What is sweeter than a Grand Prix victory? Probably nothing. Unless...
A hard fought victory of course. We tend to forget that during periods of extreme domination. Perhaps that is why we were so impressed with the way Sebastian Vettel won the 2018 Bahrain GP. But today I would like to write about an other hard fought victory. And, perhaps, one of the best victories ever.
For 1981 Ferrari build their first ever turbo powered F1 car joining Renault in their philosophy. The 126CK would replace the 312T series that Ferrari had been using since 1975. Eventually the chassis turned out to be quite close to the last reincarnation of the 312T series. But the smaller 1.5l v6 engine block made it easier to adjust the car to the much needed ground effect aerodynamics.
During the first tests the 126CK proved to be much quicker than the old 312T5 car. But both Villeneuve and Pironi were not convinced by the handling of their new challenger. In fact Villeneuve would go on to describe it as a big red Cadillac.
"You put on new tyres, and it’s OK for four laps. After that, forget it. It’s just like a fast, big red Cadillac, wallowing all over the place”
The British engineer Harvey Postlethwaite, who joined Ferrari during the 1981 season, would later recall that (unlike many believe) the chassis wasn't the problem. The problem was down to the aerodynamics of th car. Engine-wise the Ferrari's of that era had been of the most powerful on the grid. Old Enzo believed that aerodynamics were for people who can't build engines. The 1981 season would prove him wrong, if it wasn't for the brilliance of Villeneuve.
The setting of this story would be the much disliked Jarama circuit, situated approximately 20 kilometers north of Madrid. And I say much disliked because a modern equivalent of Jarama would be considered as a Tilkedrome. Not just dull but utterly boring is the way to describe it best. Virtually no overtaking possibilities isn't just a problem today. Its slow and narrow layout would eventually see it becoming unfit for modern F1 cars, but it did host the Spanish Grand Prix nine times. The '81 race would, however, be its last.
On the other hand, the 1981 season could not really be seen as boring. Throughout the year there would be seven different Grand Prix winners (driving for six different teams!), something we can only dream of these days. And in the final standings P1 and P5 would only be separated by seven points. Remember that back in those days the only ones earning points were P1 to P6.
Back to the Spanish GP. Villeneuve had only succeeded in qualifying seventh. But this was, nonetheless, 0.8 sec faster than his team-mate Pironi. Unfortunately it was also 1.2 sec adrift from the pole position. That year's pole position had been snatched up by Jacques Lafitte (for the third time in a row) in his Ligier JS17 with the glorious sounding Matra v12 in the back.
Unfortunately for him, Lafitte had a horrible start. Dropping back to as far as twelfth! This meant that the Williams pair took over the lead, with Alan Jones in front of Carlos Reutemann. But Villeneuve was the one who had the best start of them all. By the first corner he was up in to third! Something that only succeeded by going on the grass with two tyres (and clipping Alain Prost's front wing). Something that would be penalised today, without a doubt. But then again, nearly the whole field would have been penalised for moving on the grid before the lights went green. Funnily enough Villeneuve would be one of the few not to move and still have the best start...
To make the most of his fresh tyres Villeneuve launched an attack on Reutemann, the second time they came up to T1. From quite a way behind him, and passing on the outside. So a real balls out move, but he made it stick. The big winner in this scenario was Alan Jones, comfortably in the lead. A (not so good) Ferrari behind him. And, not least, his big championship rivals in bad places. Piquet no higher than seventh, which in those days meant no points, and Reutemann behind Villeneuve.
All looked well on that extremely hot summer day, until Jones made a rookie error, and just spun off in turn 7. Hereby Villeneuve inherited the lead of a race no-one had given him a chance in. At the same time Lafitte was clawing his way back to the top. Jarama was a track that suited him. Passing Riccardo Patrese's Arrows, Bruno Giacomelli's Alfa and Didier Pironi's Ferrari, which moved him up to seventh.
When Nelson Piquet collided with the second Alfa, driven by Mario Andretti, Lafitte was up in fifth. Piquet would not be able to finish the race, unlike Andretti. All the time Reutemann was chasing Villeneuve, but seriously handicapped with a malfunctioning gearbox, stuck in third quite often. On lap nineteen Prost was the next one to spin out of the race. This meant Lafitte was back up to fourth, right on the back of John Watson's McLaren.
Watson and Lafitte would edge ever closer to Lafitte's team-mate Jabouille, who had suffered a bad crash the previous year. A crash from which he never fully recovered. In fact, after this race he would announce his retirement, effective immediately. Sadly he didn't even finish his last race, since he had to give up with brake problems.
Aided by upcoming traffic Lafitte (who had passed Watson reeled in Reutemann and made a pass, followed directly by Watson. The three of them formed a train behind Villeneuve, who had dropped down his pace, in what turned out to be a master tactical move.
Villeneuve knew that all he cars on his tail were faster. But he did not want to give up. So instead of focusing on the negative sides of his Ferrari he took advantage of its strong points. The Ferrari engine was so powerful that he was able to drive immensely slow in the corners, in order to save his tyres as much as he could. Something he absolutely needed to do, since his car already started to slide around. But the engine had so much grunt that he could power away on the straights, giving no opportunities to his rivals to try and pass him.
He actually slowed the train down so much that they stopped gaining time on the last driver in the race. The cars behind him, even when they were quicker did not find a way past and started to trip over each other. The speed of the 'Villeneuve train' was so slow that Elio de Angelis’s Lotus caught up, making it a five-car train.
Lap after lap Villeneuve knew how to withstand the pressure from behind, without using any dirty moves. When they crossed the finish line P1 and P5 were separated by a mere 1.24 sec, which still is one of the closest finishes ever!
Villeneuve had lead the race for 67 laps, enduring pressure from behind in all of them. And once Lafitte closed in on him that pressure intensified immensely. This lasted for nearly 20 laps, which makes this one of the greatest drives for a victory, ever. One small mistake and he had gone from first to fifth. But that day he drove brilliantly.
These days people seem to complain a lot if a race has no overtaking, but there can be beauty in such a race too!