‘Well young man,’ Enzo Ferrari asked, ‘how much do you need to be content?’ This was the question posed to a surprised Gilles Villeneuve in his first meeting with Enzo, after he’d been summoned by phone from his home near Quebec, Canada. Who knows what financial deal was done, but here started a relationship that became the stuff of legend! Gilles (father of 1997 Champion Jacques) had been recommended to Enzo by Walter Wolf, a Canadian construction and oil tycoon who also ran his own F1 team. But Gilles wasn’t an altogether unknown entity, as he’d raced for McLaren on one occasion at Silverstone earlier in 1977, due to have been ‘spotted’ by James Hunt disappearing into the distance in a Formula Atlantic race, at the end of 1976.
As Niki Lauda’s replacement at Ferrari, Enzo was taking a risk on a relatively inexperienced driver like Gilles, but then he’d taken a risk with Lauda and had successes with him, so with that foresight he decided to take a chance with the petite French-Canadian. Enzo Ferrari had been in the game since he had raced cars himself in the 1920’s, before going on to build his motor empire, so he knew what signs to look for in a driver. Gilles’ early races were mixed; he lead two races, he had spectacular shunts, he made errors and his car had problems with tyres. The Italian press questioned Gilles Villeneuve’s right to drive the red car, but their doubts were silenced when he won his first race at his home circuit in Montreal at the end of 1978.
Early in 1979, and with a fine car beneath him, Gilles Villeneuve was in top form and scored victories in South Africa and America, along with the non championship ‘Race Of Champions’ at Brands Hatch. Three wins in a row and leading the driver’s championship ain’t bad, thought Enzo, and he seriously thought about letting Gilles race for the title. This sounds odd, but he’d already signed the more experienced Jody Scheckter as number one driver. As the season progressed Scheckter gathered points with two victories and was on the verge of becoming world champion. All he had to do was stay ahead of Gilles at Monza and he would have the crown. Scheckter’s number one status was to be honoured and so like the true gent that he was, Gilles drove round for 50 laps almost attached to Scheckter’s gearbox, knowing that he could easily overtake him and get the victory and so stay in the title race. Enzo Ferrari was a tough man to impress, and even after winning the world championship, Mr Scheckter hadn’t endeared himself to Mr Ferrari. Jody Scheckter received no congratulatory telegram, phone call or gift!
However, Enzo’s and Gilles’ bond grew stronger, in a sort of grandfather to grandson kind of way. This could be compared to Flavio Briatore’s and Fernando Alonso’s relationship in modern times, or Ron Dennis and Lewis Hamilton for that matter. Enzo enjoyed Gilles’ attacking style of racing, always pushing the car to the limit to get the result. In actual fact Gilles was something of a car-breaker, damaging his machinery regularly in his pursuit of glory. But Enzo laughed about it, knowing that the spectacle that Gilles was, went towards building an endearing worldwide following and a strong close-knit team. On one occasion, in Holland in fact, Gilles suffered a tyre blow out whilst in second position, and spun off at the first corner. After reversing out of the catch fencing and back on to the track, he drove at high speed on 3 wheels for nearly a full lap back to the pits, as his car disintegrated around him. As another show of skill, he drove back with only one hand on the steering wheel, whilst the other was raised high as a warning signal that he was slow on track! With his right front wheel lifted into the air, the Ferrari was now driving with just two wheels in touch with the tarmac! Once back in his pit, he demanded that the wheel and suspension to be fixed immediately! It took some persuading by the pit crew that the car was beyond repair and that Gilles was out of the race!
In the years that followed, whatever car that came out of Enzo’s factory -be it good or bad, Gilles drove it 100% and never complained, for he just loved to race. The rest of the F1 paddock were amazed on many occasions at how Gilles turned a dog of a car in to a winner, by wringing it’s neck like a stock car at a dirt track! And Enzo enjoyed every minute of it, as a legend had been created.
The photo above was taken at Imola in 1979, during practice for the F1 non-championship race – Dino Ferrari Grand Prix. Gilles, in relaxed mood, stuck his Ferrari on pole, but came a cropper during the race -bending his front wing, whilst sparring for the lead with Lauda’s Brabham. After a swift pit stop, Gilles rejoined and finished seventh. Again during an average race, he had provided most of the entertainment!
The image here captures the two men sharing a drink and a joke -perhaps about Gilles’ flamboyant antics on track, maybe, just maybe, about his 3-wheeled incident in Holland three weeks earlier, that had given the world a lot to smile about!
Photo credit: Giampietro Sanna.