Passion

At Fiorano, Leclerc enjoys driving the 312 T4 that belonged to the unforgettable Villeneuve
Words: Davide Marchi

A legendary, triumphant single-seater.

 

An ambitious and determined driver from the new generation.

 

And a historic track, which turned 50 in 2022, as the setting.

 

The circuit is Fiorano, the proving ground for all Ferraris since 1972, as well as the scene of countless tests that Scuderia Ferrari carried out for years, until Formula 1 regulations did away with them to cut back on soaring costs. 

Watch Charles Leclerc get to grips with the 312 T4 on the Fiorano circuit at Maranello   

The driver is Charles Leclerc, the talent who drives the number 16 Ferrari in Formula 1, a star who provided an extraordinary start to the 2022 season with two wins in the first three races. The car is the 1979 312 T4 – “ugly but effective”, as Enzo Ferrari had it – which gave Jody Scheckter the title and established Gilles Villeneuve firmly among the pantheon of legendary drivers.

 

Leclerc and the 312 T4 came together in Fiorano immediately after Easter for a few laps with the specific aim of celebrating Canadian champion Gilles, who lost his life 40 years ago on 8 May, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on the Zolder circuit.

Charles Leclerc and Réne Arnoux discuss Villeneuve's 312 T4    

Present at this special rendezvous were the Giacobazzi family, who own the car, as well as Gilles’ friend and rival, René Arnoux – who from 1983 would take Villeneuve’s place in the Scuderia – and some historic mechanics, like Umberto “Benny” Benassi, Gabriele Pagliarini, Pietro Corradini and Anselmo Menabue.

 

Leclerc has more than one thing in common with Gilles: he speaks Italian very well, albeit with an unmistakable French accent, he arrived at Ferrari as a semi-unknown taking the place of an established champion – Kimi Räikkönen – he fires up the crowds with the determination he takes to the competition and he isn’t keen on compromise when a race is on the line.

In the garage with Leclerc and the 312 T4

On arriving in Fiorano he sees the 312 T4 and exclaims: “Amazing! Can I get in?” Mais oui, Charles. Around him are the Ferrari Corse Clienti mechanics – responsible for managing the single-seater on the track – Andrea Bertolini – the department test driver and Gran Turismo legend – Arnoux and, timidly, Gilles’ mechanics, concerned about getting in the way, but keen to stay close to this talent.

 

A Formula 1 film crew is there for the footage, preparing a video, published on 8 May itself, before the Miami Grand Prix begins. Bertolini advises Charles on how to handle the single-seater: “You have to engage the gears decisively, be careful with the tyres; they’re very hard and the grip is limited.” Charles listens and studies the few controls present on a car built 18 years before he was born.

The 312 T4 out on the Fiorano circuit 

It’s time to hit the track. The 312 T4 starts up and Charles engages first gear, but is a bit hesitant. The engine stops and is promptly restarted by the mechanics. It can start: the roar of the 12-cylinder resounds proudly on the track where it has shown its mettle so many times. On the first lap, Leclerc is careful not to slip up, but then gains confidence and soon starts enjoying himself with power slides that thrill the people in the pit, especially Villeneuve’s mechanics: “It’s like seeing Gilles again,” says a Benassi verging on the emotional.

 

The few laps anticipated fly by in an instant: Charles is almost sorry that the experience has to end there: “I would have liked to carry on. Driving this single-seater is fantastic, even if it must have been quite a feat to do it for an entire Grand Prix.” 

 

Then he talks about Gilles: “I know Villeneuve for his courage, recklessness and indomitable character. He only won six races but he probably contributed to the myth of the Prancing Horse like no one else. It was an honour for me to be able to drive this single-seater in memory of him. For my part, I hope I can keep thrilling the fans with my races for Ferrari.” We’re counting on it, Charles.