THE LAST CAP IN THE AIR

The Lotus victory of Elio de Angelis in the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix

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The wins of Alain Prost and Gilles Villeneuve in 1981 were a warning of what was to come. In 1982 the turbo engines were ever more powerful and to race against them with an aspirated engine was starting to be near impossible. Only the lack of reliability inherent to any new technology gave some chance of success to the teams that still relied on the now veteran V8 Ford Cosworth. Their hopes were based on something akin to a Grand Prix racing version of the hare and the tortoise fable. The quick hares were the Ferrari, Renault and Brabham, running at full speed from the beginning of any race thanks to the greater power of their engines. The patient tortoises were the Williams, McLaren and Lotus, following in the distance while waiting for something to fail in the mighty but fragile turbos.

The turbo engined cars were the favourites in 1982 but a series of mechanical problems and unfortunate accidents sealed the fate of the championship even though Ferrari ended up winning the Constructors title with its supercharged 126C2
The turbo engined cars were the favourites in 1982 but a series of mechanical problems and unfortunate accidents sealed the fate of the championship even though Ferrari ended up winning the Constructors title with its supercharged 126C2

Anyway, as in Aesop’s old tale, the perseverance of the comparatively slow atmospheric cars was to get its reward more often than expected throughout one of the more strange, chaotic and dramatic seasons in F1 history. One of these times was in the Austrian Grand Prix, the 13th round of the Championship, held in mid-August on the Osterreichring circuit, the perfect scenario for the turbo engines to deploy all their power. With very fast corners, steep slopes and the high altitude of its location, within the Styrian Mountains, it was the ideal track for the turbocharged units. Despite the green landscape, hinting of the usual presence of rain, that summer weekend of 1982 the clouds were on holiday. If, on a damp track, there could be some chance for the drivers of the normally aspirated cars, it was obvious that, on a dry track, their hopes were based again in waiting for their rival’s undoing whether due to errors, mechanical issues or crashes.

Plano del circuito de Osterreichring en la versión utilizada para el Gran Premio de Austria de 1982
Plano del circuito de Osterreichring en la versión utilizada para el Gran Premio de Austria de 1982

With the sun heating the undulating Zeltweg circuit, the two sessions that decided the starting grid positions were a perfect reflection of the expected outcome. The turbo engines were always the more powerful and their cars were faster on each day. The 4-cylinder turbo from BMW was easily at the top with the two Brabhams of Nelson Piquet and Ricardo Patrese the only ones able to run in the 1:27s on a track where the previous year’s record was over one and a half minutes. This time had been set by Arnoux in 1980 and the Frenchman repeated it this year at the wheel of his Renault to be fifth fastest, behind two other turbo-engined cars: one his team mate, Prost, third with a 1:28.8, and the only Ferrari to race that weekend, driven by Tambay fourth on 1:29.5.

The best of the normally aspirated cars was the Williams FW08 with Cosworth power driven by Rosberg. The always tenacious Keke gave his all to set a 1:30.3, no less than 1.7 seconds faster than the previous year’s pole position time… a time that was now only good enough for sixth and completing the third row of the grid. The next row saw times over 1.31 with more drivers whose engines were also trying to breath the thin air of the Austrian mountains unaided. Two of these, both Italians, were on the fourth row: Elio De Angelis with the Lotus 91 and Michele Alboreto with the Tyrrell 011. Behind them was the second Williams, with the Irishman Derek Daly unable to replicate the lap times of his very quick Finnish team mate, and the McLaren MP4 of the eternal Niki Lauda, back to his home Grand Prix after three years. These were all powered by the legendary Ford V8 designed fifteen years before by Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth. They all knew that their chances were no more than to collect the crumbs falling from the turbos table.

Niki Lauda was back to Grand Prix racing in 1982 with McLaren
Niki Lauda was back to Grand Prix racing in 1982 with McLaren

Another fourteen cars completed the competitors in the Austrian race, all taking their place under an intense sun that shone on the green hills around the circuit. When the start was due, it was hot, very hot. This was a cause of concern for the engineers of the turbo engined cars, as working with high temperatures was one of their weak spots. A few moments before the beginning of the race, the Brabham mechanics were putting dry ice on the intercoolers and radiators of their BT50s to cool then down as much as possible. All eyes were on the two white and blue cars from the British team placed on the first row of the grid and determined to finally put into action the latest brainwave of their Chief Engineer, Gordon Murray. It was based on starting with just half of the fuel load necessary to complete the race. That way, the weight of the cars was greatly reduced, and they could use softer tyres, more fragile but with better performance. This, and the lighter car, would allow them to get away at a sufficient rate to make it feasible to stop in the pits at mid race, refuel, change the tyres and get back to the track still ahead of their rivals, or close enough to be able to pass aided by the fresh tyres. On paper it was a perfect plan but, for one reason or another, (mainly mechanical issues with the BMW engines) it had not yet been possible to test it under racing conditions, so Austria would be the place to witness the first refuelling pit stop of the modern era of F1, adding yet more excitement to the race.

As soon as the race started the two light and powerful Brabhams got away as if launched from a catapult, with Piquet ahead of Patrese. But even faster than them was Prost’s Renault. The Frenchman went pass the Italian when both started to climb the steep second half of the main straight heading to the new chicane that turned the previously fast first corner of the circuit into a funnel. Nevertheless, when the two cars left the zigzag, the Italian took advantage of the greater performance of his car and he needed just a few meters to re-establish the 1-2 for the cars of Bernie Ecclestone’s team.

Piquet at the wheel of his Brabham BT50 with its BMW turbo, the most powerful engine in 1982
Piquet at the wheel of his Brabham BT50 with its BMW turbo, the most powerful engine in 1982

Behind the first three, Rosberg and his Williams has surprised Arnoux’s Renault and Tambay’s Ferrari, getting past them on the right side of the track. A valiant but vain attempt as the turbo-powered cars out-accelerated him on the uphill section and the brave Finnish driver found himself without a path to enter the chicane from the outside and not only did he not gain any positions, even lost one to De Angelis and his Lotus, having to settle for sixth.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the group, the two Alfa Romeo of Giacomelli and De Cesaris had a coming together and the inter-team struggle not only involved the two Italian cars but also caused further mayhem, with several avoiding moves and contact that also led to the retirements of the Williams of Daly and the March of Keegan.

The incident also produced collateral damage on the next lap, when the first cars arrived back on the main straight, now littered with the broken parts from the stricken cars. Two of the top eight suffered punctures after running over some sharp debris: the Ferrari of Tambay and the Tyrrell of Alboreto. The Italian lost control of his car and ended up crashing against the ARMCO barriers, elevating the number of casualties to five in barely one lap of the race. The Frenchman managed to continue with a punctured right rear tyre breaking apart, and his slow progress back to the pits meant he lost a couple of laps that put him out of the fight for the top positions.

At the front, Patrese was clearly quicker than his theoretical number one, the reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet, and he soon passed him, with almost no opposition, to lead the race. The two Brabhams were racing according to plan, lapping faster than their rivals to open a gap that would allow them to carry out their pit stop and get back to the track without losing position. After five laps they already had an almost eight second lead over Prost and more than ten to Arnoux. De Angelis was fifth with his Lotus, the first car with a normally aspirated engine, but already sixteen seconds behind the leader and watching in his rear view mirrors as the Tolemans of Warwick and Fabi were getting closer, threatening to increase the number of turbo-engined cars at the front of the race after having got by most of the faster drivers from the Cosworth brigade.

Sadly, for the enthusiastic and modest British team, soon the workmanlike four-cylinder from Brian Hart ceased to make their characteristic whistle, both cars retiring almost simultaneously on lap seven, Fabi’s car because of a transmission problem, Warwick’s betrayed by broken suspension. Soon after that yet another turbo-engined car hit problems, and this time they were related with the engine itself. It was Arnoux’s Renault, forced to pit after a dramatic lost of power. The Frenchman lost any chance of winning and, despite getting back on the track, he had to finally call it a day as the problem in the powerful but still not totally reliable V6 turbo was not fixed.

Thus, with barely a third of the race gone, the hares were still running fast at the front, but they were already down to just three: the Brabhams of Patrese and Piquet followed by the Renault of Prost. The first two were still pulling away but the Brazilian had to bring his scheduled pit stop forward by almost ten laps as the soft tyres were wearing badly. The much-anticipated refuelling pit stop was finally to take place, although it took far longer than expected because the early arrival of Piquet took his mechanics by surprise. All in all, he was stationary for about half a minute and he got back in the race in fourth position, behind not only Prost’s Renault but also being passed by the first normally aspirated car, the Lotus of De Angelis, who was still running at very good pace, pulling away consistently from the remaining Cosworth engined cars.

The leader’s pit stop was done on schedule, Patrese stopping at the end of lap 24, and it was quickly done. To everybody’s astonishment, the Brabham mechanics took barely eleven seconds to refuel the BT50 and change its four tyres so Patrese got back on the track still leading and now with fresh rubber. Gordon Murray’s strategy had worked perfectly. Now all he needed was for the BMW engine to run to the end of the race.

However, the powerful four-cylinder from Munich didn’t complete its part of the plan. Just a couple of laps later a tell-tale trail of white smoke was seen from the rear of the Brabham. It was the beginning of the end of Patrese’s chances of victory. The engine blew when he arrived at one of the fast corners of the Austrian track, sending the car spectacularly off the road. Prost saw the leader spin just in front of him and he inherited a comfortable first position, almost half a minute ahead of De Angelis.

The Italian from Lotus was now up to an unexpected second position, ahead of Piquet’s Brabham who in the second half of the race wasn’t going as quickly as in the first. The Brazilian was struggling, barely a couple of seconds ahead of Rosberg’s Williams, a clear symptom of something being wrong in Nelson’s car which was confirmed on lap 30 when he retired with a transmission problem.

The Renault RE30 turbo of Prost and Arnoux (in the picture) were always fast but they lacked reliability
The Renault RE30 turbo of Prost and Arnoux (in the picture) were always fast but they lacked reliability

So, it was that as the race passed the half-way point, out of the five turbo engined cars that had started at the front only one was still there, Prost’s Renault, while another was also racing but at the rear of the field, Tambay’s Ferrari even if it was coming back at a fast rate. Only the latter would get to the finish line, although with no time to recover all the time lost. Despite all his efforts, the French driver of the team from Maranello could only reach fourth, scoring some important points at least to add to Ferrari’s tally in the Constructor’s Championship.

For Prost though it was to be yet another disappointment waiting around the corner to add to the many he suffered during his time with Renault. On lap 48, with just five to go, and when he was leading by more than thirty seconds, cruising so as not to stress the car, something went wrong. For once the retirement of the sleek Renault RE30 wasn’t surrounded by the thick cloud of white smoke that afflicted its predecessor from 1977, the chubby RS01 that bought the turbo back to F1, with its not very flattering nickname of ‘the yellow teapot’. This time there were flames exiting from the exhausts of the French car, caused by an invisible but equally lethal failure in its sophisticated electronic ignition system. The last of the hares running at the front had to retire. It was now the time for the tenacious tortoises to get the reward for their perseverance and fight for a totally unexpected win.

De Angelis became the new leader with his Lotus, but he couldn’t relax. As the race went on Rosberg has been getting closer to the Williams and the distance between them was now vastly reduced. From the almost ten seconds at mid-race it was now barely four when Prost left the race. Suddenly, what looked like an interesting fight for a distant second place was an exciting battle for what would be the first win for either of the two drivers. Furthermore, for Rosberg the prize could be even bigger. With the leader of the championship, Didier Pironi, helpless on an hospital bed after the horrifying crash he had suffered the previous week that would put the end to his F1 career, and with the two main contenders able to beat him in the overall standings, Prost and Watson, out of the race, the nine points for first position would leave Keke as the virtual leader of the World Championship.

Keke Rosberg ended up winning the F1 drivers World Championship in 1982 with the Williams FW08 Cosworth despite winning just one Grand Prix
Keke Rosberg ended up winning the F1 drivers World Championship in 1982 with the Williams FW08 Cosworth despite winning just one Grand Prix

Spurred on by the double incentive, Keke pushed even harder and started to get ever closer to the black spot of a Lotus ahead of him that had now been in his sights for quite a while. During the second half of the race he had been gaining ground, first it was by just a few tenths each lap, later by almost half a second every time they passed the finish line. Now he was getting closer by almost a second per lap and, with just three to go, that was exactly the difference in seconds to the leader and his chances were starting to look good. At such a pace he was going to catch his rival on the very last lap!

However, De Angelis wasn’t ready to lose such a chance of winning and he was pushing to the maximum, determined not to be caught and passed by his ever-closing follower. With two laps to go, 2.2 seconds separated the black Lotus from the white Williams and the Italian was trying to stay focused and to only look ahead, in the search of the best line through the next corner, instead of looking back in his mirrors at that menacing car that was getting ever closer. At his wheel, Rosberg was trying to save a centimetre or even a millimetre in every corner, lap after lap, riding the kerbs and the white lines without touching the slippery grass around the track. It was the precise style of the Italian against the aggressive driving of the Finn creating a fascinating battle between two drivers whose personalities were almost as opposite as the way they handled the wheel of their racing cars. All was smoothness for De Angelis, who drove as if he was interpreting one of the classic pieces he used to play on the piano. All was courage with the tough Rosberg, a worthy heir on the tracks of the famous flying Finns from rallying, who went for any corner as if there was no tomorrow.

The Lotus 91 Cosworth driven by Elio De Angelis in 1982
The Lotus 91 Cosworth driven by Elio De Angelis in 1982

The last lap started with the Lotus a little more than a second and a half ahead of the Williams. The numbers weren’t looking good for the hunter now, his prey had reacted and hadn’t conceded so much time in the previous laps. But then the always low load of fuel that Chapman used to put in his cars to save the very last ounce of weight started to arrive at the eight cylinders of the engine in less than the amount demanded by its Italian driver. The Lotus lost some momentum at the exit of the chicane while the Williams went through sliding, the rear tyres struggling to cope with the fury applied to the gas pedal by its driver.

The distance was getting smaller even by eye, at the quick uphill section the white car was starting to feel the invisible help of the black car’s slipstream, its driver starting to look for the inside of the track in order to defend, forcing his rival to try the overtaking move on the outside at the price of more meters to cover. Arriving at the dizzying Bosch Curve the two cars were almost together, barely a body length apart. Through the Texaco left hander the margin was similar, as if the Williams was hooked to the Lotus, waiting for its driver to find the right time to put on the final and ultimate attack.

There was only one more corner to go but it wasn’t just another. It was the one dedicated to the memory of the great Jochen Rindt. A daunting right hander, fast and long, where De Angelis arrived desperately covering the inside while seeing how Rosberg was glued to the gearbox of his Lotus, moving from side to side and looking for the gap to get ahead. The very high speed sent both men very close to the unforgiving barriers on the outside just before getting on to the final straight. De Angelis faced it from the wider line, with Rosberg keeping behind him until the very last second to get the maximum tow before going for the inside to try and get past him. There were just a few meters to go and the two cars were running almost side by side, the blunt nose of the Williams was getting closer, centimetre by centimetre, to the rounded front of the Lotus but Rosberg run out of space to complete the final move. By just five hundredths of a second the black and gold car was first across the finish line, its driver raising his right arm to show his joy while from the side of the track another man, dressed in black and equally exultant, celebrated yet another win with his traditional gesture of throwing his cap in the air. It was Colin Chapman enjoying the seventy-second win of one of his cars, the first after a four-year drought following the umpteenth 1-2 of his Lotus 79s in the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix, with Andretti ahead of Peterson, the final for one of his more brilliant creations.

The win of De Angelis in the Italian magazine AutoSprint: The front page with the heading ‘Elio makes Lotus flourish again’ and a photographic sequence of the last moments of the race
The win of De Angelis in the Italian magazine AutoSprint: The front page with the heading ‘Elio makes Lotus flourish again’ and a photographic sequence of the last moments of the race

Then, the 15th of August 1982, the spectacular win scored by Elio De Angelis at the wheel of the Lotus 91 had special significance being the one hundred and fiftieth victory for the Ford Cosworth engine and the first for the elegant Italian driver. Four months later it had a very different meaning when a heart attack put an end to Chapman’s life. That cap, launched in the warm summer air of Austria, would be the final one celebrating one of his successes. It would also be the last win for a Lotus powered by a normally aspirated engine. The next victory will take more than two years to arrive… and it will be without Chapman and with a turbo engine powering another black and gold car. De Angelis’s victorious sprint in Osterreichring marked, in the most exciting of ways, the ultimate end to an extraordinary era in Formula 1 history.

The 1982 Austrian Grand Prix as broadcast by the BBC

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