The 1981 Canadian GP: Jacques Laffite Wins, but Gilles Villeneuve Steals the Show

Updated on February 27, 2020
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F1 Enthusiast | Michael Schumacher Fan | Grown to Respect Ayrton Senna | Discovering Past Masters in F1 | Amazed by F1 Cars!

Who Is Gilles Villeneuve?


Starting with the obvious question sometimes does a disservice to those whose staus is that of a legend, and Gilles is one of them. To a die-hard fan, he was one of the greats to race in F1, getting through unthinkable situations. He was the father of Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 champ. To an F1 enthusiast, he was just another driver who took out his Ferrari and often surprised his teammate, by doing things that his teammate did not know the car could do, let alone the rest of the field.

Well, in short, Gilles was all of the above and more, and cared very little about others when he had the steering in his hands. Gilles, a Canadian, debuted in F1 in 1977 with the McLarens. He then moved on to Ferrari in 1978 and remained with the team until the end of his career in 1982. In 1979 he came close to winning the title and was second by just four points.

While winning was one of the main parameters, it was also what Gilles could do other than winning that made him super-popular. For example, qualifying over ten seconds faster than the others, or racing without visibility. We will look at the latter example in this article.

So, let’s go.

Did You Know?

In the season-ending 1979 US GP, Gilles scorched a rain-soaked Friday practice. His time was about 11 seconds faster than any other driver on the field.

Jody Scheckter, the 1979 F1 champ, who was the teammate and second-place man on that day, thought that he would be the fastest until he saw Gilles’ time. Jody said he could not understand how that was even possible!

The 1981 Canadian Grand Prix

The Grand Prix started on a wet track, where the rains refused to taper off. Most of the race was under cloud cover, and the race continued driven by gladiators who refused to stop. To race on a wet track is so unlike the F1 in 2019 (I digress).

So, getting back to the 1981 Canadian GP, the race saw many ups and downs with the top spot claimed by Alan Jones, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Jacques Laffite, Gilles and many others at different points; which is an expected situation on a wet track. But the real challenge was to stay ahead in the changing conditions. Few of the front runners crashed out while the others prevailed.

Let’s take a look at the race summary.

See that? Gilles does not let go. Visibility or no visibility, he wanted to continue. It’s not like back then, safety regulations were not there, they were indeed there, but Gilles was hardly concerned. The front wing and nose came off, and Gilles managed to stay on track. How many drivers would do that? The odd part is that he doesn’t even pit again for a nose change, something drivers even in the early 90s would do.

So, that’s Gilles in short. I am sure readers are getting a sense of the driver we are discussing over here.

Did You Know?

It was understood that Gilles did not go hammer and tongs against Jody Scheckter in the 1979 championship. As such, he finished the season second behind Jody.

It was 18 years later that his son, Jacques Villeneuve, won the F1 championship in 1997, and in the process became the first and only Canadian to win an F1 title.

Do we have Gilles kind of racers today?

Even if we do, we wouldn’t know. Why? Because under the garb of safety, wet conditions, track debris and other situations call for immediate safety car deployment. In some cases, the races would be stopped. Of course, as a fan we may disagree with the soft handed treatment of drivers today, but then, would we like any of the drivers losing their life on the track? Maybe, not.

Well, for good or bad, that is one of the reasons why we may not find drivers like Gilles, Senna or Schumacher today. All three of the mentioned drivers were great in rain-conditions. We may not even find the next king of the wets, because most races are stopped in wet conditions, aren't they?

But Gilles trumps all drivers. Why? He drove in wet conditions with less visibility, continued when the front wing obstructed view, held the car on track when the front wing broke off, and then took third place in a technically inferior vehicle (because of no front wing). Most of the drivers would have given up or entered the pits for a wing change, but not Gilles. He continued to race and took the podium!

Take a look at a shorter video of the same track:

That’s classic F1. And that’s not a driver but a gladiator!

Back to the Pits

Gilles Villeneuve had many events during his short F1 career which were highly risky, knocking on the doors of crazy. He probably loved it that way. Gilles’ logic-defying, safety-challenging outings were what won him most of his fans. While his career was cut short by accident on the track, much like Senna in 1994 (Gilles’ was far worse, though), he will remain in the collective F1 memory.

Those were the days when gladiators drove F1 cars!

© 2020 S K


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