What is it that makes Gilles Villeneuve such an appealing figure to fans of Formula One? Here is a man that in his time in the sport won a relatively meagre six times and started from pole position just twice. Yet, despite this, to many around the world Gilles Villeneuve is considered one of the finest racing drivers to have ever graced F1, ranked alongside other greats such as Jim Clark, Juan Fangio and Ayrton Senna.
But what is it about the diminutive French-Canadian that has made him into such a fan favourite, despite racing for just four and a half seasons in Formula One? Simply put, it was the fact that even from his earliest origins, racing around the streets of Berthier and Joliette in a MG MGA as a young man, right up until his untimely death at Zolder in 1982, Gilles Villeneuve was exciting.
For many, the image of the #27 Ferrari – despite Gilles racing with it just 19 times – being man-handled around the greatest circuits of the world by the French-Canadian have gone down in Formula One history.
A huge part of the fascination with Villeneuve comes from that rough-neck style. Gilles had an ability to throw a car around in a flamboyant and spectacular style which you could not help but admire and be in awe of. Coupled to that was his fighting spirit and pure passion for racing, for which fans flocked to him.
The sight of Villeneuve powering through a corner with the tail out and the front wheels slammed on opposite lock to counter the slide became legendary in the late 70s and early 80s. It says a great deal that in an era of extravagance in the sport, when the cars and drivers were both madly fast owing to the onset of ground-effects, Gilles, amongst his contemporaries stood out as the quickest.
Yet, as well as his undeniable talents behind the wheel, Gilles too was much loved for his agreeable personality and his honourable character traits. As the veteran journalist Peter Windsor explained there was more to Villeneuve than his simply brash style: “He loved the physical act of driving but beyond that he was a very sensitive and warm person who cared about people and was never rude to anybody.”
The legend of Gilles Villeneuve first began to be formed, at least in F1, in 1977, when he made his debut at the British Grand Prix, driving a third McLaren car alongside James Hunt – whom Gilles had earlier impressed in a non-championship race in Canada – and Jochen Mass. A relative unknown in Europe at the time, despite having won the Formula Atlantic Championship the previous year, Villeneuve got his first taste of Formula One machinery that weekend at what was then still an ultra fast Silverstone circuit.
Countless spins during practice, as he worked to find the limitations of the McLaren M23 he was racing, made many of the established stars write off the French-Canadian, but after his performance in the race, it was evident here was a champion in the making.
Villeneuve, despite having never raced at Silverstone before, qualified ninth on the grid, ahead of Mass in the newer M26 McLaren, and in the race he could well have finished in the points if not for a faulty temperature gauge that cost him two laps. After his delayed stop, Villeneuve rejoined with the race leaders, and as a sign of his pace, shadowed them until the chequered flag, ultimately being classified 11th.
Here was a man with evident promise, yet Teddy Mayer, the McLaren boss at the time, opted to sign Patrick Tambay for 1978, rather than Gilles, whom he worried would be too expensive, owing to his extravagant style.
Gilles’ Formula 1 career looked over before it had ever really begun, then came the call from Ferrari. By August that year Gilles was a Ferrari driver. Enzo Ferrari, the great il Commendatore saw in Gilles many of the characteristics of his favoured Tazio Nuvolari, the pre-war ace. In fact, Ferrari grew to love the French-Canadian, much as he had done Nuvolari for his great passion for racing, and he was deeply hurt when Gilles was killed at Zolder.
“His fatality has deprived us of a great champion – one that I loved very much. My life is full of sad memories. I look back and see my loved ones. And among my loved ones I see the face of this great man, Gilles Villeneuve,” said Ferrari, shortly after Villeneuve’s death.
Signed for Ferrari after just a single appearance, and with Niki Lauda absconded to Brabham, the pressure on Gilles’ shoulders was immeasurable, and predictably, crashes, as a result of overdriving the difficult 312T2 followed. But less than a year after his Scuderia debut, Gilles was a winner, delighting the crowds of Montreal with his maiden win, at home at the Ile-Notre Dame circuit that would one day bear his name.
Villeneuve, or Villanova as the Tifosi would call him, was soon the darling of the Italian crowds, leaving such an impact that many, even 30 years after his death, still treat him as almost a deity. Gilles was their champion, and to this day tributes to the man still appear at Monza, San Marino and Montreal.
Moving forward, it would be impossible to discuss what truly made Villeneuve so captivating to racing fans around the world without reflecting on his on-track battle with Rene Arnoux for second at Dijon in 1979, a fight that has since gone down as one of the most exciting in Formula One history.
Villeneuve, with badly fading Michelin tyres, remarkably saw off the charge of the much faster Renault of Arnoux over the course of the final three laps of the French Grand Prix, the pair banging wheels innumerable times, passing and re-passing each other as the laps ticked by until the French-Canadian roared home in second.
It was a battle so memorable that then, just as it does now, completely overshadowed Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s race win, the first for Renault, and the first for a turbo engined car in Formula One.
Those last three laps truly stand as a testament to the never say die attitude of Villeneuve. If you want an example of Gilles the racing driver, then look no further.
Gilles and Arnoux later faced rebuke for their actions, the pairs battle deemed as irresponsible and dangerous, but Villeneuve did not care, he had loved the experience.
“This is my best memory of Grand Prix racing,” he later explained. “Those few laps were fantastic to me – outbraking each other and trying to race for the line, touching with each other but without wanting to put the other car out. It was just fantastic! I loved that moment.”
But the spectacular was not a rarity to Villeneuve, who in South Africa earlier in the season had reeled in his new team-mate Jody Scheckter from a deficit of 30 seconds to win in just 33 laps. 1979 was Villeneuve at his peak.
The race at Zandvoort in the Netherlands that very same year stands out as another classic example of why Gilles is still so adored by fans of motor racing. Having already pulled off an audacious move on Alan Jones – not a man to be easily passed – for the race lead around the outside of the famous Tarzan corner, a move that is memorable enough in itself, Villeneuve then conjured up an image that has gone down in F1 history.
Suffering with a puncture, Villeneuve spun twice, the second time at the aforementioned Tarzan. With the right-rear badly deflated surely he was out? But no, a quick look over his shoulder and the Ferrari was off again, Villeneuve intent on getting back to the pits. On the Ferrari toured at hardly an abated speed, rubber flying off the punctured tyre. A short wheelie down the back straight later, the left rear wheel now completely torn off, and he was back into the pits. The Ferrari mechanics had to explain to Villeneuve the true extent of the damage, Gilles, he had just wanted to carry on.
Onto the United States GP later that year, and while his team-mate Scheckter was now champion, Gilles having finished behind him in Monza as a matter of honour, Villeneuve had one final moment of magic before the end of what would ultimately be his most successful season, finishing as runner-up in the drivers’ championship.
Practice ahead of the race in Watkins Glen was held in soaking wet conditions, tricky enough that when Scheckter – the champion elect – posted his lap he admitted he had very nearly scared himself, such was the danger. Still the South African was fastest.
Villeneuve, a huge fan of racing in the wet owing to his experience as a snowmobile racing champion prior to his grand prix career, soon ventured out himself onto the rain soaked track. What followed was sheer brilliance. Villeneuve lapped a whole 11 seconds faster. Not 11 seconds faster than the slowest man, an entire 11 seconds faster than his own team-mate, Scheckter in second.
The South African watched on in stunned disbelief, while Ligier’s Jacques Laffite, watching from the pits simply laughed, commenting: “Why do we bother? [Gilles] is different from the rest of us.” As one journalist described it, it was as if Villeneuve had 300 extra horsepower. It was classic Gilles. He would go on to win on the Sunday, his third and final victory of the year.
Laffite, a friend of Villeneuve’s owing to their shared language later remarked: “I know that no human being can perform miracles. But Gilles made you wonder sometimes.”
It is a huge mark of the man that amongst a hugely gifted group of contemporaries, others – his fiercest rivals on track – singled him out as the finest amongst them.
Niki Lauda, already a double world champion when Gilles joined Ferrari in 1977, once described Villeneuve as “the perfect racing driver,” adding that he considered Villeneuve to have possessed “the best talent of us all.”
While Keke Rosberg, who raced with Villeneuve in the early stage of his career in Formula Atlantic in Canada, once said: “No doubts about it, Gilles was abnormally brave. To race against, he was the hardest bastard I ever knew, but absolutely fair.” He was, as Rosberg described, “A giant of a driver.”
Yet, while even the brilliance of Villeneuve failed to conjure up any miracles for Ferrari in 1980, as the team slumped to 10th, its worse ever finish in the constructors’ championship, the 1981 season stands out for two of the French-Canadian’s finest wins, the latter of which would be his sixth and final victory.
Villeneuve was a man famous for transcending the capabilities of his car, and on no occasion was that skill more evident than in Monaco that weekend in May 1981. At the wheel of the Ferrari 126 C – the Scuderia’s first turbo powered car – a machine Gilles himself described as the “big, red Cadillac,” the French-Canadian produced an exemplary performance to win from second on the grid, having out qualified his new team-mate Didier Pironi by 2.5 seconds.
How Villeneuve had got the lump of a Ferrari onto the front row of the grid, alongside the Brabham of Nelson Piquet – commonly believed to have been running underweight that year – was remarkable enough in itself. To then go on and win, with a car that could not have been less suited to the tight confines of the Monte Carlo, was simply stunning. Not bad for a man who his critics derided as heavy-handed.
It was Gilles’ first win since Watkins Glen two years previously, but he would not have to wait long to repeat his victory. Two weeks later in Jarama, Spain, Villeneuve collected perhaps the finest win of his career, delivering a tactical masterpiece as after a lightning start – one of Gilles’ trademarks – he kept at bay the four much faster cars of Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio de Angelis for 50 laps in the ill-handling Ferrari. The first five were covered by just 1.24 seconds at the flag, the second closest finish in Formula One history after the 1971 Italian Grand Prix.
Brabham designer Gordon Murray called Gilles’ performance “the greatest drive I’ve ever seen by anybody.”
Enzo Ferrari was reported to have said: “Gilles Villeneuve on Sunday made me live again the legend of Nuvolari.”
It was to be the sixth win of Villeneuve’s career, and though he would come close in the early part of the following year, robbed – at least in his eyes – by Pironi on the final lap of the San Marino Grand Prix, he would never win again.
In fact, just weeks after the incident at Imola, Gilles – who had deemed he would never speak to Pironi again after what he considered an outright betrayal – would lose his life in a crash at Zolder, pushing, as some suspect, too hard on a qualifying lap in order to topple his team-mate’s time.
The American racer Eddie Cheever later shared his thoughts on the accident, stating: “In a situation like that I know I would have been scared stiff. But I am sure that when Gilles felt his Ferrari take off, his last thought was anger, plain and simple, because he knew that he had spoiled that one perfect lap.”
In what was a dark period for the sport, when in-fighting and political unpleasantries too often cast a shadow over the on-track action, Gilles Villeneuve’s immeasurable skill behind the wheel of a racing car, his sparkling passion for life, and his outright will to win, made him stand out like a beacon of hope to fans of Formula One across the world. And, despite his tragic death 32 years ago, his legend lives on, because at his core, Gilles was just like you or I. He was a man that simply adored racing.
Jody Scheckter summarised the man best when he said: “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
Thanks go to Gerald Donaldson, without whose book Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver the completion of this tribute would not have been possible.
Images courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari and McLaren
Follow Dan Paddock on Twitter @CosmicDanzo