A year later he returned hoping to win again in front of his home crowd, having lost the World Championship battle to Ferrari team mate Jody Scheckter.
But two win for a second time in Montreal he would have to defeat another of the sport’s great uncompromising prizefighters – Alan Jones. The two heavyweights slugged it out around every lap of the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix.
It was a strange season.
The year began with Ligier dominating, then Ferrari took over the winning and late in the year it was all about Williams. But the consistent Jody Scheckter had scored enough points to claim the title with two rounds remaining.
He was aided in this by a most peculiar points scoring system – drivers could only count their best four results from the first seven races and a further four results from the last eight races. It made figuring out who could finish where extremely difficult.
Lauda’s shock retirement
Then during practice for the Canadian race Niki Lauda dropped a bombshell. The twice champion was retiring – and not at the end of the season, he was out of the car and off to America.
It was a shock to the Brabham team – not least of which leader Bernie Ecclestone from whom Lauda had extracted an unusually favourable deal for next year, before reneging on it.
Ricardo Zunino took Lauda’s place and made his Grand Prix debut, but confused everyone on the first day’s practice by wearing Lauda’s overalls and helmet…
There was more controversy when it emerged that the Montreal circuit was only licensed to allow 24 cars to race and 28 to practice. This meant some would have to be left out and the first candidates where the irregular entrants – one extra Tyrrell, a Fittipaldi and two Alfa Romeos.
Being backed by a major manufacturer, Alfa Romeo were unhappy at being lumped in with the ‘minor’ teams. For their expense and value to the championship they felt an automatic right of entry was due. Fellow manufacturers Ferrari and Renault stood firmly alongside them – a pre-echo of the years of politicking that would dominate the sport in the early ’80s.
Eventually a compromise was reached – one of the Alfa Romeos would gain passage through to qualifying, and Alfa chose Vittorio Brambilla of Bruno Giacomelli.
Jones takes pole
At the sharp end of the field Villeneuve was let off the leash of team orders and allowed to race Scheckter once again. He had dutifully followed the South African home at Monza, forfeiting his own championship hopes in the process.
Villeneuve was instantly quick on his home track – although he had no more experience of the semi-permanent layout than anyone else. But Alan Jones was quicker all the way through practice, eventually taking pole with a 1’29.892, Villeneuve next on 1’30.554.
Clay Regazzoni was third in the second Williams and alongside Nelson Piquet. The Brabham driver was using the new BT49 for the first time, the team having finally ditched the cumbersome Alfa Romeo V12s for the Cosworth V8 unit most other teams were using.
On row ten was the new world champion, Scheckter, and the former, Mario Andretti. His title defence had been ruined by the uncompetitive Lotus 80. At this stage of the season the team had reverted back to a derivative of last year’s 79.
The track had been revised since its first use the previous years, with some of the tighter bends eased reducing the length by 90m.
The Montreal circuit of 1979 was not entirely unlike it is today, with a few exceptions. The start/finish line and pits was earlier on a lap of the track, at the exit of the hairpin. What is presently a straight towards the final chicane was then a succession of very fast sweeping corners.
It was as tough on brakes then as it is today, however. Renault suffered worst, their cars heavier than average due to their turbo engine and consequently larger fuel tanks.
Villeneuve vs Jones
The bitter cold of the 1978 race was replaced by a bright autumnal day, the track warming up as the cars formed on the grid for the start.
The Ferraris made the best start with Villeneuve squeezing ahead of Jones into the fast corners. But Scheckter had nowhere to go, tried to cut across the grass, but lost his momentum and slipped back.
Villeneuve and Jones quickly left the opposition for dead, Villeneuve pushing hard, Jones apparently content to sit back and plan his move.
Piquet held third early on – a clear indication of how quick Gordon Murray’s BT49 was. He was still third on lap 61 when, with 11 laps to go, gearbox failure thwarted a magnificent debut for the new machine.
Scheckter had run into trouble early on and made for the pits on lap 15 to switch to a different tyre compound. Pit stops during the race were not commonplace then and his stop dropped him a long way down the field, which he promptly began tearing his way through when back on the track.
He was up to tenth when he came to lap Jan Lammers and the Dutchman put the Ferrari onto the grass. A furious Scheckter waved his fist at the Shadow driver, but pressed on.
Scheckter was shortly lapped by the leaders but he kept well clear of their battle. He then clung on to the pair, cleverly using their passage through the backmarkers to pick up places for himself.
Villeneuve’s defence from Jones was wearing thin. The Ferrari was visibly sliding more and more from corner to corner and Jones made a few exploratory runs at the Ferrari into the final hairpin. On lap 51 he pitched his Williams down the inside and the two rubbed sidewalls around the corner. Jones nosed ahead.
At first Villeneuve dropped back but within laps the crowd were on their feet again as the Ferrari driver shortened the gap to under a second.
For all the crowd’s hopes, Villeneuve could do nothing. Jones was first home after 72 laps (which was originally supposed to be 74, then 70, and finally 72). Only Jones’s team mate Regazzoni got home on the same lap as the leading duo.
Behind them were Scheckter, an excellent fourth after his problems, Didier Pironi’s Tyrrell and John Watson’s McLaren scoring the final point. He achieved this despite a late stop to top up with fuel – again, such pit work was quite uncommon at the time.
The other three finishers were Zunino, Emerson Fittipaldi and Lammers – 15 of the 22 starters having retired, and the vast majority of them with car trouble.
For Villeneuve it was probably the final chance of winning his home Grand Prix again. His final two appearances at the track would be in far less competitive Ferraris. By 1982, the track would bear the name of the late star.