Gilles Villeneuve Tribute

By: Daniel Murray-Smith

Canada has produced a few talented F1 drivers over the years with Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi both occupying a seat on the grid currently. However, with respect, they haven’t yet shown as much talent as Gilles Villeneuve.

Born in 1950, Villeneuve took up an interest in motor racing, initially in the form of snowmobiles and drag racing. He won various races and championships across these two before getting a call up to F1 with McLaren after beating James Hunt in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race in 1976.

Despite impressing for McLaren and being cited as a future world champion already, the team decided to part ways with the Canadian for the following season due to the financial implications attached to the Canadian.

Fortunately for him, Niki Lauda had quit Ferrari at the penultimate race of the 1977 season and Enzo Ferrari was rumoured to be an avid fan of Villeneuve. After meeting him in Italy he offered him a seat for the Scuderia.

Due to his entry into the sport coming from snowmobile racing his approach to driving a formula 1 car was slightly different to that of the other drivers. Like speedway on motorbikes, snowmobiles are driven most efficiently by pitching the front of the vehicle into the corner and then controlling the resultant slide.

He transferred this skill into his Ferrari, constantly driving on the limit and using opposite steering lock to keep control. The same approach was used by three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart who admitted his admiration for Villeneuve’s ability.

Another thing about driving snowmobiles is that visibility can be very low unless you’re leading the race – due to all the snow kicked up from the back of the vehicles. This transferred well into wet weather races in F1 because of the spray. In a soaking wet practice session in America, the Canadian set a time reportedly 11 seconds faster than second place Jody Scheckter. Scheckter later said he scared himself “rigid” that day and doesn’t understand how Gilles’ time was possible.

Gilles was also well known for his precision, the best example of this coming from the 1980 Monaco Grand Prix. The drivers had to overtake the safety car driven by Professor Sid Watkins and were all described as giving the car a wide berth and plenty of space. This was excluding Villeneuve who “seemed to use us as his apex”. Watkins later said that he realised then that “an inch to him was like a yard to anyone else”.

These traits partnered with his persistence led to the Canadian being widely regarded as one of the best drivers the sport has seen. However, he has only won 6 races and taken 2 pole positions.

This is where the story takes a turn.

At the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1982 Villeneuve went out for his final qualifying run to try and improve on the time he had previously set. At turn 6 he encountered the slower moving car of Jochen Mass who dived to the right to get out of his way.

However, the Canadian had already moved to the right-hand side himself and a huge crash ensued. Villeneuve was launched out from the car into the catch fencing and was immediately rushed to hospital.

He did not survive a neck fracture and F1 lost an incredibly talented driver who could have easily gone on take many more podium finishes, race wins and even a championship. Aside from F1 we lost a man who was described as a “sensitive and loveable character” by Niki Lauda and the “most genuine man” Jody Scheckter had ever met.

A cruel ending to what could’ve been an incredible story and career but regardless, Gilles Villeneuve will forever be a Formula One icon and rightly so.

“We live in a wonderful world but at times it can be very cruel. Perhaps it is so to ensure that those of us who are left do not get too complacent.” – Denis Jenkinson

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