Gilles Villeneuve. The name brings a barrage of images to the mind, A young Canadian with a boyish face followed by a Ferrari tearing apart the length of a circuit on the razor thin edge of magnificence and disaster. Villeneuve drove on an all or nothing philosophy bordering on just a flick away from overdoing it. But that’s what his skill was all about, taking the car to its very limit each and every time he drove it as he always said “it’s the only way I know how to drive”.
And that is why Gilles will always remain a revered name amongst the tifosi and F1 fans in general, bringing a tinge of smile on our faces followed by a deep ponder into “what if” before you shrug off the thought and remember the guy for who he was, a devil on racetrack.
And this brings us to the question: “Who was Gilles Villeneuve?”
With a career spanning 6 years recording six wins, statistics do not paint a very rosy picture as to who Villeneuve was but, much to a statistician’s agony, we all know statistics suffer from this practical flaw. Ask an F1 fan who Villeneuve was and you will immediately be greeted with their faces lighting up with sentences falling short of even beginning to answer the question you just asked them.
It indeed is very difficult to describe in words the figure Gilles was, its like describing in words a melody which gives you goose bumps every time you hear it. A melody is not something that you can describe, it’s what you feel and so was Gilles. You want to know who he was? Watch the videos of a Ferrari and Renault engaged in a fiery battle for 2nd position in the French Grand Prix of 1979 or the Canadian wrangling his three wheeled Scuderia to the pits or winning the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix in a car that had only a quarter of down force of its rivals.
One things Gilles was famous for was throwing his car to its limits, a ragged style of driving so as to say the complete opposite of what Formula 1 has become today. Lots of wheelspin, drifts and the right foot stuck to the accelerator. Now don’t get him wrong, the Formula 1 of the 80s was this way only but Gilles was leaps ahead of his time as to what was considered normal. Imagine what kind of driver he was, going by the convention that he was labeled a maniac in his own time.
To the uninitiated, his driving style will appear as nothing but lunacy but to those who know the sport the genius in Gilles is apparent. Born in Québec, Canada he made a career in motorsport but not the kind he is known for today. Gilles started his own snowmobiles, tearing up the snowy landscapes participating in championships and this is where the credit to his raucous style of driving can be accorded to. He was very successful on snowmobiles winning the World Championship Snowmobile Derby in 1974. He drove his car akin to a snowmobile as they taught him a great deal about control, gliding on the tarmac, dancing a dance with the car. Brilliant to some, berserk to others. But Gilles paid heed to none.
He made his foray into single seaters from Formula Ford to Formula Atlantic successful in each category and that too on a cash strapped budget. He funded his career partly from his snowmobile championship money and partly from sponsorship. This brings to mind a famous incident from his life where he sold the family home to buy a race car without even telling his wife, with the latter finding out only after the deal was done! There are lot of wild stories attached to him. His aggressiveness on the track was matched only by his impulsiveness off it.
He made it into F1 when James Hunt was impressed by him in 1976 after the former beat the World champion in a Formula Atlantic race earning him a 5 race drive with McLaren in 1977. However, it was Enzo Ferrari who saw an image of Tazio Nuvolari in him and offered him a drive for the last 2 races of the 1977 season and the 1978 season and thus begun an unfortunately short lived yet impressive 6 years with Ferrari, where he scored 6 wins and 13 podiums and left a memory on the minds of everyone raising him to the status of a cult icon.
His death unfortunately came at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, Zandervoot to be precise, where he lost his life in the dying moments of qualifying when he caught the slow moving March of Jochen Mass.
But this begs the question as to what makes Gilles such a revered entity among the fraternity. The answer lies in his untimely death, providing his legend with a strength that only a fallen icon can achieve. He went out at the height of his abilities. He did not grow old and continued racing when his skills had faded.
To the fans, he would always remain a man who died pursuing his passion. Death allowed him to transcend his own era to become a hero to generations of fans who weren’t even born during his lifetime and decades after his death. His death accorded him immortality, or as a philosopher would put, “in morte vita” – in death there is life.
One could keep going on punching in word after word and it still would not be close to paying homage to this Canadian Daredevil. So the best thing to do would be to conclude by remembering Gilles the way he should be remembered and what better way than to relive his battle with Rene Arnoux in the French Grand Prix of 1979.