The 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone will be well-recalled in the annals of McLaren F1 history for delivering the maiden victory of the new carbon-fibre chassis MP4 thanks to the efforts of John Watson. However the team’s second MP4, driven by Andrea de Cesaris, spent most of the race embedded in the catch fencing at Woodcote corner where it had been unceremoniously dumped by the young Italian at the end of the race’s opening lap.
In essence, that episode encapsulated Andrea’s single season as a McLaren driver and only his second as an F1 competitor. “Now Andrea, whatever you do, keep well away from John’s car in the opening stages,” Ron Dennis told de Cesaris just before he took his place on the starting grid. It’s tempting to think that Ron suspected just what might be about to happen and was seeking to calm his young recruit’s enthusiasm.
His words had scant effect. Coming through the Woodcote chicane at the end of the first laps, Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari turbo was pitched into a spin over the high kerbing and collected Alan Jones’s pursuing Williams. Next up in the queue was Watson, who braked hard and successfully to avoid the chaos unfolding in front of him. Andrea, tucked right under the rear wing literally inches from the back of Watson’s car in stark contravention of Mr Dennis’s instructions, could do nothing but stamp hard on the brakes – and pirouetted out of the contest at high speed.
The Italian driver’s career was characterised throughout by a nervous facial twitch which suffused his rivals with nervous apprehension. Some days de Cesaris would drive with exemplary assurance and control, but for most of the time he displayed an erratic over-aggression which looked worrying at best.
De Cesaris is an undeniably pleasant character. But he was sustained in his F1 career largely through his family’s business contacts with Philip Morris who helped arrange his F1 debut at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo in 1980 before switching him to McLaren in 1981. Unfortunately his season at McLaren was marred by more than a handful of silly accidents, so there was no way Ron was going to keep him for a second year when Niki Lauda was available for a comeback.