Hot is the word for the weather and at the Jarama autodrome there is precious little cover and not a shady tree within sight, for the track is built on open scrubland. The royal helicopters arrive majestically (they are big ones) and settle in the paddock area, raising clouds of dust and rubbish as well as blowing down advertising material and once the King and his party are ensconced in the air-conditioned control tower the 24 starters set off on their warm-up lap to form up on the grid, with a very confident and happy Jacques Laffite on pole-position. Everything is going smoothly and on time. The scintillating blue and white Talbot-Matra V12 leads the field round on the parade lap in an orderly fashion and back on to the starting grid, where they pause and at that point the Talbot clutch begins to drag and to stop the car creeping forward Laffite has to juggle his right foot between throttle pedal and brake pedal. The green light comes on as Laffite is off balance and he muffs his start, but the rest does not, and in particular a little French/Canadian driver in car number 27 in the seventh row. Jones leads away, Reutemann swerves round the Talbot and as the two Williams cars shoot into the first corner there is a scarlet Ferrari with them! (And turbo-charged engines are supposed to be difficult to get off the line.) Round the back and into the twisty bits it is Jones, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Andretti, Prost, Watson and the rest and quite a few nose fins and nose wings have been pushed out of shape in the opening scramble. Villeneuve’s rear wheel has clipped the nose wing on Prost’s Renault, Pironi has bent his Ferrari’s nose wing on the rear of Patrese’s Arrows, and the Arrows catch its front on someone’s rear wheel. Everyone keeps going. At the end of the opening lap it is still Jones, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Andretti, Prost, Watson, Giacomelli, Piquet, Patrese, Pironi and the luckless Laffite, but into the braking area for the first corner the Ferrari nips by the Williams into second place.
Alan Jones is in terrific form and waiting for no-one; with a clear track ahead of him he pulls away at half-a-second a lap and is in a class of his own. Equally, Villeneuve and Reutemann are pulling away from the rest of the runners, but the Ferrari is not getting away from the third place Williams. An interesting little bunch, comprising Andretti (Alfa Romeo), Prost (Renault), Watson (McLaren), Piquet (Brabham) and Pironi (Ferrari), are in the running for fourth place and Laffite is just beginning to gather himself together after his appalling start, picking off Giacomelli and joining the back of the queue for fourth place, albeit actually in ninth place on the road. Tucked well down in the cockpit of his Williams, Alan Jones looks unassailable, increasing his lead steadily and remorselessly so that a runaway victory seems certain. Villeneuve is throwing the Ferrari about with abandon, enjoying himself while he can for there is no certainty that it would last out 80 laps, while Reutemann sits solidly in third place, as menacing as ever. In the queue behind, Prost does an audacious bit of overtaking going into the tight left-hand hairpin behind the pits, and gets away with it, to Andretti’s surprise, and Piquet has long since dealt with Watson and has his beady-eye on the Alfa Romeo. Salazar in the Ensign in last place is about to be lapped by the leader. Approaching the end of lap 14 Jones suffers brain-fade (he could not put it down to anything else) and goes into a corner a fraction too fast and under-steered himself off into the rough stuff! Fifteen cars go by before he can extricate himself and get back on the track, many of the drivers smiling to themselves as they go by, others wondering what on earth could have gone wrong with the World Champion. From his seventh row starting position Villeneuve finds himself in the lead, the idea of having fun with the Ferrari while its tyres or engine lasted is now gone, there is victory to be had and that is serious business, with sixty-six laps still to go.
He knows he can out-speed anyone down the straight, and there is nobody who is braver on the brakes, but round the twisty bits the Ferrari is no match for the handling of a Williams, Brabham, Talbot or Lotus. One of the key corners on the circuit is the steep downhill left-hand hairpin that exits steeply uphill, to begin the run round the double right-hand bend that leads on to the main straight. If he can hold off any opposition into this hairpin he can lead onto the straight and pull out six or seven lengths on maximum speed, which would be enough to keep ahead through the twisty bits on the back of the circuit. By adjusting his fore-and-aft brake-balance control in the cockpit Villeneuve gambles on extra braking on the front wheels, taking advantage of the downhill weight-transfer to the front tyres. He goes to the point of locking-up the front wheels, for as he says later: I can live with front brakes locking-up, but rear-brakes locking on... no way. There is a long way to go and behind him is a row of determined, frustrated, slightly angry men all out to win, or at any rate some of them are. Reutemann is beginning to lean on the Ferrari and there is nothing more unnerving, while Piquet is all around Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, trying to get by. Laffite is pressuring Watson and de Angelis is corning into the picture. Prost is still holding a good third position, in spite of his front wing being all out of shape. Well over half a lap behind Jones is picking off the tail-enders one by one and has that look about him that suggests that he is going to be up into third place at least before the end of the race. With twenty laps completed there has only been one retirement, that of de Cesaris who has spun his McLaren MP4 off into the dirt, but Patrese is on his way out as smoke is pouring from the engine in his Arrows on the over-run. Cheever is in the pits having his throttle pedal linkage on the Tyrrell repaired, and Daly (March) and Tambay (Theodore) have also been in for repairs, while Jabouille is in for brake adjustments.
Pironi has an off into the rough stuff and stops for new front tyres and a new nose wing. In his endeavours to get by Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, Piquet makes a complete nonsense of it and cannons into the Italian car and both go off the road momentarily, which allows Watson and Laffite to go by, Piquet rejoining the race before a very angry Andretti, so that the order behind the first three is now Watson, Laffite, Piquet, Andretti and de Angelis, any one of whom can be fourth and it is Laffite who is out to do just that. Jones is now in eleventh place and closing on Giacomelli and Mansell, and at this point, Pironi rejoins the race, but four laps down after his long pit stop. Up at the front there is no change, Villeneuve is running the race at his own pace, which is relatively slow compared with practice, lapping around 1'19"0 to 1'20"0; but that is not important, the main thing is that Reutemann is totally unable to do anything about the fast-slow tactics of the Ferrari. Suddenly third place becomes available as Prost misjudges his braking, locks his wheels and slides off into the dirt, being unable to restart his engine, and Watson finds himself in third place, but Laffite wants it even more. After the thump from Piquet’s Brabham, Andretti’s Alfa Romeo does not go so well and de Angelis overtakes him and shortly afterwards Mansell does likewise. Jones has passed Giacomelli’s Alfa and is soon to overtake Andretti, which puts him into eighth place. Stalemate now settles in more or less right through the field, Villeneuve still leading and not putting a wheel wrong anywhere, nor giving an inch to the pressure Reutemann is applying through the twisty parts of the circuit. Each time down the straight the power of the turbo-charged V6 Ferrari pulls out a sizable gap and there is nothing Reutemann can do, for after all Villeneuve is leading the race, and that is as a result of his meteoric opening lap. It is no use being in sixth place when the leader spins off into the dirt.
While Reutemann is suffering frustration watching the Ferrari pull away from him down the straight, Jones is suffering in the same way, for he has caught up with Pironi, who is four laps down, and try as he might he can not get by, which stops his progress up through the field, for by now he should have caught Mansell’s Lotus. To add to the difficulties of the Williams driver, both are suffering gearbox trouble, or to be more precise both gearboxes are showing signs of suffering at their drivers’ hands. Reutemann is having to hold his in third gear, steering with his left hand, and Jones can not make second gear stay engaged, so dispenses with it altogether and consequently drops back from his Ferrari. Reutemann is staying with his Ferrari, but even when lapping slower cars he can not find a way by, or rather, Villeneuve doesn’t give him the opportunity. It is now half-distance, with 40 laps still to go. Reutemann is still up with Villeneuve, Laffite is hard behind Watson, who is sitting it out well, Piquet is a lonely fifth, followed by de Angelis, Mansell, Jones, Andretti, Arnoux and Giacomelli all spaced out, with the rest straggling along behind. For no apparent reason Piquet suddenly shoots straight off the road and out of the race on lap 44, and a short while later his young teammate Rebaque retires with a broken gearbox. He has been worried that his brakes are not up to scratch and has been using the gearbox heavily to assist his stopping, and the gearbox has cried enough. Piquet’s disappearance elevates the Lotus lads into fifth and sixth places, and just when it seems settled Laffite out-smarts Watson and takes third place. Almost immediately the Talbot begins to draw away from the McLaren and closes up on the leaders, as Laffite lets the Matra V12 run over its 12.500 r.p.m. limit. At the front Villeneuve is still in command and completely unruffled, running the race at his own pace, which might not have been as fast as people want, but there is nothing they can do about it. At the end of each lap, a third of the way down the main straight, the Ferrari is leading by three or four lengths and pulling away.
Laffite is now worrying Reutemann, who has enough to do with the tantalising red car in front of him, without having the blue and white car dodging about from one rear-view mirror to the other. By lap 60 the three cars are nose-to-tail through the twisty bits and with a rush Laffite is past Reutemann, putting him so off balance that Watson goes by before he recovers, and Laffite is now right under the Ferrari rear wing. When he gets roused Jacques Laffite is a real fighter, like a terrier, and now he is roused, but the cool Villeneuve is still unimpressed. He has lapped the slow tail-enders, but is now in sight of the not so slow ones and next in line to be lapped is Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo V12, so the French-Canadian cunning comes into play. He knows that if he catches up with the Alfa Romeo that is nearly as quick as he is it will upset his rhythm and makes opportunities for a slight misjudgement. The pack behind him is waiting for one false move, one muffed gear-change, one deviation off line, an error of an inch or two on a corner, a foot or two on braking, that is all they want. But he is not giving in to them and rather than take the chance of getting embroiled with Giacomelli the little Cannuck eases the pace ever so slightly. By lap 65 we now have five cars nose-to-tail, the Ferrari, the Talbot, the McLaren, the Williams and the Lotus, and they are in sight of Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo on the back part of the circuit. But five laps later they have still not caught him, and indeed are not so close, and to be sure Giacomelli has not speeded up! For the final ten laps Villeneuve gives as fine a display of self-control as you can wish to see, with four cars pushing hard he picks his way through the corners without deliberately baulking them, but making quite sure there is not quite enough room anywhere for another car. On the straight he unleashes the power of the turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre and pulls out six or seven lengths before the next corner. It is frustrating but beautiful to watch. It is all over. From the final corner he is gone, before Laffite has time to think about pulling out of the slipstream. A well-deserved tactical victory if ever there is one.