A flash of Silverstone brilliance from Gilles Villeneuve
James Hunt scored a brilliant win for McLaren in the 1977 British GP at Silverstone. He may not have loved the M26 as much as he had the M23 which had carried him to his world championship the previous season, but round the fast swerves of the Northamptonshire circuit the latest McLaren outlasted John Watson’s pace-setting Brabham-Alfa and outpaced Niki Lauda’s Ferrari to score a memorable and decisive victory.
James was a man who called a spade a spade. He preferred Brands Hatch to Silverstone – and said so. But if he was quick to criticise, he was also prompt with his praise. And it was directly down to James’s fulsome endorsement that there was a third works McLaren contesting the ’77 BGP. It was an M23 and it was being driven by one of the great emerging stars of the era. His name was Gilles Villeneuve.
In the autumn of ’76, James had been paid a big bundle of bucks to drive a March Formula Atlantic car in the prestigious Trois Rivieres street race on the banks of the St Lawrence river in Quebec. Another future world champion, Alan Jones, was also taking part. But they were both taken apart by the young French Canadian star who Hunt – ever the instinctive talent spotter – recognised as a driver with genuine star quality. On his return to the UK, James unreservedly recommended to McLaren boss Teddy Mayer that Gilles was a driver they urgently needed on their books.
“You only needed to watch him for a couple of minutes to know,” said James. “I mean, that he was seriously quick. We were driving identical cars for the same team [at Trois Rivieres] so I knew. OK, so he was doing what he was used to, and I wasn’t, but in Formula 1 I reckoned I was as quick anyone at that time, and I couldn’t get near him. He looked to me like a very special talent and I told McLaren we needed him in the team as soon as possible.”
Moreover, there was a further ringing endorsement from another McLaren old boy, Chris Amon, who had taken the decision to retire from driving earlier that summer and bequeathed the seat in the dreadful Wolf Dallara Can-Am car to the bushy-tailed young Canadian.
“This guy is something else again,” Amon told my journalistic colleague Nigel Roebuck. “In 15 years of racing, I’ve never seen anybody behave like he does after a shunt. I mean, he doesn’t react at all. It’s as if nothing has happened, but the state of the car tells you different.”
McLaren listened well to their colleagues with the result that Villeneuve was duly entered in the 1977 British Grand Prix. It didn’t take him long to come to terms with Silverstone, adopting the novel strategy of going ever-faster into the corners until he spun as a means of finding the ultimate limit. And then stepping back a fraction from the edge of adhesion.
“Originally, I was supposed to have several drives for McLaren this year, but now it looks as though this could be the only one,” said Gilles. “This is the fastest car I’ve ever driven, and the fastest track I’ve ever seen. I had to learn both in a short time and the simplest way to find the limit is to go quicker and quicker until you go over it. Then you come back from that a bit, and think about the next corner.”
Come the race, Gilles qualified the M23 ninth, way quicker than Hunt’s regular team-mate Jochen Mass in the other M26. In the early stages the new boy ran an easy seventh before pitting with what seemed like overheating, but proved to be just a faulty temperature gauge. Frustrated, he hurled himself back into the fray and set fifth fastest lap of the race. Hunt had been right.
Unfathomably, Teddy Mayer used his discretion to pass over signing Villeneuve and instead did a deal with Patrick Tambay for the 1978 season and Ferrari pounced. As a result, McLaren missed out on employing one of the greatest drivers of that era. It was a rare error of judgement. We had all seen something very special indeed that summer afternoon at Silverstone.