For any new fans to Formula One, it is perhaps difficult to understand why so many people liked Gilles Villeneuve. He did, after all, only win six races in his tragically short F1 career. But that only tells half the story. Gilles raced in F1 from 1977 to his death at Zolder on May 8th 1982. But in that short time, Villeneuve created some of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport. It surely means he is right up with Stirling Moss as one of the greatest ever drivers to have never won the World Championship.
There was nothing conventional about the Canadian’s arrival to Formula One either. His early years were in fact spent racing snowmobiles where he enjoyed a lot of success. It was there that he honed his reactions and pure driving skill that would serve him well for much of his Formula One career. Make no mistake about it; Villeneuve was one of the most spectacular drivers ever to have lived. In a time when the sport was still claiming lives, Villeneuve made no apologies for his driving style. His rivals feared and respected him in equal measure.
Look at his debut for instance. His first race was in the 1977 British Grand Prix, in a third car for McLaren. Even in an older specification car, he split the team’s other two drivers, James Hunt and Jochen Mass to line up ninth. He ultimately finished eleventh after a technical problem meant he lost two laps in the pits – but already people were viewing him as a future champion.
Fast forward to later that year, and he found himself in a Ferrari for the last two races of the season. Enzo Ferrari was famously detached from his drivers – in the past even when a driver was killed driving one of his cars, he very rarely showed any form of emotion. Yet Villeneuve was different – the two got on well and Ferrari was quick to offer Gilles a contract. Like Gilles’ rivals though, Enzo viewed Villeneuve’s driving with a mixture of awe and horror, particularly whenever he was behind the wheel of a road car.
It was Villeneuve’s failure to slow down that often resulted in him getting numerous speeding penalties, but in Italy these were easy to deal with. A quick signed photograph with the policeman involved would deal with that!
Typically, fans find it difficult to decide how to view Gilles in history. Was he one of the all-time greats, or a complete lunatic behind the wheel? Certainly if you look back at some of Villeneuve’s moments, it is easy to find moments of greatness, but also moments that could make you question his mental state.
1978 was Gilles’ first full season in Formula One, and he managed to win his first race, at where else other than his home Grand Prix. He started third, and took the lead on lap 49 of 70 after the leader retired. There was a clear indication of his talent, and predictably, the crowd went mad.
But look further on in the year to Dijon, the French Grand Prix. This race has gone down as one of the all-time classics, and quite simply, if you haven’t seen it, you can’t call yourself a Formula One fan. Interestingly however, it isn’t the winner, Jean Pierre Jabouille, which people remember. It is the battle for second between Villeneuve and Jabouille’s team mate, Rene Arnoux. The two traded places countless times in the last few laps. Arnoux, driving for Renault, was desperate to make it a French one-two finish. But Gilles was having none of it, as they banged wheels in driving you wouldn’t expect to see today, let alone in the 1970s. Ultimately it was Villeneuve who held on to second with Arnoux gracious in defeat, but again, was that greatness, or just dangerous driving?
There was more evidence of madness later that year, at the Dutch Grand Prix. A good result would keep the Canadian in championship contention – but whilst running second in the race, his rear tyre failed, causing him to spin off the circuit. For many drivers, that would be the race over. Not for Gilles. He found reverse gear, backed onto the track, then continued to complete the lap at hardly reduced speed on three wheels. Some claimed it was the perfect Gilles – determined and ruthless, others simply shook their head at what they were watching.
It was this kind of thing that made Villeneuve a culture hero in Italy. Whilst Jody Scheckter, Villeneuve’s team mate duly won the title for Ferrari that year, it was Villeneuve who the Tifosi admired more, memorably nicknaming him “Villanova.”
But if there was one race to demonstrate Villeneuve’s genius more than any other, it was the Spanish Grand Prix in 1981. Now driving an uncompetitive Ferrari, he managed to take the lead after qualifying seventh. Given Ferrari’s struggles that season, no-one imagined he would stay there, especially with four faster cars right behind him. Yet lap after lap, with his car fast through some sections of track, but slow through others, he defended brilliantly for sixty laps under intense pressure. The five cars would cross the line only 1.24 seconds apart at the chequered flag.
It was a drive that caused even Enzo Ferrari to erupt in praise, claiming the race had “made him feel alive again”.
Ultimately however, it was Gilles’ refusal to slow down and his determination to win every lap rather than every race that killed him. Following team mate Didier Pironi’s refusal to accept team orders at the Italian Grand Prix on 1982, Gilles declared war, stating he’d never talk to the hapless Frenchman again. At the following race in Zolder, Pironi put it on pole. Villeneuve went out with only a few minutes left of qualifying – he wanted to humiliate Didier. That is when he caught Jochen Mass’ slowing car, misjudged which side to pass him and the rest is tragic history. He died aged thirty-two.
Even thirty years on from that fateful day, there are still timely reminders of Villeneuve. After Villeneuve died, and Pironi was killed several years later, Didier’s widow gave birth to twins. She named them Gilles and Didier. A few years later, Villeneuve’s son, Jacques, would win the 1995 Indy 500 and the 1997 Formula One World Championship. It is clear then, that Gilles’ legacy lives on to this day.