- January 18, 1950
- May 08, 1982
- Not Active
- Scuderia Ferrari,McLaren
Racing drivers, especially the Formula 1 ones, often can be compared with artists. They are valued and respected over their career, but when they leave this world, their impact is described passionately. The same could be said for Gilles Villeneuve, a Canadian who was one of the most attractive Formula 1 drivers of his time and his abilities and driving style are even today often referred as spectacular.
Statistically, he was among the greatest drivers of his time but not so spectacular. He recorded 67 F1 Grand Prix starts between 1977 and 1982, taking six wins and thirteen podiums. He made just one start with McLaren and then spent a rest of a career with Scuderia Ferrari. His best result in a championship was the second place in 1979 when his teammate Jody Scheckter became a champion.
Snowmobile racing master
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born on January 18, 1950, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu near Quebec, Canada. Gilles was a racing enthusiast since his childhood and his racing career began with snowmobiles.
During those days, he learned a lot of tricks which later implemented in his track racing career. Some of his unusual moves used to drive the opponents and thrilled audiences, making Villeneuve one of the most popular drivers of that time.
Gilles Villeneuve married very young, and over his career he traveled from race to race with his family, in their motorhome. After leaving drag racing at the local level, Gilles gained a racing license after graduating John Russell Racing School at Mont-Tremblant Circuit.
Soon after, he made his debut in Quebec Formula Ford races, and won seven out of 10 races, what was enough to progress to the Formula Atlantic.
McLaren spotted Villeneuve's talent
In 1976, he dominated Formula Atlantic championship with Ecurie Canada team and was spotted by McLaren Formula 1 team. He was offered a deal he did not want to refuse: five races in McLaren's car in 1977 campaign.
Gilles’ debuted at British Grand Prix at Silverstone and did pretty well, finishing 11th, considering the fact that he was driving a older machine. His talent was noticed by many and after McLaren decided to cancel a deal, Villeneuve was called by Ferrari with another attractive offer.
Enzo was calling him a Piccolo Canadese'
Anyway, Gilles adventure with Ferrari began in the last two rounds of the 1977 season. With a new team and a new car, the Canadian failed to impress, as he finished 12th at his home race in Canada and and also in Japan.
’Piccolo Canadese', as Villeneuve once was described by legendary Enzo Ferrari, was involved in a crash at Fuji Speedway after which his car went airborne, landing on the group of spectators and killing two people.
Driving for Ferrari was Villeneuve's dream
Villeneuve’s dream to be a Ferrari driver was fulfilled and he stayed with ’Prancing Pony’ until the end. In 1978, Gilles’ first full-time season in Formula 1, his results were inconsistant. The start of the year was marked by many retirements, but in the finish of the season, he improved a lot.
Villeneuve won his first podium at Austrian Grand Prix, finishing third, while in the final race of the year, at his home in Montreal, Gilles won his first race. At the end of the season, Villeneuve was 9th overall but the Italian press wasn’t happy with his performances and called for a replacement. But Ferrari had full faith in the abilities of the Canadian.
1979 Formula 1 vice-champion
What he could achieve was seen at the start of 1979, when he won two races in-a-row, at Kyalami and Long Beach. Later in the season he finished second in Italy, France, Austria and Canada, and won the last race of the year, at Watkins Glen.
He was a championship runner-up that year, finishing only four points behind his new teammate Jody Scheckter. From that year on, his epic duel with Rene Arnoux in the final laps of French Grand Prix at Dijon circuit, will be remembered.
Ups and downs in 1980 and 1981
Unfortunately, the following year was a complete failure. Ferrari’s 312 T5 car wasn’t competitive and reliable enough, so Villeneuve scored only six points to finish 12th in the Drivers championship.
For the season of 1981, Ferrari prepared a stronger car, the 126CK. Turbo engine gave huge power to the car, but it was devilishly difficult for handling, due to its poor downforce. The start of the season again was disappointing as Villeneuve retired from the three opening races. His recovery came in the middle of the year, and he claimed two consecutive wins, in Monaco and in Spain, what was considered as a miracle. But again, the rest of the season was far below the expectations. Gilles failed to finish next five races, and the third place in Canada, in the penultimate race of the year, came as consolation.
Ferrari returned to the top in 1982, unfortunately without Villeneuve
With a more improved 126C2 car, Ferrari entered the 1982 season with huge optimism. It turned out that the optimism was with reason - Ferrari won the Constructors’ championship title. Sadly, without Villeneuve.
Gilles finished second at Imola after a bit confusing team orders. He was in the lead and slowed down, but in the last corner his teammate, Didier Pironi overtook Villeneuve and won the race, leaving Gilles furious. He was feeling betrayed and resolute to bounce back at the following race at Zolder.
Horrible crash at Zolder
During the qualifying session, Villeneuve struggled a bit, but on the final lap, he was desperately aggressive in an attempt to achieve better results. As he was trying to overtake Jochen Mass, Villeneuve’s car hit the back of Mass’ car at the speed of over 200 km/h. The impact of the crash was huge and the car was launched into the air, flying more than 100 m.
After falling to the ground, Villeneuve was thrown for further 50 m into a catch fence, losing his famous helmet. He was still alive and he received medical help very fast. The poor driver was airlifted to the hospital, and although the doctors did everything to save his life, he died that evening.
Video - Gilles Villeneuve's fatal crash at Zolder Circuit, 1982 F1 Belgium Grand Prix
Daredevil on the track, genuine man out of it
Many were sad after Gilles’ death, but almost nobody was surprised, knowing that his driving style which was once described by Niki Lauda as 'devilish'.
Probably the best example of Gilles Villeneuve’s approach to racing is from Watkins Glen, when on a soaked track during the qualifying session, he set a lap time 11 seconds faster than anybody else.
Gilles' son became Formula 1 world champion
His colleagues described Villeneuve as the fastest racer ever, also saying that he was a genuine and sincere man, despite his daredevil habits on the track. Gilles Villeneuve was buried in Berthierville, the town where he grew up, and the corner at Zolder circuit where Villeneuve crashed was named after him. Grad Prix circuit in Montreal was also renamed after his death.
Too bad he never lived long enough to see his son Jacques become the Formula 1 World champion in 1997, driving for Williams-Renault team. He definitely would be proud.