The story of the Kyalami Driver’s Strike of 1982

By: Jocelyn Knorr

The year is 1982. Apartheid is still reigning with an ugly, iron fist across South Africa; ironically, a song by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder called “Ebony and Ivory” is #4 on Billboard’s Top 100 list. And Formula One has come to Kyalami, carrying the sort of spectacle usually reserved for Roman coliseums.

But, let’s back up a bit. Austrian driver Niki Lauda, recently returned to the sport after a crash and injury took off half his face, was going over his Super License contract preseason when he found a clause or two that troubled him. For one, it forbade criticizing FISA (the forerunner to  our current FIA—coincidentally run by the exact same money-hungry pack of Neanderthals) and disallowing drivers from entering negotiations with teams themselves. This was the thing that got Lauda hot under the collar; it would have crippled the drivers’ autonomy and, in his mind, would end in them being shunted from team to team, racing for the highest bidder. He fought it incessantly, but to no avail.

As the day of the South African Grand Prix drew closer, all solutions to the issue failed. The drivers sent their attorneys to meet with FISA’s president, Jean-Marie Balestre; Balestre refused to play ball, saying “Sign it or you’re out.”

So, Lauda hatched a plan with his friend and teammate Didier Pironi. The Thursday that practice was meant to start, Pironi and Lauda arranged for a bus to meet them at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit. Lauda herded the drivers on—most of them, outraged by the new, restricting terms, went willingly—and Pironi stayed behind to negotiate. The other two who stayed behind were Brian Henton (who didn’t have a guaranteed spot for next year and had decided to see if something would come up) and Jochen Mass (who had opted to sleep in and turned up late, most likely extremely confused).

The striking drivers spent a sun-soaked but nervous day by the pool, drinking and chatting; someone even started up a game of volleyball. Lauda was practically tied to the telephone—Pironi kept him updated periodically. However, the messages did not bring good tidings, and they were incredibly inconsistent. One moment, there would be no consequences for participating in the strike, another moment Brabham team boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had fired his drivers. One moment, Kyalami was going to impound the cars if racing didn’t start within the hour, but another the race was being pushed back a week. The striking drivers were even threatened with a lifetime ban from the sport. Despite FISA’s threats, they held firm. Lauda assured everyone that “[it was] all hot air—where [were] they going to get 30 or so drivers capable of handling supercharged F1 cars?”

When night came, Lauda—figuring that everyone sharing a room would preserve the sense of camaraderie and prevent anyone from bolting, something that almost worked—commandeered a conference room and several mattresses. They barricaded themselves in with a grand piano and bunked down for the night. Elio de Angelis and Giles Villeneuve made good use of the piano, Niki Lauda did some stand-up comedy, and Bruno Giacomelli gave a “rather amusing” lecture, complete with cartoons, about domestic terrorism in Italy—after all, who knew how this would end? 

Throughout all of it, Pironi ferried messages back and forth from FISA and the bosses to the drivers, Villeneuve punctuating every dispatch from the front with the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth. This time, things were looking up; Balestre—difficult at the best of times—was still resistant to amending the terms of the Super License. However, he had suggested that if the drivers came back, they would agree to a temporary truce.

As the drivers slept, Admin conferred. Armed with information from Teo Fabi—unwilling to risk his F1 debut, he’d scarpered out the bathroom window—they called up the drivers. They capitulated; if the drivers came back they could guarantee that there would be no punishment conferred upon them—for now.

Everyone who struck was permitted by FISA to drive, (except for Patrick Tambay, who’d quit on the spot, disgusted by FISA’s actions—Henton’s “just hanging around” tactic worked out for him after all) but Bernie Ecclestone had other ideas. He disallowed reigning champion Nelson Piquet from driving in Friday practice, claiming he was “tired.” Piquet was later cleared by a medical examiner, and Ecclestone had to allow him to qualify and race in the actual Grand Prix.

However, it wasn’t over yet. The very moment the checkered flag fell in Kyalami, the FISA declared that the amnesty had expired; all the drivers were suspended from racing indefinitely. There was a protracted court battle, delaying several Grands Prix, but ultimately the drivers won. Lauda’s scheming had paid off; though they eventually had to sign unaltered Super Licenses, there was never any punishments for drivers bad-mouthing FISA or negotiating with teams personally.

While contemporary newspapers portrayed it as nothing more than a political spat, many of the drivers actually enjoyed the experience. Villeneuve in particular described it as “the best night of his life.” The photographs taken of the strike show not 30 elite athletes, but 30 men, enjoying a boy’s night out, however odd the circumstances were at the time. The Kyalami Driver’s Strike brought the drivers of the grid of 1982 closer than any grid had ever been before, or will be since.

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