This is bound to upset some of the faithful, but I’m afraid I never quite ‘got’ the Gilles Villeneuve ‘thing’. You know, the adulation which dripped from every line of so many race reports during his tragically too-brief topline career. As a driver he was certainly incredibly quick, and capable, but there was such an evident over-commitment almost every inch of the way that he struck me more as being yet another very quick nut.
We’d seen them before. They seldom survived long. I rather diffidently said as much to one World Champion, and to my surprise he agreed absolutely. Then another concurred, and another… They all thought he was great value, as did I, but we all feared for him – rightly as it transpired. And seldom have I been so unhappy to be – arguably – proved right.
A regular race reporter friend admitted once that perhaps he had overhyped the Villeneuve thing, but argued justifiably that to do so had been entirely understandable. Against a background in which topline Formula 1 stars were becoming increasingly colourless, muesli-eating fundamentalists, the Villeneuve devil-may-care, kick the tyres, light the fires, the last one off’s a sissy approach “came as a breath of fresh air!”.
Upon reflection, I could see his point. Years later, the Senna ‘thing’ for me seemed like another re-run, but less nut this time, more hi-tech rocket ship. I ended up in a probable minority of one, believing he should have been disqualified and banned several times simply for bringing the sport into disrepute. That’s one I’ve never re-thought. But it’s still fascinating to talk with his former team-mates and the men who worked with him most closely during his career. Characteristically, however, they don’t seem to recall too many laughs.
With Villeneuve, in contrast, I always enjoyed Harvey Postlethwaite’s recollections of Gilles’ driving on the public road whenever Ferrari’s British engineer had been rash enough to ride with him. “He seemed to take it as a matter of honour never to join the end of a traffic tailback, but instead to find some way by, up the motorway embankment, down the hard shoulder, or even along the pavement. Like accepting Mr Ferrari’s invitations to come and watch racing on the telly, which I soon realised would end with him drinking me under the table, I eventually learned to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’. It seemed wise…”