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