Racing News

May 8, 1982: ‘He had the heart of a true champion’

Jeff Pappone
Written by Jeff Pappone

Caption: Gilles Villeneuve started his career with Ferrari at the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix held at Mosport Park in Ontario (Norris McDonald Photo)

This story originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 8, 2007

From start to finish it took six seconds, beginning when the front wheel kissed the rear wheel of the car ahead.

Some 580 kilograms of metal and plastic and chrome and paint were launched into the air nose first, commencing an uncontrollable, end-over-end tumble for about 100 metres.

Then the car hit nose down, bounced, then bounced again, and rose upward one final time, almost in slow motion. Wheels, wings, and bodywork scattered in all directions before the empty shell of a once-mighty racing car came to rest in a shattered heap in the middle of the Belgian Grand Prix track.

Track workers on the scene froze in disbelief. Then panic set in, because the car’s cockpit was empty. On the final flip, the car’s seatbelts had ripped from their mounts. The driver was flung 45 metres across the track into a catch fence like a toy suddenly discarded by a giant child. The force was so violent that his shoes and socks were missing and his protective helmet was later found some distance away.

Six seconds.

Six seconds is how long it took for Gilles Villeneuve to crash 25 years ago today and for everything to change.

Launching a legacy

“In Formula Atlantic at Gimli [Manitoba] in 1975, it rained like it was a monsoon,” recalls three-time CART champion and former Formula One driver Bobby Rahal.

“Gilles was first and I was second [15 seconds behind] but we traded the lead back and forth – he’d spin and then I’d spin – and I think we lapped the field twice.

“It was obvious that Gilles had a tremendous amount of talent and, more than anything, a huge amount of car control. He could seemingly get away with just about anything, which, unfortunately, I think contributed to the tragedy later on because when that happens, you begin to think you are invincible.”

Invincible. He seems that way today.

Villeneuve, from small-town Quebec, who once sold his house to finance his racing, won six times in 67 F1 races, and in that time constructed a racing legacy that today remains somehow untouchable. Perhaps he ranks at the top of the pantheon because he was first — the first Canadian to gain a footing on racing’s world stage, crossing over into the exotic, champagne-soaked, European-based landscape of F1 and bringing new Canadian racing fans with him in the process. And so he is the icon, the trailblazer, part legend, part myth and one that, 25 years later, no other Canadian driver has eclipsed.

“It’s important to remember that Gilles Villeneuve was a huge hero internationally and at the time of his death he was probably the best known Canadian in the world,” said veteran Canadian F1 journalist Gerald Donaldson, author of the biography Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver .

“His legend lives because of a compelling life story – a rags-to-riches fairy tale that ended in tragedy – and also because his tremendous fighting spirit and daredevil driving style personified the classic ideals of pure racing.”

Driving for Villeneuve meant one thing: going flat out, testing the limits of every corner, and constantly balancing his car on the tightrope between control and chaos.

“I remember him dancing on the throttle as he would keep the car in a slide,” former F1 driver David Kennedy recalled.

“You’d hear the throttle modulate and the screech from the tires as he balanced it on a knife’s edge. He may not have necessarily been the quickest, but it was sheer artistry. He was so dramatic to watch.”

Alan Jones, the 1980 world champion, said although Villeneuve guarded every inch of track with jealous zeal, he never resorted to underhanded tactics to keep another driver behind.

“When you passed Gilles you earned it, he never gave you anything and he certainly wouldn’t open the door,” Jones said. “But you also knew that you could race wheel-to-wheel with him and he wasn’t going to do anything unpredictable or stupid.”

A star is born

His reputation was cast at the 1979 French Grand Prix, which many feel was the quintessential Gilles Villeneuve drive. Fighting tooth-and-nail with the faster Renault of René Arnoux for second, Villeneuve stubbornly refused to concede defeat.

The pair banged wheels at least five times on the last lap. Many consider it one of racing’s most spectacular battles. “Only Villeneuve could have made that happen,” Arnoux said. “I had confidence because it was Gilles. I would never have tried to fight so ferociously with any other driver.”

What went wrong

And so, then, why, how, did he die?

The answer, in part, lies in the long-established code of F1 – that team orders, rather than driving skill, often dictates the race winner. It was something that many believe led directly to Villeneuve’s death. Most F1 fans know the story: On the last corner of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, Didier Pironi ignored team orders to hold station and passed Villeneuve, his Ferrari teammate, to take the win. Following the race, Villeneuve vowed to never speak to Pironi again.

Two weeks after the Imola betrayal, Villeneuve was dead. He ran into the back of a slower car during a last-ditch effort in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix to put in a better lap than his teammate.

McLaren driver John Watson didn’t see the crash, but he was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He stopped and got out of his car and headed over to where Villeneuve lay unconscious.

“I remember looking into his eyes and there was no life,” he said. “It was a waste of a racing driver and one who could have won the championship that year.”

Villeneuve was pronounced dead at 9:12 p.m. local time on May 8, 1982.

“The honour that Gilles brought to the agreement, whatever it was, clearly he thought Pironi had broken it and it was like he’d been stabbed in the heart,” Watson said.

“I am critical of Ferrari of not doing a better job of controlling what was obviously a very tense situation. Gilles was a unique racing driver, but he took one chance too many and that to me is the bottom line. But he also showed great skill on many occasions.

“We all have passion and we have to learn when to use it and when not to use it. It really wasn’t passion that killed him but in a sense bitterness.”

His finest moment

Villeneuve’s astonishing car control was never more apparent than in the 1981 season when he drove a notoriously ill-handling Ferrari to back-to-back wins on tight circuits in Monaco and Spain.

In the so-called Train in Spain, Villeneuve kept four faster cars behind for 80 laps. The top five crossed the finish line separated by a scant 1.24 seconds, making it the second-closest finish in F1 history.

“It took incredible mental strength to withstand the pressure not just from one but from a gaggle of cars,” former F1 driver David Kennedy said. “He almost had to do a Fred Flintstone with the car: put his feet out the bottom, pick it up and run with the thing. It showed he had the heart of a true champion.”

Villeneuve in F1

Years active in Formula One: 1977-1982.

Grand Prix events entered: 68 (67 starts, 1 with McLaren, 66 with Ferrari).

First race: 1977 British Grand Prix.

Last race: 1982 San Marino Grand Prix.

Wins Six (1978: Canada; 1979: South Africa, U.S. West, U.S. East; 1981: Monaco, Spain).

Poles: Two (1979: U.S. West; 1981: San Marino).

Fastest laps: Seven (1978 Argentina; 1979: South Africa, U.S. West, Spain, Germany, Holland; 1981: San Marino).

Best championship ranking: Second (1979, 47 points)

Podiums: 13

Career points: 101

Laps led: 533

It was no secret that I was always keen to have him race for us again. The qualities he possessed as a driver were synonymous with those that drive us as a team. — McLaren owner Ron Dennis

He knew how to drive fast and he had what I call the talent of improvisation – under very difficult situations he could improvise very fast. — Emerson Fittipaldi, F1 driver from 1970 to 1980, 1972 and 1974 world champ.

Individuals like him come along once and it would have been interesting to see what his career would have been. Unfortunately, he was never able to finish his work. — Mario Andretti, F1 driver from 1968 to 1982, 1978 world champ.


SON HAS OWN REASONS FOR MAINTAINING SILENCE

This story originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 8, 2007

 When he raced in Formula One, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve never steered away from controversy, always spoke his mind, and never hesitated to express his feelings.

But when it came to discussing his legendary racing father, Gilles, he uncharacteristically slammed on the brakes. Journalists covering the sport often followed an unwritten rule in interviews: Don’t ask Villeneuve about his dad.

While Villeneuve revealed that he never really talked about racing with his father and insisted there was no doubt the sport was in his blood, that was usually where the conversation ended.

“It was personal, so it wasn’t something I was ready really to discuss, but the main reason is that my answer was totally different from what people wanted to hear and that created negativity to start with. It was much easier to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it and that’s it,’” said Villeneuve, 36, whose father died after a qualifying crash 25 years ago today at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

“People would be disappointed in my answer because I had a different outlook on it because I was his son. I was there, I was living it every day, I wasn’t a fan of him, he was my hero, but it was different.

“I wasn’t champion as a Villeneuve, I was champion as me and that’s what mattered to me. I raced not to continue what my father had started, I raced because I loved it and I wanted to race and win for myself.”

Eschewing romantic ideals others had for his career was consistent with his father’s teachings about always looking forward in life, he insisted.

But Villeneuve also knew the shadow of his father would cast across his career no matter what he decided to pursue. “If I had gone into skiing instead of racing, people would have started saying: ‘Oh, he’s done it on purpose to avoid his dad,’ “ he said.

After Villeneuve made his first public display of appreciation for his father by driving the Ferrari 312 T3 car Gilles piloted to his maiden victory at the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix, the reaction from some only served to strengthen the son’s resolve.

Minutes after turning a few laps wearing a replica of his father’s helmet at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June of 2004, a number of people suggested he should use the colours in F1 because it would attract interest and sponsors.

“But that wasn’t the point,” Villeneuve snapped as he recounted the incident after almost three years. “It’s something special and it shouldn’t be used and abused.”

Driving the car also lent him a greater understanding of his father’s genius behind the wheel, something that won Gilles countless fans. “It [the adoration] was always a part of my life when my dad was alive and even afterwards, so if it hadn’t have been there, then it would have surprised me. When people would ask: ‘Wow do you see that?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, of course, I’ve seen it all my life,’” he explained.

In the end, his decision to avoid public discussions of his father led to some nasty accusations that Villeneuve didn’t appreciate his name or care about his heritage.

But he contends that’s simply because outsiders didn’t understand his father and the values he instilled in his family.

“People will read what I am saying now and get so angry and they’ll start thinking that he hates his dad and doesn’t realize the help he got,” he said.

“But I do actually realize the help I got from being his son and I am super proud of him being my dad and he’s up there and he’s always been my hero but that doesn’t mean that I raced in order to continue the legacy. I am not one to start lying just to make people happy, that’s all.”