BY JONATHAN BRAZEAU – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
In four short Formula One seasons, Gilles Villeneuve established himself as the fastest man on four wheels and despite never winning the world championship, Villeneuve is still remembered as one of the all-time greats in the sport.
It’s been 30 years since Villeneuve died in a tragic accident during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, but he continues to be revered by fans and drivers alike. His cool, calm and collected personality on the course and competitive never-say-never drive exemplified what it means to be an auto racer, possessing that rare daredevil mindset where if he saw an opening during a race, he’d take it no matter the costs.
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Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, Que., in 1950. He started competing in snowmobile races but his true passion was auto racing. After a successful season in Formula Ford, driving his own car and winning seven of the 10 races he entered, Villeneuve moved up to the Formula Atlantic series.
He defeated several top stars, including Formula One driver James Hunt during a non-championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivieres in 1976 and it was enough to impress Hunt’s F1 team, McLaren. They offered Villeneuve a ride at the 1977 British Grand Prix and despite driving an outdated McLaren car, Villeneuve qualified ninth and finished 11th. It was just a one-off appearance, but it was enough to grab the attention of Enzo Ferrari and Villeneuve stepped in for the final two races of the season for the Scuderia Ferrari team.
Villeneuve’s first full F1 season with Ferrari in 1978 was marred by retirements but ended on a high note as he took the checkered flag in the season finale at his home race in Montreal.
The following season was Villeneuve’s banner year. He won three races in 1979 and finished runner-up four times, taking second place in the driver standings, only four points behind teammate Jody Scheckter. Villeneuve could have won the championship but followed Ferrari orders to stay behind Scheckter during the Italian Grand Prix. As much of a free spirit as Villeneuve was, he was also incredibly loyal to his team.
Villeneuve rarely had a competitive car after that season, winning only two more races, including the Monaco Grand Prix in 1981. In his final appearance at the Canadian Grand Prix, Villeneuve made it onto the podium, taking third place.
The start of the 1982 season showed some promise for Villeneuve. He led in Brazil before spinning out of the race and he finished third in Long Beach, Calif., before being disqualified for an illegal rear wing. In his last F1 race at Ferrari’s hometown San Marino Grand Prix, Villeneuve finished second after a fierce final lap with Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi.
Tragedy struck on May 8, 1982. As Villeneuve chased Pironi’s fastest qualifying lap time in Belgium, he came upon the slower car of Jochen Mass. Mass saw the faster Villeneuve behind him and veered right, unfortunately, so too did Villeneuve. The two cars collided and Villeneuve was thrown from his vehicle. Villeneuve passed away at the age of 32.
The Ile Notre-Dame Circuit in Montreal was renamed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in his honour. A corner was named after him at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari course, home of the San Marino Grand Prix, and a Canadian flag was painted on the third spot of the starting grid. Villeneuve was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.
The Villeneuve name lives on in auto racing as Gilles’ son Jacques followed in his father’s footsteps and became the most decorated Canadian auto racer ever, winning the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar Championship and the Formula One World Championship.
Scheckter said it best in his eulogy at Villeneuve’s funeral: “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
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