When you think of Formula 1, you think of the pinnacle of motorsports. Countless millions being spent to make 4 wheels spin as fast as they possibly can. However, with so many restrictions and technical regulations in place, the F1 cars of today are not exactly what the engineers at the factory are truly capable of. In the interest of having a fair competition and keeping costs low enough so that all teams have the funds to make a car which can race decently with the rest, many technological advancements have been outlawed and therefore not implemented despite it making the vehicle faster. For example, you have the Brabham BT46B “Fan Car”, which used a big fan to essentially suck the car to the tarmac and minimise the need for draggy aerodynamic wings and such. Or even the active suspension found on the Williams cars of 1992 and 1993 which allowed for minor adjustments to the suspension on the fly to deal with changes to road surface or cornering characteristics of each track.
However, it could be argued that 1982 was at least pretty close to the absolute limit that motorsports could achieve at the time. First of all the engines were immensely powerful, it is believed that the BMW engine in the Brabham cars were capable of pushing well in excess of 1000bhp in qualifying trim thanks to the huge turbocharger strapped to the puny 4-cylinder engine. Even now it is the most powerful engine to ever to be used in a Formula 1 car. Secondly and perhaps more impactful was that now all participant teams in the paddock had introduced ground effect to their vehicles. It was an engineering solution pioneered by Colin Chapman and introduced in 1977 in the Lotus 78. By creating a pocket of low pressured air underneath the car, it would suck the car to the ground and allow for greater cornering speeds and reduced overall lap times. So this was all great; it allowed for faster and more exciting racing. But it came with the downside of reduced safety for the drivers in more ways than one:
- Higher speeds: Obviously with greater top speeds and cornering speeds comes the heightened risk of suffering a high-speed incident. Also, with the greater reliance on aerodynamic grip rather than mechanical grip makes the cars less reliable, especially through high speed corners where even the slightest of changes to road surface or even strong winds could send the driver spinning out of control
- Stiffer suspension: For ground effect to work at its full capacity, the suspension needed to be tuned very stiff. This meant for a very uncomfortable and strenuous drive for many drivers on bumpier tracks like Monaco and Jacarepaguá
- More G-forces: Since the cars could take medium and high-speed corners with a greater velocity of entry, it put considerably more sideward force on the drivers’ necks, which many of them were not sufficiently trained for. Furthermore the greater Gs also put enormous pressure on the suspension arms, making them prone to breaking
- Porpoising: Since a lot of the lesser teams in the championships, such as Ensign and Toleman, didn’t have the necessary wind tunnels or expertise to build their own custom ground effect designs, they resorted to copying other team’s designs through pictures alone. Their crude designs were extremely sensitive to the angle of pitch of the car against the track, and in some instances the vehicle would begin to bounce constantly on the road. Various drivers complained of sickness and lack of control, and you can see the issues which this may cause!
The season got off to a fiery start before the first race even got underway with an intense battle taking place off the racetrack rather than on it. The two main committees of Formula 1, FISA and FOCA, each representing about half of the teams in the paddock, had had numerous disagreements over the governing of teams and race events in the past. This time at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami it was about the introduction of a new “Super license” by FISA, which in the small print stated that drivers were not allowed to switch freely from one team to another during the course of a season. Six drivers refused to agree to this change, including Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, much to the anger and dismay of Jean-Marie Balestre, the leader of FISA. His reaction did not sit well with the rest of the drivers, and they came to an agreement to go on strike. Eventually the drivers were enticed back with assurance that the Super license will not be implemented, but they were each fined $5000 for their misadventure. The race took place with no further hitches, with Alain Prost getting to the chequered flag first.
At the second race in Brazil, the long sweeping corners coupled with a bumpy road surface proved all too much for some of the drivers. Riccardo Patrese at his home race was forced to retire on lap 34 due to exhaustion caused by the massive G-forces being applied to his neck muscles and the winner of the race, Nelson Piquet, fainted when he reached the winners’ rostrum. So it seemed as though the cars were getting so fast that even the best pilots in the world couldn’t handle them!
A few races later at the San Marino Grand Prix, tensions between FISA and FOCA came to an explosive climax when the teams aligned with FOCA refused to participate on grounds related to a refusal by race organizers to delay the race due to a difference in opinion regarding the way in which the disqualification of drivers using water tanks was handled. This meant that only 14 cars took part in the race, and there was quite a bit of unease in the race itself too. The 2 Ferrari drivers, Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve, were duking it out for the lead of the race when they were given orders by the team to slow down. The two drivers took the meaning of this in different ways, with Villeneuve thinking it meant stay in their current positions and Pironi believing it to simply mean take it easy. So with Gilles in the lead and thinking he would be able to keep his position till the end of the race, he started to drive slower, but Pironi overtook him, much to the ire of his teammate. They switched position several times and eventually Pironi took the victory. Villeneuve suffice to say was absolutely fuming, stating that he never wants to speak with Pironi again.