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Why Gilles Villeneuve was the greatest F1 driver of them all
35 years since that fatal crash, TG makes the case for Villeneuve's brilliance
For race fans of a certain age, May 8th 1982 is our JFK moment. Like many others, I will forever remember precisely where I was and what I was doing when the news came through that Gilles Villeneuve had been killed during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix that Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t entirely a surprise – Villeneuve frequently drove right on the ragged edge, so having a big one was always a distinct possibility – but it was still a shock to hear that my all-time number one sporting hero was gone.
It was both the hardships of his early years of racing and his maximum attack approach that made Villeneuve special. The story of his early career couldn’t be more different to that of fellow Canadian and current Williams F1 driver Lance Stroll. Stroll’s father is a billionaire businessman and consequently Stroll Junior’s early career was extremely well funded and his rise to F1 fast tracked. Villeneuve however often ran his own car and paid for his early car racing with his winnings from snowmobile races. And whilst Stroll is clearly no slouch – he blitzed the 2016 Euro Formula 3 Championship – he has looked slightly out of his depth in his first four F1 races. Villeneuve by contrast looked completely at ease from the moment he first shared a track with the world’s best drivers.
Villeneuve first came to notice in 1976 when he was competing in the North American Formula Atlantic Series. In September that year the organisers of the race at Trois Rivieres in Canada brought in a number of star drivers to spice things up. Amongst them were several F1 stars of the time including James Hunt, who was only a matter of weeks away from winning his F1 World Championship, and 1980 World Champion Alan Jones. The unknown Villeneuve wiped the floor with the lot of them and Hunt returned to his McLaren team in England raving about this new Canadian hot-shoe.
The following summer Villeneuve got his F1 break driving a third McLaren alongside Hunt at Silverstone. His approach to tackling the fastest car he’d ever driven on the fastest circuit he’d ever seen was classic Villeneuve. He said at the time: “The simplest way to find the limit is to go quicker and quicker until you go over it. Then you come back from it a bit and think about the next corner.” This approach saw him spin numerous times in practice – but he was fast. He qualified ninth and ran seventh in the race until pitting to check a faulty temperature gauge. He also posted the fifth fastest lap of the race – not bad considering that unlike his two team mates he was driving the ancient McLaren M23 which was by then in its fifth season.
McLaren unfathomably decided not to sign Villeneuve for the following season with team boss Teddy Mayer deciding that “he was looking as though he might be a bit expensive”, going instead for the more conservative Patrick Tambay. McLaren’s loss was Ferrari’s gain as Villeneuve was brought in by the Italian team for the final two races of 1977. He would remain with Ferrari for the rest of his career throughout which drama was never far away. In just his third grand prix in Japan ‘77, Villeneuve touched wheels with Ronnie Peterson and his Ferrari was launched over the barriers killing a spectator and a marshal. He was absolved of all blame but it was not a good start to his Ferrari career. The following April he was comfortably leading his seventh grand prix – the US GP at Long Beach when he came up to lap Clay Regazzoni. He made his move a little early, touched wheels and was launched over the top of Regazzoni’s Shadow, leaving a tyre mark on the Swiss driver’s helmet! It was fittingly at his home race in Canada later that year at the circuit that would later bear his name, that Villeneuve finally took his first F1 victory.
Under intense pressure for most of the race Villeneuve led home a five-car train covered by just 1.2 seconds at the flag. It was to be his last win
Canada ’78 was the first of his six wins from sixty-seven starts – statistics that don’t come close to reflecting Villeneuve’s supreme talent. A more measured approach to his racing might have yielded more results but he wouldn’t have achieved his legendary status had that been his style. Villeneuve’s audacity was most famously demonstrated at the 1979 French Grand Prix when Renault’s Rene Arnoux passed him for second place with three laps to go. Villeneuve was having none of it, and throughout the final lap the two cars banged wheels too many times to count. It was possibly the most dramatic F1 lap of all time and if you’ve never seen it I suggest you YouTube it immediately. Villeneuve came out on top and took the second place with Jean-Pierre Jabouille taking his and Renault’s first win at their home grand prix. Unfortunately, thanks to Gilles, nobody was watching.
Villeneuve might have won the championship in 1979 had he chosen to ignore team orders at Monza and pass his team mate Jody Scheckter for the win, but Gilles was a principled bloke and did as he had promised, staying put in second place less than half a second behind at the flag. He finished second in the championship that year to Scheckter, missing out by just four points. He made his point at the final race of the year at Watkins Glen where he was fastest by nine, yes nine seconds, in Friday’s wet practice and went on to take his fourth win on the Sunday.
1980 was a disaster with the uncompetitive Ferrari earning him best results of a pair of fifths, but 1981 looked more promising as Ferrari introduced its first turbocharged engine. The Ferrari 126CK had huge horsepower but terrible handling but nonetheless Villeneuve took improbable back to back victories in Monaco and Spain. In the Spanish Grand Prix his tactic was simple – he somehow got his Ferrari up front and then backed up the much faster opposition in the corners before blasting away on the straights. Under intense pressure for most of the race Villeneuve led home a five-car train covered by just 1.2 seconds at the flag. It was to be his last win.
1982 looked promising. The new Ferrari was a vast improvement and had it not been for horrific accidents to both Villeneuve and team mate Didier Pironi that summer, one of them would surely have won the championship. At round four in San Marino, F1 politics saw many teams boycott the race and with both Renaults retiring it looked like it was going to be a straightforward Ferrari 1-2 with Villeneuve ahead. However, because Villeneuve and Pironi were so far in front and fuel was marginal for this race the team ordered its drivers to slow down. Villeneuve took this to mean hold positions but Pironi didn’t agree and snuck past to take the win. Villeneuve felt betrayed and vowed never to speak to Pironi again. Two weeks later he was dead.
At Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix, Villeneuve was out on track in final qualifying with just eight minutes remaining. Pironi had just bettered his time by 0.1 seconds and Gilles was pressing on. He was closing fast on Jochen Mass’s March and in a split-second Villeneuve went to pass on the right just as Mass also veered right in order to free up the racing line. It was a simple misunderstanding but what followed was like a plane crash. The Ferrari was launched into the air and disintegrated as it rolled. Villeneuve was thrown clear of the wreckage and pronounced dead that evening.
At his funeral back in Canada, Jody Scheckter delivered the eulogy, saying “I’ll miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest racing driver in the history of motor racing”.
Sadly Ferrari’s tragic 1982 season didn’t end there. In June Pironi was on pole for the Canadian Grand Prix but stalled at the start. Osella’s Riccardo Paletti, making just his second grand prix start, slammed into the rear of the Ferrari, his car bursting into flames and killing the poor Italian. And then in August during untimed practice for the German Grand Prix, Pironi, who had already secured pole position, was running flat out in the rain. Poor visibility left Alain Prost’s slowing Renault unsighted and Pironi ran into the back of him. The accident was strangely similar to Villeneuve’s and Pironi suffered multiple fractures to both legs. He would never race in F1 again and was killed in 1987 in a powerboat racing accident off the Isle of Wight.
Gilles’s son Jacques of course went on to secure the racing CV that his father should have had. He won the Indy 500, the 1995 Champ Car series, the 1997 F1 World Championship and eleven Grand Prix victories. Like his dad he was competitive the moment he stepped into an F1 car, scoring pole position, fastest lap and second place in his first ever grand prix. But despite his obvious ability, you won’t find his name on lists of the all-time greats. His dad however, might not have been as complete a driver as a Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Prost, Senna, Schumacher or Alonso, but for me he was the fastest, most exciting of them all. As far as I’m concerned, he was the greatest driver that ever lived.