Gilles Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, a Canadian city in the province of Québec, on January 18, 1950, to Seville Villeneuve and Georgette Coupal. From an early age, Gilles proved to be a smart, courageous and very competitive kid, so much so that he felt he had to be the best at whatever he tried, even with older kids. As soon as he turned nine he began to take an interest in vehicles, driving first the van and then the family car.
During his adolescence, after having obtained his driver's license, the passion for engines grows in the heart of this French-Canadian boy, and he sees a succession of cars that create a certain notoriety in his neighborhood, between speeding and some organized races in its city streets. At the age of seventeen, he became increasingly interested in magazines dealing with cars and racing and was delighted to read the magazines illustrating European motoring, in particular Formula 1.
Unfortunately, Gilles, who grew up in a poor family, does not have the necessary finances to compete and is limited only to seeing his myths run wild; but since he starts using a snowmobile, a practical means of transport used in Canadian places invaded by snow, everything changes. For him the snowmobile becomes a real motor vehicle that he uses to race, and later to compete in some races organized by snowmobile manufacturers in which he wins immediately and differs from his opponents for his unconscious courage and his immense skills, much to be able even to juggle opponents who owned more high-performance snowmobiles than his.
In a very short time Gilles refines a sensibility of majestic driving, which allows him to better balance the means with which he races, and makes himself known more and more in racing environments. At eighteen he gets a Skiroule snowmobile gift with which he wins numerous races, and in the following year he is hired as a pilot-mechanic by the same Skiroule company. But later he decides to break the agreement because he is eager to participate in more prestigious races, such as the American ones. And so he was offered the opportunity by Motoski, another snowmobile brand, which entrusted him with machines, technical assistance and money to participate in the races. Gilles in 1971 after becoming champion in Québec, becomes world champion for the 440cc category.
During 1970, Gilles married Joanna, a French-Canadian girl he met at a party, with whom he decided to live together in a small motorhome (while remaining close to the family), with whom he had a son, Jacques, born in 1971. Despite his commitments that he has in his private life, Gilles decides to entrust Joanna with the task of managing everything, as he is busy working with his snowmobiles, with which he becomes the Québec champion again, winning almost all the races, except for those cases in which accuses of mechanical problems that prevent him from finishing the race.
In 1972, thanks to the help of a French technician, Gilles enrolled at the Jim Russell driving school in Mont Tremblant and testing Formula Ford cars for the first time proved to be much stronger than all the other students in all the tests carried out, even in the wet, leaving the instructor delighted. Gilles immediately obtained his driver's license, and having been fascinated by these sensitive and easy-to-handle cars, he managed to get an old car, with which he took part in the Formula Ford championship in Québec. In this case he becomes the protagonist by winning seven out of ten races, obtaining the title as a rookie and being recognized for his unscrupulous and spectacular driving style, which compensates for the performance gap of his car compared to the rivals.
The following year Gilles repeats himself and gets another Formula Ford Québec title. Meanwhile, a little girl arrives at Joanna, Mélanie, but at an economic level the family is in crisis due to too many debts, despite Gilles continuing to win with snowmobiles and in Formula Ford, also battling against already internationally established drivers.
Gilles doesn't care about his debts, being too hungry for racing: the Canadian driver now sets his sights on more prestigious competitions. The big step is to reach Formula Atlantic, the highest competition existing in Canada, and Gilles somehow manages to take part in it: he concludes an agreement with Kris Harrison, owner of Écurie Canada, who supplies him with two March chassis and several Ford engines, in exchange for a large sum of money, which is between 50.000 and 70.000 dollars.
To raise the money, Gilles decides to sell his mobile home, forcing the family to move in with him on a trailer. Thanks also to the help of some sponsors, despite the young Canadian destroying both frames entrusted to him in the pre-season tests, the team participates in the 1974 championship. On the first date in Westwood he obtained an encouraging third place, after recovering many positions.
After Gimli, Gilles achieved an excellent sixth time in qualifying, but was forced to abandon the race due to an engine problem. In Mosport, qualifying proves difficult, but in the race Gilles proves to be the most spectacular with his driving at the limit; however, in an instant he ends up against a guard rail and breaks his leg, which forces him, dryly, to return home.
The recovery takes several weeks and Gilles returns to compete in a race in Halifax, but due to too much pain he is unable to finish the race; at the Trois-Rivières circuit he has to retire immediately due to the spin of a driver in front of him, ending a season negatively conditioned by the broken leg, which does not allow him to push as he wants in the last few races. The sporting balance only sees the third place obtained at the beginning of the year as the best result.
For the following season Gilles does not find an agreement with Harrison, but manages to find a solution with his former team Skiroule, which sponsors him in the new championship. On board a Ford-powered March, the French-Canadian driver manages to participate in the 1975 Formula Atlantic season, even if conditioned by a team poor in money and in the materials necessary to compete with the other teams, much more equipped and organized.
The debut in Edmonton is not extraordinary, with the fifteenth place obtained; in the race following Westwood Gilles is able to finish fifth in the race, but the highest moment of this season goes to Gimli. After suffering mechanical problems in qualifying that forced him to start far behind, Sunday presents a perfect battleground for Gilles: a track flooded with water, where he can demonstrate all his worth as a driver. And in fact, he makes a great comeback, characterized by his inimitable courage to put his opponents, facing the terrible conditions of the circuit without fear. Gilles finds his first success in Formula Atlantic; a victory obtained with his driving skills, which in the end prevailed on the best performances of the cars of the opponents, in bad visibility conditions.
For the rest of the season the Canadian continues to demonstrate all his extraordinary qualities; in St. Jovite after starting fourth he ends second in the race, while he is more unlucky in the next two races in Mosport and Halifax. He closes the championship fifth, collecting two podiums and an amazing victory in Gimli; it is necessary to underline the great performance obtained in Trois-Rivières, a race not valid for the championship, where he obtained the third time in qualifying, fighting against more established and renowned names at European level, such as those of Brambilla, Jarier and Depailler. In the race, Gilles chases after the leader Jarier, but due to problems with the braking system he loses ground and eventually has to abandon the race.
In the winter season the young Canadian also takes part in snowmobile races, obtaining amazing results: out of thirty-six races Gilles wins thirty-two, only once he comes second, while in the remaining three races he is forced to retire due to mechanical failures.
In the 1975 season can be considered Gilles' best season in terms of results, which finally allow him to recover from an economic situation in crisis until a few months earlier and above all make him gain an important reputation, which allows him to receive numerous offers from many teams that require it. Even the same Skiroule promises the boy economic support for the following season, but in the end the agreement reaches him with Ècurie Canada: the decisive pawn that allows this is Ray Wardell, an English technician who had worked with Lauda and Peterson, who finds in Gilles a born champion. In addition, the team runs with only one car, entrusted only to Gilles, who thus finds total support from the compatriot team.
Before the start of the new Formula Atlantic season, the Canadian takes part in the 24 Hours of Daytona, driving a Chevrolet Camaro, in conjunction with Maurice Carter. Despite the total inexperience with the car and a circuit that he does not know, Gilles is able to be faster than his teammate, but unfortunately they are forced to retire due to engine failure. Ray Wardell will become in the course of 1976 a fundamental person for the professional growth of Gilles, helping him to understand the mechanisms to better prepare a car, naturally observing every single detail of the configuration of a track.
The British coach is amazed to learn about Gilles' unusual behavior. For example, in the first round of Formula Atlantic the two rent a car to study the track and the French-Canadian driver uses it in his own way: driving at the limit, almost reckless, with a continuous skidding at every corner. Wardell understands that he is facing a driver with an amazing sensitivity, able to always touch the limit with any car in hand:
"Gilles is aware of his limits, which are different from those of a normal rider, and is ready to reach them more often".
The 1976 Formula Atlantic season opens at Road Atlanta where Gilles dominates both practice and race, finishing thirteen seconds ahead of runner-up Tom Pumpelly. The next race at Laguna Seca Gilles is repeated, and this time he wins with even a minute ahead of Elliott Forbes-Robinson. In Ontario, third weekend of the season, Gilles wins pole position, victory and fastest lap; he also gets the same full result in Edmonton.
In the Westwood race Gilles faces the first setback after a total domination in the first four races: after obtaining the pole position, the French-Canadian, while managing the command of the race, goes off the track with his March due to the malfunction of the carburetor, which suddenly stops the work of the thruster, leaving it on foot.
An inconvenience that certainly does not stop Gilles' golden moment, a talent that now no longer goes unnoticed even in Europe, from which an invitation arrives, which the Canadian does not miss: Ron Dennis gives Gilles the opportunity to drive a Formula 2 March. A possibility for a few, because Gilles understands that it could be the proof of life to be able to avoid the ranks, made up of numerous categories, to make the leap towards Formula 1. But getting closer to an objectively more real reason, this race can help Gilles to highlight his talent even more.
However, the weekend disputed in Pau, France, turns out to be unfortunate: after setting an excellent tenth time in qualifying, with a car he knows little about on a track he has never raced on, Gilles climbs back during the race, always with his aggressive driving, up close to the top six, competing against opponents who would soon become famous in the higher category, such as Arnoux, Laffite, Tambay and Cheever. But unluckily the Canadian is forced to retire due to the engine overheating. Franco Lini, Autosprint correspondent, describes the day of testing as follows:
"However this race goes, we will immediately point out an interesting fact: he made his debut in Europe, and also in Formula 2, a young Canadian named Gilles Villeneuve. He had never been in a car like this, he did not know the circuit at all, and he is in tenth place on the time scale. His is a real feat, which intrigued us, of course. We are told that he is very good at home, that he has won four of the five Formula Atlantic races he has participated in. We believe he is a potential sample".
Still Lini dedicates, despite leaving the scene during the race, a large part of the article, about the report of the race, to the young Gilles, even accompanied by an image of him:
"We couldn't see, in this race, what Canadian Villeneuve would have been able to do. It is certain that this young man is very good, given that he did remarkable things during practice. For someone who comes from a less powerful formula, that He runs for the first time in Europe, making his debut on a difficult circuit like Pau and who had never been on the March, the results were very good. In the race, however, he had only a flash, when in the first laps he managed to overtake Giancarlo Martini. Then a pipe in the cooling circuit broke and the engine temperatures rose to too high limits. He stopped but did not discover anything abnormal, and they attributed the phenomenon to a failure of the thermometer, but after a couple of laps he had to see that there was really something serious, and before breaking the engine he preferred to abandon".
After a few months Gilles will have the opportunity to make up for this unfortunate race, but, in the meantime, it is time to focus on Formula Atlantic and in Gimli the Canadian returns to obtain pole position and then the fifth victory out of six seasonal races. But after this success the problems return: the team no longer has enough money to let Gilles participate in the next race. The Canadian driver is rightly angry, also for the fact that the organizers have no interest in raising Gilles' salary for his participation, as well as being anxiously worried about being able to miss the last Canadian and American stages, decisive for the conquest. of the two championships.
On this occasion, an American businessman and car racing enthusiast named John Lane comes to the rescue, who has joined the team who puts $ 25.000 on the table to buy the team's two cars. Lane, in addition to being impressed by Gilles' character, senses that if the two championships are successful, his Marches can become a coveted commodity and so uses his savings to allow Villeneuve to get back to racing. The next race is that of St. Jovite, and thanks to John Lane the team manages to participate. In free practice Gilles is the protagonist of an accident in which he reduces the car to pieces, but without the slightest fear he immediately decides to get into the reserve car and get back on track. In qualifying Gilles, despite a very tight fight, gets the pole position and in the race he dominates and wins, complete with a fastest lap. Gilles is explicit in the interviews about his way of approaching the season:
"Before the start of the season I was convinced of one thing: I would not be satisfied with winning the championship by dint of second and third places. I have always believed that the best way to achieve it would be to win all the races".
But another bad problem arises after the success of St. Jovite and it is the declaration of bankruptcy by the Skiroule, which forces Kris Harrison to sever all relations with motor racing. Once again Gilles and his team absolutely need to find more money as soon as possible. It takes $ 5.000 to take part in the last missing races of the season and this time financial help comes from a Montreal entrepreneur, Gaston Parent, who asks at all costs to meet him after hearing his story from a friend of Gilles who works with him, concerning his special character and his innate talent.
Parent sees in him a person confident of his means and decides to invest his finances in the team account. When asked by Gilles about the painting of the car, Parent replies that he has no intention of advertising himself and asks to paint the car white and to draw only the emblem of the lily, the symbol of Québec.
The following week Gilles obtained pole position, victory and fastest lap in Halifax, earning the Canadian championship title. The relationship between Villeneuve and Parent will continue in the future as well, with an agreement that provides for an outlay of money from the entrepreneur, later recovered by Gilles. The last race of Formula Atlantic is held in Road Atlanta where Gilles conquers pole, victory and fastest lap, also winning the American championship. But the best moment of the season, which we must tell, was the one that took place in the off-championship race at Trois-Rivières, two weeks before the race held at Road Atlanta. This automotive event has an international reach because numerous Formula 1 drivers participate and in the following edition we will be attended by the future World Champion James Hunt, Alan Jones, Vittorio Brambilla, Patrick Tambay and Patrick Depailler, among others. Gilles says it is important for him to win because the Trois-Rivières race attracts the interest of many European teams and foreign journalists.
Gilles always takes part in the race aboard the March, with teammates of the caliber of James Hunt and Patrick Depailler. In qualifying, the Canadian driver spun several times, also due to the excessive oversteer of his car, but nevertheless thrilled the public for his approach on the track.
His performance is also extraordinary: no one is as fast as him and in the end Gilles takes pole position. In the race he is no exception. Always making himself known to the public with his traverses at every corner and with another great performance, Gilles crossed the line first, winning the race ahead of Jones, Hunt and Brambilla. All the Canadian supporters are moved by the success of their compatriot and also the organizers are satisfied with the fact that Villeneuve is the winner, but above all the press underlines in particular how an almost unknown managed to beat more famous and famous drivers than him. Gilles speaks thus after the success of him:
"There are nine races in which we manage to get the victory, the credit goes equally to the director Ray Wardell and to the mechanics of Ècurie Canada who for their dedication and the work done were able to give me a really effective vehicle. It is obvious that, at least as far as Formula 1 drivers are concerned, if they had had all those hours I spent in this car on their shoulders, things would certainly have been different".
The young Canadian proves to be truly humble and modest in his words, but it is fair to reiterate how he was superior to everyone in the way he drove, in his precision and in overtaking. It is true that unlike his rivals Gilles certainly knew the car he was driving better, but he would not have gone unnoticed in this race with its great qualities, and in the end winning the race and beating opponents considered more experienced than him confirmed his unique talent.
The one who is particularly impressed by this great performance is James Hunt, who speaks highly of it as soon as he returns to England. The English driver also clearly exposes himself to the manager Marlboro, main sponsor of the McLaren team:
"I have just been defeated by this Villeneuve. He is really extraordinary, you would do well to sign him".
Gilles meets McLaren owner Teddy Mayer at Watkins Glen during the weekend of the United States Grand Prix, immediately showing his strong and outspoken character. The second meeting takes place in England, where McLaren offers Gilles a contract for 1977, in which he would make his debut in Great Britain, raced in Canada and in the United States, and at the same time he would compete in some Formula 2 races for 25.000 dollars, with a possible option for 1978.
The French-Canadian driver immediately accepted the agreement which was made official in December 1976, and also agreed with Gaston Parent to be his manager. Gilles' 1977 begins with his first experience in South Africa, where he runs four Formula Atlantic races. In the opening race in Johannesburg, Gilles crashes in qualifying and is forced to start at the bottom of the starting grid. But the next day he is the author of an extraordinary race, recovering up to the third position. This will be the best result, given that in the other three races Gilles will earn only a fifth place, in addition to two retirements, one of which was caused by an accident between him and Ian Scheckter in Cape Town, in which the cars catch fire, but the pilots come out unscathed.
Back in Canada he decides to face another season of Formula Atlantic, where Direct Film would sponsor him. Unfortunately, the young Canadian remains without his technical director Wardell, who supported him so much, who moved on to other activities.
This season of Formula Atlantic proves to be of a high standard, as the drivers who take part in it are of great quality, and Gilles above all finds himself a very combative opponent on his way: Keke Rosberg, a Finnish driver who comes from excellent racing races in Europe Northern. Already in the first race in Mosport, in qualifying Rosberg is third while Gilles gets pole position, but it is in the first laps of the race that the two are protagonists of an extraordinary duel: at the start the Finn passes in front of Gilles, who however reacts immediately putting himself in the wake of his opponent.
The two often come into contact and on the fourth lap they run side by side rubber to rubber towards one of the climbs of the circuit. In this circumstance, however, both Villeneuve and Rosberg drift, almost overturn, but somehow manage to resume the race, even if it is the Canadian who has the worst because he is forced to return to the pits due to a damaged wheel, ending spun just before returning due to too much oversteer, falling behind the group. Gilles furiously recovered the classification and finished second, behind Price Cobb, obtaining the fastest lap and signing an incredible comeback race.
In the next race run in Gimli, Gilles, due to an engine failure, was unable to finish the race. But it is in Edmonton that Gilles and Keke Rosberg are the protagonists of an extraordinary battle, with the two colliding several times on the track making the whole audience enthusiastic. Rosberg was following Gilles from the start, but the Canadian due to an error allowed the Finnish driver to join him in a corner and once again collided, ending both off the track. In the end, Gilles triumphs.
The French-Canadian driver faces another new adventure the following week, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series. The way in which he gets there is particular and it all starts with the retirement from competitions announced by Chris Amon, a driver who races with Walter Wolf's team. The New Zealand pilot communicates his intent to Gaston Parent, a great friend of Wolf's, and leaves his position vacant. The businessman from Montreal suggests the name of his protégé, Villeneuve, and Wolf immediately accepts. Thus, after a quick agreement Gilles is a new Walter Wolf Racing driver, who is entrusted with a Dallara Chevrolet, and the whole team will be at his complete disposal.
Gilles makes his debut in the Can-Am championship at Watkins Glen: the Canadian driver has fun right from the start because he is free from pressure and is excited to be able to drive these new cars that are particularly nervous and difficult to manage. In official practice Gilles sets the fourth time and in the first laps of the race he manages to get to third place, but after six laps he has to abandon the race due to the breakdown of the gearbox.
During the season the French-Canadian driver runs three more races in the Can-Am championship, but he is not lucky: in Mosport and Trois-Rivières he retires, while in Elkhart Lake he finishes third after starting first on the grid. But the week after the Watkins Glen race, precisely on July 16, 1977, Gilles Villeneuve takes part in his first Formula 1 Grand Prix, held in Great Britain, at the Silverstone circuit.
Before this weekend, the Canadian driver does not know the track best, as he sees it for the first time only a week earlier, during a day of testing organized by the English teams. Gilles is assisted by a group of mechanics; he has at his disposal a garage detached from the main one and is entrusted with a McLaren from the previous year of James Hunt. At first it took Gilles a long time to get to grips with the car and on numerous occasions he spun, almost everywhere.
At first, the spectators do not appreciate the Canadian's behavior, but in the course of practice they will soon understand what kind of driver they have in front of them. In fact, Gilles improves every lap, to the point of emulating the performance of the other drivers on the track, and this happens thanks to his effective method of car tuning: the Canadian tries to understand the limits of his car at every point of the track, and to do so he has to push it to the maximum. This is the reason for all the spins of him during the session.
Thanks to his working methodology, Gilles can quickly understand the speed of a Formula 1 single-seater. In this weekend, due to too many participants, it was decided to include pre-qualifications, in which the thirteen drivers who are not part of the SEAL. The Canadian repays the work done by scoring a better time than Patrick Tambay, which allows him to be promoted to the official qualification that will decide the starting grid.
Although Gilles is almost always counter-steering and therefore almost always at the limit, all this attracts more and more people who begin to stop on the circuit to observe him. During the official tests, he increasingly increases his mastery of the vehicle, and in turn also the times begin to be lower. At the end of the session the team is speechless: Villeneuve sets the ninth time, stopping not too far from the front row, a few tenths behind, even putting behind drivers from whom much more is expected, such as Ronnie Peterson and Jochen Mass, who also drives an official McLaren.
Villeneuve is once again the protagonist in the race, because he sets the best time in the warm up. At the start of the race, but above all as the laps go by, Gilles is able to keep up with the pace of the leading drivers. But then, suddenly, an unexpected situation arises. The water light comes on and at this point the Canadian can only go back to the pits. It takes a long time to understand that the water warning light is only broken and that Gilles can get back on track without any problems, but when he does, he unfortunately has two laps behind the head of the race as the group crosses the finish line. Correctly Gilles gives way to the leading riders and gets behind them, keeping the same race pace until the end and finishing eleventh, getting the fifth best lap time.
Despite the bad luck Gilles is happy with his performance, and observing the pace he managed to maintain throughout the race, it can be seen that without any unexpected events he would have finished fourth. The young Canadian was awarded the Driver of the Day award, and took home numerous compliments and positive reviews from the press and some drivers. James Hunt confirms the thought of him, which he had already expressed the previous year after the Trois-Rivières race:
"One of the encouraging things, however, was Gilles Villeneuve's excellent performance in the first outing at Silverstone, and with a Formula 1 car. I remember I raced against him - and lost - last year in Canada at Trois-Rivières, and that I was very impressed with his obvious talent and his way of approaching racing so professionally. He was immediately quick in testing behind the wheel of my M23 last year, and he expressed himself very constructively in his comments about the performance of the car. I have long believed, and I have often repeated, that either you have the ability to drive a Formula 1 car or you don't. The performance of Villeneuve and Patrick Tambay, who made an impressive first exit, validate this theory. There are people who are reasonably successful in other formulas, but who could race in Formula 1 for a long time without success".
John Watson, a Brabham driver, also has very good words towards the Canadian:
"I believe that French driver Patrick Tambay did a good job with his Ensign on his first outing in a Grand Prix. But the extraordinary result of the race was that of Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve. For the first time at the wheel of a Formula 1 he qualified ninth in James Hunt's old car, and in the race he was in seventh place, before he pitted due to overheating. The problem was only in the indicator, and evidently Teddy Mayer told him to get back on track and not to worry. He was back in the race and kept in contact with the treads, especially Lauda. I think he impressed in two places, his speed control and the car and the fact that he was able to observe the instruments in this lockout battle, and that he made the decision to return to the pits to save the engine. Most team leaders would be delighted if their drivers watched the instruments, not to talk. and then to make a decision like that. Gilles is a man who has a future ahead of him and I think McLaren is happy to have found him".
During August 1977, after the great race held at Silverstone, the first rumours began to spit out about a possible interest of Ferrari in Villeneuve, who however has a contract with McLaren and is waiting to run another Grand Prix. In the meantime, however, Gilles returns to Canada to face other commitments, starting with Formula Atlantic where he is fourth in the championship. In the Halifax race he returns to conquer the pole position, but in the race he does not realize the excellent result of Saturday: on the twentieth lap, in an attempt to pass Cobb, he is the victim of a violent accident in which he overturns, but then returns in the right direction and fortunately he remains unharmed.
A retirement that significantly reduces Villeneuve's chances of winning the title. In the San Félicien race Gilles is again the fastest in qualifying, and in the race he dominates from start to finish, taking home the success. Luck assists him, because none of the four rivals in front of him in the standings is able to finish the race and all this allows the Canadian to forcefully return to the fight for the championship, shortening the disadvantage towards the leader Brack to only three lengths. The following week Gilles flies to Mosport to participate in the Molson 6 Hours, and the following day to a Can-Am race.
In the race of the covered wheels, valid for the Marche championship, Gilles shares a BMW 320i with Eddie Cheever: both run a race of this kind for the very first time. In qualifying, due to a transmission shaft failure, the mechanics are forced to change the oil conductors and the tank, which ends up touching the ground. The two rookies start eleventh, and during the race they rise steadily, leading a clean and brilliant race up to an amazing third place, while in the following Can-Am race the Canadian driver retires. In the following weeks there is a lot of talk about drivers and contracts in Formula 1, with Gilles being discarded by Teddy Mayer for a place in McLaren for 1978, to whom the French Patrick Tambay who will replace Jochen Mass is preferred.
But soon another surprising news arrives, the farewell of Niki Lauda from Ferrari. The seat remains vacant and Gilles is contacted for an interview with the same management of Ferrari, which takes place on August 29, 1977. Gilles was in Enzo Ferrari's intentions since the beginning of the year, to the point that he had proposed to Walter Wolf to hire him to give him experience before taking him to Maranello, and then deciding to hire him regardless of Lauda's self-exclusion.
The young man is surprised that Ferrari has been thinking of him for several months as a replacement for an established champion such as Niki Lauda, and explains to the Commendatore how he still has an option with McLaren for 1978 which still binds him to the English team. But Enzo Ferrari reassured him by saying that he would surely have solved this problem. Meanwhile Gilles is racing in the last Can-Am race of the season, held in Trois-Rivières, but again he is unlucky as he retires with an engine problem. The penultimate Formula Atlantic race (not valid for the championship) also runs in Trois-Rivières, where Gilles, who started from pole position, made mistakes during the race and finished only fourth.
During the month of September the rumours that see him as the main candidate to get the place in Ferrari, left empty by Lauda, become more and more insistent, but together with him the names of Jody Scheckter and Mario Andretti are also proposed. Gilles runs his last Formula Atlantic race at the end of September, on the Québec City track, obtaining third place in testing. On this occasion the Canadian obtained the victory and the title of Formula Atlantic champion for the second consecutive year. A superlative season for him, because in twenty-five races in which he takes part he wins almost half of them, and for Gilles the adventure in the Formula Atlantic championship ends.
The reason is simple: as mentioned, there are many names that are made as possible candidates for the replacement of Lauda, but Enzo Ferrari and the management opt for Gilles, who receives words of reassurance from Teddy Mayer that he will soon have the release. to allow the Canadian to race for another team. Gilles, in the company of his manager Gaston Parent, arrives in Italy on Tuesday September 27, 1977, and in the late evening he meets Enzo Ferrari, with whom he signs the contract that binds him to the Maranello team until the end of the 1977 season, with an option for 1978. Gilles spends the night in a hotel in Modena and the following day, at 9:00 am in the morning, he is taken to Maranello in the racing department, where the seat and pedal are tested, and then passes through the gates of the Fiorano circuit at 2:00 pm, to take part in its first test.
Gilles takes to the track in the Ferrari 312 T: the first laps are very slow, and after a short time he returns to the pits to receive instructions from the engineer Mauro Forghieri. When he gets back on track, Gilles constantly starts to increase the pace, delaying the braking more and more and lowering his times, despite a small spin, perhaps dictated by too much enthusiasm. The times are at 1'18", while after about half an hour he stops for the second time and returns to the track. Confidence with the car improves more and more, times drop to 1'16"; another stop and another relaunch on the track with times that drop to 1'15". After 4:00 pm, after another stop, Gilles completed six laps and set the best time of the session, 1'14"38.
The journalists, eager to meet the newcomer, are received and Gilles is available to everyone: the French-Canadian driver returns to the track again to make some laps, and at 18:00 the stop signal is given from the pits. Gilles thus ends his first day as an official Ferrari driver, unaware of the fact that it would be the beginning of the adventure that would make him definitively known in the eyes of all fans of this sport. In the morning of the following day he works to improve the cockpit and then he gets back on track. After a brief warm-up, Gilles improves the time recorded the day before, reaching a pace between 1'13 and 1'14, thanks to a determined driving that violently stresses the engine and brakes. After sixty laps the best time is a clear 1'13. Gilles speaks thus after the end of the two days of testing at Fiorano:
"A very beautiful track. In some places it has considerable difficulties and requires a lot of effort. I can't wait to be able to go back to work and get to know the car as soon as possible. All the equipment available makes the work easier. well impressed. Today I started pulling, we can do much better but I need work. The steering is light and precise, the engine is powerful and the gearbox is the thing that most interested me".
Despite the unfavorable opinion of the press and many of his advisers, Enzo Ferrari is proud and satisfied with his choice after Gilles' first day of testing:
"He is a driver used to racing with very powerful cars, you can see from the way he enters the corners that he knows how to do it. We must not make hasty judgments, we will see how he will behave in the next few days. He needs to be able to work a lot since he has to make his debut at the Canadian Grand Prix. Before choosing I had collected precise information from different sources, and I had had the opportunity to make a complete picture of the situation".
In the United States Grand Prix, held at Watkins Glen, Gilles is present in the Ferrari garage and says he is satisfied with the tests carried out at Fiorano, while Lauda is much less so who would not even want to race in Japan and would not like the presence of a third car planned in Canada. Another person who releases words in favor of Gilles is Chris Amon, happy with the signing of the Canadian driver by Scuderia Ferrari:
"He has tremendous natural talent and boundless enthusiasm. Right now he's still spinning a lot, but it's just a matter of finding his limits. His car control is amazing, and I think he's a tremendously brave driver. He'll fly, behind the wheel of a Ferrari. He is lucky to move in with them, but Ferrari is also lucky to have him under contract".
Gilles returns after a few months to participate in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but from this time on he will do so only and exclusively with Ferrari. The Formula 1 championship arrives in Canada, in Mosport, for the penultimate stage of the 1977 world championship of which Niki Lauda is already world champion. Ferrari decides to bring three cars to the Canadian track; together with Lauda and Reutemann also Gilles runs. But the Austrian World Champion, who has been experiencing rather cold relations with the team for some time, decides not to even participate in the tests, because he does not feel capable of winning and therefore only two Ferrari drivers remain.
In Friday qualifying Gilles gets the seventeenth time, remaining very far from pole, but close enough to the performance of his teammate Reutemann, but receives some criticisms about an accident that sees him involved towards the end of the tests; Gilles collides with the wall and then loses the car in a spin, damaging both the nose and the rear wing.
Due to the rain on Saturday nobody can improve, and the starting grid remains the same as on Friday. In the race, Gilles recovers up to eighth position, but due to a slick of oil left by Mario Andretti's car after the engine failure, Vittorio Brambilla slides over it, and behind him Gilles must avoid him. But to do this he ends up against the inside guardrail of the curve, breaking the transmission. The young Canadian comes out of the cockpit crying after a fairly clean session, while journalists are divided between those who have a good impression and those who think the opposite.
In the last round of the 1977 Formula 1 World Championship, held in Japan, Ferrari lined up only Gilles Villeneuve and Carlos Reutemann, as Niki Lauda communicated his unavailability. In qualifying, the Canadian driver does not feel comfortable with the car and does not go beyond the twentieth time, with a clear gap from his teammate Reutemann: Gilles is sorry, and does not rest easy for this strange result. Therefore he will try to make up for it in the race.
The start of the race is good, so much so that Gilles, taking advantage of some collisions in the early stages of the race, climbs back to fifteenth position. But during the sixth lap, at the end of the straight at the finish line Gilles joins Ronnie Peterson before the braking, but the Swede is positioned centrally on the track so as not to give the Canadian driver a chance to attack and starts braking a little earlier.
Gilles is surprised by his maneuver and with his Ferrari ends up taking off on the right rear wheel of the Tyrrell, landing on the lawn at the edge of the track, mowing down some spectators present on the track, in a prohibited area: two people lose their lives.
The two pilots involved in the collision are unharmed, but will be summoned by local law enforcement to explain what happened. On the occasion, Gilles is helped by Jochen Mass, who explains to the Japanese police that the people present on the track could not stop in an area closed to the public.
Right from the start, the responsibility for this accident is centred on Gilles Villeneuve, but of course we must also recognize the bad organization of the Grand Prix, with people who were positioned in a place where they certainly didn't have to be. A severe blow on a psychological level for Gilles who has not already received much approval after the episode that took place in Canada in the first official tests, and this situation which occurred in Japan gives the opportunity to part of the press and also to some insiders to attack and criticize him. Back in Maranello, Franco Gozzi has the parts of the car photographed in the forecourt of the factory, to then prove the damage done to the Italian newspaper Autosprint.
This is how Gilles' 1977 season ends, and precisely because of the Fuji accident with Peterson he will be given the nickname of Aviator, even if the Canadian pilot will never appreciate this nickname. The many voices that want Gilles away from Ferrari after the end-of-season episodes do not make the Modena manufacturer change his mind, who will try in every way to convince the public of his choice, also going against logic, and in the end decides to keep Villeneuve for the following season, flanked by the Argentine Reutemann. The rest of Gilles’s career at Ferrari will be a real love story between him and the Italian fans, who will fall in love with him. Many remember him as a madman, but not in a negative sense. His life is a book, and every deed of him a chapter to tell.
"For Gilles there was only racing".
Engineer Forghieri will say about him: that's how it is, Gilles cannot remain without running, without having a steering wheel in his hands, the accelerator pedal under his right foot and the gear lever. Just the engineer Forghieri, during the 1979 season, recovering some waste components, will produce with his mechanics a semi-automatic gearbox operated by two buttons positioned on the steering wheel of the Ferrari 312 T3, but Gilles, despite the good chronometric results, will not approve this new system, feeling much more comfortable using the lever.
During his militancy in Ferrari, the Canadian driver will make himself known for what he is, and for what he is capable of: spectacle, overtaking and defenses that go beyond physics, frightening accidents, out-of-the-ordinary feats, ingenuity, courage, swagger.
1978 will be a year of transition for Villeneuve: the new 312 T3 will be a car conditioned by the uncertain use of the new Michelin tires, and driving at the limit characterized by traversing out of corners will certainly not help Gilles this season. In the first race of the season in Argentina, the new Ferrari 312 T3s suffer from serious tire wear problems. Gilles, who started from seventh position, came eighth behind his teammate Reutemann, but found the satisfaction of taking the fastest lap.
In Brazil, the Ferraris are proving to be competitive, but while Reutemann is leading the race, Gilles is sixth and battles with Peterson to gain fifth position, until, on lap fifteenth, he tries to overtake inside, at the end of the straight. finish line: however, they both force brakes and end up in the sand. The Canadian manages to return to the pits, but loses a lot of ground and in the end the retirement comes mid-race. Peterson will criticize this maneuver by the Canadian driver, who had already hit him the year before at Fuji.
In South Africa Villeneuve precedes Reutemann in qualifying for the first time, finishing just ahead of the Argentine in eighth position, but also on this occasion in the race he retires due to an oil leak. But then in the United States, on the Long Beach street circuit, Gilles is the protagonist and finally demonstrates his great potential: already in qualifying he is second behind Reutemann, but at the start the Argentine driver is touched by Watson and is forced to widen the trajectory, allowing Gilles to pass them both and to take the lead in the race.
The pace imposed by the Canadian driver allows him to increase the advantage over his pursuers, but on lap 38 he finds himself in front of Clay Regazzoni to lap. Gilles, perhaps too hasty, decides to pass him in the most tortuous part of the circuit, trying to overtake on the inside, but a misunderstanding leads the Canadian pilot to hit the Swiss pilot taking off above the Shadow, grazing Regazzoni's head and finishing his own race against the wall, throwing to the wind a probable victory that would have silenced the many skeptics of him.
Instead, as happened with Peterson in Brazil, Gilles receives numerous criticisms, including Regazzoni himself and much of the Italian press. Even in Monte Carlo Gilles retires due to an accident caused by a puncture, but the performance is quite anonymous and even in this circumstance criticism of him rains down.
In Belgium, a light seems to open for Gilles in this complicated season, marked by few exaltations and many criticisms. After the fourth time set in qualifying, at the start of the race the Canadian driver climbs to second place, taking advantage of some problems of Reutemann. For some time, Gilles stays behind Andretti, but due to a puncture and the breaking of the nose he is forced to a long stop in the pits, which makes him drop in the standings up to sixth place. He finishes the race fourth, with a comeback, taking his first championship points in Formula 1.
The subsequent races are fairly anonymous for Gilles, but the blame is attributable to the anomalous wear of the Michelin tires, and the 312 T3 which accuses grip and understeer problems. In Spain, Sweden and France Villeneuve ends the race outside the points. In Great Britain, while his teammate Reutemann wins by taking advantage of many retirements, Gilles has to abandon due to the breakdown of the transmission.
In the following period rumors of a possible arrival of Jody Scheckter from Wolf, and the main suspect to leave Scuderia Ferrari is Gilles Villeneuve, according to the Italian press. Subsequently, the agreement for the acquisition of the South African seems to be close, but Ferrari is postponing the official announcement. During the German Grand Prix, Ferrari continues to suffer from tire problems both in qualifying and in the race, and Gilles finishes eighth.
In Austria, however, the rain not only shuffles the cards on the table, but favors the Michelin-rubbered teams. The race is remembered for being composed of two segments, in which the ranking will be decided by the sum of the times of the two parts. Gilles makes a great race, also finding himself leading in the lead for a few laps, until, after the tire change, the Canadian rider returns to the track behind the leader Peterson, and shortly after is overtaken by Depailler due to tire problems. Nonetheless, Gilles manages to take his first podium in Formula 1, thanks to an excellent third place.
After this excellent result, Lotus raises interest in him because it is looking for a young driver to hire; the French-Canadian driver is also the protagonist of a good weekend in Holland, where he gets a fifth time trial in qualifying and then a sixth place in the race, taking other world championship points.
During the weekend relating to the Italian Grand Prix, Reutemann was hired by Lotus, while Villeneuve, now judged to be competitive maturity, was confirmed at Ferrari for the 1979 season, alongside the new signing Scheckter. Gilles repays his trust in him by winning second place in qualifying, alongside Mario Andretti, just two tenths faster than him. The race, remembered mainly for the accident of Ronnie Peterson, saw a sumptuous performance by Gilles, who at the second start is ahead of the whole group. But his race is conditioned by a one-minute penalty assigned by the judges for an early start, the same thing for Andretti too. The American overtakes the Canadian with only five laps to go, and despite the second place obtained on the track, the penalty does not allow him to go beyond seventh.
Villeneuve’s excellent moment continues also in the final stages of the season. At Watkins Glen Gilles starts fourth and after a good start to the race, taking advantage of the problems on Andretti's car, he climbs up to second place, behind his teammate Reutemann. However, he will be forced to stop on lap 21 due to a piston failure.
In Canada Gilles is the protagonist of another great performance. Already in the first official tests he is the best with the wet track, then falling to third place in the afternoon. On Sunday he makes an excellent race in which he overtakes Jones, Scheckter and finally, about twenty laps from the end, also the leader Jarier, going to win his first success in Formula 1, to the delight of him and all his supporters:
"I finally broke the ice; this victory was needed after so many disappointments for a year now. This is the happiest day of my life".
The 1978 season ended in a positive way for Gilles, who improved both in terms of performance and strategically over the course of the year. There were many mistakes at the start of the year that allowed journalists to criticize him heavily, but the Canadian did not break down and with hard work improved until he found his first success in the last race.
For the 1979 vintage, Gilles certainly arrives more prepared, with more experience and with a certain competitive maturity. Jody Scheckter is his new teammate, with several Formula 1 seasons behind him, some of which are at a high level. A friendship was born immediately between him and Gilles, despite the fact that they have two very different characters, both humanly and competitively. If Jody is the one who lately never goes over the top and always tries to bring home the result, Gilles is pure instinct, and when he's on the track he doesn't think too much about the mechanical parts of the car, but rather about winning the race and giving battle.
The two will be the protagonists of a fantastic season driving the Ferrari 312 T4: Gilles will give spectacle to the public with crazy deeds that will remain in the history of motoring, while Jody will take home the points for the world championship, but in the end the contribution of one it will be fundamental for the other's triumph. And their relationship will continue also in the following years; it is said that the two, since they live in Monte Carlo, will take turns driving a Ferrari 308 to reach Maranello, and the goal will be to try to always improve the travel time between the two cities.
A funny thing to think about it, but at the same time unconscious: in fact, on one occasion Gilles does not respect the stop of the Traffic Police, so much so that a chase takes place at insane speed until he is stopped and his license and super license to race is taken away. in Formula 1. Fortunately, everything is resolved thanks to the intervention of Enzo Ferrari. Another case in which you understand the relationship that has been created between Gilles and Jody will be after the terrible accident of Zolder in which the Canadian loses his life: it will in fact be Jody to warn Joanna, chartering a private plane to get to Belgium. Then, during the funeral, the South African will release words that more than anything else will testify to the sincere friendship between two real men:
"I will miss Gilles for two reasons: first, he was the fastest driver in motor racing history; second, he was the most genuine man I've ever met. But he hasn't left. The memory of what he did will be always here".
In the first two races of the 1979 season, Ferrari lined up the old 312 T3, awaiting the debut of the new 312 T4. In Argentina Gilles retires due to the failure of the engine, while in Brazil he crosses the finish line in fifth position ahead of Scheckter, but both are dubbed by the French Ligier, great revelations of this championship start. The debut of the 312 T4 arrives in South Africa, a car that is not aesthetically excellent, but which in terms of performance proves to be more competitive than the previous T3 thanks to the innovations brought by the technical department headed by engineer Forghieri, who carries out careful aerodynamic work always based on the objective of creating downforce for the single-seater, to which are added the precious work on the suspension and the characteristics of the twelve-cylinder engine which helps to lower the car's center of gravity.
All these characteristics allow the two Ferrari drivers to have a competitive car in their hands, so much so that they can compete for the world title. In Kyalami Gilles is preceded in qualifying by Jabouille alone, driving the Renault turbo. The race is conditioned by an interruption, after only two laps, due to the arrival of the rain. At the second restart the track is divided in two, with a part still wet and a part already dry. Gilles starts in front, having taken the lead when the race was interrupted, and fits rain tires, while Scheckter, second, decides to opt for dry tires.
Villeneuve makes the most of his tires and immediately increases his advantage over his teammate. On the fifteenth lap Gilles changed the tires and was passed by Scheckter, but the South African had to give him the leadership again after about forty laps, making the pit stop himself. Despite Jody's return in the final race, Gilles takes home the victory, the second of his career.
In the next race, run on the Long Beach street circuit, Gilles is the protagonist of another fantastic weekend, despite being the victim of an accident on the first lap of free practice that forces him to skip the entire session. In qualifying, Reutemann is ahead of everyone until Gilles, in his final attempt, asks to switch off the limiter on his engine. Satisfied, the Canadian snatches pole position on the last lap, although a few meters after the finish he feels vibrations and the transmission shaft gives way. In the race, despite a misunderstanding in the formation lap, then repeated a second time, Gilles leads the entire race in the lead, obtaining the victory and the fastest lap, earning his only Grand Chelem of his career in Formula 1.
A clear affirmation by the Canadian driver, who cancels the retirement suffered last edition, in which he was dominating and due to a misunderstanding with Regazzoni he ended up out. This success in Long Beach certifies many things even more: the maturity reached by Gilles in less than two years, the bet paid off by Enzo Ferrari, the explosion of a champion, the now inexorable growth of his fans, and the primacy in the drivers' championship.
"It wasn't a difficult win. I only pushed to the maximum in the first six laps. When I realized I had already cut everyone, I just kept a certain pace. Just a little understeer at the end, but the car went Overall, very well. I am very satisfied. It is very good to be at the top of the table, but it is too early to make ambitious projects. For the moment I will continue to live for the day".
Later Gilles also won the Race of Champions held at Brands Hatch, a race not valid for the Formula 1 Championship. After this excellent start to the season, in the following races Gilles was unable to collect points: in Spain, due to problems with brakes and tires closed seventh, while in Belgium, after a long and extraordinary comeback from last position, due to a contact at the start of the race, he found himself third with eight laps to go, but only a few hundred meters from the finish. at the entrance to the pit lane, he was forced to stop because he ran out of fuel and thus closed seventh again. Zolder's performance is formidable, and can be remembered as one of the best disputed by the Canadian driver, commented by engineer Forghieri as follows:
"Of course if Jim Clark had done a race like this, you would be exultant. In Villeneuve, at least clap his hands".
In Monte Carlo, Ferraris dominate in qualifying, with Gilles behind poleman Scheckter. In the race, the Canadian follows his team-mate, but unfortunately, he is forced to leave due to a transmission problem, allowing Scheckter to pass alone in the lead of the championship thanks to his second success of the season.
Then we go to France, to Dijon, and right here Gilles will write not only a historical page of his automotive career, but also a real pearl of this sport, a sporting miracle that remains indelible even today in the memory of Formula 1 fans. In qualifying, the Renault turbos proved to be the most competitive, but Gilles achieved an excellent third time.
In the race, the Canadian is the quickest at the start, immediately taking the lead. Despite a really consistent race he can do nothing against the return of Jabouille, who overtakes him on lap 47. A few laps from the end Villeneuve accuses of brake problems, so he must be careful of the rapprochement of the other Renault, that of Renè Arnoux, which instead accuses problems of fuel draft.
It is from this moment on that the most exciting duel in the history of Formula 1 takes place: at the start of the third to last lap Arnoux attacks Villeneuve at the end of the straight, with Gilles trying to resist on the outside, but the Frenchman successfully overtakes and seems to be able to outpace his opponent. But Villeneuve is capable, one lap later, of catching his wake on the straight and making an almost impossible attack, with smoking wheels, with an amazing braking, thus taking back second place.
On the last lap the battle breaks out with Arnoux who tries again to attack at the end of the straight, but Villeneuve courageously manages to resist outside the bend: then, for a few hundred meters the two opponents, wheel by wheel, they touch several times until it is Gilles who brings the last attack successfully. Eventually the Canadian came second, and Arnoux third.
The two opponents smile at the end of the race, knowing that they were the protagonists of a courageous and spectacular duel, which is by right one of the best feats ever seen in Formula 1. And perhaps not coincidentally one of the protagonists is Gilles, who despite having a car less performance than the Frenchman's Renault is able to fight hard, managing to maintain his position at the expense of Arnoux.
"Fear? Not even for a dream, it was a lot of fun".
Once again Gilles has come out simply for who he is: brave, combative and spectacular and the press of course extols him.
"Gilles was my greatest friend in Formula 1. We trusted each other blindly: only in this way was the legendary duel in Dijon in 1979 possible. That July 1st, in the last three laps, we touched five or six times at almost 300 km/h. It took very little to get hurt; instead we managed to start a correct battle precisely because we knew each other. I remember how it was now the side of my Renault all black due to contact with the wheels of the Ferrari of Gilles. I also remember that at a certain point, just before a braking, I managed to see Gilles' very concentrated face behind the helmet. I called him the acrobat, because he lived like a tightrope walker walking on the edge. he was aware of the danger that Formula 1 entailed. He had a lot of faith in those who built the single-seaters".
After this exciting race, Gilles does not repeat the same performances at Silverstone due to an anomalous decline in the competitiveness of his Ferrari, and even retires due to fuel problems, while Scheckter gets some precious points for the championship. In Germany the difficult moment of the team continues; in fact, in free practice Gilles broke the suspension due to an exit from the track, while in qualifying he was forced to use the forklift, due to a loss of engine power on his car, with which he conquered the ninth time. Despite a good first part of the race in which he managed to climb up to fifth position, Gilles was forced to a pit stop in the last stages of the race due to the breaking of the front wing, reaching only eighth at the finish, while his box-mate Scheckter still accumulates points thanks to a fourth place, consolidating his leadership in the drivers' standings.
In the Austrian Grand Prix Villeneuve makes a great start: from fifth position he jumps all the opponents in front of him, going to lead the race. But at the start of the fourth lap he suffers an attack from Alan Jones, who has a higher pace. During the race, both the Renault of Arnoux and Jabouille recovered the lost ground, overtaking Gilles in about three laps. But shortly after Jabouille retires due to a clutch failure, while Arnoux at the end of the race has to serve a stop in the pits to refuel, and so Gilles manages to climb up and close second, recovering points in the championship against Jody Scheckter, who arrived fourth at the finish.
In Holland another epic episode develops for Gilles, which will once again demonstrate his immense desire not to give up even in the face of reality. Gilles starts sixth and with a great sprint he immediately moves to second place behind Jones, while Scheckter, due to a clutch problem, ends up in the rear of the group.
During the race Gilles took the lead, while from the rear the teammate made a superb comeback that brought him back up to third position. But on lap 47 Jones is getting closer and closer to Gilles, and the latter is the victim of a spin at the exit of the new chicane, with the rear left tire slowly starting to deflate. The Canadian decides to continue, but after two laps the tire tears right on the finish line and at the first corner it goes off the track. Obviously, Gilles does not give up: he engages reverse gear, returns to the track and completes an entire lap on three wheels with his arm raised to warn the competitors of his technical problem, however endangering the safety of the other riders.
Along the way, the suspension of the affected wheel also gives way, which is dragged only by the brake pipes, leaving a sea of sparks on the asphalt. As soon as he reaches the pits, what happens is incredible: while the mechanics, including engineer Forghieri, observe that the damage is too serious, Gilles gets out of the car and asks if the car is repairable. But of course, it is impossible to make a quick repair so the Canadian driver is forced to retire, losing a possible placement. Scheckter, on the other hand, finishes second after a spectacular race, and takes home other precious points for the championship.
On this occasion there is no lack of criticism towards Villeneuve, considered dangerous in his guide: Mario Poltronieri, RAI commentator, defines Gilles' action as a youthful exuberance, while others define his gesture of wanting to continue at all costs as meaningless. his ride, even with a sagging tire and a literally destroyed suspension. Still others speak of a useless and dangerous gesture. However, the memory that will remain after this crazy race of Gilles is the spirit of spirit, because even in the face of a destroyed suspension that remained attached to the car only thanks to the hydraulic cables of the braking system, the Canadian driver showed his desire to never give up.
The next race takes place in Italy, on the Monza circuit, another chapter in his career that smells of romantic, to relive and tell. In the championship Jody Scheckter the first match point is played to win the championship. It is Jacques Laffite and Villeneuve himself who still have a chance to fight for the champion, while Jones and Regazzoni are already out of every possibility, due to a complicated scoring system in which the season is divided into two blocks, and for each block, the four best results are taken into account.
In official practice, the Renault cars occupy the front row, while Gilles starts from fifth position. At the start of the race Scheckter takes the lead, followed by Arnoux and Villeneuve. The French Renault driver manages to overtake Scheckter on the next lap, but after ten laps he has to retire due to an engine problem. The South African from Ferrari is in the lead again, followed by Gilles, who in turn has Lafitte, Scheckter's direct rival, behind him.
But the twist comes with the retirement of Laffite with eight laps to go: with the retired Frenchman Jody Scheckter would practically be world champion, were it not for the fact that behind him is Villeneuve, the only rider left in the race who could still fight for the drivers championship. But the Canadian driver keeps his promise given before the race, and doesn't attack Scheckter. Gilles plays the role of squire, never attacking his teammate, always remaining behind him like a shadow until the finish. Ferrari not only took a splendid double, but also won both championships with two races to spare. An extraordinary sporting result for the Scuderia, Ferrari, which perhaps achieves one of the best triumphs in its history in front of its fans.
But what must be emphasized most of all is the noble gesture of a great man, genuine and honest, like Gilles is; although he can remain in the fight for the world championship by beating Scheckter and winning a prestigious race like that of Italy, in Monza, he decides to remain faithful to his friend and to follow the team directives, putting himself at their disposal to help Scheckter to conquer the world championship pilots.
"Jody is the worthy winner and even if everything could have seemed simple it was a very hard race. I'm happy for Jody who is an extremely sincere and loyal man. Against Jody there was nothing to be done. I did my race but I would never have been able to pass it because today Scheckter was very strong".
This gesture absolutely remains an episode that more than anything else reaffirms the sincere character of Gilles, who, although he can sometimes be an ultra-combative driver on the track, perhaps sometimes even too much, is still an honest and respectful person, both on and off the track.
In the remaining races of the season Gilles achieves other excellent results; in Canada he commands most of the race, but due to a small mistake at the hairpin he is overtaken by Jones about twenty laps from the end and has to settle for second place finish. In the United States, the last world stage, in a race characterized by a wet track, Gilles is once again able to start better than anyone else and go from third to first. During the race he constantly increases his advantage over Jones, thanks to the Michelin tires, more effective than the Goodyear fitted to the Australian's car, and to a remarkable performance.
But when the track slowly dries up, the Goodyear tires return to being the most competitive, and this allows Jones to get closer and pass Villeneuve on lap 31. The Canadian decides to pit three laps later to fit slick tires, while Jones returns to the pits on lap 37, but the tire changes are not going well. A little later the Australian rider, back on track, loses a wheel and retires. Villeneuve thus has the green light and returns to the top of the race, allowing himself to manage the pace until the end. Gilles takes his third success of the season, becoming vice world champion.
For the 1980 season Gilles is confirmed alongside Jody Scheckter, and after using the number twelve for two consecutive seasons he must use the number two, like the new reigning champion Scheckter, who naturally has the number one on the chassis. Unfortunately, however, it will be a nightmare year for Scuderia Ferrari, due to the almost total decline in competitiveness of the new 312 T5, which was supposed to be a simple evolution of the winning 312 T4.
The main difficulties encountered on the new car are the lack of ground effect due to the lateral dimensions of the powerful twelve-cylinder engine and the ineffectiveness of the Michelin tires, which provides tires optimized for turbocharged cars, and not for naturally aspirated cars. In fact, this season Ferrari decided to already focus work on the development of the single-seater that would compete in 1981. For almost the entire season, Ferrari leads some bad races; even Gilles himself, who has already shown in the past that he can fight even with serious lack of competitiveness to the single-seater, is only able to find out some noteworthy results.
In the opening Grand Prix in Argentina Gilles retires on lap 37 due to an accident while he is third, in a race conditioned by grip problems. In Brazil Gilles reaches the high point of this season. Michelin offers soft compound tires, despite the high temperatures, and this allows Ferrari to be a little more competitive. Villeneuve gets the third time in the official qualifying.
At the start of the race Gilles puts the car almost sideways and fits between the poleman Jabouille and Pironi, leading the race. Unfortunately, his leadership does not last long, because after two laps Jabouille is already in front of him and in the course of some laps he is also overtaken by Pironi, Laffite and Arnoux and during the sixth lap he has to pit due to tire problems slipping far back in the standings. The comeback he makes is mad and when he is now one step away from the points he has to stop the car, with the accelerator blocked, just four laps to go.
In the following races there are still numerous reliability problems for both Ferrari drivers. In South Africa Gilles accuses engine problems in qualifying, while in the race he retires due to a transmission failure; the same retirement also accuses him in Long Beach, the first race where Ferrari managed to collect points, with Scheckter fifth. In Belgium Gilles earns his first point of the season with a good sixth place.
In Monte Carlo, the Maranello team brings important updates to the car, including brakes, air intakes, length and ailerons. In the official tests Gilles takes the sixth time, although he receives controversy from Goodyear, who accuses him of having used tires other than those assigned to him by Michelin. But the usual tire problems recur in the race and Villeneuve stops on lap 22, slipping back in the ranking, but with an excellent comeback he finds himself ninth on lap fifty. Thanks also to a partial help given by the rain and the retirements of some riders in front of him, Gilles achieved his best result of the season, a fifth place.
In France, at Le Castellet, Gilles is the protagonist of an accident during a private test at about 300 km/h, from which he comes out unscathed, and in the Grand Prix he fails to make it back to the top six. In subsequent races, the updates did not bear fruit: in Great Britain Gilles did not finish the race due to engine problems, while in Germany - despite chronic tire problems - he obtained a sixth place.
In Austria and the Netherlands Gilles, even if he is constantly faster and more concrete than his teammate Jody Scheckter, both in qualifying and in the race, comes out of the points. In the following Italian Grand Prix, in Imola, Ferrari debuts the new 126 C equipped with a turbo engine, during private practice held a week before the race. Gilles decides to use it only for qualifying, as it is still considered unreliable to face a race. The 126 C's performance in qualifying is encouraging, with Villeneuve finishing eighth.
In the first laps of the race he climbs up to fourth position until the sixth lap, in which he is the protagonist of one of the most frightening accidents of his career: at the half-bend leading to the Tosa, a tire explodes and Gilles loses control of the car going to hit the barrier, bouncing and stopping in the middle of the track, where fortunately no driver hits it. What remains of the car is only a piece of rereading completely destroyed, but from which Gilles comes out completely intact:
"I was traveling at almost 280 km/h and the tires were probably still cold. The fact is that when the Tosa braked off a tire and the car swerved violently to the left smashing against the protective wall, it was a terrible blow".
In the last few races the situation in Ferrari seems terrible: in Canada Gilles manages to qualify for a few tenths, while Scheckter is even excluded from the starters for the race. But after this bad qualification Gilles pulls out a great performance and equals the best seasonal result obtained in Monte Carlo with another fifth place, while a retirement comes to Watkins Glen, which closes the worst season ever played by Ferrari since the establishment of the Formula 1 World Championship.
Gilles closes in fourteenth place in the standings with just six world championship points, beating team mate Scheckter, a very unmotivated result especially in the second half of the championship when he has already announced his retirement. Villeneuve, on the contrary, has tried in every race to go beyond the possibilities of the single-seater, capturing at some juncture the great performances, of which only a few have been realized.
This brings us to 1981, a fairly difficult season, given above all by the development of the new turbocharged engine of the 126 CK, which is combined with many causes of retirements. The new car will be powerful, but with an almost undriveable chassis, so much so that Gilles will express decidedly negative judgments about it in some situations:
"It is mortifying, with a car that is faster than the others by 20 km/h on the straight, to finish sixteenth".
The 1981 season is the one in which Villeneuve takes to the track with the number twenty-seven on the front fairing, which subsequently entered the history of Formula 1 thanks to the stunts that Gilles will do aboard the 126 CK. Franco Gozzi, famous for having held roles at Ferrari as the press officer, the head of external relations and the sports manager, tells the story of the combination that is created between twenty-seven and Gilles:
"In 1981 the current regulation was already in force, that is, the numbers were assigned based on the constructors' classification and therefore we, who had returned from a negative season, reached high numbers. From the following year, however, we set ourselves agreement with the FIA to keep the 27th and 28th because by now our drivers identified with them".
In fact, from 1982 Ferrari will keep the same numbering for the two drivers, namely the twenty-seven and the twenty-eight, until 1995, with the exception of 1990, since Prost will bring the number one as a dowry. But the twenty-seven is particularly remembered because he identified all the latest races of Gilles, some of which it is right to tell the story because they are other sporting chapters that have made the Canadian driver become a legend.
Another novelty this year is Gilles’s new teammate, the French Didier Pironi, who has left the Ligier, already a winner of a Grand Prix, and who has about the same number of Formula 1 races behind him as Villeneuve. In a short time, the Canadian driver established an excellent relationship with Pironi, so much so that he became good friends, and this relationship helps Pironi to fit well into the Ferrari environment, where it is naturally difficult to approach, after Ferrari fans have seen their idol in Villeneuve.
The start of the season for Gilles is quite troubled, due to the lack of reliability of the new 126 CK. In Long Beach, the first round of the 1981 championship, he starts from fifth position and at the start manages to take the lead at the detached Queens Hairpin, but ends up too wide and has to retreat three positions. After only seventeen laps Gilles was forced to retire due to a transmission problem.
In Brazil the same result arrives, another retirement: this time a fault hits the turbo, while in Argentina it retires once again due to the transmission, to which is added an accident in the warm up. In the new San Marino Grand Prix, held in Imola, Gilles obtained an amazing pole position thanks to a great lap, so much so that when he reached the pits the engine was broken. Alan Jones comments on it like this:
"Judging by the amount of blue smoke that Gilles' engine emitted after that lap, his turbo boost must have been dizzying".
For the Canadian it will be the second and last pole position in his career. At the start of the race the track is wet: Gilles starts well and resists the attack of Reutemann, who also loses a position against the other Ferrari driver Pironi. In the first fifteen laps the two Ferrari drivers lead the pace, until Gilles returns to the pits and gets on dry tires, slipping to tenth place. The Canadian believes that good weather is returning, and instead the move turns out to be risky; he will therefore have to take advantage of another pit stop to refit the rain tires.
While Villeneuve ended up in the rear of the group, Pironi took the lead, but due to a technical problem he will lose positions. Gilles' comeback is furious, so much so that in just thirty laps he gains over a minute for the leading drivers, and manages to get back into the points. Inexhaustible, Gilles also sets the lap record, but the clutch breaks; The Canadian driver must stop his imperious comeback, and let De Cesaris pass him, finishing seventh in the race. The controversy about him is not lacking, because he is accused of not knowing how to make the most of the opportunities that arise. However, this race remains a sumptuous performance from the point of view of race pace, even if the result did not bring the desired effects.
In Belgium Gilles finally takes his first points of the season, finishing fourth after a difficult race, conditioned by set-up problems. In this circumstance Gilles will show solidarity with the mechanics when the latter, in protest following the Friday tragedy (after a quarter of an hour from the start of the tests, Carlos Reutemann's Williams, while driving down the pit lane, overwhelmed the mechanic Giovanni Amadeo Osella: in the impact he was thrown into the air and fell badly between the rear tire of the car and the step of the wall and was transported in serious condition to the hospital in Ghent and subsequently to that of Louvain, where he will perish on Sunday evening, due to the serious injuries sustained), before the race they decide to carry out a symbolic protest before the start, in order to sensitize the public about the poor safety of their work environment: the mechanics settle down along the finish line, imitated also by a large group of pilots.
Subsequently Enzo Ferrari confirmed Gilles also for the 1982 and 1983 seasons. In the appointment in the streets of Monte Carlo the Canadian achieved a memorable triumph. Already in qualifying he gets the second time, behind only Piquet, only seventy-eight thousandths apart. In the race he keeps his second position until the twentieth lap, in which he is overtaken by Jones. The ranking remains unchanged for several laps until the twists and turns that bring Villeneuve back into play for the victory: first Piquet, undisputed leader up to lap fifty-three, crashes into the guardrail at the Tabac turn, while he is engaged in a dubbing.
Jones takes the lead, but after a few laps he begins to suffer from fuel draw problems. The Australian stopped for a pit stop in an attempt to solve the problem, but when he got back on the track the situation did not change. Gilles is in a great comeback, and with four laps to go he makes a great overtaking against Jones at the end of the straight, exalting the crowd who are enthusiastic about this maneuver. The Canadian wins, bringing his successes to five in Formula 1, but above all he brings a Ferrari back to triumph after almost two years. The victory looks even more extraordinary for the mere fact of having won on the less favorable circuit for turbo engines. Gilles is particularly tired after crossing the finish line, but so are his mechanics when they go to meet him for joy. Certainly, one of the most exciting days in the history of Villeneuve.
Twenty-one days later, however, in the Spanish Grand Prix, Gilles becomes the protagonist of another authentic masterpiece, considered one of the most spectacular races of his automotive career. After an excellent start, the Canadian rider is third, and then passes Reutemann and then Jones, with the Australian starring off the track. During the continuation of the race, a long train of more performing cars of his is formed behind Villeneuve: Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and De Angelis. For Gilles, there seems to be no hope of holding the lead, because Jarama's tortuous track is not in keeping with the characteristics of his Ferrari, powerful on the long straight thanks to the turbo engine, but extremely nervous in the rest of the circuit.
However, Gilles fully exploits the power of his car in the straights to avoid giving his opponents a chance to overtake, while in the mixed part the Canadian, despite the handling problems of his 126 CK in the slower corners, does not make the slightest mistake. In the final laps the train of cars gets tighter and tighter, but Villeneuve will never give up his first position until the finish line. It will be his sixth and last career victory. Who is fascinated by this aviator's success is Enzo Ferrari, who even allows himself to be able to create a grandiose parallelism with another famous car champion:
"Today Villeneuve made me relive the legend of Nuvolari".
The famous phrase, from which Ferrari also states that Villeneuve in some ways recalls the great Tazio:
"Villeneuve is a very difficult character to be enthusiastic about. I see in him the same overwhelming desire to win and reach the finish line in any way and by any means, which was the characteristic of poor Tazio".
Gilles in this success tells once again his immense talent and his passion for speed. The second consecutive feat obtained after the exploit in Monte Carlo relaunches Villeneuve's world ambitions, to which is added a relaunch of Scuderia Ferrari in the constructors' classification. As happened in the Principality of Monaco, the mechanics after the race welcomed him with open arms, as did the engineer Forghieri who declared:
"Villeneuve and the turbo. Here are our secrets. We will take care of the world championship in time".
Some newspapers will dedicate their front page to just Gilles, immersed in the red color of his 126 CK, and it can be said with certainty that the famous Villeneuve fever has now plunged a tide of fans, who from now on expect in every race a business.
In the following six races Villeneuve barely manages to finish a race, in Germany, moreover outside the points zone. Many retirements, including technical problems, lack of competitiveness of the chassis, and Gilles' accidents, mainly due to the risks that the Canadian driver has to take to compensate for the technical limitations of the car. A curious episode comes to life in Zandvoort, Holland, when Ferrari brings to the track a new engine, with a different specification of pistons, which arrived overnight from Maranello. Since opponents have engines on average of around 100 horsepower more, and even 300 horsepower when in qualifying, the Ferrari mechanics reduce the impact of the aileron, further worsening the situation in the corners. In preparation there is an experimental engine not yet in place in time for the team's departure for the Dutch Grand Prix, but which is completed on the Friday morning before the race. Ferrari calls Forghieri and tells him:
"Mauro, that engine you tested is ready; I'll send it to you, you mount it on Villeneuve's car and explain to him that I don't care what it does; I want to know how the engine goes after the race".
The engine arrives in Holland on Saturday evening and is mounted on Villeneuve's car. The next day Ferrari calls Forghieri while he is in his room at 4:00 in the morning:
"Tell Villeneuve I want to know how the engine is going".
In the morning, Forghieri takes Villeneuve aside and explains to him that it is in Ferrari's interest that the engine run the entire race distance, regardless of the result, but he is not sure if Gilles had accepted the instructions. Therefore, on the starting line he goes back to the Canadian driver and tells him:
"Do you remember everything?"
Gilles' reply is eloquent:
"Ah, je ne suis pas un crétin, tu me dis la meme chose quatre fois".
But at the start Gilles catches a glimpse of a crack and throws himself into it, touching the cars of Patrese and Giacomelli, who are battling each other. Villeneuve ends up in the protections at the first corner. Shortly after, a commissioner tells the Ferrari mechanics and Forghieri:
"He is walking back".
But in reality, Gilles is afraid to return to the pits, and asks distinctly if Forghieri is angry about what happened; the two will meet only during the evening, and will talk for a long time. To arrive at a further useful result, one must wait until the Canadian Grand Prix, the penultimate stage of the 1981 World Championship. Here Gilles repeats once again one of his feats, worthy of a champion of his caliber. The Canadian race is characterized by heavy rain, which makes the asphalt particularly treacherous.
Villeneuve started eleventh, thanks to an imperious comeback, benefited from the competitive Michelin tires, he climbs up to second position. His race was characterized by a slight damage to the front wing, due to a contact with Arnoux at the start of the race. On lap 38, after a gruelling duel, Watson manages to overtake Gilles who is now in third place, but at the hairpin he has a misunderstanding with Elio de Angelis in which he seriously damages the front wing. At this point, going back to the pits and repairing the car would make the most sense, but Gilles decides to stay on track. In the following laps the aileron bends more and more, but the Canadian continues its march, until, on lap fifty-four, what remains of the aileron folds back, almost completely obstructing the view. Once again the Canadian driver did not return to replace the nose and continued the race, despite the enormous difficulties in managing his car, which is now almost undriveable. Villeneuve is extraordinary in this situation because, not having the view to see the track in front of him, he is able to base himself on the driest trajectory marked by the other cars on the wet track.
The audience is exalted by seeing him, while the black flag is invoked in the commentary. Gilles struggles against his front wing, going into counter-steering at every corner exit, and sliding on the slimy asphalt with his breathtaking trajectories, leaving the spectators always in agony at every corner. After two laps, just before the braking of the hairpin, Gilles tears off the wing, after at least three several attempts to sway along the straights to shake it off. There are still five laps still tough enough for the Ferrari driver, who however manages to maintain his third position until the end of the race, given by passing the two regular hours. After seeing all this the fans present and all the fans are in raptures.
The 1981 season ended with a retirement in Las Vegas and a seventh place in the championship, with a balance of twenty-five points, two wins, a third place, and a pole position. But it is during the course of this year that Gilles' popularity reaches unthinkable levels, thanks to his majestic feats obtained driving his 126 CK, of which it is right to remember the Imola race, the surprising and grandiose triumphs of Monte Carlo and Jarama, and the crazy race of Montréal, so much so that he won the front pages of the newspapers several times, which exalt him more and more. However, criticism has never been lacking, starting with the accidents caused, including those at Zandvoort and Silverstone, but Gilles always admits his mistakes, without pointing the finger at the team and hiding the car's performance difficulties. On October 23, 1981, in the traditional press conference at the end of the year, Enzo Ferrari says of him:
"I would like to know who, among those who work in Formula 1, who design cars, who race or who write, never makes a mistake. It may be that he has committed naivety: but when a driver, in Monte Carlo, makes people talk about Ferrari like a world car and manages to get on the cover of Time, seven and a half million copies, then it means that something represents. Villeneuve suits me as it is, with its exuberance and the incomprehensible risks it runs. he satisfies the audience, he is like an actor, logically he goes in search of applause: in the end he acts for this".
And in fact, speaking of the public, the relationship between Gilles and his fans becomes increasingly close and particular, despite the rather reserved character of the little Canadian, who prefers to keep in touch only with family and closest friends. By now many people race to watch the Formula 1 race more for the sake of seeing Villeneuve, rather than for the race itself. Gilles is able to attract the eyes of fans, leaving them speechless. His courage and his desire to race push him to gladly accept invitations to some event, such as an offshore on the shores of Lake Como, where other Formula 1 drivers also participate, and where the Canadian wins; or a singular challenge carried out at the Istrana military airport against an F104 fighter of the 51st wing of the Italian army in front of 100.000 spectators. A spectacular duel on the flying kilometer with a standing start, which sees the fighter challenge Gilles' Ferrari without ailerons, to achieve greater speed.
For the 1982 season, Ferrari worked on the new 126 C2, a car that was conceived following multiple studies produced in the Pininfarina wind tunnel, and which therefore presents clear and precise ideas; decreased weight, low bodywork and forward biased passenger compartment. As stated by the engineer Forghieri, the 126 C2 is practically new in all its parts, with a more powerful engine, new chassis and aerodynamics, different weight distribution, new front suspension and new side wings. All this is conceived to try to find a balance between the great power of the turbo and a better road holding, a characteristic from which the old 126 CK suffered greatly.
On Thursday January 7, 1982, in Fiorano, Gilles runs at a fast pace, so much so as to touch the track record, but the next day, on the real day of testing, the record is achieved by lowering the previous time recorded a few months earlier by more than a second, aboard an updated 126 CK. All this demonstrates how Ferrari can be extremely competitive, thanks also to the fact that in these two days of testing Gilles does not suffer from any kind of problem. But at Le Castellet, Gilles' Ferrari had to stop after less than eleven laps due to a drop in engine power, which caused the entire schedule for the day to be skipped. Of course the Canadian is not at all happy with all this, but the test days produced by Ferrari at Kyalami seem to give good impressions, and both Ferrari drivers are convinced they can fight for pole position.
"I think it is already a good opportunity to collect some precious points for the world title. I don't think it will be an easy race as there are too many candidates for victory. But, as always, I will try to start immediately in the lead and then control. If the car does not have any uncertainties, I do not think there will be major difficulties in arriving among the very first. at the fastest points of the circuit, but they also have a car on their side that has great grip on the mixed part of the track".
The Canadian knows well that he must prove, in addition to being able to win races, that he can fight for the world championship, which would make him the fastest driver of all. In qualifying the supercharged engines confirm to be the most powerful, and in fact Gilles gets the third time. But his race ends after only seven laps because, as happened in the Le Castellet tests, the turbo engine abandons him.
"Unfortunately, these things can happen. It is difficult to perfectly fine-tune the engine, and if any component goes out of place, the result is immediately the failure of the engine or turbines. With a naturally aspirated you can always fix it".
The new single-seater, although still slowed down by some reliability problems, is considered a world-class car. During the long break between the weekend in South Africa and the next appointment in Brazil, Ferrari tries to work to solve the problems encountered in Kyalami, as well as trying to improve its performance.
On the days of free practice at Jacarepaguà the 126 C2 does not experience any kind of engine problem, but due to its power it shows evident wear on the rear tires. In the qualifying rounds Villeneuve, as well as his teammate Pironi, suffer some inconvenience but prove to be competitive.
On the last day of practice, Gilles sets the best time, even if he is unable to do better than Prost, who was faster the previous day. But this front row obtained by the Canadian bodes well for the race, and moreover, such a result in qualifying was not seen since Monte Carlo last year.
At the start of the race Gilles takes the lead and will remain there for over thirty laps, until the reigning champion Nelson Piquet with his Brabham, in full recovery since the first laps, attacks him at the curve dedicated to Carlos Pace. Villeneuve tries to defend himself, but makes a serious mistake by ending up on the grass outside the track.
Ferrari exits Jacarepaguà with the point obtained by Pironi, but the performance remains positive, as Gilles completed almost half the race in the lead, showing good performance, although there are still problems in the slower corners. Villeneuve admits, as always sincerely, the mistake made, but also justifies the weight difference between his car and the English cars:
"After the first twenty-five laps my car started to drop slightly. However, the four seconds per lap I lost from the Brabham and Williams are not justified. My engine is more powerful and in acceleration I was significantly faster. British cars base all their strength on lightness as well as, of course, on reliability. In any case, I had no intention of being overtaken and I tried to repeat what I had done last year in Spain, but unfortunately it went badly. I can say that Piquet acted irregularly. I was driving to the limit and I found myself off the line. To resist, maybe I was imprudent and I paid".
During the weeks leading up to the US Grand Prix West, in Long Beach, Ferrari is going through a more than troubled period. Political struggles continue with the FIA for compliance with the regulations relating to the reduction of the weight of single-seaters, as the British cars are considered irregular by Ferrari and Renault. As a sign of challenge to the FIA, on the Saturday before the Long Beach race, in the last qualifying session, Ferrari mounts a large aileron on its 126 C2s that mates with the habitual one, characterized by particular aerodynamic appendages that help both Gilles and Pironi improved their times on Friday, but in the end it was not enough to get a satisfactory starting position.
Villeneuve does not go beyond the seventh time. This unprecedented solution adopted by the Maranello team is revised and re-analyzed, but for the judges and the experts the double aileron is regular, because it fully respects the width limit set at one hundred and ten centimeters. The race sees Villeneuve fighting in the top positions, and in particular a long duel with an old rival with whom he has already had several challenges in Formula Atlantic is proposed; Keke Rosberg. Around the fifteenth lap the Finn is behind the Canadian when the former brings a winning attack to the chicane against Gilles, taking advantage of the better handling of his Williams. The Ferrari driver regains fourth position on the long straight, but subsequently spun, dropping back to fifth place. Thanks to the problems that arose first in Watson and then in De Cesaris, Villeneuve climbs third and gets the first podium of the season, behind the winner Lauda and Rosberg.
However, towards evening the stewards decide to accept Ken Tyrrell's request to disqualify Villeneuve and to judge the double aileron mounted on the 126 C2 to be irregular. A surprising and unexpected news, given that the aileron bis solution was approved on Saturday in qualifying and then, without a reason, a rethink was decided. At this moment Ferrari is really being targeted, because not only was their protest about Brabham's victory in Brazil rejected, but a one-minute penalty was imposed on Pironi. Chris Pook, organizer of the Long Beach Grand Prix, is surprised by the disqualification against Villeneuve:
"Formula 1 has become a garbage can. I'm sorry for Gilles Villeneuve and Ferrari but we organizers can't do anything. It's the stewards who decide. I'm seriously worried about the future, I hope the problems will be solved as soon as possible. otherwise the World Championship will lose interest in America too".
While the political skirmishes between FISA and FOCA continue regarding the major disagreement on some parts of the regulation, Ferrari moves to Imola to continue working on the 126 C2, a car deemed potentially competitive but still too immature. Wednesday April 14, 1982 Gilles makes a few laps aboard the 126 C2/058, a model used in Long Beach, but without the double aileron, with which he will race in Imola and subsequently in Zolder:
"Let's see what our appeal will bring. What bothered me is that they let me start and then disqualify me. If they immediately found the wing irregular, we would have replaced it and nothing would have happened".
On Wednesday both Villeneuve and Pironi run in Imola, achieving excellent times despite some tire problems, while on Tuesday of the following week the complaint of Ferrari and Renault relating to the diatribe of the cars that underweight the Brazilian Grand Prix is accepted. It will therefore be forbidden to top up all liquids at the end of the race. Following this decision, the teams linked to FOCA do not show up in Imola to participate in the San Marino Grand Prix.
This opens up the chances of success for Ferrari and Renault: not by chance, after the first qualifying session on Friday, Prost on Renault leads the standings, ahead of Ferrari drivers Villeneuve and Pironi. On Saturday the lap times are lowered and in the end it is the other Renault, that of Renè Arnoux, to gain pole position, putting behind Prost, Villeneuve and Pironi.
The race begins and the top four keep their respective positions at the start, but at the Piratella Prost corner he loses two positions to Gilles and Pironi, and subsequently has to abandon the race due to electrical problems. There is a good fight between the top three in the standings, in fact Arnoux is put under pressure by Villeneuve, who in turn loses second place to Pironi on the twenty-second lap, but after four laps he is able to fight back and get back to shoulders of Arnoux's Renault, leader of the race.
In the following laps the battle continues, with Villeneuve managing to take the lead for a few laps, but Arnoux reacts and returns in front of the Canadian driver. Later the battle moved mainly towards the Ferrari drivers, with Pironi overtaking Villeneuve in the same lap in which he gave up the leadership, but at the Piratella corner the Canadian returns to second place. And again, on lap 35 Pironi passes Gilles; on lap forty-one it is Gilles who gets back in front of his teammate.
Then, however, four laps later Arnoux was also forced to retire, so the two Ferrari drivers moved on to lead the race with a large margin over the rest of their rivals. From here on, the race changes its face: in fact, Ferrari, with a clear sign displayed as the drivers pass by with the word Slow on it, tries to preserve the mechanical parts of the car.
Following Arnoux's retirement, Gilles raises his race pace, also because behind Pironi is Alboreto, who, however, suffers a very heavy delay from the two Ferraris of over a minute, but above all his car is experiencing mechanical problems: the brakes do not work regularly. But Pironi, who perhaps misunderstands and believes that Gilles is slowing down due to mechanical problems, does not follow the instructions given by the team and overtakes his teammate, returning to push the pace of the race. It is a fact that when Pironi is in the lead, the times are much lower than when Gilles is in front, who maintains a slower race behavior by about a second. The Canadian is surprised by Pironi’s attack, and believes it is just a way to accentuate a sort of spectacle to the audience in the bleachers and thus begins a long and arduous duel between teammates.
From the garage the sign indicating the two drivers to slow down to manage the reliability of the cars is displayed several times, but Pironi puts himself in front of Gilles once again on the fifty-second lap. In the last laps Villeneuve tries to push Pironi, and the overtaking arrives at Tosa in the penultimate lap. But it does not end here because the Frenchman takes the last decisive overtaking, who on the last lap overtakes Villeneuve, going to win the race. Gilles is furious. In the closed park he gets out of the car, tearing off his helmet and gloves, and heading towards the Ferrari motorhome he turns to the sporting director Piccinini, clearly underlining all his anger with very heavy words, also exclaiming:
"And now look for another driver".
Being able to get Gilles on the podium is an arduous task: at the award ceremony his face is as irritated as ever before; he doesn't shake Pironi's hand and leaves as soon as he receives the trophy for the runner-up. After the race he will have an interview with Pironi and accuse him of having stolen his success, of being a false friend, and swears never to speak to him again. From this moment on, the friendship between Gilles and the French driver ends, with the Canadian calling him a traitor:
"I thought I had a friend, an honest teammate. Instead he is an idiot. The only advantage I had from the lesson is that I know him well now. I could have given him two laps behind, but I had driven carefully because I knew that at the Ferrari were keen to take both cars to the finish line. It all started when Arnoux was forced to retire. Obviously I slowed down and Pironi immediately took advantage of it to pass me by surprise. So I recovered under and after two laps I went to him. back in front. He will understand, I said to myself. But I was wrong. In the garage they put up the slow sign, which means to go slow. We had an unbridgeable advantage. But he attacked me again. He was pushing, he was pulling to the maximum. I was afraid of run out of petrol, I tried to control the situation. At every lap I saw the Ferrari sign indicating not to force. Didier still passes me. I get an incredible nervousness. Then I force, and risk ending off the road I go ahead. Before, he had braked too early and I was almost bumping into him. Then he didn't hit me by an inch. The engine was not performing at its best and in the end I saw it whiz inside. I did not believe my eyes. Bandit behavior".
Villeneuve comes out of this weekend destroyed and angry with everyone. Sporting director Piccinini finds Pironi's behavior in the Imola race to be normal; Piero Ferrari also speaks of normality himself, because all the drivers want to win. Enzo Ferrari is in fact the only one who defends Gilles. Back in Monte Carlo, the Canadian is still angry towards the team and his teammate, whom he considers from now on only an opponent:
"Pironi stole my victory from me. His is an authentic theft that burns me the most because it is endorsed by Marco Piccinini, Ferrari's sporting director. If displaying the sign with the word slow does not mean abandoning all ambitions and maintaining positions, explain what it means then. At my house such a warning makes it clear that we must not take risks. And I obeyed as I always did on other occasions, perhaps reluctantly, for the good of the team. I had faith in Pironi's common sense. Because I believed that the team, after four and a half years with Ferrari, would have protected me. My good faith was surprised; if I had wanted to close the way to Didier, do you think I would not have been able to? Nobody remembers Spain and Monte Carlo when I kept behind many cars faster than mine? Pironi is much less fast than me: he can only beat me with deception. Sunday I said to Piero Lardi: look for another driver. I was furious. Conti I will continue to work for Maranello as usual, to try to win races. With Pironi, on the other hand, I'm done. I will never forget, in all my life, the rudeness, the impropriety that he did to me".
In the following days, the situation at Ferrari is tense. Didier Pironi is convinced that the relationship with his friend Villeneuve will make peace soon. But Gilles is clear, he doesn't want to have anything more to do with him.
"I was pleased that it was understood that I am right. But I remain second and this judgment does not change the positions, nor does it smooth out the situation with my teammate. I don't want to talk to Pironi anymore: he cheated me once and not I'll care more in the future".
On Wednesday April 28, 1982 in Fiorano the test tests of the cars take place waiting for the Zolder race, and Gilles runs in the morning. Enzo Ferrari will meet both him and Pironi to congratulate him on the result at Imola. But outside the gates of Fiorano, in front of journalists, Gilles' thinking does not change after the events in Imola:
"As I said at the end of the race, he stole my victory from me. I don't change my mind. If you look at the race times you can see that I'm right about that. There has always been an agreement, for four years, since I've been at Ferrari. Piccinini has said that you shouldn't have a battle and that if the two cars, for example, are in the lead and there are no opponents behind, you have to go slow and finish like this. If I go slow, and the other doesn't go slow, it's safe I was lapping in 1'37"5, 1'37"8 for the petrol, the car, and because I have forty-five seconds ahead of Alboreto; when Pironi is in front, we lap in 1'35"5".
In the following days, while Ferrari continues to work to improve the 126 C2, making changes to the lower aerodynamics, such as brakes, hub carriers and front and rear suspension, Gilles wants at all costs to take revenge against his teammate:
"The Zolder track is not particularly suited to the turbo, but it seems to be good for Ferrari. I no longer want to talk about Pironi, although I do not hide that things between me and my partner have not changed after the mockery of the San Francisco Grand Prix. Marino. You will see Villeneuve determined, focused, with a great desire to win".
During this period there are numerous rumors that Williams and Renault are interested in the Canadian driver, even if he denies everything. Ferrari does not take part in Zolder's free practice the week before the Grand Prix, and this decision penalizes it in the first qualifying session, which takes place on Friday May 7, 1982. There are many problems with the development of the cars, while it continues to remain the most total frost between Villeneuve and Pironi.
In the second qualifying session on Saturday May 8, 1982, the Ferrari team hopes to set a good time, after the understeer problems suffered the previous day. Towards the final stages of the session, the two drivers have been in the pits for about twenty minutes, as they wait to get out on the track in a moment of tranquillity so as not to be hindered by the slower cars. Pironi is sixth, one tenth faster than Gilles who is eighth. The Canadian wants at all costs to get on the track to improve, especially because he wants to get revenge against his teammate.
He takes a first warm-up lap and then launches for a quick lap, which ends with not good enough time to improve. So he tries another attempt and already at the photocell of the chicane opposite the pits which reveals the maximum speeds, the Canadian's Ferrari records a new speed peak of 272 km/h, demonstrating how Gilles is pushing to the maximum. But in the next acceleration leading to the very fast bend in Butte, which in turn leads to Terlamenbocht, the Canadian has a misunderstanding with the March driver Jochen Mass, who is making a very slow lap.
The German when he sees the very fast Villeneuve arrive decides to place himself on the external trajectory, in order to allow the Canadian to pass him to the left on the inside of the bend. But Gilles is deceived and follows the opposite trajectory to that which Mass is traveling, that is, the external and faster one. What emerges is a collision that will prove fatal: Villeneuve, as much as he remained on the right, ends up taking off at 250 km/h after touching the rear right wheel of the March with his left front wheel.
The Ferrari lifts off the ground by pointing its nose against the sky and its tail on the lawn outside the track, plowing the ground until the next collision against the guard-rail that pushes it back towards the center of the track. At this point an incredible carom begins in which the car disintegrates, spreading pieces several meters away.
What certainly makes you shudder is that Gilles jumped out of the cockpit with the seat still glued to his back. The unfortunate Canadian pilot not only makes a flight of about five meters, but ends up hitting a stake in the safety nets. It is exactly 1:52 pm.
Rescue reaches Gilles, some drivers like Arnoux and Watson stop to observe the gruesome scene, while Mass, already out of his car, tries to shake Gilles to look for a reaction from him.
Meanwhile, a speaker announces that closed circuit television has just broadcast a very serious accident at one of the two Ferraris. A few moments later Pironi darted in front of the pits, and the engineer Forghieri realizes that it is Gilles.
Shortly afterwards, doctors arrive at the scene of the accident and try to revive Gilles in any way, while photographers and onlookers are blocked by the commissioners. The Canadian was subsequently transferred to the hospital in Leuven, while Marco Piccinini telephoned Enzo Ferrari, the AC of Monaco Boeri and, through Jody Scheckter also Villeneuve's wife Joanna, who remained in Canada for the confirmation of little Melanie.
Gilles is hospitalized in an underground room of the Saint Raphael, naturally to keep the curious away, where he is followed by a team of neurosurgeons, led by specialist Herman Delooz. Although his heart is still beating faintly, the exams set for him are all unfavourable. The first bulletin at 5:00 pm reports that the Canadian is unconscious and that he has suffered serious injuries to the neck and cerebellum.
Piccinini is already in the hospital, while Joanna also arrives, accompanied by Pamela, Scheckter's companion, Boeri and Mazet. Professor Delooz, after having consulted several times by telephone in Montreal with Professor Bertrand, one of the world's leading experts in vertebrae traumatology, indicated by the family, after the Canadian journalist Christian Tortora manages to get in touch with Gilles' manager, Gaston Parént, who in turn puts the two doctors in contact, confesses:
"Only a miracle can save him. If he were to survive, however, he would be completely paralyzed".
The only driver who comes to see Gilles is Didier Pironi, the very teammate with whom he ended all kinds of relationships after the Imola duel, while Joanna, in shock, is consoled by Linda Marso, Bruno's American girlfriend. Giacomelli, with whom he shares a deep friendship. A few hours pass until at 10 pm Piccinini comes out of the intensive care room and communicates:
"Unfortunately I have to read you a painful announcement. Our Gilles ceased to live at 9:12 pm".
Joanna agreed at 9:00 pm to unplug the machines that kept her husband alive. The whole world is deeply moved, including the Commendatore, advised by Piccinini, who appreciated and admired Gilles from the first to the last day he raced in Ferrari:
"He left us for still incomprehensible reasons. Destiny deprived us of a great champion, a champion I loved very much. My past is full of pain and sad memories: my father, my mother, my brother and my son. Now when I look back, I see everyone I have loved. And among them there is also this great man, Gilles Villeneuve".
The Commendatore will always remember him in this way:
"Gilles with his generosity, with his daring, with his destructive ability that he had in driving cars by grinding axle shafts, gearboxes, clutches, brakes, taught us what needed to be done so that a driver could defend himself in an unpredictable moment, in a state of necessity. He was a champion of combativity and gave Ferrari a lot of notoriety. I loved him".
Piccinini, after the announcement of the death of Gilles, speaks of him on behalf of the whole team:
"As we feared, Gilles ceased his earthly existence a few minutes ago. Didier Pironi, shocked by the disappearance of his companion, asked not to compete in the Belgian Grand Prix. Ferrari, deeply affected by the disappearance of his brave driver, joins with emotion at this manifestation of condolences. We are more saddened than upset. Gilles was much more than a driver, a collaborator, especially for engineer Forghieri. Today Ferrari cries for a champion, tomorrow a true friend will continue to cry".
Formula 1 thus loses one of the most crystalline talents that the top car category has seen, leaving a huge hole in the hearts of all fans: Gilles Villeneuve will always be remembered as one of the strongest drivers of all time, and for some as the fastest driver ever.