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After setting the pace for the second half of the 1979 season, Williams updated its cars and signed Carlos Reutemann to partner Alan Jones. Once again, Jones and the FW07 proved the class of the field. The Australian withstood a strong challenge from the revitalised Brabham team to give Williams its first World Championship. Reutemann also won in Monte Carlo and consistently finished in the points.
Nelson Piquet emerged as a serious championship contender in only his second full season with Brabham. He took the series lead by winning the Italian GP which was held at Imola for the only time. But engine failure ended Piquet’s challenge at the season’s penultimate event in Canada, where Jones won both the race and the title.
Along with Piquet, other young drivers made their mark in 1980. Didier Pironi, in his only season with Ligier, won in Belgium, crashed at Monaco while leading, and took the pole position in Britain. Renault’s Rene Arnoux won twice early in the year but despite Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s success in Austria, the team’s turbocharged engine remained unreliable.
European F3 Champion Alain Prost signed for McLaren and promptly outshone his more experienced team leader John Watson, scoring points finishes in his first two Grands Prix.
It was a frustrating if spectacular season for Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve. The new Ferrari 312T5 was a step backward and its Michelin tyres wore at an unacceptable rate. Team-mate and outgoing champion Jody Scheckter announced his retirement from the sport at the end of the year. By then the team was already looking to 1981 and were testing a new turbocharged engine.
Patrick Depailler was still recovering from his hang gliding accident but he moved to Alfa Romeo for 1980. Sadly, just as the team appeared to be making progress under his guidance, Depailler was killed while testing at Hockenheim. His friend Jacques Laffite subsequently won an emotional victory at the German GP. Clay Regazzoni was also seriously injured when his Ensign crashed into a retired car at Long Beach.
Off the track, a war between FISA and the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) almost destroyed Formula 1. The Spanish GP lost its championship status when FISA-aligned teams (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Renault) withdrew, while the French GP was only run after crisis talks prevented its cancellation.