Gilles Villeneuve interviewed by Alan Henry

Gilles Villeneuve shows that things, in 1981, are how they used to be: he demonstrates the same emotions, enthusiasm and attitudes which have motivated the great drivers, says Alan Henry

If one considers that any Grand Prix racing driver is, in terms of basic talent, comfortably within the top ten per cent of the exponents of the art of motor racing, then you can see that even the "also-rans" are pretty impressive by the standards of the average enthusiast. To be a top Formula One driver requires some very impressive credentials, not only determination and application, but a highly developed sense of balance and co-ordination and a great competitive mentality. Of course, this is nothing new; since motor racing began every outstanding driver has displayed his own particular blend of those qualities. Today one can scan the Formula One landscape and name three or four drivers whose make-up varies from the point of view of "mixing" those constituent qualities, but in the end justify the description "winner". Those who immediately spring to mind are the current World Champion Alan Jones, full of stamina and strength, and with boundless determination; his team-mate Carlos Reutemann, experienced, moody and brilliant; and Ferrari drivers Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve, the former cool, calculating and ruthless, the latter intuitively gifted and imbued with a tremendous natural sensitivity when it comes to car control.

Gilles Villeneuve at the 1979 South African Grand Prix

Photo: Motorsport Images

In these days when we're always being told that "things aren't what they used to be" as far as Grand Prix drivers are concerned, this article, using Gilles Villeneuve as its subject, seeks to prove that theory is incorrect. After spending a couple of hours chatting to the French Canadian driver prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix meeting, we can report that the same emotions, enthusiasm and attitudes which have motivated great drivers through the ages still prevail in 1981. Many people on the inside of the Grand Prix game may feel that Villeneuve is a political animal whose opinions are shaped by loyalty to his own racing team. We think that Villeneuve's whole approach to motor racing shows such allegations to be shallow and ill-considered.

Gilles Villeneuve's Grand Prix career began at the 1977 British Grand Prix when he was invited to drive a works McLaren M23 as a third factory entry. The previous autumn he had won the Trois Rivieres Formula Atlantic street race in Quebec, beating Alan Jones and McLaren team leader James Hunt in the process. Hunt, shortly to become World Champion, came straight back to England and told McLaren chief Teddy Mayer that Villeneuve was a man to watch. His performance in the following year's British Grand Prix was quite remarkable. Not only did he qualify seventh and run as high as fifth before making a pit stop with a minor problem, but it was obvious from his practice form that he had above-average reactions. In learning Silverstone, he spun his McLaren many times; but unlike many of his youthful rivals, he never hit anything and always seemed to know where he was going to end up.

Teddy Mayer's failure to recruit him for 1978, preferring the Frenchman Patrick Tambay, must be seen to have been a most strange and short-sighted decision, even with the information we had available on Villeneuve up to that time. Instead, the French Canadian driver went to Ferrari, where he replaced Niki Lauda, and he has driven for the Maranello team in typically enthusiastic style, his determination to give his best never wavering with the team's varying fortunes. With the flat-12-cylinder-powered 312T3 and T4, he was competitive and won races; with the T5, generally regarded as uncompetitive, he was further up the starting order than one felt such a car had a right to be; and with the new 1 1/2-litre turbocharged Ferrari 126C, his enthusiasm to succeed remains as strong as ever.

The history books will relate that Villeneuve led his first race in the Ferrari turbo - for a few yards into the braking area of the first hairpin at Long Beach (see centre spread of last month's Motor Sport). In his enthusiasm, however, he ran wide and emerged from the corner in fourth place. Thereafter he settled down in touch with the leading bunch to give a moderately promising account of the car before its retirement, as indeed did his team-mate Pironi.

We asked Villeneuve whether he found a great deal of adaptation was required to drive the turbo in comparison with a normally aspirated engine, whether he used any different techniques such as left-foot braking as had been suggested by some observers.

"No, certainly not," he replied frankly, "suggestions that I was using a left-foot braking technique are just nonsense. What you've got to do with a turbo is to keep it revving for more of the time, but that simply means gearing it slightly differently so that it's peaking before you're very far through a corner. I honestly don't think that you need a different technique to drive a turbo from a normal car. To drive quickly, you need certain abilities. Once you've got them, then you can drive anything quickly."

Did he find any problem when he was jumping around from cockpit to cockpit during practice, one moment trying his own car, one moment the spare, one moment his team-mate's machine. Clearly not; this was another example of a natural driver's versatility. He didn't even have to think about it.

"In fact, sometimes the cars are pretty well identical. You could get slight differences like the steering column might be a quarter of an inch higher or lower but you adapt to this in an instant. I suppose the only problem in swapping around cars is the seats. I can sit in Didier's, in fact I have room to spare — but Didier can't sit in mine!

"It's out like visiting a strange track for the first time. You might not have driven on it before, but it only takes five laps or so to work out the way round. The right line through the corners comes easily. There's very little needed in the way of experiments."

Watching Villeneuve in practice at Long Beach, locking up the front wheels of his Ferrari into corners and scrambling round under circumstances which were sending lesser drivers skating up the escape roads, the sheer effort he was putting into his driving was plain for all to see. But what is he looking for in his own performances, what is he thinking about and what does he seek to improve?

"Well, I think we've got to realise that the perfect lap doesn't exist. I suppose my idea is to get as close as I can, as often as I can, to it, to make fewer mistakes than anybody else. I'm very conscious of thinking about my driving when I'm away from the track, wondering where I can make some slight further improvement. There is always room for improvement. I'm always trying to brake deeper, yet get on the power out of a corner earlier. As far as racing is concerned, apart from winning, of course, I'm aiming for consistency of lap times. Ideally I'd like to run a race with every lap as close to my fastest lap as it can possibly be."

Inevitably, there will be occasions when a driver loses control, whether through error in judgement or component failure, if he is always pushing close to the limit. If you examine many photographs of obviously talented drivers when their cars are spinning you will frequently see them twisting their heads, invariably facing (or trying to face) the way they are going. This is because they have remained totally orientated throughout the high speed loss of control and one factor behind this is their very high level of proprioception. This is the faculty of remaining orientated in a situation which might be expected to result in immediate disorientation and it is something which you are born with, not something you can develop. This high degree of "balance" is a function of part of the inner ear and is highly developed in the case of top sportsmen in many spheres. Not every racing driver has it to such an extent, but "naturals" like Villeneuve obviously do. Is he aware of it?

"I'm aware of it inasmuch as I know it exists, but I don't think I'm consciously aware of it like I think 'that's why I survived that particular situation and didn't crash!' As far as the qualities I'm consciously aware of a racing driver requiring, I think the will to survive is probably one of the most crucial. So, when I'm spinning down the road, it's this will to survive that makes me try and work out where the car is going. I'm always looking for the way out in situations like this. Some drivers freeze with their foot on the brakes when they start to spin. I'm not like that. I want to go on racing -  and that means extricating myself from this sort of problem!"

There is one thing which Gilles Villeneuve insists without a trace of self-consciousness or brashness — "I will never ease off, except when I am first. I have never got out of a car and said 'I could have tried harder'." Looking back over his relatively brief Formula One career to date, it's not difficult to substantiate that firm assertion. His Grand Prix victories have in the main been convincing, races in which he hasn't been under great pressure towards the finish. That is so frequently the case, according to most Grand Prix drivers. The races which one doesn't win are the ones which demand the greatest effort.

Villeneuve thoroughly endorses these views: "Take Long Beach in 1979. That was a pretty easy run, I can tell you. The car worked perfectly and all I had to do was keep going, making certain I didn't make a stupid error. But, take Montreal in 1979 when I finished second to Jones. I put everything I'd got into that race, and I derived tremendous satisfaction from finishing second. That Williams was a superior car to my Ferrari, I can tell you — despite what anybody else would like to say!

"Again, when I finished second to Arnoux at Dijon the same year. That was fantastic, particularly that final lap. We were both absolutely flat out. Very satisfying. Of course, there are times when you're running hard and you make a mistake. . . ."

Villeneuve went on to recount the error in judgement which resulted in his losing any chance of victory in the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. His Ferrari 312T4 was leading the race from Alan Jones's Williams FW07 when he spun violently on a fast corner on the back leg of the circuit.

"For some laps I had been conscious that the rear of the car was sliding rather more than it should have been. Now, you might argue that I should have come into the pits. But if I had, and there had been nothing wrong, I would have lost the chance of winning. Unfortunately on this occasion, a tyre was starting to deflate and it eventually disintegrated as I was going past the pits. I spun off onto the outside of Tarzan and then I thought 'I wonder if I can get back to the pits'. So I tried, but the whole tyre broke up and the suspension was rubbing on the ground by the time I got back there, so I couldn't continue. But, strapped into the car, all I realised was that it could still move. I realised that something was badly wrong, but as long as it moved I thought there was a chance of it being repaired. Of course, having seen the television film, I realise just what a mess the car was in. But, for me, as long as the car is running, I will drive it."

Looking at other drivers, he understands why people continue after their best days are over, but doesn't, at the moment, feel that he could race on when he was no longer capable of winning. "l can quite understand why Graham Hill went on; he was racing for himself, so he was only answerable to himself. But I think it is absolutely pathetic when people struggle on, being paid by a professional team, when they are over the top. I think that I would hate myself tremendously if the best I was capable of doing was running sixth. I feel I would have to give up. . ." As an interesting tailpiece to that line of thought, he holds up his former team-mate Jody Scheckter as an example of a man who drove professionally, and hard, right through to the very end of his career. "He drove hard through 1980 all right, and that's clear if you compare our relative times. I have a lot of respect for his attitude towards the end of last year; I was trying very hard and he was a few fractions behind me, knowing that he was retiring at the finish of the season. I must say, when I realised just how many problems we were going to have with the TS, I was inwardly wondering whether I would drive flat out all the time — but in the end I did do!"

Gilles Villeneuve is aware of the hazards involved in Grand Prix racing, although it is something over which his mind does not dwell. "I don't try to analyse the risk factor too much. I believe if you think about something too hard you can end up convincing yourself that it's much too dangerous! It's funny, but you are conscious of accidents happening at very high speed, yet shortly afterwards, when you are out of the car, you can recall them in graphic detail. When I crashed in Buenos Aires last year after the front suspension broke, it was an incredibly quick accident. But, when I think of it now, it all unfolds in front of me in remarkable slow motion . . ."

There's no doubt, from all this, that Villeneuve believes he has to be dedicated in order to be a successful racing driver. But that doesn't mean that he can't take part in other hazardous activities. He has recently started downhill skiing, and he shuns the thought of a contract preventing him from taking part in any other sport he fancies, as Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell contract precluded the Scot from skiing about ten years ago.

"I might have had to accept restrictions on my activities when I was a younger, less established driver, but I will never accept them now. If they tried to ban me from skiing, horse riding, then I wouldn't sign the contract. A good driver must be allowed to express himself in any way he wants to, I believe that to be very important. Of course, I'd like to express myself by winning 28 Grands Prix, one more than Stewart. . . . That would be my ideal expression!"

On a serious, but in no way hysterical, note Villeneuve reminds us that, no matter what developments are made in the area of safety, the Formula One game will always be dangerous. He turns his attention to 1980: "Think about it: Regazzoni, Jabouille, Prost, Surer. . . they were all injured, some worse than others. And Depailler died. . ." Clearly, the French Canadian driver fully appreciates that Formula One motor racing is a serious affair not simply a frivolous entertainment medium to satisfy world-wide television viewers.

He has a concern for motor racing, a genuine concern which may appear unfashionable to the cynics. But he also feels that Grand Prix racing is lacking in certain areas. There is not enough overtaking, he feels.

"People come along to see racing, not processions," he says, getting suddenly very firm in his insistence, "they want a spectacle. They go in their thousands to NASCAR because it's spectacular. In Formula One we have too much adhesion from our cars to deal with the power they are producing. When I first drove that McLaren M23, Stowe and Club corners at Silverstone were not taken flat out. They were corners, where the car was sliding. That's the situation we need now.

"Give us 800 b.h.p. and then we'll be able to separate the men from the boys."

Healthy sentiments from a caring competitor concerned for the long-term welfare of motor racing - or, as his critics would have it, a biased and slanted pro-Ferrari viewpoint? Those who disapprove would have us believe the latter, of course. But then, they haven't got Gilles Villeneuve driving for them - and Ferrari, to his benefit and credit, has! Ultimately, we feel that Villeneuve's views are both realistic and honest, even though such criteria are not guaranteed to gain them acceptance amidst some of the confused thinking and jumbled logic which lies near the surface of Grand Prix racing in 1981. — A.H.