Gilles Villeneuve

Some F1 driver names stand out for the time while they drive. Others are timeless, capturing F1 fans imaginations for decades after they have left the sport, or sadly died. Names like Senna, Prost, Clark, Hill, Mansel, Moss, Schumacher and many more stand as a testament the greatest F1 drivers.

Among these names is a special place reserved for the most successful Canadian driver in history – Gilles Villeneuve. Renowned as one of the most exceptional racers in history for his unmatched speed, Gilles Villeneuve was characterized by his all-in approach. It was a mindset that ultimately led to tragic consequences.

Over the span of six seasons, the Canadian driver achieved a notable tally of two race victories and stood on the podium 16 times. Join us as we remember the greatest Canadian driver who pushed against all the barriers to entry.

Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles was born in a small-town neighboring Montreal on January 18, 1950.

Villeneuve initially engaged in snowmobile races during the nascent phase of his career to secure financial support. As he transitioned to single-seater racing, his inherent talent shone brilliantly.

Impressively, he even outpaced James Hunt in multiple Formula Atlantic events. This accomplishment garnered attention from various F1 teams.

Formula 1

McLaren, led by Hunt, extended an offer to Villeneuve to pilot their third car during the 1977 season.

Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix. He secured the ninth spot in qualifying and ultimately finishing 11th. This performance left an indelible impression on the British media.

They waxed lyrical and prophesied a future world champion in the Canadian driver. Nevertheless, McLaren, due to financial considerations, decided not to prolong his contract.

Gilles Villeneuve – Ferrari

Gilles Villeneuve

Fortuitously, this marked a turning point for Villeneuve. In August of the same year, he journeyed to Italy to meet with the legendary Enzo Ferrari.

An impressive test session convinced the Ferrari patriarch, leading to Villeneuve’s signing for the final two races of the season.

If granted three wishes, my foremost desire would be to race, followed by entering Formula 1, and finally, driving for Ferrari.

Gilles Villeneuve

1st Win in Formula 1

Gilles Villeneuve - first win

1978 marked Villeneuve’s inaugural full season in Formula 1. His journey commenced with modest results, managing to complete only one of his initial five races.

However, his breakthrough arrived with a podium finish at the Austrian Grand Prix. The pinnacle of success manifested at the season end in Canada. Villeneuve beat South African Jody Scheckter, clinching his maiden F1 victory.

Remarkably, he remains the sole Canadian to secure a home-soil victory.

Continuation of the Journey Villeneuve’s renown skyrocketed during the illustrious 1979 season, a zenith in his career.

Victories in South Africa and the United States propelled him to the zenith of the drivers’ standings. Despite his performance, Scheckter, Villeneuve’s Ferrari teammate, secured the championship by 4 points.

An unforgettable moment transpired during the United States Grand Prix. Scheckter was surprised to see Villeneuve top the time charts, a substantial 10 seconds ahead of the nearest contender.

The 1980 season dawned with Villeneuve as the favored contender for the world title. However, Ferrari grappled with substantial challenges, failing to secure a single victory. Gilles Villeneuve garnered a meager six points.

The difficulties persisted into 1981, marked by three did-not-finish (DNF) instances at the start. He rebounded, claiming two race wins and another podium finish, ending with a respectable seventh place standing.

Gilles Villeneuve Crash

Tragedy struck in 1982. A rift emerged between Villeneuve and teammate Didier Pironi at the San Marino Grand Prix. Villeneuve was furious.

This happened after Pironi disregarded team orders and won at the expense of the Canadian driver. The subsequent race in Belgium marked Villeneuve’s final appearance.

“Before this, our relationship had always been good and I trusted him,” he said. “But I won’t make that f*****g mistake again.”

Gilles Villeneuve

Tragedy struck at the qualifying session at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

He aimed to beat Pironi’s qualifying time with eight minutes left in the session. Villeneuve collided with Jochen Mass (March) in a in a 140 mph (230 km/h) crash.

Approaching the Terlamenbocht corner, he encountered the slow team March car driven by Jochen Mass. Mass veered to the right, away from the racing line, to create space for Villeneuve. However, Villeneuve, also chose the right side.

The two vehicles made contact as their wheels grazed each other. The result was that Villeneuve’s car was propelled into the air and subsequently somersaulting before making contact with the ground.

Villeneuve was thrown from the cockpit and suffered a neck fracture. He died in hospital later that day. There has been much speculation around the accident.

It is generally agreed that Villeneuve was trying too hard on the lap and that his judgment was clouded by his anger at Pironi.

“In motor racing emotion is dangerous”

Alain Prost

It resulted in a fatal impact that claimed his life at the tender age of 32.It is generally agreed that Villeneuve was trying too hard on the lap and that his judgment was clouded by his anger at Pironi.

His widow – Joan concurs – it was the betrayal Joann could not forgive. She stated that for Gilles, loyalty an overriding principal and he never imagined someone clos eto him would betray his trust.

The anger that Gilles felt was added to with the disappointment he experienced at having been deceived by Didier.

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles Villeneuve - Tributes

In recognition of Gilles triumphs, the name of his hometown Montreal circuit – Île Notre-Dame Circuit– was changed to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The lasting legacy is a remembrance to a racer who has the potential of achieving the successes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

By Jonny Noble

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Jonny Noble I’m a dedicated F1 Writer – and I’ve Been One for Over Four Decades, I’ve been intimately immersed in the world of Formula One for more than 44 years. That’s longer than most professional commentators can boast! As an independent writer, I offer a unique perspective on the entire F1 landscape, free from biases that might cloud the discussion. We dive deep into the exhilarating, frustrating, and captivating facets of the F1 universe. So, regardless of my amateur status, one thing is undeniable: four decades of dedicated F1 fandom have forged strong opinions worth exploring!