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Monaco 1981: an unforgettable race

The 1981 Monaco Grand Prix was breath-taking until the final laps. But Villeneuve proved himself, achieving victory and making the cover of Time

Rien ne va plus, les jeux sont faits!” Red 27 came up at the Monaco roulette on 31 May, 1981: the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve, a car driven by a turbo engine. Never before had such a technical risk allowed the Monte Carlo bank to be broken. It wasn’t a technical risk because of the performance guaranteed by turbocharged engines, but because of the acceleration and driveability which were a bad match for the winding layout of the Monaco circuit. The Canadian driver and his Ferrari 126 CK were in fact to engage in a new chapter in Formula 1 history on this circuit: the first win at Monte Carlo with a turbo engine; the first Ferrari win with a turbo engine; the first win after a year and a half. In short, a spell was definitively broken, making Gilles and Ferrari key players once more.

Among Gilles’s wins in the course of his career, Monte Carlo is probably the least “spectacular” or memorable, but there’s a special flavour to it. Villeneuve’s renewed collaboration with Ferrari, for another two seasons, was announced just ahead of the weekend. Qualifying went very well for the Canadian driver, who immediately seemed to be in the zone, earning a position at the front of the starting grid alongside Piquet in pole position, for Brabham, separated by just 78 thousandths of a second.

The start of the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, with Gilles Villeneuve leading on a Ferrari 126 CK<em>  Photo: Getty Images</em>
The start of the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, with Gilles Villeneuve leading on a Ferrari 126 CK Photo: Getty Images

The race started an hour late due to a fire which started in the kitchens of the Loews hotel. Firefighters quickly brought it under control, but it flooded the tunnel. Over the circuit’s 3.312 treacherous kilometres, Nelson Piquet immediately made headway with respect to his pursuers. The race was effectively decided by elimination, with many drivers coming off the circuit over the 76 laps envisaged. This included the Brazilian, who crashed out trying to lap Cheever and Tambay. Reigning world champion Alan Jones took charge of the race and seemed set to win, given his more than thirty-second lead on his closest pursuer, Villeneuve himself. The Williams driver had to fill up on fuel seven laps from the end, however, due to pick-up problems.

Despite re-entering in the lead, now he had to take on an aggressive Villeneuve who, sensing a kill, began to notch up a series of fast laps. Corner after corner, his Ferrari’s controls came ever nearer to the limit and the guard rails got closer and closer. And yet, the driver who had acquired the nickname of “aviator” thanks to the many spectacular accidents that he had been involved in didn’t miss the mark. He played around with Monaco’s ups and downs, took advantage of his engine’s power under the tunnel and as far as Tabac corner, leading his Ferrari on a merry dance and tracing breathtaking lines between Mirabeau and the Loews hairpin.

Villeneuve, behind the wheel of the Ferrari number 27, gripping a curve of the Monte Carlo city circuit<em> Photo: Getty Images</em>
Villeneuve, behind the wheel of the Ferrari number 27, gripping a curve of the Monte Carlo city circuit Photo: Getty Images

Four laps from the finish, the rear end of Jones’s Williams was in the sights of the Ferrari. Overtaking it was the work of an instant. Gilles began to trail the Australian, who had already come out from Anthony Noghes, the last turn, leading to the start straight. It was here that Jones saw the outline of Gilles’s car in his right rear view mirror. By the time he showed a sign of defensive manoeuvring, it was too late. The number 27 blazoned on the rear of the Ferrari’s side panel was the last image that the world champion managed too catch before he saw the Canadian sail into the distance for good.

23 laps in, only seven remained of the 20 drivers on the starting grid, with Gilles out ahead. The Ferrari driver continued to press ahead. Aided by a problem with his rival’s petrol pump, he crossed the finish line triumphantly, with a lead of more than 40 seconds. He was visibly exhausted when he climbed the podium, but the photos that illustrate his joy beneath a shower of champagne were seen all over the world. Villeneuve was now a winner, even earning a place on the cover of Time. This was the second occasion on which the American weekly dedicated its cover to Formula 1, after Jim Clark in 1965.

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