Belgium 1981: An organizational parody that ended up in tragedyWritten by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Giannis Binas
In Formula 1 history, more than a few tragic incidents have been recorded during racing weekends.
However, not all of them live in the viewers’ memories – their later remembrance usually has to do with the incident’s protagonist: it’s much easier to capture in memory a race that was marked by a serious injury or death of a driver than a race where the victim was a ‘nameless’ engineer or spectator.
The present article converses about a race belonging in that second category: in Zolder, 1981, 2 young engineers were the victims of a criminal organizational inaction.
The Formula 1 circus, traveled to the circuit of Zolder, hosting site of the Belgian GP, with drivers’ reactions on the poor safety measures of the circuit, evident from the first moment they stepped foot there.
It was apparent to the naked eye that the pit lane was dangerously narrow for a race in which 36 drivers would quarrel to qualify.
Traffic congestion in the pits was a fact and with every team’s engineers crowded in a narrow street lane, danger of an accident was looming.
Nevertheless, what the drivers were seeing, was not shared (or pretended not to) by the race organizers, who appeared reassuring.
Besides, they had already announced the reconstruction of the pits and the pit lane ahead of 1982, hence it was the last time drivers were to race under the present circumstances.
The drivers’ fears though, were soon to be confirmed under the most tragic way: during Friday’s free practice, Osella’s young mechanic, Giovanni Amadeo, slipped in the pit lane, amidst an incredible commotion.
He fell on the passing by single seater of Carlos Reutermann, the Argentinean did not have time to react and struck him on the head.
The unfortunate mechanic was transferred to the hospital, where he finally passed away 2 days later (his death was announced after the end of the race).
Ahead of the qualifying session, the drivers requested that it was not allowed to have 30 single-seaters participating, as was applicable, but 26, so as to reduce the danger of a new incident.
Since Friday however, several small teams were already pressed to retire their drivers (which they did) and the organizers were adamant in not allowing a further reduce in contestants.
In spite of having a major congestion once again, thankfully the worst was avoided.
The atmosphere was ‘heavy’ though and under no conditions it inspired safety ahead of Sunday’s race.
The drivers, realizing that their exclamations were practically non-existing, decided to act in another way: at the time of the race start, they would remain outside their cockpits for 5 minutes, in order to protest for their considerations not being taken account and to support the mechanic crews.
The race organizers (prompted by Bernie Ecclestone, who really didn’t want a driver’s protest before millions of viewers) warned them that the start was to be held as programmed.
Some drivers were alarmed, some were not, but the issue was the organizers kept their word.
The lights went out for the warm-up lap and this was the grotesque picture that followed: drivers outside the cockpits and engineers standing in the middle of the circuit while other drivers were driving between them.
Warm-up lap was anyhow completed, but the mess went on: Nelson Piquet did not stop where supposed to and organizers signaled him to make another lap, in order to return to the grid.
Due to the delay caused by the Brazilian’s mistake, the engines in many single-seaters started to overheat.
Reutermann pointed this out to the organizers, but alas.
So, more than a few divers switched of their engines and waited for Piquet, in order to repeat the warm-up lap.
Organizers had another opinion though: as soon as the Brazilian reached his proper starting position, the race was formally started, without a new warm-up lap.
Riccardo Patrese then tried to fire up his engine, but didn’t make it.
He immediately performed the characteristic hand gesture, but in vain.
His mechanic, Dave Luckett, entered the circuit, in order to assist him.
In the raging chaos that prevailed, Siegfried Stohr, Patrese’s teammate in Arrows, could not avoid Luckett.
“My hands and legs went numb, I was crying inside my helmet.
I was thinking what are we doing here, are we driving machines that kill people?”.
So was stated by Nigel Mansell, eye witness of the accident.
Luckett, miraculously ‘escaped’ with a broken leg, but the horror did not end there.
Although the ambulance was in the circuit, no red flag was waved, which menat the race kept going normally.
Didier Pironi stopped immediately, followed by the rest of the drivers.
Restart was 40 minutes later. The race of course was overshadowed by what has previously occurred.
A downpour came to finish things off sooner than later, with Reutermann scoring his 12th and last win of his career.
Jacques Laffite was 2nd, with Nigel Mansell finishing third, scoring his 1st podium. And while the Brit had modest joy for his 1st distinction, the Argentinean, affected also by Friday’s incident, was glum.
After the end of the race, a regulation was established, forbidding mechanics to remain in the race track 15 seconds prior to the warm-up lap – and that was a step to the right direction.
Luckett’s life had to be threatened though to ring the alarm bell in the management, a bell that did not ring in the case of Amadeo’s death: in Zandvoort 1983, ATS’ mechanic Gustav Brunner was hit in the narrow pitlane by Eddie Cheever – the result was a broken leg, but what counts is that no lesson was learned through that mishap.