On Sunday 8 May 1982, Gilles Villeneuve was killed while driving his Ferrari during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder – that was 40 years ago – our team looks back on the great Canadian driver.
In 67 Grand Prix starts, Villeneuve won only six Grands Prix, Imola two weeks before he died, was his last podium of 13 podiums in Formula 1, yet he remains a racing icon revered by F1 fans, boomers today, who hail him among the best drivers of all time. How can that be?
We tap into our GrandPrix247 Team to figure it out.
David Terrien: Car control and very generous driving style
I am not from the same generation as Gilles Villeneuve, I was 6 when he died and barely started karting as a kid. I raced his son Jacques in the Speedcar Series but only remember Gilles through videos and readings from his days in F1.
The video I watched many times his about his incredible duel with Rene Arnoux at the French GP in Dijon back in 1979. I saw the video for the first time only after racing myself in Dijon in the middle of the 90s and I was blown away.
Dijon is a mega quick track where the last corner is a blind turning point, downhill, off-camber and almost flat in 4th gear in a F3 car of my days (around 200km/h) just before the massive start and finish straight line.
Villeneuve was racing for Ferrari while Arnoux was racing for Renault and the French car maker seemed dominant on this particular race event.
Eventually, the F1 championship winner was Ferrari, not with Villeneuve but with Scheckter, but what really stands out of that season is the battle of the last five laps between Arnoux and Villeneuve at the French Grand Prix.
They were not even fighting for a win since Jabouille on the sister Renault car was leading comfortably and went on to win the GP but they showed amazing commitment, amazing car control, amazing fighting spirit but also a bit of craziness in the approach.
They overtook each other twice in the last lap, locking and banging wheels, sliding the cars completely sideways in and out of very impressive and very fast corners.
Villeneuve made the last move securing second place and winning the dual over Arnoux in a right uphill hairpin where no one expected him to overtake and with only four corners to go.
This is of course one of his most famous highlights, but videos showing him completely sideways in between the rails in Monaco or keeping the car on track after a massive snap of the rear on the power and on the kerb while exiting a corner are testimonials of his incredible car control.
He definitely had massive talent and pace. Some say he is the most spectacular F1 driver ever and they might be right. Modern cars are too stiff, too grippy and operating too close to the limit of tires peak of grip to allow such displays of car control.
Villeneuve was literally dancing with the car, and we couldn’t see this happening in modern era where cars wouldn’t allow it.
Whether modern drivers could adapt to the required style for older cars or Villeneuve could have adapted to new cars is a different story. No one can really answer this question, even if extremely talented drivers such as Gilles Villeneuve remain extremely good drivers in all conditions, hence they are able to adapt to any new conditions.
What really sticks to my memory is his style, I described it earlier as dancing with the car and this is the term that seems the most adapted. It is beautiful and mesmerising to watch, I only saw Senna having a similar style in particular conditions.
Jad Mallak: A sense of mystique when you talk about F1 legends like Ayrton, Gilles is no different
This one was always going to be tough for me, as I wasn’t even born when Gilles died, but I couldn’t but write something about a great driver that played his part in the history of F1.
You always get this sense of mystique when you talk about F1 legends, especially those who have died on the track, like Ayrton Senna for example, and Gilles is no different.
From what I have read or watched about the Canadian, I have been fascinated by his talent, his story from his humble origins, and then the circumstances of his untimely death.
The stories about his out and out driving mentality, always flirting with the limit of what was possible in an F1 car, and even exceeding that limit only added to my curiosity about him.
The long chats I have had with Paul about Gilles and other drivers whom I did not have the chance to know first-hand ever since I started following the sport while he did, have served me quite nicely in developing the feel for the history of F1 and how drivers were back then and how they have become.
Sorry, Paul if I am making you sound old.
What I feel, however, is that today, we miss the distinctive driver ‘characters’ previous F1 generations without the PR minders that limit individuality, and coupled to these days of political correctness enforced on the current era of drivers.
I say this without even daring to take anything away from modern-day F1 drivers whom I look at as driving gods, but an individual character – like how I imagine Gilles was – is what we miss today.
Paul Velasco: Gilles to me epitomises what a F1 driver was all about
As the elder statesman of our team [while our boys were still unplanned!] I had the privilege of watching and ‘meeting’ Gilles Villeneuve, during my time as an avid young F1 fan. The first time I became aware of him was in the late seventies when he guest drove select Formula Atlantic races at the time in South Africa.
The first F1 contact came at the 1978 South African Grand Prix where I witnessed him for the first time, the ‘meeting’ was popping my autograph book under his nose for me to sign. I was a fan.
A year later he won the South African Grand Prix, heading teammate and local hero Jody Scheckter, which I watched with my grandfather from our usual haunt at Barbecue Bend.
In 1981, at 20, I was accredited to cover my first Grand Prix, the 1981 South African Grand Prix but Gilles and Ferrari did not turn up to that race as it was held amid a raging war between Bernie Ecclestone’s FOCA cabal and the FIA Led by autocratic Jean-Marie Balestre which nearly split the sport.
I saw him again in action, a final time, at the 1982 South African Grand Prix, a couple of months before he perished. He suffered a DNF that day at Kyalami, which meant in four visits to my home track he won once and retired three times.
And that sums up Gilles, he either won or lost, if he lost it was most likely that he literally drove the wheels off the Ferrari, and a Google image search will pop-up numerous images of Gilles three wheeling a wrecked car to the pits. That was Gilles.
That is what made him special, some say too special for the era he raced in, Gilles belonged to the age of Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio.
But he was very much a seventies and eighties icon of our sport, a hero with a modest, even poverty-stricken background who made it to F1 because James Hunt got a look at what he was capable of during a Formula Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres in Quebec.
A McLaren driver at the time, Hunt reported Gilles to the Marlboro backed team boss Teddy Mayer who gave Gilles his F1 debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix.
While McLaren dithered, Ferrari pounced and gave Gilles a run in the final two races of that year, and thus began one of Maranello’s greatest legends as the Canadian won the hearts and minds of a nation, and a sport. His rivals respected him more than most, and of course he was the real deal.
A notorious adrenalin junkie, stories of his antics in his helicopter, racing through traffic like a lunatic, destroying rental cars and generally being the real deal without constraints of political correctness. Gille would have hated this era of F1, doubt he would have even considered it a career. He would have probably been a fighter pilot had he been born a generation or two later.
You might ask, who was Gilles like as a driver today? Honestly, the closest in terms of attitude, raw speed and application would be a Charles Leclerc mix with Max Verstappen, seriously, consider that.
But the closest I saw of Gilles was Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn in his McLaren days when he was devastatingly quick and could drive anything faster than anyone on the planet. But the Iceman thawed over the years, because he lives on, got older and grumpier and slower; but that early Kimi was as close as it got to what Gilles was all about – a maverick doing it his way. If you think about it, a bit like Jacques…
Gilles legacy shines with gutsy performances and a never-give-up attitude resulting in some legendary races, inevitably the star of the show no matter where he finished. So endearing was he, that apart from becoming the darling of Tifosi, he also became a surrogate son of sorts to Enzo Ferrari.
Loving the Canadian’s free-wheeling carefree attitude, Il Drake took to him in as his own, like no other driver, and when Gilles died word is that old man Enzo never really got over it; he died six years later.
For many years, decades even, after that day at Zolder, Tifosi still sang his praises, each year they spraypainted in front of the Imola start/finish Grand Stand: “Gilles, la leggenda vivrà per sempre” – Gilles, the legend will live forever – it has for me.
I now its presumptuous to say this, bit I feel Gilles would have won plenty more Grand Prix races and would’ve been a multiple F1 World Champion; but for that fateful, dark day at Zolder exactly 40 years ago…
For more about Gilles from someone among those who knew him best, here is an in-depth interview with Jody Scheckter about his former Ferrari teammate read it here>>>