Driving fast in Formula 1 is certainly not easy, and when heavy rain is pelting the circuit and creating humongous puddles, it becomes mightily more difficult. Such conditions do funny things to people and thus have become infamous for one thing, setting apart the drivers who are good, from those who are simply great.
And what better example of this effect than the 1979 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. After already clinching the title for that year, Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter was expected to be at the top of the timings, or at least near it during practice.
But with the rain pouring down, Scheckter’s team mate, Gilles Villeneuve – a Canadian with a simple minded style of ‘drive fast’ – had other ideas. Gilles set a time 9.5 seconds faster than anyone else, undoubtably proving the extreme talent the Canadian possessed. Rather fittingly, when Villeneuve passed away in 1982, Scheckter said at his funeral: “he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing.”
Truthfully, the career of Gilles Villeneuve – spanning from 1978 to 1982 – is a prime example of why statistics can never tell a full story. Despite many calling him “the greatest of all time,” Villeneuve did only start a mere 67 Grand Prix’s. But, that was all he needed to display his talent, taking 6 victories, the most notable of which were his back-to-back wins at Monaco and Spain in 1981 with an underpowered Ferrari – using patience, talent and ingenuity to emerge victorious.
The undeniable truth is Villeneuve always had a natural talent – and his domination of the 1976 Canadian Formula Atlantic Championship proves this. Villeneuve won five of the six rounds, and then beat reigning Formula 1 World Champion, James Hunt, in the invitational Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières at the end of the season. It was truly the first sign of his brilliance, and those signs just kept coming.
The French Grand Prix of 1979 – Gilles’ 2nd full year of Formula 1 competition – has become infamous for the duel between himself and Rene Arnoux – and it was only for 2nd place! Before the race, Villeneuve was confident his slower Ferrari could beat the faster, turbo-charged Renault. The people called him crazy.
However, with just laps to go in the race, Villeneuve was on the rear wing of Arnoux, and what conspired between them has gone down in history as GrandPrixHistory.org puts it, “the most exciting race for second place in the history of motor racing.”
This famous battle simply optimizes what Formula 1 racing is about: locking the wheels, diving up the inside, chassis banging, stepping on the throttle, and then finishing ahead at all costs. It’s Gilles’ charge up the inside on the penultimate lap with his front left tire smoking as the brakes scorch that best displays the flamboyant, yet controlled nature he possessed. In 2010, 31 years after the duel, Rene Arnoux told ESPN, “You can only race like that with someone you trust completely.” He also said losing to Villeneuve didn’t “worry” him, simply because he knew he’d, “been beaten by the best driver in the world.”
Villeneuve’s Championship success in Formula 1, unfortunately, peaked in 1979 as Ferrari produced a sluggish car incapable of scoring race wins (and podiums too!) in 1980. 1981 promised better things, but after three retirements in the first three races – it was fair to say this year wasn’t looking much better. This season, like the last, was truly set to test Gilles Villeneuve, and just like the rain does, tough periods with a top team like Ferrari separate a simple good driver from the shining greats of the sport.
Villeneuve responded by conjuring up back-to-back wins at Monaco and Spain. Monaco was a testament to patience, with late race incidents for Nelson Piquet and Alan Jones promoting Villeneuve to the lead – winning in a car that was described as “undriveable.”
But, the following race in Spain is perhaps the main reason why this man – who was raised in relatively poor conditions from a small town in Canada – is considered one of the greats of motorsport.
After qualifying an unexceptional 7th, Villeneuve used a mixture of good reactions, and the turbo power of his Ferrari to make his way up to third place by the first corner. His elegance and class allowed him to quickly pass Carlos Reutemann for 2nd. The leader at the time, Alan Jones, then made a costly mistake – running into the gravel – handing Villeneuve the race lead.
Unsurprisingly, the Ferrari was still sluggish and slow (even if it was leading!), and Villeneuve had a new problem, the fastest car on the circuit – the Ligier of Jacques Laffite – was catching him.
Despite the inferior speed on the Ferrari, Villeneuve used his natural talent to simply back the other drivers up behind him, refusing to give them so much as a sniff at the lead. Villeneuve held his nerve and never broke his cool, eventually winning the race. Elio de Angelis could barely believe it when he finished just a mere 1.24 seconds off the lead, but in 5th place!
Award winning Formula 1 Journalist, Peter Windsor, has stated Villeneuve’s win in Spain “surpassed” the incredible achievements in Monaco just 4 weeks earlier. “He drove beautifully, he controlled the race from the start in a car that had no right to be there,” Windsor believes, also adding: “it was indeed a Gilles Villeneuve masterpiece.”
It’s because of results like these that Villeneuve earns the rightful praise as not just a good driver, but one of the greatest ever. Editor of the Autosport Magazine from 1983 to 1996, Bruce Jones, has said in his book, The Ultimate Enclycopedia of Formula 1, “Gilles personified everything good about motor racing.” He believes the Canadian did this through his “open, humorous, irreverent character.”
Villeneuve has also earned local praise, being one of the first members to be added to the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame (CMHF) when it opened in 1993. The organisation has recognized his services to Formula 1 and believe he has earned legend status with the people because: “he captured the imagination of a vast international audience as no other driver has in recent times.”
The CMHF described Villeneuve as “flamboyantly aggressive [and] press-on-regardless,” when he drove a car. However, it’s both of these characteristics that would ultimately contribute to his tragic death during qualifying for the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix at Zolder.
Although, the true tragedy actually starts two weeks before that fateful qualifying session, at the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. The Renault’s had locked out the front row, leaving Gilles Villeneuve and his Ferrari team mate, Didier Pironi to secure the second row. As the race progressed, both Renault drivers, Arnoux and Prost, hit reliability problems, and suddenly, on lap 45 (of 60), Ferrari were 1-2 at their second home Grand Prix.
Such a result at this race would send the Tifosi mad, and so Ferrari showed both drivers a simple pit-board displaying ‘slow’ in an effort to conserve fuel and engine power. Villeneuve would recount in an interview with Nigel Roebuck of Autosport following the race, “that [also] means ‘hold position’ and it has done ever since I have been at Ferrari.” Pironi, however, didn’t see it this way, still believing he was free to race with Villeneuve, constantly overtaking him in the closing laps.
But Villeneuve had seen this situation before, and Pironi’s apparent disregard of the team order understandably struck Gilles Villeneuve on a personal level. Similar such orders had prevented Villeneuve from a potential World Championship fight in 1979, when Ferrari told him to hold off against attacking Jody Scheckter at the Italian Grand Prix.
And just like the rain or the tough seasons of 80′ and 81′, gritting your teeth and accepting a team order when Formula 1’s biggest prize is on the line is indefinitely a hallmark of a truly great driver. Villeneuve never once raised an issue of protest and allowed Scheckter to claim his only World Championship in front of an Italian crowd that was, according to Autosport, “totally out of control.”
Because of this, it’s easier to understand why Villeneuve – who had managed to grab the lead back with one lap to go at San Marino – would never have expected Didier Pironi to lurch up the inside of him on the final lap at Tosa, the last real overtaking spot on the track. Pironi went on to win the race from an incredibly angry, disappointed and upset Villeneuve, who refused to shake his team mate’s following the race end. Various sources have reported Villeneuve as swearing ‘to never talk to Pironi again,‘ when he took to the podium in, what F1 Fanatic call a “dark mood.”
Villeneuve’s anger and resentment toward Pironi followed him to the following round in Zolder, where he was determined to beat his team mate at all costs. Tim Hill and Gareth Thomas have described in their book, Complete Encyclopedia of Formula 1, the “feeling of resentment” between the two competitors as “palpable.”
And so, when qualifying begun, Villeneuve was willing to push the limits in hopes of finding the edge. In doing so, this aggressive approach saw him fail to pass the slower car of Jochen Mass – who was on a cool down lap. Villeneuve’s Ferrari struck the back of Jochen’s car and began violently rolling across the track. The force of the crash was so large Villeneuve was thrown across the circuit into a catch fence. Gilles Villeneuve lay there blue, beaten, and lifeless.
The tragedy was shocking, unexpected and heart breaking to the massive fan base Villeneuve had built up. Alain Prost summed the situation up well, saying: “one thought nothing could happen to him,” making Villeneuve’s death a “greater shock.”
Villeneuve’s father, Seville, described his deceased son as always making “everything he drove go as fast as it would go.”
“Gilles doesn’t feel fear at all,” he said.
Two days after the accident, Niki Lauda told The Leader Post, a local Canadian newspaper, “I think [Gilles] was the best and quickest Formula 1 driver today.”
Rene Arnoux, one of Villeneuve’s closest friends and the man who shared the aforementioned 1979 French Grand Prix duel with him, told crash.net, “It’s true that Gilles was someone who was trustworthy and loyal, both on the track and in life.”
“He was someone I really liked.”
Just 24 hours after his death, a local Canadian radio station set up a petition to rename the Ile Notre Dame circuit in Montreal – the site of Villeneuve’s first win – in his honour. The circuit still hosts Formula 1 today and is known as the ‘Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.‘
Today, Villeneuve is well respected by the Tifosi for the success he bought the Scuderia when racing there for six years.
In an appropriate tribute, a Canadian flag has been painted on the third grid slot at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, to remember Gilles’ last Grand Prix starting position. Rather fittingly, in the first Grand Prix there after Villenueve’s passing (1983), Patrick Tambay, driving car 27 – the number Villeneuve was using when he passed away – qualified in P3. Tambay said, in an emotional post on MotorPosts.com, “20 minutes before the start [of the race], I am taken over by the emotion and the meaning of it all and I cry…”
However, among all of the tributes and praises for this iconic legend of Formula 1 – only one thing can truly represent the natural talent Gilles Villeneuve was consumed by. Jacques Lafitte, a 6 time Grand Prix winner who raced against the Canadian on many occasions, said this about him: “I know no human being can do miracles but Gilles made you wonder sometimes.”
Gilles Villeneuve wasn’t just one of those good drivers, he was truly the greatest driver Formula 1 has ever seen.
1) “Complete Encyclopedia of Formula 1,” Tim Hill & Gareth Thomas, Paragon Book Ltd, Published 2014. Pg. 61
2) “The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Formula 1,” Bruce Jones, The Book Company International Pty Ltd, Published 1995, Pg. 177
3) “Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of a Legendary Racing Driver,” Gerald Donaldson, Virgin Books, Published 2003, Pg. 15 & 253
4) The Canadian Press, 1982, May 10th, “Gilles Villeneuve Driver dead at 30,” The Leader Post, pp. B3
5) F1 Fanatic, “30 years ago today: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari,” http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/2012/04/25/1982-san-marino-grand-prix/, Keith Collantine, Published 25/4/2012, Viewed 9/1/2017
6) ESPN, “The duel with Gilles Villeneuve is something I will never forget,” http://en.espn.co.uk/f1/motorsport/story/5827.html, Adam Hay-Nicholls, Published 6/1/2016, Viewed 8/1/2017
7) Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, “Gilles Villeneuve,” http://cmhf.ca/gilles-villeneuve/, Bumpy, Published 26/8/2012, Viewed 9/1/2017
8) Autosport, “Gilles VIlleneuve,” http://f1greatestdrivers.autosport.com/?driver=10, Unknown Author, Published Unknown, Viewed 9/1/2017
9) MotorPosts, “This one’s for you,” http://motorposts.com/this-ones-for-you/, Patrick Tambay, Updated 23/10/2012, Viewed 9/1/2017
10) Youtube, “Gilles Villeneuve Holds Off the Pack | 1981 Spanish Grand Prix,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHY6wv0VlsU, FORMULA 1 (Peter Windsor), Published 21/6/2015, Viewed 9/1/2017
11) Crash.net, “René Arnoux remembers THAT race with Gilles Villeneuve,” http://www.crash.net/f1/news/172056/1/ren-arnoux-on-that-race-with-gilles-villeneuve.html, Russel Atkins, Published 12/8/2011, Viewed 8/1/2017
12) GrandPrixHistory.org, “Gilles Villeneuve,” http://www.grandprixhistory.org/vill_bio.htm, Author Unknown, Published Unknown, Viewed 9/1/2017
13) Autosport, “GP Gold: 1979 Italian Grand Prix,” http://www.autosport.com/premium/feature/3853/gp-gold-1979-italian-grand-prix/, Nigel Roebuck, Published 9/11/2011, Viewed 10/1/2017