The upcoming Chinese Grand Prix will be the 1,000th race in the world championship’s glorious history, and in celebration we’re counting down the 10 best performances of all-time, from virtuoso drives to brilliant comebacks. And who better to curate our list than Hall of Fame journalist David Tremayne, who has been on the ground at more than half of all of the F1 races run to date. Here, DT recalls Gilles Villeneuve’s stunning performance to win the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix, driving a Ferrari that was far from the class of the field.
Gilles Villeneuve arguably had better victories, but the one he took in Spain in an awful tank of a car was a gripping demonstration of just how unflustered the little French-Canadian was when driving racing cars very quickly.
Jarama was one of the first ‘modern’ circuits, dismissed as ‘Mickey Mouse’ when it became operational in 1967. It lacked the charisma and challenge of the classic tracks, but the face of motor racing was slowly changing back then, and the John Hugenholtz-designed venue represented the future. Its layout was something that Villeneuve would exploit to the full.
1981 marked the first year in which Ferrari embraced the burgeoning turbocharged technology, and while their engine was powerful, their 126CK car was a tricky brute to drive. Arguably just Villeneuve’s kind of car, but no match for the fine-handling ground-effect machines from Williams, Ligier, McLaren and Lotus.
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Villeneuve had already put in a stunning performance to win in Monaco, which few had expected, but nobody seriously thought they would get a repeat at Jarama. And, had Alan Jones not spun off while dominating, they would not have got one. But the reigning world champion did err.
He had qualified second but took the lead at the start as poleman Jacques Laffite was slow away in his Ligier-Matra. That also let Carlos Reutemann slip his Williams-Ford into second place, but he was overtaken at the end of the lap by Villeneuve, who had boiled up from seventh to third as they left the line.
The Ferrari’s horrible turbo lag and handling meant that Villeneuve was always potentially vulnerable. Yet he never put a wheel wrong
When Jones started his 14th lap he had opened a gap of 10s over the French-Canadian, but threw it all away with an unaccountable spin which dropped him to 16th and left him to recover to an angry seventh.
Now the race was Villeneuve’s to lose. The Ferrari was a stallion on the short straight, a mule in the turns, where he should have been eaten alive. Instead, despite the recovered Laffite’s race-long efforts, he remained just out of reach, as behind them John Watson in a McLaren-Ford, Reutemann (who, unusually, had lost places to Laffite and Watson, as well as Villeneuve), and Elio de Angelis in a Lotus-Ford played a game of high-speed follow-my-leader for the remaining 70 laps.
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That might have made for a dull race. But the Ferrari’s horrible turbo lag and handling meant that Villeneuve was always potentially vulnerable. Yet he never put a wheel wrong nor pulled a questionable move on his rivals, as they remained bottled up behind him. Despite their calibre, none was able to find the key to unseating him.
It was a virtuoso display of defensive, tactical driving, and of coolness under the most intense pressure from the man with the purest racing spirit of them all. None but he could have coaxed such a performance from his unloved mount. It was arguably the greatest drive of the 1980s, and for the umpteenth time, made observers wonder what he would have done in a decent car such as the Williams FW07.