Remembering Canada’s greatest Formula 1 driver, Gilles Villeneuve

As 19-year-old driver Lance Stroll anticipates the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season, he hopes to duplicate a feat that fellow Canadian Gilles Villeneuve accomplished 40 years ago: score an F1 victory in only his second season on the circuit. Claiming Villeneuve’s title as the “greatest Canadian F1 driver of all time” will be much more difficult.

Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve—a 5-foot-6, 120-pound bulldog of a driver—won his first Formula 1 race in the 1978 season finale. Appropriately enough, it was at Circuit Île Notre-Dame in Montreal. Fellow driver Niki Lauda praised the skill and bravery of the diminutive French-Canadian, calling him “the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1.” Villeneuve wasn’t merely talented, he was spectacular, with an all-or-nothing approach that galvanized audiences. Never a champion (he was killed at age 32 during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix), he nonetheless sits high in the pantheon of F1 drivers.

The beginnings of a legend

Villeneuve’s story begins behind the handlebars of a snowmobile in his native Quebec. Snow flying everywhere, gritting his teeth against the cold, grinning with exhilaration. While Gilles’ first outings were in drag racing, it was snowmobiling that would sharpen his skills and hone his characteristic fearlessness. What could be more Canadian?

“Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control,” he once said. “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.”

Rain would be a blessing to Villeneuve for his entire career. His first major win came in a Formula Atlantic race at Gimli Motorsports Park in 1975. In soaking conditions, he simply left the rest of the field behind, displaying near-supernatural car control. Having turned to full-time professional racing at a young age, and with a young family to support, Villeneuve’s early years were lean. Still, he persevered, winning Canadian and U.S. Formula Atlantic titles in 1976, and the Canadian championship again in 1977.

Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312T5 at the Histric race during the 2010 Canadian GP
Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312T5 at the Histric race during the 2010 Canadian GP. Mark McArdle

During a non-championship race in the 1976 season, Villeneuve found himself matched against future F1 champions Alan Jones and James Hunt. Despite having to wrestle with a chassis that was displaying quirks owing to a crash during earlier practice, Gilles shockingly took the pole. He followed up the coup by setting a comfortable 10-second gap over the other race leaders and winning easily.

Hunt was impressed enough to arrange a test for the young Canadian with McLaren, and Villeneuve’s skills earned him an offer for a seat in F1. It was almost a dream come true, as his debut at Silverstone resulted in him finishing between Hunt and McLaren teammate Jochen Mass. Both other drivers were in newer M26 chassis, while Villeneuve was in the M23.

A dream realized

McLaren would only be a stepping stone for Villeneuve. McLaren manager Teddy Mayer decided to go with French driver Patrick Tambay for the 1978 season. Villeneuve and Tambay remained close friends; in fact, when Villeneuve’s son Jacques was born, Tambay became his godfather. Still, it was looking like Gilles would be without a seat for the remainder of the 1977 season and on into 1978. The Can-Am series would provide some help from an unexpected quarter. Having stepped in to drive the Wolf-Dallara WD1 for larger-than-life Canadian businessman and F1 team owner Walter Wolf, Villeneuve found himself suddenly on Ferrari’s radar.

When Enzo Ferrari met Villeneuve, he claimed to recognize a kinship between the “piccolo Canadese” (little Canadian, in Italian) and the legendary Tazio Nuvolari. Despite a testing day marked by spins, Villeneuve’s aggressive driving style impressed Ferrari. He would get his chance.

Gilles Villeneuve at Imola GP in 1979
Gilles Villeneuve at Imola GP in 1979 Gilberto Benni

“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,” Villeneuve would later say.  All three wishes came true in October of 1977, at Mosport. An undeclared fourth wish—to win for Ferrari—was not yet to be, however. Villeneuve hit a patch of oil and crashed out of the race.

Slowly over the 1978 season, Villeneuve worked his way onto the podium with a couple of second-place finishes. At the Canadian Grand Prix, exactly a year after his debut for Ferrari, he won his first Formula 1 race. He remains the only Canadian driver to have won an F1 race on home soil.

He became the hero that Canadians had been waiting for. Villeneuve followed up his historic win with a 1979 season that saw him finish just short of the overall championship (an end mandated by team orders). Ferrari teammate Jody Scheckter finished just ahead, so that Villeneuve would maintain second-place position at Monza.

A sight to behold

Even when finishing second, Villeneuve’s energy in a race could make you forget which driver came out on top. Perhaps his most thrilling performance came at the French Grand Prix of that year, battling the much faster turbocharged Renaults. Bolstered by low ambient temperatures, the yellow Renaults were incredibly quick on the straights, but Villeneuve took the fight to Rene Arnoux with a wheel-banging couple of final laps that remains perhaps the finest racing ever seen in Formula 1. Gilles won the battle by inches, but the bravery, camaraderie, and exultation of both drivers was incredible to witness. Both men remained friends.

There were many outstanding drives in Villeneuve’s tragically-short F1 career, including at Watkins Glen in 1979, during which there was a downpour that had even the most experienced drivers scared stiff. Villeneuve went out and set lap times a full 11 seconds quicker than anyone else. At the Canadian Grand Prix in 1981, he managed to finish third with his Ferrari’s damaged front wing first obscuring his vision before falling off entirely.

The crowds loved Villeneuve’s determination, even when the odds were too great. Ferrari’s racing cars weren’t competitive in the early 1980s, and Villeneuve was constantly struggling to overcome the handicap. His ability to win races during this period is testament to his natural talent, and his never-say-die attitude.

The crash

It was that relentless will to win that would eventually be his undoing. At the San Marino Grand Prix, with both Ferraris leading, team orders were to slow down and preserve the cars. Villeneuve’s teammate Didier Pironi was in second place, but he passed to take the lead. Gilles passed Pironi again, then slowed as requested. Pironi passed again on the last lap, taking the win.

Having faithfully followed orders when Scheckter won the championship, Villeneuve was understandably furious. He believed the positions should have been maintained, though Pironi disputed by saying the order was only to slow the cars down, not go for the victory.

Either way, at the next Grand Prix event in Belgium, Villeneuve seemed even more determined than usual. While on his last set of qualifying tires, he crested a rise and came upon the slower-moving Jochen Mass in his March. Mass, who was headed to the pits, spotted the fast-approaching Ferrari and moved right to give up the racing line. Villeneuve moved right at the same time, and the cars collided, sending Villeneuve’s Ferrari airborne.

Thrown from his car at more than 200 km/h, Villeneuve suffered a fractured neck and succumbed to his injuries some hours later.

Canada mourned. As part of honoring his legacy, the Montreal F1 circuit was named after him in 1982. A museum opened in his hometown of Berthierville, Quebec, not far from where he is buried. A bronze bust of Villeneuve sits at the entrance to Ferrari’s Fiorano test track, and there is a Canadian flag painted on the tarmac at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, the place from which he started his last Grand Prix in San Marino.

When Villeneuve’s son, Jacques, won the F1 championship in 1997, it was a fitting tribute to his legacy. And every year, when the cars roar across the finish line at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, their wheels touch on a lasting message to a fallen hero. It reads, simply, “Salut Gilles.”

Start-finish-line at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve
Start-finish-line at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve Jbitte
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