Thirty years ago motor racing lost one of the most spectacular drivers the F1 grid has ever seen. Gilles Villeneuve died on the track, pursuing his passion for speed and style
Back in the all-or-nothing days when sex was safe and motor racing dangerous, few things came close to Formula One. As organised sports went, this hallowed league of vehicular hell-raising was the perfect package: a Technicolor circus of speed that offered more action and drama than a Saturday morning soap opera.
Glamorous and exciting – rudimentary machines equipped with powerful engines and not a lot of grip – it came imbued with something that Bernie Ecclestone’s modern-day equivalent so dearly lacks: characters.
It took a special breed of driver to pilot those dangerous F1 cars of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only the most extreme personalities were drawn to the challenge. The starting grid was always packed with people you actually gave a damn about – people like Gilles Villeneuve.
Rivalling Stirling Moss as one of the greatest drivers never to win the World Championship, this pint-sized Canadian displayed one of the most exciting driving styles the world has ever seen – an attribute that can be traced to his misspent youth in the small town of Berthierville, Quebec. The son of a piano tuner, Villeneuve dabbled in music until his father, bless his soul, gave him a ropey MGA when he was a teenager – and the bug bit.
Once he had finished high school, the now car-crazed Canadian tried his hand at drag racing. Perhaps it was the monotony of going straight, but blasting down a quarter-mile of bitumen just didn’t keep his switch flipped for very long. What he really wanted was to get into the single-seater scene and follow in the footsteps of 1960s F1 heroes like Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees.
The problem was that he simply did not have enough money. Instead of putting his racing dreams on ice, Villeneuve cut his losses and pursued a more affordable form of motorsport with a uniquely Canadian flavour: snowmobiling. And, man oh man, was he good at it.
He was so adept at carving his way through the white stuff that he was offered a factory-backed ride with the Skiroule team – which helped him quickly become both the Quebec and Canadian champion. The competition was tough (as were the sub-zero conditions) but this did wonders for Villeneuve’s reflexes.
“Every winter you would reckon on three or four big spills,” he later said. “And I’m talking about being thrown onto the ice at 160km/h. 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 worrying about racing in the rain.”
So how did Villeneuve make the leap to F1? After enrolling in the Jim Russell driving school and winning rookie of the year honours in Formula Ford, he graduated to Canada’s single-seat premier division: Formula Atlantic. It was here that he had a fortuitous meeting with another one of motorsport’s infamous personalities, James Hunt, who he beat in a race in the Quebec city of Trois-Rivières. Afterwards Hunt went back to McLaren and sung the young Canadian’s praises. “He is really extraordinary, you should employ him.”
And that’s exactly what they did. Well, sort of. For the 1977 season McLaren offered him a five-race deal – but he only ran one event due to team politics. Fortunately an impeccably dressed Italian named Enzo Ferrari knew talent when he saw it and snapped Villeneuve up for the 1978 season. “I took a gamble on Gilles and I never regretted it.”
The Canadian stayed more than three years. “If someone said to me that you can have three wishes,” Villeneuve once said, “my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in F1, my third to drive for Ferrari.”
Canada’s export became a smash hit with fans thanks to his wild and exuberant driving style. No doubt riffing off the lessons learnt in his snowmobile career, Villeneuve never gave anything less than 110% and was always at the very limit of the performance envelope. From seemingly impossible, last-moment overtaking manoeuvres to pulling massive sideways drifts through high-speed corners, he acknowledged the importance of playing to the gallery. “I love and respect my fans because races exist thanks to them. This is the reason one must always give the best.”
This flamboyance did not go down well with some of his peers, the late Ronnie Peterson stating that Villeneuve was “a public danger”. It also meant he was unusually hard on his equipment. “He was the high priest of destruction,” said old man Ferrari, “but his way of driving showed us … how much we had to improve all these parts so they could withstand the assault of any driver.”
Villeneuve was responsible for some of the craziest moments the sport has ever seen. Like the time in the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix when, after his left rear tyre punctured, he continued storming around the circuit to reach the pits in the shortest time possible; a trail of shredded rubber and sparks crackling in his Ferrari’s wake. This never-say-die attitude resurfaced in the rain-sodden 1981 Canadian Grand Prix when a front wing folded up and partly obscured his vision for a couple of laps. Refusing to pit for fear of losing time, he continued until it eventually snapped off. Villeneuve soldiered on and finished third.
Some say that this attitude played a leading role in his death in 1982. Furious with his teammate Didier Pironi, who had, in his mind, stolen victory from him in the San Marino Grand Prix, Villeneuve hit the next race at Zolder, Belgium, with a mean fire burning inside his belly. He ignored Pironi outright and refused to be outclassed by him in qualifying.
Villeneuve went out on one last desperate attempt to bump his teammate back to second on the grid. Charging hard on well-worn rubber, things were looking good until he neared a slower March being driven by Jochen Mass. Trying to get out of his way, Mass turned into Villeneuve and his Ferrari, now travelling at 225km/h, disintegrated into a ball of debris. Villeneuve was flung out the car and into a nearby catch fence. He died, aged 32, from a neck fracture.
The loss of Villeneuve plunged the establishment into depression. He was, without a doubt, one of the most naturally gifted and courageous drivers the sport had ever seen. He existed purely for the raw thrill of chasing down the chequered flag and would let nothing, nobody, get in his way. “He was the craziest devil I ever came across in F1,” recounts Niki Lauda. “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.”