The unforgettable 1981 Spanish Grand Prix will be remembered as one of the greatest defensive driving displays in the history of Formula 1 racing, with Gilles Villeneuve taking the headlines. The Canadian driver’s outstanding victory at Jarama in 1981 was the outcome of a combination between talent and tactics to pull off an unlikely result and accomplish his best triumph, the very last for the great Canadian driver before his untimely death the following year.
Jacques Laffite of Ligier-Matra was the fastet in qualifying on the the Circuito Permanente del Jarama, while Gilles Villeneuve started seventh (eight-tenths of a second faster than his Ferrari team mate, Didier Pironi, yet over a second adrift of poleman). At the beginning of the Grand Prix, Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann went into the lead, as Jacques Laffite made a poor start. Ferrari’s Canadian driver immediately jumped into third place at the first corner, damaging Alain Prost’s front wing as he took the position. At the end of the first lap, Gilles Villeneuve pulled out of Reutemann’s slipstream and took second place, while Jones began to build a lead, before making a mistake on lap 14, as he went off the track when his advantage on the Canadian driver was over 10 seconds.
Ferrari could not unfortunately rely on a competitive car during that season, so it was not that Villeneuve expected his lead to last for a very long time. As the race progressed, four faster cars lined up behind the wallowing Ferrari, but Gilles somehow managed to keep it on the track without making a single error. He did not block or weave—rather, he simply placed the car superbly to ward off any overtaking attempts from Jacques Laffite and John Watson, who were obviously much faster.
None of them could pass, and the five-car train crossed the line separated by just 1.24 seconds. The spread was incredibly close at the finish, but Villeneuve, a class apart, had been in a world all his own on that memorable day. Gilles drove brilliantly, with the perfect blend of tactical braking and acceleration to keep his faster rivals at bay. Sparing its tyres to the most, the Ferrari was painfully slow in the corners where its driver knew he was out of reach, before unleashing all its engine power (one of the few positive notes of the Ferrari car) on the long straights.
Gilles Villeneuve was never afraid nor unwilling to fight at the wheel of an underperforming or weakened racing car. This was indeed the typical trademark of a Formula 1 career during which there were so many instances when the Canadian would storm out the blocks and literally drive the wheels off any machine which would have the gall to resist his racing desire.