This is the story of a Grand Prix in which Scuderia Ferrari did not take part. It should have been the team’s 337th race in Formula 1, but instead the team withdrew in an act of mourning following the death of Gilles Villeneuve.
Formula 1 went to Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix amidst controversy. The teams who were part of FOCA, presided over by Brabham’s owner, Bernie Ecclestone, had boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix to protest against the disqualification of Nelson Piquet in the Brabham and Keke Rosberg in the Williams, the top two finishers in the Brazilian Grand Prix. The two cars were disqualified following a formal complaint made by Renault and Ferrari after it was proven that the two English cars had run the race under the 580kg weight allowance.
With only seven teams running, the race at Imola had also seen the breakdown in the relationship between the two Scuderia drivers. Gilles was shocked by his team mate Didier Pironi’s behaviour when he defied team orders on the last lap and overtook the Canadian to take victory. Villeneuve was upset with Enzo Ferrari’s behaviour afterwards: no blame had been placed on the Frenchman. Gilles was told that what was important was that Ferrari had won and to not take it to heart. However Gilles was a very generous and honest driver and could not accept that Didier, who he had nurtured in the team like a friend, had betrayed him like that.
Gilles arrived at Zolder feeling at odds with Pironi and also with the team. On the Friday, the Renaults put in the best times. Villeneuve was fifth behind the young Michele Alboreto, the Italian in the Tyrrell fresh off the back of a podium finish in Imola, while Piquet in the Brabham was in third. Pironi, forced to use the spare car after stopping on track in his 126 C2, was only in 14th.
On Saturday it was once again the two Renaults, with Alain Prost and René Arnoux, who locked out the front row, while Pironi, back in his normal car, achieved sixth place just a few minutes from the end of qualifying with a time of 1.16.501. The Frenchman beat Villeneuve by 115 milliseconds, so he decided to go back out on track. Mauro Forghieri tried to reason with him: he had already used both sets of tyres in qualifying and so it was doubtful he could improve. Gilles insisted and Forghieri gave in. The Canadian went out on track at 13:52. Unlike at most race weekends, that day his wife Joanne was not with him as she was at their daughter Melanie’s first communion in Monte Carlo.
Gilles went out for one last try but came across Jochen Mass in the March who did not realise at first that the Ferrari was coming up behind him. As soon as he saw him in the rear view mirrors he moved aside to let the Canadian through. However Villeneuve thought that the German had not seen him and tried to overtake him. The two ended up on the same part of the track and contact was inevitable. The Ferrari number 27 was launched into the air and thudded back onto the track, throwing the driver, fastened into his seat, against the protection railings. The severity was immediately obvious. The Formula 1 doctor, Syd Watkins, rushed to the site of the accident and realised there was nothing he could do for the driver. Gilles was transported by helicopter to Lovanio but the prognosis was bad. He had spinal injuries and his brain was no longer functioning, even though his heart and lungs were still working. At about 7pm, accompanied by Gilles’ friend and old Ferrari team mate Jody Scheckter, Joanne arrived in Lovanio and after speaking to the doctors for a long time, agreed for his life support machines to be turned off. Villeneuve passed away at 21:12.
Scuderia Ferrari pulled out of the Grand Prix as an act of mourning and left the Zolder track the same evening. Everyone in Formula 1, along with the fans, grieved for Gilles. All of Italy considered the Canadian one of their own. Hidden behind dark glasses, Enzo Ferrari cried and would go on to write in his 1983 book, “Drivers, what people… Villeneuve’s passing was a shock which provoked an outpouring of criticism, perhaps justifiably in that moment. I had heard of Gilles through some friends who lived in Canada, as well as from Chris Amon and Walter Wolf who had employed him in some categories in the Can-Am races. Then I saw him on television in a McLaren at Silverstone. He came from a strange background: a star of snowmobile and an Atlantic championship winner. I made the decision to hire him, convinced that if you combine natural talent with sufficient preparation, you can “make” a driver. Villeneuve, with his big personality, immediately won over the fans and became… Gilles! Yes, there are those who called him the “Flyer” and said he was mad, but with his generosity, his daring, his handling of the car’s axle shaft, gearbox, clutch, brakes, he showed what it took for a driver to defend in crucial moments when it mattered most. He was a competitive champion and brought so much fame to Ferrari. I loved him.”
Gilles won a place in people’s hearts with his victories which were always special, with his multitude of accidents and with his crazy ventures like racing an Italian Air Force F104 fighter jet on the runway of Istrana Airport. However he was also generous, sincere and honest. The media had coined the affection for Gilles “Villeneuve Fever”.
In his speech at the funeral, Jody Scheckter spoke of Gilles, saying “He was the fastest driver in history. He lost his life doing what he loved. But in reality he has not left us because everyone will forever remember what Gilles Villeneuve has given to the world of Formula 1.” Jody was not wrong.