Gilles Villeneuve: His victories remembered

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Today marks 25 years since the death of Gilles Villeneuve.

Enough has been written about the sad circumstances of his death at Zolder in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. Much has also been written about the spectacular moments for which he is so fondly remembered.

Villeneuve drove every race to win. It was not part of his make up to approaching any aspect of racing conservatively – whether to conserve the car or score ‘good points’ towards a championship title.

In a too-short career largely in uncompetitive machinery this brought him just six victories. But they were almost all remarkable.

1978 Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal

Early in his first full F1 season Villeneuve had led the USA Grand Prix West at Long Beach for half the race until he tripped over a backmarker.

By the time of the final round of the season – at his home event – Villeneuve was still to break his victory duck. The Canadian Grand Prix would be run at a new venue in Montreal on the Ile Notre Dame after the Mosport circuit had been declared unsafe for F1.

Four years later, this new circuit would bear the name Circuit Villeneuve.

Practice on Friday was washed out by heavy round. The Grand Prix circus was also under a metaphorical cloud. The newly crowned World Champion Mario Andretti had seen his team mate Ronnie Peterson die in the first-lap carnage at Monza two rounds earlier.

Peterson’s number six entry was left vacant and in his place was Jean-Pierre Jarier. In these dire circumstances the Frenchman had the ‘fortune’ to take over the most competitive car on the grid, and duly took pole position with it ahead of Jody Scheckter’s Wolf and Villeneuve’s Ferrari.

Jarier got away cleanly at the start but Scheckter held Villeneuve up and Alan Jones’ Williams passed the pair of them. But Jones ran into trouble with his tyres and Scheckter and Villeneuve flashed past on laps 18 and 19.

Villeneuve passed Scheckter – who would be his team mate next year – at the hairpin on lap 25. But he seemed unable to do anything about Jarier.

Either scenario would have made a compelling story – Jarier had never won a race before, neither had Villeneuve.

Fortune chose the latter tale. Jarier’s oil pressure fell as the fluid leaked onto his rear brakes. The engine tightened, and Jarier coasted the Lotus 79 into the pits.

It was bitter luck for Lotus but the 72,000 assembled fans – including Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau – were cheering for Villeneuve.

1979 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami

Ligier had dominated the first two rounds of the 1979 championship in Buenos Aires and Interlagos. But Ferrari brought their new T4 cars to the third round in South Africa and Ligier chose to skip the pre-race testing session, losing valuable testing time at the high Kyalami altitude.

But it was the turbocharged Renault of Jean-Pierre Jabouille that took pole position ahead of Scheckter, who was racing in front of his home crowd in a Ferrari for the first time. Villeneuve was third.

The race got off to a frantic started with Jabouille and Scheckter swapping the lead on the first lap. Villeneuve took second off Scheckter on lap two and then both Ferrari passed the Renault next time around.

At this point the race was stopped because rain had begun to fall – neither team pit stops nor Grands Prix meetings were run with the kind of clockwork sophistication they are today, and the officials wanted to give all drivers the chance to put on wet weather tyres. Ironically, the rain stopped just as the red flags came out.

The restart left drivers to gamble on dry- or wet-weather tyres – there was no ‘intermediate’ option. Villeneuve elected to use the Michelin wets – Scheckter chose slicks.

Villeneuve’s astute decision would win him the race – he had to make a stop to change tyres, but Scheckter gambled on making it the whole way without a stop. When that bid failed, Villeneuve came through to win.

1979 USA Grand Prix West, Long Beach

With two wins to his name, Villeneuve returned to the scene of his embarrassment twelve months earlier and more than made amends. He began by setting pole position in his Ferrari T4 at 1m 18.825s.

The start was a total and utter shambles. It began when Carlos Reutemann, second on the grid, was ordered to start from the pit lane after suffering electrical problems on the way to the grid and having to have repairs. But he found an open slot onto the circuit and joined the cars on the parade lap illegally.

Then Villeneuve failed to stop his Ferrari on the pole position slot, pulling up beyond it with the other cars directly behind him. The organisers had no choice but to order another parade lap – and seized the opportunity to demand Reutemann back into the pit lane. He duly did so, leaving Villeneuve on his own on the front row.

As they set off for another start Jacques Laffite’s Ligier slewed across the track and stopped with a seized gearbox – preventing everyone from seventh and below from continuing. Finally the cars were disentangled and ready to start.

There was yet more chaos after the green light when Patrick Tambay used Jan Lammer’s Shadow as a launching ramp and landed on Niki Lauda’s Brabham.

Up front, Villeneuve kept the lead and Depailler held second from Scheckter – until Jarier stormed past the pair of them. With Scheckter held up, Villeneuve made good his escape.

On his way to the chequered flag he added a new lap record to complete the tripe – pole position, fastest lap and race victory. It also gave him the lead in the drivers’ championship by two points from Laffite – but it wouldn’t last. His next race win would come after Scheckter had beaten him to the title, and Villeneuve had followed him home under team orders at Monza.

1979 United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen

Villeneuve performance at Watkins Glen in 1979 is not remembered for the fact that he won the race – but for his extraordinary feat in practice.

On a soaked track, 5.4km (3.35 miles) in length, he lapped 11 seconds faster than the next best man – team mate Scheckter. Laffite laughed: “Why do we bother? He’s different from the rest of us. On a separate level.”

What did Villeneuve have to say? “It should have been faster but the engine had a misfire and was down about 600 revs.”

By late 1979 the Williams had become a competitive proposition and Jones took pole position by a whisker under 1.3s, Nelson Piquet second and Villeneuve third.

More rain fell before the start and Villeneuve started like a lightning bolt. He flashed past Piquet and passed Jones with two wheels on the sodden grass.

As the track dried Scheckter caught the pair of them but they would all have to stop for dry tyres. In their haste, Williams neglected to tighten the nuts on Jones’ wheels properly and one tyre flew off as he rejoined the circuit.

Scheckter joined him in retirement when he too lost a tyres in much the same way Villeneuve infamously had at Zandvoort earlier that year. Villeneuve’s only real opponents were gone and he won by 48 seconds.

It was his last outing in a competitive car until 1982.

1981 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte-Carlo

Villeneuve’s final two wins earned a place in motor racing lore because they were achieved with the Ferrari 126C. This might not have been as bad a car as the T4 that his 1980 campaign was wasted on, but it still handled like a truck.

Villeneuve had a reputation for being hard on his cars. But it required a blend of toughness and mechanical sympathy to win in a turbo-chargde ground effect Ferrari at Monte-Carlo. The suspension was virtually non-existent, the turbo’s push came in an explosion of power after a considerable lag, and the walls of Monaco were as unyielding as ever.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve made it work. He began by qualifying second on the grid – an astonishing achievement in itself – 2.5s faster than team mate Didier Pironi, who was 17th and had hit the barriers three times. Villeneuve’s time was 0.078s shy of pole sitter Piquet – and paddock inneundo suggested his Brabham had not been quite at the legal weight limit when that time was set.

By 18 Villeneuve’s brakes were fading so he let Jones by into second, to chase Piquet. Piquet then let impatience get the better of him while lapping Eddie Cheever and crashed out.

But now Jones was in trouble too. His car was suffering from fuel vapourisation and, with four laps left, Villeneuve flashed past him on the curved start/finish line with a hair’s breadth separating the Williams and Ferrari.

It’s true that he profitted from Jones’ misfortune that day. But how many other drivers could have lived with the beast that was the 126C well enough to be in the position to take the win?

1981 Spanish Grand Prix, Jarama

Villeneuve’s final win came three weeks later at Jarama in Spain. This was essentially Monaco without the barriers and equally unsuited to his evil-handling car.

Because Villeneuve drove every lap of his life at 100% he often capitalised on drivers taking it easy in the opening laps. As Jones and Reutemann led away in a Williams each, Villeneuve weaved past four rivals to take third. That became second on lap two as he passed Reutemann.

Even though Villeneuve was ill-equipped to mount a challenge on Jones the Australian took himself out of the lead on lap 14 when he spun. Now the French-Canadian had the advantage, and already a gang of cars was queueing up behind him.

The remaining 66 laps was a masterclass in defensive driving.

Villeneuve never chopped, never weaved never baulked. And the drivers behind, simply, never passed him. With each passing lap his tyres surrendered more grip and his Ferrari slid ever more luridly around Jarama’s tortuous twists.

After an hour and three quarters of driving under the most intense pressure Villeneuve crossed the line first. In the next 1.24 seconds Laffite, John Watson, Reutemann and Elio de Angelis all followed him.

It was another of those mesmerising Villeneuve drives that defied belief and asked the question, could anyone else have done the same?

The answer is, quite probably, no. And that is why, 25 years after his death, he remains one of the most fondly remembered and sadly missed of all the great drivers who have lost their lives racing Formula 1 cars.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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4 comments on “Gilles Villeneuve: His victories remembered”

  1. I remember that day well. It was a very sad day indeed. We can be thankful that with all the safety measures they now have in place that deaths have been drastically reduced. I do not think I could handle another well known racer to pass away in an accident.

  2. Simon Stiel
    13th May 2007, 23:13

    Sorry to bother you with a question but how were you able to find out that Villeneuve passed Scheckter at the hairpin on lap 25 at the Notre Dame circuit? Did you use magazine reports from the time to describe in detail what happened on the track at each of Villeneuve’s victories?

    Many thanks for your answer.

  3. I can’t remember exactly where I got that from but I did write a lot of this article from contemporary accounts in magazines like Motorsport, so it’s a safe bet that it came from there.

    Actually I’m pretty sure now that I think about it. I wasn’t alive in 1978!

  4. Ref: Monaco 1981 – the T5 was used in the 1980 season. T4 was the 1979 season apart from the first 2 races.

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