Enzo Ferrari was a hard man to please. Despite having the who’s who of grand prix drivers race for him since 1950, he found only one of them worthy of sitting on his desk in Maranello. That honor belongs to Gilles Villeneuve.
68 GPs, 6 wins, 2 poles, 8 fastest laps. For someone driving a Ferrari, the numbers are hardly inspiring. But when you watch Gilles take a corner sideways, statistics seem so irrelevant. Yet, his arrival into formula one wasn’t as flashy.
If not for James Hunt, Gilles would’ve disappeared as yet another club racer who never made it to the big league. In a Formula Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres (1976), Gilles squarely beat the then formula one drivers Hunt and Alan Jones. Hunt was so impressed by the Canadian youngster’s performance that when he returned to Europe for his formula one title chase, he was on phone with Teddy Mayer, McLaren’s MD at that time. “Teddy, you’ve got to give this chap Villeneuve a run. He is extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was virtually bouncing off the walls at every corner. His car control was phenomenal.”
Apparently, Gilles, armed with local knowledge of the track, upstaged James by racing wider, using the walls to stop the slides. “It wasn’t that big a deal. It was easy in a car like the March,” were the words from the man.
On Hunt’s insistence, McLaren gave Gilles an old M23 to play at the next year’s practice session of the British GP. He spun the car so many times that the McLaren crew lost count of it. But what they admired most was that he never damaged or stalled the car. Those were the days of the third car, so he was allowed to qualify and he promptly put the M23 9th on the grid – ahead of regular driver Jochen Mass. His car spinning abilities however didn’t impress Teddy Mayer, so he declined Gilles a regular drive.
His opportunity arrived at the end of the 1977 when Niki Lauda, after clinching the title, announced his Brabham deal for 1978. At the age of 27, he was offered the privilege of driving for Ferrari. Again, a third-car arrangement was set up for Villeneuve, this time at his home GP at Mosport Park, where he was entered with the peculiar No.21. Gilles finished last after a mid-race spoiled his chances. Gilles was appalled by the 312T2 and he made no bones about it. “Compared with the McLaren and with the Atlantic car, the Ferrari is a dog. I think I’d be quicker here in the March.”
Gilles’ career start almost came to a sudden end at Fuji, when he rammed into Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrell. His Ferrari flew over the barriers, fatally injuring two spectators. “Crazy Canadian” screamed the local newspaper headlines. Despite this, Enzo Ferrari confirmed him for 1978. Probably it was down to his snowmobile racing experience, but Gilles was clearly the opposite of teammate Carlos Reutemann. Carlos however blew away Gilles in the ill-handling 312T2 and then the T3. But Gilles respected him and was learning from him. Fast. He proved it when he won the Canadian Grand Prix to the utter delight of his home fans.
When Carlos switched to Lotus for 1979, Jody Scheckter came in, but Gilles saw the opportunity to lay his hands on the title. The Ligier JS11s dominated the start of the season but the Ferrari T4 was readied. Gilles promptly won in South Africa and then in Long Beach. Jody was playing catch up. While Gilles continued to smother the machinery, Jody displayed controlled aggression, with not even a single mechanical failure throughout the 1979 season. Gilles broke a crown wheel and pinion in Argentina, ran out of fuel in Belgium, lost second gear in Spain and broke another pinion at Monaco, had a fuel pressure problem at Silverstone. This was probably why Enzo Ferrari gave him the title “High Priest of Destruction.”
Gilles led in France, Austria and Holland, but the new points scoring system worked against him. The 15-race championship was divided into two parts (7 & 8) with the best four results from each part counting for the title.
The title swung Jody’s way, but that didn’t deter Gilles. Racing against Renault’s Rene Arnoux at Dijon-Prenois, he was captured on TV banging wheels and out-braking on the outside, on a circuit that is full of blind brows and long corners. To this day, this dogfight remains the epitome of formula one racing. Even Rene Arnoux has fond memories of it. “The duel with Gilles is something I’ll never forget – my greatest souvenir in racing. He beat me, yes, in France, but it didn’t worry me. I knew I’d been beaten by the best driver in the world,” he said.
It was clear to the world – behind the boyish looks was an unforgiving competitor. But for some of Gilles’ conservative peers, his display of on-the-limit driving was over the acceptable limits. Gilles remained unfazed. Soon at Zandvoort, he was driving on three wheels!
Had he slowed down to let second-placed Alan Jones, he could’ve finished second, giving him precious points. In hindsight, those points would’ve made Gilles the world champion, for he lost it to his team mate Jody by just 4 points. He, however, had a startling argument – team orders. “I’ll never know, because it didn’t happen, but if I had dropped back to second, I think I would have been ordered to give that place to Jody. So for me, there was no option. It was lead or bust.”
Just before the Italian GP at Monza, Gilles’ former teammate Carlos Reutemann had a piece of advice. “Don’t play with the championship. You may only get one shot at it and this is it. Don’t give it to Jody. You’ve been at Ferrari longer and you deserve it just as much.” Gilles, though, liked Jody and trusted him. For him, the team was larger than himself. So he didn’t mount a challenge on Jody. The fact that a fighter like Gilles finished just 0.46 of a second behind him was a clear indication.
He was sure 1980 would be his year. But the season turned out to be a disaster, as neither he nor Jody even won a race. The turbo era was coming and Ferrari was under-prepared. The new T5 was a monster and Gilles escaped unhurt from a huge accident at Imola, while Jody slumped into retirement.
For the 1981 season, Didier Pironi came in as his teammate. He now had turbo power and believed that he could overcome the chassis deficiencies with his driving. And he actually did, by holding up a stack of cars behind him at Monaco and Jarama. As a result, his popularity waned. Alan Jones particularly dismissed him as “brainless.” Even his supporter James Hunt said, “He is a genuine speed freak and he drives with enormous aggression and flair, but he seems unable to combine that with common sense.” Pressure was building.
In 1982, at Brazil, Gilles confided in renowned F1 journalist Peter Windsor that he was beginning to experience eye fatigue. To get over it, Gilles would dangle a tennis ball on a piece of string, swing it and exercise his eye muscles. By Imola, the new car was ready to strike and Gilles was ready for the title.
On race day, once the Renaults of Prost and Arnoux broke down, Gilles and Didier raced head-to-head like there’s no tomorrow, even when the team was showing the ‘SLOW’ sign over the pit wall. Both Ferraris were misfiring, but their dogfight continued. In the end, Didier crossed the finish line first. Gilles was utterly disappointed. Incidentally, Didier hadn’t even bothered to invite Gilles for his wedding. Whether this was instrumental or not, we’ll never know, but Gilles felt betrayed. Back in Parc Ferme, he stormed out of his car, turned his back on Didier and vowed never to speak to him.
He also increasingly became outspoken about safety. “Without drivers, F1 is nothing,” he said. He was against the qualifying rules, which limited each driver to two sets of soft tyres (the qualifying tyres, as they were called). “This puts a ridiculous pressure on everyone to take risks in traffic. We should ban qualifiers, or limit the number of laps we can do or have no limit to the number of tyres we use. Something has to be done,” he insisted. Nothing was done, because just like now, the drivers then, were to keep their mouths shut and get on with their job. Gilles was now perceived as the troublemaker. It put more pressure on him.
A few days later, Ferrari’s team manager Marco Piccinini attempted to strike a compromise between Gilles and Didier by convening a meeting. But he made a grave mistake. He started by saying to Gilles, “Well, I would be upset too if I had been beaten.” That was it. No true-blooded racer would take that, so how could Gilles? Now, he felt he had no friends, none that he can trust.
Just before the grand prix at Zolder, Gilles’ wife Joann told Piccinini: “Nothing will change Gilles’ mind. That’s the way he is. He will always trust someone until they show him he can’t. If Didier is in front, you’d better tell him to slow down. Otherwise Gilles will take him out. I mean it.”
Whether he would’ve done it or not, we’ll never know. In the Saturday Qualifying, he was still a tenth behind Didier. Running on the best four tyres from the allotted ‘two sets’, he came upon the slow moving March of Jochen Mass, which was approaching a turn. Determined to get the better of his archrival Didier Pironi, he lunged for the small gap without lifting off. The Ferrari’s left front clipped the March’s right rear, flicking it into the air. The television cameras captured the horrendous accident as the car landed nose downwards, the impact ripping the seat off from the chassis. Gilles was thrown out of the somersaulting car, his body coming to rest after crashing into the barriers. His neck broke instantaneously. Shortly before midnight, the doctors switched off his life support. With it came to an end, the life of a man who won more hearts than races. No wonder the passionate Tifosi came to love him so much.
The news of his death drove Enzo Ferrari to tears. “My past is scarred with grief …father, mother, brother, sister, wife …my life is full of sad memories. I look back and I see my loved ones …and among my loved ones I see the face of this great man: Gilles Villeneuve.“