Gilles Villeneuve: The Last RomanticWritten by Αυγερινός Δημακόπουλος
Translated by Giannis Binas
“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.”
One phrase concentrates the ideology of the Canadian virtuoso, who captivated the world of motorsports.
A mild human that loved racing and transformed into a fearless machine each time he was getting into machine powered constructions.
A romantic character, the actions of whom were more fitting those of the ones who were racing during the interwar period.
A twofold, uncompromising and highly polarizing personality, which, even to this day, divides those who deal with Formula 1.
During the 4.5 years he was competing to the sport, he didn’t have enough time to fill the statistic boards with records and championships, but manage to leave indelible memories to wherever he was present.
His glamor, not only didn’t fade away with time, but continues to build an unmatched legend, making those who have known him to reminisce him and those who have only read about him to wonder…
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born on January 18, 1950, in Saint Jean sur Richelieu, a city of the French speaking province of Quebec, Canada, and was raised in Berthierville, a few kilometers from Montreal.
His father, Seville Villeneuve, was a piano craftsman, spending a lot of time away from home for his job and, this way, Gilles and his younger brother, Jacques (who would later become a racing driver too), stayed alone with their mother, Georgette, quite often.
Influenced by his father, Gilles sought to become a musician and had particular inclination to the trumpet.
When Seville and georgette created a small clothing business, they bought a VW van for transport, which was the first vehicle Gilles drove.
He certainly loved the experience and at the age of 15, Seville bought him his first car, a 1958 MGA, which Gilles set to repair.
His first driving experiences weren’t pleasant at all, since he crashed the MGA as well as his father’s Pontiac.
More vehicle followed when he took his driving license at the age of 16, among them another MGA with which he had a major accident that sent his to the hospital for head stitches.
The beginning with the snowmobile
When he finished school, he competed in local dragster events with a modified 1967 Ford Mustang but was soon bored with them.
Seville built him a snowmobile and started racing with it. Soon, he started to win and in 1969 he became member of a factory team.
In 1970, he married his companion, Joann, and in winter of 1971 he was crowned Quebec champion, while conquering the World Series 440cc at the state of New York.
In April of the same year, Joann brought the first child of their family to the world, the later F1 world champion, Jacques.
Gilles had bought a prefabricated house to accommodate his family but he was frequently absent because of the races.
In 1972, we once again wins the title at Quebec and in the winter of 1973, he is crowned Canadian champion. He has stated about snowmobiles: ‘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.’
In July, the coming of the fourth member of his family, Melanie, grew Gilles’ responsibilities but didn’t affect his raving ambitions to the slightest.
He turned his interest in car racing and made a passing from Jim Russell’s school at the circuit of Mont Tremblant to get a driving license.
He competed in Quebec’s Formula Ford championship and was crowned champion winning 7 out of 10 races, with inferior equipment and zero experience.
Formula Atlantic was next, in 1974; the top single-seater league in Canada with evolved chassis and Cosworth 1600cc, but the participation fee was huge and, specifically, more than 50.000 dollars.
Villeneuve, without giving it a lot of thinking, sold his house to collect the necessary funds.
Joann, naturally, reacted to that, but she was left with no choice. Besides, Gilles had taken care to get a caravan so they could follow him to the races.
The year proved to be disastrous though, with lots of retirements and absence from plenty of races due to a broken leg after an accident.
He will repay the accumulated debt by making many appearances at the snowmobiles, where he was popular, while he managed to convince one of the manufacturers (Skiroule) to fund his second year in Formula Atlantic.
In 1975, with his own team and without any kind of competitive package, he finished 5th in the championship, claiming a win at Gimli under heavy rain, while, in spite of his retirement, he stole the show at the annual race at the streets of trois Rivieres, at which, many F1 stars were present such as Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Vittorio Brambilla.
After another dominant winter at the snowmobiles, where he claimed 32 wins in 36 races, he started preparing for 1976.
By now, he was a rising star and wasn’t particularly difficult for him to find a team and sponsors.
Still, even his most optimistic fan couldn’t have expected what followed. Driving for Ecurie Canada in a total of 12 races at the Canadian and American Formula Atlantic (6+6), he took 8 wins and, of course, both titles. However, gilles anticipated the Trois rivieres race, where he would compete anew against F1 stars and would have global press coverage.
Besides Brambilla, James Hunt, F1 champion a few months later, would also compete that year, as well as many other names that would later make an appearance in the pinnacle of motorsports, such as Alan Jones, Patrick Tambay and Hector Rabaque.
Hunt would race for Ecurie Canada, with Villeneuve’s team granting him a brand new chassis.
That didn’t discourage the Canadian, who comfortably took the pole position, leaving the Brit to wonder about his performance.
Gilles won the race ahead of Jones and hunt, impressing everyone with his driving and, especially, with the way he controlled the car’s sliding.
In 1977, he defended his title in the Canadian Formula Atlantic with 3 wins and he competed in four Can Am races with Walter Wolf’s team, finishing 3rd on Road America.
In Formula 1 through… James Hunt
James Hunt, upon his return to England after the Trois Rivieres race, informed McLaren’s director about the miraculous Canadian, urging him to test him.
Gilles, reaching 27 years old, started spreading out that he was born on 1952, for he feared that his age might have been an inhibitive factor for entering Formula 1!
Teddy Mayer, will close a deal with him for a few races and on July 1977, he will invite to participate in the British Grand Prix of Silverstone, where McLaren had prepared him an M23.
Villeneuve will pay the escape routes plenty of visits during practice, trying to get familiar with the single-seater.
In spite of his inexperience, he will achieve the 9th time in qualifying that rendered him faster than McLaren’s second driver, Jochen Mass, who was driving the new M26.
A problem with the fuel gauge in the race dropped him at 11th, while being in the points sextet.
Teddy Mayer, despite Gille’s good appearance, didn’t abide with their deal, taking into consideration Marlboro’s objections and how ‘costly’ the Canadian would be on spares.
Villeneuve will return to Canada to fulfill his obligations in Formula Atlantic, On August, however, he will receive a phone call that every racing driver would love to answer.
he call was from Maranello, to which he was being invited by Enzo Ferrari himself.
“Il commendatore” had watched Silverstone’s grand prix on television and wanted to discuss with him the possibility of cooperation for 1978.
Thus, on Scuderia’s expenses, he found himself in Italy. Enzo will later on state about their meeting: “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.”
He will immediately go to Fiorano for testing, during which he had plenty of mistakes and relatively slow laps, irritating Ferrari’s technical director, Mauro Forghieri, for the wear he was causing on the car.
The mechanics, on the contrary, considered that his driving could point out for them which parts needed improvement for reliability purposes.
It was the “commandatore’s” opinion that was heavy, of course, and he decided to give him a seat at his team.
Enzo’s intention of ‘racing’ a third car for Villeneuve, stood the cause for Niki Lauda’s exit from Ferrari, having secured the title at Watkins Glen, as well s a generous contract with Brabham.
Gilles covered the empty seat for the remaining races of 1977, making his first appearance with the Scuderia’s colors at the Canadian Grand Prix.
At his home country, he faced problems with the transmission and had an exit right before the end, sliding at the oil that had leaked from the broken engine of Mario Andretti’s Lotus, while in Japan he collided with Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell in an attempt to overtaking him on the brakes.
His Ferrari, after a few spins, ended in a space where some spectators have entered illegally, mortally wounding one of them, as well as a judge.
The, at times, hysterical Italian press demanded the Canadian’s ‘expulsion’ but Enzo Ferrari was uncompromising, believing in his potential.
The F1 marathon began in Argentina, with Ferrari facing problems with Michelin’s tires and Villeneuve finishing 8th, right after his team-mate, Carlos Reutermann.
The Canadian respected the Argentinean’s experience and was trying to learn from him during his first year in the sport.
In the next 4 races (Brazil, S. Africa, Long Beach, Monaco), he will have an equal number of retirements with the one at the American street circuit being the most characteristic, where, leading the race, he unsuccessfully tried to ‘lap’ Regazzoni and hit the wall.
In Belgium, he spent a big part of the race behind the leader, Andretti, until he had to change a tire and dropped to fourth. In the next 3 races in Spain, Sweden and France, the Ferrari faced problems with the Michelins once again and he finished 10th, 9th and 12th respectively.
In England, he will retire from gearbox and in Germany he will finish 8th.
At the Austrian GP’s weather variations, he held the right balance and brought the 312T3 to the 3rd place, getting on the podium for the 1st time.
He finished 6th in the Netherlands, while in the eventful Italian race, he finished 2nd, but received a penalty for false start that degraded him to 7th place.
He will retire with a broken engine at Watkins Glen and will prepare for his home race and last one of the season, which would take place for the first time in his hometown, Montreal.
He was third quickest in qualifying, encouraging thus 100.000 of his compatriots to ‘flood’ the semi-permanent circuit of Notre Dame.
He will drop to 4th at the start, but until the middle of the race he had already reached second place.
When the Lotus of the leader, Jean Pierre Jarier, suffered from loss of oil pressure, he kept the first place to the end, claiming his first win under the Canadians’ delirious celebrations.
The fact that he took his first win, especially in his home, at his first year in F1, was dreamlike, while he was accompanied to the podium by his future team-mate, Jody Scheckter and the current one, Carlos Reutemann.
That result brought him to the 9th place of the championship.
At the first two races of the season, competing with the 312T3, he retired from engine in Argentina and finished 5th in Brazil. Attempting to adapt to the ‘ground effect’ demands, Ferrari will introduce the new 312T4 in South Africa, where Villeneuve will claim his second win in F1 and Scheckter will finish second, making the 1-2 for the Italians.
At the eastern Grand Prix of the U.S.A., the scenery will repeat itself with Villeneuve being amazing.
Pole position, fastest lap and, of course, victory, in front of Scheckter, which brought him to the top of the points.
Right after the American Grand Prix, Gilles will prevail at the race of champions too, that this year was being held at Brands Hatch.
Two 7th places will follow in Spain and Belgium, where he ran out of fuel on the last lap, while in Monaco he retired from gearbox.
Ferrari wasn’t as fast as Ligier and Williams, but was more reliable something that allowed her to lead the race for the championship.
At the French Grand Prix of Dijon, Renault was the fastest and got their first win, but the epic battle for second place between Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux at the last three laps, remained in history as one of the sport’s finest.
Arnoux will state about this race: The duel with Gilles Villeneuve is something I will never forget.
You can only race like that with someone you trust completely. 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.”
He stayed out of the points in England and Germany, but in Austria, he returned to the podium, taking 2nd place.
In the Netherlands, starting from 6th position, he managed to reach the top after an impressive overtake on Jones from the outside at the first corner, before getting off the circuit by a flat tire.
Refusing to retire, he was back on track and drove with three wheels to the pits, where his mechanics had to persuade him that the damage to the rear was irreparable to get him out of the car!
Reaching Monza, due to the peculiar scoring system, Scheckter and Villeneuve were in position of securing both titles.
In the race, the Ferraris, taking advantage of the Renaults’ troubles, made the 1-2 with Scheckter getting the win and the championship and Gilles following in 2nd.
A rule was imposed in Maranello, providing that, in case the red single-seaters were in the first places without being threatened, the drivers maintained their positions.
Something that Villeneuve would take for granted 3 years later.
With the championship having been judged, Villeneuve will finish 2nd in Canada after a prolonged fight with Jones.
The show ends at Watkins Glen, where, in Friday’s wet practice, he will record a lap time nine seconds faster than the second!
In the race, he will manage to win despite having an oil pressure problem, finishing the championship 2nd with 47 points.
The next year proved to be as disastrous as the previous one was dreamy.
Williams, Ligier and Brabham took the wing cars idea one step ahead, leaving everyone else behind.
Ferrari with 312T5 proved slow and unreliable as its boxer engine didn’t go well along the ‘ground effect’ philosophy.
Inevitably, Villeneuve’s results were discouraging.
He made it to the points just four times. He finished 6th in Belgium, 5th in Monaco, 6th in Germany, 5th in Canada and had 6 retirements.
In Imola, a flat tire sent him with many kilometers to the wall before Tosa, destroying the Ferrari without incurring any injuries though.
That bend carries his name nowadays and it’s the same spot where, in 1994, Roland Ratzenberger lost his life.
Nevertheless, he was already established among the top and after Ronnie Peterson’s death, he was considered the greatest talent behind the steering wheel.
Others, like Alan Jones, called him reckless and brainless; Eddie Jordan agreed to that opinion considering him “a hooligan who never would have won a championship”. Gilles, sure thing, enjoyed life, having settled with his family in the tax heaven of Monaco.
Joann escorted him in almost every race, the children were attending private schools and he now had the comfort of buying several ‘toys’, such as an Agusta helicopter and a speedboat.
He was kind with the journalists and some of them, like Nigel Roebuck, were personal friends of his, and whenever they were giving him calls to hear his news (especially from Canada)he hanged up to call them back so they wouldn’t get charged!
Niki Lauda called him "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".
He loved speed and there are plenty of urban legends about his driving on public roads.
One day that he was at home in Monaco, he received a call from Maranelo asing him to go there for some testing.
Thus, he took Joann with him and driving a Ferrari 308 GTS, he covered the 450 kilometers separating him from the Italian village, in 2,5 hours.
The worship he was experiencing in Italy was such that policemen, instead of issuing him speed tickets, were asking for his autograph!
For 1981, Villeneuve had the first Ferrari single-seater with turbo engine, the 126CK, at his disposal, carrying the number 27 a number to which the Canadian would be inextricably linked.
Its bodywork proved one of the worst in the grid as it merely produced just a quarter of the downforce the top combinations had that year.
At the same time, the engine, although powerful, had massive turbo lag followed by a ferocious power curve, making for a very tricky driving experience.
Following Scheckter’s departure, Gilles was Scuderia’s leader. Nevertheless, he warmly welcomed his new team-mate, Didier Pironi, and treated him as an equal.
The year started with many reliability problems that will now allow him to finish in any of the first 3 races.
It rained in Imola and Ferrari was competitive with Villeneuve getting the pole position but risking with choosing to start on slicks.
The risk didn’t work and he had to enter the pits for wets, recovering to 7th place. In the chaotic Belgian Grand Prix, he will ignore politics and protests to finish 4th.
In Monaco, he will manage to position the cranky Ferrari at the first row of the start, but in the race he was unable to follow Piquet’s and Jones’ pace.
When the Brazilian retired however, and the Australian suffered a fuel feed problem, he was close enough to take advantage of the situation and claimed his fifth checkered flag.
Gilles was trying to bring a balance between the bodywork’s drawbacks and the powerful engine with masterful moves of the right foot, something that became apparent at the rhapsody he performed in Spain.
In the narrow circuit of Madrid, he will start 7th to immediately rise in 3rd behind Reutemann and Jones.
At the end of the first lap he will overtake the Argentinean and will find himself in the first place, when Jones –who had already opened the difference- had an exit.
While on the lead, a gaggle of faster cars will start to close on him, comprised of Lafitte, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis.
For 50 laps, Lafitte was approaching him in the corners, turning alongside with him in many occasions, but Villeneuve, taking advantage of Ferrari’s power, he was leaving him back in the straights, eventually taking a great win (which would be the last) with five cars finishing with an overall 1,24 seconds gap.
Lafitte stated after the race that no man can perform any miracles but Gilles makes you wonder!
Brabham’s designer (and McLaren’s later on) Gordon Murray will firmly fill in that it was the best performance he had ever seen!
He will have 5 retirements in the next six races as a result of mechanical problems, exits and collisions, while, in Germany, he will finish 10th.
He will start from 11th place in the flooded Canadian Grand Prix and will ascend to 3rd, when, in an attempt to lap de Angelis, he breaks his front wing, which obstructed his vision for a few laps, until it detached completely.
Nevertheless, he will continue undismayed, holding his position and climbing on the podium for a third time that year.
In the last grand prix, in Caesar’s Palace of Vegas, he will take a wrong place at the start but he will retire from engine before the stewards disqualify him for his offense.
His harvest for that season was 25 points and 7th place in the championship.
The omens for 1982 were splendid. Harvey Postlethwaite had been hired by Enzo Ferrari to create a competitive bodywork that would take full advantage of the engine’s power. 162C2 was also lighter and didn’t fall short of the competition anymore.
In South Africa, Villeneuve, together with Pironi and Lauda, will be at the forefront of the drivers’ strike against the FISA, which wanted to implement restrictions on the superlicense.
When the ‘union’ practices ceased, Gilles recorded the third time in qualifying, but made it just to the 6th lap of the race due to a turbo failure.
He will start second in Brazil and will lead for 29 laps, until making a mistake in braking during a fight with Piquet that will drive him off the track.
After a big fight with Rosberg, he will finish 3rd in Long Beach, but Ferrari’s choice to use an unconventional rear wing will result in being disqualified by the officials.
The political conflict between FISA and the constructors’ association (FOCA) forced Brabham, McLaren, Lotus and Williams to stay out of the San Marino race and, essentially, Ferrari’s only rival was Renault.
Gilles will start third and in a few laps he will overtake the French cars with Prost retiring on the 7th lap.
Villeneuve was comfortably leading the race with Pironi second. Following Arnoux’s retirement on the 44th lap, Ferrari’s pitwall instructed their drivers to slow down, in an attempt to save fuel and avoid any possible mechanical problem.
The Canadian, trusting this meant they were maintaining their positions as well (as in Monza, 1979), started to move slower and was overtaken by Pironi.
After switching positions plenty of times, their quarrel evolved to a fight during the last laps with the Frenchman overtaking Gilles shortly before the checkered flag, claiming the win.
After the race, Gilles was furious with his team-mate saying him that he would never talk to him again.
Many tried to calm him down, including Jackie Stewart, but Villeneuve’s discontent on the podium was most obvious.
Before boarding his helicopter to return to Monaco, he stated that he had proved that if he wanted to be faster and to leave someone behind, then he stays behind.
Scuderia’s racing manager, Marco Piccinini, wanting to undermine the event, didn’t position himself on the matter and tried to reconcile the two drivers, something that irritated the Canadian even more.
He felt betrayed by the team and, according to Joann, he was thinking of withdrawing at the end of the year, quite possibly for McLaren, which had already reached him though a relative of his, so they wouldn’t learn about this at Ferrari.
In such a mood, the team showed up in Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Ahead of the race, Gilles will talk to Belgian reporters pointing out the wing cars dangerousness as well as the fact that Zolder was one of the few circuits where the driver could really make a difference.
He also uncovered that he would like to compete in other forms of motorsport, such as IndyCars, rallies and Le Mans.
Shortly before the end of the qualifying, Villeneuve exited the pits foa his lat timed lap, which was slower than Pironi’s.
According to Ferrari’s technical director, Mauro Forghieri, he was returning to the pits when he reached with high speed Jochen Mass, before Terlamen cornen.
The German seemed to become aware of him at the last moment and moved to the right clearing the racing line, but Villeneuve was already moving in position to overtake him from the inside.
Ferrari hit the rear of March and went airborne, rotating a few times before nosediving into the ground, where it disintegrated.
Gilles was thrown off the car without his helmet and hit the nearby catch fencing, breaking his neck.
Several drivers and marshals rushed to aid him, while Sid Watkins, head of the Formula 1 on-track medical team, arrived soon too and placed a tube in his windpipe for ventilation.
Immediately, a helicopter transferred him to the hospital, where a fatal fracture of the neck was diagnosed.
Villeneuve was kept alive on life support until Joann travelled there. He succumbed to his wounds later the same evening.
The world of F1 went numb and many expressed their grief but life must have gone on and everyone participated to the race as normal, except Ferrari that returned to Italy as bereavement.
Under the instruction of the popular Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, Villeneuve’s body will return to his home country by an airplane of the Canadian air force, while himself will escort Joann and her family at the funeral service.
Thousands of Canadians paid tribute to their compatriot.
Many of his co-athletes were present too, such as Jacques Lafitte, Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, the latter stating: “for me, firstly, Gilles was the most genuine person I ever knew.
Secondly, he was the fastest racing driver that history has ever known. He went doing something that he loved. But he hasn’t left us… because the world will remember what he has given to motor racing.”
Villeneuve’s best moments by the hand of Murray Walker
The greatest trophy
A few months after his death, the circuit of Montreal was named Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and since then, in the start – finish line, there’s the sign ‘Salut Gilles’.
In 1987, Didier Pironi’s companion brought twins to the world and named them Didier and Gilles.
In 1992, a museum was opened in Berthierville with several of his personal objects.
He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame at their inaugural induction ceremony in 1993 and in 1997, Canada also issued a postage stamp in his honor.
There is still a monument in Zolder with his helmet, while the turn where the accident happened was turned into a chicane and took his name.
Enzo Ferrari, prior to passing into eternity, stated that his past was full of sad memories and whenever he was looking back to reminisce his dearest persons, Gilles Villeneuve was one of them.
In his office, that was left untouched after his death, there is still a frame with the photograph of the tragically lost Canadian.
In 2012, 30 years after his death, Ferrari invited his son and his family to Maranello to honor his memory.
The 1997 champion had the opportunity to drive his father’s 312T4 in Fiorano, at the entrance of which, there is a bronze statue of Gilles.
Gilles Villeneuve might not have conquered the top of Formula 1 but managed to win the greatest trophy of them all:
The love of the people; the glory.
He captured the fans’ imagination in a way that only Ayrton Senna imitated after him.
He was the last one of a generation of romantics, who loved speed and competition, defying fear and danger, living every moment to the limit.
All these were concentrated in a phrase by the four-time world champion Alain Prost: “he was the last great driver – the rest of us are a bunch of good professionals.”
Active years in Formula 1: 1977 – 1982
Teams: McLaren, Ferrari
Pole Positions: 2
Fastest laps: 8
- Gilles Villeneuve
- Jacques Villeneuve
- Patrick Depailler
- JeanPierre Jarier
- Vittorio Brambilla
- James Hunt
- Alan Jones
- Patrick Tambay
- Hector Rebaque
- Jochen Mass
- Teddy Mayer
- Enzo Ferrari
- Tazio Nuvolari
- Mauro Forghieri
- Niki Lauda
- Mario Andretti
- Ronnie Peterson
- Carlos Reutemann
- Clay Regazzoni
- Jody Scheckter
- Rene Arnoux
- Roland Ratzenberger
- Eddie Jordan
- Didier Pironi
- Nelson Piquet
- Jacques Laffite
- John Watson
- Elio de Angelis
- Harvey Postlethwaite
- Keke Rosberg
- Alain Prost
- Jackie Stewart
- Marco Piccinini
- Sid Watkins
- Ayrton Senna