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The latest generation of Grand Prix cars continued to generate more and more downforce. To maintain the optimum attitude of the car and its aerodynamics to the track, the cars ran rock-hard springs with virtually no suspension movement. Combined with cornering forces of up to four times gravity, these cars were the most physically demanding of all time and led to neck and back injuries for some drivers.
The season’s early races were marred first by controversy and then by tragedy. As turbocharged engines became increasingly powerful, the Ford-powered teams introduced "water-cooled brakes" that allowed their cars to race under the minimum weight of 580kg. After a race, teams were allowed to replenish cooling fluids before their cars were weighed. Designers took advantage of this rule by introducing large containers, which were empty during competition but filled with water before being weighed in scrutineering. FISA ruled that the systems had nothing to do with cooling and so disqualified the first two cars from the Brazilian GP for being underweight. The ruling body finally clarified the rules in Belgium and the systems remained outlawed.
The FOCA teams (apart from Tyrrell which had commitments to a new Italian sponsor) withdrew from Imola’s San Marino GP in protest, leaving Didier Pironi to beat Gilles Villeneuve in a controversial Ferrari 1-2. Villeneuve felt that Pironi had disobeyed team orders to steal the victory and a feud began between the two formerly close friends.
This dispute was totally overshadowed by the accident that befell Villeneuve 10 minutes from the end of final qualifying for the Belgian GP. Pushing to make the most of his last set of qualifying tyres, the Canadian clipped a slow-moving March and his Ferrari was launched into a terrifying roll that left Villeneuve fatally injured. The Canadian GP was also marred by the death of rookie Riccardo Paletti in a startline accident.
Pironi withdrew from the Belgian race but returned to take the points lead in the championship. Seemingly on course for the title, a severe accident during a wet practice session at Hockenheim caused injuries that ended Pironi’s career. Villeneuve’s replacement, Patrick Tambay, lifted the team by winning that race.
With series leader Pironi absent, Williams driver Keke Rosberg took the World Championship despite winning only once. McLaren’s John Watson won in Belgium and from the ninth row in Detroit but lost the title at the final round. His new team-mate was none other than Niki Lauda who won for McLaren at Long Beach and Brands Hatch during his comeback season. Renault continued to be fast but fragile with both Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux winning two events.
Brabham alternated between the Ford-powered BT49 and the new BT50, which used an exclusive BMW turbo. Riccardo Patrese won a bizarre Monaco GP despite spinning his BT49 during the closing damp laps. Prost and three others then retired when placed to win, allowing the Italian to score his maiden success. Nelson Piquet used the turbo BMW to win in Canada, a week after failing to qualify in Detroit. The Brabham team also reintroduced mid-race refuelling as it gave a tactical advantage over the full race distance.
Two former championship-winning teams returned to the winner’s circle in 1982. Michele Alboreto won in Las Vegas for Tyrrell while Elio de Angelis held off Rosberg in Austria by 0.05 seconds to score the last victory for Lotus before founder Colin Chapman died in December.