The dizzying increase in car performance forced the Federation to change the technical regulations, bringing an end to ground effect cars. Scuderia Ferrari started the season with the 126 C2B, a 126 C2 which was adapted to the new regulations, entrusting it to the all-French pairing of Patrick Tambay and René Arnoux. With that car, Tambay won the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, while Arnoux won in Canada.
At the British Grand Prix, round 9 of 15, the 126 C3 made its debut. The new car represented an important step forward from a technical point of view: the cars were notable for their use of more advanced material and the lack of aluminium panels, replaced with lighter and more robust carbon fibre ones. Arnoux’s victories in the races in Germany and Holland confirmed the cars’ effectiveness and allowed the Frenchman to come to the last race still in the fight for the title. Ferrari led the Constructors’ Championship, 11 points ahead of Renault. If one of the French cars were to retire, the Maranello team would automatically be champions for the eighth time. The South African Grand Prix was supposed to be the season opener but instead was moved to the last race of the year to allow the teams time to adjust to the new technical regulations.
The Scuderia arrived in Kyalami knowing that for the 1984 season, there would once again be an Italian driver in the team. The day after the European Grand Prix, it was announced that Michele Alboreto would replace Tambay, the first Italian since Arturo Merzario drove his last race at the wheel of a Ferrari at Watkins Glen on 7 October 1973, 11 years previously.
René Arnoux on 49 points was third in the Drivers’ Championship which was led by his compatriot Alain Prost in the Renault, on 57. Brazil’s Nelson Piquet in the Brabham was also ahead of the Ferrari driver, on 55 points. Arnoux therefore had to win the last race and hope that Prost did not finish better than sixth and that Piquet did not get on the podium. Free practice took place on the Monday and Tuesday and Patrick Tambay dominated, covering the distance of two grands prix over the two days.
Qualifying ran over the Thursday and Friday and for one of the last times, the race was held on a Saturday. Tambay took provisional pole, while Arnoux had a terrible day. First, he was forced to pull over on the side of the track when his car broke down. Then, while helping the marshals to move the Ferrari to a safe place, he was hit on the ankle by his own car. The Frenchman was in a lot of pain and was worried it was a fracture. He was taken to Johannesburg for a check-up, but after a couple of hours he was back in the hotel with ice on it. Luckily it was just a sprain.
It was suffocatingly hot during Friday qualifying, meaning that hardly any drivers were able to improve on their times from the previous day. Arnoux obviously was one of the ones who could. His Ferrari’s issues had been fixed and he was able to take a spot on the second row behind Riccardo Patrese and Nelson Piquet in the Brabhams. Tambay did not beat his Thursday time, but still took the fourth pole position of his career.
On Saturday, the two Brabhams got away like lightening bolts, getting into the lead with Piquet ahead of Patrese, while Arnoux was overtaken by Prost and World Champion Keke Rosberg in the new Honda-powered Williams. On the second lap, Andrea De Cesaris in the Alfa Romeo overtook Tambay, who was suffering a loss of power, while Niki Lauda in the McLaren overtook Arnoux.
On lap nine, René’s weekend went from bad to worse. He had to retire with an engine failure, ending his title chances. Not long after, Prost and Lauda got ahead of Tambay who continued to have problems, raising fears in the Ferrari pit lane, where they were worried that a double retirement would ruin their standings in the Construtors’ championship, the one that really mattered. Their spirits were raised when Prost retired the Renault on lap 36 with an engine problem.
An eighth Constructors’ title was in the bag. It did not matter much that Tambay had to retire on lap 56. It’s not often that a title is won when both one’s cars retire, but that’s how it went. The race saw an Italian one-two finish, with Patrese ahead of De Cesaris, while the Drivers’ title went to Nelson Piquet for the second time.