This year, Formula One returns to the USA after a 5 year absence. Austin, Texas is the first purpose built circuit for the sport since F1 racing began in the country back in 1950. It’s a modern F1 design and is quite unlike the slippery, tight and twisty corners found on the street circuits in Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix and Dallas that hosted US Grands Prix in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
The last race in the state of Texas was in 1984 and is an event remembered by many not for the immaculate layout like in Austin, but it was a street circuit and these venues in the US particular presented an extraordinary challenge for the drivers, since one mistake could result in a race-ending crash. The 1984 Dallas Grand Prix provided an additional challenge on top of the already difficult winding track. The enormous heat of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit left the track crumbling down as it was tormented by the cars.
Here’s an article I found from Marcel Schot (Netherlands) and a now defunct publication. Makes a good read.
Before the race
By the time the Formula One circus arrived in Dallas, the season was halfway through. The McLarens had been the pick of the crop so far, with Alain Prost leading the championship on 35.5 points, followed by teammate Niki Lauda with 24. However, the previous two races at Montreal and Detroit had been won by Nelson Piquet in his Brabham, the Brazilian World Champion closing in fast. Piquet was fourth behind Lotus driver Elio de Angelis, who was just two points behind Lauda. Piquet was closely followed by Ferrari driver Rene Arnoux, who was just one point further back with 17. The other Ferrari was struggling however, Arnoux’s teammate Alboreto having scored only 9.5 points.
Almost from the start, there had been many protests against the Dallas Grand Prix. The circuit was laid out on the Texas State Fairground, and twisted around the Cotton Bowl. In essence, it was a collection of 90 degree corners with two hairpins thrown in, bounded by concrete barriers. Most drivers complained of the difficult conditions on the track after practice, with Nelson Piquet saying he wasn’t sure what would fall apart first, the cars, the drivers or the track. In fact, the track was showing some cracks in the asphalt, caused by the strong summer heat and the unusual powers of 27 Formula One cars.
First qualifying caused quite a stir when Martin Brundle crashed in his Tyrrell. The young Briton landed upside down after hitting the barrier head on. Brundle was taken to hospital with both ankles broken, another disaster for Tyrrell, after they had been caught in Detroit with alleged weight irregularities. Initially the team was disqualified from the entire season, but pending further investigation, the team was allowed to continue racing.
Provisional pole was claimed by Lotus driver Nigel Mansell. The sometimes hotheaded Mansell kept his head cool in the Dallas heat, registering a time of 1:37.041, six tenths faster than his teammate Elio de Angelis. Rene Arnoux was surprisingly third in his ill-handling Ferrari, which he claimed was actually an advantage, as his car always handled like this. The Frenchman was followed by a string of Michelin shod drivers, headed by Niki Lauda and including Toleman’s Ayrton Senna, Renault driver Derek Warwick and the second McLaren of Alain Prost. World Champion Piquet was struggling in 12th, behind his part-time teammate Corrado Fabi, who had taken his older brother Teo’s place in the second Brabham.
A qualifying debacle
On Saturday, it was even hotter and quite a few drivers didn’t even bother to go out onto the track, preferring their air- conditioned motorhomes instead. Aside from the injured Brundle and Alliot, who was without a car after crashing his RAM in first qualifying, both leading Lotus drivers were convinced it was impossible to set better times than on Friday. They were joined by the Toleman duo of Ayrton Senna and Johnny Cecotto, and Ligier driver Francois Hesnault.
The remaining twenty drivers tried to improve their times, but for most of them it was a waste of effort. Swiss Arrows driver Marc Surer managed to find two full seconds, after a terrible session the previous day, moving from 25th to 22nd on the grid. His teammate Thierry Boutsen found another half second to get him one spot higher on the grid, just 0.01 of a second ahead of Riccardo Patrese, who only managed a 1:50 lap in his Alfa Romeo. The big surprise of the Saturday was Derek Warwick. The Briton was as cool as his countryman Mansell the day before and set a time of 1:37.708, good enough for third on the grid and an amazing 2.5 seconds faster than the second fastest driver in the session, Keke Rosberg. As a result, Nigel Mansell claimed his first pole position, while Elio de Angelis made the Lotus front row complete.
It was an early start for the drivers on race day. Because of the intense heat, it had been decided to start the race at 11am. This meant the usual warm-up was to be held at seven in the morning! This ridiculous idea was then further ridiculed by Jacques Laffite, the French clown driver, who managed to show up in full sleeping gear. Instead of wearing his race overalls and helmet, the Williams driver was wearing his pyjamas. However, he could have stayed in bed, because the warm-up was canceled. Overnight repairs to the cracks in the track had been carried out, but it appeared they wouldn’t be ready anytime soon.
It was expected that these repairs would only be ready to drive on just thirty minutes before the start of the race. This inspired several drivers, headed by McLaren drivers Lauda and Prost, to issue a protest and demand the race to be canceled. The only strong opponent of the cancellation was Williams driver Keke Rosberg, who had an ace up his sleeve. In his usual relaxed way, the flying Finn told journalists that he didn’t know what the fuss was about, as everybody knew that no matter how much they complained, the race would go on, either with or without a decent track surface.
As it happened, Rosberg was right. With the track ready just in time, the warm-up lap started. This provided the first drama of race day, as Rene Arnoux couldn’t get his Ferrari moving from its spot on the grid. Once his crew got him underway, there was no time to catch up with the field, and so the unfortunate Ferrari driver was forced to start from the back of the grid. At the start, the cars stayed in qualifying order, Mansell leading de Angelis and Warwick around the first lap, with Rene Arnoux fighting his way up. Hesnault quickly regretted that he hadn’t used Saturday qualifying as an additional training in negotiating the track. Within a lap, the Frenchman became the first to hit the concrete barriers, ending his race within seconds.
Soon after, Warwick successfully challenged de Angelis for second. The Italian was having problems with his engine, which was misfiring. Mansell had now lost his buffer, with Warwick closing in on the leader. After ten laps, the Renault driver attempted to pass his rival, but he was too ambitious, spinning out and hitting the tyre wall, ending his race. Meanwhile, Rene Arnoux was slicing through the field at a remarkable rate. In just ten laps, the Ferrari driver had moved from 26th to 11th, behind Thierry Boutsen. By this time, another two drivers had left the race. Both Alfa Romeo driver Eddie Cheever and Tyrrell’s only remaining driver Stefan Bellof had followed Hesnault’s example and hit the wall.
Elio de Angelis had fallen behind Niki Lauda, but when his Lotus stopped misfiring, the Italian took second position back. Behind Lauda, Keke Rosberg had made his way past Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. The young Brazilian was constantly suffering from his mediocre car and was by now seriously considering alternatives for next season. After 14 laps, Rosberg squeezed past Lauda for third, and immediately went after the two black and gold cars ahead. Just four laps later, de Angelis fell victim to the unleashed Finn. Soon after, Rosberg stuck his front wing right under Mansell’s rear wing. The two drivers were dodging and diving, while frantically trying to stay on the track, which was rapidly deteriorating. Mansell was doing everything he could to keep the Williams driver behind him, but it was getting more difficult every lap.
Meanwhile, Andrea de Cesaris (Ligier) and Riccardo Patrese (Alfa Romeo) left the race against the concrete barriers. Dutchman Huub Rothengatter was the first to retire without kissing the concrete. His Spirit was left motionless with a fuel leak after 15 laps. Prost, until then mostly busy with staying out of trouble, gathered himself and got past Lauda and de Angelis for third. In sixth and seventh now were Nelson Piquet and Rene Arnoux, who were slowly gaining ground on the leading group.
Prost then briefly got in front of Rosberg, but the Finn was quickly back into second and resumed looking for a way past Mansell. After 35 laps, just after half distance, Mansell shortly lost concentration and hit a wall, allowing Rosberg to finally pass him. After that, Mansell was struggling to stay on the track and dropped back to fourth before having to stop for repairs and fresh tyres. When Piquet became the next victim of the Dallas walls on lap 46, Arnoux moved into fifth. By now, Rosberg’s tyres were gone, like those of many drivers. This allowed Alain Prost to take maximum profit from his tactical decision to take it easy in the early stages of the race. After 49 laps, the Frenchman took the lead and quickly opened a gap back to Rosberg. Arnoux was now in fourth, chasing de Angelis.
From then on it looked as if Prost could take it all the way without too much trouble. Alas, the Frenchman made a rare error, damaging a wheel and presenting Rosberg the lead on a platter. With Arnoux now well behind in second, the Finn only had to keep his cool and nurse his Williams home for the win. Even though Arnoux closed in on Rosberg considerably in the final part of the race, the race wasn’t long enough for the Ferrari driver. After 67 laps and over two hours, Rosberg finished first, just over twenty seconds ahead of Arnoux. Elio de Angelis finished third, a lap behind Rosberg and nearly a lap behind Arnoux.
A further lap back, pyjama-man Laffite brought his Williams home in fourth, well over a minute ahead of Osella driver Piercarlo Ghinzani. Normally these two would have been fifth and sixth, but when Nigel Mansell, to complete his personal drama, ran out of fuel, Laffite and Ghinzani took profit. Mansell then provided another legendary picture when he attempted to push his car across the finish line. Halfway the start finish straight, Mansell collapsed next to his car, totally exhausted.
On the podium, Rosberg looked remarkably fit, wearing a Stetson hat, in true Texas style. The Finn had a good reason to smile, as his ace had given him the win. But what was his ace? Well, Rosberg had invested some $2,000 in a specially made water cooled helmet, which had kept his head cool in the race.
Of course this whole race was ridiculous. With a track that fell apart underneath the drivers, and drivers hitting the barriers more often than ever before, this race was never going to have a sequel. Rosberg kept his cool in a maelstrom of sliding cars and blistering heat. However, even though Rosberg’s victory was quite a legendary one, Arnoux’s performance was possibly even better. His amazing rise from 26th to second is one you don’t really notice in the statistics, but should be remembered nonetheless. Mansell’s collapse finally and perfectly epitomised the drama of this weekend in hell.
For the World Championship things only got more interesting. Both McLarens failed to score, so Elio de Angelis moved to second place with 27 points. followed now by Lauda, Arnoux and Rosberg, all within four points of each other. Eventually the McLarens would decide the title between themselves, but for the moment Dallas increased the interest in the championship.
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