Gilles Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, a quiet little town in the province of Quebec in Canada in 1950. Young Gilles holds the unique distinction of having won a World Championship Snowmobile Derby in his early years. He credited the excellent car control he had over racing cars to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills, and I am talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain."
Villeneuve’s driving skill and daring personified the ideals of Grand Prix racing. With his flamboyant and uncompromising driving style, in his Scarlet Ferrari he captured the imagination of a vast audience. He is regarded as one of the greatest racing heroes the sport has produced.
Early racing career
Villeneuve developed a strong fondness to racing in his early years. The Canadian born racer was an outright enthusiast of cars and fast driving right from an early age. He set foot on his journey into the world of racing by competing in snowmobile events in his native Quebec. Slowly yet steadily he progressed into single seat racing and ruthlessly dominated the Canadian Formula Atlantic scene. A first race victory would follow in 1975. The following year he claimed both the US and Canadian Atlantic titles, relying heavily on funds earned from snowmobiling to pay his way.
He blew away the entire field at an invitation race held at Trois-Rivieres during the end of 1976. This was a significant event in his career as the field included Formula One World Champion James Hunt. A second Canadian title followed in 1977, but by then Formula one racing had come knocking.
Formula One Career
Having won a non-championship invitational race held in 1976 with the grid containing several Grand Prix racers, a Formula One drive followed with McLaren. Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix. His fantastic racing instincts were instantly on display as he stunned everyone, qualifying in 9th place in McLaren’s two year old M23. He split the regular driver’s James Hunt and Jochen Mass who were driving the new M26’s. The race was an excellent one for Villeneuve as he was running on the pace of the lead cars, in outdated machinery. The British press raved about his performance with The Times stating, "Anyone seeking a Future World Champion needs no look further than this quietly assured young man."
Appallingly, the McLaren team did not exercise the option to retain his services. Fellow Canadian Walter Wolf, for whom Villeneuve had driven in the Canadian Formula series, recommended his name to Ferrari team founder Enzo Ferrari. Villeneuve impressed at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track during a one-off test session, and signed on for the Italian marque. Enzo Ferrari was impressed with his prowess behind the wheel and what followed was the realization of a boyhood dream for Villeneuve.
Ferrari signed Villeneuve for the final two rounds of the 1977 season. He had big shoes to fill, as he was signed to step into the cockpit of departing world champion Niki Lauda.
Villeneuve later remarked that, "If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari." Being inexperienced and untested at the biggest stage of them all, Villeneuve’s was not the most auspicious start to a Scuderia career. He finished neither race of the 1977 season in the Ferrari. The Japanese GP was a tragic one as his crash in the race, killed a marshal and photographer. Only Villeneuve’s steely reserve could stop himself losing focus from racing.
Story of a Legend
Villeneuve’s boyhood dream had become reality, though his "dream" debut season was a mixed one, results wise. The season was marred by several retirements, as Villeneuve encountered one of his most difficult periods in racing. He finished only 10 of the 16 races in the season. After he crashed out of the US West Race, the Tifosi [Highly Passionate Ferrari fans] called for his ousting. This acted as a wake-up call for Villeneuve. As his retirements reduced, results improved dramatically. The icing on the cake was the victory in his home race. The season finale, his home race in Montreal saw all his promise come good as he took victory in the Canadian GP in front of 72,000 passionate fans. This capped a memorable maiden win for the Canadian driver in Formula One.
The 1979 season saw Villeneuve nearly become World Champion. A title contender throughout the entire campaign, he followed team orders and dutifully shadowed ‘number one’ teammate Jody Scheckter across the finish line. This ensured Scheckter taking the championship that season.
The following two seasons’ were quite disastrous as the Ferrari had an inferior overall package. The sheer brilliance of Villeneuve was on display as he took two race wins in 1981 despite the slower car. The 1982 season saw a resurgent Ferrari back on pace, which allowed Villeneuve to compete for victories consistently.
On the 8th of May 1982, after a heavy shunt in Belgium during the qualifying session, Villeneuve unfortunately succumbed to injuries he sustained. The career of one of Formula One’s most mercurial talents had been tragically cut short.
In the history of Formula One racing, very few racing icons stand the test of time. But despite never being crowned World Champion and having raced in Formula one only for four seasons, Gilles Villeneuve and his legacy lives on 30 years after his tragic death.
During Villeneuve’s funeral in his home town of Berthierville, Jody Scheckter spoke of his former teammate ""I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there."
Gilles Villeneuve is revered for his natural talent, his supreme car control, and his never say die approach. Many in the Formula One paddock today see him to be among the greatest talents the sport has ever produced. He was the personification of the Grand Prix Gladiator in other’s eyes.
The racetrack in Montreal was renamed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in fitting tribute of the greatest Formula One driver the country had ever produced.
He raced in 67 GPs and won 6 races, but in four short seasons, Villeneuve has established a legacy which has far outlived his own son Jacques Villeneuve’s title winning Formula one career.
He is fondly remembered by the fans of the sport for his humble nature, his charisma and as a natural racer who gave it his all while racing on track. Fans worshipped him and followed him as they felt he was one among them. He was a gentleman, one of the true F1 superstars.
Grand Prix Starts: 67 / Victories: 6
Wins in the – Canadian GP 1978; 1979- South African GP, US West GP, US East GP; 1981- Monaco GP, Spanish GP
Best Championship Finish: 2nd place-1979