Tuesday, 9 May 2017

1982 United States Grand Prix (West) - Long Beach Street Circuit

April 4, 1982

The Brabham team had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Niki Lauda for the opening practice session of the penultimate round of the 1979 Formula One season in Canada. He had yet to drive the new Cosworth-powered BT49/03, and up to that point he had not even sat in the car. Having established his own airline, Lauda Air, earlier that year in April, his interest was such that he had never even been to the factory to see the new cars being built. As it turned out Lauda drove ten laps in the brand new car and then sloped off to his hotel, leaving Bernie Ecclestone to circulate a PR line that the Austrian was unwell. In truth Niki Lauda had just walked out on the world of motor racing. It was not until the afternoon that it was officially admitted that Lauda had retired from Formula One racing and broken his contract with the Brabham team. And with that, the 33 year-old two-time World Champion was gone. After his retirement, Lauda focussed on running his airline, a charter service flying within Austria, with a fleet of four planes—which Lauda often piloted himself.

Niki Lauda 1979
For two years I didn’t take any real interest in motor racing,” he freely admitted. “It was a chapter in my life I believed was over. My interest was now flying, and it absorbed me totally. I could watch a Grand Prix start and not feel even the slightest tremble of excitement or enthusiasm.”

It genuinely seemed as though the moment had passed as far as his rekindling an F1 career was concerned. Until he found himself curious as to whether it was possible for him to get back into a car after two years and drive with the rest of them. Fortuitously, it was at this time when Ron Dennis, a director of McLaren International, approached Lauda with an offer designed to lure him back into Formula One racing. Lauda had received attractive offers from other teams during his retirement and had passed them up; what intrigued him this time was the unique McLaren MP4 race car. An innovative race car, designed by John Barnard, with a carbon fibre chassis, which was lighter than its aluminium counterpart but three times as stiff. However, while Lauda was impressed with the potential of the McLaren, he would also have to discover if he could adjust to the new demands of Grand Prix driving. Since his retirement Formula One racing had changed drastically as the result of the proliferation of ground-effects cars, which incorporated a uniquely designed undertray, that accelerated the air passing beneath the cars so as to form a partial vacuum and literally suck the vehicles to the surface of a racing circuit. This meant that cornering speeds had greatly increased, and so had the physical demands on the drivers.

During his first test session with the team at Donington in September of 1981 Lauda found driving quite exhausting and he had to keep a tight grip on the tiny steering wheel as his body was subjected high g-forces in the high-speed corners. While he was reasonably quick and obviously enjoying it he could only do two or three laps before having to stop to catch his breath. Niki realized that his physical condition was holding him back.

Lauda signed with McLaren International on November 12, 1981 for what was rumoured to be $3 million for the scheduled 15 Grand Prix races of the 1982 season, making him the highest-paid driver in Formula One racing. Once committed to a comeback Lauda began a three-month conditioning regime, with Willi Dungl, an Austrian physical therapist who had helped in his remarkable recovery from the Nürburgring crash in 1976, Lauda began that continued right up to the first Grand Prix of 1982, in South Africa in late January. In that first race of the 1982 season, on the Kyalami circuit outside Johannesburg, Lauda qualified thirteenth and finished fourth.

The third round of the season was to be held in America, on the streets of Long Beach, where concentration and precision driving counted for everything. Here Lauda would face an unforgiving and demanding circuit that required absolute perfection, or he’d find himself against the barrier. From the beginning of practice, however, all the smart money was on him. It was not that he took pole - he qualified second - but that he made the matter of lapping Long Beach quickly seem deceptively undramatic and simple. There lay his class.

Andrea de Cesaris 1982
Saturday afternoon, with only a couple of minutes remaining in the last qualifying session Lauda was fastest and looked set to win the pole position having driven just seven laps, such was his speed, with the last being the quickest. There was been no flamboyance, no apparent dash. He had not looked among the quickest, and there laid the greatness of the man, his sublime ability to make it seem easy. He had threaded the McLaren between Long Beach's concrete walls, averaging over 140 kph on the 12-turn, 2.13-mile circuit, and it left you believing anyone could do it. He then stood in the pits for most of the session, not a bead of sweat apparent, his 29 rivals pounded round, to no avail. It had been a simple show of intelligence and efficiency of the kind which has made him a legend. But suddenly, 15 seconds before the qualifying hour was up, Andrea de Cesaris (Alfa Romeo) had produced a lap 0.1 seconds faster than Lauda. When he returned to the pitlane a simple glance at the young Italian illustrated the extent of his effort. He was in a very emotional state, weeping and shaking in the enormity of the moment. A lot of inspiration went into that pole position lap. However, at no point did the Italian look as strong as Lauda, simply because the great Austrian was smooth and effortless in achieving the same end, never looking close to an accident.

On Sunday morning with the Californian sun burning down, the Italian got his start absolutely right, leading the field down Shoreline Drive with Rene Arnoux (Renault) powering by Lauda to take up second spot into the right-hander at the end. Up through the swerves and onto Ocean Boulevard to begin the first full lap, with de Cesaris driving betraying no signs of nerves. The Alfa Romeo led by almost two seconds at the end of the third lap, with Arnoux, Lauda and Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo) running as a group and starting to open out a gap to the rest, who were led by Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari).

1982 United States GP (West): Lauda bided his time in the early stages of the race. 
On the sixth lap, Giacomelli decided to take a run at Lauda at the Turn 11 hairpin. Down the inside he plunged, braking far too late. Lauda made no attempt to block him. The unfortunate victim of this piece of ambitious overtaking was the luckless Arnoux. Having shot by Lauda, Giacomelli locked up and slide into the back of the Renault punting the Frenchman out of the grand prix, now leaving Lauda untroubled in his pursuit of de Cesaris. For a few laps, though, McLaren made no impression on the Alfa Romeo, its lead was almost 5 seconds after eight laps. Thereafter Lauda slipped into that clinical precision so often witnessed during his Ferrari days, taking away a tenth here, a fifth there.

The inevitable lead change happened on lap 15. Through the chicane at the start of Shoreline Drive, de Cesaris was held up by Raul Boesel (March), in an instant Lauda was right with the Alfa Romeo, and the McLaren was very swift in a straight line. Down to the right-handed Turn 1 they came, with Lauda moving smoothly and easily to the inside, leaving de Cesaris with no option other than to cede the corner. Once by, Lauda quickly began to clear, working the traffic with all the guile in the world. Undaunted, de Cesaris charged on, but a simple comparative lack of experience lost him ground every time there were cars to be lapped.

Lap 35 brought about the end of de Cesaris, whose Alfa Romeo crashed heavily at Turn 5. It was a very sad end to all his efforts. He deserved better. The picture, it seemed, was set, for Lauda had a lead of 50s, colossal by any standards. Keke Rosberg (Williams), who had found a way past Villeneuve, was still pushing hard, but his task looked hopeless. Typically, though, he did not simply settle for second place. The gap began to come down. Lauda, of course, was not hurrying as he had been before de Cesaris' exit, and he further gave hope to the Williams team by most untypically missing his braking point at the top of Linden Avenue on one occasion, just managing to keep the car on the road, but losing nine seconds of his lead in the process. It was his first and last mistake of the afternoon.

1982 United States GP (West): Lauda calmly took the lead and controlled the race from there. 
In the last few laps the Austrian was cruising, unconcerned that his lead was being diminished by the energetic Rosberg. The Williams driver never let up, hoping to be close enough to take advantage of any last-minute problem that Lauda might incur, but the McLaren swept on, finally taking the flag a little over 14 seconds to the good. The race lasted almost two hours, and Lauda was quite refreshed afterwards. He had, after all, expended far less energy than most of his rivals. It was cool, analytical and brilliant.

Many of the drivers were angry afterwards about the track surface, which broke up badly in places, Nelson Piquet (Brabham), Didier Pironi (Ferrari) and Alain Prost (Renault) were among those who crashed into the barriers in the tricky conditions. Above all, though, the day belonged to Lauda, with a most conclusive victory. It was like the old days, and nothing reminded one so much as the Austrian National Anthem after the race. It took you back to countless times in the mid-seventies when Niki Lauda was dominant. Long Beach 1982 was a week in the Lauda tradition, the sort of victory he used to make a matter of routine. And that he had done it in only the third race of his comeback put everyone on notice that he was not there for money, or for fame. Lauda was there to compete at the front, win races and challenge for a third World Driver’s Championship. 

 He was certainly back, and it was as though he’d never left.

Triumphant Return: In just his third GP Lauda proves he can still dominate.


  1. Really great article! I loved reading it! Thank you so much for writing this one! Keep up the good work!

    1. f1greatestraces7 August 2017 at 23:21

      Thank you so much. I am truly glad that you enjoyed it.