• Rewind to ... 1981 Caesars Palace Grand Prix

What happens in Vegas

Chris Medland January 16, 2013
Alan Jones leads in to turn one of the 16-corner circuit in Las Vegas © Sutton Images

Many a Formula One season had come down to a dramatic climax at the final race of the season, most of which took place at Mexico City, Watkins Glen, or even the odd one at Fuji. In 1981, the names of the three title contenders were familiar - Nelson Piquet, Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite - but the location wasn't: Caesars Palace car park.

For the first time in world championship history - save for the Indy 500 - a race was not named after a host country but instead took on the moniker of the Las Vegas casino which was supplying the space. With Watkins Glen dropping off the calendar, the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA) had looked for a replacement on the West Coast, and the resort on the Vegas strip was happy to stump up the fee.

The title permutations were intriguing, with Reutemann leading Brabham's Piquet by just one point. Laffite was the outsider on 43 points, six points behind Reutemann after his victory for Ligier in Canada, with nine points available for a win.

Reutemann could supply Williams with its second champion in as many years, though his success had come to the detriment of his relationship with team-mate and 1980 World Champion Alan Jones. It wasn't a situation which appeared to faze Reutemann, as Malcolm Folley in the Daily Express noted: "The deep, often elusive Argentinian looked anything but a man about to make a play for the prize which has consumed his working life for the past 10 years. Here, beside the Caesars Palace hotel swimming pool, was a man at ease, a man under control."

It was control that Reutemann required, however, if he was going to convert his slender advantage in to his maiden title. Even Sir Frank Williams admitted it wasn't his lead driver who was vying for the championship, saying: "Alan Jones is a better racer than Carlos, yet if Carlos feels he is in a class of his own, if everything is running smoothly, then his driving can be magical."

Piquet was similarly relaxed, telling Williams on the pit wall: "I will try my best. If I don't win, so what? I'll still get up the next morning. Anything could happen. I could have a mechanical failure, a problem with tyres or I could make a mistake. I'm only human."

The Brabham team - headed by Bernie Ecclestone - keeps Nelson Piquet updated © Sutton Images

Neither Piquet nor Reutemann was paying too much attention to Laffite, but that sat perfectly with the Frenchman, who said: "I am in the best position. For me, there is no pressure. I am the one with nothing to lose.

"I believe I will become the first French world champion. If not on Saturday, it will be another day."

Despite the title situation, there was another story which was threatening to steal the headlines across the weekend. It was Jones' last race before his retirement, with the reigning champion tired of certain facets of the sport, such as its willingness to stage a championship finale around a casino parking lot.

While the 2.2 mile track was already expected to be challenging for the drivers - and as Reutemann put it "the circuit isn't as Mickey Mouse as we imagined" - Piquet's cause was not helped by a freak injury. Employing the services of Sugar Ray Leonard's masseur, Piquet was left with a bruised back and missed much of the final qualifying session, with the pain compounded by Reutemann taking pole ahead of Jones in an all-Williams front row. Piquet started fourth, with Laffite seemingly out of the picture down in 12th.

Jones leapt in to the lead off the line, with his team-mate's poor start dropping him behind Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost and Bruno Giacomelli. Although he disliked Piquet, Jones held no interest in helping Reutemann take the title, and when asked who he'd prefer to win he replied: "It's take your pick between TB and cancer. I couldn't give a damn."

From that point on Jones was never headed as he disappeared in to the distance. Prost soon dispatched Villeneuve, while the Ferrari backed up the pack for a while which left Giacomelli, Laffite, John Watson, Reutemann, Piquet and Mario Andretti all covered by 4.5s after 14 laps.

Nelson Piquet celebrates his first world championship on the podium having recovered after the race © Sutton Images

Piquet was stalking his rival and dived up the inside in to the final corner on lap 18, catching Reutemann off-guard. That allowed Andretti to follow suit in to the next corner, and when Villeneuve span out it promoted Piquet to sixth place and a solitary point that - with Reutemann behind him - would be enough to snatch the title.

Reutemann's fightback never materialised as he struggled with a gear problem, and with Giacomelli spinning off and Andretti's suspension failing near the half way point, Piquet was looking comfortable in the points. However, with his back problem leaving him in considerable pain and the anti-clockwise circuit taking its toll, Piquet was in trouble too.

"After 30 of the 75 laps I wondered if I could reach the end," Piquet said. "When 33 laps to go were signalled I nearly died. By then my head was going out of the car at the bends. I was almost finished … my back and right shoulder were in agony."

But Piquet was not alone in his troubles and soon found himself up in third place behind Jones and Prost as Laffite dropped back. Safe in the knowledge Reutemann was out of the picture, Piquet focused on seeing the chequered flag and dropped to fifth by the end. With both Laffite and Reutemann out of the points it was enough to give him the title by a point.

Surrounded by would-be congratulators and the world's media as he emerged from his Brabham, Piquet tried to escape from the excited crowd due to the pain in his back. His level of exhaustion - he had vomited in his helmet during the race - only allowed him to run a few yards before he collapsed.

Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1

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Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1 Chris Medland, who in his youth even found the Pacific GPs entertaining, talked his way in to work at the British Grand Prix and was somehow retained for three years. He also worked on the BBC's F1 output prior to becoming assistant editor ahead of the 2011 season