In the latest of our ‘That Time When’ video series, we explored the build-up to the 1982 South African Grand Prix – a tense weekend where the F1 drivers united and took strike action over a couple of new terms in their super licences.
As with the previous episode on Juan Manuel Fangio, we’ve dug deep into our reserves of terrible acting and bad puns to tell the story. We hope you enjoy it!
Ahead of the 1982 Formula 1 season, the governing body FISA (pretty much the forerunner to the modern FIA) decided that it wanted to have a bit more control over the drivers and so tried to sneak a couple of new clauses into their super licences – a move which ended up angering pretty much the entire grid.
FISA decided that it wanted to make it illegal for any of the drivers to criticise the governing body so that no matter how bad things were with the sport (and the early 1980s was a very turbulent time for F1), the drivers would only be allowed to say good things.
But the one that really annoyed them was a new rule stating that the drivers would no longer be allowed to negotiate contracts with other teams themselves. Effectively, the control of who drove where would end up in the hands of the teams, prompting fears that drivers would have no say in what happened as the teams traded them between each other. Can you imagine that? “Sorry Alain Prost, we know you’ve been winning races for us here at Renault, but Osella is going to pay us $100,000 for you to race for them in your home grand prix, so we’ve accepted. Good luck trying to qualify.”
Some drivers refused to sign up to these new terms and on the Wednesday before the season-opening South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, the dispute still wasn’t settled. Ferrari’s Didier Pironi and Niki Lauda – set for his first race back with McLaren since ‘retiring’ at the end of 1979 – were the two who were most vocal against the new terms. Some drivers’ representatives met up with the governing body to try and come to an agreement, but FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre wasn’t having any of it – in a manner of speaking he said ‘sign the licence, or you can’t race. Take it or leave it’.
The drivers decided to leave it. The first practice session was scheduled for Thursday, but none of the drivers were out on track. That’s because first thing that morning, the Grand Prix Drivers Association had arranged for a bus to come to the circuit and as the drivers arrived, Lauda and Pironi ushered them onto it.
One driver who wasn’t there was Jochen Mass, who’d turned up to the circuit late, and presumably wondered where everyone had gone, while Brian Henton – who didn’t have a drive – decided to stay behind in the hopes of something coming up.
As the bus full of drivers left the circuit, a member of the March team tried to block the exit with his car, so a few drivers jumped off the bus and pushed it out of the way before heading off to the Sunnyside Park Hotel about five miles away, with a throng of media following it.
Pironi had stayed behind at the track in order to conduct negotiations and continuously relayed messages back to Lauda and the drivers. The messages weren’t good ones, either. Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone claimed he’d fired his drivers, Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese, while the Kyalami circuit said it was going to impound the cars if the race didn’t go ahead. Then it was announced that the race would be postponed by a week and that everyone taking part in the strike would be banned from F1 for life. Ecclestone even claimed that none of the current drivers would be missed and that they could easily be replaced.
Back at the hotel, the drivers had taken over a conference room. Despite the bad news coming from the circuit, they all stood firm, despite the fact that some drivers didn’t want to strike (and only did so out of solidarity for those who did) and that some of the younger ones didn’t even really know what they were striking for.
Some team members also tried to bully their drivers into returning to the track. For the smaller teams with sponsors to appease, not having any cars out on track could have dire consequences. But amazingly, none of them gave up. Well except one person – Teo Fabi. Fabi was set to make his F1 debut for the Toleman team and decided that he didn’t want to jeopardise his chances, so he left. Keke Rosberg thought the whole strike was a ridiculous idea and didn’t want to be there, and yet he was furious with Fabi and said he “ran like a chicken”. There was even a story claiming that Fabi had escaped by climbing out of the toilet window, though Fabi insists it wasn’t true.
In the meantime, the drivers were finding ways to entertain each other. Gilles Villeneuve played some songs on the piano, but was then totally one-upped by Elio de Angelis, who played Mozart to the level of a concert pianist. Lauda did a stand-up comedy routine, while Bruno Giacomelli drew cartoons and apparently did a particularly amusing routine using diagrams to explain how to dismantle an AK-47. The piano was eventually used to barricade the door in order to stop team members from trying to force their way in.
There was no leeway on discussions back at the circuit and so the drivers decided to settle down for the night. In order to remain united, they decided to have a big sleepover party in the dormitory. A load of matresses were spread on the floor and they all went to sleep – or at least, they tried to. Apparently, Carlos Reutemann (who went to sleep in his race overalls) snored so heavily throughout the night that he was keeping people awake, until Gilles Villeneuve covered him up with a blanket to mute the sound.
The next morning Pironi was back at the track negotiating. Meanwhile, Mass, who didn’t play any part in the strike, decided to go out on track for a few laps. Since he was the only car out there, all of the teams made a bit of a joke of it and all gave him pit boards with wildly differing lap times. After a few laps he was black-flagged, but that was a joke too – apparently there was a track blockage, which would have been an incredible feat with no other cars on the circuit.
Around this time, FISA and Balestre relented, saying that there would be a temporary truce. The race would go ahead as normal with no ramifications for the drivers and that discussions over the super licences would continue afterwards.
And that’s what happened… sort of. Patrick Tambay was already fed up with the way F1 had gone and although he enjoyed the impromptu strike party, the politics of the whole situation was the last straw. He retired from F1 on the spot and had his drive taken by Henton, whose ploy of hanging around and waiting for an opportunity had worked. At the time, Tambay joked to a journalist that he’d only return to F1 if it was with Ferrari or Renault… and guess what? He later returned to F1 with Ferrari and Renault.
Bernie Ecclestone was also still furious and refused to let reigning champion Nelson Piquet drive, claiming that he’d had no sleep and was unfit to drive (he was later allowed after passing a medical exam).
The race itself was a pretty good one as Alain Prost won for Renault despite suffering a mid-race puncture which meant he had to charge back through from eighth to the lead. Reutemann’s snoring was clearly a ploy to deprive his rivals of sleep as he finished second, with René Arnoux third and Lauda fourth in his comeback race.
Afterwards, it turned out Balestre’s promise had meant nothing. All the drivers who took part in the strike received fines of up to $10,000 as well as suspended race bans. Furious with having been stabbed in the back, the drivers successfully appealed and had their fines and bans reduced. The FIA Court of Appeal also took a dim view of Balestre and FISA and criticised them for trying to control what the drivers would be able to do.
As a result, the super licence was changed, with the two offending clauses removed. The strike had worked – and had the added bonus of uniting the drivers and bringing the grid closer together.