1981 Canadian Grand Prix

Montreal_1979Circuit Ile Nôtre-Dame

27 September 1981

Since Gilles Villeneuve had hit the F1 scene in 1979, Canada had gone motorsport-crazy and the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal was the epicentre of French-Canadian pride. This year, the locals had two Villeneuves to cheer, because filling in for Siegfried Stohr at Arrows, fresh from back-to-back Formula Atlantic championships, was Gilles’ younger brother Jacques Villeneuve. The big news for the rest of the paddock was Alan Jones’ announcement that he would retire from Formula One racing at the end of the year, prompting intense speculation about his replacement. Niki Lauda was again rumoured to be planning a comeback with McLaren for 1982, having been seen testing the MP4/1 at Donington.


Jacques_Villeneuve_Sr30. Jacques Villeneuve ca

Like his illustrious brother Gilles, Jacques Villeneuve got his start racing snowmobiles in rural Quebec, before progressing into single-seat open-wheeled racing in Formula Ford and Formula Atlantic. He won Formula Atlantic Rookie of the Year in 1979 and followed that up with back-to-back titles in 1980 and 81, while also continuing his skidoo-racing career. With great home interest in Gilles and in need of a driver, the Arrows team offered him a two-race deal covering the last two races of the season.



Villeneuve in good weather on Saturday
Villeneuve in good weather on Saturday

Spurred on by his last-lap heartbreak in Italy, Nelson Piquet took pole – his first since Monaco – and his championship rival Reutemann would start alongside in second. Alan Jones was third, alongside Prost’s Renault, with Mansell an excellent fifth and Rebaque sixth in the second Brabham. De Angelis was seventh in the other Lotus, followed by Arnoux, Watson and Laffite, with Canada’s darling Gilles Villeneuve a disappointed eleventh – his brother Jacques failed to qualify, alongside the usual suspects: both Tolemans (back to business as usual for Henton and Warwick), both Fittipaldis and Gabbiani’s Osella.

Sunday saw torrential rain and the start was delayed by 90 minutes while FOCA chief Bernie Ecclestone frantically rewrote the insurance waivers for the organisers, but the grid eventually lined up haphazardly as every driver behind the front row tried to find a position where he could see ahead. The red lights went green and the cars started, sending great rooster-tails of spray up and obscuring 22 of the 24 cars on the grid. Jones surged forward from third, banged wheels with Reutemann and took the lead, while his team-mate and rival had to lift and lost position to Piquet, Prost and de Angelis who all surged through. Gilles Villeneuve was on a charge, getting up to 9th over the course of the first lap, though at the cost of tipping Arnoux’s Renault into Pironi’s Ferrari en route, putting the Renault out and damaging his teammate’s car and his own front wing in the process.

Laffite makes the conditions look easy
Laffite makes the conditions look easy

The conditions were atrocious with zero visibility and almost zero grip, and cars began to spin off as they jostled for position; Patrese and Tambay both on lap 7, Salazar two laps later. Jones spun while leading and, though he managed to regain control and keep it on the black bit, Piquet had to slow to avoid him and Prost muscled past, with Laffite and Villeneuve in tow then, on lap 13, the Ligier took the lead while Watson also got past the recovering Piquet and Jones. On lap 24, Pironi went out with ignition failure and Jones toured in, complaining of handling problems. His last mathematical chance of retaining his Drivers’ title was gone. Villeneuve was past Prost too before long, up to second in front of his adoring fans, but it was not to last – John Watson’s McLaren was no match for the Ferrari with the skew-whiff nose and he was soon past.

Villeneuve guides a damaged Ferrari around the track

Things went from bad to worse for Gilles in the closing laps: as he lapped Mario Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, he made contact and his already-damaged nose flipped up, almost completely obscuring his vision. Navigating by peripheral vision and knowledge of the course, and using the low-visibility quick-reaction skills he had developed driving skidoos, he kept the car running, expecting to be black-flagged any moment, before he finally managed to bump the wing loose on the kerbs and keep the twitchy, downforce-light car on the road for four more laps to take a great third place behind Jacques Laffite and John Watson. Bruno Giacomelli finished fourth, a fine reward after his misfortune at Monza, with Piquet picking up two vital points in fifth and de Angelis sixth in the Lotus. Andretti, Surer, Reutemann, Alboreto and Cheever were the remaining finishers.

Watson, Laffite and Villeneuve savour the champagne.
Watson, Laffite and Villeneuve savour the champagne.

Just two points for Piquet and Brabham meant that Williams were confirmed as Constructors’ champions despite not scoring any points, but crucially Piquet was now just one point behind Reutemann going into the last race while Laffite was just six points off the lead. With Reutemann’s recent form being iffy, Piquet’s patchy and Laffite’s strong, only a fool would bet large amounts of money on the outcome. Just as well the last round was being held in Las Vegas …


Drivers Championship
1 Carlos Reutemann 49
2 Nelson Piquet 48
3 Jacques Laffite 43
3 Alain Prost 37 (3 wins)
4 Alan Jones 37 (1 win)
5 John Watson 27
6 Gilles Villeneuve 25
8 Elio de Angelis 14
9 René Arnoux 11
= Hector Rebaque 11
10 Riccardo Patrese 10
= Eddie Cheever 10
13 Didier Pironi 9
14 Nigel Mansell 5
16 Marc Surer 4
17 Mario Andretti 3
= Bruno Giacomelli 3
18 Patrick Tambay 1
= Andrea de Cesaris 1
= Slim Borgudd 1
= Eliseo Salazar 1


Constructors Championship
1 Williams-Ford 86
2 Brabham-Ford 59
3 Talbot Ligier-Matra 43
4 Renault 39
5 Ferrari 33
6 McLaren-Ford 28
7 Lotus-Ford 19
8 Arrows-Ford 10
= Tyrrell-Ford 10
10 Alfa Romeo 6
11 Ensign-Ford 5
12 Theodore-Ford 1
= ATS-Ford 1



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