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For any new fans to Formula One, it is perhaps difficult to understand why so many people liked Gilles Villeneuve. He did, after all, only win six races in his tragically short F1 career. Yet that only tells half the story. In five year of active competition in the sport, he drove for McLaren Ferrari, but in that short time, created some of the most iconic moments in motorsport. In some fans eyes he is right up with Stirling Moss as one of the greatest ever drivers to have never won the World Championship.
There was nothing conventional about the Canadian’s arrival to Formula One. His early years were spent racing snowmobiles, developing his car control in slippery conditions that would be his calling card. He learned that cars could go fast and sideways at the same time, making him spectacular to watch. This was a still a time where danger and death were still part of every weekend’s racing, but you came to see flamboyant maverick drivers like Villeneuve throw his car into corners with aplomb.
The first Grand Prix the Canadian competed in holds more of tale than some other drivers whole careers. At the 1977 British Grand Prix, in a third car for McLaren, he lined up ahead of established driver Jochen Mass, and behind the reigning world champion James Hunt. An eleventh place finish after a technical problem doesn’t sound like a debut to savour, but the speed and guile shown in older, less competitive machinery, especially after spending time running with the leading cars while two laps down, put Villeneuve firmly on the map for the top teams.
By the end of that season Enzo Ferrari came calling, offering a short term deal for the final two races of the year. The Italian supreme was famously detached from his drivers – in the past even when a driver was killed driving one of his cars, he very rarely showed any form of emotion. Yet with Villeneuve it was different; the two got on well and Ferrari was quick to offer Gilles a contract.
Like Gilles’ rivals though, Enzo viewed Villeneuve’s driving with a mixture of awe and horror, particularly whenever he was behind the wheel of a road car. It was Villeneuve’s failure to slow down that often resulted in him getting numerous speeding penalties, but as a Ferrari diver these were easy to deal with thanks to the Italian police’s fondness for signed pictures.
Villeneuve’s Ferrari career was a mixture of outstanding performances and the occasional victory, with a sheer bloody mindedness of succeeding, no matter the cost.
A stunning maiden victory on home soil in Montreal in damp conditions underlined the talent he held. At Monza he diced with the technically superior car of Mario Andretti’s Lotus for the lead. A year later his legend grew – hunting down and passing teammate Jody Scheckter in South Africa in 1979, eliminating a 33 second lead in 30 laps, and setting a time in wet practice at the USA GP East eleven seconds faster than anyone else.
He is also one half of one of the most iconic racing duels in F1 history, holding off the Renault of Rene Arnoux over the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix in a hard-charging, wheel banging battle which still inspires to this day. Was Gilles too stubborn to concede the runner-up spot? Or was it just intimidation and dangerous driving?
There were other moments that brought Villeneuve’s state of mind into question, none more so than the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix. A good result would keep the Canadian in championship contention, but whilst running second in the race, his rear tyre failed causing him to spin off the circuit. For many drivers, that would be the race over, but this was Gilles. He found reverse gear, backed onto the track, then continued to complete the lap at hardly reduced speed on three wheels. Some claimed it was the perfect Gilles – determined and ruthless, others simply shook their head at what they were watching.
Thanks to the fervour nature of the Tifosi, Villeneuve’s exploits earned him a cult status. Would any other team take a gamble on a genius talent with a propensity to not take no for an answer? He had the temperament that suited Ferrari and their fans perfectly, and they loved him for it, nicknaming him “Vilanova” and taking to him more than teammate Scheckter, who won the championship.
But in the later years a maturity came to the fore. With Scheckter retiring he became de facto team leader of the Scuderia and their main challenger. The 1981 car was large, heavy and unwieldy, but had enough straightline speed to be competitive in Gilles’ hands.
No race demonstrated this than the Spanish Grand Prix of that year. On a tight and narrow circuit, Villeneuve qualified seventh and thread his was up to second within the early laps, and inherited the lead when Alan Jones made a mistake. Thus began an expert masterclass in defensive racing, with the Ferrari being chased by four others cars as the las built up; the car was slow in the corners but Villeneuve knew how to park on every apex and keep position, while having the power to breakaway on the straights. For 60 laps he held off all challenges, and the pack crossed the line separated by 1.24s.
The loss of Gilles Villeneuve is a final tale of perceived betrayal. The Canadian and Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi had grown close in the season they had spent together in 1981, but at the Italian Grand Prix the following season the friendship was torn down by Pironi’s refusal to obey team orders and sweeping past Gilles to take the victory. Villeneuve sensed deception and refused to speak to Pironi ever again – a prophecy that came eerily true two weeks later.
At the the following race at Zolder, Pironi was ahead in practice with only a few minutes to go, and an incensed Villeneuve was determined to beat, and even humiliate the Frenchman. Catching the slowing March of Jochen Mass, Villeneuve misjudged a pass and caught his front tyre on a rear wheel, pitching the Ferrari in the air and landing with such force that Gilles was thrown from the car into the catch fencing still in his race seat. He passed away that evening due to a broken neck at the age of just 32.
It’s now been over 30 years since that tragic day. The Villeneuve name has moved on since then – son Jacques won the F1 World Title in 1997 and also saw success at the 1995 Indy 500 – yet the mystical element surrounding Gilles grows each passing year.
There’s no doubting he was an exceptional talent, but could he have maintained performances over a season to win a championship? Was he constantly having to overdrive the poorer machinery at his disposal for so long? Or did he just dance with death once too often? Such questions will never be given an answer, and that’s what makes Gilles Villeneuve one of the most enigmatic characters in F1 history.