21 Jun 2020

GILLES VILLENEUVE AT 70

Gilles Villeneuve was taken from the world of Formula 1 all too soon in an horrific crash at the Belgian Grand Prix held at Zolder in May 1982. Had he lived he would have been celebrating his 70th birthday this year.

His competitive career started with racing his road going Mustang on local tracks and drag strips. Stories of kids lining the streets in his neighbourhood to watch him hang it sideways around the corners on the way back from a race meet are unconfirmed legend.

He moved to racing Formula Ford where he achieved success running his own car, before moving to Formula Atlantic winning his first race in 1975. As an owner driver he funded his car racing from prize money earned in snowmobile racing where he had already gained a reputation as a fearless pilot. In later interviews he would attribute much of his prowess in the wet to his days racing snowmobiles on the ice. Back on the track in 1976 he won the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic titles, repeating the feat in 1977.

It was at this point that Formula 1 team owners and managers started to take notice. Following a great tussle with James Hunt in 1976 at a unscheduled Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec he was offered a seat at McLaren in a third car for the 1977 season. Teams entering 3 cars in a Formula 1 race had become less common by the mid 70’s, and McLaren’s willingness to do this for Villeneuve is a testament to the esteem they held him in even as a rookie.

He made his debut at Silverstone mid-season driving an old McLaren M23, qualifying 9th fastest sandwiched between his teammates Hunt and Jochen Mass. In the race he brought the car home in 11th place following mechanical issues, but his performance was greeted with enthusiasm by those in the pit lane and in the press. In spite of this McLaren decided not to extend his contract and at the end of 1977, citing his flamboyant style as a potentially expensive relationship. Whatever the reasons behind the teams decision, Villeneuve found himself without a drive for 1978.

Rumours began to surface that Ferrari had a short list of drivers for their vacant seat, and that Villeneuve was on it. Sure enough, in August 1977 he was invited to Modena to meet Enzo Ferrari, who immediately took to the Canadian. Following an inconsistent test at Fiorano, Villeneuve signed for Ferrari. Villeneuve is quoted in Nigel Roebuck’s book Grand Prix Greats, “If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari…”

His first season with the Scuderia was one of mixed fortunes and for a period of that season there were calls for his sacking in Italy. By the end of the 1978 season things had improved with a second at Monza (subsequently demoted for a jump start), and a win at the Canadian Grand Prix, at the circuit that now bears his name.

In 1979 Villeneuve won 3 races, with newly installed Jody Scheckter alongside him, as well as a memorable podium in the French Grand Prix. He ended the season as runner up in the championship with Scheckter taking the title.

Ferrari had a poor 1980 season only scoring 8 points in total, mainly down to an inferior ground effect system on the Ferrari 312T5 compared to the other teams.

With 1981 came the introduction of a turbo engine which gave the car a power advantage over other cars on the grid. However, handling problems persisted, and it was widely accepted that Villeneuve’s driving skill was more of a factor in the results he achieved during that season than the cars added power.

Harvey Postlethwaite, who became Ferrari’s chief designer the following year would later recall that “…in terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different planet to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 Grand Prix at Monaco and Jarama was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was!”

Ron Dennis, by that time now in charge at McLaren, tried to poach Villeneuve back for the 1982 season but he decided to stick with Ferrari.

His results were better and with politics off the track (FISA-FOCA war) meaning a boycott by some teams he found himself at San Marino racing against his teammate Didier Pironi for the top podium spot.

With their only competition in Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux having retired from the race, the drivers were asked to slow down to conserve fuel. Villeneuve believed that the order also meant that the drivers were to maintain position but Pironi had other ideas and following a last lap swapping of the lead Pironi took the win. Pironi claimed that the order did not mean they could not still race and stood by his actions.

The teams moved on to the Belgian Grand Prix which in 1982 was held at the Zolder circuit. During the final qualifying session Villeneuve was chasing the time set by his teammate Pironi.

With the clock ticking on the session and Villeneuve pushing hard his car collided with a much slower travelling Jochen Mass who attempted to move off the racing line having seen the Ferrari in his mirrors. The Ferrari hit the back of Mass’ car, was launched into the air, and was airborne for more than 300ft, such was the speed Villeneuve was travelling. The Ferrari came to halt having nosedived into the ground and disintegrating as it somersaulted along the edge of the track. Villeneuve was thrown a further 150ft into the catch fencing.

He was transferred to hospital on Life Support but later died of his injuries, May 8th 1982. The reason for the crash was later attributed to an error from Villeneuve causing him to hit Mass’ car who was cleared of any blame.

At Gilles Villeneuve’s funeral his former teammate Jody Scheckter delivered the eulogy saying, “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”

Niki Lauda later recalled, “He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1… The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being”.

It’s also widely reported that of all the drivers that drove for Ferrari, Villeneuve was Enzo’s favourite.

As I write this feature I recall that, for me, Villeneuve was both an enigma and the most straightforward racing driver, past or present.  He gave it everything!

To finish off I go back to that race for second place with Rene Arnoux at the 1979 French Grand Prix, and his comments after the race. “I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it’s very easy for one car to climb over another.” Thanks Gilles.

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ianhucklesby

Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre