“Why do we even bother? He is different from the rest of us. On a separate level” – Jacques Laffite, talking about Gilles Villeneuve.-
A few years ago I was chatting with some friends, we were casually listing a few great Formula One drivers when I said: – Gilles Villeneuve -, while most of the guys nodded their heads agreeing with me, one friend said: I just don’t understand all the fuss about Villeneuve, he didn’t win a single World Championship.
Even if my pal was being superficial in his comment, he wasn’t wrong, Villeneuve achieved only 6 victories during his 6 years in Formula One, with such a mediocre career, why do the fans still remember him as one of the greatest?
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in the French-Canadian province of Quebec, on January 18, 1950. While most of the Formula-One drivers started their career racing go-karts, Villeneuve’s first love affair with speed was riding snowmobiles.
At the age of 19, he was already a professional racer and in 1974 he won the World Snowmobile Derby. It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that.
The skills he learned racing snowmobiles, set him apart from the other drivers when he decided to try racing cars. This is the kind of machine you have to “dive” the nose inside the turn and power slide the rear. This “drifting” style became his trademark throughout his career.
Villeneuve himself explains this experience:
“Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I’m talking about being thrown onto the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me from having any worries about racing in the rain”.
Villeneuve was also involved in drag racing, competing at local tournaments, which is also very unusual among F-One driver wannabes. He modified and raced the very first car he owned, a 1967 Ford Mustang coupe.
The Mustang still belongs to the Villeneuve family but it was abandoned in their backyard for decades.
The last information I have is the car was brought indoors in 2016 for a well-deserved restoration. Gilles was a Mustang guy, he owned quite a few of them.
In 1973, with the little money he made racing snowmobiles, Villeneuve bought a second-hand Magnum Formula-Ford and started competing right away at the local Quebec F-Ford championship. He dominated the season, winning 7 out of 10 races, and also clinched “The Rookie of the Year” title.
Villeneuve’s dominance of the season and his aggressive driving style certainly caught the attention of other teams. In 1974, with a little financial help from soft drink company Schweppes, he bought a Formula Atlantic car and started to compete. In the same year he won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
The Formula Atlantic was, at that time, the most prestigious category in Canadian motorsports. The regulations are similar to the European Formula 3/2 and for that reason, there were plenty of manufacturers supplying the cars, like Brabham, Lotus, March, and Chevron. The machines were powered by 250HP, 1600cc production-based twin-cam engines, mostly Ford-Cosworth, however other engines like Alfa Romeo were also eligible.
The 1975 season was a real challenge, Gilles didn’t have the financial means to hire a mechanic and he performed the maintenance of his car all by himself. He won his first Atlantic race in 1975 at Gimli Motosport Park, racing in heavy rain.
In 1976, Gilles went to Chris Harrison’s Ecurie Canada race team and with the help of factory March engineer Ray Wardell, he dominated the season by winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles.
Gilles also won a special F-Atlantic race, held in Trois-Rivières, on September 5, 1976, where he had the chance to compete against some of the top Formula One drivers, like James Hunt and Alan Jones. He not only won the race but set the best lap time of the weekend.
Impressed with Villeneuve’s performance, James Hunt used his influence within McLaren (he won the 1976 World Championship driving for the team) to strongly recommend the Quebecois to be one of their drivers for the 1977 season.
Gilles finished his Formula Atlantic years winning the Canadian championship in 1977, and in the same year, McLaren offered him a position as its third driver. Villeneuve lied about his age, with 27 years he was considered a bit too old for a rookie in F-One, so he told them he was 25.
Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, starting the race in 9th, driving the old McLaren M23, while James Hunt and Jochen Mass drove the newer version, the M26s. He finished the race in the 11th position after being delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge.
Judging by the numbers, it wasn’t a phenomenal debut race but the media and the drivers knew there was something special about Gilles, the Canadian had what it takes to be a future champion.
Right after the British GP, Villeneuve was told by the team manager, Teddy Mayer, that McLaren decided not to renew his contract for 1978, alleging the Canadian could become a bit expensive. They hired Patrick Tambay instead. Gilles still has 7 races remaining before the end of the season and after that, he would be jobless.
Luckily Villeneuve was on the Ferrari’s radar for a while and in August 1977 he flew to Maranello to talk with Enzo Ferrari. The meeting was a success, Enzo pretty much fell in love with Gilles, his diminutive stature and his outspokenness immediately reminded the “Commendatore” of Tazio Nuvolari, a very popular Italian champion from the 1930s. Here is how the big boss Enzo Ferrari describes the meeting:
“When they presented me with this ‘piccolo Canadese’ (little Canadian), this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognized in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let’s give him a try.”
Things were moving fast, Villeneuve signed the contract and for the last two races of 1977 (Canada and Japan), he was already driving the gorgeous Ferrari 312T. (photo above).
For Gilles, it was like a dream come true, as he described: “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…”
The first whole season driving for Ferrari was somehow a period of adaptation for Villeneuve, his best results were a third position at the Austrian GP and a memorable first victory at the Canadian GP, which was enough to elevate him to “hero” status in his home country. Some of the die-hard Ferrari fans in Italy asked the team to replace Gilles with a more seasoned driver but Enzo stood by his choice.
The next season proved to be a very competitive one indeed, Mario Andretti and Lotus Team lost the dominance they enjoyed during the previous year but they were still among the favourites. Other strong contenders were Williams, Ligier, Renault, and of course, Ferrari.
During 1979, Gilles Villeneuve consolidated his reputation as a daredevil driver, his “take no prisoners” driving style was making him popular, he would drive any lap like it was his last, even if sometimes it cost him the chance to finish the race.
Villeneuve was one of the pioneers of the “power shift”, he mastered the art of shifting gears while keeping his right foot at full throttle and using the clutch to control the oversteering. Once he wrote a telegram to Enzo Ferrari saying: “Ingegnere, yesterday I tried very hard to break one of the drive axles of the car and I just couldn’t. Congratulations”.
Gilles even used to disable the rev limiter of the car and make the engine spin at 14,000 plus RPM during the power slides. To the mechanics he was a butcher, to the fans he was an artist.
1979 was the best season of Villeneuve’s career, he won in South Africa, Long Beach, and Watkins Glenn, and finished in second in France, Austria, and Italy. He collected enough points to end the season in second, behind his teammate Jody Scheckter. Ferrari won the constructor’s world championship, closing a very successful decade for the “Maranello boys”. Ferrari wouldn’t see another driver world title until 1994 when Schumacher started his winning streak.
Here are some of the highlights of the season:
Villeneuve fiercely battled Alan Jones from the start for P1 and he finally got the lead at lap 10. The Canadian was managing to keep Jones at bay and it seemed he would win the race but on lap 51, just after passing the pits, his left rear tire exploded and he spun the Ferrari. He regained control of the car and just kept going, he drove an entire lap with only two tires touching the pavement, the right front was in the air and the left rear was shredding rubber and sparking with the pavement, halfway through the lap, the rear wheel, still attached to the hub, just fell off the car. When Gilles pulled over at the pits, he tried to convince the mechanics to simply replace the wheel and tire so he could go back and continue the fight for the lead. For this stunt, Villeneuve was equally praised as a warrior that never gives up and criticized as an irresponsible driver who unnecessarily put lives at risk.
If there is one race that sums up Villeneuve’s career, certainly is the French GP, 1979. During the final 4 laps of the race, Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Rene Arnoux (Renault), fought one of the most intense battles in the history of Formula-One.
The turbocharged Renault had been plagued with reliability issues since the beginning of the season, but the team was working hard to improve the cars. By the time of the French GP, most of the problems were pretty much fixed and the whole team was focused on winning the race in their home country. Jean Pierre Jabouille made the pole position but Villeneuve jumped in P1 at the start and managed to lead the race until lap 46 when he was passed by Jabouille.
The Renault cars were performing superbly that day, on lap 76 Rene Arnoux passed Villeneuve and the French crowd went wild. That would be the most complete French victory ever: 2 Renaults, driven by two French drivers, riding on French tires (Michelin), and burning French fuel (Elf) were about to finish the French GP in 1-2.
But Villeneuve was willing to rain on the French parade, the Canadian knew he had no chances to fight for the lead, but he was determined to hold his ground on P2. Better than reading about the duel is watching it.
The fight is remembered by the fans as one of the most memorable pieces of racing in Formula One. Villeneuve, who crossed the finish line less than a quarter of a second ahead of Arnoux, later described the occasion as “my best memory of Grand Prix racing”.
The battle didn’t change their friendship.
The Renault cars were fast enough to qualify in the front row, but not fast enough to break away from the Ferraris. Throughout the race, both teams exchanged positions until Arnoux and Jabouille retired with mechanical problems, leaving Scheckter in first and Villeneuve in second.
Before the start of the race, the Ferrari’s team manager told Gilles to disregard Scheckter’s status as the #1 driver and fight him for a better position, after all, both drivers had a good chance to win the championship.
Villeneuve decided to respect the hierarchy and he didn’t challenge his teammate. Scheckter won the race and the driver’s title, Villeneuve finished the race in second place. That was a smashing victory for the Maranello team, on their home turf, but the race also was the only chance Villeneuve ever had to win an F-One championship.
It was pouring rain during Friday practicing and Gilles was easily outperforming all the other drivers, as Scheckter recollected: “I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and — I still don’t really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds faster!”
When the race started on Sunday, there was a 50% chance of rain, and the pavement was still wet, most of the teams decided to go with grooved tires. Villeneuve jumped in P1s and was leading the race comfortably. As the pavement was getting dry, on lap 25, most of the cars came in for slicks, except the three leaders, Villeneuve, Jones and Arnoux. At this point, Williams instructed Alan Jones to “drop the hammer” and he started to close the gap, taking off two seconds per lap. By lap 31, Jones passed Villeneuve, and kept the pace, opening 3.1 seconds per lap. Ferrari called Gilles to the pits on lap 34 for a fresh set of slicks, when he returned to the track, he was 39.5 seconds behind Jones.
Now it was Jones’s turn for a tire swap, he came to the pits on lap 37. The crew responsible for the right rear wheel was having a hard time removing it off the car and they were a couple of seconds behind the other guys. When the crew chief saw the mechanics that were working on the other 3 rims raising their arms, he ordered the jacks off and Jones stormed off the pits before the right rear wheel had been locked tight. The wheel came off the car even before he reached the track.
With Alan Jones out of the race, Villeneuve easily won it, securing second place in the 1979 driver’s championship.
Villeneuve was the favourite to win the championship that year but the engineers at Maranello faced a very complicated situation: for 1980, the “ground effect” cars were allowed back to the grid and most of the teams developed new chassis for the season.
A “ground effect” car requires a big “air venturis” or air tunnels, on both sides of the car, all the way to the rear, and around the engine. For the teams running the narrow Ford-Cosworth V8, it was a relatively simple task to develop new chassis, but for Ferrari, running the extra-wide flat-12 engine, was impossible.
Ferrari was working on a much smaller 1.5 litre, turbocharged engine but it wasn’t ready yet, and the engineers had to deal with whatever they had available.
They came up with the T5, a semi-ground effect car with an overall performance way below the competitors. The season was a total disappointment for Ferrari, Gilles finished it in 14th and Scheckter in 19th.
Jody Scheckter retired from professional racing at the end of the 1980 season, he was replaced by Didie Pirroni, a promising French driver, coming from Tyrrel.
Villeneuve was such an easy-going person, always nice with fans and reporters. He became the cool guy that everybody wanted to be around in the paddock. When Pirroni joined the team, Gilles was very welcoming: “(Villeneuve) had a little family at Ferrari but he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight. He treated me as an equal in every way” – Didier Pirroni –
Now Ferrari has two very different drivers, Villeneuve was more talented and faster than Pirroni but he was also too impulsive and sometimes erratic on track, on the other hand, Pirroni was calmer and more consistent.
Once again Ferrari let its drivers down, the new 126C wasn’t exactly new, most of the chassis design was a carryover from the year before. The new 1.5 litre, V6 turbocharged engine was able to produce almost 700 HP, making the car as fast as a rocket on a straight line, but very awkward on turns. This is how Villeneuve described the new Ferrari: “A hopeless fast red Cadillac”. “You put on new tires, and it is OK for four laps,” after that, forget it.”
This new Ferrari was a very difficult car to drive, to say the least, and the sheer talent of Villeneuve alone wouldn’t be enough to bring good results for the team. The Canadian only finished 6 out of 15 races of the season, closing the championship in 7th place; a better position than the previous year but still very disappointing.
Against all odds, Gilles brilliantly won two races in 1981.
With too many cars signed up for the race, a pre-qualifying session was implemented to bring the number down to 26 competitors (good times indeed). In an astonishing performance, Villeneuve qualified in second, right behind the future World Champion Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian led the race until lap 53 when he lost control of his Brabham and crashed into a barrier at Tabac. Alan Jones (Williams) took the lead and it seemed unlikely Gilles would be able to challenge him.
Driving like a truly gifted driver, Villeneuve began to close in, and to the amazement of everybody, on lap 72 he passed Jones. Four laps later he received the checkered flag, proving that, sometimes, a bad car wouldn’t be enough to hold him back.
Villeneuve managed to qualify in 7th place and the strategy for the race was pretty simple: pedal to the metal for as long as the new tires would last.
At the green light, Jacques Laffite, who was the pole-position, staled his Ligier-Matra, while Gilles blasted to the third position at the first corner, and even before the end of the first lap, he was already in P2. That was an amazing start of the race for the Canadian but Alan Jones was taking full advantage of his well-balanced Williams and built a 10 seconds lead over Villeneuve.
But Jones, too eager to secure P1, made a mistake on lap 14 and spun off at the Ascari chicane. Now, Villeneuve was leading the race, with Carlos Reutemann (Williams) in second, John Watson (McLaren) in third place.
Gilles now was desperately trying to keep the lead, he was taking full advantage of the turbo engine to break away from the pack on straights but on turns, they were all over him. The five front runners became a train of cars, nose-to-tail, until the end of the race.
The drivers behind Gilles kept changing positions and it seems Jacques Laffite would inevitably win the race, for a few times, he pulled his Ligier side-by-side to Villeneuve just to see him slip away as the horsepower kicked in into another straight.
Many consider the 1981 Spanish GP as Villeneuve’s finest victory, even under tremendous pressure, he kept his impetuosity under control and drove like a master. That race was a sign of maturity, he was ready to become a world champion, all he needed was a better car.
In Canada, that year, the world saw another “classic Villeneuve” stunt: The weather was cold and wet, and throughout the race, there were a lot of minor collisions going on.
Close to the end of the race, Villeneuve clipped the rear of Andretti’s Alfa-Romeo, the front wing of his Ferrari flipped and got stuck right in front of the cockpit, obscuring his vision. Doing the opposite of any sensible driver would do, Gilles carried on, using his peripheral vision and knowledge of the circuit. The track Marshals didn’t black flag Villeneuve, perhaps waiting for him to pull over at the pits, which, obviously didn’t happen. At some point, the damaged part fell off the car and Gilles kept going, without the front wing, in the rain, finishing the race in the third position.
1982, the tragic year.
Hopes were high at Ferrari for the next season, the team had hired Harvey Postlethwaite, a very experienced British engineer, he was working on a new chassis since early 1981, and the car was ready for the 1982 season. The new 126C2 had a more reliable turbo-engine and much-improved handling. Harvey made some remarks about the predecessor car, the 126C, and Villeneuve’s performance in 1981:
“That car…had literally one-quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability, I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was.”
1982 proved to be a dark year from the beginning, in Brazil, Villeneuve was leading the race when he lost control of the car and spun on lap 30. In the USA, he finished third but was later disqualified because Ferrari equipped the cars with a “double” rear wing, considered as a technical infringement.
There were rumours, at the time, that the once enchanting relationship with Ferrari had begun to deteriorate, thanks to the lack of good results and also to Villeneuve’s unrelenting punishment to the team’s cars. To Enzo, his cars were much more than just machines and Gilles had no finesse driving them.
The Villeneuve-Pirroni feud.
The fast Imola circuit was the perfect environment for the turbo cars, Ferrari and Renault were the favorite teams to win the race. At the start, Rene Arnoux (Renault) jumped into P1, with Villeneuve and Pirroni following. At lap 44, Arnoux retired with a blown engine, leaving the two Ferraris leading the race.
It seemed the Maranello guys had the race in their pockets, the crew manager ordered to hold out “slow” signs from the pit wall, to save fuel. Villeneuve, who was leading the race, understood both drivers should slow down, avoiding any fighting for the lead, but Pironi saw it as an opportunity. On lap 46, completely disregarding the orders, the Frenchman hit the gas and overtook Gilles. The battle for the lead, the very situation the team was trying to avoid, was now at had full throttle, 3 laps later, Villeneuve passed his teammate, taking the P1 once again. They changed position a few more times; as Villeneuve slowed down each time he took the lead, Pironi would overtake him again. Eventually, Pironi won the race and for Villeneuve that was nothing less than betrayal. After the race, still enraged with the situation, he spoke to a reporter:
“I’ve declared war. Absolute war. Finishing second is one thing – I’d have been mad at myself for not being quick enough if he’d beaten me. But finishing second because the bastard steals it…”
Gilles vowed never to speak with Pirroni again. This animosity didn’t make things any better for either one of them and the team as well.
The end of a very short career.
Two weeks later, Villeneuve was blasting through the Zolder circuit, during the last minutes of the qualifying session for the Belgian GP. He had already worn out his second set of super sticky qualifying tires, he knew there was no time to go back to the pits for a fresh set. On his last flying lap, he failed to beat the time of Pironi, but instead of calling it quits and heading back to the pits, Gilles continued to go flat out, after all, it was “total war” against his teammate, and he couldn’t accept this partial defeat.
Halfway through the lap, Villeneuve exited a chicane (that nowadays bears his name) into a fast left-hand turn, as he was leaving it, he saw a much slower car ahead of him, right on the middle of the track. That car was Jochen Mass’s March.
In a split-second decision, Gilles chose to pass the car to the right, but at the same time, Mass veered his March to the same side, hoping to clear the left side of the track for the incoming Ferrari.
Villeneuve rear-ended Mass’s car at 200Km/h, his disintegrating Ferrari flipped over several times, throwing his body in the air and against the fence, on the other side of the track. Watching the terrifying video, it seems like he was shot from a catapult.
Jochen Mass left his car and run as fast as he could in a desperate attempt to do something, Arnoux, and Warwick did the same. They removed the body from the fence and waited for the medical team to arrive, there was nothing else they could do. Pirroni was also there, he grabbed the badly damaged Villeneuve’s helmet and walked back to the pits.
Gilles was taken to the nearby hospital by helicopter, once there, the doctors kept him alive until his wife Joann arrived and authorized the medical team to turn off the life support system.
It was the evening of Saturday, May 8, 1982, Enzo Ferrari told the team to pack the equipment and go back home.
The tragedies didn’t end at Zolder that year, Riccardo Paletti also lost his life in an accident at the start of the Canadian GP and Didier Pirroni survived a horrible crash during the qualifying session for the German GP, but his injuries put an end to his Formula -One career.
Villeneuve’s meager numbers never prevented the fans to idolize him, for the Ferrari crowd he is as much a hero as if he had won a world championship.
The three-times world champion Niki Lauda, said during an interview in 2001, that Villeneuve was “the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula-One”. The drivers, at the time, had mixed feelings about the Canadian, some considered him just an inconsequent daredevil but for others, he was a champion in the making.
Perhaps Jody Scheckter has better words to define Gilles: “I always worked very well with Gilles. We had an honest and open relationship, which was part of our success. There was no bullshit: if he made an adjustment and went quicker, he’d tell me and I would tell him. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship and was part of us winning the championship“. Jody thinks Villeneuve was honest to the point of being naive, perhaps that is the reason Villeneuve was so disappointed with Pirroni. Sheckter also thinks the crazy driver persona was staged: “I don’t think he tried to do things that put him in uncalculated danger. I think from that point of view he was a responsible driver. He always had this image of being crazy, and he wasn’t really. He was only crazy when he wanted to be, it was his image”.
We like to think that hasn’t the tragedy struck that day, Gilles would inevitably become World Champion; driving a Ferrari or any other car.
It was Gilles’s greatest fan, his son Jacques, that carried on the family’s racing legacy. The little kid that so very often accompanied his father at the race tracks, became a very talented and accomplished driver.
He understood that fast laps and crazy stunts don’t win championships, points do. He won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series, and in 1997 he became the first (and only to date) Canadian to win the Formula-One driver’s world championship.
Despite his brilliant career, F-One fans just don’t remember Jacques as one of the greatest, like we remember Gilles. Perhaps, for us, fast laps and crazy stunts can be even more important than winning world titles.
Gilles Villeneuve was one of a kind race driver, he can’t be compared with anyone else. His legacy still lives on, the Circuit Notre Dame Island in Montreal, the home of the Canadian Grand Prix, was renamed Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, right after his death. Generations of drivers have been paying their respects to Canada’s greatest race drive, every time they see the message painted at the starting line: “Salut Gilles“.