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.
His first taste of competition, excluding a brief foray into drag racing aboard a modified 1967 Ford Mustang, came on the ski slopes of Mont Tremblant, funded by his job as a construction worker. Years later, Villeneuve would credit his success as a driver to these early years racing snowmobiles: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills - and I'm talking about being thrown onto the ice at 100 mph,” he said. “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."
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.”
This aggression was blended with the utmost respect for his competitors. His rivals called him one of the cleanest racers of them all; but make no mistake, if you left a gap, he would go for it. Unlike Ayrton Senna, however, where the Brazilian would put both drivers’ lives in danger, forcing the other racer to back off or crash, Villeneuve would never purposely bully others into his game of inches. Never was this more evident than at Dijon in 1979.
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.
Arnoux said after the race: “The duel with Gilles is something I’ll never forget, my greatest souvenir of racing. You can only race like that, you know, with someone you trust completely, and you don’t meet many people like him. He beat me, yes, and in France, but it didn’t worry me - I knew I’d been beaten by the best driver in the world.”
For Villeneuve, “This was my best memory of Grand Prix racing.”
At Zandvoort, later that season, Villeneuve spun while leading. Gathering it back up, he continued, but tire damage led him to spin again just four laps later. That was it, the car was stalled and the race was over. There was no way to get the near-beached racer back to the pits, especially as he remained almost an entire lap from the pit lane. But to the amazement of British commentator Murray Walker, Villeneuve re-fired the engine, engaged reverse, and launched off into the distance; even on three wheels, with his hand in the air, Villeneuve tore back to the pits at race-like speeds, desperate for his team to somehow fix the destroyed Ferrari and let him loose once again.
Villeneuve’s never give up attitude earned him legions of fans, albeit some criticized him for driving dangerously. But as Nigel Roebuck, an F1 journalist from England, put it: “Thank God there will always be a few people in this world who simply know how not to give in. It was foolhardy, yes, but it came from the same pure competitiveness and spirit which has characterized all his races. He likes to win, rather than not lose”.
And win he did, whenever he had a car with the slightest capability of doing so – like in 1981 aboard his Ferrari 126CK; a woeful chassis with a stellar engine, despite a monstrous dollop of turbo lag. He used this set up to wrestle victories in both Monaco and Spain, holding off a string of faster cars.
But in his brief career, while the all-conquering Lotuses were dominating with their superior ground-effects, Villeneuve rarely had the tool for the job. Today’s greats, with their mansions full of trophies, unanimously win only when they have the car – or one of the cars – to beat.
There are a few exceptions, and those examples go down in history with Villeneuve: Take Senna in 1993. His McLaren was no match for Williams and its active suspension, but when the opportunity presented itself – like in the rain at Donington or on the streets of Monaco – Senna could make the difference. Like Senna that year, Villeneuve’s cars were often sub-par, but his tenacity made him inimitable – a maverick with a heart of gold.
Niki Lauda said, “He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One… 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.”
His death at Zolder was not greeted by surprise; his willingness to push to a limit no other driver dared brought on risks others wouldn’t face. The grief experienced worldwide, however, was not replicated until Senna’s death in 1994. His disparate personality, his exciting style and love for the sport made him a true hero.
Some say his on-track nature got the better of him that day in Belgium, and that he was too eager to out-qualify his teammate, Didier Pironi, whom he felt had betrayed him a race earlier. However, Ferrari claimed Villeneuve was ordered to pit on the lap that he died, meaning a reckless attempt to find a few hundredths of a second was not to blame.
To many, his death was simply a case of bad timing, poor luck – a racing incident. Sure, Villeneuve was on the limit during a lap that didn’t matter; a time most drivers, like Jochen Mass, would have backed off. But not Gilles Villeneuve. For him, lifting was never an option.