Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of one of motor racing’s unsung heroes. On 25 April 2001 Michele Alboreto was conducting straight line tests behind the wheel at the Lausitzring when his R8 suffered a tyre blow out, veering off track into a wall and killing him instantly. At only forty-four the news shocked the motor racing world, including those who had been closely involved with the Italian when he raced in Formula One between 1981 and 1994.
Therefore Memory Lane pays tribute to Alboreto by reflecting on his maiden Grand Prix victory, the Caesars Palace Grand Prixof 1982.
Although a race around the car park of one of Las Vegas’s casinos was hardly an ideal setting, Formula One headed into the final round of 1982 season with both championships still up for grabs.
While it was widely accepted that Didier Pironi would have triumphed had he not been severely injured in Germany, the two remaining title protagonists were ever bit deserving of the drivers’ title – having both drove strongly and won with the normally aspirated DFV against a foray of turbo-charged machinery.
Sitting on forty-two points, Williams’ Keke Rosberg knew that he only needed sixth or higher to take the crown, whilst Ulsterman John Watson had it all to do in his McLaren – having to win and hope the Finn didn’t score.
Meanwhile for the first time in eighteen years three teams headed into the race with the chance of the constructors’ title, although the odds of Renault or McLaren denying Ferrari were incredibly high.
Even so, there was much uncertainty heading into the weekend which had the potential to complicate the title picture. Having been locked in a long legal battle with the FIA over Rosberg’s (and Piquet’s) disqualification in Brazil, Williams was now awaiting the decision of a French Civil Court, with the possibly of a positive outcome handing the title to Rosberg regardless of the result in America. On the other hand McLaren was appealing Lauda’s disqualification in Zolder where he had been stripped of third place after his MP4B had weight in two kilos below the minimum weight. Should this have gone in the team’s favour then the Austrian too would still be in the title hunt, although a long way out.
Although neither appeal would matter in the end, the onset of a decision loomed large over proceedings as competitors looked forward to a gruelling battle under the Nevada sun.
An abnormal start time of Saturday allowed Mario Andretti to return for Ferrari and after his heroics in Monza it was widely hoped that the Italian-American would help increase hype around the event and allow the Prancing Horse to wrap up the constructors’ title. However the team would end up fighting with one arm behind its back after team-mate Patrick Tambay was forced to pull out after a reoccurrence of the back injury that he had previously sustained at Dijon.
Sadly the Frenchman would not be the only casualty prior to the start, with Teo Fabi (Toleman), Eliseo Salazar (ATS) and Chico Serra (Fittipaldi) failing to qualify; Roberto Guerrero’s Ensign team not having enough engines to make the start and Jean-Pierre Jarier ending his association with Osella early after walking away from a moment in practice when the front wheel broke off his car.
Following two days of running it was Renault who locked out the front row, with Prost overcoming fluctuating boost pressure to edge team-mate Arnoux by around half a second. Right behind the pair came two stirring performances from drivers in normally aspirated machinery, with Alboreto’s Tyrrell lining up alongside American Eddie Cheever in the Talbot Ligier.
Ultimately it would be these two who would be the focus of attention at the start as both headed side-by-side into turn one, banging wheels before Cheever was forced to finally give way.
The entire field made it safely around the first lap with the two Renault’s at the front. However it would Arnoux, on his last outing for the team before switching to Ferrari, who would take the lead on the second tour and begin to pull away.
Having fallen behind Patrese’s Brabham after the first corner melee, Cheever ran fifth ahead of Andretti, Rosberg, Piquet (Brabham), Warwick (Toleman) and Daly (Williams).
Despite starting off slowly, it wasn’t long before Watson was soon desperately trying to reignite the title fight, disposing of Daly and Warwick before homing in on the reigning champion.
By lap fourteen Alboreto was now starting to reel in the leaders; his un-fancied Tyrrell having been expected to flounder, especially with suggestions that it had not been suited to the demands of the track.
Nevertheless following Arnoux’s retirement with engine problems on lap twenty, the Italian began to look like he could secure an unlikely victory.
Behind, the demanding nature of the Cesar Palace circuit was beginning to take its toll as Patrese was forced to stop with clutch issues, Piquet’s BMW engine misfired and Andretti ended his outing for Ferrari when his rear suspension line broke. Despite this, Ferrari would still be in the pound seat for the constructors’ championship, duly securing the crown after a difficult year.
By lap forty Prost was now suffering from severe vibrations as his Michelin tyres began picking up rubber, allowing Alboreto to close alongside Watson – who had far from given up on snatching the championship at the death.
Once Alboreto slipped into the lead it took only four laps for McLaren driver to move up to second; however any hopes of victory were soon dashed as he too began suffering from the same tyre issues as his Renault rival. In the end these problems proved superficial as Rosberg had driven a cool and controlled race to fifth, enough to give him the crown with only one win to his name.
Nevertheless this took nothing away from Alboreto, whose outstanding performance returned Ken Tyrrell’s car to the top of the podium for the first time since Patrick Depailler’s victory in Monaco ’78.
Behind Cheever had done well to recover, passing a slowing Prost for third late on, with Daly taking the final points position albeit one lap down.
The victory would not be a flash in the pan for Alboreto, who would win a further four times and go on to drive for teams such as Ferrari, Minardi and Footwork.
Although he never quite secured the world championship (his closest coming in 1985 when he finish runner up to Prost) the Italian was always remembered as a quiet mild-mannered individual who would rather do his talking on the circuit than become too embroiled in the sport’s various political avenues.
Following his final year in the sport, Alboreto would compete in the likes of DTM and Indycar before turning his attention to sportscars, where he won the 1997 Le Mans 24 Hours and 2001 Sebring 12 Hours for Porsche and Audi.
Alboreto remains a memorable driver from a golden era of Formula one and one of Italy’s most successful racing pilots.
J.H. ‘Las Vegas Grand Prix – Another first time winner’, MotorSport, (London: MotorSport Limited, November 1982).
Lang, M. Grand Prix Vol. 4,(Somerset: Haynes, 1992).
Roebuck, N. Inside Formula 1, (London: Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989).