Nigel Roebuck - Legends

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Gilles Villeneuve

“I always loved speed,” said Gilles Villeneuve. “My father used to drive very quickly he used to get stopped by the police quite often, I remember and, from being five or six years old, I would always tell him to go faster, to pass the guy in front. When I was seven, I used to sit on his knee and steer-in fact, my own son Jacques has been doing that since he was four. He’s seven now, so he’s getting quite experienced…”

Much has been made of those differences – both sartorial and otherwise – between the Villeneuves pere et fils, and while in many respects they are undoubtedly there, rather less has been said about the similarities between Gilles and his son. As Jacques courts disapproval in some circles for his increasingly degagé appearance, for example, so it always delighted Gilles that the presence in the Grand Prix paddocks of his huge motorhome maddened Bernie Ecclestone.

When he arrived in Formula One, Jacques brought along with him a reputation for being more like a Prost than a Villeneuve, but over time this has proven somewhat wide of the mark, for while he chives with far less abandon than Gilles, he has often spoken at length of the pleasures of being “at the edge,” and complains that Formula One’s obsession with safety has gone too far.

As drivers, how do they compare? “I think,” says one respected paddock figure, “that Jacques is better as a complete Grand Prix driver. But Gilles… well, Gilles was a genius, wasn’t he?”

It was Chris Amon who was first to alert me to the greatness inherent in the original Villeneuve. While running his own Wolf in the CanAm Championship in ’77, Amon decided to retire from driving what was a dreadful car, and put Gilles in it. One clay he called me. “I tell you,” he said, “in IS years of racing, I’ve never seen anyone behave like he does after a shunt I mean, he doesn’t react at all! He comes back to the pits, quite calm, and, then, at the end of the session this pile of wreckage arrives on a truck…”

Yes, I wondered, but how good is he really? “Oh,” Amon retorted, “I’d say he’s got more potential than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

At that time Chris Amon believed Villeneuve to be abnormally brave, but later he came to wonder if this were the case, if instead Gilles truly had no sense of fear, which is, of course, a different thing again.

After a stunning Formula One debut in a McLaren at Silverstone that July, Villeneuve duly signed for Ferrari in the autumn, and would never again race for any other team. From the outset, if his raw speed was beyond all doubt, so also was his impetuosity. At Long Beach in the spring of 1978, he comfortably led what was only his seventh Grand Prix, then tripped over a backmarker in his rush to lap him.

In Monte Carlo there was a huge accident in the tunnel when a front tyre went down towards the end of the race. I saw Gilles in the paddock a few minutes later, and it was as if there had been nothing untoward in his day. Amon’s words came flooding back to me.

At the next race I interviewed him at length for the first time, and began by bringing up the Monaco shunt. Had it not frightened him just a little? He grinned. “Me, no. The car, yes. When the tyre went, I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’m going to have a nice one here!’ But in that split-second what came into my mind was that I wasn’t going to finish the race. I never think I can hurt myself; it seems impossible to me. But I know I can hurt the car, and that’s what I don’t want to do.”

I’m playing bits of the tape as I write, and hearing all this again, 20 years on, it comes across as startlingly as when he spoke the words. Even more so, really, because racing was overwhelmingly more perilous then than now. Surely, I persisted, he must have felt some sort of fear as the Ferrari headed towards the guardrail?

“No, really not,” Villeneuve said. “I know people have said I have no fear, but they’re wrong about that. What frightens me is the unknown – and at one time hitting a guardrail was the unknown. Then one day I did it, in practice for a Formula Atlantic race at Mosport, and I broke my leg, which was terrible because I had to miss the next two races. But after that I never worried about guardrails again, because now I knew how it was to hit one: you hurt yourself, and they fix you up, and that’s it.

“On the other hand, I’m still scared of, say, falling out of a high window, because I’ve never done that. But I don’t have any fear of a crash. No fear of that. Of course, if it’s a top gear corner, I don’t want to crash I’m not crazy! If I feel I’m going to put a wheel on the grass, I’m going to lift a bit, like anyone else. But… if it’s near the end of practice, and you’re trying for pole position maybe, then I guess you can squeeze the fear…”

Gilles didn’t doubt for a moment that his attitude to danger had its roots in his snowmobile days. He had raced these things with great distinction before coming to cars, and reckoned they were excellent preparation. “Every winter, you would expect three or four big spills, which meant being thrown on to ice at 100mph. But I never hurt myself on a snowmobile, and anyway I think accidents always look worse to spectators than they feel to the driver.”

When Villeneuve was speaking, a chuckle was never far away. “When I started racing cars, you know, I had absolutely no money – I’ll never understand how I managed to get together a budget to do Formula Atlantic, it was really hand-to-mouth. In ’74 we were so short I ran four races on one set of tyres! When they got badly worn on the outside, we’d take them off and reverse them on the rim…”

Ferrari was still recognisable as Ferrari in those days. The mechanics, in the traditional brown overalls, had had their traditional lunch of pasta and Lambrusco, and now, pleased with the way practice had gone, were singing lustily as they worked on the cars. Gilles cocked an ear at these impromptu operatics, and smiled. To drive for Ferrari, he, said, was everything he had ever expected, and more besides.

“I love this team,” he said to me. “Everything about it. You talk to me about fear of an accident, but look at some of the cars in this paddock. With Ferrari, you always have the peace of mind that the car is not going to break on you, and that’s worth so much. That is why,” he added, “I feel.so bad for the boys when I damage one.”

That Saturday evening, over dinner in the little Hotel Europa in Genk, where we always stayed for Zolder races, I told Denis Jenkinson and Alan Henry of my conversation with Villeneuve, related how astonished I had been by much of what he had had to say. Jenks’s response was typical: “Sounds like a sensible young man to me. I understand exactly what he means about fear of the unknown. Perfectly logical. We’ve got too many old women in Grand Prix racing these days, sitting around with their knitting, complaining about everything. From what I’ve seen of Villeneuve so far, he’s the best thing to happen to Formula One for a long time. Little racer, isn’t he?”

That he was, in extremis. A lot of people could never understand Gilles Villeneuve, never comprehend how a man could fight as hard for eighth place as for the lead, seeming to lose sight of the fact that his cars were never a match for the best of British. Jody Scheckter, his team mate in 1979 and ’80, has described him as “the fastest driver there has ever been,” yet in 66 Grands Prix for Ferrari, he started from pole position only twice.

It was in that same dining room in Genk, some four years later, that we sat in near silence, for Gilles !lad been killed that afternoon in final qualifying. What was that he had said? “If it’s near the end of practice, and you’re trying for pole position maybe, then I guess you can squeeze the fear…” As always, he had been doing no more than that. His death didn’t extinguish my love of motor racing, for nothing could ever do that, but since 1982 I have come to view it from a certain distance. Niki Lauda had it right: “Gilles was the best – and the fastest – racing driver in the world. And I liked him as a man even more than I admired him as a driver.”