GRAND PRIX INTERNATIONAL, 29.07.1981
I'm sure that John Watson's victory at Silverstone provided all the British spectators with a very satisfying feeling of revenge. From what I'm told, most of the "rosbifs" believed that Renault had stolen a rather sneaky victory from Brabham or McLaren at Dijon. They were convinced that we would never have been able to win under so-called "normal" circumstances. As it turned out, they really got their own back in the British GP.
Looking back on my whole career, I honestly can't think of a single race which was as easy for me as Silverstone, at least at the beginning. I had the situation under complete control. René Arnoux was holding a good second place, with Watson the best part of half a minute in arrears. As early as the third lap I was able to start thinking about sparing the car: tyres, engine and gearbox. For example, in the fast corners like Club and Abbey, I was keeping it in 5th gear instead of using 4th, a precaution which I hoped would prevent a recurrence of the Dijon problem with 4th gear. And then it suddenly all went wrong. Without any warning, the engine went on to four cylinders. I immediately headed for the pits, hoping against hope that it would turn out to be nothing more serious than a loose plug lead or something similar. It was, of course, something much more serious, something wrong (we've since found) with a couple of exhaust valves.
I naturally felt bitter. It was the first time that I have been forced to retire when I've been leading a Grand Prix, and it's not an experience I'd willingly go through again. It wasn't just the question of losing what should have been an effortless victory, either. Failing to finish in England has forced me to give up any hopes that I might have had of becoming world champion this year. I reckoned that two or three more victories after Dijon would have been enough to put me back in the title hunt with a reasonable chance of pulling it off. In the bottom of my heart I still believed I could do it. Now I have to think about my chances in 1982.
The British Grand Prix brought up yet again the absurd situation which we now have in F1 over the question of skirts. Last year I was right behind the campaign to get sliding skirts banned on safety grounds. But I have to admit that the idiotic rules which have been introduced this year have, if anything, made things even worse.
As a result of the rules being so badly written, you will know that all the cars are now fitted with hydropneumatic systems which "drop" the car as soon as it's running. When the skirts are new, the car tends to bottom out because of the downforce that is generated by the sidepods. But the roadholding is good. However, it doesn't take long for the skirts to start wearing... and when they do, the road holding gets worse.
Nothing could be more stupid. All the setting up which we do in practice is wiped out by the skirt wear. This is inevitable when they're rubbing directly on the ground without being able to move up and down, as they were last year. In qualifying, we make adjustments to compensate for the skirt wear, and then, when the time comes to aim for a good grid position, the mechanics fit new skirts and qualifying tyres... So the car feels completely different all over again. The basic problem is that skirt wear makes the handling completely unpredictable, but it's not the only problem.
The trick, you see, is to try to control skirt wear to the absolute minimum. So now we're setting up the suspension as hard as possible, with bump stops in the springs to make them virtually solid. It's most unwise from a mechanical point of view, and potentially extremely dangerous. I can't begin to tell you what sorts of shocks get transmitted to the driver when the car is set up hard like that.
Unfortunately, that is the rule... and we're stuck with it. When skirts were banned last year, it was the right thing to do. But the people in Formula 1 refused to get used to the idea. A pity, I say, and far from safe. Sorry to have spent so much time riding my hobby horse in public, but I can assure you that it's all extremely illogical. After all, there are very few things in this world that are perfect. If there were, I would certainly have won last Saturday.