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After a tortuous winter of politics, the FISA/FOCA "war" was finally resolved and the 1981 season opened late at Long Beach. To reduce downforce and cornering speeds, sliding skirts had been banned and a minimum sidepod ground clearance of 6cm was now stipulated. Although Riccardo Patrese’s Arrows qualified on pole in California, the old order appeared unchanged, with Alan Jones winning for Williams.
The new ground clearance could only be measured in the pits, so systems to lower the cars and circumvent the ground clearance rule when in motion were introduced by some teams. After protests, FISA pronounced the concept legal so everyone had to follow suit.
Brabham and Williams again disputed the championship on the track. Carlos Reutemann defied Williams team orders to beat Jones in Brazil and led the championship for much of the year. But the enigmatic Argentinean turned in a strangely lacklustre performance at the final race in Las Vegas, allowing Nelson Piquet to snatch the title for Brabham. The outgoing champion Alan Jones, who had already announced what proved to be a temporary retirement from the sport, won the race itself for Williams. Jacques Laffite also won twice for Ligier, enough to maintain an outside chance at the title until the final race of the season.
Gilles Villeneuve made news for Ferrari, whose current car combined a powerful turbocharged engine with a truly awful chassis. After winning in Monte Carlo, Villeneuve narrowly held off four quicker cars for nearly all of the Spanish GP, scoring an incredible victory in which just 1.24 seconds separated the top five finishers.
Renault, the originators of the turbo, signed Alain Prost who won three times. However, mechanical failures again restricted the team’s ability to contend for the championship.
Ron Dennis’ Project 4 Formula 2 concern merged with the ailing McLaren team to form McLaren International. The new partnership introduced the first fully carbon fibre monocoque to Grand Prix racing in the John Barnard-designed MP4/1. Backed by a patriotic home crowd, John Watson drove the car to victory in the British GP – his first win in five years. Although Lotus also used a composite chassis to deliver greater rigidity at a lower weight, the team was preoccupied with the controversial Lotus 88 concept, Colin Chapman’s latest attempt to discover a significant car advantage. The car featured a conventional chassis with the bodywork suspended on a secondary chassis. But FISA ruled the second chassis was a movable aerodynamic device and thus illegal. It never raced.
The Belgian GP was marred by the death of Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo after a pit lane accident during practice. The dark mood was deepened by a startline accident in which Arrows’ chief mechanic Dave Luckett was injured. Luckett had stayed on the grid to restart Riccardo Patrese’s car and was struck by team-mate Siegfried Stohr.
The use of ex-works cars were banned from 1981.