Gilles Villeneuve is perhaps one of the most celebrated Ferrari drivers of all time managing to capture the heart of the tifosi. He spent six years in Ferrari and taking six heavily acclaimed victories. His best result in the driver’s championship came in 1979 when he finished second to his team mate Jody Scheckter. Gilles Villeneuve’s death occurred in 1982 at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. The Canadian had a high intensity crash in the Qualifying session. Such was his popularity amongst his fans that he became an iconic figure of the sport after that. The circuit at Île Notre-Dame, Montreal host of the Canadian Grand Prix renamed the track to Gilles Villeneuve circuit in his honor.
His team mate and arch rival, Jody Scheckter said at his funeral, “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
Amongst the six race victories at Ferrari, each stands out for one reason or another. But one in particular is often termed as Gilles Villeneuve’s finest race victory not only for Ferrari but of his career as well. In addition to being his finest, it was his last race victory as well.
Gilles was known, not for his statistical dominance but, for his fighting spirit and sheer tactical genius.
Gilles Villeneuve’s Win in Jarama
The race we are talking about here is the Spanish Grand Prix of 1981, held at Jarama (last Spanish GP at Jarama). His Ferrari car was equipped with a new engine but his chassis was terrible which meant he only qualified seventh (still better than his team mate Didier Pironi in 13th).
Race day was unusually hot and Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari gained some quick positions during the start. He gained the third position by the end of the first corner overtaking wildly, putting his two tires off the track limits and also damaging Alain Prost’s front wing.
Next up was Carlos Reutemann in his Williams in second position. It only took Gilles the end of the first lap to overtake the Williams car by using the former’s slipstream.
Alan Jones, the other Williams driver and the reigning World Champion, was leading the race and had a good enough margin over the second placed Ferrari. But he made a mistake on lap 10, got off the track and hence lost the race victory to Gilles.
Jones was back on the track though and Reutemann was quickly catching up with Gilles in front. The pole setter Jacques Laffite in his Ligier was also closing in on the two front runners and gained second position easily after Reutemann had some troubles with his gear box.
It soon became a trail of five cars closely following one another for the rest of the laps: Villeneuve, Laffite, John Watson, Reutemann and Elio de Angelis.
The Ferrari chassis weaknesses was evident during the corners. All the others were onto him and Laffite was many a times beside or ahead of him during the corner. But as soon as the horsepower of the turbo-charged Ferrari engine kicked in, he held onto the lead.
Villeneuve needed to win this race with an inch perfect drive. A small mistake, would have meant he would have dropped from first to probably fifth.
This was difficult, considering the hot and humid conditions and the tricky cramped conditions of the circuit. But Gilles Villeneuve did it! He ended up crossing the finish line just 0.2s ahead of Laffite’s Ligier. A mere 1.2s separated the top 5. This was the second closest finish in the history of Formula One!
The passion, perfection and the raw emotional sense of not losing his position is what made Gilles the iconic figure that he is now.
Former Ferrari mechanic, Sergio Vezzali had this to say. “Today, if you have success it is 90 percent the car and 10 percent the driver. In Gilles’s case, it was sometimes the opposite: 10 percent the car and 90 percent the driver. That is what makes him a legend.”
Engineer in the making. Loves cars, Formula One , Tennis and Tech. Big fan of the 80s and 90s era of Formula One. #KeepFightingMichael