Gilles Villeneuve

We pause to remember the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, the iconic Ferrari driver who lost his life on this day 30 years ago at the Belgian Grand Prix.

To this day, the little French-Canadian has created sharp divisions in Formula 1 fans when his name is brought up in conversation. For many, he embodied all of the romanticism of the sport: a balls out, no-holds-barred action man who just went for it. For others, he was a risk-taker who would eventually play with fate one too many times.

When the inevitable happed on that seemingly innocent day at Zolder all those years ago, the naysayers were proved correct, but to many, the legend burns brighter than ever.

When Gilles was in the car, it was always magic. A touch of wildness in the eyes, plenty of opposite lock and tyre smoke, and his Ferrari would disappear into the distance until he would repeat the process at the same place on the next lap.

A snowmobile racer turned drag racer, Villeneuve moved to open-wheeler racing in 1973, winning seven of his ten Formula Ford races before jumping quickly into Formula Atlantic. He thrashed James Hunt when the 1976 World Champion made a guest appearance at a race in Trois Rivieres, and Hunt wasted little time in recommending the diminutive driver to the McLaren bosses.

The next summer, Villeneuve was in a McLaren cockpit making his debut at the British Grand Prix. Trying to find the limit of the car, Villeneuve went beyond it and enjoyed many spins, and McLaren boss Teddy Mayer made among his most foolish decisions in electing to let Villeneuve get away without a full-time contract.

Before the end of the year, Villeneuve had joined Ferrari. But it could have been an all-too-short honeymoon when, in just his second race for the team, he collided with Ronnie Peterson at Fuji, somersaulted over the fencing and killed two spectators. He would walk away uninjured this time…

Starting the 1978 season with a sequence of accidents (not all of his own making), there was little doubt that Villeneuve was quick, and he improved as the season wore on. He battled with Andretti for the lead of the Italian Grand Prix, only for both to be penalised for jumping the start. At the season finale on home soil, he finally won, but only when Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Lotus got into difficulties while leading.

Watch Gilles’ battle with Arnoux at Dijon – with no less than Murray Walker commentating! – still believed to be one of the best battles in F1 [Video via kokxol]

The 1979 season was, statistically, Gilles’ best shot at the World Championship, but he instead dutifully deferred to his more senior team-mate Jody Scheckter, dutifully trailing the South African home at Monza so he could secure the title.

But there were also moments of pure genius, such as his thrilling battle with Rene Arnoux at Dijon, or his pace at a wet practice session at Watkins Glen, where he lapped a full eleven seconds faster than anyone else.

The following year saw Ferrari produce a beastly car, the 312T5, and he could manage little more than a pair of fifth places, but the 1981 season would provide more highs.

The turbocharged 126CK helped him to two hard-fought wins: beating Alan Jones at Monaco, and then holding off the rest of the field to win at Jarama.

Gilles' win at the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix was one of the ultimate examples of defensive driving

Never a fan of ground-effect cars, Gilles simply got on with the job and battled into the 1982 season. Two retirements and a disqualification was little reward for his efforts at the start of the season, and he was thrilled to find Ferrari had everything in their favour at the 14-car San Marino Grand Prix. With the race under control, team-mate Didier Pironi took the race victory from him on the last lap. An incensed Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Didier again.

The damage to Villeneuve's Ferrari was indicative of his fatal injuries Heading out for qualifying at the next round at Zolder, he was desperate to reassert his authority over Pironi, who had gone quicker. But this time, he would not make it back to the pits, as he clipped the back of Jochen Mass’ car in a last-ditch, vain attempt to get one over his team-mate. His car was launched into the air, cartwheeled across the track, and poor Gilles was thrown from the car and into the catch-fencing. And while he was killed instantly, the memory of his legacy remains to this day.

[Images via LAT and The Cahier Archive]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.