The legend that never was: Gilles Villeneuve - 40 years on
Written by Danny Jones Edited by Haneen Abbas
Born in 1950, Gilles Villeneuve was from a humble background and started racing snowmobiles from an early age, before progressing to local and national events. Gilles got his F1 opportunity in 1977 and lied about his age, so he wouldn’t be considered too old for the sport.
He debuted for McLaren at the British Grand Prix, in an older car, and still managed to split teammates Jochen Mass and James Hunt in qualifying. Although he finished in 11th, he was regarded highly ever from that moment, with the Times newspaper stating: "Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man". Although a McLaren deal fell through, Gilles managed to strike a deal with Enzo Ferrari for the end of the 1977 season, and the entirety of 1978.
1978 was a difficult season initially for the Canadian, with consistently sub-par results, with only one points finish in the first 11 races. However, recognizing the Canadian’s talent, Ferrari persisted, and it paid off. Villeneuve claimed victory at the circuit that now bears his name, and was retained for 1979, alongside Jody Scheckter.
But 1979 was the season that truly showed off his ability. Winning consecutive races in Kyalami and Long Beach, followed by a victory in the final race of the season in Watkins Glen. And Watkins Glen saw Villeneuve go 11 seconds faster than any other driver in a remarkable practice session. Teammate Jody 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!" It showed the ability of this truly talented driver, a remarkable feat that could only be achieved by the very best, but that wouldn’t even be the most iconic moment of his season.
The 1979 French Grand Prix. Arnoux and Villeneuve were in an intense battle for 2nd place. Villeneuve aggressively locked up at Turn 1 on the penultimate lap in an attempt to overtake and got through. Arnoux fought back through the next and final lap, and barged his way through at turn 1, banging wheels on their way through. Arnoux ran wide, and it was Villeneuve’s turn to muscle his way through, with the two banging wheels again, before Arnoux darted back up the inside. 1 corner later, Villeneuve pushed his way back past, which he would hold until the chequered flag by 2 tenths.
1980 would be a lacklustre year, competing in a car that would finish 10th in the championship. But 1981, what would prove to be Gilles’ last full season, would be just as memorable as 1979. A car that had incredible straight-line speed but had poor handling would always be difficult to muster. Despite these issues, Villeneuve won 2 races. Monaco, the twistiest and tightest of them all, and his most famous race win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Villeneuve held back 5 cars attacking him, who were all over the Ferrari due to its lack of downforce. Incredibly, a combination of the Ferrari’s straight-line speed and Villeneuve’s incredible defensive driving held the pack back, in the 2nd closest finish of all time. Designer Harvey Postlewaite stated: “To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was."
And, in possibly the most incredible moment of Gilles’ whole career, he damaged his car in the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. In the pouring rain, and with a dislodged front wing, Villeneuve drove most of the race with the front wing blocking his vision. When it fell off, and most downforce was lost, he incredibly finished in 3rd, miraculously avoiding disqualification, for one of the most epic drives of his entire career,
However, it would be 1982 that would spell tragedy. The season started disappointingly, and climax hit at the San Marino Grand Prix. After the FOCA teams boycotted the race, only Renault would be in opposition to the Ferrari of Villeneuve and Pironi. Both Renaults retired during the race, and the Ferraris had the win under their belt but needed to save fuel, so planned to hold position. However, Pironi passed Villeneuve, before Villeneuve re-overtook Pironi, believing it was to give the fans some action. And on the last lap, Pironi aggressively overtook and cut off Villeneuve and took the win. Villeneuve was furious at Pironi and vowed to never speak to him again.
At the next race, the Belgian Grand Prix, still raging at Pironi, Villeneuve set off for qualifying. Pironi was 1 tenth up into the final run, and Villeneuve used his last set of tires specifically aiming to beat the Frenchman. On an in-lap, Villeneuve caught up to the much slower Jochen Mass, and in an unfortunate case of miscommunication, both drivers veered to the right. Villeneuve launched over the back of Mass at about 140 mph before disintegrating as it hit the ground. Villeneuve was launched out of the car and was found blue-faced against the catch fencing. Villeneuve was not breathing, yet still alive, but died due to a fatal neck fracture at 21:12 that evening.
Tributes poured in for Villeneuve. Former teammate, Jody Scheckter stated: "I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing.” Niki Lauda said: "He was 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"
Villeneuve had the Montreal track renamed in his name in 1982, with the track famously bearing the line ‘Salut Gilles’ next to the start-finish line. The Villeneuve chicane was implemented at Zolder to slow cars down into the high-speed section that Villeneuve would pass away at, and the number 27 is still used worldwide in memory of him.
Villeneuve’s legacy lived on through his son Jacques, who won the F1 World Championship in 1997, and bore the number 27 for his Indianapolis 500 crown in 1995.
Formula One is a sport of many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, but it can be said that if it weren’t for Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal accident during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, he would be remembered as an F1 legend by all to this day, a driver with the capacity and capability for multiple world championships. His accident cut short a remarkable career, which displayed some of the most incredible driving the sport has ever seen, even by today’s standards.
A driver who feared nothing, from driving with a front wing obscuring his vision in the pouring rain, to his 11-second advantage in a wet practice, to the iconic battle with Arnoux at Dijon 1979. These are just 3 of Gilles’ moments that are remembered in Formula One folklore today. Gilles was a special driver, it was recognized by everyone up and down the paddock, a one-in-a-generation sort. But Gilles passed as a generational talent that never had the opportunity to equate this talent into titles, a sore loss for the F1 history books.
Enzo Ferrari said ‘his death has deprived us of a great champion’, a champion that was never to be. The fact that Villeneuve has received legendary status amongst F1 fans, and whose legacy is one of the most significant to this day, shows what a driver he was. A driver where statistics don’t tell the whole story, but instead the memories of epic, but fearless and incredible driving.
Gilles will and never should be forgotten, and it is truly hard to summarise what his legacy is, but also what could have been if it weren’t for that tragic day on the 8th of May 1982. It is hard to conclude what Gilles was like as a driver over a keyboard, so I will leave it in the words of Jody Scheckter to end this tribute: ‘But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.’