Gilles Villeneuve, a legendary Formula 1 driver, was born in Quebec in 1950. He grew up as a snowmobile racer and participated in Formula Atlantic, which influenced his driving style a lot: “Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills – and I’m talking about being thrown onto the ice at 100 miles per hour (161 km/h). 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 around. Good for the reactions – and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain.”
Gilles made his Formula One debut at Silverstone in 1977, with James Hunt and Jochen Mass. Toward the end of the ’77 season, Villeneuve had established a reputation as a promising talent Teddy Mayer, due partly to Marlboro sponsorship considerations, declined to keep Gilles with McLaren, apparently leaving the promising young driver high and dry for 1978. But in August of 1977, Maranello called. Enzo Ferrari said that when he first met the diminutive Canadian, he immediately reminded him of the great Nuvolari. Ferrari’s apparent interest in Villeneuve prompted Niki Lauda to jump ship at Canada in October, and Gilles began his short but famous Ferrari career in a less than auspicious fashion. “If someone said to me that I only have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula One, my third to drive for Ferrari.”
The first of Villeneuve’s six Formula One wins came the following year – at his home race in Canada. In 1979 he finished second in the championship to teammate Jody Scheckter, the luster of whose reputation is now considerably duller than that of Gilles. The quality of the Formula 1 cars Gilles had at his disposal was uneven, and much of his racing was against the last of the world-conquering Lotuses. But for these reasons, he probably would have won several more races. Some say his method was not as conserving of his machinery as it might have been and that this contributed to his relatively low win total.
Gilles Villeneuve’s all-or-nothing approach was well known. During the Grand Prix of France in Dijon in 1979, Renault and Jean Pierre Jabouille announced the first win of the modern turbocharged car. Rene Arnoux, who was competing well, tried hard to put Renault in first or second place. But Villeneuve was determined to defend his first place and demonstrated such a duel with Arnoux, which witnesses will never forget. The reckless tenacity of Villeneuve got rewarded. He finished just before the Frenchman. For sure, this was one of the most exciting races for second place in Formula 1 history.
Like the other great drivers such as Clark and Senna, Villeneuve delivered a blend of seemingly horrible natures. Lauda wrote of him: “He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One. The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being”.
Gilles’ luck abandoned him in a single event, which contributed to his tragic and premature end at Zolder in 1982.
During the qualifying session on Saturday, he left behind a very slow driving Mass. Mass speeded in to give him the way but currently closed the entrance to the pitlane. As a result of the collision, Ferrari turned sideways and fell apart. Villeneuve was brought back to consciousness at the scene, but his wounds were fatal. On the way to a local hospital, he died.