Gilles Villeneuve was an extraordinary driver, one perhaps without parallel in any era of Formula One. He was outrageously demanding of his car’s capabilities to the point that he often drove them to destruction. And although his racecraft was sublime and his capacity for seemingly impossible overtaking manoeuvres was limitless, he was also scrupulously fair. His contemporary rivals would attest to that.
In 1979 he had a car worthy of a shot at the title, but was restrained by the hand of Enzo Ferrari, who late in the season asked Villeneuve to yield to team-mate Jody Schecketer to guarantee a Ferrari champion. Villeneuve agreed, hoping for payback in later years. But the 1980 Ferrari 312 T5 was such a crude, unmanageable beast that even Villeneuve could not hustle it to the podium and Scheckter retired from racing before the season was through.
For 1981 the 126C was a minor improvement, but even with its V6 turbo engine it was still not a patch on its nimble, Cosworth-powered ground effect rivals from Brabham and Williams. Nonetheless, Villeneuve scored a memorable win with it at Monaco after squeezing past Alan Jones’ Williams in front of the pits with four laps to go. Yes, that’s right, a passing move for the lead at Monaco.
But what followed at Jarama in Spain was even more remarkable. From seventh on the grid Villeneuve made a lightning start to take second behind Jones. Villeneuve followed him around the tight, slow, dusty Spanish circuit for fourteen laps, but Jones was able to pull away with little difficulty. Until, on lap 14, he inexplicably spun off, gifting Villeneuve the lead.
And, despite having to hold off an ever-growing string of faster cars far more suited to the confines of Jarama than Villeneuve’s heavy, wallowing Ferrari, Villeneuve remained at the front of the field until the chequered flag came out on lap 80. The pursuing quartet of Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio de Angelis swapped places among themselves but none could stick a pass on the leader.
There was no weaving from the French-Canadian, no blocking or running his rivals off the track. Rather, he kept in front by not reacting too strongly to those behind him, not dragging his car off-line to guard against an attack, and getting as good a run through the corners as he could to benefit from his turbo power on the straight. And so his rivals stared at the back of his car for 66 laps, before crossing the line covered by just 1.24s.
His skill as a relentless, attacking driver was legendary, but his 1981 Spanish Grand Prix win suggests that he was becoming more calculating in his approach to winning races. It was, however, to be his final win. In 1982 he was undone by team-mate Didier Pironi’s reluctance to follow the same orders that Villeneuve had in 1979. While trying to better Pironi’s pole time at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, he crashed horribly and was killed instantly.