Gilles Joseph Henri Villeneuve was born in 1950, in Quebec and, after starting his competitive career in snowmobiles, rose to stardom after a couple of seasons in Formula Ford, and then winning both the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic championships in 1976. Villeneuve had beaten James Hunt and other GP drivers in a Canadian Formula Atlantic race and Hunt pointed him out to McLaren. Hunt told the McLaren management about them with the words “That kid is a genius! He can really drive!“. Even back in those days it was rare for a driver to point out the skills of an OTHER driver. Prompting Teddy Mayer to give Villeneuve a call, and arrange a meeting.
In the end it was decided to give Villeneuve a seat in an outdated M23 for the ’77 British GP, which would be their third car alongside the new M26’s driven by Hunt and Mass. On that Thursday Villeneuve drove an F1 for the very first time. During practice he changed nothing on the car, each time he came in to the pits he told the mechanics how great the car was and if he could have another go, to learn more.
In the meantime journalists and photographers would pop-in at the McLaren garage and tell them of the times the saw the new guy go off track or spin the car. Naming every corner on the Silverstone track! So when Villeneuve came back in to the pits Alastair Caldwell, who was McLaren’s team manager and head mechanic at the time, asked him if he had troubles with the car, since people told him he spun at every corner. To which Gilles replied: “I’m just finding out how fast I can go round the corners. You can’t tell how fast you’re going unless you lose control of the car.”
After a while he spun the car less and less, even ending up the pre-qualification session in p1. During the actual qualification session he ended up in ninth place, one place in front of Jochen Mass, the no.2 McLaren driver, in a newer M26. Eventually he would finish the race in 11th place, after a pit-stop for a faulty oil temperature gauge. Gilles Villeneuve was 29 when he was offered test driver role (and a five-race deal for the end of the ’78 season) with McLaren after the 1977 British GP.
But right before that he was invited to Maranello where apparently Enzo was reminded of the great Tazio Nuvolari, and Gilles had received a similar offer, after a test session at Fiorano. He had been lapping the track in a 312T2 for half an hour, when he returned to the pits. In just 20 laps he had worn out a complete set of brake pads. Pads that should comfortably last a whole race…
So when he told McLaren about it Mayer said that he should call Ferrari’s bluff and ask them for a full drive or nothing. Enzo promptly signed him up, from the last two races of 1977. Leaving Caldwell to be furious with Mayer, for not only throwing away a rough diamond but also negotiating his deal! Apart from that one-off McLaren drive Villeneuve only drove for Ferrari throughout his tragically shortened career.
Villeneuve, talking about those early snowmobile days said: “Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills, being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. 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 having any worries about racing in the rain.” Maybe he should have worried a little more, but he was certainly fearless.
John Blunsden wrote in The Times: “Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man.”
Enzo Ferrai said: “When they presented me with this ‘piccolo Canadese’, this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognised in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let’s give him a try.”
Villeneuve replaced Niki Lauda, who left Ferrari two races before the end of the ’77 season after some disgruntlement (but not before winning his second title), but had a sad start to his career in the final event in Japan where he banged wheels with Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell, took off… and landed on a group of spectators, who were in a prohibited area. One spectator and a marshal were killed, and ten people were injured. An investigation decided not to apportion any blame.
Villeneuve’s first full F1 season (1978) began with an eighth place in Argentina (plus fastest lap), followed by four retirements, the fourth at Long Beach, where Villeneuve had qualified second, and led for much of the race, until colliding with a back-marker and retiring. After that he would end up taking a fourth place at Monaco. After a string of further disappointments Villeneuve gained his first podium in Austria and then winning the final race in Canada – still the only Canadian to have won ‘at home’. However his teammate, Carlos Reutemann, won four times, to finish third in the Championship – there was more to come from Villeneuve.
At Monza the tifosi were overjoyed to see Villeneuve take his second front-row start of the year, and he also finished second in the race, but he and Andretti jumped the start and were penalised one minute, leaving them sixth and seventh. There were many incidents in the race, which was red-flagged as a result of Peterson’s crash, and it was about to be restarted, three hours late, when Jody Scheckter’s Wolf lost a lap on the formation lap, and flattened the guard-rail. A deputation of drivers examined the area, and asked for adjustments, and a much shortened race started at 6 PM, four hours late.
Mario Andretti: “I was on pole, and Gilles was next to me on the front row. He jumped the start and I reacted to it, so I jumped it too. We both knew early on we’d been penalised a minute, but still we fought the whole race like we were going for the win. I followed him until about six laps from the end. I could see him work really hard in that Ferrari. And I was waiting for the mistake, but the mistake never came… So I made my move at Ascari, just went in there full on the limit, and he gave me the room I needed. That showed he was thinking, and had a lot of respect. And I had great respect for him because of that.”
While Reutemann took the vacant seat at Lotus for the ’79 season, Villeneuve was joined by Scheckter. It was Ferrari’s year, at least until Alan Jones’ Williams came good in the second half and won four out of five races. The record shows Scheckter took the Championship with Villeneuve second, four points down: they each had three victories, and three second places. Villeneuve had an additional second place that had to be dropped, while Scheckter had four fourth places, two of which were dropped. [NB: at that time only the best 4 results from the first 7 races, and the best 4 results from the last 8 races counted towards the Drivers’ Championship] Both drivers had one pole position but Villeneuve was the only one to score fastest laps – six of them.
After the first five races Villeneuve led by 20:16 but he failed to score in the next two and Scheckter pulled ahead. At the half-way point Villeneuve trailed 20:30, and failed to regain the lead. It would be twenty-one years before another Ferrari driver would be Champion…
In the French GP there was the titanic battle between Villeneuve and Arnoux which Villeneuve won. He commented afterwards, “I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it’s very easy for one car to climb over another.”
The Dutch GP provided another Villeneuve classic: a slow puncture collapsed his left rear tyre and put him off the track but he limped back to the pits on three wheels, losing the damaged wheel on the way. He completed the lap on just two wheels – one was gone, and the opposite one was in the air… Villeneuve insisted the team replace the missing wheel, and it apparently took a while to assure him the suspension damage was beyond repair. Reaction at the time was mixed: either an act of the ultimate competitor not wanting to give up… or an irresponsible, emotional decision.
In Italy Villeneuve could have gone on to win the Championship by beating Scheckter… but allegedly chose to finish second, less than a second behind, ending his own championship challenge. Although Scheckter was ahead in the Championship Villeneuve was still in contention. He qualified fifth to Scheckter’s third and ran right behind Scheckter’s gearbox throughout the race… Was he on team orders to let Scheckter win if Scheckter was ahead, was he being a gentleman, or was Scheckter simply the faster man on this occasion. At no time during the race was Villeneuve seen trying to pull alongside, or even pulling out of the slipstream to take a look.
His behaviour throughout was of the dutiful No.2 driver, reminiscent of Moss to Fangio, Peterson to Andretti, and many others… and yet Gilles Villeneuve was nobody’s stooge. Did he run so consistently close to demonstrate he could have taken the lead? Whatever, it was extremely uncharacteristic for a man who was never slow to put his car’s nose ahead… and keep it there… to apparently accept second best on this occasion. During the year, when they both finished without a problem, Villeneuve beat Scheckter 6:4.
I have no desire to denigrate Scheckter’s Championship – I just find Villeneuve’s behaviour unusual. Unless it was a Ferrari decision…
In his last ever interview Villeneuve would use this to explain his feud with Pironi, after the ’82 Imola GP: “When I was behind Scheckter, in South Africa in ’79, I only passed him when he was in the pits. When I was in Monza, and it was my last chance to win a race, and the Championship was at stake (’79), I stayed behind Jody without trying to pass him. When I was at Monaco, before the gearbox broke, Jody was in front of me, going slowly. Because he had a huge lead, and I never tried to pass him. That was the Ferrari rule!”
Funnily enough Scheckter would comment about that Monza win:“As much as I trusted Gilles – I was looking in my mirors more than usual. On the last lap I slowed right down in one section, then just went as fast as I could for insurance… I would have been surprised if he had tried anything but I always look out for surprises.”
In Canada Villeneuve qualified second, between the two all-conquering Williams cars, while Scheckter languished in ninth. Villeneuve jumped into the lead and held off Jones for fifty laps before having to give best to Williams, though he held on to second from a really hard-pushing Regazzoni.
Finally to Watkins Glen. The record book shows Villeneuve won, in wet conditions, but he was 48 seconds ahead of Arnoux… after Jones had crashed, from an ill-fitted wheel. But there’s a lot more to that story:
The rain was so heavy for the Friday practice session and only a few cars ventured forth. Villeneuve was fastest, 11(!) seconds ahead of Scheckter. Yes, you read that right. Eleven seconds! Scheckter would later recalled: “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!”
Twenty minutes before the race started it was raining again. Villeneuve jumped ahead and after two laps was five seconds ahead but, as the track began to dry, Jones closed in and went ahead on lap 31. Villeneuve pitted for slicks but, when Jones did the same, one wheel wasn’t properly fitted, and he was soon out of the race, leaving Villeneuve almost a full lap ahead of Scheckter, who later lost a tyre. Villeneuve cruised home, with fading oil- pressure, 48 secs. ahead of Arnoux.
1979 turned out to be Villeneuve’s best year – he would not even get close to winning a championship again.
Ferrari mechanic Scaramelli: “The Villeneuve era was wonderful, and it peaked in 1979. That year the T4 engine would only break if you dropped it off the back of the truck. And Gilles was fantastic. We were accustomed to Lauda and Reutemann, who respected the machinery. Gilles gave us a lot more work, but he also completely re-awakened our enthusiasm! After each race, if you worked his car, you could see that he thoroughly wrung his car’s neck. The limiter on his accelerator pedal would always be pushed a little further down…”
Now came a dreadful year for Ferrari, 1980 – not a single win, no pole position, no fastest lap, no podium even… and finishing 10th in the Constructors Championship with just eight points – how the mighty can fall. It wasn’t just the Williams cars who took over; Ligier, Brabham and Renault all won two or three races each. Even the Fittipaldi team scored two podium finishes, to place eighth with, sandwiched in the middle, the also once-mighty McLaren team, whose drivers, Watson and Prost, only amassed eleven points between them… In the Drivers Championship Villeneuve finished fourteenth, with defending champion Scheckter in nineteenth
With several very bad accidents to Regazzoni and Jean-Pierre Jabouille, and the loss of Patrick Depailler, 1980 was a dreadful year for more than just Ferrari.
Scheckter decided to call it a day in 1981 and Villeneuve was joined by newcomer; Pironi, to drive Ferrari’s first turbo car which had considerable power and straight-line speed, but turbo-lag and handling problems prevented a challenge for the Constructors Championship, eventually finishing fifth. Nevertheless Villeneuve scored an amazing victory at the slow Monaco circuit and, at Jarama, he held back five faster cars who were able to close up on the corners before Villeneuve roared away on the straights. He also took pole position and fastest lap at Imola.
In Monaco Villeneuve finished forty seconds ahead of Jones, who was fifty seconds ahead of Lafitte, the only other drivers on the lead lap but, in Spain, only 1.24 seconds covered 1st-5th places – the second closest finish in F1 history. It was also Villeneuve’s last victory, and is often held up as a tactical masterpiece. He only qualified seventh but at the start he jumped to third at the first corner, and was second at the end of the first lap…
Jones was in full control, until he spun off on lap 14, and Lafitte, Watson, Reutemann, and de Angelis closed up on Villeneuve, and all five were packed like a 215kph tin of sardines, to the line. [Some F1 purists childishly denigrate ovals but check the 2013 Indy Lights race at Indianapolis – a four-abreast finish, with 0.0026 secs. between them.]
Midseason Ferrari acquired the services of Harvey Postlethwaite to pen the 1982 car (with a young Adrian Newey in the drawing office), who said: “That car…had literally one quarter of the downforce than, say Williams or Brabham. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. 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.”
In the penultimate race at Ile Notre Dame, which would be renamed, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the following year, Gilles drove with a seriously damaged front wing for much of the race, probably obscuring much of his forward vision, and in heavy rain… But I expect he thought it was nothing compared to his snowmobile days. Nevertheless he should have been black-flagged but after several frightening laps the wing became disconnected, and Ferrari left him to decide. I say this because the wing could have easily caused a death if it had hit anyone when it let go, and even the debris could have had severe repercussions. As with the missing wheel in 1979, Villeneuve drove without apparent concern for what could have happened behind him.
Ferrari mechanic Corradini: “Another legendary race. Gilles was charging in the wet with his front wing bent upwards and compromising his visibility. But for him it made no difference. He was on his way to the podium. I was terrified that Forghieri was going to stop him. Call him in to change his nose. I was Pironi’s mechanic, but I was a fan of Gilles. So what I did, crazy as it may seem, was to grab the board with ‘Box’ written on it and hide it. At that point Forghieri could say what he wanted: the signal, the order for Gilles to surrender, couldn’t been shown by anyone!”
1982: Now came disaster, with which I have already dealt with in the Pironi article. I don’t enjoy writing of tragedies, and the loss of Villeneuve in a practice accident was, and still is, a tragedy. Many people have attempted to ‘explain’ the incident – most have a highly subjective opinion. All we know for certain is that Villeneuve came across another, slower- moving, car, both drivers took evasive action, but failed to avoid a collision, and the Ferrari took off. Villeneuve, still strapped to his seat, was thrown from the disintegrating vehicle and died in hospital that evening.
Gilles Villeneuve was especially noted for his exuberance, even devil-may-care approach to racing. Certainly he so often put his car where a lesser man (i.e. almost all other drivers) would not have dared, and his impeccable car control enabled him to pull it off. But.. in his final performance even Villeneuve’s skill proved insufficient to get himself out of trouble.
Niki Lauda said of him: “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. Gilles was the perfect racing driver, I think. In any car he was quick. He didn’t drive for points, but to win races. I liked him even more than I admired him. He was the best -and the fastest- racing driver in the world!”
Professor Sid Watkins once said about Villeneuve that what an inch was for Gilles was like a yard for anyone else. He was that precise.
Chris Amon: “People always talk about Senna, who obviously had brilliant races too. But Senna had the advantage of being in top rate equipment for some of those races. Gilles most exceptional races were driven in uncompetitive cars.”
Rene Arnoux: “At Watkins Glen one time, I asked him -the corner before the pits, I take a small lift there, do you? He said he also lifted a little there, but in final qualification he would try it flat out. So just before the end of the session I came to this corner and there was his car. Completely destroyed in the wall. But he was OK. So when I got back to the pits I asked him if this bend could be taken flat out? ‘No, Rene’ he said, ‘I tried, but it is not possible.’ But he had decided that it could be done so he tried it… And that was Gilles Villeneuve for me.”
In the end Villeneuve would only score six wins (from 67 starts), two pole positions and a further 13 podiums. Plus eight fastest laps. But he created this immortal legend. I’m a massive Villeneuve fan, and perhaps I romanticise his story a bit too much. If you ever go to an F1 race and you come across a guy with a massive Villeneuve tattoo on his right arm come say ‘Hi’ to me, hahaha.