After the drama in Zolder everyone packed up, lock, stock and barrel and moved to the shores of the Mediterranean…Monaco. Long known as the crown jewel of Grand Prix racing and a serious favourite of the drivers and spectators alike, Monaco remains a very narrow, dangerous circuit that would not pass the required safety standards now in force in Formula One. It is like Kitsbuhel in downhill racing. It is iconic and will continue to be run.
It was felt the turbo-charged cars would be ineffective on the slow, twisting streets of both Monaco and Long Beach. Gilles proved them very wrong by putting the 126C on the front row with Nelson Piquet in his Brabham on the pole. Pironi had a more difficult time taming the powerful Ferrari and sat seventeenth on the grid.
Race day dawned warm and dry, but the start of the race was delayed due to a kitchen fire in the Lowes Hotel. This situation caused quite a stir with fire crews as the whole circuit was now sealed off for the race. Once this problem was solved the fire was quickly extinguished. As a result of this fire a new problem emerged. The tunnel under the hotel was flooded with the water used to fight the fire! The cars were sent out to do two parade laps. It was declared that the zone between Portier, where the cars came down the hill out of the city to the harbour, through the tunnel and on to the chicane at the bottom of the hill would be a ‘no passing’ area. Almost all passing is done in this area, especially at the entrance to the chicane.
Almost an hour behind schedule, the race got the green and Piquet high-tailed it through the first turn at Ste. Devote. Gilles chased him up the hill towards the casino. The start had it’s usual interest with de Cesaris and Prost getting together at Ste. Devote with de Cesaris getting airborne and landing in front of Andretti’s Alfa-Romeo. Both Prost and de Cesaris were out before the lap had ended. When the leaders came around, Piquet led Villeneuve by some margin. Mansell in the Lotus, Reutemann and Jones in the two Williams and Patrese in the Shadow rounded out the first six. Pironi was still well back in the field with his red handful.
Piquet continued to pull away from Gilles when they started to come upon the back markers. Piquet got through, but Gilles had difficulty and the following group of cars tightened right up on number ’27’. During all this Reutemann and Mansell got together in the tunnel resulting in both cars needing repairs in the pits. With these two gone from the scene, Jones had a clear shot at Gilles. Having none of third place, Jones took the risky move and pulled inside Gilles as they entered the right-hander at Mirabeau. Gilles was now suffering brake fade and had to be more cautious in the braking zones. Jones hustled off up the road to harass Piquet. Piquet would not yield to Jones, but came upon the Theodore of Patrick Tambay who was having gearbox problems. Piquet tried to squeeze through a hole that just did not exist and had to hit the brakes to avoid Tambay. Nelson promptly slid into the guardrail to end his charge. Jones was now in the lead with Gilles well behind in second. Jones started to feel his Williams sputter with the fuel light coming on. He had plenty of lead on Gilles and decided to come into the pits for a splash of fuel to get him home to the finish. When he rejoined the race he was still in front of Gilles, but the car continued to falter. Gilles was now six seconds in arrears. He was informed of the situation by his pits and the excitement around the track escalated as Gilles put the hammer down despite the continuing brake problem. Four laps later Gilles gobbled up the Williams on the pit straight and Monte Carlo erupted when the Ferrari climbed the hill out of Ste. Devote with the Williams in it’s mirrors! Jones finished almost forty seconds behind a jubilant Gilles. Pironi had climbed from his seventeenth to fourth. Gilles had ended the long Ferrari drought and given the 126C it’s first win, With renewed confidence the team headed for Spain for the Grand Prix at Jarama.
The 126C had proven to have significantly less downforce than the Williams or the Brabham, but any gains on the straightaway would be dispensed with when the car entered any corner. The terrible handling 126C was a beast to be controlled.
The Spanish Grand Prix was not a typical Villeneuve race. Gilles qualified seventh over a second behind Jacques Laffite in the Talbot-Matra on the pole. Didier man-handled his Ferrari into thirteenth.
Raceday dawned very hot with the temperature over one hundred degrees. With twenty-four cars taking the start, Laffite found himself being gobbled up by the field as his clutch faltered. Jones took off into the first turn with Reutemann on his tail. Gilles had pulled wide and stormed from seventh to third. Heading into the first turn on the second lap he pulled one of his late-braking events and took second from Reutemann. Jones then pulled an uncharacteristic move by locking up his front end and sliding off the track. He rejoined well down the field. An astonished Gilles found himself in the lead! It was immediately apparent to him that only the straight-line speed had put him there. In the corners the snarling, ever-stacking-up-field was challenging to get by the Ferrari. Gilles knew he needed to put in a flawless performance in every corner right down to the mad dash for the start/finish line on the final lap. At the end there was a mere 1.24 seconds between Gilles in first and Elio de Angelis in fifth. Laffite was 22/100 seconds back in second!
After the race Gilles smiled to a few of us and remarked that the car was like driving a ‘fucking big red Cadillac.’ That ‘some of us’ happened to be then odd journalists did not seem to faze him. It naturally got into the papers in Italy and it did not go over too well with the old man who owned the red bombs. Typically, Gilles called it as he saw it with little regard for the consequences. That was certainly an endearing characteristic most journalist loved about him. He always had a story with a quote of how it really was out there.
Laffite summed it all up for everyone. “Only Gilles Villeneuve could have passed Gilles Villeneuve out there today.”
After his win in Spain it would be seven dry races before he was back in the points in Canada with the third level of the podium.
Gilles had a few exciting experiences in the 126C during that season one being at Dijon on the Saturday morning. He slid off at Courage de Pouas where the minimal run-off area presented his Ferrari with a set of catch-fencing. Nigel Roebuck, a close friend of Gilles and still a very respected journalist, found Gilles at the lunch break dabbing at a large gash on his jaw.
“One of the poles that held up the fencing had gone up under his helmet,” said Roebuck later. “He wasn’t particularly concerned about. He and Pironi were having heart monitoring that weekend by a couple of French doctors who were doing research on the stress levels of racing drivers. Gilles was wired-up at the time of the incident. His heart rate jumped by a minimal five beats per minute when he slid off into the fencing. The doctor’s simply could not believe it as Didier’s heart rate was normally over thirty beats a minute more that Gilles.”
At home in Canada Gilles put on quite a show when he drove a number of laps with the front wing standing straight up in front of him as a result of another late-braking event. He was about to be black-flagged when the wing took off under braking for the hairpin before the pits. He had started in eleventh and finished third to the delighted crowd.
“I wouldn’t have stopped for the black flag anyway. I couldn’t see a thing, he joked after the race.
The 1981 season in the ‘shitbox’, as Gilles affectionally called it, had provided two exciting and unexpected wins, but generally was dismal as he had won only twenty-five points to Nelson Piquet’s fifty while winning the championship. Pironi had finished thirteenth in his first season with the team. A new chassis had been designed to couple with the most powerful engine in Formula One and the best in ground effects. They all hoped for better things in 1982.