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The Day Formula 1 Went on Strike

By Michele Lupini

Did you know that the Formula 1 drivers were on strike today, 39 years ago?

Back in 1982 the Formula 1 governing body was called FISA. In its infinite wisdom under the supreme leadership of one Jean-Marie Ballestre, FISA decided to take more control over the grand prix drivers. So it snuck a couple of new regulations into their super licence paperwork.

Among those was a clause that made it illegal for drivers to criticise the governing body, while another prevented them from negotiating future contracts on their own during the race season.

Such a rule would put the ball in the teams’ court, leaving the drivers concerned that they’d be traded like livestock between the teams. Most drivers refused to sign up to the new super licence terms. And nothing was resolved by the time the teams were preparing for the season-opening South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, this week in ’82.

Ferrari driver Didier Pironi (above) and Niki Lauda (top), who was set to return to F1 with McLaren, led the cries against the new rules. Among the drivers held an urgent meeting up with FISA representatives to try and find common ground. But in typical bombastic style, FISA boss Balestre had none of it. Instead he warned the drivers that if they did not sign on the dotted line, they would not race. “Take it or leave it,” he taunted.

So the Formula 1 drivers left it. They immediately embarked on among the highest profile ‘industrial actions’ in history. Although most had spent the previous week testing at the traditional Kyalami pre-season sessions, the race weekend’s first official practice session was scheduled for Thursday morning. But none of the drivers turned up…

Instead, on Lauda and Pironi’s insistence the Grand Prix Drivers Association hired a bus to transport its united members to Johannesburg’s Sunnyside Park Hotel with a convoy of media in tow (below). A March team member tried to block the bus from leaving, but the drivers had none of it. A few emerged from the bus to push the offending car out of the way and the bus promptly joined the N1 to Jo’burg.

Jochen Mass slept in and missed the bus and the out of work Brian Henton stayed behind hoping to pick up a drive. And Pironi remained at Kyalami to negotiate and relay progress back to Lauda and the rest of the drivers.

Kyalami threatened to impound the cars if the race did not go ahead and the teams remained defiant. Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone led the chorus, telling anyone who’d listen that he’d fired his drivers Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese. Then FISA announced that the race would be postponed by a week and that all the striking drivers would be banned from F1 for life.

Ecclestone famously went as far as to say that none of the drivers would be missed. And that they would easily be replaced. Teams tried to bully their drivers into returning to the track and Teo Fabi broke tanks and fled back to the circuit. Some say he escaped through the toilet window.

Back at the hotel, the drivers retreated to a conference room in solidarity. Not all of them wanted to strike but they joined in to support those who did. It is said that among the younger drivers never even knew why they were striking.

There was soon competition on the piano in the corner of the room. First Gilles Villeneuve tonked out a few tunes before being trumped by concert-level pianist Elio de Angelis. He stunned his peers with perfect Mozart pieces.

Lauda followed with a stand-up comedy routine, while Bruno Giacomelli sketched diagrams demonstrating how to strip and rebuild an AK-47 rifle. Just in case. And then the piano was wedged against the conference room door to prevent irate team members from barging their way in to take their errant drivers by the ear!

Meanwhile back at Kyalami, FISA was driving a hard bargain. So the drivers arranged for mattresses to be brought in and laid out on the floor, before they attempted to settle down for the night in their impromptu barracks. It is alleged that Carlos Reutemann went to bed in his race overalls and snored so loud that Gilles Villeneuve had no option but to smother him with a blanket to mute the sound.

Pironi was back at the circuit Friday morning to continue negotiations (today in 1982 — the days of the week happen to align with those dates this year), while the defiant Mass ventured out on track alone for a few laps in the first session. All the teams showed him pit boards with totally differing lap times. After a few laps the session was red flagged, but that was a joke too.

Sense however began to prevail, when by mid morning Balestre and FISA relented and declared a temporary truce. The race would go on and super licence negotiations would continue after with the drivers. The drivers emerged from their confinement, but there was collateral damage…

While he had enjoyed the slumber party with his pals, Patrick Tambay was fed up and summarily retired from F1, gifting his drive to scab Henton. The promising Frenchman said he’d only return to F1 if it was to drive for Ferrari or Renault. Which is precisely what he would go on to do as he later raced for both those great F1 teams.

An irate Bernie Ecclestone meanwhile previewed his many astounding future F1 antics, refusing to allow his reigning world champion Nelson Piquet to go out in the Brabham. He declared the sleep-deprived Brazilian unfit to drive. Nelson however passed a medical exam to prove his freshness and indeed went out.

And the 1982 South African Grand Prix (above) went ahead. Rene Arnoux put his Renault RE30B on pole that afternoon, but teammate Alain Prost overcame a mid-race puncture and then severe tyre vibrations to charge back through from eighth to take the win on Saturday. He beat Reutemann, Arnoux and Lauda, on his racing return.

As would perhaps be expected, the callous Ballestre and FISA suspended all 29 drivers’ super licences immediately after the race. Each was fined up to $10,000 and slapped with suspended race bans too.

The drivers urgently appealed the latest decision and an FIA Court of Appeal not only reduced their fines and bans, but also condemned Ballestre and FISA for significantly violating the F1 drivers’ freedoms and rights. Needless to say, the offending clauses were also struck from the F1 super licence paperwork.

But the strike also achieved something perhaps far more important — it had united the drivers and brought fresh harmony to an F1 paddock that was at the time infamous for its acrimony…

As they say — never a dull moment in Formula 1!