Gilles Villeneuve: An Appreciation
25 years on

Twenty five years have passed since Gilles Villeneuve was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, on May the 8th 1982.

Just as the death of Ayrton Senna, thirteen years to the day one week ago, seems much less distant, so that violent and horrifying accident that destroyed Ferrari number 27 remains fresh in my mind.

Gilles was my hero, my idol, and although I remember the wise words of a college friend who chastised me against worshipping such false icons, with Gilles it was just, well, impossible not to. He personified, to me and to many others, the very ideal of a racing driver, yet, even quarter of a century ago it was clear he was one of the last of the breed.

While Ayrton Senna went to the grave with a myriad of victories, titles, pole positions and other worthwhile records to justify his legendary status, Gilles Villeneuve barely raises a ripple in the history books, with a mere handful of wins across a career that lasted just over four full seasons in Formula One.

What was it, then, that granted the French-Canadian a place among the great and good of the motor racing elite?

I believe James Hunt started the ball rolling when he drove in an invitation Formula Atlantic race in Canada in 1976 and, having been blown away - like the rest of the field – by Gilles, promptly informed his bosses at Mclaren that here was something special.

The rest, as they say, is history – the early crashes while he tried to ‘find the limit’, the win at Canada in 1978, the 1979 season playing dutiful second fiddle to Jody Scheckter, followed by the 1980 season in an absolute dog of a car that he still managed, somehow, to drag to some decent results.

Then, of course, came 1981, and the evil handling turbocharged Ferrari 126CK, which Villeneuve took to victory twice in succession – first time at, of all places, Monaco where he manhandled the car to what must amount to the most unexpected win of the season, and then, the following weekend, at Jarama in Spain.

That Spanish Grand Prix victory is hailed by many as among the finest drives by anyone in the history of the sport. Those that dismissed Gilles as too reckless, too wild, were made to eat copious slices of humble pie as he executed a display of precision driving. Under pressure for the second half of the race from a train of four much nimbler, much better cars, Gilles kept the red ‘truck’ - as it had become known - inch perfect in the corners, dictated the pace perfectly, and used the power of the turbocharged engine to keep ahead on the straights. One mistake and they would have been past – but that one mistake never came. It was, if truth be told, a masterpiece.

Incidentally, Gilles asked after the race what the others had been doing early in the race, while he was flat out all the time, as three of them had started ahead of him on the grid….

It was also his final win. The events of Imola 1982, and the weekend that followed in Belgium, are among the most written about in Formula One folklore, so I will leave well alone but to say that Gilles death came too early, not just for him, but for us.

To say he was in demand is an understatement – he was the best of his day, and according to Jacques Laffite ‘on another level’ – and the belief is that he was on his way from Ferrari to Mclaren, a move that would have put him with Ron Dennis’s fledgling Project Four outfit at just the right time. He would have thrived at Mclaren in those early years, and it is more than mere speculation to say that many wins would have come his way.

World Titles, however, were another thing altogether, and not something at the forefront of Villeneuve’s mind. He raced to win – there, then, on that day – and such trivialities as Championships came later.

Just as readers in the fifties and sixties revelled in ‘Motor Sport’ magazine and the wonderful words of Denis Jenkinson – ‘Jenks’ to all – so I, and everyone I knew who followed the sport in the early 1980’s, read with a passion the writing of Nigel Roebuck (and, I might add, still do to this day.)

Roebuck was – is – if you like, my ‘Jenks’, and it was through Nigel that the very essence of Gilles as racing driver was portrayed to me most vividly. Roebuck and Villeneuve were close friends, and his tales in the mercurial ‘Fifth Column’ took me away from my mundane life in a Cheshire backwater to exotic places where men raced against the odds, where risks were the order of the day, and where Gilles Villeneuve was, quite simply, Formula One for me.

If you get a chance please read Nigel’s obituary to Gilles, as published in Autosport following that fateful weekend (and reprinted on www.autosport.com this week) as it is one of the finest examples of the genre, and a heartfelt and genuine mourning of a great friend.

It is from Roebuck that I steal the paragraph that, to me, answers the question I asked at the beginning of this piece – what gives Villeneuve his rightful place among the greats?

Simply, it was his attitude – a never-say-die and if-it-moves-I-will-drive-it attitude that is somewhat hard to find in this day and age of corporate blandness and driving for points. The three wheels at Zandvoort, for instance, the harrying of the awful T5 throughout 1980, and the majestic victories against all odds of 1981 all give an idea of just why this man was so special.

That the YouTube generation can watch the legendary duel with Rene Arnoux at Dijon in 1979 over and over again is a privilege they should relish. From it they should take on board the sheer competitive spirit – of both drivers – coupled with a sense of fairness, of sportsmanship, that is rarely seen today. Put Michael Schumacher in either one of those cars and we would have been taking bets on which was off the track first.

That sort of spirit died with Gilles.

But the final word, the explanation as to why this man was a cut above, and why his like will never be seen in the modern mind-set of Formula One, goes to Gilles himself, when talking to his great friend, Roebuck:

“How the hell can you drive a race car, fight with people, and think all the time about points for a bloody championship? How can you settle for a safe third or something, because it’s four points? Jesus, people like that should be accountants, not racing drivers.”




Written by Steve Turnbull on Tue, 08 May 2007 11:24:52

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