On 31 May 1981, the Monaco roulette ball stopped on 27 red. That of Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari, a turbo engined car no less. Never before had such a technical gamble broken the bank in Monaco. The gamble came not in terms of power, which was a given with the supercharged engine, but because its acceleration and driveability were at odds with the tricky layout of the Monegasque track.
However, the Canadian and his Ferrari 126 CK wrote a new chapter in the history of Formula 1. The first victory for a turbo engine in Monaco, the first for a Ferrari turbo engine, the first win in a year and a half: in short, the end of a bad spell and one which put Gilles and Ferrari back in contention.
Of all Gilles’ victories, the one in Monaco was probably the least spectacular or memorable, yet it still felt special. On the eve of the weekend, it was announced that Villeneuve’s contract at Ferrari had been renewed for two more seasons. Qualifying went well for the Canadian, who seemed inspired from the off, and he guaranteed himself a place on the front row alongside pole man Nelson Piquet in the Brabham, separated by only 78 thousandths.
The race started an hour late due to a fire in the kitchen of the Hotel Loews which was immediately put out by firemen but caused flooding in the tunnel. Therefore it was decided that overtaking was prohibited in that area, at least for the beginning of the race.
Nelson Piquet immediately pulled away from the pack but the 76 lap race turned into an elimination match and lots of drivers retired, including the Brazilian, who crashed when trying to lap Eddie Cheever and Patrick Tambay. After the Brabham retired, the reigning World Champion Alan Jones was in the lead and seemed assured of victory as he had a 30-second lead over the next man who was Villeneuve.
However the Williams driver had to pit for fuel because of pick up problems seven laps from the end but, still in the lead, now had to deal with an attacking Villeneuve who was hunting down his prey and starting to put in a series of fast laps. Corner after corner, the Ferrari was getting closer to the limit, getting ever closer to the guardrails. However, the driver who was once known as the “Flyer” having had so many spectacular accidents, did not make a single mistake. He played with the Monegasque twists and turns, making the most of his engine’s power through the tunnel and up to the Tabac corner, while making his Ferrari dance, having fun taking daring lines between Mirabeau and the Loews Hairpin.
Four laps from the end, the back of Jones’ Williams, which continued to have problems, was in his sights. The overtake was immediate. Gilles got in the Australian’s slipstream at the exit of Anthony Noghes, the last corner before the finish straight. It was here that in his right rear-view mirror, Jones saw the shape of Gilles’ car appear. By the time he made a defensive move, it was already too late: the number 27 on the back of the Ferrari was the last thing the World Champion saw before the Canadian pulled away. The move drew cheers from the people in the stands, while the boats around the harbour sounded their horns to celebrate the 312 T4’s passing move.
With 23 laps remaining, of the 20 drivers who started, only seven were left in the race. Out in front, the Ferrari continued to push and crossed the finish line with a 40-second lead. On the podium, it was clear that he was exhausted but the photos shown all over the world portrayed his happiness as he was sprayed with champagne. Villeneuve was now a winner, enough to put him on the cover of the American magazine Time, which for the second time after Jim Clark in 1965, dedicated its cover to Formula 1.