• GP Week

Salut Gilles

Peter Windsor
May 8, 2012
Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most exciting drivers ever to take part in F1 © Getty Images
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It's 30 years since we lost Gilles Villenveuve - since we lost a latter-day Nuvolari, who put money and fame about 149th on a list of priorities that began with "racing", was followed by "racing", which in turn was followed by by "racing", "racing" and "racing"…

What I really loved about Gilles, though, was his selflessness. He knew he was good - great, even - but he never had to tell anyone about it. On the contrary, he was as enthusiastic about his peers as the average F1 fan. He respected them; and, until they did something underhand to him, he trusted them.

I remember chatting to Gilles in Argentina, at the opening round of the 1979 world championship. Gilles had his first full season of F1 behind him (and his first win) and was thus the key Ferrari incumbent. Joining him from Wolf was Jody Scheckter. Given that - and given how fast a racing driver Gilles Villeneuve was by that stage - you would have thought that Gilles would be thinking joint No. 1 status at the least - perhaps even a slight edge as No. 1.

He held the Fiorano lap record, too. Gilles had lapped in 1min 8.8sec two weeks after winning the 1978 Canadian GP. He was the man of the moment. The next Big Thing.

Yet, as we chatted in the lobby of the Buenos Aires Sheraton, hard by the docks and the old trading ships, Gilles told me that he was "very happy" to be No. 2 to Jody: "I would have been happy to have done another year as No. 2 to Carlos (Reutemann), to be honest," he said.

"I don't think I'm ready yet to be a No. 1. All I want is the same car preparation as Jody, even if I don't get exactly the same equipment. I just want to be near him most of the time."

The two Ferrari drivers ran the old T3s that weekend; the new T4, with which Gilles would win at Kyalami and Long Beach, was still in the testing stage. I remember that the transverse gearboxes arrived in Argentina with incorrect first gear ratios fitted (Jody's was too long, Gilles' too short!) and that, in order to maximize the intermediate gearing on Friday, Gilles was told to run a shorter fifth. He agreed with a smile - then promptly switched off the rev limiter when he was flat-out in top! (He switched it back on for the corners, however: Gilles loved to use engine braking wherever possible, the better to tame the rear of the car…).

As I sat on the pit wall with him after that session, he couldn't stop laughing as he told me how fabulous that flat-12 engine had sounded at 13,200rpm! It wasn't all fun, however. Colin Chapman had introduced ground effect in 1977-78 and the T3 Ferrari - and to some extent the T4 - were still very much of the ground ineffect era.

Gilles told me that he'd looked in his mirrors before he turned-in to the gorgeous, fifth-gear right hand Curvon and seen no-one behind him: "So, when I exited the corner I looked in the mirrors again and switched off the limiter. I could still see nothing behind me, so I settled down to driving a lap with no traffic around me. It felt as though it was going to be a quick one.

"Then I came up to the Ascari chicane, switched on the limiter - and from absolutely nowhere came Reutemann in the Lotus 79, going about 10mph faster than me. He tucked into my tow, flicked out, and was gone almost before I'd started to brake. It was incredible."

"Yes - I remember that," said Carlos, when I spoke to him later. "That's how I used to feel last year when Mario was behind me…"

Gilles had no luck in Argentina. The Michelins went off quickly in the race and he retired, in the end, with a diff failure. Nor was it his year. He would win three grands prix; so would Jody Scheckter. Alan Jones, devastatingly quick in the new Williams FW07, would take four victories. That year, though, a new points system was introduced: the season would be divided into two halves; the best four races from each half would count towards the championship. It seems incredible now, looking back - but it happened. The Cosworth teams cynically (but correctly) deemed it the only way Ferrari were ever going to win a championship: put the emphasis on reliability; make it easy for them.

They came to Monza, Gilles and Jody, with Scheckter sufficiently ahead on points to be able to clinch the title. By that stage they had won two races each.

Jody, though, had taken a big jump forwards with a valuable second place at Zandvoort. Gilles, in that race, had also been stunningly good: he arrived in Holland after a fighting drive to P2 in Austria.

Gilles Villeneuve deep in thought © Sutton Images
On Saturday night we sat in the Ferrari caravan and he spoke about his situation and his hopes: "What annoyed me today was being 0.6 sec slower than Jody. I'm not saying that I could have gone faster than him today but at least I know where I went wrong. Yesterday, you see, the car felt pretty good except on a couple of corners. Through the right-hand loop before the first chicane and through the corner onto the straight I wasn't as good as I should have been. Both corners are similar because they've got a change in elevation, so I thought I'd change the car on Friday night. Jody made some changes too, but they weren't as major as mine.

"Anyway, we had four sets of the very soft tyres for the last session and Jody was quick on one of them. Then they gave him another and he did 1min 16.3 and so I immediately put the other set on. I only did 1min 16.9. I couldn't understand what was wrong, so they put my car back to Friday's set-up and I did 1min 17.1 on harder tyres. I then got a fourth set of the soft ones but as I went out it started to rain. That was that. Maybe that wouldn't have changed my grid position but at least I would be closer to Jody.

"The thing tomorrow is to beat Jody into the first corner. If I can do that and, say, get one of the Renaults between him and me, I'll be looking good. I've got to try to do something like that because I haven't caught anything on Jody in terms of mechanical problems - I ran out of fuel at Zolder; I broke the pinion at Monaco. Jody hasn't had anything like those problems all year. So I've got to beat him in a racing situation. It's my only chance…"

That Dutch GP was, in effect, the championship decider. Gilles was arrow true to his word. On race morning, in the warm-up, he shattered the pit lane by lapping about a second quicker than front row-man, Alan Jones.

Luxuriating in the grip of the new, ultra-soft Michelin 220s, Gilles was delighted that the Dutch ambients were low. The 220 could be a race tyre! Michelin's harder tyre, the 212, was a guaranteed finisher but would be about a second a lap slower. Rene Arnoux, on the pole for Renault, chose the 212s. Jean-Pierre Jabouille and the two Ferrari drivers raced the 220s.

On full tanks, Gilles was a blinding match for Alan Jones's Williams (whose Cosworth was hesitating slightly out of slow corners). Alan led for the first 10 laps - then it was Gilles, ahead of Jody into the first corner, as he said he would be! - passing Alan on the outside of the Tarzan hairpin. Then it was Gilles, leading the Dutch GP. Would the 220s last? That was the only question.

Gilles and Alan were never more than three seconds apart. The race passed the halfway mark. Still Gilles was in front, but slowly, slowly, he could feel the grip going away. He began to lock inside fronts; the wheelspin increased on the exit from slow corners. Jones lined up for the kill.

It came on lap 47 of the 75-lap race. Villeneuve went into the new chicane - the Scheckter-conceived chicane - a fraction too quickly for his grip level. He put an outside rear on the kerb and suddenly the car snapped round, fully 360deg. He kept the engine running, of course, and rejoined in second place. Still he was ahead of Scheckter.

Then the left rear blew as Gilles braked for the Tarzan hairpin. Jody, who by this time had easily worked his way up to third place, drove comfortably and well into P2, despite late-race blisters that appeared on the left front. Gilles showed his frustration in a furious, mind-blowing drive back to the pits with his car falling apart around him. The flailing rubber tore the rear suspension apart. The right-front wheel waved in the airstream.

Gilles Villeneuve wrestles his car back to the pits at Zandvoort © Sutton Images
Gilles arrived in the Ferrari pits leaving sparks and dropped jaws behind him. Crazy, they said. Senseless, they cried. In that bizarre lap of Zandvoort, though, Gilles said everything that needed to be said about the 1979 championship and its points divisions. The racers had been beaten by the system.

Afterwards, there was much rumination about the cause of the blowout. Michelin were sure that Gilles had been suffering a slow puncture for a while - from the time of his spin - and that he should have stopped for new tyres. Gilles said that he just felt decreasing grip all round and that, in those conditions, with the race lead and the championship in the balance, nothing short of a blown engine was going to bring him into the pits.

I think Gilles was correct: there was no puncture. And, back then, Michelins had a history of blowing violently when blisters appeared on the tread surface. I also wondered at the time whether Gilles could have won that race had he started on the 212s. He wouldn't have run at the Williams pace but Jones, late in the race, lost third gear. We'll never know, but I'm sure it crossed Gilles' mind, too.

And so they went to Monza, Jody (on 44pts) and Gilles (on 32). Ferrari looked to be in good shape, despite the qualifying pace of the fragile Renault turbos. "Listen," said Carlos Reutemann to his friend Villeneuve on Sunday morning. "Don't play with the championship. You may only get one chance. Don't give it to Jody if you can race him. Fight for it."

"Nah," said Gilles. "I'll help Jody win it now. It's best for the team. He's said he's going to help me win it next year." A racer, in the truest sense of the word, but also a selfless, very special man.

1980 was a disaster for Gilles and Ferrari, of course - and Gilles never did win that championship. He won much more than a mere title could have given him, however; he won some races - and some laps - and some corners - far more precious than a mathematical victory via a limited number of points.

He won them with his heart and with his soul; and, in so doing, he won them for millions of adoring fans at the time and for the essence of racers ever more.