A look back: Gilles Villeneuve
A brief history
Gilles only started racing in his teens (he had previously borrowed the family car and sustained a rather large crash on a public road but this did not deter him) competing in drag races but that could not satisfy his thrill for racing so he quickly jumped onto snowmobiles.
By the age of 19 he was dominating the snowmobile scene, already proving to have a natural raw speed and inherent bravery that few could rival.
Soon he was dreaming of racing cars and switched to Formula Ford. He found the skills he learnt from snowmobiles were transferrable to four wheels. It also influenced his style very much and he tackled the car in much the same way as he did when racing on snow; he was brave but liked to slide and scythe his way through the field. Racing on snow also taught him how to feel for grip which stood him in good stead when faced with a wet track.
Gilles quickly found his rhythm and in his rookie year he won the FF Championship, with a two year old chassis which was a remarkable feat and so progressed to Formula Atlantic.
Villeneuve’s first year at Formula Atlantic with Ecurie Canada in 1974 saw mixed results and it was a frustrating time made worse by that he would suffer a heavy crash at Mosport Park which would break his leg in two places.
Gilles at first refused treatment believing it was not so bad an injury but eventually caved to his wife’s protestations and visited the hospital thinking that they would send him home anyway. They did not. It was confirmed his leg was broken and that put a temporary halt on racing matters, although Gilles didn’t take it lying down and fought to get back into the car as quickly as possible.
However, being out of action meant he lost his place in the team and he had to use his own funds to purchase a chassis and run his own team for the remainder of the season.
For the next season he was unable to find another drive with an established team so pursued in managing his own team. It paid off when he managed a win in wet conditions at Gimli and saw the season out by securing 5th in the championship.
This strong showing in less than ideal circumstances meant that the French- Canadian was now catching the attention of the guys at the top. He spent the winter back on the snow and raising further funds that way but during this time he had several good offers from leading teams in Formula Atlantic but it was once again Ecurie Canada that was gifted with his signature.
It wasn’t only those who worked in Formula Atlantic that had been amazed by Villeneuve, he had also attracted interest from F1 team owner Ron Dennis who then invited him to participate in an F2 race at Pau. In typical Gilles Villeneuve fashion he was going well and pushed above and beyond the limit to the point where the automobile overheated at that was the end of that.
After taking part at Trois Rivieres, where he was up against several F1 drivers, including the soon-to-be World Champion James Hunt, his talent shone. It was this that triggered his move to Formula One; Hunt had been so surprised and in awe that he went back to his Mclaren team and informed Dennis that this was a driver he needed.
So Villeneuve was promptly signed up for the ’77 season in a third driver role and piloting an M23 compared to teammates Hunt and Mass who were both in fresh M26 models. Despite this hindrance Villeneuve still out qualified Mass at his first attempt and finished a solid 11th place even though he had suffered with a mechanical fault (problem with the temperature gauge) for two laps.
Yet it was Patrick Tambay who was offered a chance with the squad for the 1978 season; Tambay showed similar promise and Villeneuve strength of pushing further than anyone else brought with it one huge flaw: he drove very hard meaning the car was usually run ragged and in tatters at the mercy of a manic driver.
The ambitious driver was left without any firm commitments until a phone call came from Mortara (who spoke for Enzo Ferrari) asking if Gilles would be interested in driving for the Italian team.
For a moment negotiations were halted – Mclaren wouldn’t let Villeneuve make any plans until his contract had expired and there was the worry that Ferrari wouldn’t wait forever. Ferrari knew a good driver when he saw one however…
“When they presented me with this ‘piccolo canadese’, this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognised in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let’s give him a try.”
– Gerald Donaldson, from the book ‘Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of a Legendary Racing Driver’
Mclaren released the relieved driver and a contract with Ferrari was signed making Villeneuve the 71st driver for the outfit and he contested in the final two races of the 1977 for the red team.
Ferrari number one Lauda wasn’t happy at the new appointment and it sparked his decision to quit. It had been a successful pairing claiming two world championships but Villeneuve was the new star in the wings.
The honeymoon period was soon over when at the Japense GP Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson banged wheels and the Ferrari became airborne. The car landed where spectators were gathered in an area which was not allowed, it resulted in the death of one spectator and one marshal with nearly a dozen people injured. It was a difficult time but Villeneuve was never blamed nor did he accept responsibility.
The 1978 season saw 6 retirements and an embarrassing false start at the Italian GP which was not something the tifosi wanted to see. The Italian media was quick to express disappointment in Villeneuve but they were swiftly silenced when Gilles scored his maiden F1 win at his home and is still the last Canadian to win at home. After his death the circuit at Montreal would be named after him.
Villeneuve was partnered with Scheckter for the following season and it was a year that would see Gilles take three further wins.
The French Grand Prix was to be one of the most thrilling races of all time thanks to the antics of Villeneuve and Arnoux. The video opening the article shows just how brave Villeneuve could be and how dogged he was in the chase for success. After a long battle at Dijon, Villeneuve secured the second place with Arnoux on the bottom step of the podium.
Villeneuve under team orders allowed his teammate through to finish ahead at the Italian Grand Prix thus ending his own title ambitions so Scheckter took the crown but Villeneuve’s talent was clear for everyone to see and made even more apparent in the US.
For the practice of the US GP, the track was soaked but Villeneuve still posted a time at least nine seconds quicker than anyone else. It was one of his most stunning drives which left many in total awe. It was one of the biggest demonstrations of his single mindedness and bravery which would allow him to become one of F1’s greats. Undoubtedly his sanity was at times questioned by those closest to him – as was Nuvolari’s – just how could a rational being repeatedly go beyond the limit without a second thought?
The 1980 season is best to be brushed over as Ferrari did not have a handle on their car at all. The car was a dog and collectively the Ferrari line up could only score 8 points with Villeneuve claiming 6 of those 8.
1981 saw the first Ferrari turbo car, it’s handling was poor but it did have the power. Villeneuve grappled with the car at Spain claiming an incredibly close victory.
He would also win in Monte Carlo, both were unusual and magnificent wins given that straight line speed doesn’t count for much in the tight twists of Monaco.
At Canada Villeneuve’s front wing became eskew after an accident and it hindered his sight which was already suffering due to the wet track. Fortunately the wing eventually came off and Gilles flew home to third with the nose still absent.
1982 started well enough with Ferrari producing a car worthy of victory which was plain when Villeneuve led the Brazilian Grand Prix although he later retired.
Imola was to prove a controversial weekend. First only Renault was truly opposition to Ferrari as a result of FOCA teams refusing to participate in the race due to the FISA-FOCA war.
Then both Renault drivers retired and so Ferrari ordered their drivers to save fuel so that they could score the one-two. However, teammate Pironi who was in his second season with Ferrari passed Villeneuve. Gilles saw this as a betrayal believing that the order to save fuel meant the pair had to maintain positions.
Villeneuve set about passing Pironi and retaking the lead but it was not to last as the Frenchman aggressively and absolutely overtook Villeneuve on the final lap and clinched victory.
Pironi claimed innocence and that there was no fault in what had occurred. It seemed that the orders had simply been interpreted different but it left Villeneuve furious and bitter and the relationship between the two completely disintegrated and Villeneuve was determined to beat his rival.
At the Belgian Grand Prix held at Zolder circuit on May 8 1982 Villenueve died after colliding with Mass in qualifying. Mass had moved off the racing line to let Villeneuve through but at the same instant the Ferrari driver also moved right to pass the slower car of Mass. Villeneuve was take to the University St Raphael Hospital where he died at 9.12pm.
The legend remembered
Gilles was helplessly possessed by racing and was driven by a desperate hunger to be the quickest through this he managed to capture the very souls of millions of fans. If he was possessed by racing then the fans were utterly owned by him.
He was known as one of the most honest and sincere racers to have graced the Formula One paddock but he was absolutely capable of doing what he needed to secure his racing future. To be able to afford to race he sold his home without telling his wife. Joann was obviously furious with her husband but it was a battle she had no chance at all of winning; Gilles had to race. Villeneuve refused to ever give up and combined with his positively optimistic outlook on life and a total self-confidence it meant that he believed he would always be able to make things right he persisted on with his dream which would eventually lead him to win six Grand Prix.
He’ll always be looked back at with affection. His aggressive and flamboyant style won intense levels of devotion. Villeneuve was always excited and was always up to something on the track. The fact that he only won six Grand Prix and never the championship but is talked about with such adoration like Ayrton Senna is a tribute that shows how highly he was valued as a racing driver. He may not be remembered as a champion but to many he was certainly ‘the one that should have been’ had his life not been cut short. It’s very telling that he is perhaps the only driver to be known by his first name but that was Gilles.