Three decades later, Gilles Villeneuve's legacy lives on
It was May 8, 1982. Zolder – a fast, twisting racecourse running through the forests of Belgium – played host to the fifth round of the Formula One world championship. With eight minutes to go in the final qualifying session, Gilles Villeneuve, driving for Ferrari, crested the rise after the first chicane to find a slowing Jochen Mass in the middle of Butte – a high-speed left-hander preceding the right-hander, Terlamenbocht. Mass, having seen a red flash with the familiar “V” on the helmet, moved right to allow Villeneuve to pass; Villeneuve, age 32, unaware of Mass’s decision, kept his foot flat.
“Not Gilles,” the world cried. “Oh God, not Gilles.”
Growing up in the small town of Berthierville, Canada – a largely French-speaking province of Quebec – Villeneuve, the son of a piano tuner, received his first car at the age of 15. It was a 1958 MGA sports car, a vehicle his father had originally purchased for $100. Still too young to legally drive, Villeneuve tore the vehicle to its bare bones and rebuilt it – bit by bit, part by part – learning how the little sports car worked. Shortly after, he proceeded to crash it – as he did with most things he drove during his formative years.
In 1973, Villeneuve, who was still snowmobiling and competing at a high level, ran his own two-year-old Formula Ford racecar to victory in the provincial championship. The following year, after selling the family home and replacing it with a small campervan, the Villeneuves funded a season in Formula Atlantic – a renowned series for drivers looking to make it big. By 1976, he had won both the American and Canadian titles – topping it off by beating the soon-to-be Formula One world champion James Hunt in a non-championship race at Trois-Rivières.
This offered Villeneuve the break he’d been waiting for, as at the time, most of his modest income derived from snowmobile races. Based on Hunt’s advice, McLaren signed the Canadian to the team’s third car. His first Formula One Grand Prix came at Silverstone, England, where a ninth place qualifying and the fifth fastest race lap earned him a call from Enzo Ferrari: “When they presented me with this tiny Canadian, this miniscule bundle of nerves,” Ferrari said, “I instantly recognized in him the physique of the great Nuvolari, and I said to myself, ‘let's give him a try.’”
It was at Ferrari Villeneuve’s talent slowly began to shine, despite a rocky initial few races. In 1978 his won his first Grand Prix, and to the delight of the crowd, it was in Canada. By 1979, with Jody Scheckter as the team’s designated leader, Villeneuve finished second in the championship. But it was his qualifying performance on day one at Watkins Glen that began cementing his place in history. In the pouring rain, Villeneuve lapped the historic track eleven seconds faster than anyone else – a feat that even today leaves drivers scratching their heads:
“I will miss Gilles for two reasons,” said Scheckter after Villeneuve's horrific crash at Zolder. “First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known."
In his all-too short career, Villeneuve won just six races, and never a championship. He scored only two pole positions from 67 starts. In a world of multiple-time champions like Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Fangio, Vettel and others, objectively, Villeneuve was just another good racer that died too soon. But the statistics don’t tell the story.
He was courageous beyond belief: “I don’t have any fear of a crash. No fear of that,” Villeneuve once said. “Of course, on a fifth gear corner with a fence outside, I don’t want to crash. I’m not crazy. But if it’s near the end of practice, and your trying for pole position maybe, I guess you can squeeze the fear.”
Jean-Pierre Jabouille had the race won, but the battle for second between Villeneuve and René Arnoux was raging. Arnoux had closed Villeneuve down by 1.5 seconds per lap, with the Canadian’s tires shot. But Villeneuve wouldn’t give up. During the final few laps, Arnoux tried everything to pass the Ferrari. And at times, he did, but Villeneuve ferociously attacked back. Wheels touched, both cars ran off the track, and eventually, by a nose, Villeneuve crossed the finish line ahead to claim second place in what is described as the most thrilling battle in F1 history.