Joann Villeneuve on life with Gilles

Joann and Gilles Villeneuve at the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix

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“I met Gilles when I was 16, so I didn’t have any other life to compare it to. For him it was important to have me and the children close all the time, so we travelled with him. When the children started school I stayed home a bit more, but he really wanted me at all the races. So I travelled back and forth, to be there the next morning for the kids.

I was 19 when I had Jacques. But in those days, at that age, you were already a lot more mature than the young 19-year-olds of today. It wasn’t that unusual.

I was 30 when he died, with two young kids, and my whole life was shattered. There were mixed emotions. You have the anger of him leaving you, but then there’s the people around you saying he was the greatest person and driver they knew. It’s a very dificult and strange time in your life. And you also have to understand that you have what you have because of what he did. Eventually you settle down and find peace with everything. You have the children to take care of and give them a normal, stable life. So you get your bearings quicker than when you are on your own.

Gilles always drove fast on the road. If I was with him, it didn’t make a difference. We did Monte Carlo to Bologna in two and half hours, in a Ferrari 308. I would fall asleep next to him. The only time I was really not comfortable was in the helicopter. He wanted to see how it would fly with the autopilot on. He just let everything go, and there was this huge windstorm between the mountains. We were going up and down like a leaf, and I couldn’t get off… He was quite proud of himself, because finally he’d scared me!

“I just trusted him implicitly, without questioning”

I just trusted him implicitly, without questioning. I just thought this was normal.

I never tried to change him because I don’t think he could have been changed. He was the way he was. When Jacques was small, I would ask him what he wanted to be and he would just say ‘a race driver’. I would say ‘what if it doesn’t happen?’ And then he would look at me and say ‘I don’t understand, there’s nothing else to do in life’. It was just fact for him.

I would have preferred Jacques to do something else. But I never tried to stop Gilles becoming who he became, so how could I try to stop Jacques? I actually signed his first contract because he wasn’t yet 18. I could have stopped him then, right? But I knew this was what he wanted to do and he’d find a way to do it without me, so I might as well help.

Joann and Gilles Villeneuve on the podium at 1981 Monaco Grand Prix

Joann and Gilles: she travelled to most races with her husband

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Looking back at the last weeks of Gilles’ life he really did feel betrayed. Betrayed by Pironi, by Piccinini, by Ferrari. In Gilles’ mind he had helped Scheckter win [in ’79], which was fine. He had no problem doing it. But he also felt that in return if you have an agreement with someone you keep to it. And you don’t have to have a contract, a handshake is fine. And he had that agreement with Pironi, so he never thought it would happen. Then Piccinini, for some reason, let it go.

He was furious, very angry – but Gilles was the kind of person who couldn’t keep anger alive. It was a case of ‘Oh, I have to remember that I never want to speak to these people ever again’. Because naturally he would forget.

By Zolder he had calmed down a bit. The other thing to remember is that once Gilles was in the car he was in a different zone. Everything disappeared, whether it be anger or hunger or whatever. So did he die in a red mist of fury? I prefer to think no.

Had he lived, he would have left Ferrari at the end of 1982. He would have had a choice of teams. For Gilles, the most important thing was to have trust and without it he couldn’t have continued.

I still miss him. Perhaps not every day, but little things… like knowing that he was the one person I could trust implicitly. That’s very difficult to find again. That’s the biggest thing I miss, knowing that such a person will always be there for you.”