As we approach the 30th anniversary of the passing of Gilles Villeneuve, let’s look back at one of his most famous wins – the 1981 Spanish GP at Jarama. Against all odds, Gilles withstood race-long pressure to beat his four pursuers by 0.2sec.
All pictures courtesy of Sutton Images (the David Phipps Archives)
“I’M REALLY upset,” said the Monaco winner, Gilles Villeneuve, walking into his personal motorhome. For once, he didn’t remove his shoes. On this opening practice day at Jarama, near Madrid’s international airport, even the cleanliness of his wall-to-wall carpet took second place to the handling of his Ferrari 126CK V6 turbo. “I mean, I win Monaco, score nine points at a circuit that didn’t really suit us, and then we come to Jarama, where the car should be quick. And this is my reward: terrible handling. Shocking. I’m not flat on any of the four quick corners. The car is a disaster. Maybe for two or three laps, when the tyres are new, it’s not bad on the tight stuff. But after that it’s impossible. Worse than last year’s T4. Much worse. Oh, we can work at it. We can make the car driveable, I guess, for the race. But we won’t stand any chance of winning – not when we’re this bad. You’ve only got to look at the lap times. We’re two seconds off the pace. If you assume that our engine is worth half a second over the Cosworths, which it is, that puts us two-and-a-half seconds away. It’s ridiculous.”
That was Friday. On Saturday, Gilles squeezed the absolute maximum out of his standard-wheelbase 126CK and, on a brand new set of Michelins, lapped in 1min 14.9sec. That would have made him fifth quickest on Friday and it made him seventh fastest overall. He still wasn’t flat on the quick corners but he was spectacular. So quiet is the Ferrari engine that you could hear his rear tyres skipping over the kerbs while he kept his foot on it with his arms fully-crossed. “It’s quite funny,” he said afterwards. “On the quick corners you can see the track marshals running for cover…”
For the second consecutive race, Gilles made a perfect start. He could see Laffite edging forward and then stopping, edging then stopping, just as the pole man often does. Gilles went when the centre of the red light began its first millisecond of fade, weaved around Lafitte, banged wheels with Alain Prost – and found himself third, behind the two Williams, as they braked for the first (double-apex) right-hander. Over the lap he followed Reutemann (or “bloody Carlos”, as he affectionately calls his ex-Ferrari team-mate). The Ferrari felt reasonably good on full tanks, so Gilles darted right as they left the right-hander at the end of the lap. The power of the Ferrari took him easily past the Williams. Second place was his. After the South American races, when Gilles had had trouble with a broken drive-shaft, Enzo Ferrari had addressed his engineers tersely: “I don’t ever want to have a Ferrari retire for that reason again.” For Monaco, sure enough, Ferrari had fitted their biggest possible drive-shafts and Gilles had been able to bounce them off the guardrails and hit kerbs and apply full power down over the bumps without the slightest hint of trouble. On the Monday after that race, he had sent a Telex to the Commendatore, explaining a lot of things that had happened over the weekend. He finished it thus: “For 76 laps I tried to break your drive-shafts but I wasn’t successful. Thank you very much.” Knowing that the Ferrari was that strong, that he could do virtually what he liked with it, Gilles reeled off his laps at Jarama. For ten laps he saw a plus-sign over Carlos (never more than two seconds) and a minus-sign to Alan Jones. This grew larger by the lap, and was up to ten seconds by lap 13. On the following lap, though, Gilles had an unbelievable slice of luck: he accelerated out of the uphill hairpin and glimpsed yellow flags, waved frantically. He braked early for the next right-hander – and saw Jones’s Williams, sitting stationary in the sand. Head down, he completed his 15th lap in the lead of the Spanish Grand Prix.
On the 79th lap, with one to go, they were still behind him. Read more…