Frank Williams, Alan Jones, Patrick Head, Carlos Reuteman, Williams, Jarama, 1981

30 years ago: Villeneuve’s last and best F1 win

1981 Spanish Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Frank Williams, Alan Jones, Patrick Head, Carlos Reuteman, Williams, Jarama, 1981

Frank Williams, Alan Jones, Patrick Head, Carlos Reuteman, Williams, Jarama, 1981

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.

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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
1 27 Gilles Villeneuve Ferrari 80
2 26 Jacques Laffite Ligier 80 0.22
3 7 John Watson McLaren 80 0.58
4 2 Carlos Reutemann Williams 80 1.01
5 11 Elio de Angelis Lotus 80 1.24
6 12 Nigel Mansell Lotus 80 28.58
7 1 Alan Jones Wiliams 80 56.58
8 22 Mario Andretti Alfa Romeo 80 60.8
9 16 Rene Arnoux Renault 80 67.08
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
25 Jean-Pierre Jabouille Ligier 52 Brakes
6 Hector Rebaque Brabham 46 Gearbox
5 Nelson Piquet Brabham 43 Accident
30 Siegfried Stohr Arrows 43 Engine
15 Alain Prost Renault 28 Accident
29 Riccardo Patrese Arrows 21 Brakes
8 Andrea de Cesaris McLaren 9 Accident

BBC highlights of this race are available to UK users here.

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Image © Williams/LAT