By Nigel Roebuck
The happy surprise of Pastor Maldonado
An emotional pilgrimage to Modena
Given Adrian Newey’s unmatched ability to find downforce in places denied to others, you might reasonably have expected that the Circuit de Catalunya, with its long, fast corners, would have been heaven-sent for the Red Bulls. Mark Webber, after all, dominated the Spanish Grand Prix in 2010, and Sebastian Vettel – admittedly under pressure from Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren – won the race last year. This time around, however, Vettel and Webber started seventh and 11th, and finished sixth and 11th. On the podium, meantime, we had drivers from Williams, Ferrari and Lotus. Why, it could have been the late 1970s.
I’ll happily admit that I was stunned by Pastor Maldonado’s performance, and it was more than cruel that the day of Williams’s triumphant comeback should have ended with that horrendous pit ire, in which some were injured, and during which mechanics, mostly wearing shorts, from sundry teams behaved with consummate heroism.
In his GP2 days it was clear that Maldonado was inherently quick, albeit something of a wild man, but – whatever Adam Parr may have said at the time – it was also plain that what got him into a Williams in the irst place was the provision of a great many Venezuelan petro-dollars.
Nothing wrong with that – welcome to the 21st century – but one never quite understood why Parr should have curiously described as ‘repulsive’ the suggestion that money had come into the equation.
Last year, in a singularly poor Williams, Maldonado – as his team-mate Rubens Barrichello acknowledged – quite often showed genuine pace, notably at Monaco, where he lattered the car and would have scored his first points had not Lewis Hamilton bundled him into the fence at Ste Devote. At the end of the year it was no surprise to see him swiftly confirmed for 2012, while Barrichello, with a minimum of good grace, sadly, was shown the door. I must say I thought of Rubens, sitting there in Indianapolis, waiting to drive one of those odd new Indycars, digesting the news from Spain.
In Melbourne Maldonado was involved in an intense ight with Fernando Alonso, but when he dropped it on the last lap there wasn’t huge surprise, for he had shown similar fallibility before. At Barcelona, though, he was close to perfect. When Hamilton, through no fault of his own, was removed by the stewards from pole position, Pastor was promoted to the top spot – and this on a day when team-mate Bruno Senna didn’t make it out of Q1.
Maldonado lined up against Alonso, and it was no more than predictable that Fernando – always a great starter and before his home crowd – should resolutely refuse to lift on the run down to the irst corner, and snick into the lead. Any thoughts, though, that the Ferrari was going to disappear were swiftly dispelled: Maldonado kept the gap constant, taking the lead at the first stops by a combination of singularly assertive strategy by his team, an obstructive delay to Alonso by Marussia’s Charles Pic, and a sensational ‘out’ lap on tyres coming up to temperature.
Late in the race Alonso, on slightly newer Pirellis, closed in on Maldonado, perhaps hoping that pressure might induce a repeat of the lapse in Australia, but it never came. In the end, indeed, it was the Ferrari which ran out of grip, falling back almost into the clutches of Kimi Räikkönen’s Lotus. Maldonado drove faultlessly, and came home to score Williams’s first win since Juan Pablo Montoya took the lag at Interlagos in 2004, his final drive for the team.
Last season was catastrophic for Williams, yielding just ive points from 19 races, and I was one of many saddened by the team’s continuing fall from grace. Who could have predicted that, five races into the new season, a Williams – albeit now with Renault rather than Cosworth power – would be the thing to have, just as, in Malaysia, the quickest car in the race was a Sauber? IIn Australia no one could touch Jenson Button’s McLaren, and in Bahrain Sebastian Vettel put one on the board for Red Bull.
At the moment Formula 1 is about as predictable as NASCAR, and at every turn pundits have been breathlessly claiming that already this season is without equal in the sport’s history. Five races in, there have been five different winners – and, perhaps more signiicantly, in five different cars.
This is not unknown – the first five races of 1983, for example, fell to Messrs Piquet, Watson, Prost, Tambay and Rosberg, driving, respectively, Brabham, McLaren, Renault, Ferrari and Williams – but it is mighty unusual, you can say that.
Curious, too. In terms of pure performance, one or two teams, notably Ferrari and Force India, have so far fallen short of expectations (although Fernando Alonso, as ever, has not), but in general terms virtually everyone appears to be in with a shout. Only Caterham, Marussia and HRT, as usual, have failed to score a point.
This year, more than ever before, it’s all about tyres – all about tyre management. A matter of making the right Pirelli choices at the right moment, of getting the most from their ‘sweet spot’, of coming in to change them ‘before they fall off the cliff…’ A whole new vocabulary has come into F1 in the recent past.
Michael Schumacher, for one, doesn’t like it the way it is, and has been vocal on the subject. He finds it offensive that the limited-life characteristics deliberately (in the interests of ‘The Show’) built into Pirelli’s tyres mean that a driver is rarely able to drive as fast as he could, and in one way it is easy to sympathise with him. By definition, after all, that’s what a racing driver is put on earth to do, and to some degree it’s bound to go against the grain if he has to lap seconds slower than he could, not because his tyres are simply worn out, but because they have been designed to have a limited life.
On the other hand, it’s the same for everyone. As Al Capone put it, ‘Dese are de conditions dat prevail’, so get on and make the best of it. In the turbo era, I remember, drivers were similarly frustrated at having relatively to stroke it, in the interests of fuel economy, in the race, as opposed to qualifying. At Rio in 1982 Alain Prost’s Renault took the pole at 1min 28.808sec; the fastest lap in the race itself (by Nelson Piquet’s victorious Brabham) was 1min 36.582sec…
Clearly Schumacher would prefer a return to the time of sprint-stop-sprint, when refuelling was allowed, and consequently the cars were always light. In they all came periodically for new tyres and more gas, at which point the sprint resumed – and no one ever overtook anyone. In terms of pure driving, it may have been satisfying, but in the grandstands they had only the noise to keep them awake. At home people would watch the start on TV, go off to the garden centre or whatever, then come back for the finish to see if anything had changed. Very often it hadn’t. Truth be told, probably what Michael really hankers after is a return to those halcyon days when Bridgestone made bespoke tyres for him and his Ferrari.
There is little doubt that this season, even more than last, tyres are playing a pivotal role in the way a Grand Prix evolves, but that is new only in the fact that it applies to every race, and that every driver has exactly the same tyres to work with. In years gone by, where there were fierce ‘performance only’ tyre wars, it was by no means unknown that a single make worked very much better on some cars than others.
An extreme example of this came at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1983, when the McLarens of Watson and Lauda finished first and second. Nothing very remarkable about a result like that, on the face of it – save that John and Niki had qualiied 22nd and 23rd. By half-distance they were up to third and fourth, and for the last 30 laps they were completely unopposed, Watson finishing well over a minute clear of Rene Arnoux’s third-placed Renault.
F1 was going through a transitional period in 1983, with all the British teams (save Brabham and Toleman) still running Cosworth DFVs, while preparing to follow the turbo lead of Renault and Ferrari. Michelin, Goodyear and Pirelli were all involved, but the only leading ‘DFV’ team using Michelins was McLaren, and often this cost them dear for the French company’s focus was on its turbo teams. In qualifying at Long Beach, such as Renault had no trouble getting heat into their Michelins, but the far less powerful McLaren-Cosworths were in terrible trouble: hence their lamentable grid positions. The Cosworth cars on Goodyears, by contrast, had no such problems, and were up at the sharp end.
Come race day, however, it was a different story. Conditions were hotter than in qualifying, and whereas Watson and Lauda found their Michelins just the ticket for 75 laps of Long Beach, others had a very different experience. Tyre changes – not part of the game 30 years ago – were frequent, and on top of that the attrition rate proved high. In those circumstances the McLarens swept home, and no one was more surprised than the winner. “Don’t ask me how I did it, Nigel,”
Wattie said to me after the race, “because I don’t know!” At Monaco, though, reality struck home forcibly. Again Niki and John had their problems, once more qualifying 22nd and 23rd – but in those days only 20 starters were permitted for the Monaco Grand Prix, and thus, unthinkably, we had a race devoid of McLarens.
Invariably, as a season wears on, the usual suspects assert themselves, and doubtless that will eventually be the case this time, too, but at the moment Red Bull and McLaren, very much the star turns of 2011, are falling short of expectations.
True, each has won a Grand Prix, and Lewis Hamilton has invariably excelled in qualifying, but actual race pace keeps falling short. After the restart in Malaysia, for example, when Alonso led from Perez and Hamilton, I expected Lewis to eat them alive, but he made no impression.
At Barcelona Button, off the pace all weekend, seemed bemused by his machine’s lack of grip. Conversely, Hamilton, often criticised for being hard on his tyres, drove a splendid race from the back of the grid, finishing eighth – and doing it, what’s more, on a two stop strategy, when every other front runner came in three times.
It is always interesting, given the events of the moment, to study the demeanour of top racing drivers. Last year Lewis, with his well documented off-track woes, often seemed like a man in the wilderness, and it was relected not only in his driving but also in his attitude to the team. This season, by contrast, he is far more relaxed, coping with setbacks in a manner which would have been unthinkable in 2011.
There have been costly mistakes in pit stops, and the error in Barcelona qualifying – marginally too little fuel was put in the car for the requisite one-litre sample to be available for checking – robbed him of pole position after a devastating lap, half a second faster than anyone else. These are operational problems one does not expect of McLaren, and had they occurred last year, when Hamilton’s state of mind was fragile, their effect might have been dire. In 2012, though, he is different again, hardly delighted by the setbacks, but apparently able to put them behind him. Where, given his situation on the grid at Barcelona, one might have expected him last year to clatter into a backmarker, now he drove beautifully, racing hard but picking his moments – and looking after his tyres all the while.
If Hamilton is smiling a lot more this year, Sebastian Vettel is not, which is perhaps hardly surprising since, after two seasons of enjoying what is conclusively the best car, he is having what Denny Hulme used to call, ‘A bite of a reality sandwich’. Sebastian won in Bahrain, and at the time of writing shares the lead of the World Championship, but when you have experienced the serene state of expecting to win even before you leave home, it is not easy to
adjust to anything less.
I sympathised with Vettel, I must say, at Barcelona, for what seemed like a harsh ‘drive through’ penalty, dished out because the stewards considered he didn’t slow down enough for the yellow lags waved after the coming-together between Senna and Schumacher. He was, after all, close behind them when it happened, and had to go through all the shrapnel, and the thought occurred again that today there are penalties for everything except the only offence once considered unacceptable: blocking. Rather puts me in mind of Tom Lehrer’s line: “When I was young they told me all these words I mustn’t use in front of a girl.
Now it’s OK to use any of them – but I mustn’t say ‘girl’…” We are in uncharted territory in F1 at the moment, in the sense that no one truly knows what to expect from the next race. Some say that showbiz has finally overtaken sport, and as a purist I can’t take issue with that, but it’s a process that began a long time ago, and nothing is going to reverse it. It strikes me as not insignificant that for 2013 the powers-that-be are intent on an ‘aesthetic’ rule change – surely the first ever – to eliminate the ‘letter opener’ noses which proliferate this year: they don’t look good on TV, so they have to go.
As we go to Monaco, almost anything seems possible, but if there’s a team on the cusp it is surely Lotus. Romain Grosjean, seizing a rare second chance in F1, is looking like France’s best driver in a long time, and then there is Kimi Räikkönen…
“He makes Mika Häkkinen seem like Jerry Lewis!” Flavio Briatore once said of the Kimster, and if it’s true that he appears no more animated than he was first time around, he is again driving like the McLaren man of old, making the lacklustre days at Ferrari the more inexplicable. After two years of rallying, Räikkönen has found his niche again – and apparently his mojo.
He will win one soon.
Early in May I spent three quite enchanting days in Modena and around. I had been there many times before, of course, but always during trips to Imola, a place probably unknown to the gentlemen of CVC, but one which was – and still could be, if 30 or 40 million dollars a year were available – among the finest theatres of Grand Prix racing I have known. Better yet, it is in a country where they actually give a damn about Formula 1.
Even brief touches with Modena were memorable, but I never felt I was doing it justice. This is, after all, the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari, and like Indianapolis in that racing comes out of every pore.
The trigger for my visit was a ’phone call one day with my old friend Peter Windsor, during which we talked of the plan for Jacques Villeneuve to drive his father’s Ferrari 312T4 at Fiorano on May 8, the 30th anniversary of Gilles’s death. It was an admirable idea, of course, but we both suspected it might turn into a bit of a ‘corporate event’. Luca di Montezemolo was going to be there, and there would be a press conference, which would also feature Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course, but… what did it have to do with a day honouring Gilles Villeneuve? More appealing, we reckoned, would be a less ‘official’ celebration of Villeneuve’s life the weekend before, being organised by Jonathan Giacobazzi, he of the wineproducing family firm who sponsored Gilles during his years with Ferrari. Thus we at once booked rooms at the Hotel Real Fini, which itself has long links with motor racing, and is on the Via Emilia. The Mille Miglia used to pass by the front door.
Once out of Bologna airport, however, we travelled directly to Pappagallo for lunch, and it seemed only appropriate to have tortellini alla panna, a favourite of mine, but also of Ferrari drivers down the years, not least Chris Amon, not least Gilles. The pasta was perfection, but the main reason for visiting Pappagallo, which opened in 1919, was that it had been the favourite restaurant of one Tazio Nuvolari.
Staying at the Real Fini, too, were Joann Villeneuve and her daughter Melanie, having arrived in Italy that morning after a ‘red eye’ light from Montréal. It was a delight to see them again, and, together with Signor Giacobazzi, we stayed up till one in the morning, drinking good wine and reminiscing. “At a race track,” Joann smiled, “Gilles was like a kid in a playground. It was simple for him: ‘If I’m fastest in every corner, I’ll be fastest on every lap, and I’ll win every race…’
“Of course people always think of him in terms of Ferrari, but, you know, before we came to Europe, and were watching the Grands Prix on TV, the team Gilles always wanted to drive for was Lotus – he absolutely loved watching Ronnie Peterson in that black Lotus. When Ferrari came along, it was ‘OK…’ ”
There has always been an assumption that Villeneuve would have stayed with Ferrari throughout his career, and undoubtedly Enzo would have wished it so, but Gilles was tiring of the endless fight against faster English cars, and the disillusionment he felt after the Imola affair with Didier Pironi was profound. At the time I asked him if he would remain with the team for 1983. “I don’t know,” he said, “but if Pironi is there the answer is no, for sure.”
In the San Marino Grand Prix his teammate had ignored Ferrari’s long-held ‘team order’ that the cars should finish in the order in which they were when they became first and second. Villeneuve himself had always scrupulously observed the rule, even when passing Jody Scheckter at Monza in 1979 would have kept him in the World Championship hunt. No surprise then that he was outraged by the duplicity at Imola – and it’s no surprise, either, that he was maddened by the team’s refusal publicly to back him. Well, after all, a Ferrari had won the race, so…
“Gilles had great relationships with both Carlos [Reutemann] and Jody,” said Joann. “The only problem was with Pironi. Quite early on I said, ‘Don’t trust him’, and Gilles said, ‘You don’t know him…’ I said, ‘I know – but don’t trust him’. That was why he was so upset after Imola – he had trusted Pironi, and betrayal was something he simply couldn’t understand…”
At the time I felt sure that Villeneuve would part company with Ferrari, and the likelihood is that he would have accepted Ron Dennis’s offer to join McLaren in 1983 – either that, or taken a sabbatical, and gone there in ’84. Who can imagine how quick he would have been in John Barnard’s TAG Porsche-powered MP4-2?
On the Saturday morning we went off to look at the old Modena Autodromo – or rather the site of it. Thirty years ago, when I went there with Denis Jenkinson, the circuit was still as it had always been, albeit no longer in use, but now only the old control tower remains. A shame in one way, but at least the area has been transformed into a park named after Enzo Ferrari, rather than a faceless industrial estate or whatever.
The park, what’s more, is leafy and rather charming, its sundry pathways named for drivers from down the ages, and there are memorials, too, for such as Eugenio Castellotti, who lost his life at the circuit in March 1957.
Castellotti, the protégé of Alberto Ascari, personisied the Italian racing driver of the Fifties. “He was most people’s idea of what a racing driver should look like – and rarely does!” said Stirling Moss. “Dramatic good looks, like a bullighter or something…”
From a rich family, Eugenio raced cars because he wished to do nothing else. In 1956 he won Italy’s blue riband event, the Mille Miglia, averaging 85mph for eleven and a half hours in torrential conditions on public roads, and heading three more factory Ferraris, driven by Peter Collins, Luigi Musso and… Juan Manuel Fangio.
The following spring Castellotti was in Florence with his fiancée Delia Scala, a leading actress of the time, who was appearing in a play at the Teatro Verdi.
When Jean Behra’s Maserati 250F set a new lap record at Modena, Ferrari called Eugenio and ordered him back: for the honour of the company, he said, it was vital that a Ferrari should beat Behra’s time. There were those who claimed that this came about as a result of Ferrari’s accepting a wager in a bar, but one would prefer to believe this apocryphal. Whatever else, it seems absurd that the Modena lap record – set in a test session – could have been a matter of such moment.
An order was an order, though. Not in the lightest of moods, Castellotti took a train back to Modena and arrived at the track in the late afternoon. Out he went in a Lancia-Ferrari – and within a few minutes he was dead, the car going out of control at the S-bend at the end of the pit straight, throwing the driver out as it somersaulted, then disintegrating against a small stone grandstand.
Behra, on the spot, was emphatic that Castellotti had had a problem changing down, that his car had arrived at the corner in neutral. Delia Scala, notified of the tragedy early in the evening, somehow observed theatrical tradition, and ‘went on’, as usual.
As I stood by the memorial to Castellotti, I couldn’t help but remember something Peter Ustinov once told me. “Peter Collins, with whom I was friendly, told me the most terrifying story about the Commendatore. Peter was with him in the ofice at Maranello, and the phone went. Ferrari picked it up, and said, ‘Pronto! Ferrari!’ Then he listened, and he became pale. ‘Non e possibile… Castellotti… Castellotti morto…’ A slight pause. ‘E la macchina?’”
When I related this to Phil Hill, a member of the Ferrari sports car squad at that time, he responded with a cynical smile: “Yeah, sounds about right…”
Saturday afternoon brought a visit to the Panini Collezione, regarded very much as the ‘Maserati Museum’. Sited out of town in sumptuous countryside, an elegant building on Signor Panini’s farm houses the cars, and a glad sight they make. When I was a kid my heart always beat faster for Maserati than Ferrari, perhaps because my heroes Behra and Moss drove for the team, perhaps because their cars – notably the 250F and the 300S – remain to my eye the most classically beautiful racing cars ever built.
The most startling exhibit, though, is the single-seater built by Maserati – in about three weeks – to take on the Indianapolis roadsters in the Race of Two Worlds at Monza in 1958. A beast of a thing, it rather resembles a 250F on steroids, and outlandishly – for a European race car of the Fifties – carries sponsorship, from the Eldorado ice cream company, and is white, rather than red.
Powered by a short-stroke 4.2-litre version of the V8 from Maserati’s 450S sports car of the previous year, it was driven by Moss, and if flogging round Monza’s banked ‘oval’ was far from Stirling’s idea of fun, he soon acclimatised to this new form of racing, running as high as third before the steering broke at 170mph, and pitched him into an accident which truly frightened him: “I just closed my eyes – I thought I was going to die…”
After hitting the barrier at the top of the banking, the Maserati spun crazily down onto the inield, where Stirling climbed out, somehow quite unhurt.
Dinner on Saturday, hosted by Giacobazzi, was at the Montana in Maranello, which opened in 1967, and these days has replaced the Cavallino as Ferrari’s restaurant of choice.
It goes without saying that the fare was delectable, but what truly made the evening was the presence not only of the Villeneuves, mère et fille, but also of Mauro Forghieri and the Ferrari mechanics from Gilles’s racing days, some of whom brought scrapbooks from his career.
I found myself sitting next to René Arnoux, who was due to play a central role in the events of the following morning. These days the director of a Swiss company manufacturing delicate parts for high-end watch companies like Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Arnoux, always quiet and shy through his racing career, has come out of his shell, and was clearly elated at being back in a Ferrari environment.
“Through Jean Todt,” he said, “I drove a Schumacher car a few years ago, and honestly I couldn’t get over how easy – compared with the cars of my era – it was to drive. OK, the limit is always the limit, and of course I wasn’t near it, but… very soft ride, smooth power delivery, automatic gear-change, power steering…”
This being the weekend it was, somewhat inevitably the conversation came round to Villeneuve, of whom Arnoux had been a good friend. “I remember,” he said, “talking to Gilles at Long Beach one evening about a particular corner there. We were discussing whether or not it could be taken lat – I said maybe, but I didn’t think so, and Gilles agreed.
Next day, in practice, I came round that corner – and there was Gilles’s car, with a wheel off! Later on he said, ‘I guess we were right in thinking it wasn’t flat – but I had to try…’
“Everyone still talks about that day at Dijon in 1979, and it was the best race of my life, but afterwards some of the older drivers were saying Gilles and I were crazy – maybe they had never been in a battle like that, I don’t know… I can only say that we were both completely fair with each other – as you can tell by the way we embraced after the finish.
“Today you have penalties for everything – but you also have driving permitted that would have been completely unacceptable then. Look at the film of Dijon, and you will see that all down the long straight to the first corner, neither of us ever changed our line to block the other one. Now, when someone is trying to pass, you just swerve in front of him, and apparently that’s OK – even allowed! Gilles would never have understood that – any idiot can block. He was hard on the track, but always sportive, and that’s how it should be…
“Somehow, you know, I never think of Gilles as a racing driver,” René said. “I think of him as an acrobat. So many people have asked me what was different about him, compared with other drivers, and I say ‘different’ is not a big enough word – he was unique.” And the fastest driver Arnoux ever raced against? René made a face. “There is nothing to discuss…”
So to Sunday. By 9.30 we were in Castel d’Ario, birthplace of Nuvolari, and there, in the piazza bearing his name, sat a 1979 Ferrari T4, complete with tyre-warmers. Alongside it was a Nuvolari Alfa, and along from there Villeneuve’s personal Ferrari 308GTB. All were to take part in a very special drive to Erbe, eight kilometres away. Can you imagine such a scenario anywhere but Italy?
I looked inside the car, savouring the leather-bound Momo steering-wheel (rather than carbon fibre ‘tiller’), the stubby conventional gear lever and ‘gate’. And I noted that the T4, while in perfect working order, had thankfully not been ‘restored’.
It wasn’t just any T4, this. Now owned by Jonathan Giacobazzi, it was the very one which featured in the duel with Arnoux at Dijon, the one which (like Nuvolari’s Alfa at Brno in 1937) lost its left rear tyre (and ultimately wheel and suspension) while leading at Zandvoort, which honourably followed Scheckter home at Monza, which fought valiantly against Alan Jones’s faster Williams at Montréal, which lapped Watkins Glen 11 seconds quicker than anything else in wet practice, and then won the race…
The one, in short, in which Villeneuve could so easily have become World Champion. Because of the unforgettable race at Dijon, Arnoux easily topped a poll conducted to determine who should drive the car this day.
Behind him were Messrs Alesi, Scheckter and Tambay. Even as it was all unfolding, I was aware that this was a day – a weekend – that I would never forget, a reminder, as if it were necessary, of why I have always loved Italian motor racing above all other. Hordes of enthusiasts were on hand, scrabbling to take photographs of the Ferrari, and if the weather looked a little threatening nothing could detract from an atmosphere that was exuberant and good-natured. And why not? Here we were, after all, in a racing environment, free to film with a movie camera without the risk of 30 lashes…
At mid-morning the T4 was ired up, and appropriately it was the doyen of Ferrari mechanics, Giulio Borsari, now 86 years old, who sat in the cockpit, warming the engine on a constant throttle, then, as the temperatures came up, blipping it – gently at first, then ever more urgently.
It had been quite a while since I had heard the lat-12 engine, and I was struck by the deep and muscular sound, utterly different from the slightly hysterical engine note of today’s V8s, all of which sound remarkably similar. Borsari sat there in the cockpit, a look of calm pride on his face.
Just for a day he was back in his own world again. When he shut the engine down finally, everyone clapped. After a short address by the Mayor of Castel d’Ario, who spoke of the town’s pride in Nuvolari and its affection for Villeneuve, Arnoux, now in overalls and carrying his familiar all-white helmet, made his entrance, signing umpteen autographs, then opening a giant bottle of prosecco, and dashing into the crowd with it, spraying one and all. Then he went to the car, and climbed aboard. Again the engine barked into life, and, behind a police car, René set off along the road to Erbe, followed by the Nuvolari Alfa, the Villeneuve 308, and then countless other Ferraris, their owners using as many revs as the conined space allowed.
It was Italian theatre at its very best, and all in the shadow of Tazio, whose monument – complete with cigarette in hand – sits there in the piazza, close by the large villa in which he was born in 1892. The moment was intensely moving.
Some minutes after the procession we made our way to Erbe, where the T4 was now in the park, under an awning, surrounded by a new crowd. More revving, more applause. “Ah, musica!” exclaimed a man nearby. There followed a blessing from the venerable Don Sergio Mantovani, known for generations as ‘the racers’ chaplain’, and a man who knew Fangio and Moss and Behra – who was there indeed at Modena on the afternoon of Castellotti’s accident, and gave him the Last Rites.
Then the band struck up, and first the National Anthem – soundtrack of a thousand podiums – was played. As it rang out, I wandered over to a corner of the park, where there is a sculpture of Gilles, alongside – remarkably – an F104 Starighter, nose pointing to the heavens.
In November 1981, at the airfield in nearby Istrana, was staged a ‘challenge’ event which became part of Villeneuve folklore.
On a foggy day, at the wheel of a Ferrari 126CK shorn of wings, Gilles competed against a Starighter in a couple of 3000ft drag races, winning each time by a little over a second.
The Starfighter, it will be remembered, had a terrible safety record, and when I spoke to Villeneuve about it later, he concluded that Lt Daniele Martinelli was a braver man than he. “When we got to the end of the run, all I had to do was back off and spin-turn it, but he… he had to take off! Mind you, without wings, the front of the Ferrari was kind of light…” Now here we were in a small town, where abides a memorial to a Canadian racing driver revered in Italy like none since Nuvolari. The inscription is simple: ‘Ciao Gilles’.