Gilles Villeneuve – the most loved

In 1982, at the Belgian GP, Sid Watkins, F1 neurosurgeon, was the first to reach the scene of Gilles Villeneuve's accident, performing emergency procedures. «There were parts of his car everywhere, he was still breathing and moved his pupils. I placed a tube into his windpipe for ventilation with his heart in normal condition.” Gilles was airlifted by helicopter to University St Raphael Hospital in Leuven, and Watkins spoke to Villeneuve's wife Joann who was in her home in Monaco when Jody Scheckter informed her of the news.

Joann flew to Belgium along with Scheckter's wife Pam to speak with Watkins. Although the driver had effectively been killed on impact, Watkins and the hospital medical team kept Villeneuve alive on a respirator until his wife arrived and the doctors consulted specialists worldwide. “At Leuven hospital we realized that the fracture of the neck was fatal. I brought in the wife, I explained the situation to her, then,” Watkins reported, “we switched him off.” He died at 21:12.

Really fast over one lap, the champion of the heart and impossible overtaking. Loyalty and authenticity from another time. Not a man for world titles but for individual feats, that are recalled today maybe more than the victories of a whole championship. Villeneuve made the impossible happen. He seemed invincible, immune to accidents. His body remained intact on the outside even after the fatal flight, the last feat of Gilles. Sometimes you die as you lived and this has never been more real than with him.

Gilles Henri Villeneuve, a Canadian racing driver born in 1950, started his racing career early in snowmobile racing in his native province of Quebec. An enthusiast of cars and fast driving from an early age, he moved into single seaters, winning the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic championships in 1976, before being offered a drive in F1 with the McLaren team at the 1977 British GP.

A year later he was asked to join the Ferrari team for the end of the season and, from 1978 to his death in 1982, drove for the Italian team. As he had later remarked: "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 One, my third to drive for Ferrari ..." His races promised a bright career, and he quickly became a favourite among Formula One fans. Gilles Villeneuve, a winner of only 6 Grand Prix, and without a single championship title to his name in his short career. The horrific accident that took his life has left a void in all of our hearts. His death was untimely, but his legacy lives on forever. His son Jacques became F1 world champion in 1997.

Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, a small town just outside Montreal, in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada and grew up in Berthierville. In 1970, he married Joann Barthe, with whom he had two children, Jacques and Mélanie. During his early career Villeneuve took his family on the road with him in a motorhome during the racing season, a habit which he continued to some extent during his F1 career.

He often claimed to have been born in 1952. By the time he got his break in F1, he was already 27 years old and took two years off his age to avoid being considered too old to make it at the highest level of motorsports.

Villeneuve started competitive driving in local drag-racing events, entering his road car, a modified 1967 Ford Mustang. Money was very tight in his early career. He was a professional racing driver from his late teens, with no other income. In the first few years the bulk of his income actually came from snowmobile racing, where he was extremely successful. He credited some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. 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 reaction — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain."

After Villeneuve impressed James Hunt by beating him and several other GP stars in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières in 1976, McLaren team offered the Canadian a F1 deal for up to five races in a third car during the 1977 season. Villeneuve made his debut at the British GP and John Blunsden commented in The Times that: "Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man."

In August 1977 he flew to Italy to meet Enzo Ferrari, who was immediately reminded of the pre-war European champion Tazio Nuvolari: "When they presented me with this 'piccolo Canadese' (little Canadian), this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognised in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let's give him a try." In the last race of the 1977 season, the Japanese GP at the Fuji Speedway, Gilles retired on lap five when he tried to outbrake the Tyrrell P34 of Ronnie Peterson. The pair banged wheels causing Villeneuve's Ferrari to become airborne. It landed on a group of spectators watching the race from a prohibited area, killing one spectator and a race marshal and injuring ten people.

At the 1978 season-ending Canadian GP in Montreal Villeneuve scored his first GP. Gilles was joined by Jody Scheckter in 1979 and won three races during the year and even briefly led the championship after winning back to back races in USA and South Africa. However, the season is mostly remembered for Villeneuve's wheel-banging duel with René Arnoux in the last laps of the 1979 French GP. Villeneuve commented afterwards, "I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another."

At the Dutch GP a slow puncture collapsed Villeneuve's left rear tyre and put him off the track. He returned to the circuit and limped back to the pits on three wheels, losing the damaged wheel on the way. On his return to the pits Villeneuve insisted that the team replace the missing wheel and had to be persuaded that the car was beyond repair. Villeneuve might have won the world title by ignoring team orders to beat Scheckter at the Italian GP, but chose to finish behind him.

During the extremely wet Friday practice session for the season-ending US GP, Villeneuve set a time variously reported to be either 9 or 11 seconds faster than any other driver. His teammate Jody Scheckter, who was second fastest, recalled that "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles's time and — I still don't really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!"

The 1980 season was a complete disaster for Ferrari and Villeneuve only scored six points in the whole campaign in the 312T5 which had only partial ground effects. Scheckter scored only two points and retired at the end of the season. In 1981, Ferrari introduced their first turbo engined F1 car, the 126C, which produced tremendous power but was let down by its poor handling. Villeneuve was partnered with Didier Pironi who noted that Villeneuve "had a little family [at Ferrari] but he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight ... [He] treated me as an equal in every way."

Villeneuve won two races during the season. At the Spanish GP the Canadian kept five quicker cars behind him for most of the race using the superior straight-line speed of his car. Harvey Postlethwaite, who was hired by Ferrari to design the follow-on and much more successful 126C2, later commented on the 126C: "That car ... 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."

At the 1981 Canadian GP Villeneuve damaged the front wing of his Ferrari and drove for most of the race in heavy rain with the wing obscuring his view ahead. There was a risk of being black flagged but eventually the wing became detached and Villeneuve drove on to finish third with the nose section of his car missing. At the 1982 San Marino GP, in order to conserve fuel and ensure the cars finished the Ferrari team ordered both drivers to slow down. Villeneuve believed that the order also meant that the drivers were to maintain position but Pironi passed Villeneuve. A few laps later Villeneuve re-passed Pironi and slowed down again, believing that Pironi was simply trying to entertain the Italian crowd. On the last lap Pironi passed and aggressively chopped across the front of Gilles in Villeneuve corner and took the win. Villeneuve was irate as he believed that Pironi had disobeyed the order to hold position. Meanwhile, Pironi claimed that he had done nothing wrong as the team had only ordered the cars to slow down, not maintain position. Villeneuve stated after the race "I think it is well known that if I want someone to stay behind me and I am faster, then he stays behind me." Feeling betrayed and angry Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again.

In 2007, former Marlboro (company which sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari) marketer John Hogan said: "Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise." A comparison of the lap times of the two drivers showed that Villeneuve lapped far slower when he was in the lead, suggesting that he had indeed been trying to save fuel.

On May 8, 1982, Villeneuve died after an accident during the final qualifying session at Zolder. At the time of the crash, Pironi had set a time 0.1s faster than the Canadian for sixth place. Gilles was using his final set of qualifying tyres. Ferrari race engineer Mauro Forghieri said that Villeneuve, although pressing on in his usual fashion, was returning to the pits when the accident occurred. If so, he would not have set a time on that lap.

With eight minutes of the session left, Villeneuve came over the rise after the first chicane and caught Jochen Mass travelling much more slowly through Butte, the left-handed bend before the Terlamenbocht double right-hand section. Mass saw Villeneuve approaching at high speed and moved to the right to let him through on the racing line. At the same instant Villeneuve also moved right to pass the slower car. The Ferrari hit the back of Mass' car and was launched into the air at a speed estimated at 200–225 km/h. It was airborne for more than 100 m before nosediving into the ground and disintegrating as it somersaulted along the edge of the track. Villeneuve, still strapped to his seat, but without his helmet, was thrown a further 50 m from the wreckage into the catch fencing on the outside edge of the Terlamenbocht corner. John Watson and Derek Warwick pulled Gilles, his face blue, from the fence.

At the funeral in Berthierville Jody Scheckter delivered a simple eulogy: "I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there." At the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari a corner was named after him and a Canadian flag is painted on the third slot on the starting grid, from which he started his last race. There is also a bronze bust of him at the entrance to the Ferrari test track at Fiorano. At Zolder the corner where Villeneuve died has been turned into a chicane and named after him. The track on Notre Dame Island, Montreal, host to the F1 Canadian GP, was named Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in his honour. In Berthierville a museum was opened in 1992 and a lifelike statue stands in a nearby park which was also named in his honour. The number 27, the number of his Ferrari in 1981 and 1982, is still closely associated with him by fans.

Niki Lauda has said 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."

You left us on a day in May when you wanted to show that you were the best. It was not necessary Gilles, we already knew it.

Aug 20, 2015
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