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Thirty years on - the legendary Gilles Villeneuve remembered 08 May 2012

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Thirty years on - the legendary Gilles Villeneuve remembered 08 May 2012

In the history of Formula One racing, very few racing icons truly stand the test of time. But despite never winning a title and being in F1 for just over four short seasons, Gilles Villeneuve definitely has - and 30 years after his death, his legend lives on.

Revered for his natural talent, supreme car control and audacious nerve behind the wheel, his daring, do-or-die approach means that to many he remains the personification of the Grand Prix gladiator, and one widely regarded to be among the greatest talents the sport has ever produced.

Born in Canada in 1950, Villeneuve had always wanted to race and started by competing in snowmobile events in his native Quebec. Drag racing and Formula Ford followed, before he progressed to Formula Atlantic, winning his first race in 1975. A year later he claimed both the US and Canadian Atlantic titles, still relying largely on money earned from snowmobiling to pay his way.

A second Canadian title followed in ’77, but by then Formula One racing had come knocking. After beating McLaren’s James Hunt in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race, the British team offered the relative unknown a drive in the 1977 British Grand Prix. It was a massive opportunity. Though driving an outdated M23, Villeneuve split Hunt and team mate Jochen Mass - both in the newer M26 - to qualify ninth. He finished the race 11th, but might have enjoyed a top-five placing had it not been for a faulty temperature gauge.

Although just a one-off drive, Villeneuve’s prowess behind the wheel stunned the paddock and piqued the interest of Enzo Ferrari. With ‘il Commendatore’ likening him to pre-war Grand Prix hero Tazio Nuvolari, Villeneuve was taken on for the final two rounds of 1977, stepping into the cockpit of departing world champion Niki Lauda.

Inexperienced and largely untested on the international stage, Villeneuve’s was not the most auspicious start to a Scuderia career. He finished neither race, and to make matters worse, his crash at the Japanese season finale killed a marshal and photographer. Devastated by the tragedy, only his steely reserve stopped him from losing focus.

Moving on for a full season at Ferrari in 1978, Villeneuve’s boyhood dream had come true and he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass him by. “If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula One, my third to drive for Ferrari,” he was reported to have said.

His ‘dream’ debut season, however, was marred by several retirements. He finished just 10 of the 16 rounds and after crashing out of the US West race, the Tifosi (who would soon come to revere the Canadian) called for him to be replaced. That proved to be a wake-up call and as his accident rate lessened, so Villeneuve’s results slowly improved. At the season finale, his home race in Montreal, all his promise finally came good as he gave the 72,000 Canadian fans with a memorably maiden win. Not only had he driven flawlessly, his choice of soft tyres was nothing short of inspired.

Villeneuve almost won the Montreal race again in 1979, but after a close tussle it was Williams’ Alan Jones who claimed victory. He would, however, triumph in three rounds that season. His most memorable showing of that year - and arguably his Formula One career - was his scintillating wheel-banging fight for second with Renault’s Rene Arnoux in France. It was F1 at its finest, and Villeneuve at his best - ultra-competitive, free-spirited, and feisty.

Another, equally famous side to Villeneuve was much in evidence a few rounds later in Italy. Though still a title contender, he followed team orders and dutifully shadowed ‘number one’ team mate Jody Scheckter across the finish line, thus ensuring the South African clinched the title. Few drivers would have acted as honorably, but then few have had the character of Villeneuve. He lived to win, but he was also scrupulously fair and honest to a fault.

He must have hoped that 1980 would be his year, but the season proved truly disastrous for Ferrari, and even Villeneuve’s talents failed to secure more than six points. Team and driver enjoyed a better time in ‘81, despite the Ferrari’s distinct lack of downforce, winning two races. His faultless performance in Spain, where he kept four much-quicker cars behind him to win by barely 0.2s, is regularly cited as one of the greatest drives of all time.

The 1982 season started in equally promising fashion, thanks to the Ferrari 126’s obvious pace, but first an engine issue in South Africa, then a spin in Brazil and a disqualification (for an illegal rear wing) from third place in Long Beach meant Villeneuve arrived at round four in San Marino without a point to his name. There he qualified third, and then found himself leading the race after the retirement of the fast but fragile Renault cars.

With victory all but guaranteed, when the Ferrari pit board ordered him and second-placed team mate Didier Pironi to slow to conserve fuel, Villeneuve followed orders. Pironi didn’t and passed Villeneuve. They tussled for a while, with the lead changing hands several times, but on the last lap Pironi powered past one last time and aggressively shut the door to take the win. In the aftermath, a furious Villeneuve vowed never to speak to his team mate again.

Sadly, he didn’t. A fortnight later, on May 8, 1982, after crashing heavily in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder as he chased down Pironi’s fractionally quicker lap time, Villeneuve was dead. The career of one of Formula One’s most mercurial talents had been tragically cut short.

At Villeneuve’s funeral in his home town of Berthierville, Scheckter spoke of his former team mate: "I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there."

And so it has been. Though he never had the chance to claim a title, it doesn’t matter. He raced in 67 Grands Prix and won just six, but in four short years Villeneuve established a legend that has outlived even his own son Jacques’ title-winning Formula One career.

A free spirit, a natural talent who fought with every fibre of his being, and a gentleman, he was one of the true F1 superstars. Fans revered him because they felt he was one of them - he loved motor racing and racing loved him.
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