A debut not for the Ferrari team with which he became so closely associated, but for McLaren.
When he was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian GP, the sport lost one of the most popular drivers it has ever seen. Although he won only six times in his tragically short F1 career, the Canadian had established an incredible rapport with fans, not just in his native country and Ferrari’s home turf in Italy, but around the world, thanks to his spectacular and committed driving style. And McLaren played a small but significant part in his story.
Villeneuve's route into F1 was unusual, to say the least. He first found success racing snowmobiles in Quebec, before switching to cars in 1973. He soon became a star of the North American Formula Atlantic scene, and by 1976 he was dominating the series.
In June that year Gilles was invited to take part in his first race outside North America, the classic F2 encounter through the streets of the French town of Pau. He drove a March 762 for the Project 4 team, run by a certain Ron Dennis. He had a lot to learn, but he qualified a respectable 10th, only to retire with engine problems in the race.
Autosport reporter Bob Constanduros certainly noticed him: “The man who is dominating Formula Atlantic at home had to get used to both circuit and increased power. Gilles was chucking his March about as though he'd been at it as long as Rene Arnoux. But there were a few spins as well!”
A recommendation from Hunt
On his return to Canada Gilles resumed his winning ways. What nobody really knew was how good the competition was. However, there was one event where there could be no questions. The penultimate race of the year was held through the streets of the city of Trois Rivieres in early September, and the organisers had a budget with which to tempt some F1 regulars to take on the locals. On their 1976 shopping list were James Hunt, Alan Jones, Vittorio Brambilla, Patrick Depailler, plus rising French F2 star Patrick Tambay.
Hunt's appearance, as Villeneuve’s team mate, was a real coup. The McLaren star had won the Dutch GP the previous weekend, and was closing in on the injured Niki Lauda in the battle for the World Championship. James had never heard of the local hero, but he took notice when Gilles dominated the event. At the following weekend's Italian GP he told his team about the man who'd beaten him.
“That was back in the more genteel days of F1 when drivers were allowed to go off and do something stupid like race in Canada!” recalls former McLaren team manager Alistair Caldwell. “James came back and said there's this really good kid that we should talk to. He said he was a natural.”
In retrospect it was an extremely generous gesture by Hunt. He had no reason to help a rival he barely knew; after all James himself had only just turned 29, and in effect was still establishing himself as a regular Grand Prix winner and title contender. Gilles was pretending to be only 24, but was actually already 26.
Contact was duly made, and later that year Gilles turned up at both the Canadian and US GPs to talk to team boss Teddy Mayer. A deal was signed, and Villeneuve was promised some testing and a few races in 1977. The first outing was to be in the British GP.
“He loved cars and he loved talking about cars,” says Caldwell. “He was a hit with everybody. We decided to give him a drive at Silverstone; being the home race we could better cope with three cars.”
The week before the Grand Prix Gilles was invited for his first taste of F1 at a two-day test at Silverstone. He was given an ex-Hunt M23, rather than the latest M26, and the race number 40.
“In those days we were a team who never pandered to our drivers,” says Caldwell. “Drivers just turned up and drove the cars. He came to the factory and got fitted into the car and was told I was the team manager. He said, ‘What do I do next?’ and I said, ‘You have to be at Silverstone on Thursday at quarter to ten by the car with your hat and your suit.’
“He said, ‘Right, I'll see you there.’ He didn't say, ‘Where am I going to stay, where's Silverstone, how do I get there, what kind of suit should I have, how should I get in the circuit?’ None of that. He was told to be there, and he was.”
From the off he was fast, but what really caught the attention was the amount of time he seemed to spend going backwards.
“He went quickly straight away. We said, ‘How was that?’ he'd say, ‘Great, don't change the car, I'll just go out again and have another go, I'm going to learn some more.’ And off he'd go. He didn't want to fiddle with the car. He'd come in and say everything was fine, no trouble with the brakes or anything. He suited us fine.
“Then during the lunch break the journalists and photographers started to come back from around the circuit. And they said, ‘You should have seen your boy spin at Becketts,’ ‘You should have seen him spin at Stowe,’ ‘You should have seen him spin...’
“It became obvious that he'd spun at every corner on the race track! So I asked him about it. Did he have a problem? He said, ‘I'm just finding out how fast I can go round the corners. You can't tell how fast you're going unless you lose control of the car.’ He hadn't told us about the spins, and nor had he dropped much on the lap time. His car control was so good that he'd do a 360, go down through the gears, and lose virtually no time at all...”
After the test Gilles headed to the USA to drive Walter Wolf’s Dallara Can-Am car at Watkins Glen. He was replacing Chris Amon – a great friend of Bruce McLaren of course – who had stepped down to run the team. With that race done, he headed back to England for his very first Formula 1 grand prix.
In official practice and qualifying at Silverstone the spins that had punctuated his test day continued, but there were fewer of them as Gilles successfully learned the limits. And he never did any damage. Having topped the pre-qualifying session at the start of the weekend – there were 41 entries – he eventually earned ninth on the grid, immediately ahead of his hero Ronnie Peterson and, significantly, the newer M26 of McLaren number two Jochen Mass. There was no doubting the man's flair and commitment, and certainly not his pace.
“He wasn't overawed at all,” says former team manager Alastair Caldwell. “And that was the joy of him. He was just confident.”
World Champion Hunt took pole, but he made a bad start and was passed by John Watson, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter. The Lotuses of Gunnar Nilsson and Mario Andretti were fifth and sixth, and then – incredibly – came Gilles. In his first F1 start he’d passed both Hans Stuck and Vittorio Brambilla. The six guys still ahead of him were all past Grand Prix winners.
Gilles remained in a glorious seventh for 10 laps, but was distracted by a temperature gauge which suggested that the engine might be about to blow itself to bits. The rookie felt he had no choice but to pit.
“He'd been told to be extra careful, not to over-rev the engine, and if anything looked wrong to come in. He was a new boy, and he was following orders. But it turned out the gauge was broken. We checked that the car still had water in and wasn't too hot, and sent him out again.”
When he finally selected first and blasted out of the pits, Gilles had lost two laps, and was down in 21st place. He gained a few places as others retired or suffered delays of their own, but the only car he caught and passed on the road was the Surtees of Vern Schuppan.
As Hunt recovered from his bad start and stormed to a memorable victory for the team, Villeneuve came home a frustrated 11th. Without the delay he would easily have been a sensational fourth. Instead that place went to Mass, who was behind Gilles when he pitted.
Race winner Hunt sang Villeneuve’s praises in his Autosport column that week: “I remember racing against him (and losing) at Trois Rivieres in Canada last year and being very impressed with his obvious talent and professional approach. He was immediately quick in testing in my last year’s M23 and was very constructive in his comments on the car’s performance.”
At that stage it seemed pretty obvious that the new star would get Jochen’s job for 1978. There was much speculation to that effect, but as the weeks went, by nothing was signed. Nor was Gilles offered any more races in a third car.
Villeneuve was worried, and his fears were justified when he met Teddy Mayer at a World Sportscar Championship race at Mosport in August, where he finished second in a BMW with Eddie Cheever, and McLaren USA was running a similar car for Peterson and David Hobbs. Mayer told him that the team would not be taking up its option on him for 1978, and that he could look for work elsewhere.
Mayer did indeed plan to replace Mass, but he opted for another newcomer, Patrick Tambay. Like Gilles, Tambay had made his debut at Silverstone, with the little Theodore Ensign team. In subsequent outings he'd impressed by scoring a few points, and he had been a star of F2 for the past few seasons, so he was highly thought of in the paddock. The dashing, clean-cut Frenchman was also very acceptable to Philip Morris. But was he as promising as Gilles? Not many agreed with Mayer.
“Definitely both our designer Gordon Coppuck and I wanted Villeneuve,” says Caldwell. “We thought he was the find of the year. It was obvious to us that Villeneuve was a racer, and an ideal candidate for McLaren. He understood cars, liked talking about them, and was an absolute natural. He was just our kind of boy. But commercial pressures stepped in.”
Gilles was left in the lurch, unable to understand why he had been overlooked. He was kept busy with Can-Am and Atlantic commitments – he would win the title in the latter – but he wondered if his F1 career was over before it had even started.
Then out of the blue he received a call from Italy, and was invited to Maranello to meet Enzo Ferrari. He later found out that he had been recommended by Amon, among others. He then spent the Italian GP weekend with the team, before returning to the factory and a first test in Niki Lauda’s car. However, other drivers – including Cheever – were still in the frame.
After some discussion back and forth, and eventually firm assurances from Mayer that McLaren would not stand in his way, in late September it was announced that Villeneuve would drive a third car for the Italian team in the last two races in Canada and Japan – and would be a fulltime Ferrari driver in 1978.
A return to McLaren?
After a shaky start he quickly established a special place in the heart of the tifosi with his irrepressible style. However, the Villeneuve/McLaren story wasn’t quite over yet. By late 1981 Gilles was growing increasingly frustrated with an uncompetitive car, as Ferrari lagged behind its rivals in terms of chassis technology. He came onto the radar of Ron Dennis, who had run McLaren since the end of 1980.
Villeneuve had already re-signed for Ferrari for 1982, but McLaren appealed to him, and with his manager he began negotiations. Bizarrely they were conducted in part in the pit lane in Montreal in September, where Dennis put a figure of 2.5 – meaning a salary of $2.5m – on the signal board.
Gilles strolled across and changed it to 3.5. At one stage a deal seemed to have been done, but when it came to discussing the details, things seem to stall. In fact having tested the MP4 at Donington Lauda was ready to come back to F1, and not surprisingly he quickly became the number one target for both Dennis and Philip Morris.
Villeneuve had always been in two minds about walking away from Ferrari, and was actually relieved to be staying after all. And when the 1982 car proved to be very competitive, his faith seemed to be repaid, and he had a genuine shot at the World Championship. Sadly the story was to end in qualifying at Zolder – when in a twist of fate he ran into the back of the March of his former McLaren team-mate Mass and was killed instantly.
The Formula 1 world may have gained a new driver on July 16 1977, but it lost a hero on May 8 1982.