May 8, 1982..Are there any of us that were following the sport then that didn't feel like we’d been punched in the solar plexus? I mean it was such a paradox..on the one hand everyone said he would die behind the wheel of a race car, but on the other like Clark before him and Senna since ones mind couldn't accept that it had really happened. Not Gilles…oh God not Gilles!
Most of the facts are well known, that he was the son of a piano tuner, that he dabbled in music. Most know that his first car was an MGA that his dad gave him and that after completely rebuilding it, that he promptly wrecked it, as he did a succession of others. In his early years racing snowmobiles, wrecks were common,, but instructive; “Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills - and I’m talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 mph. 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” Lessons that would serve him well.
Gilles started in single seaters in FF 1600 in 1973 where he promptly racked up 7 wins. His he did in a two year old car which he wrenched on himself. Against top competition he took the Provincial Championship. He next moved on to Formula Atlantic with the strapped for cash Ecurie Canada team. It was there that he sold the family home to pay for the drive. He and his family living out of a camper van, and had a disappointing start to the season..it didn't improve when he crashed at Mosport and broke his leg in two places and he lost his ride with Ecurie Canada.
He battled back the next year in his own car and did well enough to finish fifth in the championship and to impress with a race at Trios Rivieres against Patrick Depailler.
In 1976 Gilles had offers from some of the top Formula Atlantic teams, but chose to once again drive for Ecurie Canada. Once again Gilles chose to travel with his family from race to race in a motor home. Also once again he was winning.
He was invited by Ron Dennis to test in an F-2 car. That year he took 9 out of 11 Formula Atlantic wins with his only losses coming from retirements. In September he soundly beat James Hunt, and the man that would be world champion, went back to McLaren management so high on this young French-Canadian that McLaren signed Gilles to race in a limited number of races as a third to Hunt and Jochen Mass.
It was July 16th 1977 when the comet Villeneuve began its pass through the F1 firmament, at Silverstone driving a McLaren. It was there that he made an impression on the most important man in Formula One...Enzo Ferrari.
Enzo said of his first meeting with Gilles...” when they presented me with this tiny Canadian, this minuscule bundle of nerves, I instantly recognized in him the physique of the great Nuvolari and I said to myself, ‘let’s give him a try.’”
Within the month Gilles was a Ferrari driver, a dream come true for Villeneuve..” 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...” he made his Ferrari debut at Mosport. There he had been scheduled to be in a third Ferrari but after Lauda decided to quit the team, Gilles stepped in as his fulltime replacement.
In Japan at the following race on lap six Gilles missed his braking point at the end of the main straight and hit the back of Ronnie Petersons Tyrrell. His Ferrari cartwheeled off the track and killed a marshall and photographer and injured others, Gilles walked away.
1978 saw Ferrari team Gilles with Carlos Ruetemann and it was a learning year for young Villeneuve. He scored only 17 points and only saw the podium only twice. Once with a third in Austria and once with a crowd pleasing win in Canada to end the season.
In 1979 Ferrari hired Jody Scheckter as the teams number one and, while Gilles won in Long Beach and in South Africa, he played the number two, obeying team orders, but after Jody wrapped up the championship he won at Watkins Glen to cinch second place in the championship. There were two events in 1979 that cemented in the minds of all who watched that Enzo had not been far off the mark with his initial assessment of Villenueuve. At Zandvoort we had his all or nothing approach clarified for us when, leading on lap 47 Gilles spun. He gathered it up and set out again, but he had damaged a tire. Four laps later as he passed the pits the tire let go.. The Ferrari twitched violently, Gilles doing his best to avoid the twin obstacles of the barriers at the upcoming Tarzan Corner and the abandoned Arrows of Patrese. Villenuve spun his Ferrari on purpose to scrub off speed . and the Ferrari slewed sideways in a cloud of sparks and tire smoke and then backwards as it ground to a halt just off track on the grass its engine stalled. As an appreciative crowd went crazy, Gilles stabbed the starter, getting the flat 12 to fire, he found reverse and backed onto the circui,t threw it into first and shot off down the track on three wheels to drive round to get back to the pits, nearly four kilometres away. The crippled Ferrari was a sight to see, its right front off the ground, it’s left rear emitting a shower of sparks, flying rubber and body parts. For all of that Gilles was soon traveling at near racing speeds. When the remains of the Ferrari lurched to a stop in the pits, Gilles remained in the cockpit as he signaled the crew to get busy and replace the missing wheel.
Gaston Parent [Gilles’ mentor] was standing by. “Gilles was blowing his stack yelling, ‘Put a --- wheel on there ! Let me go out again !’ Finally they made him see the back of the car was a disaster. Then people criticised him for dangerous driving again. His argument was that he didn't know it was so bad. But, believe me, Villeneuve would have gone out again on three wheels ! That was the way he was.”
For his part Enzo could not find fault with Gilles.. “Villeneuve still makes some ingenious mistakes, but is a man who wants to come out on top at all costs. He has been justifiably criticised, but we mustn’t forget that his enthusiasm and passion have a predecessor: Tazio Nuvolari. In 1935 Nuvolari won the Brno Grand Prix in Czechoslovakia driving on three wheels.”
I think Nigel Roebucks comments on the incident paint a clearer picture of the Villeneuve philosophy..” Thank God there will always be a few people in this world who simply know not how to give in. It was foolhardy, yes, but it came from the same pure competitiveness and spirit which has characterised all his races. He likes to win, rather than not lose”.
A philosophy that Gilles put into his own words that were not all that flattering to his fellow drivers...”Some guys in Formula One, well, to me, they’re not racing drivers, they drive racing cars, that’s all. They’re doing half a job and in that case I wonder why they do it at all.”
Not giving it your all, to Gilles mind, was a sin, but for all that he was a clean pure racer never putting his fellow racers in danger just for a win. Lauda wrote of him, “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”. Flying, snowmobiling or driving, he was a risk-taker of classic proportions. Yet his fellow drivers said that on the track he was scrupulously fair and did not put anyone’s safety other than his own in jeopardy. Something that was demonstrated in his battle royale with Rene Arnoux in the 1979 French Grand Prix, probably the most exciting race for second place ever, with Arnoux and Gilles banging wheels and fighting in a fashion never to be forgotten. Gilles unwilling to believe that his slower Ferrari could not beat the faster Renault, and by God he did if only by the tick of a stop watch. …..”The duel with Gilles is something I’ll never forget, my greatest souvenir of racing. You can only race like that, you know, with someone you trust completely, and you don’t meet many people like him. He beat me, yes, and in France, but it didn't worry me - I knew I’d been beaten by the best driver in the world.”.. And you know Gilles loved it… “That is my best memory of Grand Prix racing. Those few laps were just fantastic for me - outbraking each other and trying to race for the line, touching each other but without wanting to put the other car out. It was just two guys battling for second place without trying to be dirty but having to touch because of wanting to be first. It was just fantastic ! I loved that moment."
Gilles spent most of the rest of his career getting the most out of less than top notch equipment. Much of his racing was against the last of the all conquering Lotuses,,,the ground effects Lotus 79 and the 1980 offering from Ferrari was abysmal and even Gilles could only scavenge a handful of points.
1981 was a different matter. Ferrari had fallen behind the British teams in the chassis department, but the new 1.5 liter turbocharged engine was remarkable and Gilles scored wins in Monaco and Spain. The battle in Spain with Laffite was spectacular with Gilles coming the winner, eliciting this from Laffite.. "I know that no human being can do a miracle. Nobody commands magical properties, but Gilles made you wonder”, but was too typical of Gilles season. Villeneuve had the power to pull away on the straights, but rivals would be all over him in the corners.
Of the 1981 Ferrari, Harvey Postlewaite, the designer had this to say:
That car, the original Ferrari 126C turbo 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!" … Not only did it handle poorly but it was also unreliable with Gilles retiring from four events with mechanical woes…Also new for 1981 was his partner, an up and coming Frenchman with an eye to be the first French Worlds Champion driver, Didier Pironi
1982 dawned with great hope at Ferrari. Hope that would quickly turn sour.
The season opened in South Africa where Gilles was leading until he spun off the track, Pironi finished 18th, but he finished.
In Brazil Villeneuves turbo expired, Pironi finished sixth.
In Long Beach for the U.S.G.P. West Pironi crashed out and Villeneuve came third, but was disqualified for having an “irregular rear wing” which was later declared illegal.
Then came Imola…At the end of lap 45 the order was Villeneuve from Pironi.
For the fans, this was like manna from heaven. An unchallenged Ferrari 1-2 on home ground! The Maranello pit hung out the slow signal to its drivers. The team knew that fuel consumption was going to be marginal if the two red cars had to battle hard all the way, so now they could take things easy.
Gilles was confident, he had been in the lead when Arnoux retired, so he figured it was his victory. Still Pironi tried to race him. The two cars swapped places, but they were just cruising and Villeneuve was happy to play.
Into the last lap Gilles was in the lead. ‘I was running so easily you just can’t believe it,’ he said afterwards. ‘I was cruising along and believed that Pironi was being honest. I was not expecting him to pass me again, but all of a sudden I saw him coming up on me. He slides past with all wheels almost locked and that’s the end of that .
By any standards, it was an over the top move. Pironi pulled out of Villeneuve’s slipstream to the left as they slammed through the flat-out right-hander before the uphill left-hand hairpin at Tosa. Didier almost lost control, but emerged in the lead for the rest of the lap there was nothing Gilles could do about it. The Ferraris finished 1-2, Pironi-Villeneuve. Didier insisted afterward that, ‘We both had engine problems and, no, there were no team orders.’ Gilles was livid, something quite out of the ordinary for him, ‘It’s just not true. Ever since I’ve been at Ferrari when you get a ‘slow’ sign it means “hold position”. Second is one thing, but second because he steals it, that’s something else.”’ Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again, and can anyone wonder why? Gilles had been a friend to Didier, welcoming him to the team, making him feel at ease in his first year in F1…. "When I joined Ferrari the whole team was so devoted to Gilles. I mean he was not just the top driver, he was much more than that. He had a small family there. ... he made me fit right in and I felt at home right away overnight and Gilles made no distinctions either ...I was expecting to be put in my place, I was not number one. I was number two. He treated me like an equal all the way."
We move now to that fateful day at Zolder.
How do you describe one of the most horrific incidents in modern racing history? How can you capture the impact of what happened May 8th in Belgium? As with all such events there is controversy as to what exactly caused the accident to occur. Some say Gilles was looking to steal pole from Didier, but the fact is he was coming into the pits, however, he was coming in the only way Gilles knew how…fast. As Gilles came by the start/finish line Mauro Forghieri showed him the "IN" signal on the pit board. "I called him into the pits because his tyres were finished. He had already done three fast laps on them before and was close to the best time of Pironi and there was nothing more he could do. Gilles was coming in to the pits on the lap on which he had his crash. But even when the car was coming to the pits it was traveling at over 200 kmh. That was Gilles."
What happened is clear..Jochen Mass was on a cool down lap "I saw Gilles in my mirrors and expected him to pass on the left. I moved right and couldn't believe it when I saw him virtually on top of me.”. With the closing speed of Villenenuves Ferrari he could have no idea that Gilles was actually headed for the pits. At this point one can only assume that Gilles was in the exact position he dreaded when he said "I don't have any fear of a crash. No fear of that. Of course, on a fifth gear corner with a fence outside, I don't want to crash. I'm not crazy. But if its near the end of practice, and your trying for pole position maybe, I guess you can squeeze the fear ..." ..Did Gilles squeeze the fear once too often? His wheel touched the wheel of the Jochens March and the Ferrari was launched into the air. The car flew for over 100 meters in the air, before slamming nose first back to earth, only to begin a series of cartwheels almost landing on the swerving Mass. As the Ferrari disintegrated Gilles was thrown nearly 50 meters and through the catch fencing with his helmet torn from his head. It was a truly horrific accident. A doctor was on the scene almost immediately and began CPR to revive Villeneuve, but he was never to regain consciousness and died that evening.
The racing world cried, Not Gilles, Oh God not Gilles!
Once again motor racing had extracted its highest toll from one of its brightest stars.
Motorsport without danger is like cooking without salt
Sir Stirling Moss