The beer and curry secret of F1’s last non-points race

The beer and curry secret of F1’s last non-points race


On April 10th, 1983 a little bit of history was made when Keke Rosberg won the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, the Williams driver heading home a field of just 13 cars.

Nobody knew at the time, except perhaps for Bernie Ecclestone, but it was to be the last non-championship Formula 1 race ever held.

Ecclestone realised that there would be no room for oddball races that didn’t involve points, and did not fit the uniform pattern that he was trying to establish for all aspects of the sport, not least the ever-rising race hosting fees paid by promoters of Grands Prix.

The concept of the non-championship race was to be forgotten for decades until the last couple of years, when it was mentioned by Ross Brawn as a possible way of testing new race formats.

More recently as the COVID-19 crisis first hit turning a grand prix into a non-points race was touted as a possibility should a particular team be unable to get into a country because of immigration restrictions.

At one stage non-championship events were the norm, and the bigger races carried more prestige and had better entries than some World Championship events. Many carried the “Grand Prix” title, and fans and competitors alike barely noticed that they didn’t count for points.

There were 14 such events in the first year of the World Championship in 1950, and while some British and French races featured only local entries there were major international wins for Juan Manuel Fangio (Pau, San Remo, Geneva, Pescara), Giuseppe Farina (Bari, Silverstone) and Louis Rosier (Albi, Zandvoort).

All those races featured representative fields, and yet inevitably the results are missed when career statistics are tallied up and those guys are compared with drivers from later eras. Consider that Jim Clark scored 19 non-championship wins, Stirling Moss 18, Jack Brabham 15, and Fangio 13.

As late as 1971 there were eight non-championship races in one year, but thereafter the number fell. Silverstone’s International Trophy was last held for pukka F1 cars in 1978, while Imola staked its claim for a Grand Prix with a one-off event in 1979.

Rene Arnoux, Ferrari 126C2B, leads Keke Rosberg, Williams FW08C-Cosworth, Danny Sullivan, Tyrrell 011-Cosworth and Alan Jones, Arrows A6-Cosworth

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Spain 1980 and South Africa 1981 ran without points by default as the height of the FISA/FOCA war, and then in 1982 – for the first time ever – there were no non-championship races.

The Race of Champions had been missing from the calendar since 1979 before its final hurrah four years later.

Against the odds, Brands Hatch promoter John Webb was able to revive an event that was first run in 1965, and which usually heralded the start of the European season. In 1983 an early April date was found, squeezed in between the US GP West and the French GP.

Ecclestone’s usual deal with the teams as middleman was that they only had to send one entry, and that’s what the big players did.

There were single cars from Ferrari (for Rene Arnoux and not Patrick Tambay), Williams (Rosberg and not Jacques Laffite), McLaren (John Watson and not Niki Lauda) and Lotus (Nigel Mansell and not Elio de Angelis).

The biggest disappointment surrounded Ecclestone’s own Brabham team, which trusted its sole Brazilian GP-winning car to its rusty 1981 driver Hector Rebaque, as regulars Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese were not available.

Arrows sent two cars, for Chico Serra and – in a boost to the entry – former world champion Alan Jones, who had just made his F1 comeback at Long Beach. Theodore/Ensign also had fielded two, for regular Roberto Guerrero and local favourite Brian Henton. In RAM’s sole entry was rookie Jean-Louis Schlesser, while Ligier had a car for Raul Boesel.

The established teams were boosted by an extra entry in the form of the F1 debut of Spirit, the F2 team that had made the step up to serve as the mobile test bench for Honda’s new V6 turbo.

There were some good names, but the final tally of 13 cars was a little unfortunate. So who was missing? Toleman was the only British-based team not to show up, joining continentals Renault, Alfa Romeo, Osella and ATS in failing to appear.

All the absent teams (bar ATS) opted instead for a clashing Michelin/Pirelli tyre test at Paul Ricard, with the French GP just a week away. That also accounted for the likes of Piquet, Lauda and De Angelis, while the other issue was a WEC race at Monza, which claimed Lancia drivers Patrese and Alboreto.

Danny Sullivan, Tyrrell 011 Ford, leads Alan Jones, Arrows A6 Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Ecclestone made it clear that he was losing interest in the idea of non-championship races.

“Our agreement with Webb was that we didn’t want to come,” he told journalists. “I explained the problems to him – of coming back from Long Beach, and running just before a World Championship Grand Prix – and I told him he’d have difficulty with the entry.”

Ecclestone was clearly on the defensive when the poor entry was questioned – notwithstanding his own failure to provide one of his star drivers – but he was keen to point out that Enzo Ferrari had kept his word and sent an entry for Arnoux.

You only need two cars to make a race, and fortunately for fans (and indeed BBC TV viewers) it was to be a memorable contest, starring an unlikely underdog hero.

In only his third F1 start, Danny Sullivan’s performance was so impressive and unexpected that when a few years later I asked him to nominate the Race of his Life for Autosport he chose Brands Hatch over his famous spin-and-win 1985 Indy 500 victory.

What he only revealed then was his unorthodox pre-race preparation regime on the Saturday evening.

“I was staying in London with Russell Wood, who had been a great driver in F3,” he told me. “I had a huge fight with my girlfriend on the telephone, so Russell and I went out for a curry.

“He said it was okay to have one beer the night before the race. So we were eating a poppadum and having a beer, and we were eating another poppadum and having a beer. The dinner was a little late… And the next thing I was just ripped! So I got up on race morning with a heavy head.”

Rosberg had put the Williams on pole, but he was passed on the first lap by Arnoux. Further back in the field Sullivan received a punt and went wide at Paddock Bend, and in so doing he managed to pass Jones and Watson – winner of the previous race in Long Beach – in a dramatic lunge around the outside. More than a little luck was involved.

“Wattie came up to me afterwards and said, ‘That was a helluva pass,’ and I thought, ‘John if you only knew that I was hanging on for dear life trying to gather it up!'”

After a few laps early leader Arnoux pitted for the first of a series of stops with blistered Goodyears. The field then fell apart. Johansson’s Honda turbo had failed early, and Mansell, Watson and Rebaque were also retirements, before Arnoux retired for good.

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW08C Ford, leads Danny Sullivan, Tyrrell 011 Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It could have turned into farce, but fortunately we still had a race. Leader Rosberg’s surprise pursuer was Sullivan.

Tyrrell had pulled off a strategic masterstroke. In the morning warm-up the badly hungover American ran more laps than rivals and had gently put some temperature into the Goodyears with which he was going to take the start.

Thus come the race he didn’t suffer the sort of blistering problems that afflicted Arnoux and leader Rosberg.

From half distance Rosberg’s left rear showed the tell-tale black mark of a blister, which gradually got worse and worse. Unlike Arnoux, he opted to stay out.

“I could see his blistered rear tyre,” Sullivan explained. “But he wasn’t hanging around, and there was only a little problem in a couple of the corners.

“Keke is one of the best guys I’ve seen in adverse conditions. I couldn’t get around him enough to pass him in a place where he wouldn’t expect it. There was no way he was going to leave the door open for me going into Clearways or whatever. He wasn’t going to do that.”

Sullivan came close on occasion on the run up to Druids. That’s where I was watching with a crowd that was enjoying an unexpected treat, despite the small turnout of cars.

“He was a little slow at Paddock,” said Sullivan. “And I got a good run at him on the last lap. He blocked me going up the inside into Druids, so I thought okay, and I just tried to go around him. I figured that when he shut the door he would never expect me to go round the outside!”

It didn’t work, and having survived a touch of wheels Sullivan had to settle for second. However he had really made a name for himself, and he was up there on the podium with the reigning World Champion. Another champ, Jones in the Arrows, finished a distant third.

It was a great day for Sullivan, who as a penniless youngster driving for Elden in FF1600 had once lived across the street from Brands Hatch.

Ken Tyrrell was naturally delighted with his new protege’s performance, blissfully unaware of his unusual beer-fuelled Saturday night preparations.

“Ken was really pleased. It had been a last minute deal, as Alboreto was supposed to do the race, and Ken had rung me in California the Wednesday before.

“After the race he said, ‘I don’t know what it was, but you’ve got to do it more often.’ He wanted me to fly to Grands Prix from California at the last minute!”

Podium: Race winner Keke Rosberg, Williams, second place Danny Sullivan, Benetton, third place Alan Jones, Arrows

Photo by: Motorsport Images


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