21 June 1981
Three weeks after Monaco the teams arrived at the narrow, dusty Jarama circuit on the outskirts of Madrid for the Spanish Grand Prix. Last year’s race had fallen victim to the FISA-FOCA squabbles and had been declared a non-championship race at the very last minute. As a result, Spanish fans seemed to have gone off F1 and the turnout was not huge.
Lotus rolled up with a familiar look; the cars were once more in their iconic black and gold John Player Special livery last seen in championship-winning 1978. Elsewhere, Eliseo Salazar had abandoned the hapless March team and signed for Ensign, leaving Marc Surer out of a job, while Osella had replaced Ghinzani after two races with fellow-Italian Giorgio Francia. March decided to stick to one car rather than replace Salazar and focus their efforts on Derek Daly.
Born in 1947 in Bologna, Giorgio Francia had become the German F3 champion in 1974 but had spent most of his driving career as a development driver for the Fiat/Alfa Romeo/Lancia group, working mainly on sportscars and touring cars. Courtesy of Martini and Alfa Romeo, he had been given a whirl with the Brabham team in a third Brabham-Alfa at the 1977 Italian Grand Prix but, not having done much single-seater racing, he didn’t qualify. It was intended for him to drive for Osella full-time in 1981 but lost out to better-funded Gabbiani and Guerra. Then, when Guerra was injured, he was again approached but FISA turned down his permit due to a lack of feeder series results, so Ghinzani got the drive instead. Finally, for the Spanish GP, Giorgio Francia would get his second chance in Formula One.
Jacques Laffite continued Talbot Ligier’s revival by putting his car on Pole for Sunday’s race, alongside Alan Jones, with Reutemann and John Watson on the second row ahead of Prost’s Renault and Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo. Villeneuve was seventh in the Ferrari ahead of Andretti’s second Alfa Romeo, Piquet a disgruntled 9th in the Brabham ahead of the Lotus twins, de Angelis and Mansell. During qualifying, Beppe Gabbiani had a big crash in his Osella and commandeered his new team-mate Francia’s car, leaving Giorgio unable to set a time.
At the blunt end, Rebaque again failed to qualify his Brabham, as did Borgudd, both Osellas, both Tolemans (again) and Michele Alboreto. Both Fittipaldis made it into the race with Rosberg qualifying a decent 15th.
Sunday’s temperatures were sky-high and Lafitte fluffed his start, allowing both Williams cars to blast past and into the lead, followed by Gilles Villeneuve later on the first lap, clipping Prost’s front wing in the process and forcing the Renault to pit. Then, at the end of lap one, the Ferrari got a tow from Reutemann, dodged out from behind and took second place. Jones, however, was busy pulling out a commanding lead, stretching it to ten seconds by lap 14, but lost concentration and went off. The marshals pushed him back on, but he had dropped out of contention. Villeneuve went into the lead, Reutemann chasing – but he was having gear problems and Jacques Laffite soon got past in the Talbot Ligier.
For the rest of the race, Laffite nipped at Villeneuve’s heels but just couldn’t get past; the nimble Ligier had the edge in the corners, the powerful Ferrari on the straights. Reutemann kept a waiting brief, trusting in the unreliability of the Ferrari engine, and behind him Watson, de Angelis and Mansell all ducked and weaved, looking for a way past on the narrow, dusty surface.
Watson got past Reutemann as well and the five front runners remained a close train of cars for the rest of the race, crossing the line just 1.24 seconds apart – the closest finish to a Formula One race there had ever been, at the end of one of the most mesmerising races to watch: short on dramatic incident maybe but long on sustained entertainment.
Gilles Villeneuve’s second win on the trot seemed to confirm that Ferrari were back, and Laffite’s fine second place suggested it might not be much longer before Ligier were back to winning ways as well. More significantly for the championship, Reutemann had picked up 3 points for fourth place with Jones and Piquet both once again failing to trouble the scorers. At the halfway point of the season, the Argentinian’s prospects of finally winning the World Championship were looking good.
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