It’s been thirty years, since the passing of this young French-Canadian driver, who was electrifying on the racetrack, as he was fast, aggressive, and gave no quarter. But behind the scenes, Gilles Villeneuve was an incredible family man, plus a pleasure to be with, truly selfless, and was friends with many, including The Flying Lap’s Peter Windsor, who knew him personally. Most of the current generation of F1 fans, who only know of the current crop of drivers, such as Button, Hamilton, Webber, Vettel and co, may have heard of this brave and indomitable driver, but as a member of Scuderia Ferrari.
It’s funny how he actually got his break on F1, because a certain World Champion, who drove for McLaren, actually recommended to his team that this young talent was the next big talent in open-wheel racing. So we have to, in some way, credit 1976 World Champion James Hunt, for bringing Gilles into F1 for us, through a matter of persuasion, as Gilles made his debut in July of 1977 with McLaren at Silverstone.
But how did Gilles start in racing? Well, it wasn’t on asphalt, it was on snow, as he started racing professionally in his native province of Quebec, and rose through the ranks of snowmobile racers, showing his speed and determination, and then competitively starting driving in the local drag racing events. His car of choice, his road car, a ’67 Ford Mustang, which was of course, modified to compete in this chosen discipline.
But the next step he took, would help to extend his reach outwards in the world of racing, as he soon got bored by drag racing, deciding to obtain his racing licence at the Jim Russell Racing School at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant. This meant he was then able to race in the Quebec Formula Ford series, winning 70 percent of the races he entered, and the drivers’ title too, and this was even in his own two-year old car, that he personally entered in 1973.
Formula Atlantic, though, would help to be the breakthrough for Gilles, as his first two seasons showed no signs of great results, until he won his first race, in the wet, at Gimli Motorsport Park in 1975. The following year showed how dominant he was, as he triumphed in both the US and Canadian titles, winning all bar one race, and then followed that up in 1977 with him winning back-to-back titles in the Canadian series. Even in the 70s, it was difficult to race back then without money, but having won the 1974 World Championship Snowmobile Derby, he was able to demand appearance money, as well as race money, which, in turn helped fund his career in single-seater racing.
Plus the main reason for a lot of Gilles’ success in the wet, was attributed to his snowmobile racing days, as racing on snow, in Gilles’ eyes, prepared him in many ways, for racing in the wet, as he clearly stated: “Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I’m talking about being thrown on to 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 having any worries about racing in the rain.”
And how did James Hunt come to recommend this timid, frail-looking individual? Well, at Trois-Rivieres in 1976, Gilles convincingly beat Hunt and several other drivers in the non-championship event there, where Gilles was offered a deal to race in F1 in 1977 for McLaren for up to five races, debuting at Silverstone, where Hunt won in his McLaren M26, and saw the debut of the new Renault RS01, driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille, which was the first ever turbocharged car to compete in Formula One. Gilles made an impression right from the start, as he qualified in 9th place, between Hunt and Jochen Mass. He then went on to finish 11th, after being delayed for 2 laps by a temperature gauge issue, but was in the top five for lap times during the race.
But McLaren’s team manager, the well experienced Teddy Mayer, decided to not keep Gilles at the team for 1978, instead choosing Patrick Tambay for the race seat at McLaren, who was showing just as much promise, leaving the Canadian driver with no real solid options to stay n F1 that year. But behind every cloud, there is truly a silver lining, as Walter Wolf was to be the catalyst in Gilles’ next step. And what a step it was. Wolf recommended the talented Canadian, who was thought to be too old to have entered the sport at the age of 27, to none other than Maranello’s very own Enzo Ferrari.
Ferrari compared this “piccolo canadese”, a bundle of nerves, to a possible equivalent to Nuvolari, and decided to give him a try. Even though Gilles was setting relatively slow times, and making mistakes due to a possible lack of experience in F1, he was signed by the Scuderia to race for the last two meetings of 1977, as well as competing in the 1978 season. This was one of the factors that meant the departure of Austrian ace Niki Lauda from Ferrari, having clinched his second drivers’ title at the Mosport Canadian Grand Prix, whereas Gilles retired after sliding off track, as a result of oil being on the racing line.
Japan was another non-finish for the Quebec native, as he found himself airborne, after he banged wheels with the Tyrell P34 of Sweden’s Ronnie Petersen, whilst trying to outbrake him, coming into turn 5. 1 death and 10 people injured was the unfortunate outcome of the accident, where Gilles said that he was “terribly sad” at the outcome, but did not feel responsible to them. 1978 seemed to be a difficult year as well, with the Michelin radial tyres being introduced that year, as well as being partnered with current driver Carlos Reutemann.
At Long Beach, he was leading until crashing out of the race on lap 39, having started on the front row. Even though the Italian media had repeatedly called for the Canadian to be replaced, Ferrari kept him on board, and Giles then showed a remarkable improvement. Even though he got a one minute time penalty at Monza, he still finished 2nd, and at Watkins Glen, was running 2nd until the engine on this 312T3 expired. But that year, he became, and still is, the only Canadian to win at the Circuit Île Notre-Dame, which was later renamed in his honour, in F1, a feat his son, Jacques, has been unable to repeat, nor has any other Canadian. This was after Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Lotus stopped, due to engine trouble.
1979 was the most successful year in his short F1 career, and the biggest talking point that season, was the
intense and hard-fought battle for 2nd place during the French Grand Prix, where Gilles took on, and beat Renault driver René Arnoux, in what was a real wheel-banging duel of epic proportions. Gilles was passed by René, with just three laps to go, but the favour was returned the very next lap. For the first set of corners of the final lap, Arnoux tried again to get past the Canadian’s Ferrari, with them running side-by-side, making contact, with the cars bumping hard.
Gilles slid wide, but then passed René on the inside of a hairpin, and then was able to hold off the Renault driver for the last half of the lap. And after the most memorable duel I’ve heard of in Formula One history, Gilles had this to say, just 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.” Gilles was in the fight for the drivers’ title that year, as Jody Scheckter joined the Scuderia, after Reutemann joined Lotus, after the tragic death of Ronnie Petersen.
But a combination of bad luck on the track, plus team orders coming into play at Ferrari, Gilles could have won the championship, by beating Jody at the Italian Grand Prix, but chose to accept the team’s order, and finish 2nd, finishing that season just 4 points behind his South African team-mate. At the Dutch GP, the slow puncture on his left rear tyre obliterated his chances, and he had to be persuaded by the mechanics and the team that the car was beyond repair, even though Gilles demanded that the missing wheel was replaced, so he could continue. And his skills in the wet still were a force to be reckoned with, as during a heavily wet practice at Watkins Glen for the final race of the year, Gilles was a clear 9 to 11 seconds quicker than Scheckter, who thought he was quickest, until he looked at his team-mate’s times, and was more than impressed, to say the least.
1980 was a year to forget for both Gilles and Jody, with the pair having only scored 8 points between them, with the South African driver retiring after what was, in all fairness, a lackluster year for the Scuderia, with the 126C coming in the next season, which was Ferrari’s first foray into the world of the turbo-charged car era in Formula One. Gilles was teamed with Didier Peroni, who Gilles welcomed in with open arms, and as an equal, but over the 1981 season, both drivers had to deal with a very powerful car, that had really poor handling, as Harvey Postlethwaite, who was charged by Ferrari in 1982, to design the successor, the 126C2, which won the 1982 title, said the following about the 1981 car: “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 started out great for Gilles, showing great promise in both Brazil and at Long beach, but his relationship with Peroni was soon to becomed soured, especially with the events at the San Marino Grand Prix that year. Ferrari found themselves at a distinct advantage, with the FISA-FOCA war coming to a head, as the FOCA teams boycotted the race, with Renault being the only serious challenger to Ferrari. Both Arnoux and Prost retired on lap 44 and lap respectively, and it looks as though Ferrari had a guaranteed win, with the team ordering both drivers to slow down and conserve fuel. What happened next, would abruptly end their relationship as team mates and friends. Gilles was under the impression that the drivers were also to hold position, but Pironi passed him, with Gilles doing the same a few laps later, thinking his French team mate was entertaining Ferrari’s home crowd. But Pironi aggressively chopped across the front of the Canadian’s car, and took the win. Gilles was irate, because of Pironi’s actions, but Pironi claimed no wrong doing in all of this, as he said that he was told to only slow down, but in his eyes, not maintain position. Having felt betrayed and angry, Gilles would never speak to his team mate again, and vowed to do just that.
But the accident at the Terlamenbocht corner at Zolder on May 8th, 1982, during final qualifying at the Belgina Grand Prix, would change everything. Gilles’ car hit the back of Jochen Mass’ March 821 at somewhere between 200-225km/h, which send the Canadian’s Ferrari airborne for over 100 metres, before Gilles was flung, out of the Ferrari, which somersaulted and nosedived, catapulting the helpless Canadian from the disintegrating car.
And, it was such a tragedy to lose such a great driver, who said what he felt, drove the socks of every car he got behind the wheel of, and truly entertained us all on the track. Tomorrow, we remember Gilles, as it is exactly thirty years to the day of the tragic accident. And in rememberance of his late father, 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve will be driving his father’s 1979 Ferrari 312 T4 at the Fiorano Circuit, to help honour his dad’s memory at this poignant time.
As there is not much more that I can say about this great man, now his story has been told, but these two words are probably the best thing I can say right now :