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A tale from the Brands Hatch archives

Tuesday, December 27 2011

Christmas is a time for reflection, whilst looking ahead to the year to come. With a highly-anticipated 2012 at Brands Hatch including the Paralympic Road Cycling events, we delved into the archives and looked back 30 years to another event that played in front of the world's eyes - the British Grand Prix. It was the start of five consecutive years of the circuit hosting a round of the World Championship and this particular race would have a huge influence on the sport.

Back in 1982 Formula One, whilst a highly professional worldwide sport, was certainly more laid back than the highly regimented business that it is now. Precision-parked transporters were a long way off and hospitality areas largely consisted of patio furniture under awnings. Bernie Ecclestone was making his influence felt, certainly to the distain of the FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre, but for now his powerbase was tied to his tenure as owner of the Brabham team. Lead driver Nelson Piquet was carrying the coveted number one on his car, having snatched the World Championship from under Carlos Reutemann's nose the previous year, but 1982 wasn't going to plan.

The ubiquitous Cosworth DFV engine that had powered the car to the title in 1981 was fast approaching its sell-by date in the face of the turbo Renaults and Ferraris, so a deal was signed with BMW for their forced induction unit, but the partnership was in its infancy and even superstar designer Gordon Murray was unable to bridge the gap. However, he had a plan and it was going to be tried out at Brands Hatch.

Back then teams started Grands Prix with a full tank of fuel and only changed tyres if they absolutely needed to - stops certainly weren't the big feature that they are now and with a tyre war, rubber compounds were not so restrictive and a team could stick to one for the duration of the race. However, Murray realised that if their car started on half a tank of fuel it would run much lighter and therefore faster, and with a fresh set of tyres bolted on at half distance, would be quick in the second part of the race too. All they had to do was make sure that the pitstop did not waste any more time than necessary. It seems a primitive strategy now, but back then it was groundbreaking.

The team rehearsed pitstops, whilst a fast fuelling mechanism was developed. The problem of warming tyres was overcome with an early tyre-warming device - rather than heated blankets, an oven was fabricated. It was all ready for the British Grand Prix and with a rather obvious presence in the pitlane, the team tackled the issue head-on, with the result that suspicion centred on whether it was all an elaborate hoax to distract the opposition!

Meanwhile pole position had been secured by Williams' Keke Rosberg, his Cosworth engine able to live with the turbos at a circuit that placed a premium on a good driver and chassis, and he was fully expecting to repeat the team's 1980 win. Alongside him on the grid was the first of the Brabhams, but instead of the World Champion, Riccardo Patrese had outqualified his team mate by almost half a second. British hopes lay with championship leader John Watson, but he hadn't taken advantage of the circuit and his DFV-powered McLaren languished in twelfth place.

Pre-race entertainment consisted of a race between Parliamentary representatives from the Lords and Commons, a British Saloon Car Championship race, plus air displays that included Concorde, Harrier jump-jets, fresh from the Falklands conflict, and the Red Arrows - in those days able to fly just metres from the crowd. By the 3pm start time, they were ready for the main event.

Before the race had even started Rosberg lost his pole position when his car failed to fire up on the way to the grid, and he watched the starting lights from the back of the field. When they turned green, Patrese was stranded on the startline and was struck by Ferrari's Rene Arnoux. The pair failed to make any further progress and neither did Toleman's Teo Fabi, caught up in the wreckage.

Meanwhile Piquet had assumed the lead from McLaren's Niki Lauda, the double champion just six months into his racing comeback and clearly having lost none of his skill. The leading Brabham started to eke out a lead from the chasing McLaren, soon lapping nearly two seconds quicker than Lauda. It seemed likely that the pitstop was going to happen, however on lap ten a fuel injection failure struck on the way to Druids and he coasted into the pits.

However whilst Lauda carried on his way to victory, followed by Ferrari's Didier Pironi, the crowd had something else to cheer. Derek Warwick, in the unfancied Toleman, a team that had graduated from Formula 2 the year before, had been ascending the order and was fast heading towards the podium. Taking Williams' Derek Daly for third place at Paddock Hill, he reeled in Pironi for second. Whilst the times showed that Lauda was pulling away in the lead, it didn't matter for the fans, willing on the underdog.

Alas on lap 41 of 76 the Toleman's progress was arrested and the team reported a driveshaft failure. However many years later it transpired that the car wasn't carrying enough fuel to reach the finish. With a lack of sponsors, a set of Pirellis that suited the circuit, and fastest lap in the previous race, this was the chance for the undoubted talents of Warwick and designer Rory Byrne to shine. The heavy car was nicknamed 'The Belgrano' after the infamous Argentine battleship from the recent Falklands conflict, and with poor reliability, the team had no confidence in it finishing the race with full tanks. In any case it lifted the crowd and is remembered as one of the great fairytale performances. It gave the team hope and in the coming years they attracted Ayrton Senna on his graduation to the top echelon of the sport, before being bought out by Benetton and they still exist in F1 as Lotus Renault Grand Prix. Warwick later signed for the '80s incarnation of Renault and launched a career that brought him the World Sportscar Championship, whilst designer Byrne stuck with the team before defecting to Ferrari with Michael Schumacher, the man behind the scenes of those five consecutive titles.

That was all still in the future and back in 1982, Lauda took his second win of the season from Ferrari team mates Pironi and Patrick Tambay, whilst poleman and eventual World Champion Rosberg's initial fierce progress was halted with understeer and a late retirement. No-one knew it then, but Toleman had proven the worth of Brabham's idea and as future races proved, fuel stops worked. By 1983 they were all at it and Piquet got his second World Championship, until flash fires and worries of safety banned the practice, at least until 1994, where it became de riguer until last year.

You can read more about the history of Brands Hatch in Chas Parker's book, available to purchase in the MSV shop - click here to enter.