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Great Ferrari Victories: The 1981 Spanish Grand Prix

Gilles Villeneuve is often regarded as Ferrari’s greatest F1 hero, and his win in Spain was probably his finest victory
Words: Gavin Green
Film: Oliver McIntyre

Gilles Villeneuve was an Enzo Ferrari favourite.

The Canadian driver reminded him of the great Tazio Nuvolari, who drove for Scuderia Ferrari – then racing Alfa Romeos – in the 1930s. 


He was small, fast, brave and passionate about his racing, just like Nuvolari. His Ferrari teammate Jody Scheckter, the 1979 World Champion, considered Villeneuve the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Many consider him Ferrari’s greatest F1 hero.

Gilles Villeneuve was small, fast, brave and passionate about racing. His greatest victory was his last: the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix 

His F1 career was comparatively short, as was his life. He joined the Scuderia as a rookie late in the 1977 season, and soon became the most exciting newcomer in a generation. He was narrowly pipped to the 1979 title by Scheckter, even though he was often the faster driver. He won six Grands Prix for Ferrari, and his greatest victory was probably his last, in the 1981 Spanish GP.


That year Ferrari introduced its first turbocharged F1 car, the V6-powered 126C. It was renowned for its prodigious power and straight-line speed but was equally notorious for its difficulty to drive. Turbo lag was a problem for all early turbocharged racing cars, and the 126C lacked the handling fluency of rivals. 


The car’s first win, at Monaco, came as a surprise. A circuit that puts a premium on handling seemed ill-suited to the new car. While it showed the promise of the powerful new Ferrari turbo, the victory was more a testament to Villeneuve’s other-worldly driving skills. 

Watch how Gilles Villeneuve won the Spanish Grand Prix, a race nobody expected him to win

Nobody expected him to triumph at the next race, the Spanish GP, on the tight Jarama circuit north of Madrid. The British cars – the Williams, McLaren, Lotus and Brabham – had sweeter handling and more ground-effects grip. 


Qualifying bore out the experts’ predictions. Villeneuve was seventh on the grid, his new teammate Frenchman Didier Pironi a distant 13th. At the start, in front of the King of Spain on a sweltering hot day, Villeneuve vaulted to third place. By the 14th lap of the 80-lap race, he had heroically taken the lead. Despite failing tyres, turbo lag and poor handling, Villeneuve doggedly hung on. A driver famed for his flamboyance and speed was now showing the flipside of his skills: intelligence, resilience and concentration. 


He used his famous late braking skills repeatedly. He used the power of the Ferrari turbo to extend his lead down the main straight, before being caught again on the twisty section – which was most of the circuit. It was a brilliantly disciplined tactical victory. Behind him, drivers swapped places, as they harried the little Canadian. 

Villeneuve was already having an excellent season by the the time he reached the Spanish GP. His win at Monaco showed the promise of both driver and new powerful Ferrari turbo  

He crossed the finish line with a train of cars behind him – as there’d been for most of the race. The top five cars were separated by 1.24 seconds after one of the most ferocious fights in F1 history. Villeneuve had won races displaying greater dominance and certainly more flair. But most experts consider that Spanish GP victory his finest.


The 126C was subsequently refined, featuring a more reliable turbo engine and much improved handling, partly due to superior aerodynamics. It powered Ferrari to the World Constructors’ Championship in both 1982 and 1983. 


Sadly, Villeneuve did not enjoy its transformation. After a controversial second to teammate Pironi at the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, he was killed in the final qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix. Ever competitive, he was chasing pole position, desperate to go faster. He was just 32. 

Today, the Montreal circuit which hosts the Canadian GP is named after him and there is a bronze Gilles Villeneuve bust at the entrance to Ferrari’s test track at Fiorano.  His son Jacques, 11 at the time of his father’s death, won the 1997 World Championship.