This one was against the run of play. In theory, at least, a race at Jarama is won on handling. This two-mile ribbon through Spanish scrub favours deftness rather than horsepower, handling rather than straightline speed. As at Monaco, you looked to Williams, Brabham or Ligier to provide your winner. As at Monaco, you were slightly incredulous to watch Gilles Villeneuve take it for Ferrari.
Distinguished drive though it was, Villeneuve's Monte Carlo victory came at the hands of another's misfortune. Alan Jones had that race locked up before his fuel vaporisation problems, and he looked similarly fixed in Spain utterly dominating the opening laps - before untypically making a mistake and going off.
On both occasions, Villeneuve then took it up, reward for his constant policy of going as hard as possible at all times. Last Sunday however, Gilles withstood tremendous pressure from Carlos Reutemann, Jacques Laffite, John Watson and Elio de Angelis. It was a superbly calculated and intelligent victory in what was most definitely not the quickest car in the race. The Ferrari's handling was desperately bad, its acceleration remarkable. Containing the one and exploiting the other required genius. Beyond doubt, Gilles Villeneuve is a truly great racing driver.
Jones had spoken of his determination to lead into the first corner, and at the start he got away superbly from his second slot, as also did Reutemann, the two white cars racing down to the first corner side by side. But suddenly they were joined by an interloper - not Laffite's polesitting Ligier, but the irrepressible Villeneuve. Into the corner the Ferrari fell into line behind Jones and Reutemann, its inside rear wheel catching the front wing of Alain Prost's Renault, which had also started well. Although badly wrenched, the wing stayed on the car and Alain kept going.
Also on the run down to the first turn, Didier Pironi bent his Ferrari's front wing on the back of Riccardo Patrese's Arrows, but both continued without delay.
Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07C Fords) © LAT
All the way round the opening lap the leading trio pulled away from the rest. As they plummeted out of the quick right-hander onto the pit straight, Gilles had the Ferrari really working, closing, closing on Carlos. Coming down to the first turn the Williams had the inside line covered, but the Ferrari flicked to the left, going by on the outside as they entered the braking area. Jones-Villeneuve-Reutemann.
Behind them at the end of lap one ran Mario Andretti's Alfa Romeo, Prost, Watson's McLaren, Bruno Giacomelli's Alfa, Nelson Piquet's Brabham, Pironi, Patrese and Laffite, who had been swamped at the start. The unfortunate Frenchman had felt the Ligier beginning to creep on the line and dabbed the brake pedal to hold it in check. At that second the green light had flashed. For the first three or four laps he ran gently, allowing his clutch to cool, and then came the start of the real charge.
It was asking a lot of him, however. After only five laps, Jones was more than four seconds ahead, with Villeneuve comfortably in second place, Reutemann third, the rest lagging by comparison. No question about it, Jones was going to walk away with this one.
Ten laps on the board: Jones (easing), eight seconds clear of Villeneuve (striving), Reutemann (grimacing), Andretti (smiling), Prost (chasing), Piquet (scrabbling), Watson (hoping), Pironi (sweating) and Laffite (charging). This was shaping up well.
Most attention was concentrated on Laffite, who closed right up on Watson and made to go by him at the first turn on lap 13. But John can be resolute on these occasions and stuck firmly to his line, leaving Jacques to ease off and shake his fist in frustration.
On lap 14 came the big surprise: no Jones. "It was brain fade," he admitted ruefully. "I had a brake calliper changed between the warm-up and the race and had a bit of trouble with the brakes from the start. But I knew about the problem, and should have allowed for it. What happened was, I locked up the fronts going into the double apex right-hander towards the end of the lap and just understeered off.
"It was entirely my own fault," Alan went on, "but it took forever for the marshals to give me a shove, even though I'd indicated to them that it would be alright."
With the Williams dusty but undamaged, Jones returned to the race and began what looked like one of his spectacular comeback drives. In 20 laps he clawed back from 15th to eighth, but there it rested. The FW07 was in gearbox trouble and Alan ran much of the race without second and third.
His team-mate, now second behind Villeneuve, had a similar, if lesser, problem having to hold the lever in third. Even so, he remained close to the Ferrari and there was always the hint that he had something in reserve. A couple of times he was right on Gilles's tail, even alongside, but the red car held its advantage at the front.
Jacques Laffite (Ligier JS17 Matra) © LAT
After 14 laps Prost, driving his disfigured Renault, superbly went by Andretti's Alfa for third place. Piquet followed Mario, with Watson and Laffite, still tied together, close behind. Pironi ran eighth, but was being caught by de Angelis. On lap 20, Pironi, his Ferrari's nose damaged by the first lap incident with Patrese, understeered off the road, rejoined and came in for new front tyres and nose section.
Andretti's excellent showing received a major jolt - in the shape of Piquet - on lap 25. For some time the Brabham had been pressuring the Alfa and as they approached the first corner Nelson flicked to the inside, leaving his braking desperately late. In truth, the Brabham was not close enough to have a serious shot at overtaking, but Piquet's once impeccable judgement appears temporarily to have deserted him.
As Mario turned into the corner, the Brabham - wheels locked - cannoned into the Alfa, leaving an imprint on the right hand sidepod. Both cars slithered off the road. Andretti's further than Piquet's. The Brabham was quickly back on the track and away, the Alfa struggling across the deep sand. By the end of the lap, Nelson was sixth - Watson and Laffite having passed during the fracas - and Mario seventh. After the race, Andretti was understandably angry, particularly so soon after the incident with de Cesaris at Monaco, but a contrite Piquet apologised to him.
Prost was the next to leave the proceedings, sliding off the road, his departure the end of the team's hopes, for Arnoux, with flat-spotted tyres and a poor engine, was having a very subdued race behind Giacomelli and Hector Rebaque's Brabham.
At the front, Gilles was occasionally under great pressure from Carlos and there ran through the mind that remark he had made about tyre wear. The Ferrari, an obvious handful, was clearly using up its rubber more quickly than the Williams. How long could it stay ahead?
By half distance there was deadlock, with Reutemann unable to pass Villeneuve and Laffite still trapped behind Watson. Fifth, but making no impression was Piquet, who disappeared from the lap charts on lap 44. Three accidents in three races.
Gordon Murray, who spent the race walking round the circuit rather than staying in the pits, was sympathetic. "I think he was simply trying too hard with too little grip." Almost exhausted, Nelson walked back to the pit, and the Lotuses moved up to fifth and sixth.
"I was figuring to try and control the race," said Villeneuve afterwards. "I knew that to make the tyres and brakes last I had to slow the pace, make use of my straight line speed to keep ahead and not make any mistakes anywhere."
True, the overall pace was slow, but at the end of the pit straight, Jarama's only real overtaking spot, the Ferrari was always out of range. Whatever its chassis deficiencies, the V6 turbo was working to perfection - "as good on the last lap as the first" - and in this heat.
John Watson (McLaren MP4/1 Ford) © LAT
On lap 49 Laffite finally made it past Watson and the French journalists around began to cheer. Reutemann might not be able to pass Villeneuve, but their man Jacques would be a different matter. And, to be sure, Laffite superbly bent himself to the task, pulling away from the McLaren and drawing in the leading pair. With 30 laps to go, the scene was set for a Peter Scott-Russell-type finish, I did believe.
Ten laps later, the first three were running nose-to-tail, with Watson not far behind, and de Angelis beginning to come into the picture. And, on lap 61, Laffite outbraked Reutemann at the end of the pit straight. Nineteen laps left: the most powerful engine in the race faced the most effective chassis.
The last 20 laps were astonishing. Ferrari-Ligier-Williams-McLaren-Lotus ran the first five, all covered by less than two seconds. By now, the Ferrari's lack of grip was an embarrassment to its driver, the car crawling through the hairpins, with Laffite's Ligier all but climbing over it. But Gilles has this one worked out to perfection. He never chopped Laffite because he has no need. Simply, he covered the overtaking lines into the slow corners, made no driving errors and gave the 550 horsepower its head as often as possible - which, with Villeneuve, was often.
Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 126CK) leads Jacques Laffite (Ligier JS17 Matra), John Watson (McLaren MP4/1 Ford), Carlos Reutemann (Wlliams FW07C Ford), and Elio de Angelis (Lotus 87 Ford) © LAT
After a few laps of this, the French began to get restless. Merde alors! Poor Jacques! Villeneuve was keeping ahead by sheer horsepower. There began again the tired - and famous - old argument that it is somehow immoral to win races with engines rather than chassis. It is acceptable to have an advantage through corners, but not down the straight. Had there not been times, we suggested, when Renault had succeeded in similar circumstances? Mumble, mumble.
The first five cars circulated together for lap after lap, and there was no sign of any derring-do in the closing stages. If anything they were running too closely for that, all getting in each other's way, unable really to plan ahead, unwilling to chance anything drastic for fear of losing more than they gained. This, of course, all worked to Villeneuve's advantage.
The last order change had come on lap 62, when the unfortunate Reutemann fell victim to a piece of thoughtless indecision by Eliseo Salazar. The Chilean made it far from easy for any of the leaders to lap him, but Villeneuve and Laffite made it by without too much difficulty. As Reutemann made to go by the Ensign into the right-hander before the pits, however, Salazar refused to give way, leaving Carlos no option but to lift off. Watson, quickly spotting his chance, gunned the McLaren down the inside and the Argentine was unable to respond.
On the last lap, Laffite had a couple of stabs at outbraking Villeneuve but the Ferrari driver calmly held his advantage, crossing the line a fifth of a second ahead, and scoring the most unexpected grand prix victory in a long time. Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis followed through, the Italian requiring just a second and a quarter more than Villeneuve for his afternoon's work. A matter of seven world championship points.
"This is my most public victory, I suppose," said Gilles later. "But I don't feel it was any better than others I've had. It's nice, of course, because I really didn't think I had much chance of winning here. I knew I had to go like hell from the start and of course it was lucky for me that Alan went off and Jacques made a bad start. There was a lot of pressure for sure. I feel I worked hard today!"
Gilles Villeneuve leads the field to the checkered flag © LAT
You had to feel sympathy for Laffite in this, his 100th grand prix. After the problem at the start he drove a magnificent race up to second - after being 11th on the first lap. It was a race he should have had. And how good it was to see Watson in the points again after a really strong showing in the McLaren, well up in practice and in serious contention throughout the race.
Reutemann, completely exhausted by the end, deserved more than three points for his efforts of the day, but he maintains his lead of the championship. The last points, of course, went to de Angelis and Mansell, making it a happy return for John Player.
Villeneuve is now fourth in the points standings. More importantly, the momentum of the season appears to be with him just now. His luck is riding high. Agricultural chassis or not it seems that the Ferrari 126CK can win, in Gilles hands, where it shouldn't. Ahead lie places where it should.