MAURICE HAMILTON

Canada 1982: Agony and irony


People talk about this being an unpredictable season but, so far, it has nothing on 1982. The Canadian Grand Prix, run 30 years ago this week, summed up that season for all its agony, irony and very little ecstasy.

You can start with the weather, the organisers having moved the date from late September in the hope of operating in a more favourable climate - only to be greeted by a race day that was among the coldest since the Ile Notre-Dame had became a Grand Prix venue four years before.

The unseasonal chill was typical of a weekend that seemed doomed from the moment Canada's favourite motor racing son, Gilles Villeneuve, had been killed at Zolder. The organisers changed the circuit name in Villeneuve's honour; a move that heaped on the anguish for Didier Pironi when he took his first pole position for Ferrari.

Instead of celebrating, it was a sombre Pironi who sat down to face a media made up of many French-Canadian journalists, most of whom had become acquainted with the fact that Villeneuve and Pironi were not the best of friends. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Villeneuve despised the Frenchman.

Vehemently believing Pironi had gone against an agreement over how the San Marino Grand Prix on 25 April should be won, Villeneuve had not spoken a single word to his team-mate between then and the moment of his fatal collision during qualifying for the next Grand Prix at Zolder. Now here was Pironi, facing the media at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

I have never seen anyone appear so uncomfortable at a press conference. Instead of sitting back in his chair and savouring the moment, as pole position winners do, Pironi leaned forward and spoke slowly and earnestly in French. When asked to repeat what he had said in English, Pironi appeared anguished, almost distressed.

Tugging at his left index finger, he continued to speak quietly, choosing his words carefully as he explained how it was a pleasure to win his first Ferrari pole on the circuit "bearing the name of the man who was not only my team-mate but also my friend. And I dedicate this achievement to him because I know that, if he had still been amongst us, he would have been on pole." The ensuing moment or two of silence weighed very heavy in that room.

The threat to ticket sales in Villeneuve's absence was not helped when the Metro drivers went on strike and severely affected a popular means of access to a circuit with limited car parking facilities. But all of that was to be made irrelevant by a shocking sequence of events at the beginning of a race not scheduled to start until 4.15 pm in the interests of television.

Pironi stalled the Ferrari and immediately raised his left arm in warning. This was before the FIA had the foresight to place marshals with yellow flags behind the wall, but close by each grid position. The first few rows took immediate avoiding action, the middle of the grid somehow getting by without contact. But the situation became critical as the back of the field, accelerating hard, darted and weaved for position, their vision obscured by the rear wing of the car in front.

Ricardo Paletti, starting from penultimate row, had no way of seeing the stationary car. When the Osella struck the rear of the Ferrari, the rev-counter was reading 10,500rpm in third gear, which translated into 120mph. The 23-year-old Italian, starting a Grand Prix from the grid (as opposed to the pit lane) for the first time, had very little chance of survival.

By the time the Grand Prix Labatt du Canada was restarted, gloom had descended in the mental and geographical sense, the 70 laps being something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And yet the peculiarities of this season continued as the race was won by Nelson Piquet's Brabham-BMW Turbo, a combination that had failed to qualify for the Detroit Grand Prix a week before.

Piquet's only threat had come from his team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, driving a Brabham - but powered by a normally aspirated Cosworth. No less than three cars in the top six ran out of fuel. Pironi, driving the spare Ferrari, finished ninth, three laps behind.

Sad and extraordinarily strange times indeed.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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