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Villeneuve: The drive of his life

  1. Motor racing has punished its heroes more than most, though
    it’s vastly safer now than it once was. Thirty years ago, things could still go
    savagely wrong, and on 8 May 1982, during the final minutes of qualifying at
    Zolder in Belgium, they did for Gilles Villeneuve. Clipping Jochen Mass’s
    March, Villeneuve’s Ferrari was launched into the air, sending him hopelessly
    into the catch fencing, and breaking his neck. He was 32.  He also went to his grave in turmoil,
    after his teammate Didier Pironi had apparently stitched him up and stolen
    victory at the previous race, the San Marino Grand Prix, held at Imola. Close
    friends said Gilles’s judgement had been impaired by anger and disbelief.

    “Gilles was a pure soul,” Enzo Ferrari’s son Piero remembers. “He didn’t think
    anyone would put him in a position where he would be jeopardised.
    Unfortunately, unpredictable things happen. What happened at Imola was a tragic
    story, and there’s still a lack of clarity about exactly what happened.”

    Words: Jason Barlow

    This feature was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Grand Prix starts: 67. Wins: six. Pole positions: two.
    Fastest laps: eight. Total points scored: 107. If ever there was a driver whose
    reputation rests on something other than statistics, it’s Gilles Villeneuve.
    His was a career that was pulled out of the ether, a little man from Canada who
    was seemingly racing snowmobiles one moment, Ferraris the next.

    He was a driver
    for whom the percentage game was anathema, who earned every one of those 107
    points driving the only way he knew how: flat out. Not just flat out, in fact,
    but flamboyantly, spectacularly so, summoning up grip from nowhere, and sliding
    his car with the sort of skilful abandon that signified a gift from the gods
    when really there was no grip to be had. He was beyond exhilarating to watch.

  3. Having soundly beaten James Hunt in a race in Quebec in
    1976, Villeneuve earned a ‘selected races’ deal with McLaren, and made his
    Formula One debut in the ’77 British GP. He qualified ninth and narrowly missed
    out on a points finish, thanks to an unnecessary pit stop. McLaren boss Teddy
    Mayer inexplicably passed on his services, allowing someone even mightier to
    step in.

    When Enzo Ferrari signed Villeneuve on 29 August 1977, to replace Niki
    Lauda, it was an outrageous leap into the unknown for the biggest name in
    motorsport. There were journalists present that day who had no idea who
    Villeneuve even was. But the ‘Old Man’ knew exactly what he was doing.

  4. “I like to think that Ferrari can build drivers as well as
    cars,” he noted. “I admired Villeneuve. He’s the product of a bet I made with
    myself. Some people called [him] crazy. I said, ‘Let’s try him.’ [His] hiring
    surprised the public and unleashed an outcry which might have been justified at
    the time.” Almost 35 years later, Piero Ferrari chuckles at the memory. “As you
    know, my father was not one to be contradicted. No one could change his mind.
    He wanted to show the world he’d made the right choice.” He wasn’t immediately
     vindicated.

    There were so many crashes and incidents – including a dreadful
    somersault into the crowd at Fuji in 1977, in which two people were killed –
    that Enzo soon nicknamed him the ‘Prince of Destruction’, and Gilles’s habit of
    pushing the limit tested the patience of his rivals. But he soon stopped making
    mistakes, and he was never – contrary to the myth – reckless for the sake of
    it. Watch him at work in the legendary 1979 French GP, battling René Arnoux
    wheel-to-wheel for 34 laps but never tangling with him, if you want proof. Or
    read about how he lapped Watkins Glen 9.6 seconds faster than anyone else in
    the wet later that year, or about how he wrestled 1981’s powerful but hideously
    unwieldy Ferrari 126C to victory at Monaco and Jarama (the true index of his
    talent, according to most experts).

  5. “My preoccupation was keeping myself alive, but Gilles had
    to be quickest on every lap, even in testing,” his Ferrari teammate and 1979
    World Champion Jody Scheckter once noted. “Motor racing was a romantic thing
    for him. We were close friends, doing the same job for the same team, but we
    had completely different attitudes to it.”  “Gilles was an honest, almost naive guy. The daredevil,
    devil-may-care image he had… he wasn’t like that,” Scheckter told me more
     recently.

    “He cared about safety, and worked hard at his racing, though he
    could be a bit wild in the car. He was trying to win every lap, whereas I was
    trying to win the championship. That gave me some confidence, actually.”

  6. In reality, Gilles probably should have won the 1979 title
    instead of Scheckter; at Zolder, Jody had inadvertently bundled him into Clay
    Regazzoni’s Williams, prompting a costly pit stop for a new nose, while the
    puncture Gilles sustained while leading at Zandvoort – captured in arguably the
    most famous shot of him of all, and one of F1’s defining images [see right] –
    robbed him of certain victory in the race, and with it the championship. Gilles
    accepted it all with good grace. He figured his time would come…

  7. He relocated to the French Riviera, but hated the local
    cuisine and sought out burgers and coke. He commuted between Monte Carlo and
    Maranello in his Ferrari 308 GTB, routinely nailing the 350-mile journey in a
    bewildering two-and-a-half hours. He also learnt to fly a helicopter – in three
    weeks – and went on to terrify a succession of friends and family, including
    his teammate Scheckter.

    On one occasion, he opted to cut the engine to deal
    with an overheating battery. It was an unorthodox approach, and unappreciated
    by the South African. “F**k you, Villeneuve!” he told him, “I’ll never get back
    in that goddamn thing ever again!” On another occasion, he hovered directly
    outside Niki Lauda’s hotel bedroom until the Austrian woke up. “The craziest
    devil I ever came across in Formula One,” Lauda said. But he loved him all the
    more for it.

  8. Everyone did. They still do. That’s why his passing away on
    8 May 1982 is being commemorated 30 years to the day, at the place that meant
    so much to him: Fiorano. In fact, the road that leads to the gates of Ferrari’s
    famous circuit is called Via Gilles Villeneuve. The bust of the driver at the
    main junction is always covered in fresh flowers. It wasn’t just Enzo Ferrari
    who loved him like a son – it was all of Italy.  

    The 30th anniversary of his death has extra resonance,
    though. Gilles’s son, 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques, is driving his father’s
    1979 312 T4 at Fiorano, a fitting tribute that has drawn Ferrari Chairman Luca
    di Montezemolo, Vice President Piero Ferrari, CEO Amedeo Felisa, former
    Technical Director Mauro Forghieri, not to mention Fernando Alonso and Felipe
    Massa, and a host of other guests, including Gilles’s widow Joann and daughter
    Melanie. There’s already been an unofficial celebration in Modena which
    apparently attracted more than 20,000 tifosi. How many other F1 drivers can you
    name that still provoke this sort of devotion?

  9. I watch Jacques do a handful of laps, surrounded by members
    of Gilles’s original pit crew, most of whom are wearing yellow Agip team
    jackets, many of whom are well into their seventies. There’s a lot of love and
    laughter in the area, but sadness undercuts the bonhomie. Brenda Vernor, Enzo’s
    secretary and secret weapon until his death in 1988, dabs her eyes with a
    tissue. “Gilles slept at my house,” she recalls. “He was my little boy, but a
    wonderful man. Mind you, I remember when they gave him the T5… ‘Well, you try
    driving that f*****g piece of shit!’ he said to the team. He wouldn’t have been
    Gilles without the strong language…”

  10. The aerodynamically inept T5 is a footnote. Its forebear,
    the 1979 constructor’s and driver’s title-winning T4, still looks and sounds
    utterly magnificent, a reminder of how much of Ferrari’s foundations rests on
    12 cylinders. Jacques even manages a power slide out of Fiorano’s tricky
    left-hand hairpin. He’s clearly enjoying himself, but when I catch up with him
    afterwards he’s as outspoken and unsentimental as ever, never mind what day it
     is.

    “It’s like sitting in a can of tuna, or something,” he says. “I’m amazed
    more drivers didn’t get hurt. There were lots of crashes, it’s just that the
    drivers had more respect for the limit, they had more respect for each other,
    they weren’t driving dirty. They were taking risks, but they weren’t putting a
    driver on the grass on the main straight like you see today.”

  11. Is he finally embracing his father’s legacy, something he
    pointedly refused to acknowledge during his own F1 career? “People often said
    to me, ‘So, you’re continuing what your father did.’ ‘No, I’m racing for myself
    because I love it,’ I’d reply. And that became, ‘Oh, you hate your father…’ so
    I thought, ‘You know what – let’s just forget it and move on to something
    else.’ They weren’t seeing me as a driver; they already had their romantic idea
    of why I was racing.

    “Am I sad that my father didn’t live to see my career?
    Honestly, I wouldn’t have had a career if he’d been alive. I think he would
    have controlled it and I wouldn’t have been allowed to be myself. In a way, it
    helped that he passed away. As a kid, it was the saddest moment in my life. But
    as a racer, as a man, as a human being, it was helpful. Whatever happens in
    life, never change the past. Because everything good that has happened to you
    would have changed as well. My father was honourable, and he expected people to
    behave in a certain way. Other people were opportunistic, and he simply wasn’t
    like that. He had respect.”

  12. I admire the guy’s honesty. His mother, Joann, is more
    reflective, though I can’t help wondering what it must have been like to be
    married to Gilles Villeneuve. Whatever else, this is a woman who learned to
    fall asleep in a Ferrari being driven flat out between Monaco and Maranello. It
    was Joann who answered the phone the evening Enzo Ferrari called to offer
    Gilles the drive (“We thought it was a joke”). And it was Joann who had to live
    with the immediate fall out from Imola and Pironi’s betrayal. Will the truth
    ever come out?

  13. “Gilles was furious, but he wasn’t the kind of person who could keep anger
    alive,” Joann says. “He had calmed down. He wanted to beat Pironi at the next
    race, sure, but more to show everyone that what had happened was wrong. Once
    Gilles was in the car, he was in a zone where nothing else mattered –
    everything outside just disappeared. Everything. Whether it be anger or
    hunger… anything outside racing was chucked out. So I prefer to think there
    was no red mist at Zolder. [smiles] I think he would have left Ferrari at the
    end of 1982. For Gilles, the most important thing was trust, and if that had
    gone, it would have been difficult to continue.”

  14. It hit Enzo Ferrari hard, whatever politics had gone on. “My
    life is full of sad memories,” he wrote. “And when I look back, I see among my
    loved ones the face of this great man.” Gilles Villeneuve was another lost son.
    For Joann, though, he wasn’t just a great driver, he was a husband and a
    father. “Do I still miss Gilles? Oh yeah,” she says. “Maybe not every day, but
    knowing that he was the one person I could trust implicitly… that’s difficult
    to find again. I miss that most. Knowing someone will always be there for you.”

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