Gone Prix? Not yet!

‘US Gone Prix.’ That’s what a placard held up by a disgruntled F1 fan at Indianapolis said. While doomsday theories hit our mailboxes faster than the tsunami, grand prix racing in the US and elsewhere is far from over – beer cans, water bottles and middle fingers not withstanding. Yes, the stance Michelin & teams took at Indy definitely irked the FIA and the fans. But this isn’t the first time that drivers or teams managed a no-show.


Montjuich Park, 1975

At the Spanish GP, there were disruptions during practice as drivers questioned the safety of the street circuit. The organizers tried to silence them by going around the circuit, fixing the loosely constructed barriers. The drivers however weren’t too pleased and some of them agreed to complete only one lap and then retire as a protest. Strangely though, Emerson Fittipaldi of McLaren/Ford was the only one to stick to the plan.

Midway through the race, while Fittipaldi’s teammate Jochen Mass was leading for McLaren, Rolf Stommelen’s Hill-Ford crashed and bounced over the barrier. Four spectators were killed. The race was stopped and victory was awarded to Jochen Mass, with half points. The drivers’ protest was vindicated and the circuit at Montjuich was taken off the F1 calendar.

Zolder, 1981
On Friday, in the totally overcrowded pit-lane, Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo had been hit and seriously injured by Carlos Reutemann’s Williams. This accident led the mechanics to a demonstration against the unreasonable conditions of their job. They delayed the start by lining up at the start/finish line. Most drivers climbed out of their cars to show solidarity with their mechanics. After five minutes the demonstration ended.

It was then that the race organizers made a severe mistake. They sent – the cars into the warm-up lap although not all drivers had returned from the demonstration. Everything was in utter chaos. Some drivers started, others were on their way to their cars. As the first cars returned from their formation lap and the drivers stalled the engines because of the danger of overheating, Derek Ongaro, the FISA-man who started every GP, suddenly started the race.

At this time not even all the cars had arrived at their positions on the grid. Several helpers were still on the track. One of them was Dave Luckett, an Arrows mechanic who tried to start up Patrese’s car. Some drivers managed to get around the standing Arrows but not Riccardo Patrese’s teammate Siegfried Stohr. He crashed fully accelerated into Patrese’s rear and into the mechanic. Although there were soon dozens of helpers, ambulances and recovery vehicles on the track, the race was not stopped. Watching the chaos on the straight after having finished the first lap, Didier Pironi and Alan Jones pointedly slowed down and enforced the abortion of the race. The spectators and mechanics applauded this. The race was restarted later, but Giovanni Amadeo, the injured Osella mechanic, died the Monday after the race. This is still referred to as the Black Weekend of Zolder.

While such defiance has almost always been on the grounds of safety, there have been times when either the drivers or the teams have rebelled owing to political reasons.

The 1982 Season
It got off to a rocking start so to say, when the then governing body FISA introduced a so-called ‘Super License’ on several conditions. The driver had to be under contract with a team and he had to announce the duration of the contract. Moreover the license was for the team and not for the driver and the drivers had to commit themselves not to make a claim for any damages on any of the persons and institutions involved.

Understandably, some drivers refused to sign this. Among them were Didier Pironi, Niki Lauda and Gilles Villeneuve. Under the leadership of Lauda and Didier, the chairman of the drivers’ union (GPDA), the drivers stayed out of the free practice on Thursday. This enraged FISA, which wanted to take action. But they faced an unexpected problem – shortage of ‘spare-drivers’ to fill up the places of the renegades. So they postponed the decision to the F1-commission’s next meeting at Paris and rescued Friday’s qualifying session and the race.

Immediately after the race, FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre withdrew the licenses of all 29 drivers. As if that wasn’t enough, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite, Bruno Giacomelli, Riccardo Patrese and Gilles Villeneuve were fined $10000 for taking part in the blockade at Zolder one year ago! The others had to pay $5000. Only Jochen Mass and Teo Fabi, who stayed away from the strike, went unpunished.

Thereupon Didier informed FISA that the drivers see themselves as partners with equal rights and demanded correct negotiations instead of a notice of payment due. The refusal of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari und Renault to hire other drivers strengthened his stand. Eventually Didier disbanded the GPDA and founded PRDA (Professional Race Drivers Association) in order to bring more influence for the drivers. But suddenly several teams (the British ones) started ‘pay’ for their drivers. The remaining drivers, except Elio de Angelis, Roberto Guerrero, Carlos Reutemann and Chico Serra, went to the court of appeal but only accomplished partial success – FISA was reprimanded for its behavior and the fines were fixed at $5000. PRDA accepted the judgment and so helped Formula One get a complete starter list again. However, it wasn’t over.

At the San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, it was the British teams that turned renegade. The only exception was Tyrrell, which had sponsorship obligations with its Italian backers. The bone of contention was the ruling by FISA, in response to a challenge by Ferrari and Renault that the British cars, by using various machinations, were racing below the 580-kilogram weight limit, which was measured with oil and water on board but without fuel. Only 14 cars, the minimum necessary to run the grand prix, took to the grid: two cars each from Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, two Tyrrells and a scattering of other lesser teams. Back then, just like now, Ferrari and Renault were the ‘legalists’ who remained allied to the governing body.

But the mother of all protests belongs to the big man himself. Enzo Ferrari, upset with the Italian national automobile club over the homologation of the 250LM sports car, ran his cars in the ‘blue & white’ colors rather than Italian red, at Watkins Glen, under the name North American Racing Team. He then followed it up at Mexico, where his driver John Surtees even went on to clinch the 1964 title.

The irony
Right through the 80s, the men leading the anti-establishment movement were none other than Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley themselves. Bernie was team boss for Brabham and Mosley (former boss of March) acted as Bernie’s legal advisor. Together, they represented FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association).

The verdict
All these instances go on to prove just one thing – irrespective of the controversies, the politics and the tragedies, formula one will come out on top. It’s best summed up by what Vince Lombardi, the iconic American Football Coach, once said: “The spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.”

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