• Spanish Grand Prix

Villeneuve takes astonishing defensive victory

ESPN Staff
June 21, 1981
Gilles Villeneuve leads Jacques Laffite and John Watson © Sutton Images

After a season dominated by off-track politics and disputes, purists were delighted that the Spanish Grand Prix was memorable for the right reasons, Gilles Villeneuve winning a thrilling race where less than one-and-a-quarter seconds separated the first five cars.

For many, this was the greatest grand prix of Villeneuve's short career. In a turbocharged Ferrari which was not suited to the conditions, he took the lead on the 14th lap and held on to it for the next 66 laps with cars swarming all over him. With pace on the straights, he pulled away only for the pack to eat him up when cornering.

The track made it all but impossible to overtake, and the only danger to Villeneuve came on the 61st lap when the quintet came up behind the Enisgn of Eliseo Salazar. Villeneuve squeezed past but Carlos Reutemann, in second, found himself shut out as Salazar slowed, allowing Jacques Laffite and John Watson to shoot through. That order stayed to the end.

Laffite started the day on pole but threw away the advantage with a wretched start which saw him fall back to 11th. It took him 24 laps to fight back to fifth.

Alan Jones had capitalised on Laffite's mistake to lead into the first corner, opening up a lead at the rate of a second a lap over Villeneuve. But on the 13th lap he locked his brakes and that dropped him back to 16th, allowing Villeneuve to take the lead. Jones eventually finished seventh.

"I really didn't think I had a chance," Villeneuve said. "But after Alan made the mistake, I was suddenly in the lead and from then on I had to concentrate hard not to make a single error of any sort. I knew I had the speed on the straight [but] I had problems around all the twisty bits and it was a really hard race."

A heatwave which had been blasting Spain for a fortnight took its toll on the drivers, several having to be helped from their cars at the finish. Derek Daly collapsed in the paddock and had to be rushed to hospital.

There was good news for Lotus after what had been a wretched few months of battling, unsuccessfully, against a decision to outlaw its Lotus 88, with the announcement of a three-year sponsorship deal with its old partner John Player, leading to the reappearance of the JPS brand on the grid.

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