As Formula 1 heads to Montreal for this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, Mobil 1 The Grid took the chance to remember one of racing’s true greats; the brilliant and much-missed, Gilles Villeneuve. Rob Watts tells the story of a man whose legacy goes far beyond the numbers.
Born in Quebec in 1950, Gilles Villeneuve was considered by many to have been one of the quickest racing drivers of all time, and perhaps undoubtedly Canada’s finest. To this day, only two Canadian drivers have won a Formula 1 Grand Prix; Gilles Villeneuve and, later, his son Jacques.
During his racing career, Villeneuve often divided opinion with his unique and aggressive style, but the fact that he is still talked about today is testament to his legacy in the sport.
Despite spending much of his relatively short career with Ferrari, Villeneuve actually made his debut with rivals McLaren, at the 1977 British Grand Prix. Driving a third McLaren entry – a slightly older spec to regular drivers James Hunt and Jochen Mass – Villeneuve qualified an impressive ninth, only 0.8s off James Hunt’s pole position time.
Villeneuve’s performance that weekend was enough to impressive the legendary Enzo Ferrari, who signed him up with two races to go in the 1977 season. Somewhat appropriately, Villeneuve made his Ferrari debut at the Canadian Grand Prix; the last time it was to be held at Mosport Park.
A year on from his debut, however, the famous ‘Tifosi’ were beginning to grow frustrated with Villeneuve’s inconsistent form. He had endured five retirements in his first seven races. But a strong showing at the Italian Grand Prix in September began to turn the Ferrari faithful back in his favour.
The final race of that year was to be the moment it all ‘clicked’ for Villeneuve at Ferrari. The season-ending Canadian Grand Prix had a shiny new home, located on Île Notre-Dame in central Montreal; a circuit that would later become known as ‘Circuit Gilles Villeneuve’.
Without a Grand Prix win, and with only eight points to show for his debut season in red, Villeneuve’s win in Montreal couldn’t have come at a better time. Suddenly, Ferrari had a new winner to add to its illustrious pedigree. And Canada, at last, had a new hero.
Villeneuve’s legacy today is rooted deeply in his unique driving style, and his ‘never say die’ attitude to racing. You’ll struggle to find a driver more comfortable with oversteer than Villeneuve. At times, he almost appeared to drive as if he was in a rally car; drifting around corners with little care for the apex, applying huge amounts of opposite lock, before correcting the car at the last second and accelerating away.
It seemed an impossible way to drive, but that unorthodox style quickly became his trademark. “I know that no human being can perform miracles, but Gilles made you wonder sometimes,” Jacques Laffite once remarked.
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments of Villeneuve’s career was his now infamous battle with Frenchman Rene Arnoux at the 1979 French Grand Prix in Dijon.
On course for a second place finish late in the race, Villeneuve came under attack as his tyres began to wear out. With Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the lead, his Renault teammate Rene Arnoux attempted to pass Villeneuve to secure a one-two finish for the team at its home Grand Prix. But Villeneuve had other ideas.
In one of the most remarkable on-track battles in F1 history, Villeneuve and Arnoux traded positions five times in the space of just two laps, banging wheels and running each other wide on several occasions, before Villeneuve eventually emerged victorious. Victorious in the sense that he had beaten Arnoux to second place – such was the intensity of their fight, that none of the television cameras had been focused on the eventual race winner, Jean-Pierre Jabouille!
Despite scoring six Grand Prix wins (seven if you include a non-championship race at Brands Hatch), the moments that defined Villeneuve’s career were far more significant than any one particular result or championship position.
He famously once said: “As long as the car is running, I will drive it,” and never was that more the case than at the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. What he did that day was remarkable, and summed up why he was so loved by fans, not just in Canada, but the world over.
After losing the lead, Villeneuve persisted with a slow puncture for several laps before his left-rear tyre exploded in dramatic fashion, sending him into a spin as he passed the pits.
With his stricken Ferrari caked in mud at the side of the track, Villeneuve remarkably set off to complete his lap on two wheels, waving to the crowd as he went, with sparks flying and rubber being shred at every turn from his badly damaged rear wheel.
It was a moment many consider to be the defining image of Villeneuve’s career, and only served to further add to his legacy after his death. His son, Jacques, said many years later: “He was a racer at heart, that was his life. He got in the car to do the fastest laps, and it was only ever the race that mattered to him.”
Villeneuve’s career, and tragically his life, was cut short when he was killed in an accident during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.
Infuriated that Didier Pironi had defied team orders to steal victory from him two weeks earlier, Villeneuve set off on his final lap in one last attempt to out-qualify his teammate and rival.
On his way back to the pits, Villeneuve ploughed into the rear of the slowing March of Jochen Mass, sending his Ferrari into the air, and then nose-first into the ground.
Villeneuve’s death had a profound impact on the world of motorsport, and many of his fiercest competitors were quick to pay tribute to him in the aftermath of his passing.
Later that year, the Circuit Île Notre-Dame was aptly renamed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, in honour of Canada’s finest ever racing driver, and winner of the maiden F1 Grand Prix to be held there back in 1978.
At his funeral, former Ferrari teammate Jody Scheckter delivered a fitting eulogy: “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
Villeneuve’s passion, commitment, and determination were admirable, and his legacy as one of the sport’s fastest ever drivers lives on today. Salut, Gilles.