Celebrating The 1981 Caesars Palace Grand Prix - And Its Unlikely Protagonist
39 years ago today, the innaugral Caesars Palace Grand Prix occured. Widely remembered as a championship decider, one man's role is always forgotten.
The following is an excerpt of the upcoming #Au2biomelli:
Las Vegas. The city of sin. Finally, a venue worthy of F1. And what a venue it was! The Caesars Palace car park. As Counting Crows may have once said: “They paved paradise; it was a parking lot”.
The circuit, tacked on to the calendar after Watkins Glen went bankrupt, was built in only 45 days for a cost of $3.5 million ($10 million today, currency fans). It was the greatest racing circuit the world had ever seen.
A true driver's circuit, a layout that really let the driver’s ability shine through. In order to hone that ability, the drivers were given an extra untimed practice session on the Wednesday before the race as the circuit was brand new and had not held a pilot event (despite that being in contravention of FISA’s rules).
The extra day was especially necessary due to the anti-clockwise nature of the circuit and the Nevada heat, along with all of the associated stresses on car and driver both of those brough. No one was more stressed than Carlos Reutemann and Nelson Piquet, however, as the two South Americans were locked in a battle for the championship, with Reutemann leading Piquet by a single point and Laffite also in with a long shot, 6 points back.
Thursday brought what would have been the normal Friday sessions, as the race would be held on Saturday to allow the casino it was borrowing the car park of to reopen on Sunday. Andretti finished Thursday 8th fastest, while Giacomelli was down in 15th. But it was Bruno who was faster when it mattered in qualifying on Friday, snatching 8th from Andretti, with the American being demoted to 10th by Mansell.
Reutemann got the best possible result, in terms of his championship stake, as he would start on pole, while Piquet would start 4th, with Lafitte’s challenge was pretty much over before it had begun as he started in 11th but needing to win the race to have even the slightest chance of getting the title.
Saturday was race day and NBC pulled out all the stops for their coverage, drafting in The Captain himself, Roger Penske, as colour commentator as well as future missing person and coup enthusiast, Mark Thatcher (yes, those Thatchers), as pit lane reporter.
They lined up on the dusty Vegas tarmac at 1:10, proving that Liberty were actually upholding the history of the sport when they changed the start time, and were sent away on the parade lap.
When they lined up for the real thing, Villeneuve was quite far to the left of his 3rd place grid spot, clearly in an attempt to blitz it straight between Reutemann and Jones and nab the lead before turn 1. Things didn’t quite work out as Gilles had hoped, however, as Jones got a better start off the line to take the lead off his teammate.
Villeneuve also got the Argentinian, as the Championship leader flubbed the start. It got even worse when they got to the braking zone as Prost swept around the outside of him too. Further back, Giacomelli jumped Tambay off the line, out-dragged Watson down to turn 1 and then passed Piquet around the outside of it. Behind that, Andretti would fall victim to a fast-starting Laffite passing him around the outside of turn 1, the Frenchman determined to make something of his championship situation. In a move with even more championship implications, Giacomelli passed Reutemann at the back of the circuit.
This meant that, as they crossed the line for the first time, Jones lead from Villeneuve, followed by Prost and Giacomelli then Reutemann, Watson, Laffite, Piquet, Mansell, Tambay, and Andretti in 11th. The two main championship protagonists had dropped 4 places each, with Carlos still on for the title at this stage. The engine of Jarier’s Osella had decided it’d quite like to stay where it was at the start of the race so, in true Vegas fashion, got hitched to the tarmac!
Fortunately, the marshals had it annulled before the rest of the field found out. Jones had a 2-second lead at the start of lap 2 – Villeneuve was really holding everyone up now. De Cesaris felt he was being held up too, but by Tambay, so he took matters into his own hands and, true to form, hit and spun him round at the turn 8 hairpin.
Thankfully, both were able to continue, but Tambay wouldn’t make it to the end of the lap as he had a massive accident at the fast turn 13 left-hander, ripping the front off of his car. The Frenchman was somehow able to hop away from his car and miraculously didn’t suffer any permanent injuries. De Angelis’ car had clearly been scared by that accident as it sprung a water leak and Elio thought it better to take it outside into the pitlane rather than let it go on the carpet.
Jones’ gap was now 5 seconds and Prost was desperate to get past Villeneuve now. Thankfully for him he did on lap 3, getting past the Ferrari on the inside of the turn 11 hairpin. It was now Bruno’s turn to bear down on the French-Canadian but the Alfa’s V12 wasn’t quite powerful enough to haul him past the turbocharged Ferrari.
Lap 10 brought a brace of breakdowns – Arnoux’s Renault developed a misfire and the Tyrell-Cosworth of home hero Cheever conked out. On lap 14, Surer developed a bit of a thing for the pit lane, visiting it every lap for 5 rounds of the circuit, trying to diagnose a handling issue and eventually retiring on lap 19 when it was found to be a broken rear suspension rocker arm.
Meanwhile Pironi, in the irrelevant Ferrari, had burnt through his tyres by lap 16 and so made a very early stop for some new Michelins, to the notice of almost no-one.
On lap 17, Piquet passed Reutemann for 7th! And Andretti also got past the championship leader to claim 8th place. This certainly had championship implications, not that you’d have realised it from the way Carlos effectively jumped out of the way of his championship rival. The Argentinian was having problems, gear selection issues to be precise, but he still could have defended hard against the man who needed to finish ahead of him to beat him to the title.
Four laps after that move, the relevant Ferrari became irrelevant when Villeneuve spun off and stalled. It didn’t matter, because he’d actually been disqualified at the start for starting outside his grid box, but at least he helped the marshals push his car.
This promoted Giacomelli to 3rd after 18 laps of trying to force his way past his close friend. Or at least it would have if Lafitte hadn’t got past him on the run down to turn one! There was even more action as Andretti got past Piquet and Watson to get his way up to 5th!
The Alfa Romeos were now line astern and begun battle immediately. Four laps of side-by-side action, Andretti all over the back of Giacomelli, ensued but the Italian held the world champion off. First Andretti tried it around the outside of turn 1 but Giacomelli held firm and Mario’s compromised exit meant he had to defend from Piquet behind into turn 3.
After another lap of the three of them nose-to-tail, the cameras cut to four Brabham mechanics standing on stacks of tyres trying to get a better view of the race. Luckily, the pitlane was empty so they weren’t in danger of becoming human bowling pins.
And then, after a lingering shot on the building behind the pits, the camera smash-cut to Giacomelli – he was off the road! Marshals rushed over to him and, after he signalled to them that the engine was still running, began digging him out of the sand – but he couldn’t find reverse!
After a few more seconds of trying to coax it into gear, the car sprang back into life! He was away again, rejoining in 10th, only a few seconds away from being lapped by Jones. Andretti was now 4th and got the expected attention from the American Camera Director, who cut from Giacomelli to him before Bruno was even moving again.
Of course, NBC had missed all of this, preferring instead to show a tribute to Andretti as he was retiring at the end of the year. Set to George Harrison’s “Faster”, this segment honoured his career and looked to his future.
Paul Page described him as “a man that has been capable of winning in any car he ever drove” which, factually, wasn’t true, as this season at Alfa Romeo had proved.
Mario utters an incredible quote: “Beyond – that’s a no no”. He also says that he “has another good five years” which was some Toto Wolff level of downplaying, considering he finally retired in 1994. The piece also looked to his future in the form of his son, Michael, who was exclusively referred to as “Mike” throughout – a fact that I believe is the true cause of the ‘Andretti Curse’ especially as Mario spends the whole time lamenting that ‘Mike’ has got into motor racing.
Overall, this segment is a good, if brief, tribute to Andretti, referencing many of his biggest wins and actually getting him sat down for an interview. But they did call Michael Andretti “Mike” which is hilarious so it’s a 10/10.
By lap 28, Jones had a 18.5 second lead over Prost, 40 over Laffite in 3rd, 43 over Andretti 4th, and a lead of more than a minute over Giacomelli in 10th. The next lap Watson proposed a trade with his mechanics: four new Michelin tyres for his old, worn ones. They agreed, no backsies. And then Andretti was out! His rear suspension had shattered!
The car dog-legged and Mario had three wheels on his wagon. Luckily, the 1978 F1 Champion was able to bring the car to a stop safely and pulled over to have a long look at his rear suspension. He just crouched at the back of the car for a good ten seconds with no marshals there to usher him out of the run-off area. On the same lap, Giacomelli passed Alboreto and Patrese to move up to 7th.
Lap 32 saw Prost fly into the pits like a bird into a screen glass door – his Michelins were shot. He re-joined in 6th, promoting Laffite and Piquet to the podium spots, but had his sights set solely on Jones. But that was three Michelin runners who had come in for pit stops now, it was clear that they weren’t holding up to the hot, dusty, abrasive surface.
However, two of the Michelin runners had an ace up their sleeves. An ace in the form of their harder 701 tyres - they were big sleeves. Only one of those drivers was still in the race, as Villeneuve had already spun out on them, whether it be due to the relative lack of grip or the big sleeves. The other, interestingly, had also spun on them and was now charging his way back up the field, lapping similar times to Prost. That’s right, Giacomelli had a golden opportunity here, but could he make it to the end – could he even keep it on the track?!
Prost was charging again, he passed Reutemann on lap 35 and then Mansell the lap after that! The cameras then cut to a pit lane interview with Andretti who said “I’m not retiring from anything” which, considering he had retired from the race minutes earlier, was another lie.
On lap 43 he passed Piquet into turn 3, the Brazilian content to drive for the championship and not get into any unnecessary drama. On the same lap, Warwick’s gearbox packed in. It was the first and only time he’d qualified for a race this season, so the extra 43 laps of wear really took its toll, man.
Before the commentators could even discuss the championship implications of Prost’s move on Piquet, the NBC content-goblins decided this was a good point for another insert; this time about John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Film ‘Grand Prix’ and the making of. In it Frankenheimer stated that he wanted “the romance of Formula 1” instead of the “smells of gasoline and grease” that came with American racing, a notion which was dulled by the mere concept of the race the feature was being shown in.
The New York native then went on to describe the filming process – a mixture of fixed-camara shots of Grands Prix and innovative on-board cameras filmed on mule Formula 3 cars during practice sessions. The on-board cameras were particularly interesting as nobody had ever attempted such a feat before. This meant they had to not only figure out where to place the cameras but to design and create the rigging needed to affix them to the cars, something modern F1 teams are still working through with GoPro.
Bill Frick was the man who invented them, a racecar builder in his earlier years who had since turned his ingenuity to the art of the old celluloid chronicler. He developed aluminium tubular frame rigging for dozens of different cars in dozens of different positions for dozens of different shots, all alone. It was an incredible feat and he defined the medium of onboard cameras for forever more.
Frankenheimer ended the piece by saying it was the most fun project he’d ever participated in and that he’d enjoyed it so much because he’d realised that it would be from the moment he’d started it. A beautiful sentiment for a beautiful film. This insert was a fascinating look at the work and passion that went into making the film and listening to Frankenheimer was genuinely engaging to listen to – it was a much better feature than the Andretti interview - but it didn’t call the 1991 Indycar Champion “Mike” so it only gets a 5/10.
On lap 45, Giacomelli proved he was still in it by passing Reutemann for 6th and putting a death knell on the Argentinian’s title hopes. But Prost was moving too, having passed Laffite for 2nd into turn one.
The Ligier’s tyres were completely shot: Piquet, Mansell, and Giacomelli were gaining on him massively. On lap 49 Piquet passed him, on the same lap as Jones lapped Reutemann, his teammate, which definitely wasn’t funny at all.
At lap 50, Jones had a 50 second lead, with Prost holding 13 seconds over Piquet with Laffite and Mansell only 3 seconds behind him. Giacomelli was another 6 seconds back but gaining fast. The next lap Mansell went through Laffite and Giacomelli followed suit the lap after that before the Frenchman finally slid into the pits for fresh Michelins.
Mansell then passed Piquet, but Giacomelli was faster than either of them. Four laps after Mansell passed the champion-elect, Bruno followed him through down the inside of turn 1 and suddenly Piquet was only one place above where he needed to be – and it was Reutemann behind him. They were now tied on points, but Piquet would take the title on countback because he had more wins.
Piquet had been suffering all race with shoulder pain after a sports massage went wrong and Reutemann was still struggling against those gearbox gremlins; it was a true battle of broken man vs broken machine. Luckily for Piquet, he had about 20 seconds over his title rival, so the battle was more Emu War than Agincourt.
And then it was time for another insert – this one was a comparison between Formula 1 and NASCAR, because US audiences can only have things explained to them through the prism of NASCAR. It opens with Paul Page speaking some atrocious French, as culture is just cigarettes and onions. Then followed a montage of F1’s glitz and glamour – Monaco was represented by a roulette wheel, the Monaco ballet, fireworks, more gambling, and Howden Ganley driving one of Frank Williams’ Iso-Marlboro cars during the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix which was, to be fair to them, a deep cut.
Germany, Austria, and Great Britain were represented on their Autosport magazine covers, because the editors needed a day off after finding that deep cut. Belgium was represented by a chocolate box in the shape of their country because Spa is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re gonna get.
The Netherlands was a windmill and a shot of Kasteel Duurstede De Haar Castle, because nothing else would pass the censors. Italy was The Vatican, which isn’t Italy. Obviously, Paris was the Eiffel tower, a café, and the Paris Fashion Week, because riots ‘aren’t romantic enough’. Then came a shot of Zandvoort (with Bruno in it!) because the editor's hand slipped when inserting it in Windows Movie Maker.
All of these visualisations were absolutely correct, as evidenced by the fact that the USA was represented by the Confederate Flag, which does feel a bit on the nose. It was then followed by a montage of NASCAR races at Talladega and Charlotte, people drinking around a campfire at Talladega, eating at a barbecue, and wearing cowboy boots – two of which happen at races in Europe too so I’m not exactly sure what their point was. Then came a Daschund in a cowboy hat, the greatest part of the entire segment, before a long pan up some jeans to a man who turned out to be Richard Petty, smiling broadly in his signature hat.
Following that was a bizarre montage of F1 drivers looking confused and winking at the camera like they were auditioning for a dating show and NASCAR drivers saying ‘howdy’. Just howdy. Immensely accurate representation.
The final shot was Petty again, still staring, still smiling; almost as though, if he stared for long enough, he could steal my very soul. Luckily, the editors cut away to some crashes before The King could possess me.
After that it was the government mandated ‘objectification of women’ period featuring gratuitous shots of various women under the pretence of comparing the fashion of race fans. Finally came the comparison of the podium: “Champagne, and Soda Pop in Victory Lane.” Poetry. This segment is genuinely one of the most bizarre things I’ve watched on a race broadcast – and I’ve watched McLaren drivers soak a car in milk. Michel Polnareff’s “Y'a qu'un ch'veu" is played underneath the entire piece, which really gives you the impression that you’re losing your mind. 9/10 – didn’t call Mario’s son ‘Mike’.
Back to the race: Bruno had begun to work his magic on the Lotus. By lap 55, he’d halved the gap to the Brummie, and he wasn’t stopping there. Two laps later he was through and from there he just kept pushing. Prost was now only 40 seconds behind Jones, but Giacomelli was faster than both of them.
On lap 59, Watson passed Reutemann for 6th and properly ended the Argentinian’s championship dream. It would only get worse from there, as Laffite would pass him too on lap 69 (nice). At this point Jones lead by 35 seconds over Prost who was now only 5 seconds ahead of Giacomelli! With 6 laps to go it might just be possible!
With five laps to go the graphics declared Piquet to be World Champion, which did seem a little premature…
On lap 71 Jones’ lead was down to 27 seconds, but Prost was now 7 seconds ahead of Giacomelli! Bruno had hit traffic and lost time as a result. This wouldn’t deter him, though, and he pressed on. A lap later it was 5.4 seconds again, with two laps to go.
When they crossed the line for the final time, Jones won by 20.048 seconds and Giacomelli and Prost were nose-to-tail. But the Renault was still ahead! The final gap was 0.380 seconds, agonisingly close to beating Prost’s much faster car that was on even faster tyres!
Mansell took the best result of his career to date in 5th, Piquet took his first championship with 5th place – that graphic was actually a premonition – and Laffite took Watson for the final point on the final lap.
After the race Piquet, physically exhausted, vomited in his overalls and had to be lifted from his car and carried into the paddock. The camera director managed to miss the podium ceremony, preferring instead to focus on the removal of Laffite’s crumpled Ligier.
They finally caught a shot of the podium long after the anthems were finished, with the three rostrum sitters now posing for photos. Bruno, showing his generous side, passed his massive bottle of champagne to someone in the crowd who was, sadly, out of shot.
It was an incredible drive - he'd recovered over a minute in fewer than 50 laps to finish less than four tenths behind 2nd! Finally, he'd reaped reward for his struggles with the Alfa squad and he'd finally got a result worthy of his friend Patrick.
But if only he hadn't spun… That would've been his win at the final race of the season – the one that’s fresh in everyone’s minds - the one everyone remembers.
That could have done wonders for his career, he’d had offers from McLaren at the end of 1980, it could have been Ferrari after this year. Alas, for two years in a row he’d missed out on winning the final race of the year…