The car that Gilles drove

This is the Ferrari 321T3 that took Gilles Villeneuve to his maiden Grand Prix victory, confirming a talent that was to become one of the greatest of all. Mark Hales climbs aboard to pay his respects

The last Formula One car I drove was a March 891. It was powered by a 3.5-litre V10 motor built by Ilmor, the people who build the Mercedes engine in today's McLaren. It was about halfway into the electronic and aerodynamic revolution that led to the space-age missiles of today, but its technology was only for the small of stature. I could only fit in the one-piece carbon-fibre tub after the seat, moulded to fit Austrian comingman Karl Wendlinger, had been removed. Even then I stuck out of the cockpit like a duck coming up from a dive and couldn't bend my elbow enough to reach the gearlever properly. The engine could only be started by a technician with a briefcase and the tyres had to have warmers to be safe on lap one. The chassis preferred minute attention to aerodynamics, rather than alteration of roll bars or springs or other old-fashioned stuff, and it was so close to the ground and had so little droop travel on its suspension that the tub beached on the yellow lines between paddock and track.

Once out there, I was allowed to rev it to a conservative 14,000rpm as the combination of wind battering my protruding helmet and a brutal mix of 750bhp and 3G lateral acceleration or thereabouts through Club Corner was enough to wilt my neck muscles inside 10 laps. I've never experienced anything quite like it, before or since.

Awesome, both technically and physically, but... it was a March. A good car; a successful car. But a hybrid. It was a mix of clever people's ideas and someone else's engine and gearbox. It wasn't a Lotus or a Williams which, while similarly configured laid claim to a greater pedigree and it was not, definitely not, a Ferrari.

Nobody I know can successfully explain what it is about Ferrari, but they all acknowledge there is definitely something. It's the something which makes every driver with the talent long to drive the red cars with the famous exception of Lanfranchi, who passed up the opportunity because Enzo Ferrari wouldn't pay for a plane ticket to Fiorano and besides, Tony would have had to give up fags, booze and birds. What Tony eschewed was enough to make Schumacher senior pass up the chance of a third consecutive championship with Benetton. It wasn't just the money, whatever the press might say.

The March experience was a few years ago now, but today's job would be at the same venue – Silverstone's South Circuit. Today though was to be very special in my life. Today I would drive a Formula One Ferrari. Today I would sit in a cockpit once occupied by Gilles Villeneuve, the man who was so uncomplicated in his love of driving that everybody loved him for it. The man whose touch in adversity helped carry the prancing horse through bleak times and who struck his rivals a psychological blow whenever it rained just as Schumacher does now. And it was in this very Ferrari 312T3, chassis number 034, that, in 1978, Gilles steered to victory at his home Grand Prix in Canada.

Pensioned off by the factory in 79 in favour of the ground effect T4, 034 had been sold to an American collector and became the high profile subject of a massive bankruptcy in the mid '80s before it was rescued by racer and musician Nick Mason. It then endured a shipwreck while en route from a museum in Canada which soaked it in salt water for days before it was rescued again, rebuilt and restored to corrosion-free health once more. A few years in the tender care of crew from Mason's Ten Tenths company gave the car a good home and regular exercise before it had a huge accident at the 1994 Goodwood Festival of Speed which cartwheeled it end over end, shattering the front end of the car and worse still – the ankles of former BRM Grand Prix driver Mike Wilds.

Today's job was to drive it for the first time since the Maranello factory had lovingly replaced the crumpled aluminium sheet and after Ferrari specialist Bob Houghton had repaired the bodywork and John Dabbs and Dave Griffiths at Ten Tenths had carefully reassembled the car.

Before I drove, I spent a few moments just looking at the car; appreciating that Ferrari made not only the car, but the engine and the gearbox, an effort that remains unique in F1 to this day. I study the 312's hunched forward stance which seems to place the driver so close to the front wheels. Size up the polished aluminium, double triangle rear wing which tops a vertical post sticking up from the transverse five-speed gearbox and which looks so much smaller than the long wide front wing, mounted on the very apex of the nose like some space-age snowplough. No doubt about it, the 312T3 looked so very different to its contemporaries at the time. Two decades later, it is still a very distinctive machine.

It is also so much wider than the needle-thin projectiles of today. Each of the sidepods contains a radiator and its exhaust ducts and these pods almost fill the gap between front and rear wheels, rather like a sportscar's body. Climbing in also proves a simple affair after the March; a handful of strategically placed turn and lock fasteners release the top bodywork which lifts to reveal a shallow, gleaming aluminium tub. Legs disappear under the steering wheel, your upper body is firmly wedged by the braces for the roll over hoop and belts clamp torso, crotch and shoulders with vice-like grip. The diminutive Villeneuve would doubtless have had a moulded seat to fit him, but I seem to fill the bare aluminium just about right. Apart that is, from in the footwell. Gilles must have had tiny feet, because mine wedge solid before can even reach the pedals. The only solution is to remove fireproof boot and tape up stockinged foot.

Bodywork on, belts tight. Booster battery connected. Click on master switch and low pressure fuel pump. Wait for the needle to flick up, then hit the starter. Start the flat-12 spinning, then turn on the ignition. The engine catches instantly, but you must then hold a good 2,000 rpm while it warms up. Let it drop for any more than a few seconds without the booster battery and the minimal on-board electrical system cannot feed both sparks and fuel pump. The engine stops. This happens regularly and occasions tutting and shaking of heads from the assembled crew who then have to wheel over the slave battery and go through the starting litany again.

Engine warmed and ready, the gearlever falls to the right hand and the clutch is light underfoot although its travel is minimal. Gear lever down then left and back for first with a gentle grate as the gears stop stirring. To move off, hold the engine at about 3,500, then just relax the left foot the merest amount. The clutch grabs fiercely with the tiniest movement and the car starts forward like a pouncing cat, but don't give up. Just hold what seems like far too many revs and don't relax the foot until the car is well and truly on the move. It's a simple and easily forgotten technique — you can stall the engine repeatedly if you don't get it right. Out now towards the track, surging and stuttering as the right foot jerks in sympathy with the lumps and bumps which 50 passing years have wracked from the few remaining pieces of wartime tarmac.

Smooth tarmac gained, you can feel the flat-12 behind you spitting and snuffling in protest, thrumming and tingling through the tub, buzzing through your back and tickling your hands through the wheel's rim. Squeeze the silken throttle pedal some more.

Now the car is on the move, the revs are higher and it leaps forward in response as if a giant gust of wind has just swept it along. The tachometer needle whips up to 8000rpm in an instant, so quick that you must remember to shift up. Guide the lever forward and across to second. Fumble as it hits the edge of the gate... The Italian cars were possibly unique in having a slotted metal guide around their shifters, added to which there is a positive stop detent. This means you have to go all the way up — or down — in sequence. The idea was to prevent drivers getting the wrong slot and detonating the engine in the heat of battle. The theory is fine and it probably worked well when it was new...

Second to third and third to fourth is a straight fore and aft flick and as confidence grows and arms relax, you can snick the lever up and down as fast as you like, like a switch. The motor meanwhile assumes a different persona as it climbs up the scale. At about 6000rpm, the hoarse-throated braying from behind suddenly develops a harder edge. The tingling and buzzing disappears and the shove becomes a kick. The note washes through your senses and you forget the air roaring and hissing round your helmet. Push towards a still conservative 10,500rpm — our limit for the day — and the wail becomes a chainsaw's howl, braying screaming and rasping all at once. It's a noise that only a flat-12 Ferrari can make and the soundtrack alone can make you forget that you are in sole control of this piece of history, now drawing close to flat out in fifth gear and approaching Stowe corner.

Lift, brake and shift down. The car slows even more quickly than it accelerates, and I find myself cruising up to the corner on a trailing throttle. Turn the wheel to the right and the car leaps instantly into the corner. Too much. Regain the line and relax. The next corner is Club and again I use more lock than needed and twitch the nose. It's as if the car has castors at the front: There's an initial, instant swivel and then it settles. I can at least give the engine its head through the safety of Club's long, wide sweep. Once its aimed and settled, the front pushes wide, and then the tail skips to the left, revs rising as it goes. It's easy to catch, but once again, I use too much lock and the car darts back the other way.

So far not elegant, but at least we're still motoring. I can drive this Ferrari. In fact almost anybody with a licence could. So far the hardest thing has been managing the idling engine, then moving off. The gears need a relaxed hand and some planning while the steering is so sharp you need a gentle touch, but nothing anyone who has driven a kart won't understand. But, the T3 is driveable. Just driving, though, is not what a Formula One Ferrari is meant for.

The hardest thing now is to work out how to dig safely into the T3's reserves. Was that slithering tail a pointer to bigger scares in store? Was it warning that if you press harder the slide will become a spin, and was that darting nose another caution? Would it grow yet more insistent with speed and upset the tail further? Difficult... But you must have confidence in the car's ultimate capability, even if you may not reach its limit. Villeneuve had a gift not given to many, but even he could have done little without some help from the car. So you must trust it, but before you do, you must, simply must, get the tyres hot enough to work. The rears are over a foot wide and unless you heat them throughout, the Ferrari cannot work. This is the trap. Cold slicks make a thoroughbred like the 312 feel frighteningly horrible, but how to go fast enough to warm them without crashing? Maybe those tyre warmers weren't such a sissy idea after all.

So do it gently. Just carry more speed into the corner but don't do anything sudden. Don't try and brake too hard, but lean on the front tyres rather than attack the corner with them. Then pour on the power and feel that flat-12 closing on its 510bhp peak. And as you step up the speed, warm the slicks and ease the car into its envelope, it begins to flow. The steering stops darting and becomes a precision tool. Turn-in is still sharp, but you can use it to point the car towards a more distant apex. Then there's just a hint of push which prompts you to nail the throttle. The skip and yaw from the tail is now merely a suggestion but this neatly sweeps the rear round the corner as you ease the wheel straight. Belted in so tight, you forget you are a human addition to the cockpit. Instead you become part of the car's fabric and aim through the entire corner rather than trying to drive it in sections. The process seems more relaxed and you look further up the mad, point the car further round the bend, carry more speed in, and out.

Sadly, my relationship with the gearshift does not develop at a similar pace. Moving the lever fore and aft is as fast as you can move hand and foot, but moving it across the gate is something of a lottery. I tried doing it fast, doing it slow, guiding the lever and letting it guide itself, but without consistent success. At least the detent meant all I was likely to get was neutral (irritating but not expensive) rather than the next one down (potentially expensive as well as likely to lock the rear wheels). Dabbs and Houghton did say the accuracy of the box varies according to temperature fine adjustment, but I can’t help thinking that the Hewland method of a wide throw but no gate, is easier to live with. You just aim the lever and it finds the slot for you.

Fortunately, that wonderful engine was usually willing to lug the next gear up which was preferable to a fistful of neutrals while I tried to find a rhythm. Each lap brought more temperature to the tyres and the confidence that the next lap could be faster still. You start to sense the forces at work, especially through the faster corners. The T3 has a lot less grip than the March, reflecting some 10 years of tyre and aerodynamic progress, but it was sufficient to begin tugging at the helmeted head, enough to make those neck muscles tingle once more after a 15 lap session.

All too soon this fascinating experience was over. It had not been so brutal as the later car, but all the better for it. The Ferrari communicated better, slid more and gave more time to plan ahead. And it had a better, more individual noise. Yes, almost anyone could drive a 1970s F1 Ferrari. Only a select few, though, could win races with one.

Mark Hales and Nick Mason are in the process of producing a book of track tests covering Mason's extensive collection. It is due to be published in the 1998.

The 312T3: better than the books suggest

Ferrari has Colin Chapman alone to blame for the fact that the 312T3 has not been remembered as a landmark Ferrari in the same way as the championship winning 312T, 12 and 14. It won five races in 1978, more than required by Williams to walk the constructor's championship in 1980. But the might of the extraordinary Lotus 79 with its unsurpassed ground effect aerodynamics meant Carlos Reutemann ended his Maranello days just third in the championship, with the young Villeneuve a distant ninth and Ferrari runners-up but effective also-rans in the Lotus-dominated constructors championship.

The T3 was, as its name suggests, an evolutionary car which was both longer and wider than the T2 and heavier too. Unlike the Lotus, there was nothing radical about its design though it had an effectively new chassis with the engine lowered in the car and the suspension revised to cope with the Michelin radials it would carry in place of Goodyear crossplies.

The simple truth was that, like every other Grand Prix car of its era, it was no match for the Lotuses. But when they failed, such as during Reutemann's epic drive to victory at Brands Hatch, the T3s were almost invariably there to pick up the pieces, cleaning up between them all bar three of the remaining races. Two of these were claimed by Lauda's Brabham — using in Sweden the subsequently outlawed 'fan car' — and inheriting a win at Monza after Andretti and Villeneuve received time penalties.

Though it led for 39 laps at Long Beach, the claim to fame of 312T3 chassis number 034 will always be Villeneuve's first Grand Prix victory, on Canadian home ground at the newly configured Notre Dame circuit in Montreal. To be fair Jean-Pierre Jarier, taking over the second Lotus seat from the late Ronnie Peterson, looked the likely winner having stormed the 79 to pole position and leading for the first 47 laps. An oil leak denied Jarier victory and, egged on by an exultant crowd, Villeneuve crossed the line 13 seconds ahead of Scheckter's Wolf and 20sec ahead of Reutemann's Ferrari. AF