• Rewind to ... 1979

'He was on a separate level'

Laurence Edmondson January 14, 2010
Gilles Villeneuve braved poor conditions to go 11 seconds faster than anyone else during practice at Watkins Glen © Sutton Images
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Formula One cars and heavy rain work about as well together as British transport and light snow. Lap times become meaningless, a mistake could put an end to a whole weekend's work and, more than anything, it's downright dangerous.

So when only six cars ventured out for a practice session on a streaming wet Watkins Glen circuit in 1979, nobody was particularly surprised. Nothing was left to play for as the drivers' and constructors' titles had been sewn up by Jody Scheckter and Ferrari two races earlier at Monza. What was surprising, however, was just how much faster one car was than the rest. The car in question was the No.12 Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve.

"When we saw him going out in the rain, we said, 'This we've got to see'," renowned F1 journalist Dennis Jenkinson recalled. "Some members of the press, who think they know it all, don't bother going out when it rains. But I was on the corner watching him and all the hardball members of the press were with me. We had to see this. It was something special. Oh, he was fantastic! He was unbelievable!"

Nigel Roebuck was another 'hardballer' who braved the elements and saw the performance first hand.

Gilles Villeneuve won huge respect from all those who saw him compete © Sutton Images

"Gilles was the one bloke who made you go and look for a corner in a practice session, because you knew that where everybody else would go through it as if on rails, Gilles would be worth watching. That day in the rain at Watkins Glen was almost beyond belief. It truly was.

"You would think he had 300 horsepower more than anybody else. It just didn't seem possible. The speed he was travelling at didn't bear any relation to anybody else. He was 11 seconds faster. Jody was next fastest and couldn't believe it, saying he had scared himself rigid! I remember [Jacques] Laffite in the pits just giggling when Gilles went past and saying, 'Why do we bother? He's different from the rest of us. On a separate level'."

On returning to the pits Villeneuve whipped off his helmet and beamed at the assembled members of the paddock, who were looking on in disbelief. "That was fun," he said. "I was flat in fifth on the straight, about 160mph. It should have been faster but the engine had a misfire and was down about 600 revs. But for that I could have gone quite a bit faster, but then maybe I would have crashed."

A dry qualifying session the next day meant the time became meaningless and Villeneuve lined up third on the grid. He went on to win the wet race and finish second in the championship, four points behind his team-mate Scheckter.

But with Villeneuve it was never about race wins and titles (he won just six races in his career and 1979 proved to be his best championship finish). It was about making the rest look average, about being on a separate level.

Quotes taken from "Gilles Villeneuve - The life of a legend" by Gerald Donaldson published by Random House