Gilles Villeneuve is one of those names that often come back when it comes to sports cars, and even today it reaches generations that have not seen him racing in Formula 1. However, he was not the world champion, did not have time to win even ten races, and had a short career And complicated, it ended terribly forty years ago, on May 8, 1982, in a Ferrari.
Villeneuve had arrived in Italy directly from Canada in 1977. Nicknamed “The Knight” due to his short stature and petite figure, he was taken as the third mentor at the end of that world championship by founder Enzo Ferrari, who wanted to groom him. For the next season he was supposed to replace the outgoing world champion Niki Lauda. In Ferrari’s plans it should have been more than just a replacement. Always drawn to fast, aggressive drivers, Ferrari was looking for someone very different from Lauda, considered a strategist and not surprisingly nicknamed “the computer”. He wanted a driver who could excite the crowd and push cars to the limits.
Villeneuve, then 27, had already made his Formula 1 debut that same season driving the third McLaren – an M23 that had been built four years earlier – at the Silverstone Grand Prix. Although the outdated and uncompetitive car caused him a lot of problems, he came out of nowhere, faster than many other drivers in practice and in the race he took an excellent eleventh place.
He arrived at Ferrari a few months later, as an unknown but with a certain fame that he gained in the bushes of the North American Championship. Born and raised around Montreal, Quebec, he made a name for himself as a phenomenon in the figure skating championships, a class seemingly unrelated to Formula 1. In the mid-1970s, he bought a real race car for Formula Ford, winning seven races in his debut season. lonliness. From Formula Ford he then moved on to Formula Atlantic, the final stage towards the Grand Car Championships.
Villeneuve has not only tried anything, but has reached the limit and often exceeded that limit. He had a practically non-existent sense of danger, which helped him make him an icon of Formula 1. He created a kind of connection with fans, at that time called “Villeneuve fever”. On the other hand, his penchant for taking risks, and inevitably the unexpected, also earned him a reputation as a reckless and dangerous driver for others.
Each of the five seasons he raced for Ferrari is remembered on a particular episode, beginning with the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix – his third Formula 1 race – when he came close on lap seven to the car in front of him. it with wheels and He flew off the runway. He landed in an area closed to the public where there were, however, spectators at that moment: two were killed and dozens wounded.
The consequences were the risk of cutting his career on the spot. In Japan, the accident was so deeply felt, that the country no longer hosted the Formula 1 Grand Prix for ten years. In Italy, the criticism of Villeneuve and Ferrari, who wanted him, was very harsh and from there his insulting nickname, “The Pilot”, was born. On top of that, the mechanics and team managers found themselves stunned by this new driver, who was very different from Lauda. Nothing was spared from the cars he was driving, and often nothing was left. He seemed indifferent to accidents, “crunching” every component as it went faster than cars could handle: at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix he broke the steering column without incident, only driving around the track for about fifty laps.
On some occasions, his first Ferrari teammate, Argentine Carlos Rottmann, who did not particularly respect him, found himself lacking in mechanics, “turned” to fix the other car. Nevertheless, Villeneuve continued on his way and over time managed to show his qualities. In addition to his rare natural tendency for speed, through his experience with snowmobiles in Quebec, he developed an extraordinary sensitivity to driving, lightning-fast reactions and an ability to drive in adverse conditions that many pilots did not have.
He won his first race in Canada, the last Grand Prix in 1978. The following year, he fought for the world championship with his teammate, South African Jodi Schecter, who then also won the title because Villeneuve agreed to be the second driver, given the Less experience and the friendship they had. Four races from the end of that world championship, at the Dutch Grand Prix, he broke a tire and before he went into the pits, he rode on three wheels, with the car on board, among the standing audience cheering for him. A few weeks ago, at the French Grand Prix, he engaged in a historic duel with René Arnault, who won after continuous overtaking and counter-overtaking pushed to the limits.
The first championships in the 1980s were rather complicated for Ferrari, which had recently introduced new turbo engines, very powerful but also very difficult to manage: it is no coincidence that the title that Scheckter won in 1979 had to wait more than twenty years to return to win one . In 1980, Scheckter himself announced his retirement during the current season, fearful of the many dangers and accidents incurred by new cars. The following year, Ferrari replaced him with a Frenchman, Didier Pironi, who immediately entered into good relations with Villeneuve.
Despite frequent retirements and rare victories, Villeneuve is becoming more and more loved by fans, for his driving style and episodes that have gone down in Formula 1 history, such as the one that happened at the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. Third place, the front wing, which went out, which He climbed up, almost completely covering his sight. In order not to risk losing positions, he stayed on the right track and made three laps With very low visibility, until the aileron finally separated. That year, he also managed to win in Monte Carlo, and with this victory he was the first Formula 1 driver to finish the race on the cover of time.
The 1982 World Cup had a bad start, and it got worse. Ferrari continued to cause trouble and teams were wrangling over the regulation, leading the British teams not to participate in the fourth race of the season at Imola. Thus Ferrari found itself with only one competitor, Renault, and thus with the possibility of returning to win in front of the host crowd. During the race, Renault, Ferrari, Villeneuve and Pironi retired. The other cars took off and approached “one-two” undisturbed.
However, at one point in the race, the team displayed a somewhat ambiguous sign with the words “slow,” telling drivers to keep their positions and slow down the pace. Villeneuve did, but Bironi did not outgrow and outsmart him. From there a duel was born, which Villenov initially intended for the entertainment of the audience: however, when he realized that Peroni was serious, it was too late, because he was overtaken at one of the last corners and could no longer take the lead, despite desperate attempts to overtake.
For Villeneuve it was a betrayal. He got out of the car in a fit of rage and they struggled to get him to the platform. As he later said, he was expecting the same behavior from his teammate as he did three years earlier with Scheckter. On the other hand, Peroni immediately took the opportunity to win his first race at Ferrari, without thinking much about his teammate, although, according to many, he suffered a lot and was never the same: in that season he broke it. His legs were in an accident and five years later he died in a powerboat race.
Villeneuve cut ties with Peroni and the two remained separate on the same team for the next two weeks, until the Belgian Grand Prix. Villeneuve was still grim on Zolder, frustrated not only with Peroni but also with the lack of support he felt he received from the team. In the qualifiers, he was selected for the eighth time, and at the end of the session he was overtaken by Peroni, who finished sixth. Perhaps upset by this result, he decided to get back on track even though he no longer had good tyres. He had time to do the lap before he had to get back into the pits, but on the way back, he found himself behind a slower car, Yuchen’s German.
After a turn, Mas saw him coming from behind and passing him, he turned right, the same direction that Villeneuve also took. As happened years ago in Japan, the front wheels completely took the rear wheels of the front car and took off. The flight and the subsequent impacts on the ground were devastating to Ferrari, which unraveled one hit after another. Sticking to his seat with belts, Villeneuve was thrown from the body and fell about fifty meters forward, breaking through the first line of fences and landing in the second: boots and a helmet were found tens of meters away.
“After an accident we used to see him come back with the helmet in hand, and then explain to us what had happened. Many times it was his fault, but he was sincere and if it was his fault, he said so. But at that time, he didn’t come, the helicopter came and took him away” , remembers the chief mechanic. He did not die instantly but the accident was devastating and left no hope especially for the serious injuries to his neck and cervical vertebrae. He was kept alive by machines only at Ferrari’s behest, until the arrival of his wife Joanna.
Villeneuve died at the age of 32, leaving behind his wife and two young children, who had always lived with him seasons in Formula 1 until recently, in mobile home of the circles in which he ran. The Belgian Grand Prix was one of the few Grand Prixes where Villeneuve introduced himself on his own, both because he was in crisis with his wife and because that coincided with his daughter’s first company. Years later, his son Jack pursued his career to become a Formula 1 driver and in 1997 won the World Championship, which his father did not manage to win.
A year after the accident, Ferrari – known in business as a tough, rugged person who rarely smiles – is back to talk about his former driver with a memory made famous as it symbolizes the relationship that developed between the two. He said: «Yes, there are those who call him a pilot» and those who thought him crazy. But with his generosity, daring, and destructive ability to drive by grinding the axle shafts, gears, clutches, and brakes, we taught us what to do so that the driver could fend for himself in an unpredictable moment, should the need be. He was a fighting champion and brought a lot of fame to Ferrari. loved it “.
“Award-winning beer geek. Extreme coffeeaholic. Introvert. Avid travel specialist. Hipster-friendly communicator.”