The world driving championship was decided Saturday in a parking lot just off the Las Vegas Strip. Caesars Palace had built a 2.2-mile circuit behind the hotel and gambling casino, paid the price (a $6 million budget) for a Formula I race and thus bought a spot in motor-sports history alongside the Nürburgring, Monza and Brands Hatch.
The winner of the championship was Nelson Piquet, a small, dark, 29-year-old Brazilian. The winner of the inaugural Caesars Palace Grand Prix was Alan Jones, 35, a stocky, pugnacious Australian who had won the driving title last year. The loser of both was Jones' Williams teammate, Carlos Reutemann, 39, a handsome, moody Argentinian who has futilely pursued the Formula I championship for a decade.
A single point had separated Piquet and Reutemann, and that margin didn't change as a result of the race. Only now their positions in the drivers' standings were transposed. While Jones sped al but unchallenged to his final victory—he retired after the race—Piquet cruised to fifth place in his Brabham for two points. Reutemann dropped from the pole position at the start to eighth and no points at the finish, the victim of gremlins in his gearbox.
The evening before the race Reutemann had stood by the huge Caesars Palace fountain and hinted that he felt defeat coming. That this race had been added to the end of the original 14-event 1981 schedule, as a replacement of sorts for the now-defunct Watkins Glen Grand Prix, seemed to him a sort of omen that he wasn't destined to be world champion. "I have a nice book written about my career in Formula I at home in Argentina," he said, "and the only page I need to finish is the one on which I tell about becoming world champion. It should've been all over after the last race [the Canadian Grand Prix], when I was leading." The ensuing scrunch of his face and resigned wave of his hands were more prophetic than any mere words he might have spoken.
October 26, 1981
The finale may have been rendered anticlimactic by Reutemann's gears, but it didn't lack controversy. Caesars Palace had offered its parking lot—and exposure to "new markets"—to the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) as far back as 1977. After four years of negotiating, the race came off according to Caesars' plan: The world's fastest cars did race around a parking lot. In fact, they raced around and around and around the course, which, with its 14 turns, was stuffed like intestines into the 75-acre lot and some adjoining land. It was a circuit unlike any Grand Prix racing had ever seen; not only was it short on high-speed sweepers and fast straightaways, but it was also devoid of landmarks—no trees, no hills, not even grass, just chutes bordered by cement walls. Still, it had a claim to character. Those tight turns were brutal on tires, brakes and drivers. Said Piquet afterward, "When my crew gave me a sign saying 33 laps to go, I nearly died. My head was already going out of the car. I couldn't hold it upright against the centrifugal forces."
Those who care about the esthetics of motor racing were appalled by the circuit. Jones, whose dislike for the politics of Grand Prix racing is one of the reasons he's heading home to Australia, scoffed. "It looks as if they brought a goat path down from the mountains and flattened it out," he said.
German-born Evi Gurney, who once worked in Porsche's press department and whose husband, Dan, competed as a Formula I driver and team owner for 12 years, said, "It reminds me of my kitchen floor every morning. I go downstairs and find my two boys playing those electronic games: deet-deet-deet-deet. That's what this is, Atari for grownups. There's no drama in it, no life."
Whatever possibilities there might have been for life and breath in the race were snuffed out when Reutemann's gearbox began acting up on the third lap. From that moment his 10-year cause was doomed. Piquet passed him on Lap 17, knowing at that moment that he only needed to finish sixth to become world champion. Most of the excitement was provided by the teams using Michelin tires. Barely one-third of the way into the 75-lap race the Michelin-shod cars began pitting for fresh rubber, while those using Goodyears sped on undeterred. Alain Prost (Renault), Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo), Jacques Laffite (Talbot-Matra) and John Watson (McLaren-Cosworth) all were running in the points before their tires began blistering. When they returned to the course with fresh Michelins they provided Reutemann with his only chance for the championship. They all had been leading Piquet at the time of their pit stops, and if they could repass him, they would prevent him from earning any points in this race. Prost and Giacomelli made it back to second and third places, but Laffite and Watson ran out of time. They finished sixth and seventh, respectively.
After gaining as much as half a second per lap on Prost, Jones' margin at the end was 20.048 seconds; he had averaged 97.9 mph, considerably faster than had been expected on the "go-kart" course—faster than this year's winners had gone at either Long Beach or Monte Carlo. But he hadn't made Reutemann's job any easier. Jones could have held back and "blocked" for Reutemann, but didn't. His longtime resentment of his teammate had been aggravated because Reutemann frequently beat Jones this year. Asked if he favored Reutemann or Piquet for the championship, Jones replied, "It's take your pick between TB and cancer. I couldn't give a damn." And how did he feel when he lapped the struggling Reutemann during the race? "Wonderful."
When Piquet's Brabham pulled to a stop, he was mobbed—tugged and hauled away by people more excited over his new status than he was. "Too much people were pushing my back and pulling my arm, and I want to get away from the people," he said. "So I run from them." He got only a few yards before he passed out, the effect of all those laps around the parking lot hitting him on the run.
Meanwhile Reutemann climbed out of his car, draped a duffel bag over his shoulder and headed straight for his hotel room. A mechanic reached into Reutemann's car and ran the gearshift through its pattern. "I think he was just knacked," the mechanic said. "The gearbox looked perfect." Reutemann walked past the fountain where he had sensed defeat the previous evening, and where he had wondered aloud where his 10-year obsession had brought him. "The only thing that is important now for me is the world championship," he had said. "But how important is it to have a world championship, I don't know. I really don't know. How important really is Formula I? I don't know. I don't ever win the championship, so I can't answer that question."
Jones knows, Piquet is finding out, and next year Reutemann will be back still trying to find out, to fill the last page of his book.