The 1981 FIA Formula One World Championship was the 35th season of FIA Formula One motor racing. It featured the 1981 Formula One World Championship for Drivers and the 1981 Formula One World Championship for Constructors, which were contested concurrently over a fifteen-race series that commenced on 15 March and ended on 17 October. Formula One cars also contested the 1981 South African Grand Prix, although this was technically a Formula Libre race and was not part of the Formula One World Championship.
The 1981 championship was the inaugural FIA Formula One World Championship, replacing both the original World Championship of Drivers and the International Cup for Constructors. Teams were now required to lodge entries for the entire championship, and a standardised set of rules would be in place at every championship race, while the FIA would also set the prize monies.
The following teams and drivers contested the 1981 FIA Formula One World Championship:
| Albilad Williams Racing Team
TAG Williams Racing Team
|Williams-Ford||FW07C||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Tyrrell Racing Team||Tyrrell-Ford||010
|Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Parmalat Racing Team||Brabham-Ford||BT49C||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Marlboro McLaren International||McLaren-Ford||M29F
|Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M||7||John Watson||All|
|8||Andrea de Cesaris||All|
|Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
| Team Essex Lotus
John Player Team Lotus
|Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|11||Elio de Angelis||1–3, 5–15|
|12||Nigel Mansell||1–3, 5–15|
|Ensign Racing||Ensign-Ford||N180B||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Equipe Renault Elf||Renault||RE20B
|Renault-Gordini EF1 1.5 V6t||M||15||Alain Prost||All|
|March Grand Prix Team||March-Ford||811||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|17||Derek Daly||1–3, 7–15|
|Fittipaldi Automotive||Fittipaldi-Ford||F8C||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|20||Keke Rosberg||1–10, 12–15|
|21||Chico Serra||1–10, 12–15|
|Marlboro Team Alfa Romeo||Alfa Romeo||179B
|Alfa Romeo 1260 3.0 V12||M||22||Mario Andretti||All|
|Equipe Talbot Gitanes||Ligier-Matra||JS17||Matra MS81 3.0 V12||M||25||Jean-Pierre Jarier||1–2|
|Scuderia Ferrari SpA SEFAC||Ferrari||126CK||Ferrari 021 1.5 V6t||M||27||Gilles Villeneuve||All|
|Ragno Arrows Beta Racing Team||Arrows-Ford||A3||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Jacques Villeneuve, Sr.||14–15|
|Osella Squadra Corse||Osella-Ford||FA1B
|Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M||31||Miguel Ángel Guerra||1–4|
|Miguel Ángel Guerra||8|
|Theodore Racing Team||Theodore-Ford||TY01||Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8||M
|Candy Toleman Motorsport||Toleman-Hart||TG181||Hart 415T 1.5 L4t||P||35||Brian Henton||4–15|
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The 1981 Formula One season was an extraordinary season of Grand Prix racing for many reasons: it was effectively the first season that Briton and Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone and FOCA had the Concorde Agreement in place, which would set Formula One on a course to become a profitable business, thanks to the growing professional involvement of outside companies and professional sponsorship.
The South African Grand Prix, held on 7 February at the Kyalami Circuit near Johannesburg, was originally supposed to be the first round of the 1981 Formula One World Championship – but it was eventually stripped of its championship status. The ongoing FISA–FOCA war resulted in Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) insisting on a date change which was not acceptable to the race organisers. Approval was ultimately given for the race to go ahead on its original date but as a Formula Libre race rather than as a round of the Formula One World Championship. The downgraded race was supported by the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) aligned teams but not by the teams of the manufacturers, whose allegiances lay with FISA. This race was run with the cars running in 1980-specification trim, with the ground-effect wing cars of the time, equipped with sliding skirts that increased their downforce by ensuring the air under the car did not escape from under the car, where the most important airflow was. This race, run in wet conditions, was won by the Argentine driver Carlos Reutemann in a Williams-Ford.
The first of two rounds in the United States of America started a trilogy of F1 races in the Americas on March 15 at the Long Beach street circuit in southern California, just outside the metropolis of Los Angeles. The cars were now running in new 1981-specification cars, with the sliding skirts now banned and cars required to have a 6 cm ground clearance, in order to reduce downforce. Australian Alan Jones won this race in a Williams-Ford after pole-sitter Riccardo Patrese in an Arrows-Ford fell out and Jones's teammate Carlos Reutemann made a costly error that Jones took advantage of.
The Formula One circus moved from North to South America to start a two-stop tour there. The first round was at the Jacarepagua Autodrome in Rio de Janeiro – only the second time F1 had been there. F1 had previously visited the 5-mile Interlagos circuit in São Paulo in 1972–1980; this circuit was effectively dropped after 1980 because of safety issues with the circuit and the growing slums around the circuit being at odds with Formula One's glamorous image. This rain-soaked race saw Reutemann disobey team orders to let Jones through, and a furious Jones did not appear on the podium afterwards.
The other half of the South American tour in Reutemann's home country of Argentina was usually held in January; this time it was in April. This race was a procession: at the varied circuit located in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, Brabham designer Gordon Murray had come up with a hydraulic suspension to get his BT49C closer to the ground, and therefore be faster. This proved effective – as Brabham driver Nelson Piquet took pole ahead of French up-and-comer Alain Prost and the two Williams drivers, he and Mexican teammate Héctor Rebaque dominated the race, driving a car that was embarrassingly superior to all the others. The Brazilian won handily from home favorite Reutemann and Renault driver Prost. Due to internal politics and the drivers' strike at the 1982 South African Grand Prix, the Argentine GP would not return to the calendar until 1995.
Four weeks later, the GP circus returned to Europe to start the 4 month long tour there. The first race was a new race – a second Italian race called the San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Dino Ferrari near Imola, just outside Bologna. Unlike the South American races, both of which had been uncommon disappointments; the inaugural San Marino GP was an exciting race all the way through. Brazilian Nelson Piquet won again for Brabham in changing conditions, with intermittent rain soaking the course throughout the race.
In stark contrast to San Marino, the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder was a shambolic event filled with tragedies and frustration. Politics dominated this event – Gordon Murray's hydraulic suspension gave his Brabhams considerable performance advantages, and the teams had been heavily protesting the system's legality within the revised rules for the season. The tragedy, however, started with Carlos Reutemann accidentally running over an Osella mechanic, Giovanni Amadeo – who died of a fractured skull the Monday after the race. The race, however, was an appalling embarrassment by top motor racing standards – at the start, there was a drivers' strike concerning mechanic and team personnel safety – which delayed the start. And when the race started, an Arrows mechanic, Dave Luckett, jumped onto the grid just as the lights went green in an attempt to start Riccardo Patrese's stalled car. Luckett was run over by the other Arrows driver, Sigfried Stohr – and as Luckett laid sprawled unconscious on the track with broken legs, the marshals were able to get him off the track, and the disorganization continued: as the drivers started their second lap with both Arrows cars still on the narrow start–finish straight, a number of marshals jumped onto the track – mere feet from the cars going at full racing speeds – and attempted to stop the race by waving at the drivers to stop, without the approval of the clerk of the course (who is the ultimate authority on the race's direction). The drivers continued on – because they had not been shown the red flag by the clerk of the course. But by the time they completed another lap, they decided to stop themselves without the clerk's approval. In the meantime, Luckett was taken to hospital, and survived. So the second race started, and Alan Jones took the lead, crashed out, Nelson Piquet also crashed out and Carlos Reutemann took the chequered flag after it was decided to call the race early.
The historic Monaco Grand Prix was the scene of an ultra-exciting race – as Piquet led for most of the race distance, and crashed out at Tabac. Jones took the lead, but had fuel feed problems, and Gilles Villeneuve in a poor-handling Ferrari took the lead and won.
The narrow and tight Jarama circuit just outside Madrid produced one of the best races of the year: after Jones crashed out, Reutemann took the lead, and then Villeneuve overtook Reutemann on the main straight at Jarama. Villeneuve, in a powerful but very ill-handling Ferrari, managed to keep 4 better-handling cars behind him in a car badly suited to the slow, narrow and twisty Jarama circuit. Villeneuve, Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Reutemann and Elio de Angelis were all separated by 1.2 seconds at the finish. The small crowd, the inappropriately very hot time of year this race was held in and the waning interest of the organizers caused this race to be the last Spanish Grand Prix until 1986, when it was moved south to the new Jerez circuit near Seville.
The alternating French Grand Prix moved from the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille to the fast, sweeping Prenois circuit near Dijon, located in the Burgundy countryside. This race was run as two races: it was interrupted by heavy rain, so the organizers decided to stop the race to wait for the rain to pass, which it did – and Alain Prost, who was to become one of the greatest drivers in Formula One history, won his first of 51 championship Grands Prix at home in a Renault.
The British Grand Prix was held at the flat Silverstone circuit this year, which was the fastest Grand Prix circuit in the world at the time. The grid was dominated by four turbos, the two Renaults of Alain Prost and René Arnoux, and the two Ferraris of Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, and during the race (which was on a Saturday), Prost effectively walked away from the field and dominated most of the race. At the start of lap 5, near the Woodcote chicane, Villeneuve lost control, taking out Alan Jones (Williams) and Andrea de Cesaris (McLaren) who were both unable to avoid the Canadian, while Briton John Watson, in the other McLaren, narrowly missed the wreckage. On lap 12, Nelson Piquet, who was 3rd at that point, crashed his Brabham, and had to be carried by an ambulance due to leg injuries. Later in the race, Prost was forced to pit due to problems with an engine plug that could not be replaced without dismantling much of the car, forcing the Frenchman to retire and leaving his teammate, Arnoux, in the lead. Arnoux, however, also had problems in the last laps of the race, losing his turbo, which forced him to retire and allowed Watson to take the win from Reutemann and Laffite.
The German Grand Prix at the fast Hockenheimring produced a long battle between Alain Prost and Alan Jones, until Jones passed Prost in the stadium section, after a mistake by Prost's teammate, René Arnoux, who was being lapped, and allowed the Australian to slip by both Renaults. Nelson Piquet also found his way past Alain Prost, and took the lead after Alan Jones was forced to pit. It started to rain in the last laps of the race, but Piquet won with a comfortable lead over Prost, in 2nd, and Jacques Laffite, in 3rd.
The high-altitude and fast Österreichring enabled turbo-powered cars to take the first three places in qualifying, with René Arnoux on pole from Renault teammate Alain Prost, and Gilles Villeneuve third in the Ferrari. Villeneuve made a fast start to lead briefly, but went off on the second lap, leaving Prost and Arnoux to pull away while Didier Pironi in the second Ferrari held up the rest of the pack. Eventually, Jacques Laffite got past Pironi and closed up to the Renaults. Prost led until his suspension failed; Arnoux then led until Laffite overtook him with 15 laps remaining. Laffite thus took the win with Arnoux second and Piquet third; Reutemann was fifth, meaning that his lead in the Drivers' Championship was now down to six points.
The Zandvoort circuit near Amsterdam provided Prost with his second win of the year, ahead of Piquet and Jones. Reutemann and Laffite took each other out on lap 18, meaning that Piquet now led the Drivers' Championship by virtue of having more wins than Reutemann. In a race of attrition, only ten cars were classified at the end, with Chilean rookie Eliseo Salazar finishing sixth in an Ensign and thus scoring his first point in Formula One.
The second Italian and last European race of the year, the Italian Grand Prix, returned to the historic Monza circuit just outside Milan after a year's stay at Imola. Prost won again, with Jones and Reutemann finishing second and third respectively to effectively seal the Constructors' Championship for Williams. Piquet was running third on the last lap when his engine blew, dropping him to sixth and thus putting Reutemann back into the lead in the Drivers' Championship by three points.
The season concluded with two races in North America, the first of these being in Montreal, Canada. In a wet, cold race, Jones and Prost both retired, while Reutemann collided with Jones early on and eventually finished tenth. Laffite took the win, with Watson second and Villeneuve third; fifth for Piquet put him just one point behind Reutemann in the Drivers' Championship going into the final race, with Laffite five points further back.
New York State's Watkins Glen circuit was struck off the calendar in May due to bankruptcy of the company running the circuit, resulting in a three-week gap between the Canadian Grand Prix and a new American race that would require the teams to move across the country to a circuit located in a car park outside of the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, effectively named the Caesar's Palace Grand Prix, only 350 miles from Long Beach/Los Angeles. Reutemann took pole position, but made a poor start in the race and eventually finished out of the points in eighth, while Laffite could only manage sixth and Piquet battled to fifth – which was enough for the Brazilian driver to win the championship by one point from Reutemann. Jones' final drive with Williams ended with the 12th and final win of his career in this difficult and demanding race, which caused Piquet to vomit over himself in the cockpit.
|Rnd||Race||Date||Location||Pole Position||Fastest Lap||Race Winner||Constructor||Report|
|1||United States Grand Prix West||15 March||Long Beach||Riccardo Patrese||Alan Jones||Alan Jones||Williams-Ford||Report|
|2||Brazilian Grand Prix||29 March||Jacarepaguá||Nelson Piquet||Marc Surer||Carlos Reutemann||Williams-Ford||Report|
|3||Argentine Grand Prix||12 April||Buenos Aires||Nelson Piquet||Nelson Piquet||Nelson Piquet||Brabham-Ford||Report|
|4||San Marino Grand Prix||3 May||Imola||Gilles Villeneuve||Gilles Villeneuve||Nelson Piquet||Brabham-Ford||Report|
|5||Belgian Grand Prix||17 May||Zolder||Carlos Reutemann||Carlos Reutemann||Carlos Reutemann||Williams-Ford||Report|
|6||Monaco Grand Prix||31 May||Monaco||Nelson Piquet||Alan Jones||Gilles Villeneuve||Ferrari||Report|
|7||Spanish Grand Prix||21 June||Jarama||Jacques Laffite||Alan Jones||Gilles Villeneuve||Ferrari||Report|
|8||French Grand Prix||5 July||Dijon-Prenois||René Arnoux||Alain Prost||Alain Prost||Renault||Report|
|9||British Grand Prix||18 July||Silverstone||René Arnoux||René Arnoux||John Watson||McLaren-Ford||Report|
|10||German Grand Prix||2 August||Hockenheimring||Alain Prost||Alan Jones||Nelson Piquet||Brabham-Ford||Report|
|11||Austrian Grand Prix||16 August||Österreichring||René Arnoux||Jacques Laffite||Jacques Laffite||Ligier-Matra||Report|
|12||Dutch Grand Prix||30 August||Zandvoort||Alain Prost||Alan Jones||Alain Prost||Renault||Report|
|13||Italian Grand Prix||13 September||Monza||René Arnoux||Carlos Reutemann||Alain Prost||Renault||Report|
|14||Canadian Grand Prix||27 September||Île Notre-Dame||Nelson Piquet||John Watson||Jacques Laffite||Ligier-Matra||Report|
|15||Caesars Palace Grand Prix||17 October||Caesars Palace||Carlos Reutemann||Didier Pironi||Alan Jones||Williams-Ford||Report|
Bold – Pole position
Championship points were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis to the top six finishers in each race.
Championship points were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis to the top six finishers in each race.
A non-Championship Formula One race was also held in 1981, which did not count towards the World Championship. It was technically a Formula Libre race, since the cars did not conform to the current Formula One regulations. Although not a part of the Championship, the 1981 South African Grand Prix attracted high-calibre drivers and cars and was won by Carlos Reutemann in a Williams.
|Race Name||Circuit||Date||Winning driver||Constructor||Report|
|South African Grand Prix||Kyalami||7 February||Carlos Reutemann||Williams-Ford||Report|