June 21, 1981
In Formula One, as in any sport, there are competitors and then there are true heroes. Those with depth of character, with an undying will to win, with integrity and courage are the ones that are remembered long after their days in racing are over. Gilles Villeneuve was such a driver, and the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix was without doubt the French-Canadian's finest victory. It was a race of incredible tension and the result was a tactical masterpiece that only a naturally gifted driver could achieve. That year Ferrari had produced a powerful turbocharged engine but the 126CK chassis was so bad that Villeneuve himself described it as "a hopeless fast red Cadillac". "You put on new tyres, and it is OK for four laps," he said. "After that, forget it."
But, as was the hallmark of Villeneuve's career, a poor car was never something that stopped him from trying to win races and in Monaco at the end of May he did just that, scoring Ferrari's first win for two years. Three weeks later the F1 circus rolled up at Jarama for the Spanish Grand Prix. Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Matra) took pole with the two Williams-Fords of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann second and third ahead of John Watson (McLaren-Ford), Alain Prost (Renault) and Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo). Villeneuve drove impressively to simply qualify in seventh. Didier Pironi, Villeneuve's extremely capable team-mate could only manage thirteenth with the Ferrari.
Race day was incredibly hot and the temperature was around 100 degrees when the race began. Gilles' strategy at the start was to make full use of his new Michelins, and gain as many positions as possible at that green light. Jones and Reutemann blasted into the lead as Laffite dropped to twelfth when his engine bogged down as he tried to get off the line. Villeneuve scorched into third place at the first corner, snagging Prost's front wing as he did so. At the end of the first lap Villeneuve pulled out of Reutemann's slipstream and took second place. Jones quickly began building a lead, and stretched his advantage to ten seconds. However, on lap 14 the reigning World Champion made an uncharacteristic error and spun off at the Ascari chicane.
This left Villeneuve with Reutemann on is tail. Behind them Watson, a resurging Laffite and Elio de Angelis (Lotus-Ford) emerged from the hurly-burly and all began to close on the duelling leaders. Reutemann was having some trouble with his gearbox and when Laffite arrived behind him there was little Carlos could do to stop Jacques overtaking. The Argentine would later drop behind Watson as well as the five front-runners became a train of cars, nose-to-tail for the remainder of the race.
Villeneuve had the power to get away from his rivals on the straights but in the corners they were all over him. Time and time again Laffite pulled alongside as they emerged from a corner but the Ferrari would serge ahead as the horsepower kicked in. He judged things to perfection, never rushing when he was at a disadvantage and positioning his car on the track so as not to allow any of his rivals past. The five remained locked together right to the flag, crossing the line covered by just 1.24s to record the second closest race in the history of F1 at the time.
It had been a sensational drive by Villeneuve, and even Enzo Ferrari was impressed. The day after the race Villeneuve's boss compared his driver to the legendary Tazio Nuvolari who raced for Ferrari 50 years earlier.
|Cadillac Day - Villeneuve, Laffite and Watson.|
The "Commendatore" had notoriously difficult relationships with his drivers, but Villeneuve was one of the few to earn his complete admiration and respect. Little could he have realized that this would be Gilles' final Grand Prix victory, and within a year his beloved driver would be dead. Killed while trying to qualify for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Years later in an interview Enzo Ferrari would reveal just how much Villeneuve meant to him.
"My past is scarred with grief." Ferrari said. "Father, mother, brother, son, wife. My life is full of sad memories. I look back and I see my loved ones and among my loved ones I see the face of this great man, Gilles Villeneuve."