The ‘Grand Slam’ of F1 – pole, win, and fastest lap all in one race. Even though it might not be as rare today thanks to a certain young German, it’s a feat that still looks good on the CV. However, to get it in an era where mechanical failures and accidents made the sport very unpredictable makes it all the more impressive, which is just what Gilles Villeneuve did in the fourth round of the 1979 season on the streets of California.
The pint-sized Canadian had been on good form coming into the weekend, leading a Ferrari 1-2 at the last race in South Africa, and had been leading at Long Beach the previous year before crashing out. The big surprise of the first few races had been the lack of pace from Lotus, which had left World Champion Mario Andretti uncompetitive and Ligier’s Jacques Laffite now heading the field.
Long Beach had a reputation for being a car-breaker and this race would be no different, the first of many incidents being Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s driveshaft causing a nasty shunt on the Saturday seeing him sit out the race with a broken wrist. Come qualifying, a little help from some extra tyres and a switched-off rev limiter saw Villeneuve pip the No. 2 Lotus of Carlos Reutemann to pole by 0.06 seconds. Jody Scheckter in the second Ferrari lined up 3rd, with the Ligiers of Patrick Depailler and Laffite 4th and 5th. Mario Andretti was out-qualified by his new team-mate and lined up 6th.
Sunday morning saw more shenanigans as Renault, concerned about their turbo lag being dangerous on such a tight and twisty track as Long Beach, withdraw René Arnoux as a precaution. Reliability woes would also strike again as Reutemann suffered with electrical problems on the parade lap, and was prevented from joining the grid. An irate Colin Chapman demanded to the stewards that he be let go, but in the meantime Villeneuve clumsily overshot his grid position, forcing another parade lap. Just the reprieve Lafitte, whose engine had seized up, required and the Frenchman hopped into his spare car and started from the pit lane.
As the race started under controversy as to whether Villeneuve would be given a time penalty, there was more carnage when, going into the tight Queen’s Hairpin, Patrick Tambay drove over the top of Jan Lammers’ Shadow and took out Niki Lauda in the process. By the end of lap 2 Depailler had taken 2nd from Scheckter, with Jean-Pierre Jarier 4th, Andretti 5th and Jochen Mass 6th, all with Villeneuve out in front and building a healthy lead.
Depailler’s luck was soon to run out though, when on lap 9 he got stuck in gear. Scheckter, taken aback by the Frenchman’s drop in speed, almost ran into the back of the Ligier and Jarier capitalised by taking him within the lap. The battle between him and Scheckter would last for a while, as Scheckter was able to catch up in the corners, but a bent front wing meant he lost speed on the pit straight and the long curve linking the two hairpins, making for an exciting scrap as Depailler slipped back.
In the meantime, the Williams of Alan Jones was quietly rising through the ranks from 10th on the grid, until on lap 28 he was running in 6th place behind Andretti. By this time Jarier had developed a wheel vibration and had finally been passed by Scheckter, bunching up the field and forming a Tyrrell train that made for some intense racing:
There was good action beyond the top 6 as well. Newcomer Elio de Angelis had impressed with his drive to 7th place after starting 20th, with Murray Walker claiming that the young Italian had “truly come of age” and put his stamp firmly on the F1 map. Sadly his Shadow team-mate Hector Rebaque, who had similarly put in a brilliant performance to be running in 8th after starting 23rd, didn’t fare so well – towards the end of the race he clipped Derek Daly as he tried to lap the Ensign, and sent both cars into the wall.
But all the while Villeneuve pushed on untroubled, and eventually took the chequered flag with an almost 30-second gap back to Scheckter. To top it off, he’d led every single lap of the race and had lapped all but the four cars of Scheckter, Jones, Andretti and Depailler.
Who said that a race totally dominated by one driver had to be boring?