Against all odds

1981 Monaco Grand Prix Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 126CK)

When Jacques Laffite said, “No driver can do miracles. But Gilles sometimes made you wonder,” he was probably thinking of Monaco ’81. Villeneuve’s qualifying performance alone was amazing. At Monaco, above all, you need consistent downforce and throttle response. Gilles qualified on the front row in a tank of a chassis that was estimated to generate a quarter of the downforce of a Brabham. He did it, furthermore, with a turbo engine; next fastest turbo was Alain Prost’s more sanitary Renault, ninth quickest, 1.2sec slower.

Nelson Piquet took pole in a Brabham well under the weight limit — but was just 0.07sec quicker. “We expected things to go quite well,” says Mauro Forghieri. “We had a new device to make the engine more driveable on tight tracks. Instead of the air leaving the compressor after you lifted off, it turned into the turbine with a little bit of fuel so the turbine remained at high revs.” That doesn’t explain why the other Ferrari of Didier Pironi was 2.6sec slower.

“No, it was Gilles more than the car,” says Forghieri. “The engine was good but the car wasn’t The chassis was an old design, and the skirts would not seal. Downforce is tremendously important but most important is that there is no change in downforce. A lack of downforce can be corrected by a good driver but when it’s changing in an instant without warning… This was our problem.”

The drivers discovered on the warm-up lap that, after a fire in the Hotel de Paris, water from the fire hoses had seeped through to the famous tunnel below so the start was delayed an hour. In stifling heat, everyone vacated their can except Gilles, who kept his helmet on, maintaining focus. “He was always unaffected by heat,” says Forghieri. “Even at really hot races, he’d get out of the car looking exactly as he did when he climbed in.” Piquet, his Brabham now up to regulation weight for the race but still considerably lighter than the Ferrari on account of its lower fuel load, led from the start. Villeneuve tailed him for a few laps before the Ferrari’s skirts began to wear away under the heavy load. Eventually Alan Jones’ Williams got past and the Aussie set about Piquet, pressuring him into a mistake at Tabac that spelt retirement

Nine laps from the end, Jones’ car began suffering fuel vapourisation and, thinking he was running out, he pitted fora splash ‘n’ dash. He exited six seconds in front of Villeneuve who, with his fuel load all but used up, cut an extraordinary series of laps. Again Jones’ engine coughed and this time Gilles was close enough to get a run on him down the pit straight and into Ste Devote. Pointing the Ferrari inside a gap only just wide enough, he stayed on the gas to take the lead and then the win. He’d benefited from Jones’ misfortune, but to have been close enough to take advantage was a stunning achievement

“Maybe not a miracle,” says a reflective Forghieri, “but close.”

Mark Hughes