past either Patrese or his teammate. "I don't consider any driver difficult to overtake," the world champion said with a small smile.
The FISA-favored Renaults had traction problems and were slow coming off the turns as their turbocharged engines struggled to regain the power they lost during long, cautious entries into the corners. Renault drivers Renè Arnoux and Alain Prost must have felt much as Stirling Moss did when reflecting on driving a car with automatic transmission. "Stepping on the accelerator was rather like stepping on a squid," said Moss. Prost didn't survive the first lap; when last seen he was coming into a hairpin turn in the middle of—and perpendicular to—the rest of the field. The other cars all dodged him, but Prost retired immediately. Arnoux finished eighth and last, the rest of the 24 starters having retired.
Nelson Piquet, last year's winner at Long Beach, took third in his Brabham. Andretti and Cheever raced hard for fourth. For more than 50 laps Cheever held Andretti off, displaying his coolness, but then he lost second gear, and the old pro got past. That fourth place was better than he had done all last year. Cheever's fifth was his best Grand Prix finish ever. Afterward, Andretti said of Cheever, "Looks like I got me some help there to carry the flag." Then he added, "I just hope he stays behind me."
As the Williams cars passed under the British and Saudi and checkered flags, there were half a dozen smiling Saudi faces around Frank Williams, so pleased with the results that they looked as if they couldn't wait to reach for their wallets and slay the factory giants again.