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|Formula One World Championship Career|
|Grands Prix||68 (67 starts)|
|Championships||0 (2nd in 1979)|
|Career Points||101 (107)|
|First Grand Prix||1977 British Grand Prix|
|First win||1978 Canadian Grand Prix|
|Last win||1981 Spanish Grand Prix|
|Last Grand Prix||1982 Belgian Grand Prix|
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve (Gilles Villeneuve ʒil vilnœv) (January 18, 1950 – May 8, 1982) was a Canadian racing driver. An enthusiast of cars and fast driving from an early age, he started his professional career in snowmobile racing in his native province of Quebec. He moved into single seaters — winning the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic championships in 1976 before being offered a one-off drive with McLaren at the 1977 British Grand Prix. He was taken on by reigning world champions Ferrari for the end of the season — in only his fifth season racing cars — and from 1978 to his death in 1982 drove for the Italian team. He won six Grand Prix races in a short career at the highest level. In 1979 he finished second by four points in the championship to teammate Jody Scheckter.
Villeneuve died in a 140 mph (225 km/h) crash with the March of Jochen Mass during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. The accident came less than two weeks after an intense argument with his team-mate, Didier Pironi, over Pironi's move to pass Villeneuve at Imola despite team orders to remain in the same position until the end of the race. At the time of his death, Villeneuve was extremely popular with fans and with many journalists, on whom his death had a profound effect. Since 1982 he has become an iconic figure in the history of the sport, renowned for his car control, aggressive driving style, and a 'never give up' attitude. His son, Jacques Villeneuve, became a Formula One world champion in 1997.
Personal and early life
Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, a small town in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada and grew up in Berthierville. He married Joann Barthe in 1970, with whom he had two children, Jacques and Melanie. During his early career Villeneuve took his family on the road with him in a motorhome during the racing season, a habit which he continued to some extent during his Formula One career. He often claimed to have been born in 1952. By the time he got his break in Formula One, he was already 27 years old and took two years off his age to avoid being considered too old to make it at the highest level of motorsports.
Like certain other great drivers, including Clark and Senna, Villeneuve was a curious mixture of seemingly disparate personality types. Lauda wrote of him, "He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1... The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being". Flying, snowmobiling or driving, he was a risk-taker of classic proportions. Yet his fellow drivers said that on the track he was scrupulously fair and did not put anyone's safety other than his own in jeopardy and those who worked with him usually referred to him as introverted. This combination of traits made him exceptionally popular not only with fans but with teammates and opponents as well.
His younger brother Jacques, known as "uncle Jacques", also had a successful racing career in Formula Atlantic, Can Am and CART. Gilles' son, also named Jacques, won the Indianapolis 500 and CART championships in 1995 and became Formula One World Champion in 1997.
Villeneuve started competitive driving in local drag-racing events, entering his road car, a modified 1967 Ford Mustang. He was soon bored by this and entered the Jim Russell Racing School at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant to gain a racing license. He then had a very successful season in Québec regional Formula Ford, running his own two year old car and winning seven of the ten races he entered. The next year he progressed to Formula Atlantic, competing there for four years, running his own car again for one of those seasons. He won his first Atlantic race in 1975 at Gimli Motosport Park in heavy rain. In 1976, teamed with Chris Harrison's Ecurie Canada and factory March race engineer Ray Wardell, he dominated the season by winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles. He won the Canadian championship again in 1977.
Money was very tight in Villeneuve's early career. He was a professional racing driver from his late teens, with no other income. In the first few years the bulk of his income actually came from snowmobile racing, where he was extremely successful. He could demand appearance money as well as race money, especially after winning the 1974 World Championship Snowmobile Derby. His second season in Formula Atlantic was part-sponsored by his snowmobile manufacturer, Skiroule. He credited some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 mph. 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."
After Villeneuve impressed McLaren driver James Hunt by beating him, and several other Grand Prix stars, in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières, McLaren offered Villeneuve a deal for five races in a third car during 1977 and the young Canadian made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix. Villeneuve qualified an impressive 9th in McLaren's old M23, splitting the regular drivers Hunt and Jochen Mass. Delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge he ran competitively, setting fifth fastest lap and finishing 11th. Despite this the team decided not to opt for Villeneuve's services again. Then in August 1977, Villeneuve met with Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari was immediately reminded by Villeneuve of the legendary Tazio Nuvolari. The obvious interest shown by Ferrari towards Villeneuve prompted Niki Lauda to leave at that year's Canadian Grand Prix, having already clinched his second championship. In the race, Gilles retired, after going off on another competitor's oil. He also raced in Japan, but also retired. On lap five of the race, Gilles tried to outbrake the Tyrrell P34 of Ronnie Peterson, but the pair banged wheels. Gilles' Ferrari went airborne and crashed down onto the crowds of spectators watching the race from a prohibited area. A spectator and a race marshall were killed and several were injured.
After making his debut for Ferrari, he would later remark that: "If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari..."
The 1978 season saw a succession of retirements for Villeneuve, often after problems with the new Michelin radial tyres, but also due to his own inexperience — this was his fifth season of car racing. Despite calls in the Italian press for him to be replaced, Ferrari persisted with him and Villeneuve scored his first Grand Prix victory at his home race at the end of the season in front of an ecstatic crowd. As of 2008, he is the last Canadian to do so.
Villeneuve was joined by Jody Scheckter for 1979 after Carlos Reutemann moved to Lotus. The pair finished first and second in the championship, with Scheckter beating Villeneuve by just four points. Villeneuve won three races during the year. The 1980 season was a complete disaster. Villeneuve had been considered favourite for the drivers championship by UK bookmakers, but would only score six points in the whole campaign in the unwieldy 312T5 which had only partial ground effects. His world champion team-mate could manage only two points and retired at the end of the season.
In 1981 Ferrari's first turbo engined car, the 126C, was hardly an improvement. Although it produced tremendous power its handling was poor. Villeneuve, partnered by Didier Pironi, won two races against the odds during the season, at Monaco and in Spain. Pironi noted that at Ferrari, Villeneuve "had a little family there. But he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight ... [He] treated me as an equal in every way." For 1982 Villeneuve's first few races were very promising. The new 126/C2 car was fast and reliable and he was seen as favourite for the world championship by fans and the press alike. He led in Brazil before spinning into retirement and finished third at Long Beach, although he was later disqualified for a technical infringement. At Imola he was overtaken by his team-mate near the finish, while leading. Gilles Villeneuve died in a horrific accident in qualifying for the next race at Zolder, attempting to beat his teammate Pironi's faster qualifying time.
Dijon 1979: Remembered for his frenetic style which seemed more like that of a rally driver, Villeneuve's wheel-banging duel with René Arnoux in the last laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix at the Dijon Circuit, when he stubbornly refused to accept his 312T4 was slower than Arnoux's faster Renault was one of the most intense moments in Formula One racing. Arnoux passed Villeneuve for second place with three laps to go, but Villeneuve re-passed him on the next lap. On the final lap Arnoux attempted to pass Villeneuve again, and the pair ran side-by-side through the first several corners of the lap, making contact several times. Arnoux took the position, but Villeneuve attempted an outside pass one corner later. The cars bumped hard, and Villeneuve slid wide. Villeneuve then tried an inside pass at a hairpin turn and managed to make it stick. He then held off Arnoux for the last half of the lap to secure 2nd place. Villeneuve commented afterwards, "I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another."
Zandvoort 1979: Remembered for Villeneuve's determination, as a slow puncture collapsed his left rear tyre and put him off the track. He returned to the circuit and continued back to the pits on three wheels, with sparks flying from under the car and the punctured tyre flapping loose behind it. The deflated tyre soon tore the wheel away from the suspension. On his return to the pits Villeneuve insisted that the team replace the missing wheel, and had to be persuaded that the car was beyond repair.
Watkins Glen 1979: During the extremely wet Friday practice session for this race, Villeneuve set a time variously reported to be either 9 or 11 seconds faster than any other driver. His team-mate Jody Scheckter, who was second fastest, recalled that "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles's time and — I still don't really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!" Jacques Laffite merely laughed and quipped "Why do we bother? Gilles is different from the rest of us. He is on a separate level."
Jarama 1981: Perhaps Villeneuve's greatest achievements came in 1981 at Jarama, where he wrestled an unwieldy turbo Ferrari 126C to victory in a classic display of defensive driving at the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix, keeping 5 quicker cars behind him using his tactical acumen and the superior straightline speed of his car. After an hour and 46 minutes of racing, Villeneuve led second-placed Jacques Laffite by only 0.22 seconds. Fifth-placed Elio de Angelis was only just over a second further back. Harvey Postlethwaite, designer of the 126C, later commented, "That car...had literally one quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was."
Montreal 1981: Another example of Villeneuve's battling spirit was this drive in torrential rain. After severely damaging the front wing of his Ferrari, Villeneuve drove for most of the race with the wing obscuring his view ahead. There was a risk of being black flagged, but eventually the wing became detached and Villeneuve drove on to finish third with the nose section of his car missing.
Argument with Pironi
Villeneuve went into 1982 a clear favourite for the crown, Ferrari's new designer Harvey Postlethwaite having created a competitive car. After glimpses of promise in the opening races, the Ferraris were handed an unexpected advantage at the San Marino Grand Prix as an escalation of the FISA-FOCA war saw the FOCA teams boycott the race, effectively leaving Renault as Ferrari's only serious opposition. With Prost retiring from 4th place on lap 7, followed by Arnoux on the 44th lap, Ferrari seemed to have the win in the bag. In order to preserve fuel and ensure the cars made the finish, the Ferrari team ordered both drivers to slow down. Villeneuve believed that the order also meant that the drivers were to maintain position, but Pironi didn't come to the same conclusion and passed Villeneuve. A few laps later Villeneuve re-passed Pironi and slowed down again, believing that Pironi was simply trying to entertain the Italian crowd. However, on the last lap Pironi passed and aggressively chopped Villeneuve and took the win. Villeneuve was irate, as he believed that Pironi had disobeyed the order to hold position. Meanwhile, Pironi claimed that he had done nothing wrong, as the team had only ordered the cars to slow down, not maintain position. Feeling betrayed and angry, Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again.
In 2007 former Marlboro marketer John Hogan disputed the claim that Pironi had gone back on a prior arrangement with Villeneuve. He said: "Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise." Hogan's company sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari. A comparison of the lap times of the two drivers showed that Villeneuve lapped far slower when he was in the lead, suggesting that he had indeed been trying to save fuel.
Gilles stated after the San Marino Grand Prix, "I think it is well known that if I want someone to stay behind me and I am faster, then he stays behind me." In 1979, Gilles could have won the World Championship by beating Scheckter, but chose to follow team orders and finish behind him at the 1979 Italian Grand Prix.
On May 8, 1982, after failing to beat Pironi's time on his first qualifying lap for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder by only 0.1s, Villeneuve decided to try one final time to take pole position. Using a set of scrubbed qualifying tyres, by now past their best, Villeneuve was well into his flying lap when he came up behind Jochen Mass's March 821, who was driving sedately towards the pits having completed his own qualifying attempt. Mass began to cede the racing line to Villeneuve, moving to the right, but Gilles had already committed to passing the March on that side, possibly due to steering problems which had afflicted his car during practice. The front left wheel of Villeneuve's car came into contact with the right rear wheel of Mass' car, launching the Ferrari into the air. The car partially flipped, before nose-diving into the soft earthen embankment just outside the armco and then somersaulting along the side of the track. The violence of the accident reduced the car to its cockpit, and ripped Villeneuve's seat from the back of the monocoque. Villeneuve, without his helmet, was thrown across the track and into the catch fencing just outside the corner.
Derek Warwick, the first driver to pass the destroyed Ferrari, pulled up a short way along the track and hurried back to assist Villeneuve. Aided by fellow driver John Watson, the pair extricated Villeneuve's body from the fencing and laid him on the ground. By the time the medical team arrived Villeneuve was not breathing. Villeneuve was resuscitated at the scene, but his injuries were fatal. He died in a local hospital that evening, his fatal injuries likely caused by the force of his car landing for the first time after the initial impact. If his death was not greeted with great shock and surprise (everyone knew his style), that was more than offset by the profound sadness it produced. Even René Arnoux, his adversary in the Dijon epic, confessed that he cried after discovering that Gilles had died.
Fans often blamed teammate Pironi for the fatal accident, suggesting that the incident at San Marino had contributed to Villeneuve's furious state of mind which would lead to his crash.
Villeneuve had already become an iconic figure before his death. His determination to win was obvious from outside the cockpit in the frequent oversteer and wheel-banging with his competitors. This endeared him to the crowd, and combined with his unusually open and honest approach, to many of the press as well. After the tragic death of Ronnie Peterson, Villeneuve was seen as his natural successor as the fastest natural driver on the grid.
At the funeral in Berthierville, former team-mate, Jody Scheckter, delivered a simple 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.”
Villeneuve's spectacular driving is still considered an art form among Formula One fans. He is still remembered at Grand Prix races, especially those in Italy. There is a bronze bust of him at the entrance to the Ferrari test track. A challenging corner (now chicane) at the Imola track, site of the San Marino Grand Prix, is named Curva Gilles Villeneuve after he had a spectacular crash there. A Canadian flag is painted on the spot where he started his last race. At Zolder, the corner where Gilles died has been turned into a chicane and named after him.
The racetrack on Île Notre-Dame, Montreal, used for the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix and Champ Car Grand Prix of Montreal, was renamed in his honour at the Canadian Grand Prix of 1982 after his death. His homeland has continued to honor him. In Berthierville, a museum was opened in 1992 and a lifelike statue stands in a nearby park named in his honour. Villeneuve was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame at their inaugural induction ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto, Ontario, August 19, 1993. In June 1997, Canada issued a postage stamp in honor of its favorite racing son.
There is still a huge demand for Villeneuve memorabilia at the race-track shops, and several books have been written about him. The number 27, the number of his Ferrari for several years, is still closely associated with him by fans. Jean Alesi, whose aggression and speed in the wet were compared to Villeneuve's, also used the number at Ferrari and Gilles' son, Jacques, drove the #27 during his 1995 Champ Car and Indianapolis 500 winning season with Barry Green, and Bill Davis Racing will field his Craftsman Truck with the aforementioned number in that series. A film based on the biography by Gerald Donaldson was announced in 2005, intended for release in 2007.
As well as this, in episode 21 of the anime Capeta, the creator paid tribute to Villeneuve by showing his Ferrari 126C2 with his number and explaining why ground effect was outlawed with a picture reference similar to his fatal accident. The Japanese scale model company Studio 27 is named in honor of him.
Villeneuve's helmet carried a stylised 'V' in red on either side — an effect he devised with his wife Joann. The base colour was black. His son, Jacques, uses the same basic design, but like his contemporary, Christian Fittipaldi, he has changed the colours. British driver Perry McCarthy also used this design and color scheme on his helmet, but with the design in reverse.
Complete Formula One World Championship results
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)
All Formula One race and championship results are taken from:
- Official Formula 1 website. Archive: Results for 1977 — 1982 seasons www.formula1.com Retrieved 18 July 2006
All Pre-Formula One race and championship results are taken from:
- Donaldson, Gerald (1989, 2003) Gilles Villeneuve Virgin Books ISBN 0-7535-0747-1, Gilles Villeneuve race results p.310–315
- Remembering Gilles...
- Salut Gilles
- Official Ferrari tribute site
- Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame
- Tribute to Ayrton Senna and Gilles Villeneuve
- CBC Digital Archives — Gilles Villeneuve: Racing at the speed of light
- Gilles Villeneuve Videos
- Gilles Villeneuve Resources
|Brands Hatch Race of Champions winner|
|Formula One fatal accidents|
May 8, 1982