Finding Gilles

Finding Gilles


It’s crazy that someone who you never even knew, and in fact was dead 13 years before you were even born, can have an impact on your life. Gilles Villeneuve has been a source of inspiration for me; a legend in both meanings of the word; a connection to a bygone era of the sport. Last weekend, I got the opportunity to go to his circuit, and see his car race. And my God was it emotional.

Growing up, I wasn’t one of these kids who was immediately born into a motor racing family. I didn’t watch F1 until I was 10 years old, when I flicked through the channels on a rainy Sunday afternoon to find Fernando Alonso winning his first world title in Brazil. I’ve been hooked ever since, and have since managed to make the sport my career, too. However, there has always been something in my roots clinging to F1 and, in fact, to Gilles.

0984LB1D0083My mother was a motorsport fan when she was younger, and frequently attended the British Grand Prix during the years that it alternated between Silverstone and Brands Hatch. Villeneuve was her favourite, with her friend supporting his teammate, Jody Scheckter. I still quip to people how she’s the biggest motorsport fan I know. However, when she met my Dad and I was born, F1 became less of a focus. She calls it the “boring” years with Hill and Schumacher, and maybe she’s right. Her love for F1 was maybe not ‘killed’, but perhaps ‘muted’ is a better word.

When I stumbled across that race though, it was revived. From the beginning of the 2006 season, we watched each race religiously together. She told me stories of Gilles Villeneuve, whom I naively thought was a woman (“Jill’s a girl’s name!”), and I began to read. I delved into F1 books and read up on the legends of the sport, of whom Gilles was one. There was a certain mystique to the old pictures and images of him racing in the square 312 Ferraris, dragging it to victories and podiums when it really didn’t deserve to be near the front.

My interest in Gilles only grew when I read Gerald Donaldson’s fantastic book “Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver”, which I still maintain is my favourite F1 book many reads later. When I packed my bags to head to Canada last week, this was one of the first items in my suitcase. Donaldson’s detailing of Villeneuve’s life is simply phenomenal, right from his early days of sneaking out with his parents’ car, which he would then total before skulking back with his tail between his legs.

When NBC Sports afforded me the opportunity to head to Montreal and report on the Canadian Grand Prix, it was immediately something on my mind. This was, after all, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, where he won back in 1978 before it carried his name. To make matters all the more exciting, two of his old cars would be running in the classic race that supported the grand prix. Sheer fever.

The race weekend on the whole was outstanding, perhaps my favourite in the paddock so far. The sun was shining, the grand prix was a thriller, and Montreal is an electric city that embraces F1 with open arms. However, two of the best moments came away from the media centre, but instead when I took a bit of time out and did something from the fan perspective.

On Saturday evening after qualifying, I had managed to knock all of my work on the head relatively early, and took the opportunity toIMG_1497 head down to the first corner to watch the classic F1 race. A field of old Williams, Lotus and McLaren cars joined a pair 312 T5s – bearing Villeneuve’s name – out on track. At turn one, I found a slot where I had a good view through one of the photo holes, and just took it all in. The symphonic sounds, the beautiful sight of the cars racing – and the smell; that unmistakable smell.

And around it came. The little red car that I had seen in hundreds of photographs and videos, in the flesh. The helmet was a little different, of course, but it was there. Gilles Villeneuve’s car racing on Gilles Villeneuve’s circuit. It’s something that very few will now get to see, and I’m just sorry that the grandstands were not fuller to see such a wondrous sight.

In the dying embers of the day, the sun was still shining and burning down hot, but I still felt chills going down my back. This was something that I never thought I would see. A dream, almost.

The second poignant part for me came on the Sunday after the race. It is the busiest time for journalists in the paddock, ploughing through the masses of work that come in the wake of the grand prix. This time about, it was all the more busy after Daniel Ricciardo broke Mercedes’ winning streak and ended its hopes of a perfect season. However, just before the sun began to set in Montreal, I managed to get a few minutes away to take a wander through the paddock.

After the grand prix, the F1 paddock becomes a building site, essentially. I popped to the media café to get a drink around 45 minutes after the podium ceremony, which had been outside of the paddock all weekend. Already, the swipe-in-swipe-out gates had been removed. Forklift trucks were doing the rounds and negotiating the boxes into which the garages were being dismantled. A little later on, I headed back out to find that the packing process was still ongoing, and after very nearly getting run over, I headed out onto the main straight. If you’re an F1 fan, you’ll know where this is going.

With little grace, I slung my legs over the wall at pit exit and dropped down onto the grass on the edge of the straight. Even here, there were trucks and mini-vans buzzing up and down the track, loading and unloading team boxes. However, for just a second, there was a lull, and I was able to get into the centre of the circuit without the risk of getting in anyone’s way.

Under the five red lights, where five hours ago Nico Rosberg had led away from pole, and where two hours later Daniel Ricciardo had won his first grand prix, I stood, smiling, at the sight of just two words.

Salut Gilles.IMG_1491

It might seem a bit cheesy, but it meant so, so much to see that in the flesh. My Mum is my inspiration; at this circuit, where her driver won and where his legacy is felt, I was living a dream. On so many levels, this was huge to me.

I squatted down and patted the circuit, still smiling, before making my way back over the pit wall and returning to the media centre. My colleague there, who knew of my plans, simply said “all good?”

“Yeah, man. So good. Means a lot,” I said.

This is total proof that legacy perpetuates. A 19-year-old journalist from the south of England can feel the legend left by a French Canadian from Quebec that should have been world champion. Of course, I’m not the only one.

So Gilles, thank you. Thank you for being such an inspiration, such an incredible racing driver, and for leaving the legacy you did. I plan to return to that spot on the track for the next ten years to smile like a loon and reflect on the weekend that has been.

The quiet moments in F1 are sometimes the nicest.

Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Richland F1.

  • Steve Wynn

    Great story, brought tears to my eyes as a Canadian and a fan of Gilles from way back.

  • Thierry Dubus

    If he did so much on someone who never even saw him race, imagine how we feel, born and bread from a French “car” family in Canada… Roaming racing tracks in the 70’s in Canada (hardly anyone there but those concerned) and seeing and meeting him throughout his career from Skidoos to FFord and Atlantic, Can-Am etc…
    These years my, first GP in ’73, I got to meet also Francois Cevert who crashed the following week in Watkins Glenn.
    I still follow F1 racing, but drivers are simply not the same anymore.

  • A41202813GMAIL

    I Had The Fortune Of Being At Home, And Seeing Live The Last Laps Of FRANCE 1979 In An Old Black And White TV.

    F1 Used To Be Just A Curiosity, For Me – Not After JULY 1, 1979.