Caption: There are many photographs of Gilles Villeneuve but not many paintings. This one, called Setting Up, is by Canadian artist Norbert Lisinski. (Norrris McDonald Photo)
The news came on Saturday, May 8, 1982: Canada’s greatest auto racing hero had died from injuries suffered in an accident earlier that day during final qualifying for the Belgium Grand Prix at Circuit Zolder.
The life and death of Gilles Villeneuve is the stuff of Grand Opera.
He was a nobody from the backwoods of Quebec who went on to become one of the most famous athletes in the world, a daredevil Formula One racing driver employed by the best-known and most romantic of all Grand Prix equipes, Scuderia Ferrari. The victim of a double-cross by a conniving teammate, he was intent on defending his honour when he crashed to his death at 32 years of age.
The government of Canada dispatched an Armed Forces plane to pick up his body and return it to Canada, along with his young wife, Joann, and his two children, Jacques, 11, and Melanie, 8 (who filled the hours over the Atlantic by drawing pictures and writing poetry about their father).
The outpouring of affection and grief was nationwide. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Opposition Leader Joe Clark led the mourners at his funeral in Berthierville, Villeneuve’s hometown, and the service was broadcast live, coast-to-coast.
Jody Scheckter, his teammate at Ferrari in 1979 and 1980 and a friend, delivered a short eulogy: “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
He was adored for one reason above all: he was a racer. He wanted to win races and championships, yes, but more than anything he wanted to win every lap he was out on the track, whether it was a practice lap, a qualifying lap or the 35th lap of a 72-lap Grand Prix.
In fact, when Britain’s respected Motor Sport magazine put out its 75th anniversary issue in April 1999, it had a picture of Villeneuve on the cover – but no story inside. Explained editor Andrew Frankel:
“For this issue, we wanted an image which best described the way we felt about the sport. No single shot can sum up 75 years of motorsport so we looked for one which made us feel good about racing. And Gilles in a 12-cylinder Ferrari said it all … in the firmament of great racing drivers, his star shines more brightly than that of multiple world champions. The explanation is simple: Villeneuve knew the difference between racing and winning and, unlike the majority of those who drive Grand Prix cars, it was the former which provided his motivation…”
It was always about the racing, right from the start when he drove snowmobiles in the early 1970s. He won a world championship on the ice and then went to Formula Ford and Formula Atlantic, where he hated to lose.
In 1976, he did something about that: He won every race he entered except one, a race in the rain at Westwood, B.C., where he spun off the track and damaged the car. Otherwise, he was unbeatable. He won the Canadian Formula Atlantic Championship as well as the U.S. championship.
Most important, he won a race in September in Trois Rivieres, Que., against the cream of the F-Atlantic crop, as well as four Formula One drivers of the day: James Hunt (who won the world championship that year), Vittorio Brambilla, Alan Jones and Patrick Tambay.
Hunt was so impressed by Villeneuve that he got out of his car and went to a telephone and called his boss, Teddy Mayer, who ran the McLaren F1 team. Mayer signed Villeneuve to a contract and put him in a car at the British GP in 1977. Villeneuve qualified ninth (of 26 starters; 36 cars were entered in total) and finished 11th (although he could have been fourth but for a faulty oil-temperature guage that forced him into the pits for a check).
It was a spectacular debut. But for some inexplicable reason, Mayer opted to go with Tambay (who’d also been offered a tryout) and it looked like Villeneuve’s F1 career was over before it really started. But in a strange twist, Philip Morris (Marlboro cigarettes), which sponsored the McLaren team, went to bat for him (in return, of course, for him wearing a Marlboro sticker on the front of his helmet forever after).
They arranged for McLaren to tear up his contract and wangled a meeting with the legendary Enzo Ferrari, el commandatore of Scuderia Ferrari. According to author Brock Yates in his book, Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the old man looked at the young Villeneuve and said to colleagues afterward:
” When they presented me with this tiny Canadian, this miniscule bundle of nerves, I instantly recognized in him the physique of the great Nuvolari and I said to myself, `Let’s give him a try.’”
The wise and crafty Ferrari recognized a tiger when he saw one and Gilles didn’t disappoint. He started 67 Grands Prix in a Ferrari, finishing on the podium 14 times and winning six, including his first at his home Grand Prix at Montreal in 1978.
His flamboyant, never-say-die racing style endeared him to the tifosi right from the beginning.
In 1979, he finished second in the world championship to his teammate, Scheckter. There are many, Villeneuve included, who thought he could have won the title because in any number of races he was faster.
But Villeneuve was a man of honour. He knew Scheckter was the No. 1 driver and his role was to race hard but to hold position if the No. 1 pilot was in a position to win.
This sense of honour is what killed Gilles Villeneuve.
Two weeks before the race at Zolder, he had been leading his teammate, Didier Pironi, in the closing laps of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. The Ferrari code was that the drivers were to hold position at that point in the race, so Villeneuve was caught completely unawares when Pironi dove inside him at the last corner of the last lap and stole the victory.
Photographs taken at the time show Villeneuve extremely upset on the podium. He stayed but a moment and told friends afterward that he would never speak to Pironi again.
In the final qualifying session at Zolder, Pironi set a time a 10th-of-a-second faster than Villeneuve, and the Canadian had gone out in the closing moments of qualifying to try to beat it.
The German driver, Jochen Mass, was on a slowdown lap when Villeneuve came flying up behind him. Somehow, the left front wheel of the Ferrari touched the right rear wheel of Mass’s March and the Ferrari was catapulted through the air. The force of the car landing nose-down in the dirt ripped the cockpit seat, with Villeneuve strapped in it, out of the Ferrari monocoque.
The car came to rest in pieces. The seatbelts had ripped out and Villeneuve had been thrown into a fence and was critically injured. He was pronounced dead later in hospital.
Allan de la Plante reminisces
Allan de la Plante, whose colour photographs of Villeneuve’s career are striking, was his official photographer. He started taking pictures of the young Quebec sensation when Villeneuve was racing in Formula Ford. He kept photographing him all the way to Formula One and has published several books since.
Here are his words:
“Gilles was a very focused man, to the point of self-centeredness. He didn’t care about the risks, or how what he was doing affected his home or his family. He may have thought about it, but he would not let it get in his way.
“Joanne and the kids wanted to spend time with him, but he was always busy. He actually was very much like most entrepreneurs. He focused on the task at hand that propelled his business. His business was driving racing cars. He had very little time, if any, for the family with testing, racing and personal appearances. Any athlete suffers from the same problem.
“He came from a family where his father was a piano tuner and his mother was a seamstress. Suddenly he is in Formula One and he’s got all this money. He grew up a regular kid who had a lot (of love) but also had nothing (no money). Once he had it, he spent like a crazy man.
“Back when he was in Formula Fords and Atlantics, he mortgaged the family home not once but twice to get the money to keep going. In the later years, he had more money than he knew what to do with. He bought a jet helicopter.
“He was fearless in the car. I believe this came down to a total lack of imagination of what could happen to him. Was he blind to reality? I doubt it. In the later years he seemed to be a bit more aware of the possibility of a very big shunt.
“But this devil-may-care attitude made him the best. He was and always will be the fastest Formula One driver. He had one flaw; he seldom considered the car. He drove it like it was indestructible. He didn’t treat the car with care, he didn’t ease the car to the finish if he was in, or near, the lead.
“As a result, he was a great bleacher-pleaser. He was always wide open or tied up at the dock. The fans loved him for that.”
What goes around, comes around
The minute he stole the San Marino Grand Prix from Gilles Villeneuve, Didier Pironi’s life was never the same.
Pironi was on the front row in Montreal that year when the flag dropped and he stalled his car. A young Italian at the back of the grid in an Osella, Riccardo Paletti, slammed into him. Paletti was killed and Pironi was forced into his backup car, finishing ninth.
Several months later, in the rain and fog during qualifying at the German Grand Prix, Pironi came upon a slow-moving Alain Prost in a Renault and, in an accident eerily reminiscent of Villeneuve’s, the Ferrari was catapulted through the air and crashed.
Pironi’s legs were smashed and he never drove a Grand Prix car again. He died several years later, pushing an offshore powerboat to the limit.
Was the speed real or for show?
Formula One medical director Dr. Sid Watkins, in his book Life at the Limit, wrote these immortal lines:
“I once met Gilles in the lobby of the hotel in Sao Paulo and he offered me a lift to Interlagos.
“Madame Villeneuve was with him, so when we got to his rented car, I moved to sit in the rear, but Madame insisted that I sit in the front.
“Gilles in a road car was frightening and when I turned to speak to his wife, she was not visible as she had taken to the floor. She indicated that this was normal for her and I soon found out why.
“Villeneuve believed in the `gap theory,’ i.e., that there was always a space into which he could move when faced with a high-speed collision. He ignored all red lights, gently bouncing off parked cars or lamposts, talking all the time and never pausing or hesitating in the traffic.
“At the circuit, he asked if I wanted a lift back later!
“His helicopter drill, I was told by Trevor Rowe, then-secretary of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, was much the same – taking off with fuel gauge at zero and flying in and out of power cables and pylons with cool aplomb.”
Jody Scheckter: He was a show-off
But was he really like that outside of a racing car? Or was it just part of his never-ending quest to cultivate and maintain his devil-may-care image?
Said his great friend, Scheckter (in an interview with writer Adam Cooper that was published in the August, 1999, issue of Motor Sport):
“I always tell the story about driving from Monaco with him. The whole time he drove perfectly until we got just outside Modena and soon the wheels were spinning and he started sliding around and everything. That was the proof of what I felt.
“I also remember going with him in his helicopter and once again we got over Modena and he started his tricks again. He was going down and then up. I said you’d better stop now or I’ll wring your neck.”
This article was originally published in Toronto Star Wheels on May 8, 2007