We will greatly miss the presence of Jean Alesi in the Formula One paddocks this year. Apart from being a ‘real person’ (increasingly an endangered species these days), he was one of those racing drivers who could have been nothing else. The flair, the looks, the name — everything was right, and it is an absurdity that he left F1 with but one Grand Prix victory to show.
Alesi’s day of days was unforgettable, albeit more by circumstance than anything else. There were many races he should have won, and did not, yet this one victory was inherited, when Michael Schumacher’s Benetton had a hydraulics problem late in the race.
No matter. As Jean took the flag, there was indeed great emotion in the press room. A win by Alesi was something everyone had longed to see, and now here it was at last: on his birthday, at the circuit named for his hem, Gilles Villeneuve, in a Ferrari bearing the fabled number 27.
For the spectators, too, the symbolism was very powerful, just as it had been at Imola in 1983 when Patrick Tambay — also in 27— triumphed, a year after Villeneuve’s death.
For those who remember Montreal in the early days, the place will be for ever imbued with the spirit of Gilles, and many of those who cheered Alesi over the line will have been there, on the Ile de Notre-Dame, for the first race, back in October 1978.
The circuit, with the futuristic buildings of Expo ’67 as a backdrop, was constructed with amazing speed, in a matter of three months. Prior to its move to Montreal, the Canadian Grand Prix had been run at either at Mosport or St Jovite, exhilarating road circuits both, so when the drivers arrived at Ile de Notre-Dame they were dismayed by the abundance of slow corners. Hard to believe now, but they requested the track be speeded up for subsequent races, and the organisers went along.
At the original circuit, the average speed was barely over 100mph, but the ambience of the place went down well, and 80,000 spectators came in to see Canada’s new hero.
Villeneuve, a Ferrari driver in his first full F1 season, had yet to win a race, but he had come close, and was acknowledged as the most exciting rookie in a generation. In 1978, though, a Ferrari was not really the thing to have, for although Gilles’ team-mate, Carlos Reutemann, had won four races, he had never beaten the Lotus 79s in a straight fight. This was Mario Andretifs world championship season, and at Montreal, as at most other places, it was a 79 on the pole, albeit not Mario’s car, but that of Jean-Pierre Jarier, temporarily recruited after the death of Ronnie Peterson at Monza. Alongside Jarier was Jody Scheckter’s Wolf, with Villeneuve’s Ferrari and John Watson’s Brabham-Alfa behind.
From the start Jarier went clear, followed initially by Alan Jones’s Williams, Villeneuve and Scheckter. In itself, it was hardly a memorable race, but the outcome was most satisfactory, for after the Lotus and the Williams had problems, the Ferrari came through to win.
The great paradox of Gilles was that, while the most extrovert driver of a racing car I have ever seen, out of the cockpit he was usually the calmest of men. As he walked through the crowds afterwards, shivering in the late afternoon freeze, he grinned all right, but he was never one to punch the air. Later, he told me he could remember nothing of it, that it was all a blur.
“It might sound crazy, but I felt embarrassed, in away. Everyone was on top of me, laughing and crying and slapping me on the back, but somehowl didn’t feel part of it it was like someone else had won. Pierre Trudeau [then Canada’s Prime Minister] came up to the podium, waving a Ferrari flag, and it just seemed unreal this was all for me.”
That inaugural Montreal race may have been won by Villeneuve, but his drive the following year, when he did not win, lives indelibly in the mind.
Scheckter, now his team-mate at Ferrari, won the world championship in 1979, but most of his points were collected by stealth, emphatically not Gilles’ way of working.
“It seemed to me” James Hunt said, “that Gilles did everything possible not to win the title that year. There was no doubt he had massive natural talent, and he was the out-and-out quickest driver in the world but surely the main reason anyone goes racing is to win the world championship, isn’t it?” Well, no, not in Villeneuve’s mind.
“For me, the thing is to win races,” he once said to me, “and the way I figure it is that if you do that enough, the title will follow automatically. But cruising sometimes, looking for points no way! Winning the championship like that would mean nothing to me. Hey, remember, Stirling Moss and Ronnie Peterson never won it, but look at some of the guys who did.”
In 1979, the fastest car was the Williams FW07, but on reliability it was nowhere near Ferrari’s 312T4, and thus it was that, by the time of Monza, only Scheckter and Villeneuve could win the championship and the position was that if Jody won the Italian Grand Prix, the title was his.
Traditional Ferrari team orders in those pre-Schumacher days were that, if and when the Scuderia’s cars became 1-2, the driver in front at the time should win the race. By lap 13, that was the situation, with Scheckter just ahead of Villeneuve.
Imagine the call on integrity in that situation, when not only a victory, but also a world championship, was at stake. Afterwards I asked Gilles if he could have passed Jody. He smiled.
“I hoped like hell he’d break!” he replied. “But if I’d passed him, it would have been like breaking my word.”
All right, but had there not been the temptation at least to lead for a few laps?
“Well, it would have been false, wouldn’t it? And not a particularly nice thing to do, either, because this was Jody’s day.”
Still, with the championship now resolved, there was no need of team orders in the last two races, at Montreal and Watkins Glen, and it was obvious that the two front runners would be Villeneuve, off the leash, and Jones. So it proved.
At the lle Notre-Dame, there was enthusiasm for the circuit changes, for the tight right and left after the pits (then situated immediately beyond the hairpin) had become flat-out sweepers, and lap times were eight seconds quicker than the year before.
Jones and Villeneuve duly started from the front row, and Gilles took an immediate lead. As brilliant a starter as motor racing has known, he was not demoralised by his car’s inferiority; Jones’s Williams might be inherently quicker, but that was no reason to run up the white flag.
Alan was well aware it would take much work to get by him: “Frank and I had agreed that if he beat me away at the start which was always on the cards with Gilles I wouldn’t try any kamikaze moves to get past, but instead keep with him, and let the race settle down.”
For 50 laps the red car and the white car ran away on their own, with Nelson Piquet’s Brabham a firm third, but unable to keep the leaders in sight Into the hairpin, at the end of lap 51, Jones made his move, shooting down the inside, and leaning the Williams up against the Ferrari. It was hard but fair, and typified the way these two would always fight.
“I always loved racing against Gilles,” Alan said, “because if he knew you’d won the corner, he’d always give you mom okay, maybe only a foot more than you needed, but you knew the gap wouldn’t close once you were into it. And because of that, I’d do exactly the same for him.
“Once I’d got by, I thought, ‘I’ve done it,’ and I built up a bit of a cushion, three seconds or so. But as soon as I backed off a fraction, there was that shitbox, up with me again. I tell you, it got to the stage that year when I thought the mechanics had painted my bloody mirrors red.
“Villeneuve was unbelievable like that I mean, he never gave up. I never felt bad about a win in my life, you know, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Gilles that day. It was his home race, and he just drove the wheels off that thing.”
When they got to the podium, Alan held up his rival’s arm in salute, and Gilles, defeated or not, looked happier by far than a year earlier, when he had stood on the top step.
“Sure, I won in ’78,” he said, “but only because Jarier retired. Inheriting a victory even my first one, even in Montreal never gave me much pleasure. Today I had to fight, and that’s what I love. That’s why I’m a racing driver.”