F1's forgotten classic: Gilles Villeneuve's genius in mangled Ferrari


Gilles Villeneuve wrestled the Ferrari 126C to two grand prix wins in 1981, but his podium finish at that year's Canadian Grand Prix in torrential conditions, with a damaged car, should be celebrated too, says Matt Bishop

Gilles Villeneuve Ferrari with broken nose in 1981 Canadian Grand Prix

Collision with Elio de Angelis left Villeneuve's Ferrari with a wrecked nose

Grand Prix Photo

Before he died not only tragically but also needlessly at Zolder in 1982, almost immediately acquiring the posthumous status of Formula 1 demigod, the most common insult levelled at Gilles Villeneuve by his detractors was ‘rock ape’, a barb particularly popular among English-speaking F1 journalists, drivers and team personnel in the 1970s and 1980s, and seldom used today. The prodigious ferocity with which Villeneuve drove his F1 Ferraris, particularly the shitboxes (another technical term beloved of F1 folk, especially back in the day) that he was given in 1980 and 1981, was his critics’ beef, for Villeneuve never left any margin. As a result, however, he was not only sometimes disconcertingly ragged but also often breathtakingly quick.

The Ferrari 312 T5 that he raced in 1980 was unambiguously slow, unable to generate the massive downforce created by the venturi housed in wide, long sidepods on each side of the cockpits and engines of rival cars powered by V6s, V8s and V12s considerably narrower than the bulky flat-12 that had served Ferrari so well in the mid and late 1970s but had suddenly become a serious impediment in the ground-effect era. As a result, neither he nor his team-mate, Jody Scheckter, the reigning world champion, was able to post a finish better than fifth all year.

Gilles Villeneuve walks up hill after retiring in 1980 Brazilian Grand Prix

Villeneuve walks back after retiring at Interlagos during a disappointing 1980 season

Grand Prix Photo

In 1981 Villeneuve raced the new 126C, Ferrari’s first genuine attempt at a true ground-effect car, which boasted big sidepods made feasible by the fitting of a new and narrow 1.5-litre V6, which represented the Scuderia’s turbocharging debut. It had plenty of grunt – 650bhp or more – but the delivery of that power was blighted by savage turbo lag and the chassis was a decidedly tricky handler. Scheckter had retired at the end of 1980, and in 1981 his replacement Didier Pironi struggled with the 126C, failing to bag a single podium finish with it, but Villeneuve combined his ‘rock ape’ obduracy with his wondrous bravura to win with it not once but twice. Those victories, at Monaco and Jarama, have gone down in F1 history as two of the most astonishing drives in his brief but brilliant F1 career.

He delivered one more podium finish in the car, and it came at his home circuit, Ile Notre-Dame, in Montreal. The race is a largely forgotten classic, and it took place 42 years ago tomorrow.

From the archive

Practice was very wet but qualifying bone-dry, favouring the three fastest Goodyear runners, Nelson Piquet (Brabham), who took the pole, followed by Carlos Reutemann (Williams) second, and Alan Jones (also Williams) third. But on race day the heavens opened again, favouring the teams contracted to Michelin, whose rain tyres were impressively grippier than the Goodyear wets. It was not therefore surprising that two seasoned and doughty hands who had decent cars underneath them, fitted with Michelins, did rather well. Jacques Laffite (Ligier) and John Watson (McLaren) had qualified alongside each other on the fifth row, but when a ton of lashing rain came down on race day they both drove superbly to finish first and second, just 6.23sec apart.

Who was third? Why, Villeneuve, of course. He had qualified only 11th, very unhappy with his Ferrari’s handling in the dry – “It was like a big red Cadillac” – but, as the race progressed, and the downpour set in, he began to dredge a modicum of speed out of it and its Michelin tyres. However, on lap 40 (of 63), he came up to lap Elio de Angelis’ Goodyear-shod Lotus at the hairpin, and the two cars collided. Both drivers spun, but both also got going again, Villeneuve now handicapped by a loose front wing. As, characteristically undaunted, he continued to race at full pelt, the airflow licked around it and the nose cone to which it was attached, gradually deranging the front bodywork ever more luridly, and finally bending it up and in front of the cockpit so that he could see past it only by craning his head from side to side; a loss of front downforce, one felt, must have been the least of his worries.


Villeneuve and 126C won two GPs in 1981

Eric Vargiolu/DPPI

Anticipating a likely black flag, unequivocally predicted as a cast-iron certainty by Jackie Stewart who was doing live TV commentary, Villeneuve hatched a plan. The details of what happened next were little reported at the time, but they were witnessed and later written down by the one photographer who was standing resolutely at the hairpin, soaked to the skin, as the rain continued to fall unremittingly: Richard Kelley. “Gilles’ only chance was to deliberately break the nose cone and front wing clean off under braking,” he wrote, “and the hairpin was where I thought he would do it. Sure enough, a few laps later, he absolutely buried the brake pedal, slamming the Ferrari’s front end onto the pavement. The nose and front wing duly broke free as they jammed down onto the asphalt.”

Villeneuve adroitly controlled the resulting tank-slapper, which Kelley described as “big”, and, yes, he completed the race in a Ferrari shitbox shorn of its nose cone and front wing, in teeming rain, finishing third, having lapped everyone except the two men ahead of him. Eleven drivers spun off or crashed out, and one (Jones) retired voluntarily. Even Laffite, who won, said afterwards: “I didn’t like driving today.” Watson, second, went farther: “Today’s conditions were the worst I’ve ever raced in.” Villeneuve? “Oh it wasn’t too bad,” he said. Rock ape? If you insist. But a genius, too.

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1981 Canadian Grand Prix

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