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F1 History 26

Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

I’m looking forward to Long Beach next weekend, America’s greatest street race.

Founded by Chris Pook in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race, Long Beach was the scene of the United States Grand Prix West for eight warmly remembered years from 1976-83 before switching in 1984 to CART and Indycars.

I’ve had the pleasure of covering all 37 Long Beach GPs, starting with the inaugural F5000 race, and have many fond memories of the place. But none can exceed the sparkle of our old friend and hero Gilles Villeneuve in action through the California streets in Long Beach’s heyday as a Formula One race.

history  Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

Gilles’s first start at Long Beach came in 1978 (above), his rookie year in F1. He qualified his Ferrari 312T3 on the outside of the front row beside team-mate Carlos Reutemann who had won the Brazilian GP two months earlier. Gilles had set the fastest lap in the season-opening race in South Africa, but had yet to score any points or lead any laps. Having watched his enthusiastic rise in Formula Atlantic over the previous four years, however, I was an unabashed Villeneuve fan convinced he was ready to win in F1.

I always watch the race at Long Beach from the relatively long left-hander leading into the hairpin that takes the cars onto Shoreline Drive and the blast past the pits and main grandstands. It’s a great place to watch the cars and drivers at work and there’s even room for out braking into the right-hander or going into the hairpin.

Back in 1978 I arrived at my usual spot just before the start to join colleagues Nigel Roebuck and Denis Jenkinson. Nigel was already a Villeneuve fan, of course, but I was sure Gilles was going to get the jump on Reutemann at the start and was excited at the prospect of watching him lead a Grand Prix for the first time.

history  Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

“You’re about to see the new ace of the era lead the first lap and win the race,” I babbled almost uncontrollably to ‘Jenks’. “Gilles is going to be the man to beat in the next few years. Mark my words!”

Imagine the broad grin on my face and whoop of joy as the cars came wailing into view near the end of the first lap with Villeneuve’s Ferrari in front. Here was a guy I had watched with pleasure and admiration for four years as he drove the wheels off a series of March Atlantic cars displaying tremendous panache. He was also a lovely guy, very funny with a sharp wit, and a low-key family man too with his wife Joann and two kids Jacques and Melanie always nearby. You couldn’t help but admire and like the guy, and it was a fine thing to see all his enthusiasm and hard work begin to earn its just rewards.

Of course, not for the first or last time Gilles’ passion got the better of him that day at Long Beach in ‘78. After leading the first 38 laps he tripped over another car while trying to lap it, putting him out of the race and allowing Reutemann to go on to win. That was the year of the Lotus 79 and Mario Andretti’s World Championship and increasingly, as the season wore on, the Ferraris were outpaced by Andretti and Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 79s. But Gilles came through to score his first Grand Prix victory at the end of the season in the first Canadian GP run in Montreal on what would later become the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

history  Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

The following year Villeneuve finished second in the World Championship to new team-mate Jody Scheckter, winning in South Africa, Long Beach and Watkins Glen. At Long Beach in ‘79 (above) Gilles made amends for his mistake the previous year as he qualified on pole, led every lap and turned the fastest lap too. By then there was no reason for me to offer ‘Jenks’ any advice about Gilles’s potential.

The last time we saw Gilles at Long Beach was in 1982 aboard the fearsome Ferrari 126C2 turbo, three weeks before that year’s fateful San Marino GP. The turbo Ferrari was a beast to drive, particularly around a street circuit like Long Beach, and during practice Ferrari lashed up a pair of wings to try and make a more effective rear wing, challenging the regulations by stretching the full width of the car.

history  Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

The contraption shook and vibrated as Gilles hammered away in the cockpit, eventually finishing third behind Niki Lauda’s McLaren and Keke Rosberg’s Williams only to be disqualified because the wing was deemed illegal. But I’ll never forget him thrashing and slithering that turbo Ferrari through the streets of Long Beach, power on, tyres churning as close to the wall as anyone might dare without the slightest margin for error.

Add your comments

26 comments on Gilles Villeneuve at Long Beach

  1. John Saviano, 9 April 2012 13:26

    I’ve said it many times, but will repeat it – Bernie pulling the F1 race from Long Beach, regardless of his avarice, is one of, if not, THE worst decisions he ever made. Imagine where F1 could have been in the US if that race had continued. Sometimes the best financial move isn’t for the long term best.

  2. Wisemaker, 9 April 2012 13:52

    They don’t make them like Gilles anymore, do they? In so many ways he was a model to point to and say, “We should all try to be more like him.” What spirit! He was a Superhero.

  3. Colin, 9 April 2012 15:02

    I remember that race as a teenager, watching the BBC highlights. Villeneuve tripping up over Regazzoni I think, the disappointment was crushing. I also recall his debut performance at Silverstone the previous year, he got up to fourth. I knew he had something special, as I’d read about in him in Motorsport and as he was driving a red car by years end, it couldn’t have been better for me.
    Long Beach and Watkins Glen, no finer circuits in America for Formula One cars to stretch their legs.

  4. Louis, 9 April 2012 15:23

    Attended all of the Long Beach F1 races. Gilles and Ronnie Peterson were always wonderful to watch. Really was a great period of race car driving before technology overwhelmed driving talent.

  5. Andrew Scoley, 9 April 2012 17:57

    I see Jacques is going to drive the T4 at Fiorano to mark the 30th anniversary. His run up the Goodwood hill in the T3 was very moving, and I’m sure this will be too.I can understand Jacques reluctance to talk about his father when he was in F1, and it’s very nice to read his comments in Motorsport this month. Let’s hope MS despatches a photographer for the occasion.

    I’ve spent an hour or two recently viewing the old films and annual compilations from 78 to 82, and with the latest magazine articles a lot of very good old memories have been stirred.

    Clive James narration of the ’82 season is terrific and his description of Gilles as a ‘poet of a driver’ was so apt. Thanks for the memories Gilles, we should all raise a glass on the 8th of May.

    Agree with the above about Long Beach, a great shame F1 priced itself out.

  6. Piero Dessimone, 9 April 2012 18:47

    It is a real pity that F1 is no longer going to Long Beach where the F1 races have always been very exciting.
    I was a teenager back in 1978, RAI was televising the whole race (one of the few advantages of having Ferrari here in Italy). I remember Gilles leading and then colliding with Regazzoni.
    Thanks Mr.Kirby for reminding me of the good old times.

  7. Ray T, 9 April 2012 20:09

    In many ways, this was the peak of F1. Cars had wide tyres, about 500 hp, and little downforce. You could see drifting and understeer, and very close racing, cars tolerated some wheel banging. Drivers mattered.

    Now it’s 30 PhDs in a trailer behind the pits that matter.

  8. Pete H, 9 April 2012 21:25

    So Massa is the ‘Anti-Gilles’ i suppose, given his pathetic attempts to drive ‘Clifford’.

  9. Rich Ambroson, 10 April 2012 00:22

    Andrew, I remember Clive James’ narration of that ’82 season wrap-up video,and it was poignant when he discussed Gilles.

  10. NickF, 10 April 2012 02:13

    It’s wonderful to hear all the stories of the Gilles we all loved. I especially appreciate the comments about what a gentleman he was while as we know at the same time he was a fierce competitor. I nearly had an encounter with him once in the early days … but my best man, who is today a broadcaster, conducted his first ever student interview with Gilles at Atlantic Motorsport Park in Nova Scotia. Gilles won the Formula Atlantic championship there that day in 1976. During the interview, Gilles was concerned if my pal Blair wanted lunch and asked him of his interest in racing and traded stories of the “early” days at St. Jovite. To this day, Gilles holds the official lap record at AMP.

  11. Keith Campbell, 10 April 2012 08:09

    I was at Mallory Park on that fateful Saturday afternoon when we heard the Gilles had been seriously injured at Zolder.
    On hearing the dreadful news of his death on Sunday morning it seemed that we had lost much more the a driver, it felt that motor racing had died. As the years have gone by and technology has taken over from the driver I think that my thoughts at that time had been correct.
    Gone but never forgotten.

  12. Joe Gillis, 10 April 2012 20:39

    He didn’t win, didn’t even come 2nd but Gilles Villeneuve is absolutely what I really remember about Long Beach 82 (when I was 11). His lap after lap dice with Keijo Rosberg was fantastic – the nimbler Williams getting ahead before Shoreline only to then be gobbled up by the big bad Ferrari before the braking zone. Except on one lap when Gilles came from just a bit too far behind but still tried outbraking Keke. He was way over the limit – anyone watching knew it and so did he but still he was prepared to give it a go. the fact he slithered on down the escape road mattered little for he always had it all under control, spinning neatly 180 degrees back onto the track. Different era, different circuits, different cars, different calibre of driver down the grid generally

  13. Jodum, 11 April 2012 13:46

    Anyway to find out who took the pictures? I’d like to find a way to get larger or high res versions.

  14. Ed Foster, 11 April 2012 13:48

    The photos are all off LAT:

    Hope that helps.


  15. Carlos Sanchez, 12 April 2012 00:18

    Thanks Gordon for rekindling old beautiful memories. I was also fortunate enough to be at Long Beach for the inagural F5000 race in ’75 as well as the GP races held there from ’76 to ’80 and ’82. The first USAWGP in 1976 marking my first ever glimpse of Formula One racing back when I dreamed of ever making it to Europe to witness Top Motor Racing while developing my profession as a car designer before even attending the Art Center in Pasadena, close by! Well… after all these years I can still vividly remember watching Gilles Villeneuve’s masterful displays of car control between the street circuit’s concrete barriers standing at the exit of the first corner at the end of the pit straight from Ocean Drive in full opposite lock after braking, then accelerating plunging downhill onto Linden St., lap after lap after lap (only Peterson came close, and Regazzoni did similarly especially when he won in ’76) !, WOW. Well that got me hooked, and after more than 84 Grand Prix witnessed so far all I can say is that as I think of it it sill feels like the first time…Great!

  16. Robert V, 12 April 2012 19:43

    Thank you Gordon for reminding us of those great days. I must say, your article and the thoughts of enthusiasts who have commented on the last two articles here on Gilles have rekindled memories of what F1 was like then and has sorely dampened what little enthusiasm I have left for the race this weekend in China (another boring Tilke circuit with cars that sound and look the same). As a Canadian race fan the same age as Gilles, you can imagine my excitement on seeing him in action on the streets of Long Beach in ’79 and ’80 after following his exploits in the Atlantic series. The sight of him sliding the Ferrari under control around the concrete lined streets like a big, powerful, high-pitched skidoo is forever etched in my memory. When he left us, something surely did leave F1 forever. Forza Gilles!

  17. dave cubbedge, 13 April 2012 13:19

    I consider myself lucky to have lived and witnessed this great mans’ exploits. Many younger fans simply look at the numbers and simply don’t understand what those of us who lived through it experienced. Six victories and a lot of wrecked cars is all they see. Gilles was so much more than that. Maybe the best starter of his generation, simply the fastest reaction time to the light. Every lap driven at 110%. Extremely fair, but hard racer. And he was great with the fans. A true peoples’ champion.

  18. Adrian Muldrew, 13 April 2012 20:00

    Just want to say, “a propos” of Gilles, that the current cover of the print edition is the most gorgeous for quite a while, probably since the one with the Lotus 79 a year or so back.

  19. AJ Ball, 14 April 2012 19:22

    I agree with the comment that losing the F1 race in Long Beach was one of the major mis-steps of Ecclestone’s tenure. Perhaps it’s an insight into the man that for all his instinctive business genius he couldn’t grasp the importance of having a race in Southern California – and also didn’t seem to appreciate the difference between the beach in Los Angeles and a casino car park in Las Vegas.

  20. Carlos Sanchez, 15 April 2012 11:55

    Yep. Trying to be positively constructive I certainly agree that, from all, or most, of the possible venues to stage a Grand Prix in the US, absolutely Long Beach is the one that could have, CAN, become the ‘Monaco’ on the American continent, but, instead of mourning it’s loss, why don’t we look froward to get it back. We shall.
    Now, there’s supposed to be this F1 GP in Austin. Austin???… in Teeexas, set in the middle of hard core cowboy country, nothin’ wrong with that maaan, but, nothing to do with sophisticated Formula One which is worlds apart… demonstrating short sightedness once and again.

    And, then we’ll go back to Long Beach, set into more cosmopolitan minded country in sunny and beautiful Southern California.

    Wait & see…

  21. Rich Ambroson, 15 April 2012 18:46

    Carlos Sanchez, many great racers have come from Texas, including Jim Hall. Colin Chapman, that great innovator in F1, owed a lot to Hall’s innovations in sportscars.

    Sophistication is a many layered and subtle thing, no?

  22. R Stockman, 15 April 2012 22:04

    Carlo shows his ignorance of Austin and Texas in general , thinking everyone wears boots and rides horses. At least Austin will have a proper track and not a crappy street circuit.

  23. John Read, 16 April 2012 00:58

    It doesn’t really matter where the racers come from, this topic refers more to where the spectators come from.

    My guess is that the potential pool of F1 fans is deeper in California than Texas.

  24. Carlos Sanchez, 16 April 2012 09:25

    Yes guys, I absolutely do not mean to put things in an offensive or derisory way. Sure, there is and always will be some or someone who likes or is good at our Motor Sport wherever in the planet, but, is it not more probable to find large scale audiences in some places than others, based on and about the various inherent factors (cultural, tastes, historical, etc) related?…
    Thanks John Read, that is it. Like John Lennon said about his comment on the Beatles/Jesus Christ, about which all the world hypocritically took a moralist principle stand, ‘it is a FACT’, period.

  25. Ron di Stasio, 21 April 2012 21:07

    I was at that famous Formula Atlantic race in Trois Rivières with James Hunt. He was so impressive to watch, jumping the curbs at every lap in front of us, we were so impressed. I remember telling my friends I’ll bet you he’s gonna be in Formula 1 next year”. My friends replied “well not THAT soon”.

  26. christopher dinnis, 9 May 2012 13:37

    Dear Gordon
    I read your article on Gilles Vileneuve and in particular his early days in Montreal, when her went to Kris Harrison to seek his future in motor racing. I used to live in Montreal in the late 1960′s and I had a friend called Kris Harrison and I am sure it is the same Kris. Do you have his email address as I would very muck like to try and make contact just to shoot the breeze about old times!! If you can be of assistance I would very much appreciate you help. Kind regards Chris Dinnis.

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