The following teams and drivers contested the 1981 FIA Formula One World Championship:
The 1981 Formula One season was an extraordinary season of Grand Prix racing for many reasons: it was effectively the first season that Briton and Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone and FOCA had the Concorde Agreement in place, which would set Formula One on a course to become a profitable business, thanks to the growing professional involvement of outside companies and professional sponsorship.
The South African Grand Prix held on February 7 (an event which was a consistent mainstay on the Formula One calendar) at the Kyalami Circuit near Johannesburg, was originally supposed to be the first round of the 1981 Formula One championship – but it was eventually stripped of its championship status. The ongoing FISA–FOCA war resulted in Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) insisting on a date change which was not acceptable to the race organisers. Approval was ultimately given for the race to go ahead on its original date but as a Formula Libre race rather than as a round of the Formula One World Championship. The downgraded race was supported by the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) aligned teams but not by the teams of the manufacturers, whose allegiances lay with FISA. This race was run with the cars running in 1980-specification trim, with the ground-effect wing cars of the time, equipped with sliding skirts that increased their downforce by ensuring the air under the car did not escape from under the car, where the most important airflow was. This race, run in wet conditions, was won by the Argentine driver Carlos Reutemann in a Williams-Ford/Cosworth.
The first of two rounds in the United States of America started F1's Americas tour on March 15 at the Long Beach street circuit in southern California, just outside the Hollywood film industry-dominated metropolis of Los Angeles. The cars were now running in new 1981-specification cars, with the sliding skirts now banned and cars required to have a 6 cm ground clearance, in order to reduce downforce. Australian Alan Jones won this race in Williams-Ford/Cosworth after pole-sitter Riccardo Patrese in an Arrows-Ford/Cosworth fell out and Jones's teammate Carlos Reutemann made a race-costing error that Jones took advantage of.
The Formula One circus moved from North to South America to start a two-stop tour there. The first round was at the Jacarepagua Autodrome in Rio de Janeiro – only the second time F1 had been there. F1 had previously visited the 5-mile Interlagos circuit in São Paulo in 1972–1980; this circuit was effectively dropped after 1980 because of safety issues with the circuit and the growing slums around the circuit being at odds with Formula One's glamorous image. This rain-soaked race saw Reutemann disobey team orders to let Jones through, and a furious Jones did not appear on the podium afterwards.
The other half of the South American tour in Reutemann's home country of Argentina was usually held in January; this time it was in April. This race was a procession: at the varied circuit located in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, Brabham designer Gordon Murray had come up with a hydraulic suspension to get his BT49C closer to the ground, and therefore be faster. This proved effective – as Brabham driver Nelson Piquet took pole ahead of French up-and-comer Alain Prost and the two Williams drivers, he and Mexican teammate Héctor Rebaque dominated the race, driving a car that was embarrassingly superior to all the others. The Brazilian won handily from home favorite Reutemann and Renault driver Prost. Due to internal politics and the drivers' strike at the 1982 South African Grand Prix, the Argentine GP would not return to the calendar until 1995.
Four weeks later, the GP circus returned to Europe to start the 4 month long tour there. The first race was a new race – a second Italian race called the San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Dino Ferrari near Imola, just outside Bologna. Unlike the South American races, both of which had been uncommon disappointments – the inaugural San Marino GP was a humdinger of a race – exciting all the way through. Brazilian Nelson Piquet won again for Brabham.
In stark contrast to San Marino, the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder was a shambolic event filled with tragedies and frustration. Politics dominated this event – Gordon Murray's hydraulic suspension gave his Brabhams considerable performance advantages, and there were arguments about who was cheating and who wasn't. The tragedy, however, started with Carlos Reutemann accidentally running over an Osella mechanic, Giovanni Amadeo – who died of a fractured skull the Monday after the race. The race, however, was an appalling embarrassment by top motor racing standards – at the start, there was a drivers' strike concerning mechanic and team personnel safety – which delayed the start. And when the race started, an Arrows mechanic, Dave Luckett, jumped onto the grid just as the lights went green in an attempt to start Riccardo Patrese's stalled car. Luckett was run over by the other Arrows driver, Sigfried Stohr – and as Luckett laid sprawled unconscious on the track with broken legs, the marshals were able to get him off the track, and the disorganization continued: as the drivers started their second lap with both Arrows cars still on the narrow start–finish straight, a number of marshals jumped onto the track – mere feet from the cars going at full racing speeds – and attempted to stop the race by waving at the drivers to stop, without the approval of the clerk of the course (who is the ultimate authority on the race's direction). The drivers continued on – because they had not been shown the red flag by the clerk of the course. But by the time they completed another lap, they decided to stop themselves without the clerk's approval. In the meantime, Luckett was taken to hospital, and survived. So the second race started, and Alan Jones took the lead, crashed out, Nelson Piquet also crashed out and Carlos Reutemann took the checkered flag after it was decided to call the race early.
The historic Monaco Grand Prix was the scene of an ultra-exciting race – as Piquet led for most of the race distance, and crashed out at Tabac. Jones took the lead, but had fuel feed problems, and Gilles Villeneuve in a poor-handling Ferrari took the lead and won.
The narrow and tight Jarama circuit just outside Madrid produced one of the best races of the year: after Jones crashed out, Reutemann took the lead, and then Villeneuve overtook Reutemann on the main straight at Jarama. Villeneuve, in a powerful but very ill-handling Ferrari, managed to keep 4 better-handling cars behind him in a car badly suited to the slow, narrow and twisty Jarama circuit. Villeneuve, Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Reutemann and Elio de Angelis were all separated by 1.2 seconds at the finish. The small crowd, the inappropriately very hot time of year this race was held in and the waning interest of the organizers caused this race to be the last Spanish Grand Prix until 1986, when it was moved south to the new Jerez circuit near Seville.
The alternating French Grand Prix moved from the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille to the fast, sweeping Prenois circuit near Dijon, located in the lush Burgundy countryside. This race was run as two races: it was interrupted by heavy rain, so the organizers decided to stop the race to wait for the rain to pass, which it did – and Alain Prost, who was to become one of the greatest drivers in Formula One history, won his first of 51 championship Grands Prix at home in a Renault.
The British Grand Prix, also alternating between 2 circuits (Silverstone and Brands Hatch) was at the very fast Silverstone circuit this year. The start was dominated by four turbos, the two Renaults of Alain Prost and René Arnoux, and the two Ferraris of Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, with Prost effectively walking away from the field and dominating most of the race. At the start of lap 5, near the Woodcote chicane, Villeneuve lost control, taking out Alan Jones (Williams) and Andrea de Cesaris (McLaren) who were both unable to avoid the Canadian, while Briton John Watson, in the other McLaren, narrowly missed the Villeneuve/Jones/Cesaris wreck. On lap 12, Nelson Piquet, who was 3rd at that point, crashed his Brabham, and had to be carried by an ambulance due to leg injuries. Later in the race, Alain Prost was forced to pit due to problems with an engine plug that couldn't be replaced without dismantling much of the car, forcing the Frenchman to retire and leaving his team mate, Rene Arnoux, in the lead. Arnoux, however, also had problems in the last laps of the race, losing his turbo, which allowed John Watson to overtake him easily. René Arnoux would eventually retire, shortly after, with Watson winning handily from Reutemann and Laffite.
The German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring produced a long battle between Alain Prost and Alan Jones, until Jones passed Prost in the stadium section, after a mistake by Prost's team mate, René Arnoux, who was being lapped, and allowed the Australian to slip by both Renaults. Nelson Piquet also found his way past Alain Prost, and took the lead after Alan Jones was forced to pit. It started to rain in the last laps of the race, but Piquet won with a comfortable lead over Prost, in 2nd, and Jacques Laffite, in 3rd.
Osterreichring was once again the site of the Austrian Grand Prix. Gilles Villeneuve was 3rd on the grid, and quickly took the lead away from the Renaults of Alain Prost and René Arnoux, who had locked the front row in qualifying, but a mistake cost him that lead on the very first lap, leading him to drop several positions, and eventually retire from the race later on. Alain Prost led ahead of Arnoux, until he too was forced to retire on lap 18 with suspension problems, and René Arnoux became the third man to lead the race, ahead of Didier Pironi and Jacques Laffite. Laffite, who had trouble overtaking the turbo charged Ferrari, eventually, managed to pass and approach Arnoux to take the lead all the way to the finish, with Arnoux nursing his 2nd place ahead of Nelson Piquet.
The beach-side Zandvoort circuit near Amsterdam provided Alain Prost with his second win of the year ahead of Nelson Piquet, who finished 2nd, and Alan Jones who limped on the final laps, to finish 3rd. Championship contenders Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite took each other out on lap 18, adding their names to the long list of 14 drivers who retired throughout the race. From the 10 drivers who saw the chequered flag, rookie driver Eliseo Salazar finished 6th, scoring his first, and only, point on his first season in Formula 1.
The second Italian and last European race of the year, the Italian Grand Prix, returned to the historic Monza Autodrome just outside Milan after a year's stay at Imola. Alain Prost won, and Alan Jones took 2nd, while Carlos Reutemann managed to finish 3rd after Nelson Piquet saw his engine blow on the very last lap, just a few corners away from the finish line.
The 1981 Formula One season would conclude in October with a 2-round North American tour, starting in Montreal, Canada. This was a rain-soaked race in cold temperatures. This was a tough, gruelling race, with Alan Jones falling out of championship contention and Jacques Laffite managing to stay in contention by winning this race.
After New York State's Watkins Glen circuit (not far from Montreal) being stricken off the calendar in May due to bankruptcy of the company running the circuit, the 2nd US race was moved across the country to a circuit located in a car park outside of the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, effectively named the Caesar's Palace Grand Prix. The championship was up for grabs, and it was between Reutemann, Piquet (the latter two being separated by a single point) and Laffite. After he took pole, the Argentinean Reutemann effectively fell back, and Piquet passed Reutemann and finished 5th, which was enough for Piquet to win his first of eventually 3 Drivers' Championships. Jones went out on his final drive with Williams with the 12th and final win of his career in oppressive Mojave Desert heat – which caused Piquet to vomit over himself in the cockpit.The final race was originally supposed to be held at Watkins Glen, but this track was dropped from the calendar in May due to the circuit's financial difficulties.
The South African Grand Prix at Kyalami on February 7 was originally on the calendar, but difficulties from the ongoing FISA–FOCA war led to the event being run as a non-championship race; and it was contested only by the Ford-Cosworth powered teams all running cars that had aerodynamic devices which were banned for the 1981 championship season.
Championship points were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis to the top six finishers in each race.
Championship points were awarded on a 9–6–4–3–2–1 basis to the top six finishers in each race.
A non-Championship Formula One race was also held in 1981, which did not count towards the World Championship. It was technically a Formula Libre race, since the cars did not conform to the current Formula One regulations. Although not a part of the Championship, the 1981 South African Grand Prix attracted high-calibre drivers and cars and was won by Carlos Reutemann in a Williams.