Wednesday, 25 January 2017

1982 - The Inside Story of the Sensational Grand Prix season - Christopher Hilton

I remember that during the 2012 Formula 1 season, relative neophytes were speculating that we were experiencing perhaps the most dramatic and unpredictable Grand Prix year ever.  Those people had evidently not been around in 1982. Christopher Hilton's book, published in 2007, captures the turbulence and tragedy of that extraordinary season.

For me, the 1982 campaign was in large part coloured, and tarnished, by the death of Gilles Villeneuve, who was one of my first heroes in life. I distinctly remember crying on the day of his accident, staring into space at the end of our driveway, on a warm spring evening.  However, as time has passed I have grown to recognize how that season did have some redeeming features.

The material about the drivers' strike in South Africa is fascinating, in that it suggests that the views of many of the drivers were ambivalent. They were caught between concerns of principle and solidarity and the imperatives of ambition and avarice.  There are some interesting theories about Niki Lauda's motives, too. The strike is also placed within the context of the wider, momentous power struggle which was ongoing within the sport at that time.  A healthy selection of quotes from drivers and other personnel helps to paint the picture.

The chapter dealing with the Belgian Grand Prix in May contains much harrowing but gripping testimony about the events of that tragic qualifying session at Zolder.  Similarly, the passages documenting the Canadian Grand Prix, the scene of Ricardo Paletti's fatal accident, are moving and affecting. It is good that the author went to the trouble of researching Paletti's background and racing career.

Reading the quotes and recollections in this book, it occurs to me that in the 1980s, Grand Prix drivers were more worldly men than they are today. Maybe I think in these terms because the drivers in those days were much older than me, whereas nowadays I am many years their senior. People such as Derek Warwick and John Watson impress with their honesty and roundedness. Making allowances, one would have to say that, thirty-odd years ago, the goldfish bowl was less overpowering, and the world was a different place.

"1982" also offers a persuasive reminder that technological progress has made things too "perfect" and "infallible" to be interesting and uncertain on an "organic" level. Variables and imponderables are banished, and much of the soul and raw excitement extracted.

The heterogeneous nature of the venues, the media coverage and so forth is another part of the backdrop to this work, No identikit tracks, podium ceremonies, pit and paddock complexes, and the like.

Hilton relates some great tales, such as the Toleman "half-tanks" ploys and the Derek Daly "short cut" at Dijon. More innocent times, but in keeping with many aspects of this book, I get the impression that the people involved have been made less guarded and equivocal, and more candid, in their recollections by the passage of time.

It seems to me that, in a Formula 1 sense at least, the 1980s had not truly arrived in 1982.  I tend to see this as happening in 1984, with the full flowering of the Ron Dennis/TAG/Lauda/Prost era at McLaren.  Things became more clinical and orderly, and rough edges were smoothed over. The years 1982 and 1983, by contrast,  still exuded elements of the Seventies. A transitional, confusing, but vibrant time.

Christopher Hilton's book, lavishly illustrated and well-researched, evokes those times vividly.

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