There is perhaps no name more charismatic in motor racing than that of Gilles Villeneuve. He was taken from us too soon but while he was at the top just one man was truly in a position to judge his abilities: his friend and team-mate Jody Scheckter.
How good was Gilles? Well, he didn’t win the World Championship. He was capable of it, no question but he was always trying to be the fastest, not worrying about winning the title, and he paid for it. If he wanted to be World Champion and concentrated on that, he would probably have lost this image of being a daredevil. Gilles might have won the title in 1982, and Ferrari was certainly capable. But you never can tell; he was still at that early stage of his career. At one time I was more aggressive, but as you grow older you realise you’ve got to finish races. The way the points work, that’s how you become Champion. Some people never lose that stage. Gilles thought fastest laps were important and, in a way, they were; the press loved it when he put on qualifiers and went quickest.
I guess I wasn’t surprised by what happened to his popularity after he died. People liked his image and I suppose if you get killed in the middle of it all, you get bigger, not smaller. But I think it’s gone away a little recently, especially since Jacques has come along. Gilles is getting more forgotten now, and Jacques has achieved more than his father ever did.
I signed for Ferrari at the end of 1978 and at the time it wasn’t clear who’d be leaving the team. Carlos Reutemann was driving with Gilles. I met Carlos in France, and I said, “I’m going to be number one, because that’s my agreement. If you stay that’s fine with me, we can work together.” I think after that meeting he ran away and signed for somebody else! So my team-mate was Gilles.
The team orders were simple. Whoever was in front stayed there as long as you weren’t going to lose a place. If you were first and second and the third guy was a long way back you’d stay there, and if you were fifth and sixth and nobody was trying to pass, you would stay there. In other words you didn’t fight when it wasn’t necessary, and we stuck to that.
I didn’t really know Gilles at the start of ’79, and in fact I don’t remember the early races. Quite often you get people that come in to F1, and you don’t really notice them until they start to beat you. I suppose the first time I really paid attention was when he beat me in South Africa.
I should have won very easily, but he ended up winning it. It was painful. I went out on dry tyres, and it was slightly wet. It was the right decision, and I was 30 seconds ahead. He started on wets then changed to dries. But my dries went off – the Michelins weren’t very solid – so the car became undriveable at the end.
He caught me up so I went in and put on a new set of tyres and started catching him again, but it was all over by then. It was at that stage that team orders came into being. He then won in Long Beach. So all of a sudden I was under massive pressure; I was the number one, but he’d won two races. This was tough stuff.
However, I always worked very well with Gilles. We had an honest and open reletionship, which was part of our success. There was no bullshit: if he made an adjustment and went quicker, he’d tell me and I would tell him. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship, and was part of us winning the championship.
Ferrari drivers were traditionally always fighting each other, and that’s what the press liked. Part of our skill was to keep working as a team. Gilles had a good relationship with Enzo, and would say it was friendlier than mine. He certainly had a lot of respect for Enzo; I never remember anything other than that.
We spent a lot of time together in Monaco. He liked to dance and he liked girls. He was fun, intelligent and he was a mate. But more than anything, there was mutual respect between us.
But I always felt he didn’t care about the tifosi. I think in his part of Canada they looked down on Italians, and I think he had that attitude. I always used to think it was funny that they liked him so much. Perhaps he was putting it on, and inside he did like them a lot, but outwardly he would make the odd remark…
One story sums him up – he had air-conditioning and a fire so he put both on. He wanted to do photography, and bought thousands of pounds worth of equipment he hardly used. Then he wanted tools, because he used to work as a mechanic. He went to Beta and bought a whole garage full of the best stuff, and never used them!
I then won in Belgium and Monaco, which put me back on track but he was dominant over me was Dijon. I battled like mad, but he was quicker, and I couldn’t really work out why. That was the race where he had the fight with Amoux. I thought what they did was stupid. I told Gilles, and I think he knew it was stupid.
I was the President of the Grand Prix Drivers Association at the time, and Gilles really worked with me. From a safety point of view he was very responsible. I think we both wanted to make it as safe as possible. That didn’t mean to say we were driving carefully; you still drove with aggression. But you felt that if something happened, you wanted to have a chance.
I don’t think he tried to do things that put him in uncalculated danger. I think from that point of view he was a responsible driver. He always had this image of being crazy, and he wasn’t really. He was only crazy when he wanted to be, it was his image. I always tell the story about driving from Monaco with him. I didn’t want to do it, because I hated to be a passenger. But the whole time he drove perfectly, until we got just outside Modena, and soon the wheels were spinning and he started sliding around and everything. That was the proof of what I felt.
I also remember going with him in his helicopter, and again once we got over Modena he started his tricks again. I stopped that really quickly. I hated flying. He was going down and then up. I said you better stop now or I’ll wring your neck. He knew I meant it.
Zandvoort was really the turning point that year. I messed up the clutch at the start, and dropped to the back. He was at the front, and then his tyre went down, which was pretty spectacular. I went through the field and came second behind Alan Jones, and that really put me into a dominant position.
I had it under control in Monza. What gave me confidence was I knew Gilles was doing these silly things to keep his image up and that gave me comfort. He was testing qualifiers and getting the quickest times, and I was sticking to hard tyres and testing bits of the car I knew would help me in the race. In qualifying I think that was the biggest gap between us all year, and in the race I was quicker. As soon as Jacques Laffite dropped out, I cut my revs back and sat ahead of Gilles. Only on the last lap did I accelerate away again. Although I trusted him, I didn’t want to take a chance; it was too important a thing to take a chance with!
I think we were professionals. We tried as hard as we could and the one who came out in front, won. There were lots of times when he was faster than I was, and times when I was faster than he was.
We raced hard, and I beat him. I won the Championship because in the races that counted I got out in front, and was in front when it settled down. At that stage there was no point in fighting. There were no circumstances where he had to give up a place to me, so I don’t think it was frustrating for him.
The 1980 car was a disaster. Gilles had very good performances in it. I didn’t. I was more advanced in my career, and found it very difficult racing for tenth place, whereas he just drove. He brought it near the front a few times, which I couldn’t do. I announced my retirement halfway through the year, and felt out of place soon after I did that. The cause wasn’t there, like it had been before. You were retiring, you were last year’s driver.
After I retired there was talk of Gilles starting a team. I don’t think he ever felt tied to Maranello. Gilles would have left Ferrari if he felt he could go where he would win races. From that point of view I don’t think he was particularly sentimental. There was supposedly a sponsor – a cigarette company – that had masses of money to help him start this team. I think he would have liked his own team, and he was quite excited doing something like that, and the idea was that I was going to be team manager.
I volunteered to look into it, and found out this guy was nobody, a bullshitter basically. I came back to Gilles with the news. If the sponsor was real, it could have happened. Later we had a bit of an argument over something personal, and I didn’t see him for a year. However, after Didier Pironi overtook him at Imola in 1982 to steal the win, he called and we went to Modena in his helicopter. I suppose a relationship is worth more than one argument; at least that’s what I felt.
We talked a lot. He hated what had happened at Imola. He realised what a good relationship we’d had, and that we never double-crossed each other, and we were very honest and open, and that Pironi hadn’t been that way with him. I don’t think he ever thought that it could ever happen.
Gilles was a really genuine, honest guy, and in fact if he had a weakness he was honest to the point of being naive. He trusted Pironi. It would have affected him badly for quite a while, and I say that because very honest, naive people are shocked when something like that happens to them. Crooks think that’s the way it should happen. If he had not trusted Pironi, could he have avoided that situation? Probably.
I think at Zolder he was under massive pressure to beat Pironi, who had been faster than him in early qualifying. In F1 we all had problems with that sort of situation; I well remember nearly smashing into a TV cameraman at Monaco, because I thought Gilles was quicker than me, but it turned out I had been quicker. You’re trying so hard, you get so aggressive.
I certainly got angry in a racing car a lot of times. You get to the end of practice and are so wound up and wanting to go for it, you do stupid things. I don’t know exactly what happened at Zolder, but it seems to me that’s the most likely reason for the accident. Gilles took a chance that didn’t pay off. He went for a gap that wasn’t there, and he got caught. I’ve done it myself, and got away with it.
That weekend I was in Monaco, and had just had an operation. I got a call from Zolder, I went straight to see his wife, Joanne. My wife went to Belgium with her. A couple of days later we all went on a Canadian Air Force plane to Montreal for the funeral.
I spent a year after he died working on his sponsorship deals, getting all the money I could for his family. I suppose I took it upon myself as my task. I had a cause and negotiated with Ferrari for a massive amount of money and got rather more money than I really should have done, by putting pressure on them.
For a long time I really didn’t keep in touch with Joanne and the family and I had no contact with Jacques until I met him in Monaco when he was doing Formula Three. He was complaining about how difficult everything was and I thought to myself, “You’ll never make it!” The next time I remember seeing him is on TV in America, after he won the Indy 500. I thought, “Boy, that is incredible.” I felt good for him. His father would have been proud.
I think poor Jacques is completely run out on questions about Gilles. It’s nearly become a complex for him, or at least that how it seems from the outside. There’s nothing that really stands out in terms of similarities between them; you wouldn’t know they were father and son. In a way it almost seems that Jacques is trying to do the opposite to his father.
I wouldn’t have thought that Gilles would like Formula One in 1999. He was a racer, and he probably would have got into the grooved tyre argument. But if he had the same spirit he would probably have still made holes in places where there weren’t any…
Jody Scheckter was talking to Adam Cooper
Jacques Villeneuve: ‘It was a good thing for me that my Dad passed away’
Ben Wyatt and James Masters, CNN
(CNN)Racing driver Jacques Villeneuve remembers the day as if it was yesterday.
He would regularly pester his mother to allow him to buy a video game from the shop which lined the route back home, though she rarely relented.
On this occasion, to his surprise, she did. Smiling, he walked back with his new video game that Friday afternoon.
Soon after, the phone rang. “I could feel something — something wrong,” he said.
His mother answered. His father, Gilles — a Formula One driver with Ferrari and rising superstar of the era — had sustained a broken neck after a horrific crash during qualification for the Belgian Grand Prix. He died later that night.
“The moment he died I became the man of the family and that’s what gave me the strength to then become the racer I became,” Villeneuve told CNN’s The Circuit.
“In a sad way it was a good thing for me that he passed away, for who I am today and for the father that I am today as well.”
Now 44 and a fiercely proud patriarch of three sons, Villeneuve speaks eloquently and openly about his father and how he struggled to impress and earn respect from him.
“I hadn’t seen him in two years,” said Jacques, who was 11 at the time of his Dad’s death.
“He wasn’t a father basically, for two years. For a year and a half I hadn’t been living at home.
“I had been living in the mountains at a friend’s house and going to school there because there was no family life anymore, so he would disappear for two months, then the moment he would come home, he wouldn’t even come home, he would come and play on his boat.”
Gilles’ death from his accident at the Zolder circuit sent shock waves through the sport.
Although he won only six of his 67 races and never managed to win the world title, he was widely admired as one of the most exciting and talented drivers on the circuit.
On May 8 1982, Villeneuve was chasing pole position after losing out in his previous race.
Just two weeks earlier, the Ferrari driver had been left incandescent with rage after his teammate, Didier Pironi, disobeyed team orders to claim victory at the San Marino Grand Prix.
At Zolder, Villeneuve had wanted to ensure he started ahead of Pironi, who led qualifying — but on his final lap, disaster struck.
As Villeneuve accelerated, he caught the back of Jochen Mass’ March car and was hurled into the air at around 225 kilometers per hour (140 mph).
The front of the car was destroyed and Villeneuve was thrown in the air, across the track and into the fence. Drivers stopped their cars to come to his aid while medics rushed to his rescue.
He was taken to University St Raphael Hospital in Louvain where he was was found to have suffered a fatal neck fracture.
At 9.12 pm that night, he was pronounced dead.
His contemporaries, in tribute, lavished praise on their former opponent.
Jody Scheckter, F1 world champion of 1979, called him “the fastest driver the world had ever seen,” while Alain Prost, who would go on to claim four world titles of his own, called Villeneuve “the last great driver — [who made] the rest of us [just] a bunch of good professionals.”
But his son, Jacques, was going through very different emotions.
“There wasn’t even a family unit anymore and it was, you know it was the other generation where daughters were loved but not sons, so it was a little bit strange.”
However, the death of his father, according to Jacques, was the key factor behind his rise from a self-confessed cry baby to a champion racer.
He left for boarding school, began ski racing and with the strength of his mother and sister, began to embark on a career which would take him to the very top of motorsport.
By the time he was 15 he enrolled at Jim Russell Racing Driver’s school in Quebec where his late father had learned his craft.
Under the guidance of his uncle, also named Jacques, he showed the talent and aptitude to succeed at the very highest level.
His sense of adventure — and helped by the encouragement of his mother — enabled Villeneuve to chase his dream and hone his thirst for adrenaline.
“As a kid, I was one of the biggest risk takers,” he said. “At school when we were skiing, if there was a cliff to jump I would make sure that I would be the first one to jump it and would jump the highest, that no one else could jump.”
Villeneuve’s innate ability catapulted him to success in CART Championship, IndyCar and F1.
He won the big prize at the Indianapolis 500 before moving to F1 where he won the drivers’ championship in 1997.
In 11 years on the F1 circuit he won 11 races, recorded 23 podiums and claimed 13 pole positions.
Having retired from racing in 2006, Villeneuve has had time to reflect ahead of this weekend, when the F1 circus arrives in Canada at the track named after his father.
More than 33 years have passed since the death of Gilles Villeneuve but he is always remembered, memories of one of the sport’s most exciting drivers are exchanged and the name which thrilled thousands lives on.
For his son, the reverence with which his father his held in is no more evident than in his native Canada and in Quebec where he grew up.
“There haven’t been many international sportsmen from Quebec,” he said.
“To have this amazing event, because F1 is a huge sport, where it brings people together from the whole world is very special.
“It’s special when you go there and realize that the track bears my Dad’s name.”
While the world will watch on and wait to see if drivers’ leader Lewis Hamilton can get his title campaign back on track after losing out at Monaco, Villeneuve’s thoughts may be elsewhere.
“He was my hero,” said Villeneuve as he reflected on the conflicting emotions he experiences when he remembers his father.
“But for some reason there was something that was wrong which, I can only know about it now, because I’ve been told by my mother and other people.
“It was hard for about a week, or two of course, because suddenly you see oh, OK, well that won’t be there anymore, mostly when it’s someone you look up to, not as a father but as … and often when you do not have the love of a person, you look up to them even more.
“It’s really strange. As a kid, because you want to impress them, you want their respect and so on. You’re basically never good enough.”
Villeneuves’ rags-to-riches story
La saga Villeneuve: une dynastie quebecoise en F1, by Martine Camus, Les editions La Presse, $29.95.
La saga Villeneuve: une dynastie quebecoise en F1, by Martine Camus, Les editions La Presse, $29.95.
If your French is up to snuff, and you didn’t read the panoply of material about the late Gilles Villeneuve that no doubt came out after his tragic death 25 years ago, the new book by Martine Camus is a fairly detailed chronicle of his life and career, as well as that of his son, Jacques.
Not being a Formula One fan, a lot of the saga was new to me, but I suspect most fans probably are well aware of the details. The 25th anniversary this week of Villeneuve’s death during practice before the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix probably had much to do with the decision to write the book.
The hook is that there are plenty of reminiscences from Joann Villeneuve, widow of Gilles and mother of Jacques. But then again, Joann is planning her own book, to be released this fall. She might have saved the good stuff.
The tone is breathy, with a fairy-tale quality, as Camus, a veteran F1 journalist, outlines the humble beginnings of Villeneuve, son of a seamstress and a travelling piano tuner in a small town outside Montreal.
It describes the man – his quest for speed, his obsessive devotion to everything surrounding racing – and pays tribute to the woman behind the man.
The two met when they were teenagers, and Joann, 18, was already pregnant with Jacques when she married Gilles, 20.
Together, they went after Gilles’s dream, with Joann thinking nothing of living alone with two young children in a leaky trailer with pipes that often froze in winter.
They went from rags to incredible riches, a life on the Cote d’Azur and a Swiss ski chalet, speedboats and helicopters and fancy Swiss boarding schools.
Then, the bombshell: Villeneuve had a longtime mistress, a Toronto woman he met on a transatlantic flight, and was actively considering divorce a month before he died.
Most fans probably knew this; Joann Villeneuve said she didn’t have a clue. But after 100 pages of sweetness and light, this nugget makes you want to go back and reread the first half of the book, wondering if it really could have been that picture-perfect.
The book bridges the gap to Jacques Villeneuve’s story by describing the family’s life after it lost its patriarch. Somewhere in there, a third child is born, Jessica, whose father is never mentioned – perhaps for fear of tarnishing Joann’s legacy as the widow of a legend.
The book does a good job of contrasting the smaller, friendlier atmosphere of the elite racing circuit back in Gilles Villeneuve’s day with the impersonal big business it is now.
Jacques, it turned out, was nothing like his father beyond their mutual thirst for speed. He was more analytical than emotional, more calculated than foolhardy. And it becomes clear in the book that people around the sport were unable to accept that. Gilles was taken away from them too soon; they wanted another Gilles. They got Jacques.
How many times was the son asked if he were driving for his father, thinking of his father as he crossed the finish line?
He wasn’t, and wasn’t about to pretend to, thus playing spoilsport to the romantic storylines the journalists envisioned.
The truth was, Jacques barely knew his father. He was 11 when he died. And even when he was alive, he was barely around; when he wasn’t driving, he was around the paddock and – as it turns out – meeting his mistress.
The retelling of the story does make you think of “what-ifs.” What if Villeneuve had lived? The book tells how he planned to leave Ferrari at the end of the 1982 season, in large part because of the betrayal of stable mate and close friend, Didier Pironi, who passed him at the end of a race at Imola, Italy, against specific crew orders.
Villeneuve never forgave Pironi. There was talk he would head up his own team.
In a sense, that’s what the son did 15 years later, when he went to BAR Racing with close friend and manager Craig Pollock.
Two very different men, with this in common: Neither ever really had the car – at least not long enough – to measure up to his immense talent.