It has been more than 30 years to the fateful day at Zolder, when Gilles Villeneuve died during the qualifying for the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix, but the legend still lives on.
Ferrari marked the 30th anniversary of Gilles’ death yesterday when Gilles’ son, 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve drove the 1979 Ferrari 312T4 around the Ferrari-owned Fiorano track. The 312 T4 was the car with which Gilles won three races and finished runners-up in that year’s championship to his then team mate Jody Scheckter. A few prominent names those were present to be a part of the historic event were the current Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemelo, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, then-Technical Director Mauro Forghieri, Gilles’ old mechanics and Piero Ferrari. Also watching Jacques were Gilles’ widow Joann and daughter Melanie.
The Canadian driver raced for Scuderia Ferrari from 1977 right unto his tragic death at Zolder in 1982. His aggressive driving style and never give-up attitude, even when he was last in a race, made him a big favourite of the Tifosi and that love for him is still present.
“Gilles gave the public what they wanted. And he did not care about the championship, he drove each race as it came,” said Luca di Montezemolo.
“I recall when Enzo Ferrari told me he’d spotted a youngster with great temperament and talent who raced snowmobiles in Canada. He had a pre-contract with McLaren, but Ferrari wanted to bring a breath of fresh air into the team. He was an extraordinary driver and human being.” He added.
Gilles Villeneuve’s on the limit racing was admired by many and was highlighted by his son Jacques’ comments.
“He wasn’t after a championship, he wasn’t political. He got in the car to do the fastest laps all the time, and it is only the race itself that mattered. He was just passionate about his driving and his racing and that’s what you can remember about him. It is not the races he did in a good car, it is the races he did in a bad car. He lived his passion and he lived it truly. He never lied about it, what you saw is what you got. When he got in the car everybody knew that he would make them dream. He would do whatever was possible out of that car. If he ended up last in a race he would fight to get back to the top, he would never give up. So everybody knew that they could count on him to give whatever was available.”
Jacques also recalled those days when he with the whole family would go to the races to watch his father drive for the famous Italian marque.
“The whole family always went to the races and we lived in the motorhome…it was much better than going to school! Most of the memories I have are from the race track, sitting down watching the races. So ninety percent of what I remember of my father is him as a driver, not home very often, always on the go and if he wasn’t in a car, then it was a helicopter or a plane. But that seemed normal, he was my father. I think I am lucky to be driving at a time when cars are safer, otherwise maybe I’d be dead too, given that like him, by nature, I tend to go always right to the limit.”
During the qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix on 8th May, 1982, Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari collided with Jochen Mass’ March. The destroyed car was left cartwheeling on the track while the driver was launched into the metal fence alongside the track. He was declared dead after being taken to hospital, that evening. Ferrari were shocked by the incident and immediately withdrew their remaining car, that driven by Didier Pironi, from that weekend’s race.
His 1979 team mate and world champion Jody Scheckter paid tribute to his friend by saying that Gilles was “the fastest driver in the history of motor racing” and “the most genuine man I have ever known”.
Gilles’ attitude and capability behind the steering wheel were summed up excellently by Mauro Forghieri.
“He wasn’t taking part in the World Championship, he was simply racing in each race and that was it for him. He would race with a hastily put together chassis because, at the time, there were only one hundred and sixty two of us, including Commendatore Ferrari and we did not have time to build new cars. These cars were very demanding to drive physically and today, you just could not race with them.”