On this day in 1981: F1’s deadly fiasco at Zolder

1981 Belgian Grand Prix flashback

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F1 counted the cost of a tragic and shambolic weekend at Zolder 30 years ago today.

Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo lost his life in an accident during practice. And viewers looked on in horror as the race began as another mechanic, Dave Luckett, was still on the grid, and was struck by one of his team’s cars.

The row over ‘ground effect’

The 1981 season began with the FIA fighting a battle with many teams over ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics.

The sport’s governing body wanted to ban the skirts used to generate increasingly high cornering speeds. Rules had been drawn up stating the gap between bodywork and road must be no less than six centimetres with suspension at its lowest point.

But by the time of the fifth race of the year at Zolder in Belgium, the reality was virtually every car on the grid failed to conform to the new regulations. Most passed the scrutineers’ checks in the pit but were clearly illegal on track.

A ban on skirts, if successful, would put greater emphasis on engine power to the detriment of those teams using customer Cosworth V8s, such as Lotus, Williams and Brabham. These teams, under the banner of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA), wanted to ban the immensely powerful and expensive turbo engines which had been introduced by Renault and, for the first time in 1981, by Ferrari.

Beneath all of this lay a power struggle for control of the sport between the FIA, led by Jean-Marie Balestre, and FOCA, led by Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone. The FIA were siding with the manufacturer-run teams in an attempt to topple Ecclestone.

Giovanni Amadeo

The narrow pit lane at Zolder had long been criticised. Team managers and mechanics perched on a thin ledge while timing their cars and holding out pit signals. A few weeks before the 1981 race, its organisers announced that new pits and a wider pit lane would be built for 1982.

During Friday afternoon practice, Giovanni Amadeo was struck by Carlos Reutemann’s Williams in the pit-lane. He slipped from the ledge by the outer pit wall, and fell into Reutemann’s path.

The other half of the pit lane was taken up by parked race cars, mechanics and a sea of hangers-on. Reutemann had no time to brake and no room for him to swerve in avoidance.

Amadeo suffered a double skull fracture and, though attempts to resuscitate him in the ambulance were successful, he was not expected to survive. The sad announcement came after the race weekend had finished.

The order after Friday’s official session was Reutemann, Piquet, Pironi, Patrese, Watson, Jones, Villeneuve, Cheever, Laffite and Mansell. Saturday’s rain storm made this the grid.

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1981 Belgian Grand Prix grid

Row 11. Carlos Reutemann
2. Nelson Piquet
Row 23. Didier Pironi
4. Riccardo Patrese
Row 35. John Watson
6. Alan Jones
Row 47. Gilles Villeneuve
8. Eddie Cheever
Row 59. Jacques Laffite
10. Nigel Mansell
Row 611. Keke Rosberg
12. Alain Prost
Row 713. Siegfried Stohr
14. Elio de Angelis
Row 815. Marc Surer
16. Jean-Pierre Jabouille
Row 917. Bruno Giacomelli
Alfa Romeo
18. Mario Andretti
Alfa Romeo
Row 1019. Michele Alboreto
20. Chico Serra
Row 1121. Hector Rebaque
22. Beppe Gabbiani
Row 1223. Andrea de Cesaris
24. Piercarlo Ghinzani

Dave Luckett

On Sunday things started to go wrong just before 3 o’clock – at which time the race was scheduled to go live to the world.

After the drivers arrived at the grid, many climbed from their cars in protest with the aim of delaying the start. The drivers were unhappy with the organisers’ refusal to listen to their requests the day before for the maximum number of cars allowed to take part in qualifying to be reduced from 30 to 26. This refusal was the final straw and mechanics and some team owners promptly joined them on track.

The delay and ensuing confusion caused many drivers to become agitated and engines began to overheat. By the time all the cars were on the gird, Ricardo Patrese’s Arrows had stalled and he began to wave his arms in warning to those behind him.

In a scene of pure horror, his mechanic Dave Luckett jumped down onto the track to help start the car just as the race was about to start.

Cars dodged around the stricken Arrows until, in a horrible coincidence, Patrese’s team mate Siegfried Stohr arrived, and ploughed into Patrese and Luckett.

Nigel Mansell witnessed the carnage on track. In his autobiography, he said: “I was right behind them and watched this horror show play out in front of me. I was sure the guy was dead and I thought he’d probably been chopped in half.

“I was numb in the car, my legs wouldn’t work, my arms wouldn’t work and I felt rigid with fear. I felt sick and I was crying my eyes out inside my helmet. I didn’t know what we were doing there. I thought, “We’re driving these machines that kill people. That’s two people this weekend’.”

Despite Mansell’s fears, Luckett survived with broken legs.

Autosport’s race reported noted: “It appears there was some confusion among the teams as to whether there would be another orderly, warm up lap, or the start of the race. Whichever, the track was out of bounds when Luckett went to restart Patrese’s car. In fact, the TV cameras clearly showed that Jones, behind the Arrows, was already reacting to the green light before Luckett reached Patrese.”

No signal to stop

Reutemann won on a grim weekend for F1

An ambulance was on the scene within seconds but the race was allowed to continue. Yellow flags were waved but at the end of the second lap, Nelson Piquet was leading by more than ten seconds.

No signal was given for them to stop and it wasn’t until Ferrari’s Didier Pironi slowed down and stopped to applause from the pits, that the organisers were forced to stop the race.

Forty minutes later, when Luckett had been taken to hospital, the cars re-assembled on the gird, minus the two Arrows.

Reutemann led the re-start, but Pironi flew down the inside towards the first corner and was ahead. Piquet and Alan Jones squeezed through but it was short-lived, as Piquet crashed into the catch fencing at the chicane and stormed back to the pits. Jones’ gearbox failed soon after and he ploughed into the barriers and badly burned his thigh when the gearbox oil leaked into the cockpit.

Reutemann regained the lead and kept it until, after 55 laps, rain began to fall and the Belgian Grand Prix was brought to an end. Two-thirds distance had been covered and full championship points were awarded. The rain had stopped by the time the half-hearted presentation took place.

It was Reutemann’s 15th consecutive points finish and his 12th and final victory. It was Mansell’s first podium finish.

In his autobiography, Nigel Mansell says: “It began to rain and as the downpour got heavier the race was cut short. Carlos Reutemann was declared the winner with Jacques Laffite second in the Ligier and I was third. I felt on top of the world. It was an overwhelming experience. The swing of emotion I had experienced in two hours, from the shock and paralysing fear at the start to the ecstasy at the end, was enormous.”

His car may have won, but Frank Williams was far from happy. He summed up the fury at the needless injury and bitter wrangling over the technical rules, saying: “Why do people part with money to come in and watch this bloody fiasco any more? Can you give me an answer to that? Because I can’t give you one.

“And I’ll tell you something else. I can’t think of a good reason to persuade my sponsors to stay involved in it, either.

“You can only suppress hypocrisy and lies for so long in this world. Eventually it all bubbles to the surface, and we’ve got it now. We’re paying for the past.”

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1981 Belgian Grand Prix results

12Carlos ReutemannWilliams-Ford541:16:31.61
226Jacques LaffiteLigier-Matra5436.06
312Nigel MansellLotus-Ford5443.69
427Gilles VilleneuveFerrari5447.64
511Elio de AngelisLotus-Ford5449.20
63Eddie CheeverTyrrell-Ford5452.51
77John WatsonMcLaren-Ford541:01.66
828Didier PironiFerrari541:32.04
923Bruno GiacomelliAlfa Romeo541:35.58
1022Mario AndrettiAlfa Romeo541 lap
1114Marc SurerEnsign-Ford532 laps
124Michele AlboretoTyrrell-Ford522 laps
1331Piercarlo GhinzaniOsella-Ford504 laps
6Hector RebaqueBrabham-Ford39Accident
25Jean-Pierre JabouilleLigier-Matra35Transmission
21Chico SerraFittipaldi-Ford29Engine
32Beppe GabbianiOsella-Ford22Engine
1Alan JonesWilliams-Ford19Accident
8Andrea de CesarisMcLaren-Ford11Gearbox
5Nelson PiquetBrabham-Ford10Accident
20Keke RosbergFittipaldi-Ford10Gearbox
15Alain ProstRenault2Clutch
30Riccardo PatreseArrows-Ford0Collision
29Siegfried StohrArrows-Ford0Collision
DNQ18Derek DalyMarch-Ford
DNQ16Rene ArnouxRenault
DNQ17Eliseo SalazarMarch-Ford
DNQ9Slim BorguddATS-Ford
DNQ33Patrick TambayTheodore-Ford
DNQ36Derek WarwickToleman-Hart
DNQ35Brian HentonToleman-Hart

Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.

34 comments on “On this day in 1981: F1’s deadly fiasco at Zolder”

  1. Graeme Hunter
    17th May 2011, 9:04

    I was nine, and the start-line incident horrified me, I didn’t watch F1 for about a year afterwards, having started watching when I was four. Obviously as a fan of motor-racing at that time, I’d seen plenty of crashes, but this was something different, really affected me.

    1. I can imagine. Looking at it now, knowing that poor man was going to be hit, it still makes you feel very bad, and imagine how bad Stohr must have felt, you can see how desperated he is there.

      1. Apparently Stohr was never the same driver after that, he could never get it out of his mind and eventually lost motivation.

  2. It’s incredible that even though I was born in 1983, I’m more familiar with the names on that 1981 grid than I am with today’s grid.

  3. I was 9 also, and it was the second GP I saw in my life. Very sad weekend.
    At that time races were so poor in logistics and organizations, comparing with today. Not to say about safety of tracks and cars.
    Nevertheless f1 was much more fascinating and “human” than today: drivers and managers were much more “easy” to speak with, brands and marketing were not the masters of paddock, teams were more like little companies than big multinationals…

  4. I had never heard about this… I was born November ’81, but still I would have expected to hear about it from someone at some point.

    It does make you realise how safe F1 is now. It will never be 100% safe when you are hurtling around a track at 200mph with another car inches away from you, but at least there’s unlikely to be incidents like this again…

  5. I’m old enough to remember this at the time – we thought He’d been cut in half.

    If that happened now what chance you think the footage survives on youtube for longer than a day?

  6. I love how people today moan that “F1 isn’t what it used to be” and there were no scandals “back in my day”. I hope this article goes some way to disproving that.

    1. Those you said are aspects that have certainly changed, not for the better. But I’ve never heard anyone saying safety has not improved.

    2. Changes in safety do not necessarily require changes in commercialization or team attitudes. More money has meant more impetus for safety improvements, but safety itself doesn’t have to mean boring drivers or races.

      Plus, it’s clear that the level of safety in post-race parties is quite low now…

    3. I think you guys have missed his point. He’s not saying that people are moaning it’s too safe, he’s talking about the background technical arguments that turned into a war over the ownership of the sport. Exactly what is going on today!

  7. It’s incredible to see people runs so easily back onto the track, having had that happen only moments before. Insane.

    1. F1 was a real joke then! Adenaide in 1991 was rediculous too!

  8. that was a very well-done, informative article – thank you carl. sadly, continuing with osella – riccardo paletti would be killed at the circuit gilles villeneuve (who himself died at zolder in ’82) a year later, in only his first race with a full grid, which i believe was witnessed by his mother, who was due to go to new york with him two days later, to celebrate his twenty fourth birthday.

  9. Brilliant article Cari! :)

    That start-line accident is absolutely horrific. You can see how distraught Stohr was – and I felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than thinking you’ve just killed another human being.

    And I can’t believe I’d never heard about the death on the Friday! Either I’ve miraculously never come across it online, or it was not big news. Horrible stuff. I’m so glad F1 is as safe as it is now, but things like this can still happen.

    1. You can see how distraught Stohr was – and I felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than thinking you’ve just killed another human being.

      As I knew what would have happened and as the mechanic was hidden behind Patrese’s car, I was more shocked for Stohr, as he looked, obviously, as you said, distraught.
      I wonder if Patrese had seen his mechanic was behind him and was aware of the accident.

  10. thanks to youtube; today we have a medium to watch all those great F1 moment from the past.

  11. HounslowBusGarage
    17th May 2011, 12:28

    Thanks for the interesting but rather depressing article, Cari. That was a horrible weekend; I remember it well.
    Looking at the RAI clip, I can’t believe how primitive the facilities were, that pit lane is pathetic. Was there a pit lane speed limit in operation at the time?
    Zolder didn’t seemt to have the track width or infrastructure to deal with a Grand Prix. It looks as though the ambulance did a complete lap of the circuit to get Luckett back to the pits, as well.
    The following year’s race of course was another bad one for Zolder.

    1. Was there a pit lane speed limit in operation at the time?

      No, that didn’t come along until 1994 following the incident in the pit lane at Imola that year.

  12. Brilliant article!

    And what a track is that? Only Monaco on the current grid is narrower than that.

    1. Zolder, Belgium. It’s in the title.

  13. Michael Griffin
    17th May 2011, 13:46

    Brilliant article Cari, great read.

    Amazing to see from one article how much F1 has changed in 30 years. Pity the teams still seem to be as childish as ever though.

  14. Great article. I wasnt born yet and didnt know about this crazy weekend until now. It’s amazing what it takes to get people to change!

  15. Great article. Well written.

    A lot of people lost their lives along the way to the sport becoming thrilling but basically devoid of mortal fear. Those who continue to believe that F1 fundamentally should be about extreme risk and danger, and tsk tsk drivers for suggesting incremental safety improvements, are only afforded that opportunity by much terrible sacrifice.

  16. An even more tragic weekend would come the following year with Villeneuve’s accident…

  17. I was only 4 at the time, but i have seen the full race and I agree that the most striking thing was how poor safety measures were. Safety car and pitlane speed limits were still years away.
    One thing I’d like to comment on, if i recall correctly at some point all drivers got back in their cars and went out for a lap but then Piquet overshot his gridspot and had to go for another lap, i think it was at this point when other drivers shut off their engines to prevent overheating, and Patrese was one of them. THen he was unable to get it restarted, and we know the rest of the story.
    The other thing to add is that i think after this Stohr’s career took a dive, he had had a hard time catching up to Patrese but was probably starting to do well in the car, however the italian psychologist turned racer was probably never the same after Zolder.
    This brings up a question regarding onboard starters, it seems to me that during this period teams were already using external starter devices similar to the ones we see nowadays, however last night i was watching Monaco 82 and after Arnoux spun and stalled going into the piscine chicane Hunt stated the cars did have onboard starters but that they weren’t very good, so does anyone have more info on those during the early 80s?
    I also agree on comments here regarding how political F1 was back then, does anyone remember another F1 period in time more turbulent politically than early 80’s? not to mention all the various clever rule interpretations and penalizations leading to results being changed weeks after the races were done.
    Last thing to note about Zolder 81, i remember Jones in the lead losing it in turn 4. All else being equal, had he not done that he would have won a second championship in a row. Then again he did something similar in Jarama that same year

  18. After reading this I thought I should recommend a BBC doc called “Grand Prix: The Killer Years” Really gives you a perspective on the dangers of the sport inherent up until basically Senna’s death in 1994. Let’s hope that will be the last death we have to witness in F1!

  19. Poor Siegfried Stohr, he looks absolutely mortified.

  20. Sometimes you can watch old F1 on youtube and be sad or nostalgic for a lost era, but emphatically not when it comes to the organisation of the races. It’s a sobering reminder that safety is as much about having good communication and enforced procedures as it is about having big runoff areas.

    It would be laughable to see that half formed up grid or an ambulance tooling around the track with the cars still racing if it wasn’t such a serious situation. At least the drivers had the same sense that Tour de France riders have for sitting up and slowing down when the situation is getting stupid.

  21. Two of these articles in a week :( Not good. Still, makes for a great sense of perspective.

  22. I think what Frank Williams says is true now than before, with regard to his team. It’s a pale shadow of its former self, it relies on pay drivers and is now in threat of being overtaken by a steadily improving Team Lotus. Think Sir Frank Williams has now well and truly lost his motivation.

  23. I was 11, I was a big F1-fan already, started to follow it since ’79. But I didn’t see this race because I live in The Netherlands and back then we didn’t have F1 on TV, except Zandvoort and Monaco I believe.

    Nobody mentioned this point: Patrese started to wave his arms frantically around 1’20 in the clip. The race is started around 2’00. That’s 40 seconds that Patrese is signalling, very clearly, thats he has a problem and that he won’t be able to start. But the organisers still go ahead with it! Crazy, unbelievable, what a mess. Even for that age, with much less regard for safety, this is simply idiotic.

  24. Ernesto Piquinza
    17th July 2012, 13:47

    That was a very sad weekend for Reutemann, as the after race podium photo shows. He was demolished after the qualifying session and felt unable to stay at the circuit.
    Before the race at Monza, he went to a liitle town in the north of Italy to pay his respects to the young mechanic’s family.

  25. Stange how your memory works. This accident is etched in my memory af if it happened yesterday watching as it unfolded live. But the memory of the mechanic that died the day before needed this article to remind me…

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