• South African Grand Prix

Season starts with protests and a Prost win

ESPN Staff
January 23, 1982
The driver strike threatened to force the race to be cancelled © Sutton Images
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Alain Prost won the season opener at Kyalami, but once again the weekend was dominated by off-track politics, a grim portent of what was going to be yet another year where behind-the-scenes bickering tarnished the sport's image.

The issue was driver unhappiness with a new clause which had been inserted in their superlicences which forced them to reveal the details of their contracts to the FIA and bound them to drive for nobody else.

Niki Lauda, returning to action with McLaren after his two-year 'retirement', said that, in effect, that meant that if he was dropped by a team he could not drive for anyone else for the duration of his contract - in his case, that would mean five years. "I came into racing because it is a free life," Jacques Laffite explained. "I love the sport but I love my freedom more and if there is no freedom then I for one no longer race."

The FIA refused to budge, and so 31 drivers went on strike, remaining in an annex at their hotel while scheduled practice sessions came and went. The FIA played hardball; the drivers remained united.

Their brinkmanship seemed to have worked when Jean-Marie Balestre, the boorish FIA president, appeared to agree to their revisions. As was so often the case with Balestre, his word proved to be meaningless.

Prost, who started fifth on the grid, led from early on until the 40th lap when a rear tyre, so worn as to be useless, came away from the wheel and he limped back to the pits on three wheels. When he rejoined he was a minute adrift, but he stormed through the field, eventually overhauling team-mate Rene Arnoux nine laps from the end.

With Arnoux fighting disintegrating tyres and blisters on his hand, Carlos Reutemann was able to sneak second. Keke Rosberg came fifth despite the gear knob of his Williams all but blocking the pedals of his car.

The other big story was the return of former champion Niki Lauda, after two years away, to take fourth. "Niki was just fantastic … so fit," said McLaren's joint boss Ron Dennis. "It went better than we dared hope."

The post-race celebrations were stopped in their tracks when the stewards announced all but two of the drivers had had their licences suspended for their pre-race strike. The affair dragged on for two months until an appeal upheld the right of Balestre and his cohorts to act as they did but slammed his handling of the incident.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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