Gilles Villeneuve’s victory at Jarama on this day in 1981 was instantly recognised as one of the great Grand Prix wins.
Villeneuve resisted constant pressure for 67 laps to win in what was clearly an inferior car.
It was his final triumph before his untimely death the following year. And it was a win that would simply be impossible to repeat today.
Last race at Jarama
The previous year’s Spanish Grand Prix had lost its status as a world championship event amid the bitter wrangling between the teams’ association, FOCA, and the governing body, FISA.
History nearly repeated itself in the run-up to the 1981 edition. The race organisers attempted to allow local driver Emileo de Villota into the race with his Williams FW07, usurping one of the ATS entries, which they claimed had arrived late.
The race organisers backed down when it was made clear to them the race would be stripped of its world championship status if de Villota was allowed to participate.
The Jarama circuit, north of Madrid, held the Spanish Grand Prix for the last time in 1981. It may have been designed by John Hugenholz, the man behind the popular Suzuka and Zandvoort, but Jarama’s compact, narrow layout was comprised mainly of slow corners and somewhat unloved.
Denis Jenkinson, writing in Motor Sport, complained about a “Mickey Mouse” circuit with “pretentious corner names, like Nuvolari, Ascari, Varzi, Bugatti etc…” This was to be the final race at the track and the last Spanish Grand Prix until Jerez arrived on the calendar five years later.
“It’s like a fast, red Cadillac”
Jarama’s few quick bends exposed the handling deficiencies of the Ferrari 126CK. “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”.
An impressive qualifying effort put him seventh on the grid, eight-tenths of a second faster than his team mate. Didier Pironi was beset by turbo problems – Ferrari had followed Renault’s lead in using 1.5-litre turbocharged engines in 1981.
Directly behind Villeneuve was Nelson Piquet, mystified by the unusually poor handling of his Brabham.
The Williams were running true to form near the head of the field but for the third year in a row at Jarama the grid was headed by Jacques Laffite’s Ligier.
1981 Spanish Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Jacques Laffite 1’13.754
|2. Alan Jones 1’14.024
|Row 2||3. Carlos Reutemann 1’14.342
|4. John Watson 1’14.657
|Row 3||5. Alain Prost 1’14.669
|6. Bruno Giacomelli 1’14.897
|Row 4||7. Gilles Villeneuve 1’14.987
|8. Mario Andretti 1’15.159
|Row 5||9. Nelson Piquet 1’15.355
|10. Elio de Angelis 1’15.399
|Row 6||11. Nigel Mansell 1’15.562
|12. Riccardo Patrese 1’15.627
|Row 7||13. Didier Pironi 1’15.715
|14. Andrea de Cesaris 1’15.850
|Row 8||15. Keke Rosberg 1’15.924
|16. Patrick Tambay 1’16.355
|Row 9||17. Rene Arnoux 1’16.406
|18. Hector Rebaque 1’16.527
|Row 10||19. Jean-Pierre Jabouille 1’16.559
|20. Eddie Cheever 1’16.641
|Row 11||21. Chico Serra 1’16.782
|22. Derek Daly 1’16.979
|Row 12||23. Siegfried Stohr 1’17.294
|24. Eliseo Salazar 1’17.822
Six drivers failed to qualify and joined de Villota on the sidelines: Michele Alboreto (Tyrrell), Beppe Gabbiai (Osella), Slim Borgudd (ATS), Brian Henton (Toleman), Derek Warwick (Toleman) and Giorgio Francia (Osella).
Jones throws the lead away
Laffite bogged down at the start and was swamped by the chasing pack, slipping from first to 12th while the two Williamses sprinted into the lead. As they completed the first lap cars one and two were first and second, Alan Jones leading Carlos Reutemann.
Several cars had been creeping forward as the red lights turned to green. Villeneuve’s wasn’t one of them – but he made a blistering getaway to clinch third place.
Flogging his Michelins for all they were worth, Villeneuve quickly mounted an attack on Reutemann. Coming from an improbable distance behind at the start of lap two he thrust his way around the outside of the Williams into second place.
Reutemann must have sat back and consoled himself with the thought that the Ferrari’s tyres would go off before long. They hadn’t been holding up well and it was a particularly sweltering day in Spain.
This handed Jones a massive opportunity: he was leading, with rival Piquet out of the points in seventh, and his even bigger rival, Reutemann, now bottled up behind Villeneuve. A win, nine points and a reduced deficit to Reutemann in the championship beckoned.
But Jones made an error similar to that of a footballer bearing down on an empty goal who somehow contrives to chip the ball over the crossbar. He inexplicably spun off at the start of the 14th lap at Ascari, handing the lead to Villeneuve.
Laffite battles back
Laffite began his recovery, passing Riccardo Patrese, Bruno Giacomelli and Didier Pironi to move up to seventh. The Piquet collided with Mario Andretti, promoting Laffite to fifth.
Alain Prost was the next to drop out, spinning on lap 29, elevating Laffite to fourth.
Now chasing John Watson, the pair come upon Laffite’s team mate Jean-Pierre Jabouille – and Laffite seized an opportunity to pass, taking third on lap 49. Jabouille, struggling to recover from the leg injuries he suffered in a crash the previous year, retired from F1 after the chequered flag.
Traffic was proving a serious concern on the short, tight circuit. Laffite and Watson reeled in Reutemann, who was having to hold his car in third gear at times as he chased Villeneuve. As they filed past Eliseo Salazar, Laffite squeezed past Reutemann and Watson followed him by.
Villeneuve hangs on
Villeneuve carefully reduced the pace, taking all the time he needed in the slow corners where he couldn’t be passed, and using the Ferrari’s prodigious grunt to blast away on the straights. He held up the cars behind him to the extent that they stopped gaining on the next car to be lapped, Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo.
Villeneuve’s defending was thorough but scrupulously fair: no sudden moves, no chops. He positioned his Ferrari carefully and played his one strong card – its straight-line speed – to perfection on every lap.
The cars behind were tripping over themselves in an effort to pass. Elio de Angelis’s Lotus caught up, making it a five-car train.
Laffite threw everything he had at the Ferrari but Villeneuve resisted him to the end. The five cars crossed the finishing line almost as one, separated by just 1.24 seconds.
“It wasn’t a race, it was a show,” complained Reutemann. “It was very slow, ridiculous, but there was nothing you could do.”
Villeneuve’s defensive tactics meant the average speed for the race was 3mph slower than it had been the year before.
It was a remarkable win – and one that would have been utterly impossible had his rivals had DRS.
1981 Spanish Grand Prix result
|Pos||Car||Driver||Team||Laps||Difference / Notes|
|5||11||Elio de Angelis||Lotus||80||1.24|
|8||22||Mario Andretti||Alfa Romeo||80||60.8|
|10||23||Bruno Giacomelli||Alfa Romeo||80||73.65|
|11||21||Chico Serra||Fittipaldi||79||1 Lap|
|12||20||Keke Rosberg||Fittipaldi||78||2 Laps|
|13||33||Patrick Tambay||Theodore||78||2 Laps|
|14||14||Eliseo Salazar||Ensign||77||3 Laps|
|15||28||Didier Pironi||Ferrari||76||4 Laps|
|16||17||Derek Daly||March||75||5 Laps|
|3||Eddie Cheever||Tyrrell||61||Not classified|
|8||Andrea de Cesaris||McLaren||9||Accident|
BBC highlights of this race are available to UK users here.
Grand Prix flashback
- Villeneuve slip-up hands title lead back to Schumacher after Panis crash
- Villeneuve’s binary season goes on as Panis charges to second
- Schumacher’s wet weather mastery puts him on top
- Villeneuve picks a fight, Frentzen wins one
- Ill Villeneuve withstands Irvine attack to win again
Browse all history articles
Image © Williams/LAT