The last US Grand Prix West was held at Long Beach in 1983. The front row was locked out by the Goodyear shod Ferrari’s of Patrick Tambay (1st) and Rene Arnoux (2nd), with an all Williams second row, Keke Rosberg (3rd) and Jacques Laffite (4th) utilising their Goodyear’s to good effect.
Pirelli had the honour of owning the third row, with Elio de Angelis (Lotus) 5th ahead of Derick Warwick (Toleman) 6th. The Michelin shod teams struggled in qualifying, with the best Michelin car being the Renault of Alain Prost in 8th position.
Eddie Cheever in the second Renault was 15th, and while Brabham struggled to line up 11th (Riccardo Patrese) and 20th (Nelson Piquet) McLaren fared even worse, with John Watson 22nd and Niki Lauda 23rd on the grid.
At the start Rosberg had a great getaway, slicing out from behind Tambay and bumping wheels with Arnoux as he charged off the line, but had to settle for second place behind Tambay into the first corner.
Rosberg’s muscular move on Arnoux cost the Ferrari momentum, and the second Williams of Laffite benefitted to move up into third place. Roberg was all over the back of Tambay on the opening lap, but he lost it in spectacular fashion as he tried to pull off a move on him at the end of the long straight, spinning his Williams around through 360 degrees, his Goodyears painting a double helix on the track as he spun into the corner fortunate not to collect Tambay but allowing Laffite through into second place.
Tambay was struggling after his tap from Rosberg, and lost out to Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell before the end of the lap to drop down to fifth. Rosberg was certainly looking up for it, and he waltzed around the outside of Laffite to retake second position on the second lap.
Tambay had a cushion now thanks to Rosbergs spin and recovery, but Keke set about closing the gap, and quickly latched onto the back of the lead Ferrari, the Williams looking quicker through the twists of the circuit but unable to get ahead. Rosberg was glued to Tambay’s tail but also had Laffite and Alboreto right behind him as was bottled up behind the Ferrari.
Arnoux was struggling with his car after the contact with Rosberg off the start, and started to slip down the field, as Patrese and the Ligier of Jean-Pierre Jarrier got by and closed up on the leading train. Jarrier was flying at this stage, and passed Patrese for fifth on lap 20, but his next move on Alboreto ended in tears, Jarrier coming late up the inside on Alboreto and nudging him deep off the track, with Patrese nipping by both. Alboreto was forced to pit to repair damage from the collision, and lost ground, while Jarrier was able to keep going, catching back up to Patrese and regaining what was now fourth position.
Rosberg was still trying desperately to get by Tambay, but the Ferrari had an answer for everything the Williams could throw at it. Or did it? Rosberg finally made a decisive move on lap 26. Coming into the hairpin Rosberg shot up the inside and clobbered the Ferrari, sending it bounding into the air and retirement, with Tambay’s Ferrari stranded helplessly in the middle of the hairpin as the field passed by.
Rosberg was able to continue, but had to go the long way around the stricken Ferrari and in so doing lost enough time to be passed once again by team mate Laffite as they accelerated down the straight. Jean-Pierre Jarrier was right behind Laffite, and he clashed with Rosberg as he tried to take advantage of Rosbergs delay, with Rosberg out on the spot and Jarrier retiring soon after with a broken suspension.
So Laffite led now from Riccardo Patrese (Brabham), Danny Sullivan (Tyrrell), Marc Surer (Arrows) and incredibly Niki Lauda and John Watson for McLaren. The McLarens were on the move, and it wasn’t long before they had moved past Surer and Sullivan to move up to third and fourth. Watson had gambled on a different tyre compound than Lauda, and the gamble paid off, with Watson following Lauda through before making his move on lap 33, outbraking Lauda at the end of the straight and taking third position from him, with Lauda helpless to recover.
The McLarens were some 20 seconds down on Laffite and Patrese and now set about bridging the gap to the leaders, with the McLarens now flying and bringing the gap down by around a second a lap.
Patrese was pushing Laffite hard but unable to get by, and he ran wide on lap 43 which promoted the McLarens to second and third. With the pace differential there was no way Laffite could resist, and Watson breezed by into the lead on lap 45, outmuscling Laffite at the end of the straight, with Lauda following through soon after.
The McLarens would sail into the distance to a magical 1-2 finish from their lowly grid positions, Lauda dropping back from Watson as the race progressed.
There was still drama behind though, with Patrese recovering to pass Laffite for third only to suffer heartbreak as his engine blew, and forgotten man Rene Arnoux, who had earlier pitted for fresh tyres as his Ferrari dropped down the field, managed to come back through the field and recover to take third with a move on Laffite at the end of the race, the Williams Goodyears having long since passed their prime, and Laffite mistakenly been told by his pit crew that Arnoux was a lap down!