The drivers' championship went down to the wire and was won for the second time by Nelson Piquet after he finished third at the South African Grand Prix. Alain Prost, who came to Kyalami with a two-point lead, retired shortly before the halfway point when the turbo on his Renault failed and that left Piquet needing to finish fourth or better to claim the crown. Crucially, while Piquet was chilled, Prost was a bag of nerves, a situation made worse by the hype in France where advertisements were already running proclaiming him as champion.
Although the title race dominated the pre-race coverage, there was also concern at the narrow pit lane which, because of the refueling of cars during the grand prix, was considered dangerous. "It amounts to 20 bombs being in the pits at one time or another," warned Renault's director general Gerald Larrouse. "There is a real possibility someone could be hurt." Discussions were held to try to ensure the three title contenders - Rene Arnoux was still in with a slim chance - would be allowed to refuel on the same lap with no other cars permitted into the pits at the same time.
Patrick Tambay was the quickest in practice and qualifying, a clear riposte to the Ferrari management who announced he had been released from the end of the year. Arnoux's efforts were not helped when marshals who were helping to push his Ferrari after it broke down managed to run over his foot, leaving him hobbling.
"There are things that should not happen," Arnoux said after X-rays had revealed no breaks. "The track officials here are notoriously inefficient. I had to wait a quarter of an hour for them to react and then they wanted to hurry it. My foot, even half my leg, went under the wheel."
Piquet qualified in second while Prost struggled and was more than a second back in fifth. Arnoux, driving after pain-killing injections, was fourth on the grid.
Piquet stormed into an early lead and within a dozen laps had opened up a considerable gap which allowed him the luxury of easing off. Prost's hopes finally vanished when he retired on the 35th lap shortly after a 45 second pit stop, and by then Arnoux was showered and changed as his Ferrari had died on the 11th lap.
Knowing he just had to stay in the top four, Piquet eased off to protect his Brabham, allowing team-mate Riccardo Patrese to pass and go on to record the second win of his career.
Niki Lauda fought back from a long pit stop caused by a jammed wheel nut to also overtake Piquet but six laps from the end his McLaren died with electrical failure. With two laps remaining Andrea de Cesaris in his Alfa Romeo passed a cruising Piquet but by then the championship had been settled.
"Everything went the way we wanted," Piquet beamed. "The car and the pit teams worked with excellent speed and precision." He celebrated by getting drunk at an all-night party.
Prost paid tribute to Piquet saying the best driver and car had won. Renault, who were already at odds with their nearly champion, had had enough and two days later he was fired. McLaren, which was in difficult negotiations with John Watson, seized its chance and snapped up Prost for a ridiculously cheap sum. "The team feels they have made the right choice and now they will have to live with that decision," a stunned Watson said.