I always adored Watkins Glen. The circuit itself was one of the best on the World Championship trail, and to go to upstate New York in the autumn – excuse me, the fall – was a delight, anyway, because everything you have heard about the leaves of red and burnished gold are true. This was rural America at its most beguiling: the atmosphere at the Glen was unsurpassed, and it was indeed the perfect place to bring each year’s World Championship to a close.
Being the last race of the year, the Glen always had about it a relaxed ‘end of term’ feeling, somehow heightened by the fact that all the cars were housed in one building – the Kendall Center. A visit ensured you would bump into everybody you might wish talk to, and it was a tradition that the mechanics flogged off that year’s team uniforms to whomever might want them: this practice, you won’t be surprised to learn, long ago ceased to be acceptable.
As I say, when the weather was good – sunny, cool, bright – the Glen was a sublime place to watch racing cars, but once in a while it rained there, and how. In 1979 much of the race was run in the wet, but my abiding memory of Watkins Glen is of the first day of practice that year, the Friday, when the track was near flooded for most of the day, to a point that most drivers did not so much as venture out.
F1 at Watkins Glen – winning drivers
Graham Hill (1963, 1964, 1965)
Jim Clark (1962, 1966, 1967)
Jackie Stewart (1968, 1972)
James Hunt (1976, 1977)
Carlos Reutemann (1974, 1978)
Innes Ireland (1961)
Jochen Rindt (1969)
Emerson Fittipaldi (1970)
François Cevert (1971)
Ronnie Peterson (1973)
Niki Lauda (1975)
Gilles Villeneuve (1979)
Alan Jones (1980)
Some did, though, including Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter of Ferrari. Two races earlier, at Monza, Scheckter had clinched the World Championship, Villeneuve honourably following him over the line, declining to keep his own title hopes alive. “I’d given my word,” Gilles said, “and I don’t break it.”
Once the title was settled, though, all bets were off, and in Montreal Villeneuve out-qualified Scheckter by nearly two seconds, and alone took the fight to Jones’s faster Williams, holding it off for 50 of the 72 laps, before Alan inevitably found a way past. Gilles came to the Glen in very determined mood.
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Thus, in the Friday afternoon monsoon, he wasn’t about to sit in the pits, waiting for the day to dry out. “It might,” he said, “be like this on Sunday – and if it is, I want to know what to expect…”
“On a separate level…”
I watched that session from the pitwall with Denis Jenkinson, another avowed Villeneuve devotee, and we looked on in wonderment as Gilles repeatedly screamed past, constantly correcting the steering even in a straight line. He was clearly moving at an entirely different speed from anyone else, and Jenks – cap dripping, glasses misted up – was almost lost for words.
At one stage Jacques Laffite came and joined us on the pitwall, and he, too, was mesmerised. “Look at him,” he said, as the Ferrari skittered by at 160mph. “He’s different from the rest of us. On a separate level…”
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And so he was. Look at the time sheets from the day, and you will see that Scheckter was second fastest, on 2m 11.029s. Villeneuve’s time was rather quicker: 2m 01.437s. Even now, 34 years on, that takes a little believing.
Saturday was dry, and Villeneuve qualified third, all but three seconds faster than his team-mate, with Laffite alongside him. On the pole was Jones, with Nelson Piquet’s Brabham second. “I’ll have to do one of my demon starts,” said Gilles.
Come race day, it was again wet at start time, and he did just that, passing Piquet away from the grid, and out-braking Jones into the first turn. For 31 laps the Ferrari led, but as the road began to dry his Michelin ‘wets’ coped less well than the Goodyears on Jones’s FW07, and, as in Canada, the lead changed hands. On lap 34 Villeneuve was in for slicks, and two laps later Jones did the same, rejoining immediately after the Ferrari had gone by, in the lead once more.
Sadly the anticipated duel to the flag – a replica of Montreal seven days earlier – never materialised, for within half a lap Jones’s Williams had shed its right rear wheel: so keen had the team been to get him on his way that they waved him out before the mechanic had finished tightening the nut.
F1 at Watkins Glen – winning constructors
Lotus (1961, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1973)
BRM (1963, 1964, 1965)
Ferrari (1975, 1978, 1979)
Tyrrell (1971, 1972)
McLaren (1976, 1977)
So now Villeneuve looked set fair for his third victory of the season – but it wasn’t as straightforward as that, for the Ferrari’s oil pressure was disappearing, and through the closing laps Gilles had to cut the revs, baby the car along, to the tune of five seconds a lap. So consummately, though, had he and Alan outpaced the rest – they had lapped the lot of them – that although he allowed four cars to un-lap themselves, he was still 50 seconds to the good (over Arnoux’s Renault) at the flag.
A wonderful victory, and one which belied Villeneuve’s reputation as one who couldn’t be gentle with a car. Jenks was ecstatic: “The right bloke won – he already deserved it for what he did on Friday…”