Seventy years ago Gilles Joseph Henri Villeneuve was born. He was no ordinary driver, he was an outstanding talent, capable of driving absolutely anything: snowmobiles, helicopters, motorbikes and, of course, Formula 1 cars. He was a true star, a real personality who put Formula 1 on the front pages, doing a lot to popularise the sport. His name, linked to that of Scuderia Ferrari, became legendary. Gilles Villeneuve had a different approach to racing, one that knew no fear. He had little interest in the concepts of tactical racing, being careful or prudent and never gave a moment’s thought to looking after his car and managing the race.
To the crowds who loved him, he represented a truly fearless modern hero. He was reckless and loved taking risks, like some throwback to a long gone romantic era of motor sport and his driving did much to enhance the perception of motor sport and its intrinsic beauty.
Those within the sport, saw him differently: according to the purists, Gilles Villeneuve destroyed his cars and lost time, ruining his tyres and sliding around, using energy, taking unnecessary risks and stressing the car’s components to the extent that he did not bring home the results he should have done.
However, Enzo Ferrari, himself a man with a romantic side, decided to trust him, for which he gained the admiration of the fans, who would go wild watching the acrobatics of the number 27 Ferrari. In 1981, that famous number went head to head with an Italian F104 fighter jet down a runway at Istrana and, needless to say, it emerged victorious.
Gilles was more or less an unknown quantity, with only one previous GP start under his belt, with McLaren at Silverstone, when he made his Scuderia Ferrari debut on 9 October 1977 at Mosport Park in the Canadian GP. The following year, at the wheel of a 312 T2, he took his first Formula 1 win in his home Grand Prix in Montreal, sending the crowd of Canadians and indeed the large Italian community, wild.
In 1979, he was teamed with South African Jody Scheckter in the splendid Ferrari 312 T4. Gilles took three wins, in South Africa, Long Beach and on the daunting Watkins Glen track. The Canadian proved to be a team player right to the end that year, giving up his own title hopes when he let his team-mate past in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, which delivered Scheckter the championship crown.
That same year at Dijon, Gilles was involved in one of the most famous duels the sport has ever seen. For the last few laps of the French GP, he and René Arnoux in the Renault fought a gladiatorial battle, passing and re-passing each other, banging wheels and smoking their tyres. It cemented his and the Scuderia’s legendary status and in Italy, the little Canadian and Ferrari had prompted what was known as “Villeneuve Fever,” such was the passion he inspired in the hearts of the tifosi.
Gilles would have turned 70 this year. Apart from Jim Clark in his Lotus days, the Canadian is the only driver to have featured on the cover of America’s “Time” magazine, following his amazing win in the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, which was the first for a turbo engine car on the twisty streets of the Principality. That year, Gilles also won in Spain, to secure his sixth and last win, when he managed to fend off five other drivers for the entire race, with them all taking the flag in line astern, with first to fifth separated by just 1.2 seconds.
Gilles died on 8 May 1982 at Zolder, in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. Enzo Ferrari wrote of him: “With his destructive tendency, which chewed up half-shafts, gearboxes, clutches and brakes, he also taught us what to do, so that a driver could defend himself in a moment of need. He was a fighter and a champion and made Ferrari even more famous than it was and I loved him.” These feelings for Gilles are as strong today for Scuderia Ferrari and its fans.