DRIVERS: GILLES VILLENEUVE

Name: Gilles Villeneuve
Nationality: Canada
Date of birth: January 18, 1950 - Chambly, Canada
Date of death: May 8, 1982 - Zolder Circuit, Belgium

Gilles Villeneuve, Canadian GP 1978

Gilles Villeneuve, Canadian GP 1978 

 © The Cahier Archive

The son of an itinerant piano-tuner, Gilles Villeneuve and his brother Jaques grew up in Quebec province in Canada. After dabbling with music Gilles developed a passion for automobiles and at the age of 15 his father gave him an old 1958 MGA sports car which he had bought for $100. Gilles stripped the car down, learning as he did so and eventually the old car became roadworthy although he was still legally under-age. His early career as a driver was frightening as he destroyed a series of cars, including his MGA. When he finished school he started competing in drag racing events before a visit to Mont Tremblant to watch some racing convinceed him that he could better than most of those competing. He did not have enough money to get into single-seaters and so used the money he earned from a job with a construction company to fund snowmobile racing. He was quickly successful and soon became a professional snowmobile racer and eventually went to Mont Tremblant to enroll in the Jim Russell Racing racing school there and after that started out in Formula Ford with a two-year old chassis which he ran with some of his friends from snowmobiling. He won the provincial championship at his first attempt. He moved on to Formula Atlantic with the Ecurie Canada team. He sold the family house to pay for the drive and the family lived in a camper van. The early races of the 1974 series were disappointing and in the midseason Villeneuve crashed heavily at Mosport Park and broke his leg in two places. He lost his drive with Ecurie Canada and had to scrape together money to get a new chassis for the rest of the season. The following year he continued with his own team and he began winning with a victory in the pouring rain at Gimli. he finished the year fifth in the championship but his reputation was growing and at Trois Rivieres he was able to battle with viiting stars Jean-Pierre Jarier and Patrick Depailler. That winter he dominated snowmobile racing and in 1976 had offers for Formula Atlantic from several top teams. He joined Ecurie Canada and the Villeneuve Family travelled from race to race in a motorhome he was soon winning. That summer he was invited by Ron Dennis to race a Formula 2 car at Pau. he showed well but the car overheated. At Trois Rivieres in September he beat James Hunt - who would become World Champion a few weeks later. It was the breakthrough he needed. Hunt went back to Europe and told the McLaren management about the French-Canadian. In the autumn McLaren signed him to take part in a number of races as third driver to Hunt and Jochen Mass, with an option for 1978. He also put together a deal to race in Formula Atlantic but it was going to harder as a new challenger had emerged in the form of Keke Rosberg. In July Villeneuve made his Grand Prix debut at Silverstone. He qualified ninth but set the fifth fastest lap of the race after an earlier pit stop. A few weeks later Villeneuve received a telephone call from Ferrari. A month later he was a Ferrari driver and he made his debut for the team at Mosport Park. At his second race in Japan he had a huge accident, cartwheeling off the track. Two spectators were killed but Villeneuve was unhurt.

The following year, partnering Carlos Reutemann, he learned the ropes in F1 and at the end of the year he won the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. For 1979 Ferrari hired Jody Scheckter to be the team leader and the two men were both highly competitive. He won in South Africa and in Long Beach and built up the Villeneuve folklore with his epic last-lap struggle with Rene Arnoux at the French GP and by driving a lap on three-wheels at Zandvoort. At the end of the year he supported Scheckter's title challenge. When that was successful Villeneuve won again at Watkins Glen and finished the season second in the World Championship.

The 1980 season was a disaster for Ferrari and Villeneuve scored only a handful of points but the 126CK in 1981 was a different matter. The chassis was agricultural but the turbocharged engine was extraordinary and Villeneuve used it to the full, winning at Monaco and in Spain, where he held off a string of cars to win an amazing victory. The car was refined over the winter and in 1982 thing began badly with a series of reliability problems. At Imola he was leading until the last lap when his Ferrari team mate Didier Pironi, who was under team orders not to overtake, ignored the instruction and snatched the victory. Villeneuve was furious. Two weeks later at Zolder while trying to take pole position he ran into the back of Jochen Mass's Rothmans March. The Ferrari cartwheeled and Villeneuve was killed.

In the year that followed the Villeneuve legend grew and was not eclipsed until the death of Ayrton Senna 12 years later.

Gilles's son Jacques Villeneuve duly became a racing driver and after winning the Indianapolis 500 and the CART Championship in 1995 he moved to Formula 1 and won the World Championship in 1997.

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