Thanks to the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart and Professor Sid Watkins, safety in Formula 1 has improved to the point where death is extremely rare. Only 1 driver has passed away during a Grand Prix weekend since the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna was the last to die in Formula 1 for twenty years, but the Brazilian is not on this list. There will be a lot of drivers that aren't included in this list, as a total of 32 have passed during championship Grands Prix, and even more have died in other racing series and non-championship events.
Unlike some lists, this one isn't ranked, as it seems unfair to compare drivers who never got a chance to fully live up to their potential. They all have one thing in common, though -- they were supreme talents who had much more to give before their time on earth was untimely cut short.
#1 - Gilles Villeneuve (1950-82)
It may seem odd that a driver with just six wins from over sixty F1 starts is considered one of its greatest ever talents, but there's many credible reasons to consider Gilles Villeneuve a legend of Formula 1.
The French-Canadian raced once for McLaren in 1977, before becoming a full-time driver for Ferrari the following year. At Ferrari, Villeneuve would become an icon of motorsport, thanks to his incredible pace and unwavering determination. Gilles acted as an excellent backup to Jody Scheckter during the South African's championship-winning campaign in 1979, winning 3 races on the way to second place in that year's driver's championship. 1980 was one of the Scuderia's worst years ever, but improvements were made for 1981, with Villeneuve winning a further two Grands Prix, including Monaco.
Villeneuve is often cited as one of the best drivers to have never won the world championship - alongside Sir Stirling Moss - and 1982, in my opinion, is when he would've broken his duck. After a pair of retirements and a disqualification, Villeneuve was pointless going into the fourth round of the season at Imola.
After a controversial and intense race-long battle with teammate Didier Pironi, Gilles had scored his thirteenth and final podium place with second position. A heated argument ensued and the pair never spoke to each other again. The next race at Zolder would prove to be his last, as on a qualifying run for the Belgian GP, he crashed his Ferrari, flew out of the cockpit, and sustained fatal injuries. He was only a 32-year-old then and had many seasons left in him.
Had he lived, Villeneuve would've won the driver's championship in 1982, before a rumoured move to McLaren in 1983. Pironi suffered career-ending injuries at the German GP later that season, and still managed to finish second in the driver's championship, despite not competing in the final five rounds. That's partly why I believe Villeneuve would've won that year's title had he lived. If that happened, he probably would've won more championships, as McLaren drivers won titles in all but one year in the next eight seasons.
Enzo Ferrari famously didn't care much for his drivers, even the ones which won his team championships, but Villeneuve was the exception to the rule, with Il Commendatore often referring to Gilles as one of his sons. That was far from the end of the Villeneuve name's influence in F1, though, as Gilles' son Jacques competed in Formula 1 between 1996 and 2006, winning the world championship in '97.
If you want to learn more about Villeneuve Senior, check out our Top 5 Canadian F1 Drivers of All Time.