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The one that didn't count



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Desiré Wilson


Tyrrell-Cosworth 010




1981 South African GP (7 February 1981)


One of the events to fall victim of the infamous FISA-FOCA power struggle, the 1981 South African GP was officially not an F1 race. In fact, it was probably the last Formula Libre race ever. So technically, it wasn't even a non-championship F1 event since the cars present did not conform to the new-for-1981 F1 rules prohibiting the use of skirts.

So how did this particular chapter in the "FIASCO" book come to pass? For this we will have to go back to the agony of the 1980 Spanish GP exclusion, which spurred on the conflict between FISA and FOCA. After a season that saw relations between Messrs Balestre and Ecclestone reach freezing temperatures FISA set about composing the calendar for the 1981 season. In its October meeting the dates were agreed - the South African GP would be held on February 7. But there were plenty of delays during the winter, not least caused by Bernie's plans to set up a rival F1 series amidst the bickering over Balestre's impromptu ban on ground effects. It soon became clear he would not get the support of most of the organizers (think of that today!) and national clubs. In addition, the 'continental' teams, being Renault, Ferrari, Talbot-Ligier, Osella and Alfa Romeo, sided with FISA, leaving the British teams on their own. The project soon folded but it had caused the preparation for the 1981 championship to come to a temporary halt. The Argentine race, which was set for a late-January date, had already been cancelled, with the South African date also coming up very quickly. So, forced to rethink the 1981 calendar at the end of December, FISA onesidedly postponed the South African race to April 11. This was notified to the South African Automobile Club and its sporting arm, the SAMRAC (South African Motor Racing Club).

This decision generated serious problems in Johannesburg. The organizers had started promoting the race, printing and distributing posters with the original date, while event sponsor Nashua had also signed on for February 7. Furthermore, the South Africans claimed, the April date could lead to a meteorological debacle that would have been similar to the spectator mudwrestling match at the 2000 British GP. We should not forget that April is the Southern-hemisphere equivalent of October in the northern part of the world, meaning that weather conditions could well be less than favourable. On top of that, Kyalami Enterprises - the new company that managed the track - had signed a contract with FOCA for the specific date of February 7!

FISA did not have ears for the South Africans' problem. By a telex dated January 9 FISA confirmed to the SAMRAC that in order for their race to be included in the World Championship the only possible date would be April 11. Poignantly, the telex also included a paragraph whereby the South African authorities might, if they desired to do so, host a Formula Libre race on the 7th February, under the prescriptions of article 237 of the FISA yellow book. The South Africans gave it second's thought and decided to do just that. It seems that the deciding element in this was the possible reaction of the FOCA should the South African authorities finally accept the FISA-approved date in April…

So, a Formula Libre race, then. This meant that the FISA-aligned teams stayed home, with the British FOCA teams leaving London on January 31. When the cars arrived in the Kyalami paddock everyone was surprised to see they all had skirts! Sure enough, sliding skirts were supposed to be banned for 1981 but not in the context of a Formula Libre race…

There were more surprises as on the tyres side there were worries that there would not be enough Goodyears to go around. With this not being a FISA-sanctioned F1 race Goodyear could not be present as F1's official supplier. But their rubber was! To circumvent the Akron company's absence FOCA cunningly made a deal with the International Racing Tyre Service - the people who were going to supply the Avon tyres to the teams as from the start of the European season - whereby the stocks of Goodyears owned by IRTS where to be offered to the teams. These tyres - the remains of those used in the 1980 Aurora series - were all marked as "control tyres", guessed as being of the standard type, not the qualifying type. Although limited in numbers, it was said at the time that about 3 or 4 sets of slicks were available per car. Wet tyres were restricted to one set per car causing the wet Friday session to be very quiet as no-one wanted to put at risk their only wet weather rubber.

With a small field of just 19 DFV-powered cars from Britain - with the German-based ATS team the only continental (but Cosworth-engined) team to side with Bernie - qualifying became dead serious on Friday, with 1980 revelation Nelson Piquet showing himself to be a prime candidate for overall 1981 honours. In his striking BT49 Nelson outpaced the Williams pair of Reutemann and Jones, 'Lole' finally starting to settle in the team that so heavily favoured the outspoken Australian. A stunning fourth was Keke Rosberg in the Fittipaldi, only half a second adrift of pole man Piquet, while Chico Serra was equally well up in 13th, ahead of Surer and Watson. This was a fine example of what-could-have-been as the small Reading team was unable to adapt to the skirtless era that was to follow immediately after this race. With De Angelis and Patrese fifth and sixth the Italians merely underlined their talent while Ricardo Zunino in seventh proved what a magnificent car the BT49 really was.

The only one-off in the regular field was South African lady Desiré Wilson, getting herself a, well, local-heroine deal in the second Tyrrell. Qualifying 16th, just trailing Watson in the miserable M29 and beating Daly, Lees and Salazar who admittedly had run into all sorts of problems, Desiré proved she was fit for F1 but yet she was the only attending driver who wasn't present at the next race. In a race that saw Alan Jones drop out with a loose skirt near the end - probably the last time that was the cause of an F1 car's retirement! - team mate Carlos Reutemann romped towards a clear 20-second win over Piquet, with De Angelis over a minute behind in third. Fourth and lapped was Rosberg, ahead of Watson, Patrese and Cheever in the leading Tyrrell, who was in last year's car as was Wilson. The classification was completed by South Americans Zunino and Serra (two laps down) and British Ilses residents Mansell and Daly (three laps down).

As for the presence of Mrs Wilson, who spun out after 52 laps, there are scarce details about the one-off deal. There was a brief sarcastic note in Italian motorsport mag Autosprint, however, that reminded how Ken Tyrrell had publicly critisized the presence of a woman in an F1 car in 1980. Less than a year later, with his second car up for grabs and with money involved, Ken promptly forgot his words.

So anyone claiming Carlos Reutemann did not lose his deserved 1981 title because of his Las Vegas gaffe but instead by having his South African win not count, is wrong. The South African GP of 7 February 1981 was never on as a World Championship race and, as said, technically it wasn't even an F1 event… But then again, what's the big deal? As soon as Brabham arrived in Brazil with their clever hydro-pneumatic ride-height lowering technology and fixed skirts, the spirit of the all-new Concorde Agreement was soon forgotten - ironically by the same man who, when wearing a different hat, would stand to gain most from the agreement to this very day. With the other teams immediately following Brabham's lead, just about every car on the grid during the entire 1981 season was illegal anyway...

Reader's Why by Michael Ferner

How to attract a German sponsor for a South African Motor Race for Banana prizes? Hire a female racing driver from the Cape Province (though actually from Johannesburg, Transvaal) with a man's name and a growing reputation for "Banana" F1 races!

Here's the lead up to that story: In 1979, Ken Tyrrell's eponymous Formula 1 team had hit rock bottom: He failed to attract a single sponsor for the early season's races and was just saved from bankruptcy by Italian sponsor Candy (domestic appliances) coming aboard from Monaco onwards. His car was an unveiled copy of the previous year's triumphant Lotus 79, and incidentally almost as successful as the original in 1979, but by then the world had moved on, first to the Ligier JS11, then the Ferrari 312T4 and finally the Williams FW07, the latter serving as a blueprint for the 1980 Tyrrell, still in Candy livery. But this time the copy didn't work, and by the end of the year the sponsor and both his drivers left the team behind. Tyrrell went for youth and signed the former teenage sensation Eddie Cheever as number one, tested the current teenage sensation Mike Thackwell from New Zealand but needed a pay driver. Enter Mrs. Wilson.

After an earlier career in track and field sports in Johannesburg, Desiré Randall, daughter of South African bike champion Charles Randall, finished runner-up in the 1974 Formula Vee championship and two years later took the Formula Ford championship of South Africa. She was awarded a 'Driver-to-Europe' ticket and married Aram Wilson who worked for Texaco South Africa. On their honeymoon they went to Den Haag/Holland, where she raced a Crosslé Formula Ford 2000 in Jim Vermeulen's team. That was in 1977, and the Wilsons stayed in Europe thereafter, mainly because there was no money to return to the Cape since Desiré did quite a bit of crashing.

During that time, over in England, John Webb was frantically trying to access new spectators for racing. His company, Motor Circuit Developments, was the owner of four major racing tracks in Britain (Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton and Mallory Park) and the driving force behind the BRSCC and its F5000 championship. Webb was obsessed by the thought that all that was needed to lure thousands of housewives to these tracks was a female racing driver who could mix it with the boys. In years past, he had already nurtured the careers of Italian lady Lella Lombardi as well as that of former British Olympic athletes Ann Moore (show jumping) and Divina Galica (skiing). Webb gave Aram a director's post at MCD and Desiré a chance to prove herself at Oulton Park, where she qualified an old Ensign in third position, but cooked the clutch. In no time at all she was a respected competitor in the series, and in 1980 even won the Easter Monday race at Brands Hatch. That same year she also took two wins in the World Championship for Makes, driving with Alain de Cadenet in his Ford-powered LeMans spider and tried unsuccessfully to qualify a RAM Williams for the British GP.

The following winter the famous FISA/FOCA war raged and for a few weeks it looked like there would be two World Championships. In the end, common sense prevailed but the South African GP was run as a FOCA event which meant that, for the last time ever, sliding skirts were allowed. The race was run in wet/dry conditions and won by Carlos Reutemann from Nelson Piquet, and it's ironic that, had the race been a WC event, Reutemann would have pipped Piquet to the title by two points. As to what attracted Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz to Desiré Wilson, it's beyond me, but the welcomed cash injection secured her a drive in the second Tyrrell. After touring around at the back of the field she crashed out at two-thirds distance and her F1 career ended there and then. After that she took in a few CanAm and CART races before she faded from the scene in the late eighties.