January 18, 1950 – May 8, 1982
Six time winner in Formula One
Second in 1979 World Championship
The year was 1979. I was twelve years old. The place was Watkins Glen International and the event was the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States. It was Friday afternoon and it was raining like crazy.
My Uncle and I were wearing those one-dollar ponchos that fold up in your pocket. They didn’t help much; we were getting drenched. We were standing in a grassy section where we could get a good look at the race course in an area known as “the boot”.
This section of the race track is undoubtedly the trickiest part of the course. It features a sweeping downhill left turn followed by two quick right-handers. From there, the cars would accelerate quickly back uphill toward a tight left-hand turn.
There were very few fans braving the elements, and even fewer drivers on the track. After a few laps in this mess, most of the drivers decided to call it a day. Eventually, there was one solitary driver out on the course. That driver was Gilles Villeneuve.
My Uncle and I watched the Ferrari, sliding around and throwing up a massive spray, lap after lap, amazed at Villeneuve’s bravado. Standing in an inch or so of mud, as the rain refused to relent, it was a moment in time that I will never forget.
Villeneuve’s Ferrari teammate, Jody Scheckter, had run some quick laps in the early part of the session. Sheckter felt quite confident that he had set the fastest time. He was flabbergasted to see that Villeneuve had bested him.
Villeneuve had not only set fast time in the session, but he was an astonishing 9.652 seconds faster than Scheckter.
Stories like this, along with many others, have elevated Villeneuve to a legendary status among racing enthusiasts and historians. Now, more than three decades after his untimely death, his name is mentioned in the same breath as Nuvolari, Ascari, or Clark.
The historical record will show that Gilles Villeneuve competed in a mere 67 Grands Prix, taking six wins along the way. Simple numbers cannot give justice to a driver that demonstrated time and time again that he had nerves of steel, and could extract the maximum performance out of a race car on any given day.
Becoming a hero in the hearts and minds of his fans, he also won the respect of his fellow competitors. His career was much too short, and we were all left wondering, “What If?”
Villeneuve’s racing career began in his native Canada behind the handlebars of a snowmobile. After mastering that craft, he moved to single-seaters and worked his way up the ladder. By 1977 he had won two season Championships in Formula Atlantic, a stepping-stone to Formula One at the time.
Although it’s not seen today, Formula One drivers would occasionally enter junior-formula races during this era, much in the same fashion that we see Cup drivers compete in Xfinity or Trucks on the NASCAR circuit.
It was in 1976 that Villeneuve beat a certain Mr. James Hunt in an Atlantic Race at Trois-Rivières. Hunt, who happened to be the reigning Formula One World Champion, suggested to his McLaren Team that they give Villeneuve a try.
Gilles Villeneuve’s first Grand Prix was behind the wheel of a year-old McLaren at Silverstone in 1977. He qualified the car ninth and brought it home eleventh, two laps down. It was an inauspicious debut, but he caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari.
Villeneuve was flown to Italy to meet with the Commendatore. Enzo Ferrari was instantly taken with Villeneuve, stating that he reminded him of Nuvolari. After a test session at Pista di Fiorano, Ferrari signed the Canadian driver for the 1978 season.
When Niki Lauda, after clinching the 1977 Championship, abruptly ended his tumultuous three-year relationship with Ferrari, Villeneuve was put in the car for the final two Grands Prix of that season.
Both of those races ended with damaged cars and retirements, setting the stage for a 1978 season that saw more of the same. The young driver seemed to have the speed, but not the patience, for Formula One. By mid-season Villeneuve had improved, and he took a popular win at his home Grand Prix in Montreal.
In 1979, Ferrari introduced the 312-T4 to compete with the ground effects cars that were beginning to change the face of Formula One. The T-4 had only partial ground effects, but still benefited from the massive horsepower provided by the V-12 powerplant. Villeneuve and his teammate, Jody Scheckter, won three races apiece locking up the Constructors Championship for Ferrari.
Scheckter was named the World Driving Champion with Villeneuve in second, a mere four points behind.
Villeneuve, who was nicknamed ‘Piccolo Canadese’ (The little Canadian) by his Italian team, would only win two more races in his brief career. With a diabolically-handling car that probably should have been garaged, he took a brilliant win on the streets of Monaco in 1981.
He followed that up three weeks later with a win in Spain where he utilized every inch of the track to hold back a train of faster cars behind him. At the checkered flag, less than one second separated first through fifth.
It was, however, some of the races that he didn’t win that provided the most enduring memories. I’ll never forget watching Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux, wheel-banging like a couple of Indiana short-track drivers, at the 1979 French Grand Prix fighting for second place.
At Zandvoort, later that season, Villeneuve punctured his rear tire. Rather than limp the car along on the apron, he drove it as fast as he could to the pits. The tire shredded in dramatic fashion, putting Villeneuve into the grass.
Amazingly, he restarted the car, and rejoined the circuit driving on the rim. The suspension eventually collapsed, leaving the rear wheel flailing around and throwing up sparks, as he headed towards the pit.
With the right front now sticking up in the air, as the left rear dragged on the ground, Villeneuve sped into his stall. He screamed at his mechanics to change the tire. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and the car was retired.
In 1981, at the Canadian Grand Prix, he damaged the front wing in the heavy rain. Rather than pit for a replacement, he continued on the circuit with the wing assembly lying over the nose of the car, partially obscuring his vision.
He drove lap after lap in the driving rain with the wing flopping about the front of the car. Finally, the wing fell off, and Villeneuve took a podium finish in a car with the entire nose missing.
In 1982, British designer Harvey Postlewaite was hired by Ferrari to redesign the chassis in the hopes of returning to Championship form. The 126C-2 showed incredible promise and Villeneuve took a podium at Long Beach. This result was thrown out following a post-race protest as the rear wing was found to be too wide.
Penalty notwithstanding, the new car was very competitive. At San Marino, Villeneuve and teammate Didier Pironi held a comfortable lead over the rest of the field in the closing laps
The drivers were ordered to slow down and hold position. Both drivers obliged and slowed the pace. However, on the final lap, Pironi unexpectedly, and quite aggressively, chopped across Villeneuve, taking the win.
The Canadian driver was outraged. Prior to this, Pironi and Villeneuve had a good working relationship with one another. On this occasion, Villeneuve was so incensed that he publicly stated that he would never speak to Pironi again.
Sadly, this turned out to be true. On the next Grand Prix weekend, at Zolder, Villeneuve was dead-set on beating Pironi’s qualifying time as the minutes ran out in the session.
On a flying lap, Villeneuve came up behind the much slower car of Jochen Mass. Seeing Villeneuve in his mirrors, Mass veered to the right to allow the Ferrari driver through.
At the same moment, Villeneuve also moved right to sweep around Mass. The two cars collided, and the Ferrari was sent airborne. Villeneuve was thrown from the car, still strapped to his seat, into a catch fence some 150 feet away.
Villeneuve had cheated death a number of times in his career, crashing his car violently and living to tell the tale. This would not be the case on May 8, 1982. The world lost a true hero and sportsman that day, with the official cause of death being a broken neck.
It’s hard to put into words the hollow feeling that I had when I heard this news so many years ago. Villeneuve was, in my mind, invincible. His story never should have ended so soon.
I think that Jody Scheckter put it best during this simple eulogy delivered at Gilles’ funeral.
“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.”
Scheckter was right. Villeneuve has left a lasting legacy as his accomplishments are told and retold to the next generations of racing fans.
Rest in Peace
Gilles Villeneuve 1950-1982