‘True racer’ Villeneuve given poignant tribute
A sad anniversary at the weekend, handled with skill by Sky’s F1 presenters and producers, who dedicated time during the coverage of the Miami Grand Prix to remember the life and death of Gilles Villeneuve.
Yesterday was 40 years ago to the day that the Canadian driver crashed fatally during qualifying for the Belgian GP, a shocking end to what would have been one of the all-time great F1 careers. Even though he only raced at this level for a few years, and won six races, Villeneuve, who attributed his exceptional reactions and confidence in all conditions to a youth spent racing snowmobiles in Canada, is among its most fondly remembered figures. He was also, of course, the father of 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
The 1982 season that would be Gilles Villeneuve’s last was already assured of its place in F1 history, not least because it produced one of the sport’s most storied feuds.
At the San Marino Grand Prix in April 1982, Villeneuve and his
Ferrari team-mate Didier Pironi appeared to have the race one-two sewn up after the retirements of Renault’s Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux, the only realistic rivals to Ferrari as other teams were boycotting the race in the power struggle between the International Automobile Sport Federation (Fisa) and the Formula One Constructors Association (Foca).
Ferrari instructed their drivers to slow down to conserve fuel and make certain of first and second place. Villeneuve, leading, took this to mean that they would stay in that order, but Pironi passed him. Villeneuve, who later explained that he thought Pironi was putting on a show for the crowd, overtook his colleague in turn, but Pironi then nipped up the inside to snatch the race with an aggressive manoeuvre. Villeneuve was irate; Pironi claimed that, sure, they were told to slow down, but not that they had to stay in their positions. Villeneuve, who had not protected the inside line due to what he took to be the team understanding, was livid and vowed never to speak to Pironi again.
The dispute, which has a bit of everything, is the subject of a feature-length documentary currently in production with Noah Media, a company that has been responsible for some excellent recent films, including The Edge, about the pressures faced by the England men’s cricket team; Finding Jack Charlton; and Arsene Wenger: Invincible. Some footage from Noah’s Villeneuve project, including an interview with Villeneuve’s widow Joann was shown on Sky’s coverage of the grand prix, for which, one might say fittingly, Ferrari drivers
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz started in first and second place on the grid.
Of course, the he-said-he-said of San Marino 1982 faded into brutal insignificance due to events just a few weeks later in Zolder, Belgium. With eight minutes of qualifying left, Villeneuve emerged from the first chicane and tried to get past the much slower Jochen Mass. Mass moved right to let him pass, but Villeneuve likewise moved right. He hit the back of Mass’s March car at an estimated speed of 130 mph, and flew a hundred yards or so through the air before crunching and somersaulting into the track. The driver stood no chance and died that evening, his neck broken. It was suggested that Villeneuve had been pulling out all the stops in a bid to post a faster qualifying mark than Pironi.
The footage on Sky at the weekend showed Joann explaining Gilles’s approach to driving: “The edge of it is where you have to be. And to him, the best thing that could happen is when the rear tires would just touch the guardrail, and he would come back with this huge smile on his face and he would say, ‘I kissed the guardrails everywhere. Perfect’. He was just a true racer at heart.” Indeed so, and paid fitting tribute by the Sky coverage at the weekend.