Atlas F1   A Race to Remember

  by Marcel Schot, Netherlands

Every Grand Prix Venue has its most remembered race; that race where the mighty gods of Formula One diced and dodged to achieve eternal greatness and set the record books straight. But every Grand Prix venue also has remarkable races that were pushed aside in the history books, for no good reason. Atlas F1 writer Marcel Schot reviews, ahead of every Grand Prix this season, one race which should be memorised and valued; that one round in history which makes a Race to Remember

The 1981 Spanish Grand Prix

In recent years, the Spanish Grand Prix has become somewhat of an uninspiring race on the Formula One calendar. On the modern Catalunya circuit, the race is often regarded as a boring procession, only becoming spectacular on the rare occasion that it rains.

Before the circus moved to its new home near Barcelona in 1991 the Spanish Grand Prix had been hosted on four different tracks. First it was twice at Pedralbes - a street circuit on the outskirts of Barcelona - and later the race alternated between Jarama, near Madrid, and Montjuich Park in downtown Barcelona. The fourth track was added after the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. In fact, after that race, Jarama has never seen a Formula One race again, as the event was dropped from the calendar for four years before coming back in the southern city of Jerez.

The events that transpired at Jarama in 1981 make the race worth remembering. For albeit mayhem among the organisers, one French-Canadian in a turbo powered Ferrari number 27 turned the Formula One world upside down for the second time in the season. Gilles Villeneuve headed the field in a tactical masterpiece with a car that shouldn't have won.

This wasn't only one of Villeneuve's best wins, it was also his last. Villeneuve was always praised for his bravery and sheer talent driving the car on the edge, but this victory shows more than any other that Villeneuve was quickly learning the tactics of the game, seeing that it wasn't always necessary to drive each and every lap as fast as humanly possible. And if it weren't for the unfortunate happenings at Zolder in 1982, we might have seen a lot more of those drives from him.

Before the Race

The action at the Spanish GP started right at the start of the very first practice session. Stealing the show from the front runner was local hero Emilio de Vilotta, a regular at the Spanish Grand Prix since 1976. De Vilotta wanted to enter his home Grand Prix as usual, but with the recently siged Concorde agreement, de Vilotta and his Williams were not to be permitted to enter the race. That is, according to the FISA rules he wasn't allowed to enter, but the local organizers saw enough reason to enter their local driver when the ATS team still hadn't arrived just before the start of the first session.

So the first practice started off with de Vilotta and without ABBA drummer Slim Borgudd, ATS' only driver. However, Much to the dismay of de Vilotta and the cheering crowd, his Williams engine wouldn't start. Meanwhile the ATS team finally arrived and FISA immediately pulled de Vilotta out of the event. This concluded one of the strangest Formula One entries of the modern era and was also the main cause of Spain and Jarama losing its Grand Prix.

Gilles VilleneuveNot including de Vilotta's Williams, thirty cars entered practice. For the first time in the season, March started with just a single car after Eliseo Salazar took his sponsorship money to Ensign to replace Marc Surer. With one car less to fill the grid, a pre-qualification wasn't necessary so the first qualifying session got underway, with both Williamses of Alan Jones and Championship leader Carlos Reutemann on the pace rightaway. Jones set the fastest time with 1:14.424, followed by his teammate and Ligier driver Jacques Laffite four tenths behind him. These two were closely followed by Alain Prost in the first Renault and John Watson in the brand new McLaren MP4. Williams' closest rival in the championship, Brazilian Nelson Piquet in the Brabham, disappointed by finishing the first qualifyin session only 17th. The Ferraris of Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi were equally disappointing in 13th and 12th respectively after Villeneuve's brilliant win in Monaco. The biggest surprise was probably Keke Rosberg, who put his Fittipaldi in 9th place after not even qualifying it in the previous race.

Saturday morning's free practice saw the focus switch back to the rear end of the field. This time it wasn't a local hero in the limelight, but a small Italian team called Osella. First driver Beppe Gabbiani went off the track spectacularly, turning his car into a total loss with a loud bang. This crash didn't only affect Gabbiani, but also his teammate Giorgio Francia. Since the team didn't have a spare car and Gabbiani hadn't set a time in first qualifying, Francia, who was entering just his second Formula One event of his career, had to give up his car for his teammate. Francia only went out once on Saturday but he didn't finish a decent lap, so he became one of the three drivers to not improve their Friday time.

With the asphalt in better condition for Saturday qualifying, indeed nearly everyone set better times than the day before. Frenchman Jacques Laffite came out on top with a 1:13.754, giving Ligier what would be their last Pole Position. Alongside Laffite on the grid was Alan Jones, followed by Reutemann and Watson on the second row. On the third row, alongside Alain Prost, was a surprising Bruno Giacomelli who had taken everything out of his Alfa Romeo to put it in sixth place. At least one of the Ferraris, namely Villeneuve, got on the pace and moved up to seventh, but Pironi had to start from 13th place. Nelson Piquet was able to make up some ground after the first qualifying, but nevertheless the Brabham driver had to start from ninth place.

On the back end of the grid, Gabbiani didn't make much profit of his teammate's car. The Italian missed the grid by three tenths, qualifying 26th, just before Borgudd's ATS and Brian Henton in the first Toleman. The 24th and final position was for Ensign's new driver Eliseo Salazar, who beat Tyrrell's Michele Alboreto by just over one tenth of a second.

  • View the full starting grid at FORIX
  • The Race

    The cars took the green light in blazing heat. Jacques Laffite immediately saw his Pole Position advantage ripped to shreds when his clutch initially failed. First away were the two Williamses, surprisingly followed by Gilles Villeneuve, who in the process of passing Laffite, Watson, Prost and Giacomelli had driven off Prost's front wing. Jones promptly opened a small gap to Reutemann, while the Argentinian had a difficult time fending off Villeneuve's Ferrari on the straights. In qualifying it had already become clear that the Ferrari was a powerful machine. However, while its turbo power guaranteed a clear advantage on the straights, the Ferrari 126 CK was an absolutely dog to handle in the corners. Thus, Villeneuve had to catch up on the straights, while he was merely trying to keep the car on the track in the corners.

    After the first lap, Jones lead, followed by Reutemann, Villeneuve, Andretti, Prost, Watson and Giacomelli. The second Ferrari also had quite a start, as Pironi ended the first lap in ninth place after first having his front wing pushed out of shape after colliding with Riccardo Patrese's Arrows at the start. Polesitter Laffite, who had managed to get his car running after the initial problem, had fallen back to eleventh place. In the second lap, in the Virage Fangio, Villeneuve made his move from behind Reutemann's rearwing, diving to second behind Jones.

    While all stayed relatively close, trying to save tyres, brakes and strength as much as possible in the dry heat, Alan Jones opened a comfortable lead over Villeneuve, who's tyres were pretty much destroyed after a few laps due to the Ferrari's drifting and sliding in the corners. After fourteen laps the reigning World Champion was about eight seconds clear of the field. However, this advantage faded quickly when the Australian lost concentration for a second and slid off the track. When Jones resumed the race, he found himself back in 15th place stripped of all chances of winning his second race of the season.

    Villeneuve, Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de AngelisWith Jones making his way back up the field, Reutemann was on his own in battling Villeneuve. What developed was a fight between two very different drivers in two very different cars. By that time, Andrea de Cesaris was already watching the race from the sideline. The Italian had crashed his McLaren after only nine laps. As Villeneuve fended off Reutemann, building a lead on the straights and having the Argentinian closing the gap in the corners, the happenings behind them put their odds better by the minute. First Piquet and Andretti collided and then Alain Prost suffered the consequences of driving with a broken nose and slid off the track in lap 28, ending his race. Pironi, also driving with a damaged nose, decided on having it checked in the pits rather than suffering the same fate as his countryman. The other Frenchman who had problems at the start, Jacques Laffite, made his way back up from eleventh to fourth halfway through the race.

    Nelson Piquet, also on his way up after his get together with Patrese earlier on, was the next to leave the race. He too spun off, after his Brabham became harder and harder to control with completely worn tyres. Laffite continued his great race and overtook John Watson for third after 49 of the 80 laps. Now it was Villeneuve, Reutemann, Laffite and Watson in front. By this time, Reutemann had asked much of his Williams, trying to pass Villeneuve's Ferrari on every opportunity. Twelve laps later, Laffite outbraked Reutemann for second and only a lap later Reutemann dropped back further when John Watson put his McLaren into third. However, the whole top six was very close, now with Villeneuve leading a train of Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and the twins Lotus' of de Angelis and Nigel Mansell.

    For the final 18 laps only Mansell lost the pace, but the others were driving around as if attached by a bungee rope. Neither of them could afford a single mistake. Numerous times, Laffite's Ligier would come out of a corner right beside the scarlet Ferrari of Villeneuve, but the sheer power of the turbo Ferrari kept the Canadian ahead.

    When the flag dropped after an hour and 46 minutes, Villeneuve crossed the line first with Laffite two tenths behind, Watson on half a second, Reutemann one second behind and Elio de Angelis another two tenths behind the Williams driver. The whole top five was separated by just 1.24 seconds, making it the second closest finish in Formula One history. Nigel Mansell, some 28 seconds behind the victor picked up the final championship point, while Alan Jones saw an impressive comeback unrewarded in seventh.

  • View the final classification at FORIX
  • Conclusion

    A race with a battle like this one deserves to be remembered, obviously. While almost all drivers had one problem or another, they still had to drive full force in a heat which would have totally exhausted even the fittest of drivers. The race also made the rest of the season more exciting, as both Villeneuve and Laffite closed in on the leaders. In many respects, Villeneuve's win was also the dawn of the turbo era, since it was very clear that without his turbo power not even his brilliant, flawless drive could have given him the win. Finally, the race was also one where a once great talent silently ended his Formula One career. Jean-Pierre Jabouille raced the Ligier for the last time, having much trouble driving after sustaining severe injuries in the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix. After Jarama, Jabouille was replaced by Theodore driver Patrick Tambay who in turn was replaced at Theodore by Marc Surer.

    Marcel Schot© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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