On This Day in #F1 : 27th September 1981

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Carlo Carluccio

– 1981: The greatest 3rd place ever?

Everyone has a different opinion; that is a given. Whatever the subject, every person will have their own personal reasons for their selection. Possibly it’s based on experience, maybe it reminds them of a specific time in their life or maybe just reignites a feeling that proves unforgettable to this day.

If the question was the best over-taking manoeuvre in history, I would imagine there would be countless ones listed. Personally, I have seen none better than Alonso around the outside of Schumacher at 130 R in 2005. The same conclusions could be reached with similar questions as to the unlikeliest winner of a Grand Prix (Panis – Monaco – 1996), the greatest first lap (Senna – Donington – 1993) etc.

We could continue with this line of thought on any subject, so please allow me to offer my opinion of the finest drive ever to achieve an F1 podium. Thirty-three years ago, arguably the greatest driver of his generation lit up the Grand Prix in Canada. His name was Gilles Villeneuve and he took his Ferrari from 11th on the grid to 3rd with a virtuoso display that today would incur penalties and race bans for it’s blatant recklessness. How times have changed!

The saturated Il Notre Dame circuit was the location for the 1981 Canadian GP. Its start had been delayed by 90 minutes to allow Ecclestone to re-write insurance waivers for the organisers. As the lights changed from red to green on a very wet track, the 24 cars launched rooster tails into the air, making visibility practically impossible. Villeneuve, in the middle of the scramble caught the side of Rene Arnoux’s Renault , causing it to spin into the barrier and causing delays to his team-mate Didier Pironi’s Ferrari.

At the completion of Lap 1, Villeneuve had moved up to 9th with his nose slightly askew after his collision with Arnoux. Alan Jones who had been leading spun on Lap 7 causing delays to Nelson Piquet who took avoiding action. This allowed Alain Prost to take the lead from Jacques Laffite. Villeneuve followed in 3rd place.

Laffite passed a faltering Prost on Lap 13 and was followed through a few laps later by Villeneuve.

John Watson eventually passed Prost and he caught and passed Villeneuve. These would remain the final finishing positions for the 1981 Canadian GP. This would be Laffite’s final Grand Prix victory and his 6th overall. Interestingly the same amount of wins as Villeneuve.

So why was Villeneuve’s podium so exceptional? One reason is that the car he was driving was generally accepted to have about a quarter of the downforce of the other cars that season. From 11th on the grid he was third within 7 laps and maintained that throughout the race, but..

Towards the end of the race he came up behind the Lotus of Elio De Angelis, who braked earlier than Gilles had expected and was caught by Gilles car. They both spun, and Villeneuve regained the road with a 180 degree power turn.

His nose had been further damaged during this incident but was pushed up completely by another incident with Mario Andretti’s Alfa. The wind pressure then folded the aluminum nose box and wing up in to the drivers line of sight. Villeneuve continued his exuberant display to the delight of his countrymen but there were fears he would get black flagged. This problem was solved when it broke off four laps from the end.

He had not been running round oblivious of the problem of visibility. With his forward vision impaired, he used his peripheral vision to navigate using the yellow track markers as reference points. Realising the black flag was imminent he waited until there no car behind and ran over ribbed curbing to dislodge the broken nose.

Laffite: ” I didn’t like racing today. The rain, it was impossible to see

Watson: “… the worst conditions I have ever driven in. At times you could see virtually nothing

Villeneuve Canada 1981Villeneuve: “… as for the rain, I didn’t mind it a bit. Nothing in the world would have made me stop. I wanted to finish in the first three so I could go up on the podium and if I had stopped in the pits it would have undermined all my efforts. It was a risk I took and I knew the consequences. That’s my way of racing and I can’t see any justification for doing it any other way.

When I think of Villeneuve, I think of his classic race at Dijon in 1979 against Arnoux and his qualifying performance at Watkins Glen in 1979.

Or his classic victories in 1981 at Monaco and Jarama, both completely against the run of play.

To temper this, I also remember him spinning off at Zandvoort in 1979 and returning to the pits at speed with the wheel trailing.

He would crash in the first few laps at Silverstone in 1981 and again, in Holland after qualifying 16th, Forghieri – the Ferrari technical director – asked Villeneuve to use the race as “300 kms of testing” for a new engine they had installed. He made up four places and launched off the back of Giacomelli’s car before the first corner. Forghieri “I didn’t say one word to him because I knew him. That was the character of Gilles

We seem to remember his outrageous driving more than the occasions which he actually triumphed. This high wire act was the very reason why Villeneuve became so revered during his brief life time, it mirrored the passion of the public.

For a man into his fourth year in the sport, to be making mistakes that would be unforgivable in a rookie seems astonishing, yet everyone pandered to him. Ferrari called him the “High Priest of destruction” and his contemporaries would comment that “he was on a different level“, “shows the man is more important than the car”, “he’s the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1

James Hunt felt he was too much of a speed freak for his own good. “Villeneuve has a brilliant natural talent. He lives for motor-racing and that may be his biggest problem. He drives with enormous aggression and flair, but he seems unable to combine that with common sense. I worry for him because he does things on the track which are not in keeping with his personality off the track.”

Gilles Villeneuve

6 responses to “On This Day in #F1 : 27th September 1981

  1. It’s easy to see why Gilles has captured the hearts and minds of Formula One fans, especially in that era.

    In a way, a big way, he does transcend analyses based purely on career stats or team mate comparisons etc. Though of course those thing can’t be totally disregarded in the grand scheme…

    But a very brave and talented guy. Nice one Carlo.

  2. Back in those days I was a 12/13 year old kid and remember seeing Villeneuve as a guy with some bad luck and very spectacular. The news he died on Zolder made a deep impression as we used to go to the GP on Zandvoort every year and followed F1 closely. Today I think a driver like Gilles would be seen as a mad man making someone like Maldonado look like a cautious driver 🙂 Love that “title” High priest of destruction Enzo gave him. Bittersweet humor.

  3. Is it only me? But on my mobile I only get to see the top half of the clip. The bottom half is grey and doesn’t move… and they all have the problem.

  4. It truly was a different world back then. Great read, esp. liked the clips being in English, German, and Italian – should keep most people happy!

  5. Top write up as usual, thank you Carlo.
    By coincidence, presently reading Donaldson’s book on the man….just got to where Gilles met Bernie for the first time….he summed BCE up well.
    Shame others weren’t as astute.

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