Looking for the craziest race finish in the history of Formula One? Then look no further than an overcast afternoon in the Principality in the spring of 1982 which saw 17 retirements, 6 leaders in last 2 laps and only 3 cars running at the finish.
In fact, the Monaco race of that season was probably the peak of craziness in a season littered with madness. From day one the campaign was beset with disputes between teams and the FIA, between drivers and teams, and even between teammates. It also saw it’s fair share of tragedy.
Monaco 1982 was the first race to take place after the loss of Gilles Villenueve in practice at Zolder a few weeks previously. The Canadian had, in his eyes, been betrayed by former friend Didier Pironi, who had seemed to have ignored team orders to pass Villenueve for the win in San Marino. Enraged, Gilles pushed too hard to beat his time in practice at Belgium and collided with the slower Arrows of Jochen Mass. Gilles lost his life a few hours later.
The spectre of the fan favourite driver was everywhere that weekend. Over near the swimming pool area a huge banner had been unfurled: Gilles sei sempre con noi (Gilles, you are still among us). It brought a jolt to those who saw it, including Pironi, who crossed himself on the parade lap to the grid.
With the Italian marque only entering one car out of respect the Renault-Ferrari battle for supremacy was stacked in the French manufacturer’s favour. With turbo power being the in-thing during that period, the confines of Monaco brought a more even playing field – indeed, the Brabham team had split it’s strategy in terms of engines, with Ricardo Patrese’s Ford-powered BT49 only being pipped to pole by Rene Arnoux’s Renault. Brabham’s teammate, reigning champion Nelson Piquet, could only manage 13th with his BMW powerplant.
Until about 10 laps from the end it looked like standard race. Sure, we had seen a lead change after Arnoux hit the barriers on lap 15, but nothing spectacular happened as Alain Prost, in the other Renault, was leading the race since Arnoux’s demise – he looked a strong bet for a win and an extension to his championship lead.
The race also took its toll on others as the usual Monaco attrition rate claimed victims such as Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo), Jacques Laffite (Ligier), John Watson and Niki Lauda (McLaren), Piquet (gearbox) and Keke Rosberg’s Williams (who was racing there for the very first time).
Then, with a just a handful laps to go, a light drizzle set in and the track started to get slippery. Patrese and Pironi started to close on Prost, while Michele Alboreto in his normally aspriated Tyrrell gave away a fine 5th place by clobbering the barriers.
The drizzle now turned into rain as the skies darkened above the Principality and within moments, Derek Daly, who was in only his second race for Williams, slammed into the Tabac armco head-on, the impact turning his car around, leading to yet more devastating contact with the barriers. The Irishman had lost his rear wing and one of his front winglets but to his surprise that was it. Little did he know his gearbox had cracked and was leaking oil onto the racing line.
These were all minor events. The bigger story was yet to come.
Prost exited the tunnel and negotiated the chicane, but in doing so he put a bit too much power down, went into violent oversteer, shooting straight across the road and head on into the barrier. From there it pin-balled onto the opposite guardrail, coming to rest in the middle of the road, bodywork all over the place, wheels bouncing dangerously close to spectator areas. Prost stepped quickly out and climbed over the armco. He would later be seen nursing badly bruised legs – a lucky escape, but Monaco was out of his grasp.
This promoted Patrese to the lead. The normally aspirated Brabham had been quick all weekend in the Italian’s hands, and all he needed to do was bring it home for a maiden win. That’s all he had to do. One more lap.
He lasted less than a third of the way. Heading into the Station hairpin, the Italian dabbed the brakes and the car swapped ends, leaving him the wrong way round and with his engine stalled. The cars behind began to feed their way through as the Brabham lay stricken, with the Ferrari of Didier Pironi inheriting the lead.
Was the Ferrari-Pironi-Villenueve story going to come full circle? It could happen, as he negotiated his car around the rest of the penultimate lap gingerly – was the track really that slippery? But then another disaster, and the possibility of Pironi standing on the top step of the podium soon evaporated as the extremely thirsty Ferrari engine ground to a halt in the tunnel, empty of fuel. He was the third leader in less than 2 laps – just how much more could this race give us?
Focus then turned to who would be the next to lead the queue of cars. Andrea de Cesaris in his notoriously unreliable Alfa-Romeo was next in line, but he failed to get his car past Pironi into the lead position, also running out of fuel. The Italian was so devastated that a win was so close he sat on the armco and sobbed into his balaclava.
Derek Daly then took the poisoned chalice of the lead into his hands. His Williams was battered from his earlier excursion into the harbour barriers, missing most of it’s aerodynamic aids, but Daly had kept plugging away. He was only in the car thanks to Carlos Reutemann’s decision to walk away from F1 and here he was, potentially about to deliver the the most prestigious victory a driver could. Wasn’t he?
He wasn’t. The cracked gearbox in the Williams cried enough and now he was out.
The late James Hunt summed the whole situation up in his commentary for the BBC, by stating “We’ve got this ridiculous situation where we’re sitting around the start-finish line waiting for a winner to come past, and we don’t seem to be getting one!”.
The only cars left on track were the black-and-gold Lotus pair of Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis, whose race had turned from a cruise to 6th and 7th into a dice for a win in the Principality. Mansell scythed his teammate down to take what he thought was the lead. Then Riccardo Patrese breezed past the finish line.
The race stewards had no idea what to do. It was utter chaos.
While being moved by marshals at the Station hairpin the Italian had managed to get his Brabham restarted as he rolled down the hill. While the other cars that had passed him broke down he had kept it going while the focus had moved to cars behind him, who were a lap down on his position. When he crossed the line, the chequered flag was waved, and when he finally got to the podium he was greeted by Pironi, de Cesaris, de Angelis and – most importantly – a man with a clipboard desperately trying to work it all out!
There it was then: Patrese, Pironi (stopped), de Cesaris (immobile), Mansell, de Angelis and Daly (stationary). Those were the points scorers, and half of those were the only cars left running at the flag.
History books will record the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix as many things – the first race win for Ricardo Patrese, the first race after the loss of Gilles Villeneuve – as well as being one of the last wins for the workhorse that was the Cosworth DFV engine. It was a race littered with emotions from the very start, with mourning for a lost hero, to the possibility of redemption, to the joy and despair of a Grand Prix win gained or in most cases as it turns out, lost. It was all completed by being tied into a neat package by the thread of confusion.
What it should ultimately be to fans is an example of how a sport of precision engineering and skill, held in a surroundings that are both glamourous and treacherous, can be conquered with a bit of old fashioned luck