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Another World's First

Designed and Manufactured by Retro Formula 1
under license to the Villeneuve family.

"I know no human being can do miracles, but Gilles made you wonder sometimes".
Jaques Laffite

Gilles Villeneuve

Ferrari Chairman Luca di Montezemolo has fond memories of Gilles Villeneuve.

"I remember when Enzo Ferrari told me he had found a youngster with a great temperament and talent who was racing snow mobiles in Canada. He had a pre-contract with McLaren but The Drake (Ferrari) wanted to bring some new blood into the team. He was an amazing driver and man."

Ferrari also paid tribute to their former driver on their official website. "His memory is still vivid and alive in the minds of many at Maranello (Ferrari's home); his talent, his speed, his bravery which bordered on recklessness, all go to make his name still hugely popular with our fans, even among younger ones who have only been able to see him on replays of his races or read about him in stories written by journalists."

Gilles Villeneuve won only six grands prix in a career that spanned a little over four years, yet 30 years after his death his name still shines out like a beacon as a symbol of the heroic qualities that to many make up the very essence of a grand prix driver. Villeneuve's is a name to rank alongside - and in some eyes even above - the very best, the likes of Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio.

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.

Gilles Villeneuve
Villeneuve at his first Grand Prix in 1977

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 prompted by Ferrari driver Niki Lauda quitting the team at the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport 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.

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 at Circuit Île Notre-Dame (a circuit that was eventually named after him) Villeneuve scored his first Grand Prix win after Jean-Pierre Jarier's Lotus stopped with engine trouble. As of 2012, he is the only Canadian to win his home race.

Gilles Villeneuve vs Rene Arnoux
Villeneuve vs Arnoux
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In the 1979 French Grand Prix Villeneuve and René Arnoux had a memorable duel for second place.

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.
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Gilles Villeneuve
"The last great driver - the rest of us are a bunch of good professionals". Alain Prost

Jacques Villeneuve
Jacques Villeneuve takes his father's Ferrari for a spin
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Villeneuve could have won the World Championship by beating Scheckter at the Italian Grand Prix, but chose to 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 teammate 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, who was hired by Ferrari to design the follow-on and much more successful 126C2 that won the Constructors' Championship in 1982, later commented on the 126C: "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 126C2, 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 teammate 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.

On May 8, 1982, Villeneuve died after 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; some say he was attempting to improve his time on his final lap. Some suggest 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 Butte, the left-handed bend before the Terlamenbocht double right-hand section. 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 km/h (120–140 mph). It was airborne for more than 100m 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 50m 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 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.

At the funeral in Berthierville former teammate 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.

"Salut Gilles" sign at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve start-finish line

The racetrack on Île Notre-Dame, Montreal, host to the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix and NASCAR Nationwide Series, was named Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in his honour at the Canadian Grand Prix of 1982. His homeland has continued to honour 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 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 winning season with Barry Green and has also used the number for occasional drives in NASCAR and the Speedcar Series. Canadian driver and 2011 IndyCar Rookie of the Year James Hinchcliffe adopted the number 27 for the 2012 season.

A film based on the biography by Gerald Donaldson was announced in 2005, intended for release in 2007, but as of 2013 has not emerged.

Salut Gilles

 

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