The 1981 South African Grand Prix was a Formula One race that was meant to be the opening race of the 1981 season. Falling victim to the FISA-FOCA War, the race was therefore removed from the championship. Carlos Reutemann took the win after coming near to death in qualifying where he was nearly strangled by catch fencing.
Following the conclusion of the 1980 Formula One Season, Formula One was in political turmoil. Since 1978, the FOCA teams, which primarily consisted of the engine customer teams of the Ford Cosworth DFV had increasingly managed to gain ground over the engine constructor teams. The revolution of ground effect in 1978 had seen a massive improvement in speed, where team's such as Lotus, Williams, Brabham and Ligier had proved in previous seasons that a powerful engine was not an essential requirement to be the fastest in Formula One.
During 1980, manufacturer teams like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo had struggled to compete against the ground effect cars, despite having more powerful engines. The Formula One governing body, the FISA had decreed at the end of 1980 that "skirts" which were the added component on a car that produced the ground effect would be banned for the 1981 season due to safety reasons. This caused an uproar among the FOCA teams, FISA and its President Jean-Marie Balestre had always been considered in favour of the manufacturer team's. The move was considered by FOCA chairman and Brabham team principal, Bernie Ecclestone as a move designed to assist the manufacturer team's to return to winning.
Ecclestone and FOCA proposed a breakaway series titled the "World Federation of Motorsport", which was to run outside the jurisdiction of the FIA. As the new year of 1980 hit, the FIA was desperately trying to negotiate with the FOCA in order to keep Formula One alive and to not lose the majority of the teams. This political turmoil meant what was meant to be the opening race of the year in Argentina and the second race in South Africa had to be reshuffled. This was not a problem for the Argentinian race, however the organisers of the South African Grand Prix had already been marketing the race for its original date of the 7th of February, not its newly designated date of 11th of April. Despite the pleas of the organisers to host the race on February 7th, the FIA refused stating if it wished to remain a part of the Formula One championship it had to abide by its reassigned race of April 11th.
Bernie Ecclestone instead proposed to the organisers to run the event under the new breakaway series regulations instead of FIA rules. The Kyalami race organisers agreed and South Africa was meant to be the first race of the championship of the new Formula One under the World Federation of Motorsport. Despite the banning of skirts by the FIA for 1981, all the attending teams participated in the race with the skirts still attached.
Ecclestone saw one major blow to his new championship, the continental team's would not attend the race. The only non-British team's attending were the German ATS and Brazilian Fittipaldi team, both notably still Ford-Cosworth customer teams. The major manufacturers of Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo as well as smaller teams such as Ligier and Osella failed to attend the race.
In qualifying, it was once again a major battle between the major players of 1980. The Brabham of Nelson Piquet battled the two Williams cars of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann for pole position. Piquet took pole, with Reutemann in second. Reutemann had a close call when in the closing minutes of the session, his Williams spun off and into the catch fencing. The fencing wrapped around his windpipe and had began to strangle Reutemann, unable to remove the catchfencing on his own, it was only the quick mobilisation of the marshalls that were able to rescue Reutemann from what could have quite easily have been his death.
|5||11||Elio de Angelis||Lotus-Ford|
|9||8||Andrea de Cesaris||McLaren-Ford|
The race was held in quite wet conditions, however the rain had abated shortly before the start of the grand prix. Notably it was only Carlos Reutemann from second on the grid and Keke Rosberg in fourth on the grid who went for slicks, everyone else was on wet weather tyres.
Unsurprisingly, Reutemann and Rosberg made poor starts in the still wet conditions. Piquet maintained his lead as Reutemann dropped behind Elio de Angelis and the fast starting Jan Lammers who had come up from tenth on the grid. Lammers was running well behind De Angelis before on the second lap, he went for the overtake. Lammers lost control in the wet conditions and tapped the rear of De Angelis where he spun wide into the gravel trap. He dropped right down to the back of the field where he would go on to retire later in the race with brake fade.
Nigel Mansell had made a storming start, moving into fourth place with John Watson right behind him. The reigning champion Alan Jones had dropped down to sixth after a poor start to the race. Derek Daly had also done well to climb up to seventh, on March's return to F1.
On lap 4, both Mansell and Watson moved ahead of Reutemann. A three way battle for second place then followed with De Angelis, Mansell and Watson. Lap five saw Watson move ahead of Mansell, the following lap he moved ahead of the other Lotus of De Angelis. Alan Jones then began a comeback drive, moving ahead of Reutemann and Mansell.
On lap 11, Geoff Lees spun off the circuit in his Theodore, Lees unluckily went through the catchfencing and was hit on the head by one of the catchfencing poles. Lees had to be lifted out of the car by the marshalls as he had been briefly knocked unconscious by the pole.
The track had then began to dry, Alan Jones was the first driver to come into slicks with Nigel Mansell following suit, despite having spun on the previous lap. Jones having aquaplaned off the circuit on his out-lap damaged the rear of his car. Jones returned to the pits as his mechanics were forced to repair his rear wing. Jones would later retire with a loose skirt.
By this time, only Piquet and Watson were the only front runners not to have pitted. Piquet pitted for new tyres allowing Watson to take the lead of the race. Watson then followed Piquet into the pits the following lap. Reutemann now inherited the lead, enjoying a comfortable lead, his gamble of racing with dry tyres since the start of the race had payed off.
Female racer Desiré Wilson retired on lap 51 when she spun her Tyrrell off the circuit. Reutemann took a comfortable win, 20 seconds ahead of Nelson Piquet ahead of Elio de Angelis, Keke Rosberg and John Watson.
|3||11||Elio de Angelis||Lotus-Ford||77||+1:06.03s||5|
|4||20||Keke Rosberg||Fittipaldi-Ford||76||+1 lap||4|
|5||7||John Watson||McLaren-Ford||76||+1 lap||15|
|6||29||Riccardo Patrese||Arrows-Ford||76||+1 lap||6|
|7||3||Eddie Cheever||Tyrrell-Ford||76||+1 lap||12|
|8||6||Ricardo Zunino||Brabham-Ford||75||+2 laps||7|
|9||21||Chico Serra||Fittipaldi-Ford||75||+2 laps||13|
|10||12||Nigel Mansell||Lotus-Ford||74||+3 laps||8|
|11||17||Derek Daly||March-Ford||74||+3 laps||17|
|Ret||8||Andrea de Cesaris||McLaren-Ford||54||Accident||9|
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|V T E||South African Grand Prix|
|Circuits||Prince George Circuit (1934–1963), Kyalami Circuit (1965-1993)|
|Championship Races||1962 • 1963 • 1964 • 1965 • 1966 • 1967 • 1968 • 1969 • 1970 • 1971 • 1972 • 1973 • 1974 • 1975 • 1976 • 1977 • 1978 • 1979 • 1980 • 1982 • 1983 • 1984 • 1985 • 1986–1991 • 1992 • 1993|
|Non-championship races||1934 • 1936 • 1937 • 1938 • 1939 • 1960 • 1960 • 1961 • 1966 • 1981|