|Formula One World Championship career|
|Races||68 (67 starts)|
|Championships||0 (2nd in 1979)|
|Career points||101 (107)|
|First race||1977 British Grand Prix|
|First win||1978 Canadian Grand Prix|
|Last win||1981 Spanish Grand Prix|
|Last race||1982 Belgian Grand Prix|
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve (Gilles Villeneuve pronounced [ʒil vilnœv]) (January 18, 1950 – May 8, 1982) was a Canadian racing driver. An enthusiast of cars and fast driving from an early age, he started his professional career in snowmobile racing in his native province of Quebec. He moved into single seaters, winning the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic championships in 1976, before being offered a drive in Formula One with the McLaren team at the 1977 British Grand Prix. He was taken on by reigning world champions Ferrari for the end of the season and from 1978 to his death in 1982 drove for the Italian team. He won six Grand Prix races in a short career at the highest level. In 1979 he finished second by four points in the championship to team-mate Jody Scheckter.
Villeneuve died in a 140 mph (225 km/h) crash with the March of Jochen Mass during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. The accident came less than two weeks after an intense argument with his team-mate, Didier Pironi, over Pironi's move to pass Villeneuve at the preceding San Marino Grand Prix. At the time of his death, Villeneuve was extremely popular with fans and has since become an iconic figure in the history of the sport. His son, Jacques Villeneuve, became Formula One world champion in 1997.
Personal and early life
Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, a small town in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada and grew up in Berthierville. He married Joann Barthe in 1970, with whom he had two children, Jacques and Melanie. During his early career Villeneuve took his family on the road with him in a motorhome during the racing season, a habit which he continued to some extent during his Formula One career. He often claimed to have been born in 1952. By the time he got his break in Formula One, he was already 27 years old and took two years off his age to avoid being considered too old to make it at the highest level of motorsports.
Lauda wrote of him, "He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1... 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".
His younger brother Jacques also had a successful racing career in Formula Atlantic, Can Am and CART. Gilles' son, also named Jacques, won the Indianapolis 500 and CART championships in 1995 and became Formula One World Champion in 1997.
Villeneuve started competitive driving in local drag-racing events, entering his road car, a modified 1967 Ford Mustang. He was soon bored by this and entered the Jim Russell Racing School at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant to gain a racing license. He then had a very successful season in Québec regional Formula Ford, running his own two year old car and winning seven of the ten races he entered. The next year he progressed to Formula Atlantic, competing there for four years, running his own car again for one of those seasons. He won his first Atlantic race in 1975 at Gimli Motosport Park in heavy rain. In 1976, teamed with Chris Harrison's Ecurie Canada and factory March race engineer Ray Wardell, he dominated the season by winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles. He won the Canadian championship again in 1977.
Money was very tight in Villeneuve's early career. He was a professional racing driver from his late teens, with no other income. In the first few years the bulk of his income actually came from snowmobile racing, where he was extremely successful. He could demand appearance money as well as race money, especially after winning the 1974 World Championship Snowmobile Derby. His second season in Formula Atlantic was part-sponsored by his snowmobile manufacturer, Skiroule. He credited some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 mph. 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."
Formula One career
After Villeneuve impressed James Hunt by beating him and several other Grand Prix stars in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières in 1976, Hunt's McLaren team offered Villeneuve a Formula One deal for up to five races in a third car during the 1977 season. Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, where he qualified 9th in McLaren's old M23, splitting the regular drivers Hunt and Jochen Mass who were driving newer M26s. In the race he set fifth fastest lap and finished 11th after being delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge. The British press coverage of Villeneuve's performance was generally complimentary, including John Blunsden's comment in The Times that "Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man."
Despite this, shortly after the British race McLaren's experienced team manager Teddy Mayer decided not to continue with Villeneuve for the following year. His explanation was that Villeneuve "was looking as though he might be a bit expensive" and that Patrick Tambay, the team's eventual choice for 1978, was showing similar promise. Villeneuve was left with no solid options for 1978, although Canadian Walter Wolf, for whom Villeneuve had driven in Can-Am racing, considered giving him a drive at Wolf Racing and also recommended him to the Ferrari team's founder, Enzo Ferrari. Rumours circulated that Villeneuve was one of several drivers in whom the Italian team was interested, and in August 1977 he flew to Italy to meet Ferrari, who was immediately reminded of the pre-war European champion Tazio Nuvolari: "When they presented me with this 'piccolo canadese', this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognised in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let's give him a try." Ferrari was satisfied with Villeneuve's promise after a session at Ferrari's Fiorano test track, despite the Canadian making many mistakes and setting relatively slow times, and Villeneuve signed to drive for Ferrari in the last two races of the 1977 season and the 1978 season. 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..."
Villeneuve's arrival was one factor that prompted Ferrari driver Niki Lauda to quit the team at the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix having already clinched his second championship with the Italian team. Villeneuve retired from the race after sliding off the track on another competitor's oil. He also raced in the Japanese Grand Prix, but retired on lap five when he tried to outbrake the Tyrrell P34 of Ronnie Peterson. The pair banged wheels causing Villeneuve's Ferrari to became airborne. It landed on a group of spectators watching the race from a prohibited area, killing one spectator and a race marshal and injuring ten people. After an investigation into the incident no blame was apportioned and, although he was "terribly sad" at the deaths, Villeneuve did not feel responsible for them.
The 1978 season saw a succession of retirements for Villeneuve, often after problems with the new Michelin radial tyres. Early in the season, he started on the front row at the United States Grand Prix West, but crashed out of the lead on lap 39. Despite calls in the Italian press for him to be replaced, Ferrari persisted with him. Towards the end of the season, Villeneuve's results improved. He finished second on the road at the Italian Grand Prix, although he was penalised a minute for jumping the start, and ran second at the United States Grand Prix before his engine failed. Finally at the season-ending Canadian Grand Prix Villeneuve scored his first Grand Prix win after Jean-Pierre Jarier's Lotus stopped with engine trouble. As of 2008, he is the last Canadian to win his home race.
Villeneuve was joined by Jody Scheckter in 1979 after Carlos Reutemann moved to Lotus. Villeneuve won three races during the year. The 1979 French Grand Prix is remembered for Villeneuve's wheel-banging duel with René Arnoux in the last laps of the race. Arnoux passed Villeneuve for second place with three laps to go, but Villeneuve re-passed him on the next lap. On the final lap Arnoux attempted to pass Villeneuve again, and the pair ran side-by-side through the first few corners of the lap, making contact several times. Arnoux took the position but Villeneuve attempted an outside pass one corner later. The cars bumped hard, Villeneuve slid wide but then passed Arnoux on the inside at a hairpin turn and held him off for the last half of the lap to secure second place. Villeneuve commented afterwards, "I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another." At the Dutch Grand Prix a slow puncture collapsed Villeneuve's left rear tyre and put him off the track. He returned to the circuit and limped back to the pits on three wheels, losing the damaged wheel on the way. On his return to the pits Villeneuve insisted that the team replace the missing wheel, and had to be persuaded that the car was beyond repair. Villeneuve could have won the World Championship by beating Scheckter at the Italian Grand Prix, but chose to follow team orders and finish behind him, ending his own championship challenge. The pair finished first and second in the championship, with Scheckter beating Villeneuve by just four points. During the extremely wet Friday practice session for the season-ending United States Grand Prix, Villeneuve set a time variously reported to be either 9 or 11 seconds faster than any other driver. His team-mate Jody Scheckter, who was second fastest, recalled that "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles's time and — I still don't really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!"
The 1980 season was a complete disaster for Ferrari. Villeneuve had been considered favourite for the drivers championship by UK bookmakers, but only scored six points in the whole campaign in the 312T5 which had only partial ground effects. Scheckter scored only two points and retired at the end of the season.
For the 1981 season, Ferrari introduced their first turbo engined F1 car, the 126C, which produced tremendous power but was let down by its poor handling. Villeneuve was partnered with Didier Pironi who noted that Villeneuve "had a little family [at Ferrari] but he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight ... [He] treated me as an equal in every way." Villeneuve won two races during the season. At the Spanish Grand Prix Villeneuve kept five quicker cars behind him for most of the race using the superior straight-line speed of his car. After an hour and 46 minutes of racing Villeneuve led second-placed Jacques Laffite by only 0.22 seconds. Fifth-placed Elio de Angelis was only just over a second further back. Harvey Postlethwaite, designer of the 126C, later commented "That car...had literally one quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was." At the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix Villeneuve damaged the front wing of his Ferrari and drove for most of the race in heavy rain with the wing obscuring his view ahead. There was a risk of being black flagged but eventually the wing became detached and Villeneuve drove on to finish third with the nose section of his car missing.
The first few races of the 1982 season were promising. Villeneuve led in Brazil in the new 126/C2, before spinning into retirement, and finished third at the United States Grand Prix West although he was later disqualified for a technical infringement. The Ferraris were handed an unexpected advantage at the San Marino Grand Prix as an escalation of the FISA-FOCA war saw the FOCA teams boycott the race, effectively leaving Renault as Ferrari's only serious opposition. With Renault driver Prost retiring from fourth place on lap 7 followed by his team-mate Arnoux on the 44th lap Ferrari seemed to have the win guaranteed. In order to conserve fuel and ensure the cars finished the Ferrari team ordered both drivers to slow down. Villeneuve believed that the order also meant that the drivers were to maintain position but Pironi passed Villeneuve. A few laps later Villeneuve re-passed Pironi and slowed down again, believing that Pironi was simply trying to entertain the Italian crowd. On the last lap Pironi passed and aggressively chopped across the front of Villeneuve and took the win. Villeneuve was irate as he believed that Pironi had disobeyed the order to hold position. Meanwhile Pironi claimed that he had done nothing wrong as the team had only ordered the cars to slow down, not maintain position. Villeneuve stated after the race "I think it is well known that if I want someone to stay behind me and I am faster, then he stays behind me." Feeling betrayed and angry Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again.
In 2007, former Marlboro marketer John Hogan disputed the claim that Pironi had gone back on a prior arrangement with Villeneuve. He said: "Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise." Hogan's company sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari. A comparison of the lap times of the two drivers showed that Villeneuve lapped far slower when he was in the lead, suggesting that he had indeed been trying to save fuel.
On May 8, 1982, Villeneuve was killed in an accident during the final qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. At the time of the crash, Pironi had set a time 0.1s faster than Villeneuve for sixth place. Villeneuve was using his final set of qualifying tyres, which were probably already past their best, and many writers say that he was attempting to improve his time on his final lap. Some suggest that he was specifically aiming to beat Pironi. However, Villeneuve's biographer Gerald Donaldson quotes Ferrari race engineer Mauro Forghieri as saying that the Canadian, although pressing on in his usual fashion, was returning to the pits when the accident occurred. If so, he would not have set a time on that lap.
With eight minutes of the session left, Villeneuve came over the rise after the first chicane and caught Jochen Mass travelling much more slowly through the left-handed bend before the Terlamenbocht corner. Mass saw Villeneuve approaching at high speed and moved to the right to let him through on the racing line. At the same instant Villeneuve also moved right to pass the slower car. The Ferrari hit the back of Mass' car and was launched into the air at a speed estimated at 200–225 kph (120–140 mph). It was airborne for over 100 m before nosediving into the ground and disintegrating as it somersaulted along the edge of the track. Villeneuve, still strapped to his seat, but without his helmet, was thrown a further 50 m from the wreckage into the catch fencing on the outside edge of the Terlamenbocht corner.
Several drivers stopped and rushed to the scene. John Watson and Derek Warwick pulled Villeneuve, his face blue, from the catch fence. The first doctor arrived on the scene within 35 seconds to find that Villeneuve was not breathing, although his pulse continued; he was intubated and ventilated before being transferred to the circuit medical centre and then by helicopter to University St Raphael Hospital where a fatal fracture of the neck was diagnosed. Villeneuve was kept alive on life support while his wife travelled to the hospital and the doctors consulted with specialists worldwide. He died at 9:12 that evening.
Villeneuve had already become an iconic figure before his death. His determination to win was obvious from outside the cockpit in both the frequent use of the oversteer technique as well as the wheel-banging with his competitors. This endeared him to the crowd and, combined with his unusually open and honest approach, to many of the press as well. After the death of Ronnie Peterson Villeneuve was seen as his successor as the fastest natural driver on the grid.
At the funeral in Berthierville former team-mate Jody Scheckter delivered a simple eulogy: “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.”
Villeneuve is still remembered at Grand Prix races, especially those in Italy. At the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, the venue of the San Marino Grand Prix, a corner was named after him and a Canadian flag is painted on the third slot on the starting grid, from which he started his last race. There is also a bronze bust of him at the entrance to the Ferrari test track at Fiorano. At Zolder the corner where Villeneuve died has been turned into a chicane and named after him.
The racetrack on Île Notre-Dame, Montreal, used for the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix and Champ Car Grand Prix of Montreal, was named in his honour at the Canadian Grand Prix of 1982 after his death. His homeland has continued to honor him. In Berthierville a museum was opened in 1992 and a lifelike statue stands in a nearby park which was also named in his honour. Villeneuve was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame at their inaugural induction ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto, Ontario on August 19, 1993. In June 1997 Canada also issued a postage stamp in his honour.
There is still a huge demand for Villeneuve memorabilia at the race-track shops and several books have been written about him. The number 27, the number of his Ferrari in 1981 and 1982, is still closely associated with him by fans. Jean Alesi whose aggression and speed in the wet were compared to Villeneuve's also used the number at Ferrari. Villeneuve's son, Jacques, drove the #27 during his 1995 Champ Car and Indianapolis 500 winning season with Barry Green and has also used the number for occasional drives in NASCAR and the Speedcar Series. A film based on the biography by Gerald Donaldson was announced in 2005, intended for release in 2007, but as of 2008 has not emerged.
Complete Formula One World Championship results
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)
- "Gilles entered 68 races but only started 67". . 9 June 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20070702170436/http://www.gpracing.net192.com/drivers/careers/600.cfm.
- Up until 1990, not all points scored by a driver contributed to their final World Championship tally (see list of pointscoring systems for more information). Numbers without parentheses are Championship points; numbers in parentheses are total points scored.
- Donaldson (2003) pp.11–13
- Donaldson (2003) p.27–29
- Donaldson (2003) pp.50–51, 114
- Donaldson (2003) p.11
- "Legends claimed by the track". BBC. 19 February 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/1178492.stm.
- Donaldson (2003) p.21
- Donaldson (2003) p.30–31
- Donaldson (2003) p.41
- Roebuck (1986) p.211
- Donaldson (2003) pp.63–67
- Donaldson (2003) p.88. Denis Jenkinson noted "the smooth, confident way that he had driven" and Nigel Roebuck said the he had "demonstrated enormous natural talent."
- Donaldson (2003) pp.90–91
- Donaldson (2003) pp.107–108
- Donaldson (2003) pp.95–104
- Donaldson (2003) p.111
- Donaldson (2003) pp.120–122
- Fearnley (August 2006)
- Donaldson (2003) p.184–187
- Donaldson (2003) p.187
- Donaldson (2003) pp.194–196
- Roebuck (1986) p.208 gives the gap as 11 seconds. Walker (January 1980) reports the gap to be 9 seconds.)
- Donaldson (2003) p.223
- Donaldson (2003) p.240
- Donaldson (2003) pp.253–256
- Roebuck (1986) p.214
- Roebuck (1999) p.182
- Donaldson (2003) p.289
- "Doubt over facts of Villeneuve-Pironi row". F1Fanatic.co.uk. 2007. http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/2007/07/24/doubt-over-facts-of-villeneuve-pironi-row/. Retrieved on 24 July 2007.
- Bamsey (1983) p.50, Lang (1992) pp.96–97, Watkins (1997) p.98 and Fearnley (May, 2007) all write that Villeneuve was attempting to beat Pironi. Jenkinson (June 1982) writes only that he "was in the middle of a last desperate bid to improve his grid position."
- Donaldson (2003) pp.296–298
- Lang (1992) p.97
- Fearnley (May, 2007)
- Watkins (1997) pp.96–98
- Donaldson (2003) p.304
- Donaldson (2003) pp.305–306
- "Zolder". Inside F1, inc. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/cir-076.html. Retrieved on 8 February 2009.
- Andrews, Mark (1999). "Jean Alesi: The Wrong Time and the Wrong Place". atlasf1.autosport.com. http://atlasf1.autosport.com/99/fra/andrews.html. Retrieved on 25 August 2007.
- "Villeneuve (archived version)". IMDB.com, inc. http://web.archive.org/web/20060419154348/http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449114/. Retrieved on 8 February 2009.
- Bamsey, Ian (1983). Automobile Sport 82-83. City: Haynes Manuals. ISBN 0946321019.
- Donaldson, Gerald (2003). Gilles Villeneuve. London: Virgin. ISBN 0753507471.
- Lang, Mike (1992). Grand Prix! vol.4. Sparkford: Foulis. ISBN 0854297332.
- Roebuck, Nigel (1986). Grand Prix Greats. Cambridge: P. Stephens. ISBN 0850597927.
- Roebuck, Nigel (1999). Chasing the Title. City: Haynes Publications. ISBN 1859606040.
- Watkins, Sid (1997). Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One. City: Pan Books. ISBN 0330351397.
- Fearnley, Paul (August 2006). "Profile: Ferrari 312T3". Motor Sport (Haymarket): pp. 52–61.
- Fearnley, Paul (May 2007). "It's war. Absolutely war.". Motor Sport (Haymarket): pp. 52–61.
- Walker, Rob (January 1980). "US GP Report". Road & Track: pp. 104–107.
All Formula One race and championship results are taken from:
- Official Formula 1 website. Archive: Results for 1977 — 1982 seasons www.formula1.comRetrieved 6 February 2009
All Pre-Formula One race and championship results are taken from:
- Donaldson (2003) pp.310–315
- Official Ferrari tribute site
- Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame
- CBC Digital Archives — Gilles Villeneuve: Racing at the speed of light
|Canadian Formula Atlantic Champion
(1978 North American Champion)
|American Formula Atlantic Champion|
|Brands Hatch Race of Champions winner
|Formula One fatal accidents
May 8, 1982