The major decision had already been reached. A week earlier, on the quick, if kinky, streets of Montreal's He Notre Dame circuit, 33-year-old Alan Jones of Australia had locked up the tightly contested 1980 World Driving Championship with a controversial, anticlimactic victory in the Canadian Grand Prix. Despite the fact that Didier Pironi of France whipped his Ligier across the finish line ahead of Jones' white-and-green Williams, the plump and plucky Australian got both the win and the nine points he needed to take the title.
Pironi was penalized a lap for jumping the restart of the race after a first-lap seven-car pileup following the initial green light. Jones' only remaining rival for the championship, Nelson Piquet of Brazil, driving a Brabham, led for most of the first third of the race, and for a while it looked as if the championship wouldn't be decided until the Grand Prix circus arrived at Watkins Glen, N.Y. for the 14th and final race of the long season. But it was not to be. Piquet was motoring along nicely, on a straightaway and free of traffic, when his Cosworth V-8 went kerpow on the 22nd of 70 laps. With the Pironi penalty, Jones was home free, though the nature of the win made it less than satisfying.
Still, there was plenty of suspense, of a quite ominous nature, left over for Watkins Glen.
First was the perennial question of whether or not this would be the last Grand Prix go-around at the venerable (some might say decaying) rural road-course. After last year's event, which was memorable mostly because of the constant rain, the Fèdèration Internationale Sportive d'Automobile, which controls Formula I racing, changed the traditional Glen date from the first weekend in October to mid-April (a time when the course would most likely still be covered with snow). That notion was dropped and the fall date was restored, but only on condition that the often penurious Glen management repave nine very rough stretches of the 3.377-mile circuit. After a summer of Perils-of-Pauline searching for the money to make the demanded fixes, this was duly done, along with other alterations costing $200,000, and last month the Glen was given a passing grade.
But when the cars got out on the track late last week for their first practice sessions for Sunday's race, it quickly became clear that the patchwork had only made things worse. "It's like driving a go-kart out there," complained reigning World Champion Jody Scheckter after pitting his Ferrari. "The joints between the old surface and the new are very, very rough. The ground-effects design of these cars causes them literally to stick to the track through corners. But with these bumps, we're getting unstuck in the most embarrassing and potentially murderous places."
The swift South African had already announced his intention to retire at the end of this season, though he is only 30 years old and could have a long and lucrative career ahead of him. "I've attained my goal," he said. "I won the championship and I know I could keep on winning. So I'm getting out while I'm still in one piece. Seven men—friends of mine—have died in the seven years I've been racing. Ronnie Peterson's death in 1978 and Patrick Depailler's this summer at Hockenheim were the most significant to me because we all grew up in the sport together. I have a wife and two children now, though I hope that isn't my whole reason for retiring. It's the danger. These cars are so incredibly fast that the slightest error can spell finished. Just take a look at the qualifying times here this year. The track, because of that patching, is a good two seconds slower than last year. But the cars are three or four seconds faster than they were. If the track were smooth, all 24 cars could beat the old qualifying record."
The surprise pole sitter at the Glen turned out to be Italy's Bruno Giacomelli, behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo. Jock O'Malley (as his Team McLaren pals dubbed him when he drove a few races for that marque in 1977-78) pulled a jack-rabbit 1:33.29 lap out of the hat late Saturday afternoon, beating Jones' qualifying record by two seconds. The new champ could qualify only fifth fastest, behind Giacomelli, Piquet, Carlos Reutemann (in a second Williams car) and Elio de Angelis in a Lotus. The speed and handling of the pole-winning Alfa must have pleased Lotus driver Mario Andretti. Since his world championship in 1978, Andretti has had miserable luck and poorly prepared machinery and there is little doubt that he will move to Team Alfa next year.
Despite the fast qualifying speeds, the future of the Glen as a Grand Prix venue remained very shaky. "What a dreadful place this is," said Tyler Alexander, the Team McLaren crew chief and a longtime veteran of the road-racing wars. "There's only a few toilets in the whole place, and they're pestholes. Not a decent meal to be had within an hour's drive. It's always cold, muddy, remote and dull, dull, dull." But another veteran insider compared the change in attitude of Grand Prix teams toward the Glen to that of major league ballplayers. "Twenty-five years ago," he said, "baseball players were content to take trains and buses around the sticks and play in parks little better than cow pastures. Now it's big bucks, private jets, super-trick stadiums and massive media exposure. Drivers are the same. They've grown used to convenience, comfort and attention. The Glen has none of that, and what's worse, it's damned dangerous. Not just on the track, but off it as well, what with the Bog People and their bus-burning mentality."
In defense of the Glen, a major effort has been made to eliminate The Bog, a swampy area on the final turn before the start/finish straight, and its intemperate residents (dope-smoking, beer-guzzling college kids, mainly)—but, ironically, that may destroy the main source of the track's audience. Indeed, while no cars or buses were set afire this year, the crowd was only half the size of the usual turnout. In Scheckter's words, that alone could spell finished for the Glen.
The other main area of racing contention and suspense in the pits was the ongoing battle between FISA and the Formula I Constructors' Association, headed by Team Brabham Manager Bernie Ecclestone. The two groups are fighting for nothing less than total control of Grand Prix racing. "We have no choice but to pull out of FISA and set up our own racing series," Ecclestone said. He is planning a four-race series in North America, and though he coyly refused to name venues, it seems certain that Montreal (which teams and drivers love) and Long Beach, Calif. would be two. Another possibility is Chicago; Mayor Jane Byrne last week announced a CART and Can Am road race for next July 4 along Lake Shore Drive and adjacent streets. Urban road racing is the hot item for the '80s, and it would surprise no one in motor sports to see a Grand Prix scheduled as well for Atlantic City or Las Vegas, where even a small crowd might pay for the race through its gambling.
If Ecclestone's group indeed splits from FISA, the big factory teams—Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo—wouldn't join the revolt. Much of the international reputation of the latter two derives from success in rallying, and since FISA still maintains firm control of that phase of the sport, they couldn't afford to go along with FOCA. But Ecclestone could certainly count on taking at least 14 cars with him, including those driven by Jones and Piquet—enough to organize a convincing Grand Prix series.
Still, despite the sparse crowd and the gloomy questions regarding the future of both the Glen and Formula I racing, the race proved to be an exciting one, thanks to Jones and, ironically enough, Andretti. At the drop of the green flag, Jock O'Malley leaped into a clear lead through The 90—the course's first and slowest corner—but the next few cars skidded wide onto the grassy lefthand verge. One of them was Jones' Williams. The brief excursion into the greenery cost him dearly, and he began the long haul from 12th place.
By the second lap, Jones showed his stuff—moving up to 10th, and by the 11th of the race's 59 laps he was into the points—sixth place. Along the way he was breaking Jean-Pierre Jarier's 1978 race-lap record nearly every time around, lowering it finally to 1:34.068, by more than five seconds. Clearly, the lumpiness of the track had little effect on the Saudi Airlines-sponsored car. (Then again, as Jones boasted, the team's budget for this season was $7 million—half the price of many major league baseball teams.)
Piquet lay second to Giacomelli for most of the early going, but on the 25th lap he hit some grass spewed up by the earlier skids in The 90 and spun off the course, finished for the day and the season. Two laps later Jones was in third, then past teammate Reutemann into second place. Still, Giacomelli held a commanding lead.
But it couldn't last. On the 31st lap—just past the halfway point—an electrical cable pulled loose in the Alfa Romeo, and Jock O'Malley coasted to a stop back in The Loop in the far end of the circuit. Moving through the speed trap at 170.6 mph, Jones took the lead and held it.
Meanwhile, Andretti was in seventh, tailgating John Watson's McLaren, looking for his first championship point in 16 races. Then Watson pitted. Yet the suspense wasn't over. Renè Arnoux, in a yellow-and-white turbocharged Renault, skipped past Andretti and eased him out of the points once more. Or so it seemed. But the Arnoux car was running with damaged skirts, the result of that same opening-lap spin-out that had penalized Jones. He couldn't maintain down-force through the corners, and Andretti drove by him with only two laps to go. The crowd roared, though rather feebly.
When the checkered flag fell, Jones had removed any doubt about the validity of his championship. He had come from near the back of the field with a magnificently staged charge, using his openings wisely and never taxing his machine to the breaking point. Andretti had finished his Lotus-land stint with a face-saving point and could look ahead to a good season next year in the quick Alfa.
And Scheckter's Ferrari pit had the festive air of the day he had won his championship last season. Mechanics greeted his arrival with magnums of gushing champagne, though he had finished only 11th and out of the points. The bubbly splashed under his open visor and glistened on his grinning jowls. He had gotten out alive, and ahead of the game.
One hopes the same can be said next year for Watkins Glen.