Losing a friend to the dangers of motor racing is tough, but taking on a hero’s mantle and trying to rebuild a team in mourning is an almost superhuman task
By Nigel Roebuck
In a few months’ time comes the 25th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Tragedies of this kind are mercifully rare these days, but during my first year of working in Formula 1, 1971, I attended two memorial services (for Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert), and through the 1970s such events were not uncommon.
Nor, for that matter, were genuine friendships between drivers and journalists. In my early days in the business, Eoin Young warned me of the pitfalls: chances were, he said, that I’d make a friend of a driver, that he would then get killed, that I’d never feel quite the same about racing again.
He was right. It had happened to him with Bruce McLaren, and it happened to me in qualifying at Zolder in May 1982, when Villeneuve’s Ferrari vaulted over Mass’s March. Jochen saw Gilles in his mirrors and moved right to give him room; by then, though, Gilles was committed to going the same way. As the session was red-flagged, the PA bellowed that there had been ‘an enormous accident to one of the Ferraris’. I was in the pit lane at the time, and as a red car came in, I’m afraid to say my heart sank when I saw it was number 28: Didier Pironi. It wasn’t, of course, that I wished Pironi ill, although I’d been angered by the way, two weeks earlier, he had stolen victory from Villeneuve at Imola. No, it was the fact of knowing that the ‘enormous accident’ had befallen number 27.
I walked out to Terlamenbocht, hoping all the while, yet somehow feeling the presence of death.
It was like a ’plane crash. The barrier was twisted and there was a deep pit in the sandy run-off area where the Ferrari had landed nose-first. The appalling remains of the car, from which the driver had been thrown, had come to rest on the track.
For a few hours Villeneuve survived on a life support machine in hospital. “It was hopeless, and getting to the point that we were going to have to switch the machine off,” said Professor Sid Watkins. “I was relieved that poor Gilles died before it became necessary to talk to his wife about it.
“I always thought he was very like Senna in lots of ways – a charger on the track, but a wonderfully gentle person. They were both among that handful of really great talents.
“They were also terrifying in road cars – because they were so confident, they didn’t allow for ordinary mortals. “Gilles would overtake a line of traffic, with a truck coming the other way, just knowing that a gap would open up somewhere. And eventually, of course, he was proved wrong…
Villeneuve’s death rocked motor racing, and nowhere more than in Italy. Enzo Ferrari issued a sorrowful statement: “He brought much prestige to the name of Ferrari. I loved him.”
Life goes on, though, and although the team ran but a single car, for Pironi, at Monaco, Detroit and Montreal, by the time of Zandvoort number 27 was back, its driver Patrick Tambay – who had been Villeneuve’s closest friend among the drivers.
“I’d left F1 for ever, I thought,” said Tambay. “I had committed myself to Can-Am. I was a little surprised. At that stage, I was out of touch with European motor racing. But, to be perfectly honest the thought had occurred to me, yes…”
Tambay asked for 24 hours to think about it. He wanted to see how others – Joann Villeneuve, mutual friends in the south of France, his father – felt: “They all said they believed Gilles would have been pleased that, if anyone had to replace him, it was me. That made my decision much easier.” Patrick then called sporting director Marco Piccinini to say yes.
When Tambay went to the factory for the first time, he felt the weight of expectation upon him. At Maranello morale was in the depths; the presence of Villeneuve was overwhelming.
“When I first started testing,” said Patrick, “I was so aware of the melancholy, the sadness in the eyes. But by the third day, when I got within a couple of tenths of the Fiorano lap record, I began to see some smiles when I came into the pits.
“I knew it would take a long time for the pain to fade – and I also knew that you didn’t fill up a hole like the one Gilles left. No way. But in time there was a little sparkle in the eyes again.
“From the start, too, I felt something different at Ferrari. For the first time you weren’t driving for a team, you were driving for a man. Every time I went to test at Fiorano, I had lunch with Enzo Ferrari: he’d come to the track, watch for a while, then go back to work. He wanted to know what was happening.”
Seventh in his first race, Tambay followed up with a couple of fourths and a third. Team mate Pironi, on the other hand, was on course to become France’s first World Champion.
Then came Hockenheim. Didier was the pace-setter in Saturday’s heavy rain, but in thick spray failed to see Alain Prost’s car, slowing as it went towards the pits. The Ferrari hit the back of the Renault and somersaulted over it. Pironi survived, but suffered awful leg injuries and never raced again.
“I wasn’t at the race,” said Harvey Postlethwaite, Ferrari’s technical director. “But I got a call asking me to go to the Old Man’s office. ‘Addio Mondiale,’ he said sadly. Goodbye, World Championship. Then he asked me to watch the race on TV with him next day – and Tambay won it! The Old Man sat there, and cried, then went round and embraced everyone…
“People always said that Patrick was a good bloke, but not quick enough, which I thought was nonsense. After Gilles’s death he did a fantastic amount to keep Ferrari together. And the year after, he ‘avenged’ what had happened to Gilles at Imola in ’82. Started third on the grid, where Gilles had started – and then won the race in number 27. It was one of those days to make you believe there was a God, after all…”