I was looking through posts that I had made on my old blog and there is really only one that I am truly happy about. I made this about 18 months ago for the 25th anniversary of the death of one of the greats of Formula 1, Gilles Villeneuve. Even though he died before I started watching the sport, Gilles is someone who I became fascinated with due to not just his speed and skill, but also his never give up attitude. Ferrari never gave Gilles a car worthy of his talents and never really gave him the support he deserved even though Enzo Ferrari ranked him as his second favourite driver of all time after Tazio Nuvolari.
Anyway, here is the post that I made…
Remembering Gilles Villeneuve
Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve, one of the fastest men to ever race in Formula One. He died on the 8th of May 1982 while trying to qualify for the Belgian Grand Prix at the Zolder circuit.
Villeneuve raced before I started following Formula One in 1985, so I actually never saw him drive in a grand prix, but I still have some fond memories of Gilles. As a kid I used to have a poster of the scarlet number 27 Ferrari 126 turbo that Gilles drove in 1981. By all accounts it was a wretched car with awful handling but lots of horsepower, it certainly was an ugly brute, yet Gilles won the Monaco Grand Prix on the tight and twisting streets of Monte Carlo in it. He then amazingly followed that up with another victory at Jarama in incredible circumstances. It was the second closest race in Grand Prix history with less than 2 seconds covering the first five cars. For lap after lap Gilles lead a train of cars all trying their hardest to pass him. Well respected and skilled drivers such as Jacques Laffite, John Watson and Elio De Angelis tried again and again in vain to pass Gilles but he skillfully held them off to take what would be his final victory. “It took incredible mental strength to withstand the pressure not just from one but from a gaggle of cars,” former F1 driver David Kennedy said. “He almost had to do a Fred Flintstone with the car: put his feet out the bottom, pick it up and run with the thing. It showed he had the heart of a true champion.”
There was also the fantastic battle at Dijon in 1979, where Gilles and Rene Arnoux dueled for second place, their battle completely overshadowing the winner Jean Pierre Jabouillle in the Renault. This is a battle that many people still remember as one of the best ever. I have this on video at home of this and it is simply the most amazing racing duel I have seen. For the final two laps of the race both Gilles and Rene banged wheels and overtook each other again and again until finally Arnoux, in his turbo charged Renault made a slight mistake which allowed Villeneuve’s flat 12 Ferrari through into second place. “Only Villeneuve could have made that happen,” Arnoux said. “I had confidence because it was Gilles. I would never have tried to fight so ferociously with any other driver.”
Another race that endeared Gilles to the tifosi was at Zandvoort 1979 when he drove his car flat out to the pits on three wheels after a puncture. Alan Jones labelled Gilles a lunatic for doing this but Gilles thought he was simply just doing his job. Similarly in 1981 Gilles drove much of his home race at Montreal with a severely damaged front wing obscuring his view. He still finished that race in an amazing third place.
Then there was his incredible qualifying performance for the 1979 USA East Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, when in torrential rain Gilles’ time was eleven seconds quicker than his second placed Ferrari team mate Jody Schecketer. At the time Scheckter said, “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!”
Any article on Gilles also needs to address the argument that he had with his Ferrari team mate in 1982, Didier Pironi, and about the result of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. As neither man is still alive it would be really unfair to take sides, yet it is fair to say that in the 25 years since, Pironi has been cast as the villain of the affair. For those who are unaware of this incident, Villeneuve and Pironi were in positions 1 and 2 as the race was entering its final stages. Both Ferraris had dominated the field and the powers that be had ordered that the cars slow down to conserve fuel. Pironi then decided to pass Gilles for the lead, and for a few laps they diced, putting on what Villeneuve thought was an just exhibition for the crowd, as Didier had not tried to defend his position when Gilles went to retake first place. Gilles stayed in the lead until just before the end of the final lap when Pironi suddenly decided to overtake him and then put his foot to the floor. This time when Villeneuve tried to take back his rightful position Didier slammed the door shut in his face. Gilles thought he had been betrayed and cheated by someone he considered to be a close friend. Gilles commented on that last lap at Imola by saying , “I was cruising along and believed that Pironi was being honest. I was not expecting him to pass me, but all of a sudden I saw him coming up on me. He slid past with all four wheels locked, and that was the end of it.”
Didier told reporters his version of the incident, “We both had engine problems and there were no team orders.” Gilles responded to that by saying, “That is not true. In all my time at Ferrari, when you get a ‘SLOW’ sign it means ‘hold position’. To finish second is one thing, but second because he steals a place is something else.” Gilles vowed to never speak to Pironi again, and sadly he never did, as he died two weeks later while trying to better Pironi’s qualifying time for the Belgian Grand Prix. “The honour that Gilles brought to the agreement, whatever it was, clearly he thought Pironi had broken it and it was like he’d been stabbed in the heart,” John Watson later said.
Gilles only won six races and was never world champion, yet he was loved by most of his fellow competitors. Alain Prost, Patrick Tambay, Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite were all awed by Gilles’ talent and respected him as a man of honour. Niki Lauda considered Gilles to be a ‘crazy son of a bitch’ but also counted him as a good friend. Paying tribute to Villeneuve at Zolder, Niki said, “Gilles was a perfect racing driver, I think, with the best talent of all of us. He didn’t race for points, but to win races. He was the best and the fastest – driver in the world.” Even Alan Jones respected Gilles and recognized his talent. “When you passed Gilles you earned it, he never gave you anything and he certainly wouldn’t open the door,” Jones said. “But you also knew that you could race wheel-to-wheel with him and he wasn’t going to do anything unpredictable or stupid.” At Gilles funeral Jody Scheckter said, “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.”
Perhaps the only contemporaries who seemed to have little respect for Gilles were John Watson and Nelson Piquet. Watson maintained that Gilles often took unnecessary risks and was crazy. “I am critical of Ferrari of not doing a better job of controlling what was obviously a very tense situation. Gilles was a unique racing driver, but he took one chance too many and that to me is the bottom line. But he also showed great skill on many occasions… We all have passion and we have to learn when to use it and when not to use it. It really wasn’t passion that killed him but in a sense bitterness.” Piquet could not understand why people admired Gilles so much. “He could have won the championship in 1979, but threw it away. He was spectacular, sure, but anyone can slide a car around – then your tyres are finished, and so is your chance in the race.”
The tifosi all held a great affection for Gilles but it was not always that way. For the first season that he spent with Ferrari there were many fans of the Prancing Horse who were not very happy that Il Commendatore had taken a chance on an unproven and unknown talent. Many thought of Villenueve as a wild man who took too many risks, a quality that would later endear him to the tifosi. There was even a move by some people to get Elio de Angelis to Ferrari in 1977 and 1978 because of Gilles inability to get to the finish of a race with the car in one piece. Many in the press dubbed him ‘Air Canada’ because of his propensity to have spectacular accidents, while the man that he admired most and the person he would replace as the fastest man in Formula 1, Ronnie Peterson suggested that Gilles was out of his depth. It is quite amazing how Gilles turned his public image around and captured the imagination of the fans. I think that the reason that fans were initially upset with the Canadian was that he was so inexperienced but walked in to the seat vacated by the great Niki Lauda, who had taken his 1977 World Driver’s Championship with him to Brabham. Not only that but in 1977 and 1978 the Ferrari was a race winning car, yet Gilles seemed to wreck the car more times than finish a race. Things turned around when in 1979 Gilles almost took the World Driver’s Championship from his more experienced team mate Jody Scheckter, while in 1980 and 1981 Gilles had to do everything possible to make the horrible cars that Ferrari produced to be slightly competitive, something that neither of his team mates in those years, Scheckter or Pironi, could do.
One of Gilles great charms was that he was almost totally unaffected by his fame or position as Ferrari grand prix driver. He was a simple man with simple tastes. While other drivers would live the high life and eat the best cuisine and drink the best wines, all Gilles would yearn for was a restaraunt that would serve him a hamburger, french fries and a Coke. Other drivers would turn there noses up at Gilles when he turned up in the paddock with his hugely uncouth motorhome, wife Joann and children Melanie and Jacques. This is another trait that endeared him to the tifosi, that he was just like them, only richer.
If Villeneuve had lived would he have become World Champion? Probably, although as Murray Walker has always said, F1 spelt backwards is IF, meaning that F1 has always been totally unpredictable. It is known that Ferrari had far and away the best car in 1982 and that either Pironi or Villeneuve would have been World Champion if neither of them had suffered the horrific crashes that they had that season. In 1983 the Ferraris were also very strong and won the Constructors Championship, whilst with two races to go both Arnoux and Tambay were still in the hunt for the World Championship. It was also rumoured that Ron Dennis had offered Gilles a contract to drive for McLaren in 1984 as a replacement for Watson, and that in the aftermath of Imola, Gilles was on the verge of signing it. From 1984 until 1991 McLaren were the most dominant team in F1 winning 7 World Drivers Championships and 6 Constructors Championships. I am sure he would have been very successful.
Perhaps the greatest compliment given to Villeneuve was by his boss Enzo Ferrari, who considered Gilles to be one of his top three favourite drivers of all time, ranking him with Tazio Nuvolari and Stirling Moss.