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Who was Gilles Villeneuve? The man, the icon

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An introduction to the icon after whom the track at the Canadian Grand Prix is named.

With the Canadian Grand Prix due to begin in Montréal this Friday, we bring you a special editorial on the man after whom the circuit was named. One of the most acclaimed drivers the sport has ever seen, Villeneuve is one of only two Canadian Formula 1 drivers to ever score points. The other? Jacques Villeneuve, his son, named for his father’s younger brother. The younger Villeneuve is also extremely accomplished, having beaten Michael Schumacher to take the 1997 World Drivers’ Championship after nearly winning it in 1996, ultimately losing to Damon Hill, son of Graham Hill.

The elder Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu,Quebec, Canada to Séville and Georgette Villeneuve, and began driving with his father at the age of ten. He started his automobile racing career rather unconventionally for Formula One, starting to race snowmobiles in 1966 in the town of Berthierville, where Séville had moved the family some years prior. In 1971, at the young age of 21, Gilles was already a father to the now-iconic Jacques. The bulk of his income had come from snowmobile racing – it was Gilles’ sole career. His snowmobile manufacturing firm, Skiroule, would help him later in his career. 

Villeneuve drove a modified ‘67 Ford Mustang, his own road car, in competition but this soon led to ennui; Villeneuve enrolled himself into the Jim Russell Racing School at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant in order to gain a competitive racing licence.

He went on to participate in the Quebec edition of Formula Ford, the single-seater championship many Formula One drivers participate in prior to their premier class racing careers – and with immense success, winning seven of the ten races he participated in, in his own vehicle.

His snowmobile manufacturer, Skiroule, helped finance his second season at Formula Atlantic, and Villeneuve credited his snowmobiling background as contributing significantly to his success at F1:  "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain."

Villeneuve in the early days of his career, racing snowmobiles

Formula Atlantic also introduced Gilles to his manager and longtime friend, Gaston Parent. Parent, then a successful marketing professional, met Villeneuve, who was in desperate need of $5000 to compete in the Halifax leg of the competition to secure the Canadian title for 1976. Parent invested, and it paid off – Villeneuve won the race and the title. Just a few weeks after, Parent saw Villeneuve race at the Formula Atlantic in Trois-Rivières, a non-championship race where Gilles was up against and beat another F1 icon, before even being a Formula 1 driver. That man was James Hunt, and he would be responsible for assisting Villeneuve’s entry to Formula 1. 

McLaren, Hunt’s team, impressed as Hunt was with Villeneuve’s performance, contacted him. Then-chief Teddy Mayer offered him a four-race contract, which Gilles and his manager accepted. 

Mayer later signed French driver Patrick Tambay to be Hunt’s teammate at McLaren from 1978, but began negotiations himself – with Ferrari. Villeneuve travelled with Parent to Italy, excited to meet one of his icons, Enzo Ferrari, who would go on to become one of his closest friends. In a story told by Parent prior to his 2002 death, Villeneuve was so excited by the prospect of driving for Ferrari that he was prepared to accept anything Enzo Ferrari said. 

He started off his first try at Fiorano by driving his car into the grass, leaving Mauro Forghieri, the chief engineer, disappointed and unsure of his abilities. After he got back on the track, he had already smashed the world record, with Enzo and his associates labelling him ‘Il campion di mondo’, or World Champion. 

He was nicknamed the 'Aviator' because at the start of his Formula 1 career the Ferrari race cars he was driving took flight so often. Thus, race after race, Gilles Villeneuve became a personality before he became a winner.

Villeneuve at his first test with Ferrari in Fiorano

Villeneuve was signed to Ferrari, replacing Niki Lauda, who had decided to quit that year. The year was marked with incidents: Villeneuve had several retirements between 1977 and 1978, and an accident that would kill a spectator and injure a marshal – after Villeneuve’s vehicle went airborne following a collision and landed on them, in an area prohibited for spectators. 

He would go on to win 6 Grands Prix between 1978 and 1981, all of them with Scuderia Ferrari and was on the podium a staggering 13 times in the 4 years of his Formula One racing career. Highly regarded by all of his contemporaries, Villeneuve was often described as the ‘fastest man on the track.’ 

Tragically, a promising career would be cut short. In 1982, Villeneuve was in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder with teammate Didier Pironi, with whom he had shared both a friendship and an intense rivalry. The two had even been involved in somewhat of a tussle earlier that year in an incident at San Marino.

Pironi had been 0.1s faster than Villeneuve at Zolder, with the two in contention for 6th. Villeneuve came over the rise after the first chicane at the track with eight minutes left to go in the session. Jochen Mass, driving slower than Villeneuve, moved to the right to allow Villeneuve onto the racing track – just as Villeneuve also moved right to move ahead of Mass. His car clipping the back of Mass’, Villeneuve’s Ferrari became airborne, somersaulting and crashing along the edge of the track. A helmetless Villeneuve was launched into the catch fence next to Terlamenbocht, and although he still had a pulse, he had suffered a cervical fracture and his injuries would prove to be fatal. He died in hospital a few hours later.

Austrian F1 icon Niki Lauda, whose retirement from Ferrari precipitated Villeneuve’s career, has described him as "...the perfect racing driver … He had the best talent of all of us."

Enzo Ferrari shares a laugh with Ferrari driver, F1 icon and close friend Gilles Villeneuve

Enzo Ferrari, himself no stranger to loss said after Villeneuve’s death: "it [His death] has deprived us of a great champion - one that I loved very much. My past is scarred with grief; parents, brother, son. My life is full of sad memories. I look back and see the faces of my loved ones, and among them I see him."

The circuit at  Île Notre-Dame, Montreal, was renamed in his honour in 1982, and his son Jacques carried on his legacy, both on the track and off.
 

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