Nigel Roebuck's Legends

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Gilles Villeneuve’s idea of the perfect F1 car shows exactly why he was a true hero to those who love racing

They are making a feature film about Gilles Villeneuve next year, and I’m sure people who never saw him on the track will wonder why. After all, his Formula One career was short — four and a bit seasons — and he won only six grands prix.

Hardly the most successful driver of his time, then, and never World Champion, apparently the only yardstick of consequence today.

So what was it about this little fellow from Quebec that captured the imagination of fans across the world? First, he had no pretensions; second, he had charisma to throw away; third, as Jody Scheckter said, he was perhaps the fastest racing driver there has ever been. And because virtually throughout his F1 career Gilles had uncompetitive cars to drive, he looked  every bit as quick as he was, forcing his Ferraris along faster than they cared to go.

If, as a consequence, there were lots of accidents, so also — as his detractors conveniently forget — there were the copybook drives, like Long Beach in 1979 or Monaco in 1981 or, most memorably of all, Jarama the same year, when he calmly held off four pursuing cars all afternoon, and did it without the wisp of a mistake.

Gordon Murray, then technical director of Brabham and a man who knew a bad car when he saw it, spent that day in Spain watching out on the circuit. “That,” he said to me afterwards, “is the greatest drive I’ve ever seen — by anyone.”

I suppose what I liked in particular about Villeneuve, apart from a wonderfully salty sense of humour, was his guilelessness. There was, as Jackie Stewart said, an innocence about Gilles, which remained intact right up to the last fortnight of his life. At Imola in 1982 his team-mate Didier Pironi stole victory on the last lap, when Villeneuve believed they were cruising to a Ferrari 1-2. Afterwards he vowed never to speak a word to Pironi again.

Nor did he. At Zolder, two weeks later, the furies were still raging inside him, and in the final qualifying session he crashed to his death.

As I thought about him in the days afterwards, I remembered a conversation we had had a few weeks earlier in Rio. It began when he asked if he could ‘have a word’.

What he wanted was ‘a word’ about Pironi. “I know Didier’s off the pace this weekend,” Gilles said, “but he’s still shaken up by his testing shunt at Ricard the other week. It was a big one, believe me…

“When you write your report,” he said quietly, “please go easy on him. He’ll be fine by the next race.”

In my experience, a racing driver rarely passes up an opportunity to score off his team-mate, and later I came to wonder if Pironi had any notion of the friendship he tossed away at Imola.

Whatever, that day at Rio Gilles then fell to talking about his ideal F1, about his concerns for it at that time. I played the tape again the other day, and was struck once more by the passion  he had for this sport. Villeneuve hated the breed of grand prix car spawned by the rules of the time. As with today’s cars, those of the early ’80s had a tremendous amount of downforce, but back then much of it was generated by ground effect, by shaped underbodies, and all the cars had ‘skirts’, to create a seal with the ground. Problem was, while these had previously been of the sliding variety, now they had to be fixed, and the only way to keep them from being instantly destroyed was to create a car effectively without suspension.

This made them hellish to drive.

“I probably enjoy driving — for its own sake — more than a lot of drivers,” Gilles said, “but I hate these cars. Two or three years ago I used to enjoy myself maybe 15 times each lap. Now it’s once every 15 laps! No-one outside of F1 can know what shit these things are to drive.

“There is a moment, going over a bump and turning into a corner at the same time, where you lose vision. Everything goes blurred. The g-forces are unbelievable and the steering is ridiculously heavy, like being in a big truck with the power steering not working. Sometimes you feel you don’t have the strength to pull it round a corner.

“And, of course, we have no suspension. You go over a bump and it’s like someone is kicking you in the back. Your legs are flung around against the steering rack. Your head constantly hits the back of the cockpit or the roll-over bar. After a while your sides ache, your head aches, and you become aware of not enjoying driving a racing car…”

Were we getting to the point, I asked, where a driver’s most important quality was his physical strength, his stamina?

“Yes. Absolutely. The days of driving with your fingertips are gone. Now you have to grip the wheel, simply to hold on, to get the car to turn through the corner. A lot of the art has gone out of it — nearly all, in fact.”

Were his colleagues in agreement? “Yes, for sure, but some of them don’t like to say too much about it, either because they are afraid of upsetting their boss or because they want to play the tough guy. Well, I’ll tell you, I can play the tough guy as well as anyone, but I’m not afraid to say what I think. No-one expects motor racing to be safe — it never can be. But it seems stupid to make it more dangerous — and more boring — than it needs to be.”

All right then, I said, define your ideal F1 car.

“For me it’s very simple,” Gilles said. “I love motor racing. To me it is a sport, a spectacle, not a technical exercise. My ideal F1 car would have no ground effect — in fact, very little downforce at all. It would have a 5-litre normally-aspirated engine, at least 800hp, with 21in rear tyres. Some say we should have narrower tyres, but I’m not in favour of that because you need big tyres to slow you down if you spin. And you need a lot of horsepower to unstick big tyres, to make the cars slide.

“That would be a fantastic spectacle, I can tell you. We would take corners one gear lower than we do now and we would get the cars sideways. People still rave about Ronnie Peterson in a Lotus 72 and I understand that — I agree with them. That’s the kind of entertainment I want to give the crowds. Smoke the tyres! Yeah!

“I think the spectators are really losing out, and that’s bad. OK, we may not get pleasure from driving these cars, but forget about that. We are paid to do it and people will say, ‘Even if it hurts, drive it.’ I understand that, and if it gave good entertainment to the spectators I would accept it. But these cars are so boring to watch…

“Spectators like to see cars sliding, but you cannot slide them now. First of all you don’t have the balls to do it because the cars are too twitchy for that, too nervous. Second, the steering is too heavy to give you the delicate control you need to slide. Third, it is not efficient, loses you time.

“So this is crazy, right? The drivers don’t like these cars and neither do the spectators. So who does like them? The aerodynamicists, I guess. But the public does not come to see how good the aerodynamicists are. They come to see a battle, a spectacle. They come to be stirred, excited. And they are being cheated…”

And you wonder why the fans loved him? Quite what Gilles would have made of traction control I cannot begin to imagine.

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