Formula 1's Other Black Weekend
The 1981 Belgian Grand Prix is not often remembered in the conversation over deadly Grands Prix, but it's one of the most important.
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming "Au2biomelli", detailing the life and career of Bruno Giacomelli:
Zolder was a disastrous weekend. In Friday practice, an Osella mechanic, Giovanni Amadeo, fell off of the pit wall and into the very narrow pit lane. Sadly, he was struck by Reutemann’s Williams and suffered a skull fracture. He would, tragically, succumb to his injuries on the Monday after the race. In terms of qualifying results, trivial in comparison, Bruno was 17th, a quarter of a second faster than Mario in 18th. The big surprise was that Arnoux in the Renault, who had won two races the previous year, failed to qualify after engine problems meant he missed the only dry practice session. He was so angry that, upon leaving the circuit, he wound up in a Belgian jail. The road leading out of the circuit was blocked with fans, so the Frenchman had decided to take to the opposite side of the road to skip ahead in the queue. A car behind flashed his lights and followed him, before the man driving it got out and jumped on the bonnet of Arnoux’s Renault 5. He shouted at him to get off the car, and when he didn’t, he just started driving, leaving the man to hang on to his windscreen wipers. For three miles. At 40mph. A few hours later some policemen turned up at the hotel. It turned out that the man had been a traffic attendant and, obviously, he’d phoned the police. Prost saw them coming and told Arnoux to hide. The officers came across Lafitte first, and asked him if he was Arnoux. He replied that, no, he was Jacques Lafitte, because he was Jacques Lafitte, but Prost had other ideas. He walked over to them and said, “Go on Rene, don’t be stupid, they’ve got you” and the Ligier driver was swiftly frogmarched out. As if there wasn’t un oeuf egg on their faces already, they returned minutes later and searched the hotel for the real Arnoux, who would spend several hours in jail before Renault negotiated his release.
Come Sunday there was some industrial action to be had! Mechanics, angry that one of their own had been severely injured, left their cars unattended in order to delay the start of the race. They also held a minute’s silence for Giovanni. Drivers from FISA-aligned teams, such as Alfa Romeo, joined them at the front of the grid in protest of the organiser’s refusal to reduce the number of cars able to qualify down from 30 to 26 in light of the narrow pitlane. Despite the fact that there were still drivers and mechanics standing at the front of the grid, the order to start the parade lap was given. However, due to the fact that some cars were unattended on the grid, the order in which they were sent of was very chaotic and in no way represented the actual grid. This meant that when they got back around, the grid could not properly form up with many drivers then expecting a second parade lap to set the grid correctly. And then sheer chaos unfolded. Despite the fact everyone had had to wait while the polesitter, Piquet, was sent around a second time because he’d missed his grid slot, then had to weave his way through the grid, and THEN be pushed backwards into his grid slot by marshals when he overshot a second time, the organisers wanted the race started. But that long wait had meant that Patrese’s Arrows had overheated and stalled, so their Chief Mechanic, Dave Luckett, jumped over the wall to restart it. As he knelt down at the back of Patrese’s car, the red lights went out and the field was away. Siegfried Stohr, in the other Arrows, dodged the wrong side of the bottleneck and went straight into the back of Patrese’s car, crushing Luckett betwixt them. Stohr jumped from his car, completely mortified and in obvious anguish, while marshals rolled the cars apart to reveal Luckett in a crumpled heap and a pool of blood but, miraculously, still alive. He was stuffed into the back of a Renault 18 and driven away. The British mechanic broke both legs, his ribcage, and one arm as well as losing the tip of his little finger on his left hand and suffering facial lacerations but made a full recovery and went on to work for Simtek. While all of this was happening, the drivers continued racing. When they came around to the start line again, marshals, without the authority to stop the race, waved down the drivers in an attempt to get them to stop. The drivers, confused by the lack of red flags, waved back. The third time round, sense finally prevailed – Pironi stopped his car at the front of the grid, forcing everyone behind to stop too. What had unfolded was horrific. Nigel Mansell had seen it all unfold in front of him. He said in his autobiography that he believed Luckett was dead, and that his legs went completely numb when the drivers stopped the race. He cried inside his helmet, wondering the point of the whole sorry event.
Despite the events that had unfolded, and the clear psychological effect it had had on several drivers, the race restarted 40 minutes later. Thankfully, this start was much less dangerous. All the drivers were away cleanly with Pironi taking the lead from 3rd on the grid, followed by Reutemann, Piquet, Watson, and Jones. The Australian soon dispatched of Watson and began work on Piquet. Ten laps later, his frustrations having boiled over, he dove down the inside, barging Piquet off into the barriers. Jones than passed Reutemann, and soon after that Pironi too, to take the lead. Just a lap later Pironi would spin, handing Williams a 1-2. That was until lap 20, when Jones’ Williams jumped out of gear going entering the back straight and flung him into the barrier. Jones would limp away, having scalded his leg when a radiator exploded. As if this weekend hadn’t been dangerous enough, it started to rain on lap 52. Cars tiptoed round on slicks until lap 55 when an early chequered flag was flown as the 75% distance had been reached. Finally, it was over; the race that should never have started. Giacomelli finished 9th, the last car on the lead lap, with Andretti just behind in 10th.
But the results didn’t matter. One man had been killed, and another very badly injured. The drivers had protested before the race that there were going to be too many cars on Friday and Saturday and that the pit lane would be too busy and had tragically been proved correct. The race should have been cancelled after Giovanni’s death, or at least the grid size should have been dramatically reduced because the facilities were clearly inadequate. The drivers’ and mechanics’ protests were ignored out of spite, to the extent that the parade lap was started while they were still protesting, explicitly endangering their lives. The first start should have been aborted; Patrese was waving his arms very clearly before the start sequence was initiated, but yet-again the organisers were either criminally incompetent or purposefully reckless. The race should have been red-flagged the instant that Luckett was hit and it certainly should not have been up to the drivers to stop the race! They should never have gone to Zolder that weekend; the deal should never have been made and they had ample time to cancel the race. It’s the fact that mechanics were the ones in danger that makes the events of this weekend so tragic: the drivers accept the danger every time they step into their cars, but the mechanics do not. They should not expect to be run over in the pitlane or have a grid full of cars released straight at them. The teams can always find more people willing to drive the cars, but if the mechanics downed tools the sport would grind to a halt. But, of course, Formula One never stops, it only pauses to reflect.