Heartbreak at Spa for the ‘special’ Ferrari driver

Arriving in Zolder for the 1979 Belgian Grand Prix,  Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Patrick Depailler (Ligier) shared the championship lead on 20 points, with the second Ligier of Jacques Laffite and the Lotus of Carlos Reutemann next up on 18 points, and the second Ferrari of Jody Scheckter 5th with 16 points. In qualifying the Ligiers wrapped up the front row, Laffite taking pole from Depailler. Nelson Piquet lined up in 3rd for Brabham, with Alan Jones 4th for Williams. Mario Andretti was 5th for Lotus with Villeneuve first up of the Ferrari’s in 6th and Scheckter in 7th. Clay Regazzoni lined up 8th in the Williams.

At the start of the 70 lap race Laffite made a bad getaway and dropped to fourth with Jones going past him on the outside and Piquet squeezing down the inside into the first turn. Regazzoni also got past the 2 Ferrari’s into the first corner, with Scheckter getting around Villeneuve on the run out of the first corner. Jones was all over Depailler on the opening lap, showing the pace the of new ground-effect Williams would be a genuine threat for victory. It all went wrong for Villeneuve on lap 2, when Scheckter went the long way around Regazzoni into the hairpin, with Regazzoni initially trying to resist, but getting squeezed over the kerbs on the inside as he braked hard to avoid a collision. Villeneuve was right behind, and went into the back of the Williams, his front 2 wheels launched into the air over the back of the Williams exiting the chicane. Regazzoni was out, and Villeneuve had to limp back to the pits, re-joining at the back of the field after taking on a new nose. Villeneuve was charging, putting in a wonderful recovery drive, pushing his Ferrari in qualifying style to make his way back up the field.

The race continued up front with plenty of action. Jones, clearly faster, continued to harry Depailler without success, while behind Scheckter got past Andretti. Laffite soon moved past Piquet, with both Scheckter and Andretti following through a few laps later. A frustrated Jones continued to push, but lost second place to Laffite when he overdid it trying to go around the outside of Depailler into Turn 1 at the start of lap 14, running wide and losing momentum. Lafite was soon past Depailler, and looking to open up a gap. Jones finally made his way past Depailler on lap 21, and set off after Laffite, with Scheckter in close attendance behind Depailler. Jones arrived suddenly on Laffite’s tail at the outside of turn 1 on lap 25, with the Ligier slow out of the bend Jones braved it out around the outside of the second turn to take the lead. Depailler squeezed past Laffite a lap later, with Jones in clear air now showing what the Williams could do, building up an impressive lead, with the Ligier’s behind starting to struggle on their tyres. Mario Andretti was out on lap 27 with brake issues, and Jones charging drive would go unrewarded when he was forced to retire on lap 40, having seen his lead extend out to 10s before encountering trouble. Depailler now led from Laffite, with Scheckter next up in Ferrari. Didier Pironi was in fourth for Tyrrell with Riccardo Patrese elevated to fifth in his Arrows and Villeneuve right on his tail, already into the last point scoring position in sixth as James Hunt’s Wolf crashed out. On lap 47 Patrick Depailler retired from the lead, his Ligier running wide at Turn 1 and continuing on through the fencing and into the barriers. Laffite was struggling badly, and Schecker chased him down and eased around him on the run down into the chicane on lap 54. Scheckter would ease away en route to his first victory of the season.

All eyes were now on the charging Villeneuve, who had finally gotten past Patrese with a move at the chicane to move up into fourth place. Villeneuve was flying, pushing his Ferrari to the limit to try to chase down the cars ahead. He reeled in Pironi at a rate of almost a second and a half a lap, and eased by to move up into third. With Laffite some 20 seconds up  he road Villeneuve continued to push, eating into the lead and trying to put the Ligier under pressure. He would get close, but ultimately his charge proved too much, the Ferrari running out of fuel and grinding to a halt on the final lap, seeing 4 valuable championship points slip through his fingers as he slid out of the points to be classified seventh, points that at the end of the season would have seen the talented Canadian driver take the world championship crown. As it was, Scheckter would take the title in what would turn out to be the last driver’s crown won by a Ferrari driver until Michael Schumacher would bring glory to the Scuderia again in 2000.

2 responses to “Heartbreak at Spa for the ‘special’ Ferrari driver

  1. Not that simple that those points lost cost him the title.
    In 79, each half of the season counted towards the title. In effect by Monza he needed to win the last three races to be champion.
    Jones was closing on Ferrari therefore Ferrari ruled that they finish at Monza with Scheckter ahead, thereby securing the title.
    It’s romantic to suggest that Villeneuve had the beating of his teammate but Scheckter qualified ahead of Gilles at Monza and didn’t slow down despite team orders.

    • Not quite accurate SyracuseVerse. Jones had not scored enough points in the first half of the season to be a contender at Monza. The only ones who could win the Championship by the time Monza can around were the Ferrari duo and Laffite. Scheckter beat Villeneuve thanks to experience and mechanical sympathy. However, with a little luck Villeneuve could have won if you include the 4 points lost at Zolder and the 6 at Monaco.

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