This tiny French Canadian was one of those rare sporting personalities who became a legend in his own lifetime. Villeneuve was cast in an heroic mould, his fearless and undaunted approach to his chosen sport giving rise to more discussion and debate that any of his contemporaries. Some thought him wonderful, embodying all those romantically traditional qualities which go into making F1 such a compelling sport. Others dismissed his opposite-lock, tyre-smoking antics as a waste of energy.
Either way, Villenueve was undoubtedly a great driver who knew no other way to drive than flat-out all the time. Personal risk didn’t come into his personal equation at all. He began racing snowmobiles in his native Quebec at the age of eight, displaying from the outset an uninhibited flair which was to become the hallmark of his tragically brief motor racing career.
Gilles rocketed to international prominence when he won the Formula Atlantic race through the streets of Trois Rivieres on the banks of the St Lawrence River in 1976. In the process he beat Alan Jones and McLaren star James Hunt into second and third places. Hunt, ever generous in his praise for other competitors he believed were truly gifted, came straight back to the UK and told McLaren boss Teddy Mayer that Villeneuve was a driver seriously worth watching.
Mayer duly agreed to run Gilles in a third works M23 in the following year’s British GP at Silverstone where he proved Hunt correct. He qualified an impressive ninth, then finished tenth after being delayed by a pit stop to deal with a faulty fuel pressure gauge. Despite this superb showing Mayer opted to sign Patrick Tambay as a replacement for Jochen Mass in 1978, a decision which seems truly unfathomable to this day.
Gilles quickly made himself at home in F1. It took only until the third race of 1978, through the streets of Long Beach, California, for him to lead commandingly, although he was eliminated by an error of judgement when he tripped over Clay Regazzoni’s Shadow DN8 as he was lapping the slower car. By the end of the season, however, he celebrated his first F1™ victory with a superb success in the Canadian GP at Montreal.
In 1979 Gilles was paired with Jody Scheckter and, armed with the superb Ferrari 312T4, added victories at Kyalami, Long Beach and Watkins Glen to his tally. From the start of the year he knew that he was cast in the supporting role to Scheckter, so when it came to following Jody round at Monza, knowing that he only had to overtake his colleague to win the world championship, Gilles’s integrity ensured that he held position and never tried to breach team orders by attempting to pass.
This dynamic young charger eventually paid the price for his dauntless driving style, crashing to his death practising for the 1982 Belgian GP at Zolder, going to his grave suffused with anger after being double-crossed by his team-mate Didier Pironi who himself had won the San Marino GP ahead of Villeneuve – and in breach of team orders – a fortnight before.