MONARCH OF THE GLEN TIME WAS WHEN WE ENDED THE
World Championship season in North America, and right well that suited most of us, too. Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix, then a few days in New England before fetching up in Watkins Glen for the last race… it was all most agreeable.
Mind you, much depended on the elements. Upstate New York in the fall can be sublime, but in 1979 the weather was unrelentingly awful. It is early October as I write, 20 years to the day since the first day of practice fir the Grand Prix of the United States.
Expectations were very high. It was not that there was a World Championship to be decided in those pre-TV show days, the settling of the title almost never went to the last race but simply the prospect of a resumption of the duel between Alan Jones and Gilles Villeneuve.
Undoubtedly, in the Williams FW07, Jones had a better car than Villeneuve’s Ferrari T4, and, had it become reliable rather sooner than it did, Alan would almost certainly have won the championship. As it was, Jody Scheckter clinched it for Ferrari at Monza, with Villeneuve following him over the line, as he had promised he would. Back then, a man’s word meant something. On the evening of the Italian GP, however, Gilles said he was glad to have the championship out of the way. From now on, he could simply
go for it. He and Jones had been clearly the fastest men of the season; North America promised well.
In Canada their fight was mesmeric from first to last. Although Jones had taken pole, Villeneuve as usual went off the line like a bullet, and for the first 50 laps held the Williams at bay. On the 51st, Alan made his move, and Gilles as was the custom of the day did not block him.
Once by, Jones pulled out a threesecond lead, and the thing looked over. “I thought, ‘I’ve done it!’ he said, ‘and once I was in the lead I built up a bit of a cushion. But as soon as backed off a fraction, suddenly my mirrors were red again!
“Villeneuve was unbelievable like that I mean, he never gave up. If it had been Piquet or Reutemann, that would have been the end of it but it was Gilles. He was the best driver I ever raced against, without a doubt.”
“It was in ’79 that we, as a team, began to win races,” said Frank Williams, “and undoubtedly the one I was proudest of was Canada. A terrific race, between the two best drivers. We had the best car at the time, and the only driver I feared was that little French-Canadian…”
Off we went to the Glen, and at dinner, the night before first practice, Denis Jenldnson produced one of his lists. This particular one rated the drivers of the time, and alongside each name was a cryptic comment.
As was always the way of it, you had to work very hard to impress Jenks opposite the name of Jacques Laffite (who had won two races that season), he had written, ‘Good worker’.
Moving up the list, I came to Alan Jones. ‘On the hill,’ DSJ had scribbled. At the top of the page was Villeneuve: ‘He is the hill’.
The next day, I watched practice with Jenks, and had cause to remember what he had written about Gilles. It was an utterly filthy day, cold and grey and wet, and the temptation was strong to leave the track, and return to the hotel for a Scotch and an improving book. We stayed, though, and how glad I am we did, for we witnessed something that beggared belief. As the rain beat down, not much was happening out on the track, the drivers reckoning there was little point in venturing out. All around the track there were great expanses of standing water, and… well, it couldn’t be
as had as this on race clay, surely.
Jenks and I were in the pits, taking what shelter we could, when Jacques Laffite got our attention. “Gilles!” he exclaimed. “He’s going out!” And sure enough, there was a burly Ferrari mechanic carrying the tiny helmeted figure across the river in the pitlane, and depositing him in the car.
I have an audio cassette of what transpired in the next few minutes. On it is the sound of a lone Ferrari flat-12, and it is clearly audible all the way round the lap. There is a lot of wheelspin you can hear the revs abruptly scream out of every turn and then the volume builds until the car swishes by in a welter of spray. Only eight drivers took to the track that afternoon, and undoubtedly Michelin’s wet tyre, as used by the Ferraris, was the thing to have. Goodyear’s fastest runner, Vittorio Brambilla’s Alfa Romeo, lapped in
2m25s, and then Scheckter, who later admitted he had scared himself rigid, went round in 2mIls. That made him second fastcq, hchind Villeneuve. Eleven sewn& behind him.
In the pits other drivers, aghast, giggled nervously every time the Ferrari skittered by. “Look at him,” said Laffite. “He’s different from the rest of us on a separate level.”
Jenks just shook his head, barely able to speak. He had felt the same, he later said, at Monaco in 1964, when Jimmy Clark came by with a threesecond lead at the end of the first lap.
Finally Villeneuve came in, his car steaming. Exhilarated, he talked about how it had been. “I was flat in fifth, about 160mph. It should have been faster, but the engine had a misfire. I could have gone quite a lot quicker but then maybe I’d have crashed…” Unfortunately for Gilles, it was thy on Saturday, and in final qualifying
the Ferrari could not match Williams or Brabham, Jones taking pole, with Piquet next to him, then Villeneuve and Laffite on the second row.
“Two things,” Gilles said. “First, obviously I hope it’s wet tomorrow; second, I have to make a great start.” Race morning was dark and glacial, and although it remained dry through the morning, rain was obviously on the cards at some point Half an hour before the start, it arrived,
Next, Villeneuve had an amazing getaway from the second row, passing Piquet immediately, and then outbralcing Jones into the first, very slippery, turn. Out of the corner, Gilles had two wheels on the grass, but he didn’t lift, and the lead was his. “Man had the better car,” he said, “but I had the better tyres. I didn’t know how long it would be very wet, so I had to build up an advantage.”
This he did, and to some effect: by lap 25 he and Jones had lapped everyone but Rene Amoux. Now, though, the track was beginning to dry, and this was to Jones’s advantage, for in merely damp conditions the Goodyear wets were superior to the Michelins. By half-distance the Williams was up with the Ferrari, and on lap 32 it went by into the lead.
In came Villeneuve for slicks, and then, a couple of laps later, Jones.
Everything looked set for a reprise of their Montreal battle, but it was not to be; in their anxiety to keep Alan ahead of Gilles, the Williams crew waved him out before the right rear wheel had been fully tightened. Halfway round the lap, the wheel nut flew off, followed shortly afterwards by the wheel. Thunderous of face, Jones stomped back towards the pits, and Williams folk made urgent arrangements to be elsewhere.
Thereafter it was a canter, but less straightforward than it looked, for in the closing laps Gilles’ oil pressure was sagging, and he began to change up early, his lap times lengthening by five seconds. Still he finished 50 seconds ahead of Amoux.
Had he been relieved to see Jones’ car out? “No, disappointed, actually. I was eight seconds behind him, with 20 laps to go I wanted to pass him on the last lap…”