F1i takes another trip down memory lane, looking back at the unforgettable 1981 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, a race which owes its vintage status in F1's history books to the mastermind of the sensational Gilles Villeneuve.
In Formula 1, drivers rise and fall like the winter wheat, heroes are remembered, but legends never die. Their stories inspire and hearten; they embraced courage, grit and an inherent will to win. But above all, their triumphs were often achieved against all odds, when the impossible was conquered by a natural genius coupled with a stroke of tactical flair.
Gilles Villeneuve's outstanding victory at Jarama in 1981 was all about combining talent with tactics to pull off an improbable feat and accomplish his finest triumph, the very last for the great Canadian driver before his untimely death the following year.
As competitive as they came, Villeneuve was neither deterred nor dissuaded to fight at the wheel of an underperforming or weakened racing car. This was indeed the typical trademark of a career in which there were so many instances when the Canadian would storm out the blocks and literally drive the wheels off any machine which would have the gall to resist his racing will.
Three weeks before lining up on the grid of the Spanish Grand Prix, Villeneuve had proved the point admirably at Monaco where his outstanding car control and race craft had brought Ferrari its first victory in two years, with the Principality's usual attrition rate also luckily playing into the hands of the diminutive Canadian.
However, no such good fortune was expected at Jarama, a compact, narrow layout comprised mainly of slow corners, where Ferrari knew their powerful but poor handling bulky 126CK chassis would likely fail to measure up to the more nimble and better balanced rival machines from Williams, Ligier or McLaren. "You put on new tyres, and it’s OK for four laps," said Villeneuve. "After that, forget it. It’s just like a fast, red Cadillac, wallowing all over the place".
Gilles pulled out a few stops to qualify seventh in Spain, eight-tenths of a second faster than his team mate Didier Pironi but over a second adrift of poleman Jacques Laffite's Talbot Ligier. Race day dawned incredibly hot with temperatures rising to around 38-degrees when the race began. As the lights went green, Williams boys Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann thundered into the lead as Laffite's engine bogged down, his Ligier engulfed by the roaring pack.
Villeneuve's strategy had been clearly set from the start: he would make the most of his Michelin tyres in the opening laps and then attempt to settle down in a defensive mode to salvage whatever result could be realistically achieved. As was often the case, he got back more than what he bargained for: the Ferrari scorched off the grid, put two wheels on the grass and was third by the first corner! At the end of the first lap, Villeneuve got a tow from Reutemann and slipped past into second place. Up front, reigning World Champion Jones pulled out a commanding lead only to spin off on lap 14, leaving Villeneuve to put into practice his devised defensive tactics.
Behind the Canadian, a four-car train progressively developed, comprised of the resurgent Laffite, Reutemann, John Watson's McLaren and the Lotus of Elio de Angelis. For over 60 laps, Villeneuve powered away off the straights while his rivals had the edge in the corners, Laffite nipping repeatedly at the Ferrari's heels as a five-way battled ensued. But Gilles drove brilliantly, with the perfect blend of tactical braking and acceleration to keep his faster rivals at bay. Sparing its tyres to the most, the Ferrari was carefully slow in the corners where its driver knew he was out of reach, before unleashing all its engine's grunt on the straights. The express convoy crossed the line just 1.24 seconds apart - one of the closest finishes to an F1 race there had ever been, and one of the most thrilling to watch.
Gilles Villeneuve's performance had produced a masterpiece of a win, a final success in the great Canadian's career which embodied the extraordinary racer he was.