L&T Motorsport

F1 Top Ten – France 1979/Spain 1981

Part six of the top ten sees me cheating again with a two for one but it is really hard to pick just ten. Plus, like the last part, these two races do have links. The first one sees what is probably the most fierce battle for position on the track ever seen while the second race is the definition of great car control and using the tools you have to your advantage.

There had been a five week gap between the Monaco Grand Prix and the French race at Dijon. This was down to lack of funding for the Swedish Grand Prix and loss of interest after the loss of Ronnie Peterson at Monza the year before and Gunner Neilson a few weeks after to cancer. This gave the teams more testing time before they rocked up at the fast Dijon track in central France and many teams showed up with upgraded cars. Renault were in bullish mood as well on home ground with Michelin tyres and their turbo charged engine likely to be suited to the fast track layout. This showed in qualifying with Jean-Pierre Jabouille taking pole with team mate Rene Arnoux alongside him on the grid. Next up was Gilles Villeneuve in third in the Ferrari with Nelson Piquet fourth in the Brabham.

When the race began Villeneuve jumped into the lead from Jabouille and Jody Scheckter, Villeneuve’s Ferrari team mate. Arnoux got a poor start and dropped to ninth. With the turbo charged power of the Renault it did not take Arnoux long to get back up to the front and by lap 15 he was back in third place behind his team mate and Villeneuve. At the front Villeneuve controlled the pace, holding off the faster Renault’s. But by lap 47 the Ferrari was not handling as well as it was before and Jabouille took the lead, a lead he would not relinquish. The Canadian, known for his amazing car control, was able to keep Arnoux at bay until the last couple of laps when the Frenchman passed the Ferrari with only two laps to go. It seemed the Renault was on course for a home 1-2 finish.

But on the next lap the turbo charged Renault engine started to splutter and Villeneuve caught back up. What ensued was two laps of total ding dong, wheel to wheel, to and fro racing from both drivers. Side by side through corners, banging wheels, taking to escape roads to avoid incident, it had it all. The Renault, spluttering or not, was still quick down the straights but the Ferrari was lighter and nimbler for the corners. This showed on lap 79 when Villeneuve was able to get back past into turn one, lunging from a long way back, brakes locked as he throws in into turn one, the Ferrari was back ahead.

The final lap as Villeneuve and Arnoux battle a little too close.

Arnoux would wait till the main straight again to make his move, tucked under the rear wing of the red car, Villenevue locking his brakes, both cars bumping wheels, off the track and still side by side, car control from Gilles in full display as he controls the sliding Ferrari, trying with all he can to maintain the second place. Arnoux trying with all he can to get past and make it a home 1-2. By the finish line the Ferrari had denied the home team and held second place by just 0.2 seconds, the Renault coming home tucked under the rear wing. It was exciting stuff and the original footage with commentary from Murray Walker, is available on youtube as well. If you haven’t seen it go take a look.

The race was also a milestone in F1 history as well. Jabouille’s win was the first for a turbo charged car in the sports history and showed the way the sport was heading. Within a few years cars were putting out over 1000bhp and capable of mind blowing speeds for the time. The sport had gone turbo charged and the arms race was on.

Spain 1981, Jarama

Fast forward two years and Ferrari had followed Renault and created a turbo powered car, although the car was likened to a fast tractor due to its handling characteristics. As was the norm around this time there was a lot of political involvement ongoing around the sport with FOCA, the teams association, and FISA, the governing body. In fact this was to be the last Spanish Grand Prix for five years. The year before the race had been stripped of World Championship status and the track was too narrow for current F1 cars, making for processional races.

The race was being held in extremely hot conditions and this meant it was especially hard on the tyres, particularly for the Ferrari’s on their Michelin’s. Villeneuve himself commented on the issues.

“You put on new tyres, and it’s OK for four laps,”

“After that, forget it. It’s just like a fast, red Cadillac, wallowing all over the place”.

But at the start you would not have seen that as the Ferrari jumped from seventh to third by the end of lap one. Alan Jones had taken the in his Williams with team mate Carlos Reutemann second. Villeneuve decided to try with all he could muster to pass the Argentine and done so at the start of lap two with a trademark lunge from a long way back, the car control to get it turned in and slowed down something on the Canadian could do.

Reutemann decided to settle in behind the Ferrari expecting the tyres to go off pretty quickly. All of this allowed Jones to get away up the road and build up a ten second lead. The 1980 World Champion however would bin the car at the start of lap 14, handing the lead to Villeneuve.

At the start pole man Jacques Laffite in the Ligier bogged down and fell down the pack to 12th. During the race he would climb back up the order by passing his rivals and benefiting from those that had their own issues or spins. Before long he was back up to third behind Reutemann. With the short and tight track traffic was an issue and it was while lapping back marker Eliseo Salazar that Laffite and the following John Watson slipped by Reutemann to take up the change to Villeneuve.

Villeneuve leads the Jarama train of Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis

What followed was a tactical masterclass in holding of the chasing pack, something that could not be done now in this day of DRS. Villeneuve couldn’t keep ahead of the pack of pure pace so he slowed the pace down, taking all the time he needed in the slow corners and using the Ferrari’s mighty grunt to keep ahead down the straight. He slowed them up so much that it became a five car train with Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and also in time Elio de Angelis in the Lotus.

It wasn’t pretty or flamboyant, something Villeneuve was well known for, but it was effective and no matter what Laffite and the chasing pack threw at the Ferrari there was no way past. The top two crossed the line two tenths apart with the top five only 1.24 second apart in the second closest finish, Monza 1971 being the closest as discussed in a previous section of this top ten.

Being known for his flamboyant style helped with the battle with Arnoux in France but that same style meant many didn’t see the defensive display as being in the Canadian’s arsenal. It showed that he was a versatile driver who was taken away from us too soon. Just the following year he would pass away at the Belgian Gran Prix at Zolder after a collision with Jochen Mass as they came through the left hander Butte before the double right at Terlamenbocht.

Mass moved off the racing line to let the Ferrari through but Villeneuve had already made the move to pass off the racing line, the inevitable collision happened at around 140mph, sending the Ferrari airborne before nose diving and throwing Villeneuve from the car into the catch fence on the outside of the track, the seat still attached to him but helmet missing. Doctors arrived within 30 seconds of the accident with Gilles not breathing but with a pulse but it was found that he suffered a fatal fracture of the neck and he passed that evening.

He was one of the best to never win a title and with only six wins in his career someone who never got to fulfill his potential. But his style and legacy live on today with the Montreal track that hosts the Canadian Grand Prix named after him in his honour and in the minds of those that remember him.

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