Nelson Piquet secures his first title
Nelson Piquet successfully turned the tables on Alan Jones in 1981, winning his first World Championship title and the first for Brabham since Bernie Ecclestone took control. Unfortunately, off-track disputes dominated the headlines.
After the disaster of 1980, Ferrari switched to a new V6 turbo engine, the Italian team becoming the first to follow Renault's pioneering route, with Didier Pironi joining from Ligier to replace the retired Jody Scheckter.
The other big news of the winter was the takeover of McLaren by Ron Dennis, with John Barnard immediately setting to work on a revolutionary carbon fibre chassis and Alain Prost leaving to replace Jean-Pierre Jabouille at Renault, with his seat alongside John Watson being filled by Andrea de Cesaris, who had made his Formula One debut with Alfa Romeo at the end of 1980. Alfa Romeo had a more than capable replacement in the form of 1978 champion Mario Andretti who would partner Bruno Giacomelli. The other main changes on the driving front were at Tyrrell, with Michele Alboreto and Eddie Cheever taking over from Derek Daly and Jean-Pierre Jarier, with Marc Surer now Ensign's team leader.
The Shadow team was no longer part of the show, having folded early in 1980. But numbers were up as March returned for the first time since 1977, Theodore joined in using largely ex-Shadow stock and Toleman stepped up from Formula Two, keeping drivers Brian Henton and Derek Warwick who had dominated the 1980 season.
The championship began at Long Beach and with sliding skirts officially banned. Patrese took a surprise pole with the Arrows, but victory went to champion Jones, ahead of Reutemann and Piquet.
The Ferraris were quick, but fragile. Amazingly, Patrick Tambay brought his unfancied Theodore home sixth. Lotus had its nose out of joint as its twin-chassis 88 was turned away after first practice as it was considered outside the spirit of the rules.
In Brazil the new rules turned to farce. Brabham had perfected a hydro-pneumatic suspension system - the car was legal in the pits, but on the track it sat down and the skirts touched the ground. Piquet took pole, started the wet race on slicks and blew it. Reutemann controverisally led Jones home, because he was supposed to let Jones past. In Argentina Piquet made no mistake, winning easily, while unrated team-mate Hector Rebaque ran second until his car broke.
The European season started at Imola with the newly invented San Marino Grand Prix - an excuse to have two races in Italy. Villeneuve and Pironi both led the wet race early on, but Piquet came through to win from Patrese and Reutemann.
At Zolder, a mechanic from the small Osella team died after being struck by a car in practice, and an Arrows mechanic suffered broken legs when hit attending Patrese's stalled car on the grid - just as the race started. Pironi led until his brakes went, Jones crashed out after earlier knocking Piquet off and the win went to Reutemann.
Mansell was in great form at Monaco, qualifying third behind Piquet and Villeneuve. Nelson led, but Jones put him under pressure and the Brazilian crashed out. Jones suffered a fuel pick-up problem and Villeneuve sped by to score a superb win in the unwieldy Ferrari. Amazingly, he repeated that success at Jarama. After Jones fell off, Gilles led a train comprising Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis, none of whom could pass his unwieldy car on this narrow and twisty track as it had the grunt to drop them down the main straight.
The French Grand Prix at Dijon-Prenois was another odd race. Rain split the event into two parts, and Prost scored his first win in the Renault. Watson and Piquet completed the top three.
Wattie's big day came at Silverstone. Prost and Arnoux took turns in the lead, but when they failed John was in the right place. It was his first win since Austria in 1976. Villeneuve, Prost and Arnoux all took turns in the lead in Germany. Jones and Reutemann both had engine problems of varying degrees. Piquet took a canny win, with Prost second. Austria brought a popular win for Laffite.
At Zandvoort Prost and Jones fought hard in the early stages, until Jones's tyres went off. Prost pulled away to win from Piquet, with Jones third. Reutemann tangled with Laffite, so Piquet took the title lead. Prost led all the way at Monza, winning from Jones and Reutemann. Piquet looked set for third until his engine went on the last lap.
The Canadian Grand Prix was an exciting, wet event. Jones spun off while leading, Prost took over, then Laffite got to the front and held on to win. So they headed for the finale with Reutemann on 49 points, Piquet on 48, and Laffite on 43. The race was held in a car park in Las Vegas. Reutemann took pole, but in the race he faded away. Jones won the race with Piquet fifth and Laffite sixth - which gave Piquet the title by a point. After surprising everyone at the previous race, Jones stood by his word and quit Formula One, for the time being...