Remember Him Well
It seems to me barely credible that tomorrow,May 8,10 years will have past since the death of Gilles Villeneuve.But it is not,in fact,mere dates and anniversaries which have caused me recently to think so often of him; rather,it has been certain happenings of today.
First,I was stunned at the murmured suggestion that Ayrton Senna had 'parked it' at Interlagos.On my tv screen in America it was apparent,certainly,that when Senna brought the misfiring McLaren Honda into the pits.From there he went straight home,communicating with his team only by telephone later that day.
The suggestion from some quarters was that Ayrton didn't care to lose face before his own people.From the start he had been nowhere near the Williams Renaults,and under increasing pressure from Michael Schumacher,who would criticise some of his driving tactics at the press conference later in the afternoon.
More than anything else about Senna.I have always admired his qualities as a fighter.But when the Interlagos episode was described to me,I thought back to the Canadian GP of 1980.
Two years before,Villeneuve had won the race for Ferrari,and in 1979 finished a close second to Alan Jones's faster Williams.Now,in 1980,he had in his hands one of Maranello's more ignoble creations,the 312T5.In freezing conditions,he could qualify the car only 22nd;his teammate Jody Scheckter,the reigning World Champion missed the cut altogether.
Villeneuve was Canada's favourite hero,revered throughout the land,and what he faced was an afternoon of indignity before the folk who loved him.But they didn't look at it that way.
'It's been a ****box from the beginning,' he grinned before the race.'No downforce at all,and no grip,even on days when you can get some heat into the tyres.Well,I have some fun,anyway...'
He did that.He had some fun.From 22nd on the grid he was 19th on lap one,ninth by lap 10,and eventually he got into a battle with Hector Rebaque,a man no great shakes as a race driver,but one in a Brabham BT49,which had qualified 10th;Nelson Piquet's sister car started from pole.Willpower and sheer driving ability took the Ferrari past Rebaque,and Gilles finished an eventual fifth.
I never saw him happier than after the race.'It was a great fight with Alan last year,'he said,'but I drove harder,and better,today.'And nobody out there knows it,I mused.'I know it,'he said.
In my experience,there has been no one like him.He may have had what Mauro Forghieri memorably called a 'rage to win',but would drive ever bit as hard for seventh.It was this quality which was unique.
Imagine,if you can,a great racing driver with a philosophy like this: 'I don't need the World Championship,not in the same way that someone like Pironi does.'
'For him,'Villeneuve went on,'the championship is the only reason to race.And that makes me sorry for him,what's he going to do when he's won it?It's like a mountain he has to climb,and he only has to do it once,just get there,and stick in a flag with his name on it.I don't understand people like that,they seem to need the title to be sure how good they are.Then they're happy to go and do something else.
'If I win it one day,OK,I'm not going to turn it away!But you know,plenty of drivers have won it who were not so good,and yet a guy like Ronnie Peterson never won it? So how much is it worth?
'What I care about is being the best,and it doesn't matter what other people think.You don't have to get some trophy in Paris at the end of the season,you have to know that you can drive a racing car faster than anyone else.Maybe I'm wrong,but that's the feeling I have,and that's why I'm a happy man.'
He wasn't wrong.Folk can argue into the night about who has been the greatest driver,but I venture there has never been a faster driver than Gilles Villeneuve nor one to whom it came more naturally.
From his remarks above,you will recognise already this was no mainstream F1 thinker.'For Gilles,racing was a romantic thing,Scheckter said.'My preoccupation was keeping myself alive,but for him the thing was to be fastest,every race,every lap,and he was.I believe,the fastest racing driver the world has ever seen.If he could come tomorrow,and live his life all over again,I'm sure he would do it all the same way,and with the same love.That was the right word for it,in his case.More than anyone I've known,Gilles was in love with motor racing.'
In my time as a F1 journalist,Villeneuve stands as the driver I have most admired,and also the one I have most liked.
Over time we became good friends,and that friendship has left it's mark on me,as I always suspected it would.If you go to the Gates often enough,the saying goes,eventually they open,and in all truth I somehow never expected Gilles to survive this sport.
I never became used to his ability,because constantly it amazed me.With Villeneuve,you took for granted that he was way faster than his cars.Groups of us would go and stand at a particular corner for a qualifying seesion,for no ther reason than to watch Gilles through it.
He had,of course,an enormous number of accidents,this perhaps an inevitable consequence of never leaving margin whatever.Through his F1 career,he rarely had a chassis remotely comparable with the best,and it was a matter of compensating with his own freakish skills.
There have been many great drivers,however,and many other abnormally brave ones.But Villeneuve,I have found,arouses the strongest emotions in racing people.Many deingrated him,and still do.Yes,he was brilliant,they will say,but too brave,too uncontrolled.These tend to be folk who winning the World Championship,in whatever fashion,counts for more than anything.
For the statisticians,Gilles left little.But his six wins from sixty odd GP reveals nothing of the generally poor machinery he had to drive,nor in the manner in which he drove it.Indeed,the statistic which tells most is that Villeneuve,the fastest driver of his era,started only twice from pole position.
Fully to understand the sense of loss so many of us felt at his passing,however,you had to know something of the quality of the man.'On the track,'Keke Roseberg said,'Gilles was the hardest guy I ever raced against,but absolutely fair.Racing was a sport to him,which is why he would never chop you.Something like that he'd look on with contempt,anyone could do that.If you'd beaten him to a corner,fair and square,he'd accept it,and give tou room,then,at the next corner,he'd be right back at you!A giant of a driver.'
Off the track,he was funny,sometimes fiesty,always honest.'He lived his entire life at 200mph,'Patrick Tambay smilingly remembers of his friend.'In my career I saw three drivers apart from the rest:Villeneuve,Prost,Senna.Each had a quality beyond the rest of us.I don't know what that quality is,only that it exists.'
There was also Villeneuve's sense of compassion.In my experience,racing drivers rarely pass up an opportunity to score off their team mate,the man with whom they are most logically compared.But I have never forgotten a conversation at Rio,in early 1982.
He had qualified his Ferrai second,with Pironi nowhere.Not long before,the Frenchman had had a colossal testing accident at Paul Richard,and it affected him more than he cared to admit.Gilles asked if he could have a quiet word.'When you write your report,'he said,'please go easy on Didier.That was a huge shunt he had,and it's shaken him,but he'll be fine at the next race...'
It was therefore the more poignant that not long afterwards,at Imola,Pironi duped Villeneuve on the last lap,cheating him of victory when he believed they were cruising to a Ferrari one-two.And Gilles went to the grave hating him for it.
He was utterly guileless.'It was an awful thing,'Jackie Stewart says,'that the last days were so tormented and disillusioned.There was always this innocence about Gilles,wasn't there? And it was shattered at Imola.'
This was a man,after all,who had sat behind team mate Scheckter throughout the Italian GP of 1979,knowing all the while he had only to overtake to win the championship.'I hoped like hell that he would blow up,'he grinned afterwards,'but,no,this was Jody's day.'
At present there is much talk about the state of F1,of processional racing,of electronic technology reducing the driver's contribution,of possible changes to the rules.Gilles,you can say with certainly,would have hated recent developments,just as he detested the 'ground-effect' era,wherein the expert pen of Gordon Murray enabled a Hector Rebaque to fight with a Gilles Villeneuve.
'People don't come to see how good aerodynamicists are,'he would grimace.They come to see a battle,a spectacle,to feel stirred,excited.And at the moment they are being cheated.Is this a sport,or a game of downforce? If we went around corners at 20mph slower,the public would barely notice it,particularly if we were cornering in nice powerslides.They'd like that...'
Ten years on,Gilles,I think they still would.For most of them.as it was for you,racing is a romantic thing,or is it nothing.
Autosport 7 May 1992