Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born in Quebec, Canada, on January 18th 1950. Since a very young age he became interested in racing and anything that moved fast. Unlike many other racing drivers who started their careers on go-karts, Gilles, started in snowmobile racing.

A young Gilles racing on a snowmobile. Those machines were fast, being very light and powerfull, they were capable of reaching 100mph on the snow.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

As a teenager, Gilles was racing in multiple cathegories, incluiding the snowmobile world championship (which he won in 1974), he raced his very own modified Mustang at local drag racing events as well as entering the Canadian Formula Ford and wining 10 of the races he entered despite the fact that he was racing with a 2 year old car. In 1975 he entered the Formula Atlantic, a CanAm-ish series raced with single seater cars. By the 1976 season he was dominating the championship and won the title. He credited his success to his time on snowmobile racing and what he had learned while in there.

"Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain."

Villeneuve, leading a Formula Atlantic race in 1976. The car behind him was being driven by future F1 champion Keke Rosberg

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

During 1976 at a Formula Atlantic race, Villeneuve’s talent was noticed by a British racing driver who was among the crowd. That driver was non other than McLaren’s James Hunt.
Hunt had the following conversation with a track martial soon after:

  • Does that kid always drive like that? I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire racing career, I don’t think there is anyone in F1 with that amount of skill in the corners.
  • yeah, he is very known in Canada and yes, he always drives like that
  • it’s amazing how he slides through the corners and manages to keep control of the car without getting out of the track, where did he learn to drive like that? will he teach me?
  • it has been years of practice, right now in summer he races cars, but in winter he is racing snowmobiles, there is where he learned to take the corners like that, there is nobody like him.
  • what is his name?
  • Gilles, Gilles Villeneuve

Villenueve's skill was noticed by soon to be world champion, James Hunt

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

After the race, Hunt managed to get a car and told Villenueve if he would race him. They did, and to everyone’s surprise, Gilles defeated James with relative ease. Hunt just couldn’t keep up with Gilles’ driving style, sliding on the corners making it almost imposible to overtake. When Hunt got back to Europe he contacted Teddy Mayer, head of McLaren at the time, and told him about the kid who had beated him, insisting to Mayer to give him a chance to race. Reluctantly Mayer agreed and brought Villenueve to participate in the practice sessions before the British GP. What Gilles did next, was what he had always done, driving the M23 to the limit, taking the corners faster than anyone. Although impressed, the McLaren team was still not happy with the fact that Gilles spun the car so many times that they lost the count. To him, spining was something as normal as changing gear, a consecuence of driving on the limit. However they were until some point amazed by the fact that Gilles didn’t damage the car, he was even able to keep the engine running after all the spining. Gilles managed to finish the race 11th, not enough for the team, resulting in him being kicked out.

Hunt speaks to Villeneuve on the Canadian's F1 debut at Silvertone, race where he would finish 11th

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

After leaving McLaren, Gilles feared for his future. He was already 27 years old, married and had two children named Jacques and Melanie, however he didn’t have a stable income. That is when his phone rang, and he heard the voice of a man with a strong Italian accent asking him if he was available to race in the next Canadian GP. When he asked what team was the man from, only one word came back “Ferrari”

Enzo Ferrari personally called Gilles, ofering him to take the place of Niki Lauda on his team.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

Gilles made his Ferrari debut in the 1977 Canadian GP where he finished 12th, and just like his predecessor (Lauda) was very critic with the car, calling it dull. On the next race, Japan, Gilles crashed with a Tyrrell and his car flew through the air. Gilles was able to walk away of the car by his own.

Enzo Ferrari was astonished to see the underneaths of his car on the newspaper, under the tite of “Crazy Canadian”. Gilles teammate Carlos Reutemann said in an interview concerning his teammate “one day I had Niki Lauda, and the next, this maniac”. Despite the incidets, Enzo still signed him as official driver for the 1978 season. He was just what “Commendatore” wanted. A complete opposite to Reutemann’s clynical perfection. Enzo loved him, and formed a teacher-student relationship with Gilles.

It may have been James Hunt who found him, but it was Enzo Ferrari who polished and shaped him into one of the best drivers F1 will ever see.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

3 more incidents were to come on the begginig of the 1978 season (Brazil,US,Monaco), however they could not argue with Gilles’ skill and speed, his car was constantly seen going airborne, (even when he didn’t crash) which gained him the nickname of “the aviator”.

Villeneuve's driving style often made his car "take off" gaining him the nickname of "the aviator"

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

However Villeneuve’s real take off happened that same year, at the 1978 Canadian GP, the last race of the season. Gilles was able to win on home soil, his first victory.

Villeneuve's first win happened in home soil, in Montreal 1978.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

In the 1979 season Villeneuve managed to get a total of 7 podiums, with 3 wins and 4 second places, one of them being the race at Djion, where he battled the Renault of Rene Arnoux, giving the crowd one of the best F1 battles ever seen, as the French crowd was on their feet, wondering if the small yellow car would be able to resist the attack of the skilled Villeneuve.

Some of his colleagues thought of Villeneuve’s battle for second place as beyond acceptable, they said it was more a test of bravery rather than skill. To which Gilles answered

"We were fighting for second place and it was the last lap, nobody else was involved, nobody other than us knew how our car's condition, if someone has something to tell me, he can tell me in the face"

Despite his driving style, Villeneuve was not all luck and skill. He DID follow orders, just like he did that same year. Villeneuve could have won the championship, but team orders were for him to finish behind Jody Scheckter and so he did. Scheckter won the championship, with Gilles finishing second, 4 points behind.

Gilles lost the 1979 championship due to team orders

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

Things didn’t get any better for Gilles on 1980, with a 312T5 that was everything but competitive. It wasn’t until 1981 that Ferrari introduced the 126C turbo, and allowed Gilles to prove himself once again as one of the most talented drivers that had ever lived. With a victory in Spain and Monaco, and some of the greatest overtakes the series had ever seen. Gilles got some serious fans, all saying to have got the “Villeneuve fever”

In 1981, Ferrari introduced the 126C turbo, a competitive car that Gilles drove to victory twice in the season

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

1982 could have been his year, but fate chose something else. It all started at Imola, Gilles led in front of his teammate Didier Pironi. They were both overtaking each other just to entertain the crowd, or that was what Gilles thought. From the Ferrari box, the team showed a sign for Pironi that read “SLOW” which Pironi paid no attention to, overtaking an unsuspecting Villeneuve on the last lap and stealing the victory. Gilles was frustrated, feeling betrayed by a team to which he had given the best he could, and not getting the compensation he deserved. (You thought Hamilton-Rosberg podiums were tough, imagine this one)

Things got worse later, on Fiorano. A couple days later, trying to end the argument between his two drivers, Marco Piccinini, head of Ferrari, called for a meeting, hoping the drivers would finally settle down. However, Pironi just made Gilles even more mad when he said “well, I would also be mad if I had lost”

Before the next race, Piccinini was speaking with Gilles’ wife, Joanna. She told him “If Pironi is leading, you better tell him to slow down, otherwise Gilles WILL push him out of the track.

Relationship between Villeneuve (left) and his teammate Pironi (center) got worse each race.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

At the next race at Zolder, during qualifying, Gilles was struggleing to match the times of Pironi, who was beating him by one tenth of second. Fueled by the desire of beating his teammate, he left for his hot lap with his last set of qualifying tires, and saw the March of Jochen Mass. He was almost behind him, but instead of moving to either side of the track, Mass remained in the middle. According to Mass, he did see Gilles in his mirrors, and moved to right since he said that way, it wouldn’t get in the way of Gilles’ racing line. However, Villeneuve had a different idea, he saw the March in the middle of the track and moved right. Both cars moved to the right, Villeneuve tried to veer, but it was of no use, the front left tyre of the Ferrari collided with the rear of Jochen’s car. The red car flew through the air, landing with its front wing pointing to the sky. The impact riped Gilles’ harness from the chasis, throwing him out of the car, his body crashing brutally with the barriers.

His death caused a real sorrow among the F1 paddock, however until this day he is remembered as one of the best racing drivers that have ever lived, for him, leaving everyone with their mouths wide open was as common as drinking water.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

The Canadian GP circuit was re-named in his honor.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

His story inspired many racing drivers and continues to do so today.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

He really was something else

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

Gilles was like a son to me -Enzo Ferrari Gilles was the perfect driver, he knew where to take advantage and how. He was the most talented, it didn't mater what car he was in, he was always fast. -Niki Lauda My battle with Gilles is something I would never forget, my most precious "souvenir" from racing. You can only compete like that with someone you really trust, and there is not many people like that -Rene Arnoux Without a doubt, Gilles was very brave, racing against him was racing against the worst of all bastards, but he was clean, he had huge talent. -Keke Rosberg With all my rivals, I raced for Pole and victory, but Gilles was a driver with whom you would fight even for tenth place. -Alain Prost

SALUT GILLES

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

So guys, that was the story of legendary Gilles Villeneuve. What do you think of it? did you like it? Personally I did. I knew about Gilles and the fact that he was a great driver, but it wasn’t until I got to know his story, that I’ve comed to really admire him.

Enzo's Favorite - Gilles Villeneuve - Formula 1

So guys, that was it for this article, I hope you’ve all liked it. If you have read until this point, thank you very much, I really appreciate it. This was the second part of a racing driver story series I am writing (by the way I need to think of a name for it), my first part was about Jack Brabham. Now however, I really have no idea who should I write about next, I will probably come up with something eventually but if you have any suggestions please leave it in the comments :)

F1Trooper out.