Charles Leclerc’s overdue win on Sunday has raised inevitable questions about the status of Ferrari’s drivers. The timing could not be more acute going into Monza with an audience more passionate about the team than its drivers. The timing is also appropriate since it will be 40 years, almost to the day, since the Ferrari driver who was unquestionably the fastest made allowances for the team and the championship in their home race.
Gilles Villeneuve was the darling of Monza, his genuine free spirit and hugely dramatic driving style making it seem he was put on earth to be a Ferrari driver. Following an F1 debut with McLaren at Silverstone in 1977, the French-Canadian had been snapped up by Ferrari and won his first Grand Prix a year later.
Yet, when Jody Scheckter came to Maranello in 1979, there was no question about which driver was expected to win the championship. Having been runner up in 1977 and finished third twice, the taciturn South African was not being paid $1.2m (a big number in those days) just to have fun and fight his team-mate.
The plan began to go awry early in 1979 when tyre trouble for Scheckter meant Villeneuve won in South Africa. The pressure on the supposed Number 1 increased with another victory for Gilles in Long Beach. Jody got himself back on track with wins in Belgium and Monaco, Villeneuve responding by finishing six places further ahead in France.
The Dutch Grand Prix was to be a turning point, but not in the manner expected initially when a bad start dropped Scheckter to the back of the field and Villeneuve jumped into second place. They had come into the 12th round of the championship separated by just six points (points being awarded 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the first six finishers). By the end of it, Scheckter had extended his lead by charging through the field to finish second after Villeneuve had retired spectacularly with a punctured rear tyre.
Monza was next. It would be good for Ferrari, not to mention Scheckter, if the title could be wrapped up at home before heading off to the final two races in North America – assuming Villeneuve played ball. The Ferraris qualified third and fifth, Scheckter ahead of Villeneuve, with the fast but fragile Renault turbos locking out the front row.
« Compared to today, we had a more or less unlimited qualifying tyres as usual at Monza, » recalls Scheckter. « Gilles was using one set after another and, of course, the newspapers were full of Gilles breaking lap records. He loved all that.
« But I put on hard tyres and just worked on the car. I was quicker than Gilles in the race and, as soon as [René] Arnoux dropped out of the lead and I was in front, I just cut the revs and backed off to make sure. Only on the last lap did I accelerate away again. Although I trusted Gilles, I didn’t want to take any chances with something as important as this!
« There were lots of times when Gilles was faster than I was, and times when I was faster. We raced hard, and I beat him. We had agreed that whoever was in front stayed there as long as you weren’t going to lose a place.
« If you were first and second and the third guy was a long way back you’d stay there, and if you were fifth and sixth and nobody was trying to pass, you would stay there. In other words, you didn’t fight when it wasn’t necessary, and we stuck to that.
« I won the championship because, in the races that counted, I got out in front, and was in front when it settled down. At that stage there was no point in fighting. There were no circumstances where he had to give up a place to me, so I don’t think it was frustrating for him.
« Gilles was a law onto himself in many ways. But he was a lovely guy and a very honourable man. »