Three weeks after Gilles Villeneuve’s famous win on the streets of Monte Carlo, Formula 1 was back, this time for the Spanish Grand Prix. It was held at Jarama, an incredibly tricky circuit on the outskirts of Madrid. On the Friday, Ferrari struggled for pace. Gilles Villeneuve was halfway down the time sheet with problems which meant he could not make the most of his engine’s power, while Didier Pironi was having problems with the turbocharger system on his 126 CK and was at the back end of the grid.
Saturday was suffocatingly hot, but thanks to an evolving track, almost everyone beat their Friday time. In the end, Jacques Laffite in the Ligier took pole ahead of the two Williams of World Champion Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann, John Watson in the McLaren, Alain Prost in the Renault and Bruno Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo. Villeneuve was only in seventh but felt more confident because the team had at last realised that the problems were related to the shock absorber calibration. However Pironi continued to have engine problems and could do no better than thirteenth.
The morning warm-up was due to be at 13:10 but started 15 minutes late because the support race had become a sort of “demolition derby” with lots of cars ending up in the barriers damaging them. In race configuration, Ferrari appeared to be much better, even though it would be very difficult to make up places from seventh on the tough Jarama track.
The race started at 15:30. Laffite had a clutch problem and was slow to get away, while Villeneuve was like a cannonball and got up to third place on the first lap. Ahead of him were Jones and Reutemann, while Laffite was only ninth. On the second lap, Gilles got into the Argentine’s slipstream on the finish straight and overtook him to take second. Jones however continued to fly and seemed out of reach for the Canadian, who was fighting tooth and nail to try to get closer to him. On lap 13, Jones passed the finish line with another fantastic lap time, 10 seconds ahead of Villeneuve in the 126 CK. The frenzied pace however was too much for the Australian. At what should have been an easy corner, the Williams went off the track into the dirt, across the gravel and almost hit the barriers. Gilles was in the lead while Jones took 30 seconds to get back onto the racetrack and had to make an unscheduled pit stop to change tyres, which resulted in him being one lap down.
There were 66 laps remaining and Villeneuve knew that his tyres would not make it to the end if he continued to work them as hard as he had before Jones went off, so he started to think about looking after his equipment. His 126 CK was very strong under braking thanks to the latest generation technology provided by Brembo, who were celebrating their 100th race in partnership with Ferrari. Furthermore, his engine was by far the most powerful. Gilles had decided: he would push the brakes to their limit and get the most out of the engine on the straights, but would conserve his tyres in the slower sections of the track.
On lap 30 Gilles was ahead of Reutemann by just over a second while slightly further back was the pack formed of Watson, Laffite, who was fighting back after his disastrous start, Nelson Piquet in the Brabham and the young Italian Elio De Angelis in the Lotus. Reutemann had the back end of the 126 CK imprinted in his memory but could not find a way past, neither in the braking zones nor even less so on the straights where his Ford Cosworth engine was no rival for the Maranello turbo unit.
With 20 laps to go, Villeneuve and Reutemann were still out in front but Laffite was now in third. The Ligier had been the best car in qualifying and had a great turbo engine despite it not being on a par with the Ferrari. On the 62nd lap, the Frenchman overtook the Argentine and the Ferrari fans started to worry that Laffite could be a threat for Villeneuve. However Gilles was driving the perfect race and did not make a single mistake in the last 15 laps.
The Canadian, who on that Sunday discovered to be also a good strategist, decided to slow his pace even further as it was not in his interests to fight only with Laffite. It was better if the Frenchman had to keep looking in his mirrors as Gilles backed everyone up behind him. He did not even bother to lap Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo. Villeneuve crossed the finish line at the end of the 80th lap, winning the Spanish Grand Prix. However what stood out were the gaps: he had beaten Laffite by 22 hundredths and Watson by 58. Reutemann was fourth 1.01 seconds back and De Angelis was fifth, 1.24 seconds off. Anyone who had said that Gilles Villeneuve was a ‘completely instinctive’ driver had been proven wrong. It was his sixth and last victory in Formula 1, his second consecutive win in the 1981 season.