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The major decision had already been reached. A week earlier, on the quick, if kinky, streets of Montreal's He Notre Dame circuit, 33-year-old Alan Jones of Australia had locked up the tightly contested 1980 World Driving Championship with a controversial, anticlimactic victory in the Canadian Grand Prix. Despite the fact that Didier Pironi of France whipped his Ligier across the finish line ahead of Jones' white-and-green Williams, the plump and plucky Australian got both the win and the nine points he needed to take the title.
Pironi was penalized a lap for jumping the restart of the race after a first-lap seven-car pileup following the initial green light. Jones' only remaining rival for the championship, Nelson Piquet of Brazil, driving a Brabham, led for most of the first third of the race, and for a while it looked as if the championship wouldn't be decided until the Grand Prix circus arrived at Watkins Glen, N.Y. for the 14th and final race of the long season. But it was not to be. Piquet was motoring along nicely, on a straightaway and free of traffic, when his Cosworth V-8 went kerpow on the 22nd of 70 laps. With the Pironi penalty, Jones was home free, though the nature of the win made it less than satisfying.
Still, there was plenty of suspense, of a quite ominous nature, left over for Watkins Glen.
First was the perennial question of whether or not this would be the last Grand Prix go-around at the venerable (some might say decaying) rural road-course. After last year's event, which was memorable mostly because of the constant rain, the F�d�ration Internationale Sportive d'Automobile, which controls Formula I racing, changed the traditional Glen date from the first weekend in October to mid-April (a time when the course would most likely still be covered with snow). That notion was dropped and the fall date was restored, but only on condition that the often penurious Glen management repave nine very rough stretches of the 3.377-mile circuit. After a summer of Perils-of-Pauline searching for the money to make the demanded fixes, this was duly done, along with other alterations costing $200,000, and last month the Glen was given a passing grade.
But when the cars got out on the track late last week for their first practice sessions for Sunday's race, it quickly became clear that the patchwork had only made things worse. "It's like driving a go-kart out there," complained reigning World Champion Jody Scheckter after pitting his Ferrari. "The joints between the old surface and the new are very, very rough. The ground-effects design of these cars causes them literally to stick to the track through corners. But with these bumps, we're getting unstuck in the most embarrassing and potentially murderous places."
The swift South African had already announced his intention to retire at the end of this season, though he is only 30 years old and could have a long and lucrative career ahead of him. "I've attained my goal," he said. "I won the championship and I know I could keep on winning. So I'm getting out while I'm still in one piece. Seven men—friends of mine—have died in the seven years I've been racing. Ronnie Peterson's death in 1978 and Patrick Depailler's this summer at Hockenheim were the most significant to me because we all grew up in the sport together. I have a wife and two children now, though I hope that isn't my whole reason for retiring. It's the danger. These cars are so incredibly fast that the slightest error can spell finished. Just take a look at the qualifying times here this year. The track, because of that patching, is a good two seconds slower than last year. But the cars are three or four seconds faster than they were. If the track were smooth, all 24 cars could beat the old qualifying record."
The surprise pole sitter at the Glen turned out to be Italy's Bruno Giacomelli, behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo. Jock O'Malley (as his Team McLaren pals dubbed him when he drove a few races for that marque in 1977-78) pulled a jack-rabbit 1:33.29 lap out of the hat late Saturday afternoon, beating Jones' qualifying record by two seconds. The new champ could qualify only fifth fastest, behind Giacomelli, Piquet, Carlos Reutemann (in a second Williams car) and Elio de Angelis in a Lotus. The speed and handling of the pole-winning Alfa must have pleased Lotus driver Mario Andretti. Since his world championship in 1978, Andretti has had miserable luck and poorly prepared machinery and there is little doubt that he will move to Team Alfa next year.
Despite the fast qualifying speeds, the future of the Glen as a Grand Prix venue remained very shaky. "What a dreadful place this is," said Tyler Alexander, the Team McLaren crew chief and a longtime veteran of the road-racing wars. "There's only a few toilets in the whole place, and they're pestholes. Not a decent meal to be had within an hour's drive. It's always cold, muddy, remote and dull, dull, dull." But another veteran insider compared the change in attitude of Grand Prix teams toward the Glen to that of major league ballplayers. "Twenty-five years ago," he said, "baseball players were content to take trains and buses around the sticks and play in parks little better than cow pastures. Now it's big bucks, private jets, super-trick stadiums and massive media exposure. Drivers are the same. They've grown used to convenience, comfort and attention. The Glen has none of that, and what's worse, it's damned dangerous. Not just on the track, but off it as well, what with the Bog People and their bus-burning mentality."
In defense of the Glen, a major effort has been made to eliminate The Bog, a swampy area on the final turn before the start/finish straight, and its intemperate residents (dope-smoking, beer-guzzling college kids, mainly)—but, ironically, that may destroy the main source of the track's audience. Indeed, while no cars or buses were set afire this year, the crowd was only half the size of the usual turnout. In Scheckter's words, that alone could spell finished for the Glen.
The other main area of racing contention and suspense in the pits was the ongoing battle between FISA and the Formula I Constructors' Association, headed by Team Brabham Manager Bernie Ecclestone. The two groups are fighting for nothing less than total control of Grand Prix racing. "We have no choice but to pull out of FISA and set up our own racing series," Ecclestone said. He is planning a four-race series in North America, and though he coyly refused to name venues, it seems certain that Montreal (which teams and drivers love) and Long Beach, Calif. would be two. Another possibility is Chicago; Mayor Jane Byrne last week announced a CART and Can Am road race for next July 4 along Lake Shore Drive and adjacent streets. Urban road racing is the hot item for the '80s, and it would surprise no one in motor sports to see a Grand Prix scheduled as well for Atlantic City or Las Vegas, where even a small crowd might pay for the race through its gambling.