Gilles Villeneuve 40 years later

To pay homage to Gilles Villeneuve, this post comes out exceptionally on Sunday; in the occasion of 40th anniversary of the demise of the talented Ferrari driver.

Saturday 8 May 1982, during the tests of the Belgian Gran Prix, Gilles Villeneuve had an accident with Jochen Mass’ March; the Canadian’s Ferrari flew in the air, the seat belt attachments failed, the driver suffered very serious injuries that would have led to his death in hospital.

In this way it ended the ride of a driver who made thousands of automotive sportsmen from all over the world jump out of their seats (the writer still remembers when, as a teenager, he witnessed the duel with Arnoux in Dijon in 1979) and made Enzo Ferrari younger by several years, who saw again in the little Canadian driver the talent of Tazio Nuvolari and Guy Moll.

As many enthusiasts know, Villeneuve begins racing snowmobiles in Canada. These are races held on icy circuits, where grip is unstable and changes within a few meters.

Only few tightrope walkers stay on track and the winner has usually an exaggerated talent.

According to many, this is the experience that allows Gilles to develop the sensitivity that will make him one of the fastest drivers of his time.

During these years he starts dating Joanna, who will become his wife and will give him two children (Jacques and Melanie). A legend tells that his friends meet up in a bend on the road between Gilles’ house and Joanna’s one: Villeneuve runs through it in such a spectacular counter-steering that it thrills the chilled spectators.

The landing in the open-wheel takes place in Formula Atlantic, a minor series widespread in North America, similar to the Formula 3 of the 80s, while the first contact with the Great Powers is thanks to Walter Wolf, who calls him to his team in Can Am to replace Chris Amon.

In Can Am he makes friends with Patrick Tambay, whom he will meet again in Formula 1 (he will replace the Canadian driver in Ferrari in 1982). Gilles impresses Amon who, when he receives a phone call from Maranello (the New Zealander raced for Ferrari for several years, where he left an excellent memory for his skills as a test driver) he will reassure his former employer (Villeneuve has “tremendous natural talent and unlimited enthusiasm”). Thanks also to this support, an unknown Canadian driver (a nation that had never stood itself up in motorsport until then) became a Prancing Horse driver.

In Ferrari they were amazed by Villeneuve’s performance in the 1977 British Grand Prix: debuting with a McLaren of the previous year, he did a good race even if he didn’t score points (he had to pit because of the overheating due to a pen left by a mechanic on the engine).

When, just before the end of the season Lauda, now world champion, leaves Ferrari someone remembers the Canadian driver: the phone call from Maranello is taken by Gilles as a joke, which changes its mind only after a few cross-checks. No awe during the first meeting with the Great Old Man: Villeneuve asks for $ 5,000 as an advance on the engagement and Drake accepts, to the general astonishment of Ferrari managers (the Great Old had never granted such a thing to any driver before).

 

During the first tests at Fiorano, technicians and mechanics of the racing team will be surprised: used to work with the surgical technique of Lauda in the previous four years (the mechanic chief Borsari, often remembered how the Austrian driver had the cooling vents of the front brakes always linked with adhesive tape, unlike his team mate Regazzoni) are not prepared for the strenuous drive of the newcomer.

Tomaini (track engineer for Villeneuve for several years) describes Gilles’ style very well. “Unlike the rest of the world, the limit, which means that tiny moment before going off the track, was found with progressive attempts, while he immediately surpassed it and, only later, he took a step back.

He participates in the last two Grand Prix of the season (Canada and Japan) without successes (he never reaches points) and with a big accident with Peteron’s Tyrrell that makes him fly off the track. Some spectators and a track commissioner – who was trying to persuade them to leave the restricted area for the public – die.

1978 is the first full season: Villeneuve has as teammate Carlos Reutemann, a fast driver with several good seasons in Formula 1 behind him. No doubt who the foreman is.

Gilles has no awe and already in the third grand prix of the season he feels the rush of leading the race: with a perfect start he overtakes several cars (including Reutemann’s) and comes out first after the first corner.

The victory faded due to a misunderstanding during the overtaking of Clay Regazzoni: the accident forced him to retire, leaving the green light for the other Ferrari.

The season does not record great peaks from Villeneuve, who arrives at the end of the season with few hopes of being confirmed for the following year: the teammate has won several races (against none of the Canadian driver, who has collected a number of retirements double compared to that of his foreman).

The difference between the points collected (44 points against 8 before the last grand prix) seems to leave Villeneuve no way out. The cards are reshuffled thanks to Gilles’ victory in the last race of the season and Reutemann’s decision to sign a contract with Lotus.

According to the new Ferrari driver Scheckter, the Argentine driver moves to Colin Chapman‘s team after learning that the South African one had signed a contract as a first driver.

1979 is a perfect year for Ferrari (double win drivers- constructors ‘championship and six wins in fifteen races) and almost perfect for Villeneuve, who climbs to the top step three times, at the beginning of the season he is first in the drivers’ standings, wins the epic duel with Arnoux in Dijon (setting the first victory of a turbo engine in Formula 1).

Gilles is second in the championship due to some errors (such as the one in Holland, when, with the tires already worn out, he doesn’t return to the pits in time and is forced to retire) and because of the greater regularity of his teammate Scheckter. When Lauda retires at the end of the season, Villeneuve shows a good sense of humor (“if two or three more retire, I will become the fastest Formula 1 driver”).

1980 is a difficult year: the 312 T5 falls short of the competition (world champion Scheckter will not be able to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix) and Villeneuve’s best result is a fifth place. Probably Enzo Ferrari wrote “… grinding axle shafts, gearboxes, clutches, brakes, [Villeneuve] taught us what needed to be done so that a driver could defend himself in an unpredictable moment.” remembering this season.

The following season is full of news: after ten seasons they abandoned the 12-cylinder aspirated for a twin-turbo V6, new technicians enter (Nicola Materazzi and Tommaso Carletti), Scheckter is replaced by the French Didier Pironi.

Villeneuve leads the 126 CK to points for the first time in Belgium (fourth place) and wins two masterpieces Grand Prix in Monte Carlo (an impossible circuit for a supercharged engine, which suffers from a delayed response incompatible with the tortuous Monegasque track) and in Spain, when for almost forty laps he keeps behind (always correctly)
a pack of cars (Lafitte, Watson, Reutemann, De Angelis) much faster than him (between Gilles and the fourth-place finisher there will be a little more than a second of gap).

In Canada under the rain he finishes third, after driving fearlessly (several laps with the front wing folded due to a contact and the last part of the race without spoiler, flown away).

Pironi does not prove to be as effective and for him the best results are two fourth places.

1982 seems to be the right year: the 126 C2, whose structure was developed by Postlethwaite (former designer of the Hesketh – that introduced James Hunt to the world – and of the Wolf WR1 vice world champion in 1977) and the engine developed by Nicola Materazzi (former creator of the Lancia Stratos and future designer of the Ferrari F40), sets the record of the Fiorano track at his debut (despite an infamous weather condition and a slightly weak engine) and already in the second grand prix, it allows Villeneuve to stay ahead for almost half of the race.

The history of Imola Grand Prix is well known: Pironi steals the victory to Villeneuve who suffers the overtaking as a betrayal by his teammate.

The following meeting with Enzo Ferrari does not resolve the question (it seems that the Grand Old Man observed that “after all the winner was a Ferrari”) and, according to some, this led Villeneuve’s decision to leave Maranello for his own team, with Gerard Ducarouge as technical director. The tragedy will take place during the practice for the next grand prix.

 

Only at Villeneuve’s funeral (attended by only one of the operative pilots, the great defeated Jacques Lafitte of the Spanish Grand Prix) it will be discovered that the Canadian driver had taken off two years (he was born in 1950 and not in 1952) because he was afraid that a 28-year-old driver was deemed too old for Formula 1.

His friend Tambay will honour Gilles in the best way possible in 1983 at Imola: with the Ferrari number 27 he starts in third position (the same starting position of Gilles in the edition of the previous year, on which fans painted the Canadian flag) and wins the grand prix.

Although his son Jacques has achieved more victories, (Formula 1 world champion in 1995, 11 wins and 13 pole positions against Gilles’ 6 wins and 2 starts at the pole) and in more categories (first arrived also in the Indianapolis 500-mile race and in the relative USA championship), that Villeneuve remembered by all fans is Gil (as the Italian fans called him). Who knows if history would have changed if Jacques had raced for Maranello.

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