This 2018 Formula 1 season is acknowledged as being pivotal for Formula 1: Politics, budget caps, car design, power units, regulation changes and talking ad-nauseam.
All pretty much standard fare really so nothing new there but this current round of changes to the sport and threatened upheaval is historically tame when compared to some past seasons.
In the mid to late 1960s and later through the 1970s, Bernie Ecclestone managed to coral all the teams under the banner of F1CA (Formula 1 Constructors Association) later to be known as FOCA, and gradually flexed his new muscle as he sought his ultimate goal of control over the sport. This brought him into continuous conflict with an organisation named the ‘Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile’ (FISA) and so began the FISA-FOCA war that was to go on for more than a decade.
It became almost a personal battle between Ecclestone and the autocratic Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, the President of FISA and then later the FIA. After years of major political manoeuvring and disputes between the two major factions the 1982 season promised to be more peaceful, especially as the first of the famous ‘Concord Agreements’ brokered by Enzo Ferrari was signed in early 1981.
Season 1982 did not get off to a good start with a drivers strike, led by Niki Lauda, at the South African Grand Prix over a dispute with the FIA over their ‘Super Licences’. After walking away from the first day of practice the drivers then barricaded themselves in a hotel room before a compromise was reached and they turned up for the second day of practice.
The next race in Brazil was to be no less problematic.
The FISA, sympathetic to Ferrari and Renault teams running turbocharged engines, protested against the winning Brabham and Williams non-turbo cars, which were subsequently disqualified, and that dispute was upheld at the FISA court of appeal. So the acrimony followed the season back to the European theatre of races.
At this time of year, in late April, the Formula 1 circus used to descend in the springtime on the picturesque circuit ‘Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari’ in the small town of Imola, near Bologna, Italy. A circuit that was to gain infamy much later as the scene of Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994.
Many of the FOCA team trucks and motorhomes had already arrived at the circuit when, late in the evening, we got the call from the various team bases in the UK to “leave immediately by the fastest possible route out of Italy”. In the dead of night, under cover of darkness, it was “Switzerland here we come”.
In a ridiculous display of petulance, the race was to be boycotted by the majority of the FOCA teams and it was thought that injunctions would be applied to the teams property still in Italy. Only fourteen cars would start that race.
The ‘turbo or non-turbo’ dispute continued to rage and would do so through the season but at the next race after Imola, the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, all of those power politics were shattered by an accident in practice, on the 8th May 1982, that took the life of Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, considered one of the most skilful and exciting drivers in history.
In Imola, Villeneuve and team mate Didier Pironi had a major disagreement when Pironi apparently wilfully disobeyed team orders, as understood by Villeneuve, and overtook him late in the race thereby taking the win from an incensed and disgusted Villeneuve who then declared “I have declared war. I will do my own thing in future”.
It is thought that perhaps that was playing heavily on an angry Villeneuve’s mind when, just ten minutes before the end of qualifying and with Pironi in pole position, he crashed into the back of Jochen Mass’ car, the Ferrari cartwheeling and throwing it’s driver out of the cockpit and into the barriers. The Ferrari team withdrew from the race, packed up and left the track and a very dark and sombre mood descended on the paddock.
On then to Monaco and then to the inaugural Detroit race where the politics continued to rumble as Ecclestone tried to rally his FOCA teams around him, but to no avail as they all soon scrambled to make arrangements to fit turbo engines to their cars for the following season.
Deaths dark shadow had not given up on Formula 1 though.
At the next Grand Prix in Montreal, Villeneuve’s home race and on a circuit newly named in his memory, Italian driver Riccardo Paletti was killed in an horrific start line accident when he crashed at unabated speed into the back of Didier Pironi’s stalled Ferrari.
Later in the season Pironi himself was brutally injured when, during qualifying in wet conditions at Hockenheim, he was unsighted in the spray and ran into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault. The injuries he suffered brought the premature end to his Formula 1 career.
Meanwhile, in the background, the politics had been, and were still being played out with Jean-Marie Balestre developing plans that would bring him and FISA into direct confrontation with Ecclestone and FOCA. That scenario would continue to be played out over the next few years with Ecclestone eventually gaining most of the control he was seeking, and that new ‘Concorde Agreement’ helping to establish a relatively calm breakout of peace, at least on the surface.
The 1982 season also saw the Swiss Grand Prix take place at the circuit Dijon-Prenois in France and pre-qualifying very much in force with some forty drivers from eighteen teams taking part over the course of the season, and only twenty six cars permitted to race, the track was a much more crowded place to be.
Keke Rosberg, father of 2016 World Champion Nico, became the 1982 World Drivers Champion by dint of winning just one solitary race and there were a total of eleven race winners over the season, with nine different winners winning nine consecutive races.
The 1982 F1 season makes the current discussions and disagreements in the 2018 season look calm and gentlemanly by comparison.