When The Pumps Ran Dry: The Bizarre 1985 San Marino Grand Prix

Formula One is a strange sport. It's not strange in that it's got open wheels or drivers from all over the world, that sort of thing is normal. It's not strange in that everyone tries to circumvent the rules – that's normal as well. What's weird is when that circumvention and the rules collide, like they bizarrely did at the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix.

To understand where F1 was at by the time of one of the strangest races in its history, you need to understand where F1 was at overall in the 1980s. The 1980s are also known as the Turbo Era, and that's because the engines all had... wait for it... turbos. I prefer to call it the "Insane Era," but, you know, different strokes for different folks, I guess.


In the early 1980s, an aerodynamic concept known as "Ground Effect" ruled the day. It essentially relied on the principle of turning the entire car into one giant wing. That's not a bad idea, in that it generates huge amounts of downforce, but it's a terrible idea, in that if you get one tiny leak in the zone of massively low pressure beneath the car, you can lose almost all of the grip very very quickly. Which is very very dangerous.

Both drivers Patrick Depailler and Gilles Villeneuve were killed in accidents involving a failure of the ground effect system under their cars, but it took a number of other scary incidents for ground effects to be banned for the 1983 season. Also, ground effect cars look really odd, all wide and flat and like airplane wings with wheels:

Photo credit: Edvvc

After 1983, with ground effects now gone, the F1 constructors now had to devise entirely new aerodynamics packages, basically from scratch. The turbos were still there, though, and they were becoming truly monstrous in power as forced induction crammed air into the engines.


F1 cars were known to be putting out more than 1,000 horsepower in qualifying trim. Because there were no rules governing reliability, constructors built cars that could essentially last for one flying lap on qualifying, but would completely explode if pushed any further than that. The engines were called "grenades." The drivers were just the poor saps who had to try to wrestle them around the track, especially now that the cars had lost an enormous amount of the aerodynamics that were keeping them glued to the track.

In a desperate move to try to keep F1 from becoming more insane than it already is, the FIA hit upon one of its traditional genius ideas. As the turbo-powered cars consumed a lot of fuel, they would just limit the amount of fuel allowed per car. And voila, "SAFETY."


Of course, with the F1 constructors being the F1 constructors, none of that elusive "safety" occurred. Instead of lowering the power of their cars, they just decided to push as far as they could go and hope their cars could make it to the finish line, like a poor college student trying to stretch their work-study money.


This all came to a head during the 1985 season. By 1985, the F1 championship was full of legends and soon-to-be legends. On the grid were Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Martin Brundle, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Eddier Cheever, Niki Lauda, and, of course, Ayrton Senna. Not exactly a class of guys who would go easy on the throttle just to save some fuel.

And so it came to pass that on May 5th, 1985 at the San Marino Grand Prix, raced at Imola, was set to be one of the weirdest races in F1 history. Imola is known for its long straights and tight chicanes, traditionally two things that suck the fuel out of engines due to their high-RPM nature.


Senna started on pole, but that was about the only thing that was normal. Because it was 1985, engines were nuking themselves left and right, and a string of retirements occured. But then things started getting really odd. One after another, F1 cars started sputtering to a halt. One driver would take the lead, and then a few laps later their race would completely fall apart. It was a bizarre spectacle, to say the least:

Senna ran out of fuel in his Lotus, allowing Stefan Johansson to take the lead in his debut race for Ferrari. Because Imola is in Italy, and Italy is in a place called Ferrari-land, the tifosi went nuts. If you watched the video above, you can hear an audible roar from the crowd when Senna is forced to pull over.


And then another audible "OHHHHH!!!" is heard from them as Johansson is forced to pull over. In retrospect, it's actually pretty hilarious.

This went on, one after another, with drivers getting into first and then promptly running out of gas. It went on even after the race, as (spoiler alert) Alain Prost crossed the finish line first, and ran out of juice on the parade lap.


And then he was disqualified, as his car was under the official weight minimum.

Thierry Boutsen came in third in the most freakish way possible, when his car ran out of fuel right before the finish line. As the rules specify that the car must cross the line, but not how, he simply pushed it across. And with Prost disqualified, he officially came in second. Without a working engine.


Of 26 drivers that started the race weekend, only five officially managed to finish, with Elio de Angelis, in his Lotus, was declared the winner. That's even worse than the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix.

And that makes it one of the weirdest F1 races of all time.

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