Formula 1: Strike one. South Africa, 1982
The drivers were unified, for once, All fighting against tiny clauses in their Superlicence contracts. It sparked a remarkable weekend
Formula 1 drivers are very much focused individuals. So it’s hard to believe the situation that occurred at Kyalami in January 1982 for the first race of the season, when all the drivers united and went on strike, upset with clauses in their new superlicence contracts.
The whole situation was quite remarkable, and made the news all over the world. “Solidarity” is not often a word associated with Formula 1, but on this occasion all 31 (bar Jochen Mass, who didn’t get the memo), decamped, by bus to the Sunnyside Park Hotel. That bus had 30 of the world’s fastest drivers on board, who then camped out behind lock and key in a conference room, on makeshift mattresses on the floor. Not quite your multi-million dollar lifestyle that they were used to.
The sticking points were three clauses in the Superlicence contract. Two in particular… The threats were high on both sides. “We won’t race”, said the drivers. “We will ban you forever if you don’t” said the FIA, and in particular Jean-Marie Balestre. Big stakes.
The sticking points? Drivers had to disclose their financial details, had to agree to stay with a team for three years at a time, both of which are Draconian. But, in my opinion, the worst clause of the lot was the Big Brother-esque “There will be no criticism of the FIA.” And a life ban was thrown at anyone who did.
For once the drivers were unified in Johannesburg. Only one, unnamed, photographer was allowed in to the room. There are photos of Alain Prost sharing a mattress with Gilles Villeneuve, and Patrick Tambay saying “If those two have kids after this tonight I might as well retire now.”
Elio de Angelis played the piano, and it really was a boys night out on a Grand Prix weekend. It is fair to say the guys had fun and made the most out of an extremely unusual situation.
Niki Lauda was appointed as spokesman, and remember this was his return to F1 since retiring two years before. Didier Pironi was the go-between, helicoptering back and forward to negotiate. Team bosses were not happy, and neither were the team mechanics. The cars were ready, the drivers missing in action.
The next morning Pironi had another meeting, Balestre said he was ready to negotiate, and a bus load of unshaved racing drivers arrived at the track ready-ish to practice. Nelson Piquet, in another political move, was forbidden to drive by then Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone on the grounds that he was too tired”. Piquet was not amused.
Niki Lauda, thrown in at the deep end on his return from retirement had this to say to journalist Heinz Pruller.
“I’m prepared to sign, because I want to race,” said Lauda. “When Teddy Mayer (McLaren team boss) asked me to sign at home in January, I refused. I told him not to worry. I was prepared to race, but the Superlicence business had to be changed.” There were 24 others that didn’t sign either, sensing they were being put to the wall.
Things came to a head, and the bus to the hotel was followed by journalists who were not allowed in. Lauda, outspoken at the best of times, told it like it was. The negotiator was Pironi, quiet and unassuming. And French, which helped with dealing with Balestre. Something that was never easy at the best of times.
So how did the ‘strike’ start? Lauda, again, didn’t mince his words to Pruller. “It was our idea. At the beginning I was just listening to Didier. He was diplomatic but firm, polite and unemotional. The compromise in the Superlicence that the drivers wanted was really insignificant, so much so that none of the drivers couldn’t understand why it was taking such a long time to settle. The later it got the more difficult it got for the race to take place.
“It was stupid little points,” continued Lauda to Pruller. “They threatened to take away our licences.” The bigger problem was that with the drivers locked up in a hotel room, the organisers of the South African GP were getting jumpy, and suing teams for breach of contract if there was no race.
The teams even looked into getting a whole new set of drivers in to make the race happen, regardless of who was in their cars.
Meanwhile negotiations were sinking fast. Lauda to Pruller again. “Balestre represents FISA, so I can understand why he didn’t want to talk to us. He said he wasn’t prepared to talk to drivers who refused to practice. But you can always find a way to talk to someone… And for a long time he refused to do that. If he wants to screw the whole of Grand Prix racing just to prove that he is the official body… Well, that’s fair enough.”
Despite the anger, the ‘kids’ away had some fun too. Locked in a hotel conference room, 30 drivers shared mattresses and a grand piano.
Lauda laughed at the memory of that night. “I would like to see all the F1 constructors sleeping together in the same bed. I was sharing a bed with Patrese,” the Austrian continued. “Someone next to Rosberg was snoring until Villeneuve put a blanket over him. But all the time we stayed together. We even had piano playing from Elio (de Angelis) and Villeneuve. But we stayed together because we wanted to.”
In the end, the solution was Balestre, in his own special way rescinding – even though it was not in writing it was enough for the drivers to board the bus and head back to the track to practice.
Lauda: “We didn’t stay together fighting for nothing without intending to win. Mr Ecclestone and Mr Balestre confirned that all the changes we wanted would be made. The argument was not written down. But these are grown men, not little children, and that was good enough for us to start practice on Friday.”
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