Where to start with Gilles? An iconic and immensely popular driver and man; the father of 1997 World Champion Jacques, and arguably the most exciting driver ever to step foot in Formula One, let alone Maranello. A talent taken away from us way too soon, someone who was ballsy enough to bang wheels with fellow drivers at immense speed in cars that were fragile and had little regard for safety, as he unfortunately found out at Zolder in 1982.
In his early career Gilles raced snowmobiles, which helped his money problems, his reactions and honed his incredible car control. He then move to single seaters went on to dominate the Quebec regional Formula Ford championship, winning 7 races before spending 4 seasons in Formula Atlantic taking the Canadian and American titles.
Finally, in 1977 at the age of 27, Villeneuve got his chance in F1, driving for McLaren, making his début at the British Grand Prix. But due to car troubles, he finished 11th. McLaren decided not to sign him on for 1978, and after a recommendation, Enzo Ferrari came calling. After a disastrous test at Fiorano, Ferrari kept faith in him, and he drove for them after Niki Lauda quit the team. But his spectacular style caused tragedy at the Japanese Grand Prix, he clashed with Ronnie Peterson sending his car into an out of bounds spectator spot, injuring ten and killing two.
In 1978, he stayed with Ferrari, but the car’s reliability let him down, leading to calls for him to be sacked. He did however become the first Canadian to win his home Grand Prix at the track later named after him. In 1979, he was joined by the South African Jody Scheckter. This was his most spectacular year, shall we say…At the French Grand Prix at Dijon he battled with René Arnoux for the lead, banging wheels, drifting round numerous corners and even going off the track, for second place, not even a win. This truly showed Gilles’ never say die attitiude and fighting spirit. Needless to say he got his second place. At the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, he picked up a puncture and spun out. But he started the car back up, reversed and went on his way for a whole lap. With three wheels. And of course, there was the US Grand Prix, where he reportedly set a time 11 SECONDS faster than his nearest rival, which was World Champion Scheckter.
For the next two years, he struggled with 2 dogs of cars. Yet still managed to win 2 races in 1981, with massive throttle lag, not good around Monaco, where obviously he won.
1982 though was different. There were to be no spectacular drives, no wins. Just a clash with team-mate Didier Pironi and an horrendous start to the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.
At the final stages of qualifying, Gilles held sixth position, and was on his way back to the pits where he came across Jochen Mass. He smashed into the back of the March and was catapulted from his somersaulting car. He died that evening.
A tragic end of a shining light in Formula 1, and he will forever remain one of the sport’s favourite sons.