Loved by fans Ferrari and praised for his courage, the Canadian was runner-up in 1979 and killed himself three years later, when he was 32, in qualifying for the Belgian GP. In 1997, his son Jacques won the crown.
In a Formula 1 marked in the 70s by the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the figure of Gilles Villeneuve It seemed to fit in perfectly within a time with no place for fearful ones, because in each race of the category the lives of the pilots were put at stake. “I don’t run for money, I do it for fun and if I don’t go fast, I don’t have fun”, was the letter of introduction of a Canadian who arrived at the age of 27 and left tragically at 32, in one of the most shocking accidents in history.
It was Hunt who discovered it at an event at Trois Rivieres in 1976 and alerted McLaren. In that race with invited F1 drivers, Villeneuve demonstrated the competitiveness that had led him to excel internationally in racing competitions. snowmobiles, first, and since 1972 in the North American Formula Atlantic. In that kind of Formula 3, without financial support, the Canadian spent his savings, took care of the mechanics of his own car and traveled in a motor home with his family for four years until in 1976 he joined a leading team, he won all the races minus one and was Canadian and North American champion at the same time.
The British team listened to its star and opened the doors to Villeneuve the following year, when he invited him to the British Grand Prix on July 16, 1977, the tenth round of the season. McLaren crew chief Teddy Meyer gave him a test contract as third driver, but the spins he made in almost every corner in practice and his eleventh place in the final did not convince.
“How are we going to know the limits of a car if we don’t try to exceed them? If you feel that everything is under control, you are not going fast enough, “he apologized. And the continuity that they did not give him there was delivered by the team with the most fans around the world: Ferrari.
As Hunt had been at McLaren, Lauda was his entry key to Scuderia. Although in a different way: the Austrian, who had arranged his arrival in Brabham, wore red for the last time at the Eastern United States GP, so Enzo Ferrari had to find a driver for the last two rounds of the race. season.
This is how Villeneuve debuted on October 9, 1977 in Ontario. His terrible results in both the Canadian and Japanese GP – where he flew over Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell and killed two people located in a forbidden zone – did not fade his image of him The Commendatore, who saw in Villeneuve a worthy heir of Tazio Nuvolari, an Italian pilot who had shined in the 1930s. “When I was introduced to this little Canadian, this tiny bundle of nerves, I instantly recognized in him the physique of the great Nuvolari,” he said.
Don Enzo focused on polishing that overly aggressive and violent handling, until the Canadian he won the first of his six races, at the Île Notre-Dame circuit, which would later bear his name. That Canadian GP, the last test of his first full season in F1, was the prelude to a 1979 in which he would be runner-up, behind his teammate Jody Scheckter, winner of the last Ferrari title until Michael Schumacher achieved it 21 years later.
The fans they loved him not only for his triumphs or great maneuvers but also for his small gestures, like the one at the 1979 Dutch GP, when he returned to the pits on three wheels so as not to leave the car lying down. And he also won the affection of Enzo, who adopted him as a son and in his office in Fiorano he had his photo in a picture frame on his desk.
That comfort allowed Villeneuve to openly criticize the car in the early 1980s, when the Italian team suffered its worst season in its history with its penultimate place in the Constructors’ Championship. “The car sucksI’m wasting my time, but I’ll pilot it all day, I’ll spin it up, slam it against the fences, I’ll do whatever you want because it’s my job. I just tell him that we are not competitive ”, he told the founder of the team who, far from getting angry, listened to him.
Enzo Ferrari broke with the tradition of working with Italian engineers and summoned a British one, Harvey Postlethwaite, for the construction of the new Ferrari 126C2, which for the first time had a composite material chassis and which returned to the Scuderia to first place in the 1982 Constructors’ Championship. Although Gilles never saw it.
After the abandonments and disqualifications in South Africa, Brazil and the United States, the first races of that season, Villeneuve came second in the San Marino Grand Prix, the last he played. Many say it was key in the fateful outcome of qualifying for the Belgian GP two weeks later.
That April 25, the Canadian deserved to win at the Dino Ferrari racetrack but ended behind of his teammate, Didier Pironi. The Canadian took the test tip when René Arnoux (Renault) withdrew. With Pironi as his escort, the race was not in danger for Ferrari, so the drivers were shown the “slow” signal from the box, since the greatest risk was that they would run out of fuel if they pushed too hard.
Villeneuve carried out the order and was therefore surprised when Pironi surpassed him. He believed then that the Frenchman wanted to show the spectators and then he would let it pass, which seemed evident when he regained the lead with a turn from the end. However, on the last lap his teammate overtook him and crossed the checkered flag first.
Villeneuve was persuaded to take the podium at Imola but refused to celebrate or congratulate Pironi because he felt he had stolen the victory right in the land of Ferrari. He also swore that he would never speak to him again and set out to win the next race, at Zolder.
“Gilles was a really genuine and honest guy, and actually if he had a weakness, he was honest to the point of being naive. He trusted Pironi. It would have affected him a lot for a while, and I say this because very honest and naive people are surprised when something like this happens to them. Thieves think that’s the way it should happen, “Jody Scheckter told Motorsport years about that meeting he had with Villeneuve before the tragic Belgian GP.