'Pure speed. Pure talent': Stories of Gilles Villeneuve by his racing rivals
He remains Ferrari's most revered Formula 1 hero, 30 years after his death. Gilles Villeneuve was adored by the fans — and as we reveal, commanded the respect of his peers too
Interviews by Rob Widdows & Nigel Roebuck
With the death of Gilles Villeneuve Grand Prix racing will not be the same. It will still go on and one day another star will appear and shine brightly, but until that day something has gone out of racing that will be hard to replace. ‘He shall not grow old…’
Denis Jenkinson, Motor Sport, June 1982
The bare statistics give nothing away. Just four complete seasons in Formula 1, 67 races, a couple of pole positions, eight fastest laps — and six Grand Prix victories. In cold black and white, Gilles Villeneuve appears to have been an accomplished racing driver, and little more. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
The little man from Quebec shares his place in the record books (joint 38th in World Championship GP wins) with Jacques Laffite, Riccardo Patrese… and Ralf Schumacher. He also happens to sit alongside Tony Brooks, John Surtees and Jochen Rindt. So much for the record books.
Thirty years after the violence of final qualifying at Zolder, Villeneuve continues to split opinion. To some, his fate was sealed long before that terrible Saturday in Belgium, by his foot-to-the-floor attitude to both life and racing — one and the same for this man who was born to go fast. But to many, he remains the purest, most thrilling, most explosive talent ever to sit in a racing car. Senna? Ruthless, calculating, complex. A very different animal. There was no cynicism about Villeneuve, who was an old breed of hero even in his own lifetime.
It’s likely you’ve read the stories before, probably recounted by our own Nigel Roebuck whose friendship with Gilles will always be the defining racing driver relationship of his life. But what of Villeneuve’s peers, the drivers and engineers who went up against him? What did they think of him? Madman, genius… or perhaps a bit of both? Here, we present a compilation of ‘voices’, from interviews both old and new, telling us what it was like to know, and sit on a grid with, the man who might just be the fastest racing driver we’ve ever seen.
Chris Amon, fellow Ferrari legend
Early in 1977 I decided I really wanted out. I was trying to run a team and I had pretty much lost my enthusiasm to be a racing driver. My wife-to-be was pregnant and I had decided to stop at the end of that season. But after the first Can-Am race I decided it was time to pull the plug.
Gilles replaced me at Walter Wolf’s Can-Am team. He struck me at the time as a great talent. You could see he was going to be exceptional. He was the obvious choice. Being Canadian, Walter Wolf was interested in him. It didn’t take too much persuading to convince Walter to put Gilles in the car. He was obviously a huge talent and had been having some big races with Keke Rosberg in Formula Atlantic. They were the two obvious, emerging talents in North America.
Unfortunately, we never really gave him a decent car to drive. We had all sorts of issues, but Gilles made the best of it. It had some real weaknesses. The brakes, for example, were always a big problem. I think the car was potentially quick enough, but it was totally undeveloped.
I drove from the circuit to the hotel with Gilles at St Jovite. He had a Honda Civic and it was only a couple of miles, but I decided I would think twice about ever getting in a road car with him again. Then I made the mistake at Watkins Glen of going from the Motor Inn up to the circuit with him and after that trip I definitely decided, ‘Never again!’ We were a bit late leaving the motel and there was a hell of a lot of traffic and Gilles said, ‘Don’t worry!’ We managed to thread our way through everything, annoying the police as he zipped wherever he wanted to go. He really was something else.
I don’t think there was ever any margin in reserve with Gilles. Later, in 1980, when Ferrari had a real dog of a car, he absolutely put Scheckter in the shade. I think more than anybody he’s remembered for some exceptional races, often with cars that were less than competitive. People talk about Senna, and obviously Senna had some brilliant races too. But I think Senna had the advantage of being in top-rate equipment. Gilles was a hard racer, but very fair and he drove some fantastic races in uncompetitive cars.
Enzo Ferrari, Il Commendatore
Gilles Villeneuve achieved great fame with Ferrari through his magnanimity and daring. He taught us to appreciate the forces that mechanical parts have to withstand when a driver finds himself facing the unforeseen. Some people called him crazy. There was a chorus of criticism when I engaged him because he was an unknown entity. Well, Niki Lauda was also unknown when I took him on. You have to admit I have a pretty good nose. In my eyes Villeneuve was one of my family. I loved him.
Jody Scheckter, Ferrari team-mate and 1979 World Champion
For Gilles, racing was a romantic thing. My preoccupation was in keeping myself alive, but for him the thing was to be fastest, every race, every lap. I believe he was the fastest racing driver the world has ever seen. If he could come back tomorrow, and live his life over again, I’m sure he would do it the same way, and with the same love. That was the right word. More than anyone I’ve known, Gilles was in love with motor racing.
Keke Rosberg, Formula Atlantic rival and 1982 World Champion
My battles with Gilles in Formula Atlantic in Canada were the hardest racing of my entire career, believe me. In the Atlantic days we were such fierce rivals that we never really talked very much — I spoke more with his kids than with him. And it wasn’t until 1982 that I got a competitive car in Formula 1 at last and before half-season Gilles was gone…
I liked the way he drove. Very hard, but always correct — he wasn’t ever dirty. Later on people used to compare Senna with Villeneuve, but Ayrton was a different story — he would use every trick in the book, in a way we’d never seen in F1 before. That started a new era, and unfortunately it’s spread to the junior categories. Gilles would never do anything like that.
He was incredibly tough, though, the toughest I ever raced against. I remember that once in an Atlantic race we flew over the hump at Mosport — and touched wheels while we were airborne! Remember the fight he had with Arnoux in Dijon — Gilles’s tyres were completely finished, but he still wouldn’t give up, and he won the battle…
He was just a born fighter, wasn’t he? I thought Gilles was a phenomenal driver a giant of a driver. Pure speed, pure talent. The sad thing is that when I think about him now, the first thing that comes into my head is the Monday after the race at Zolder. I had to go to the track for some reason, and it was deserted — nothing there except rubbish from the weekend, and Gilles’s helicopter…
Alastair Caldwell, McLaren chief mechanic and team manager
The first we at McLaren knew of Gilles Villeneuve was when James Hunt went to Canada to do a Formula Atlantic race at Trois Rivières — in those days Grand Prix drivers were allowed to do silly things — and when he came back he said: ‘This kid’s a genius, he can really drive.’ It was very rare for a racing driver to extol the virtues of another, so Teddy Mayer called him and asked him to come and see us.
The following day our receptionist called up to say there was this young man downstairs called Gilles Villeneuve who’d like to see you. Now this was the kind of guy we liked, he’d found a flight to London, made his way to Colnbrook, and here he was. We showed him the cars and he was just mad about them, full of enthusiasm, and this was the perfect kind of driver for us, needed no babying, and he couldn’t wait to drive the car.
So we took him to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in 1977, gave him a third car alongside Hunt and Mass. With hardly any running, he was immediately quick, the times coming down and down. Journalists who’d watched around the track came and said, ‘Wow, you should have seen your boy spin at Copse, at Becketts, at Club’, wherever but there’d been nothing to show on the lap times. So I said to Gilles, ‘They’re telling me you’ve spun the car at just about every corner,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, how else can I tell how fast I’m going?’ That’s all he said. I pointed out that the lap times didn’t falter and he says ‘No, it’s not a problem for me’. He had so much car control, he’d spin, select a gear, get it pointed the right way, and go. It was seamless, and this is how he found the limit of each corner.
He qualified ninth and made up places before coming in with the temperature gauge off the clock. It was a faulty gauge so we sent him back out and he came 11th two laps down. He would have been in the points easily. I was ecstatic about him. We offered him a test contract for ’78, and three races at the end of the year, but Ferrari had also noticed him and offered him a test contract. So he came back to us and I told him he should stay with McLaren, he’d be a first-string driver in no time. Then it all went haywire — Teddy Mayer told him to call Ferrari’s bluff and demand a full race contract or nothing. Well, Teddy screwed up, because Ferrari did make him the offer, thought he was too good to lose, and effectively Teddy had negotiated the bloody contract for him. I was furious, the kid would have been a perfect McLaren driver. For sure he would have won a championship with us.
He got involved in all the politics at Ferrari, all the razzmatazz, and it was a disaster. I really liked Gilles, he was actually a very sensible young man, he had an inner calmness. He hated all the bullshit, all the smart hotels, and he lived virtually in the pitlane, had his motorhome with his wife and young son. He pined for us when he was at Ferrari, came to see us all the time, and it was tragic what happened with Pironi. In a team like McLaren, that would never have been allowed to escalate like it did. In the end it was a disaster — all the hysteria, the Italian media. A huge talent was wasted.
Mario Andretti, 1978 World Champion
Gilles was such a likeable guy, first of all. As a driver he would battle, and do whatever it took, but he was never one to moan about other drivers chopping him or whatever, and I really liked that about him. He took his job very seriously, but after the race you’d always find him smiling. He was a guy you knew was going to fight you to the end — and that at the end you’d still be friends.
I remember so clearly the race we had at Monza in ’78. I was on pole, and Gilles was next to me on the front row. He jumped the start and I reacted to it, so I jumped it, too! We both knew early on we’d been penalised a minute, but still we fought the whole race like we were going for the win. I followed him until about six laps from the end. I could see he was working really hard in that Ferrari, and I was waiting for the mistake — but the mistake never came. I had my usual problem with the brakes — all season long I was having to pump the pedal at least three times because the rears always boiled the fluid — but I made my move at Ascari, just went in there at the limit, and he gave me the room that I needed. That showed he was thinking, and you really respect someone like that.
Villeneuve had a huge amount of natural ability — for me he had car control like no other. There were times when I followed him, and, trust me, I know how hard he was capable of driving! The fans adored him, of course, because he was unbelievable to watch.
What I remember most about Gilles — apart from his driving — was that there was always a smile. He had such a relaxed aura, amazing for someone as intense as he was in the car. That was inspiring to me and what it said was, ‘Here’s a confident man…’ He was totally confident in himself, because he knew how good he was. He knew how to maintain the limit of the car, to run right at the edge, lap after lap — OK, sometimes he’d push it over, but you have to remember that invariably he was racing against better cars. One thing’s for sure — there was never an ounce left in the car when he got through with it…
René Arnoux, Renault rival and friend
I am so happy to talk about Gilles because he was my friend and you know, I understood him better than a lot of other drivers. As a driver, he was an acrobat, always on the limit of his car. He asked everything from his car, and sometimes he would finish with the car in a bad condition, brakes and tyres completely used up.
At Dijon in 1979, his brakes and tyres were destroyed, my car had a problem with fuel pressure, but we pushed so hard. The way we raced was only possible between Gilles and me. Some people said it was dangerous but no, I do not agree.
In Monte Carlo in 1981 he was fantastic, only Gilles had the talent to win there with a turbo-charged engine at that time. But I think his best race was at Jarama in ’81 when he led almost the whole race chased by four other cars and he never had a gap of more than a second or so. For me this was a high point because the car was finished by the end but he beat (Jacques) Laffite by less than half a second and all five cars were within one second.
I must tell you, he was not dangerous for other drivers. For himself maybe yes, but he was never happy in a straight line — he liked oversteer, the sliding. He had to race at the maximum, not 100 per cent, but 105 per cent. At Watkins Glen one time, I asked him — the corner before the pits, I take a small lift in there, do you? He said he took a small lift also, but in final qualifying he would try it flat. So, just before the end of the session, I came to this corner and there was his car, completely destroyed in the wall. But he was OK and when I get back to the pits I asked him if this bend could be flat out? ‘No René’, he said, ‘I tried, but it is not possible.’ He’d decided it could be done, so he tried it. And that was Gilles Villeneuve, my good friend, and such a fast driver.
Gordon Murray, Brabham design genius
Gilles never drove for me but, watching him race, I think he personified that era of the sport. I’m not sure how well he’d go down with the teams these days but in that era he was a superstar in the true sense of the word.
He just lived for racing, getting into a car and going as fast as he could. These days I think a lot of drivers, when they go past a certain earning point, they forget why they were there in the first place. I had a lot of contact with Gilles over the years and he struck me as being a really genuine, nice bloke — there were two different driver camps, those that were up their own backsides, and those like Gilles.
He was incredibly passionate about his racing. I think he was the kind of guy who would drive around a problem, as opposed to people like Senna, Prost or Lauda who would analyse a problem to the ‘nth’ degree and work with you to get it fixed. Remember, before some idiot invented pitstops [it was, of course, Gordon himself] the cars started with heavy fuel and some of them must have been real pigs to set up. And you didn’t have a whole village of engineers behind computer screens, so drivers had to drive around problems. The cars were limited on traction, so a driver needed a lot of natural car control, and Gilles certainly had that.
He had a reputation amongst the other drivers, and other teams, for being a bit wild, bouncing off other cars. Gilles just got in and got on with it, which — if you had a driver who was constantly whingeing about a bit of understeer — seemed like a good thing. Guys like Gilles always set the car up for oversteer, always, because they just couldn’t handle understeer. His engineers would have sussed that and given him a car that oversteered, whatever feedback he was giving them.
In the end, the relationship between Gilles and Pironi was not good for them, or the team. Even when we ran Senna and Prost at McLaren, I operated on the basis of an information pool. They didn’t like it very much but I made them do it because the idea is to finish first and second — but ft you’ve got a war going on between drivers you’ve split the team in half, and your chances of results in half, too.
Jo Ramirez, McLaren team coordinator
Gilles drove me from Rio de Janeiro to Jacarepagua one morning and I will never, ever forget that trip. It was in a hire car, nothing special, but it was unreal, the scariest trip I ever had in my life. He seemed to sense what the people in front were going to do before they did it and he always passed them at the right moment.And his car control was just amazing. I tell you, when we got to the track, I had to send my underpants to the laundry.
But I realised that maybe he was never going to be an old man, he took far too many chances, and honestly I think that’s what happened at Zolder. I think he under-estimated the move of Jochen Mass and they collided. Such a shame because he was such a good guy, he loved his job, and he did it well.
I never thought he was one of the greatest drivers of all time, no, but he drove with his heart and with so much passion. If he had gone to McLaren he might have expressed himself differently, without all the media and razzmatazz that builds up around a driver in a Latin team like Ferrari used to be. What he did at Zandvoort (in 1979), after that puncture, was incredible but as a mechanic I was thinking to myself ‘there will be nothing left of that car when it gets back to the pits’. He didn’t care, he just wanted to get a new wheel on.
It was so sad at Zolder, you know, it was terrible because there was no recognition that he had gone. Ferrari withdrew and went home, yes, but on raceday there was no acknowledgement. No space on the grid where he should have been, no minute of silence, no respect for the fact that we had lost one of the biggest stars of the moment. It was very sad and I thought how cold the sport can be sometimes. Maybe if the race had been in Italy, or England, there would have been more respect.
You have to remember, Gilles was a superstar, a world champion without a crown, if you like, and everybody liked him. He was not a playboy but he loved life, and he showed it, and Grand Prix racing needs drivers like that, even more so today when we seem to have lost all the big characters. Motor racing is not just about cars and engines, it is about people and personalities too, and the fans love a driver like Gilles. He had real charisma, you warmed to him, and so did the sport. Nowadays we have a driver like Lewis Hamilton, exciting to watch, but he has to be controlled in what he says all the time. We miss drivers like Gilles.
Alan Jones, 1980 World Champion
Know what I remember most about Gilles? I was behind him in the early laps at Monaco in ’81, me in the Williams FW07 and him in that shitbox Ferrari turbo. He was holding me up a bit, and we both knew it. Now, most guys in that situation will just sit there, and be bloody-minded about it, but Gilles was smarter than that. That old tank of his was heavy as hell, and he knew that if he stayed ahead of me he soon wasn’t going to have any brakes. So he let me by into Mirabeau — by which I mean that he left me a gap about an inch wider than my car! He didn’t make it easy, but it was there if I wanted it — and I absolutely knew that the gap wouldn’t close once I was into it. Which wasn’t true of someone like Piquet. I had trouble later in the race, and Gilles repassed me and won — and the greatest compliment I can pay him is to say that, while I wasn’t exactly delirious with joy, if it had to happen, I was glad that he was the one to benefit from it. The guy just never gave up. A lovely bloke, and a fantastic racing driver — the best I ever raced against…
Harvey Postlethwaite, Ferrari chief designer
Gilles was the most unpolitical and disarmingly honest person lever met. He had no hang-ups about anything whatsoever. In front of the Old Man, in front of anyone, he’d say that the car was shit, that it had no downforce and he was wasting his time. ‘I’ll drive it,’ he’d say, ‘all day long. I’ll spin it, I’ll put it in the fence, I’ll do whatever you like. I’ll drive it, because that’s my job, and love doing it. I’m just telling you we’re not going to be competitive…’
Just disarmingly honest, you see, and the Old Man loved him for it. He and Gilles were very close, even though they could barely converse because they hadn’t a language in common apart from a bit of French and the sort of ‘Québécois’ French Gilles spoke was difficult to understand, anyway!
I’ve never known a racing driver quite like him. Given a choice between going for the lead and destroying his tyres, or going carefully and only finishing third, Gilles would always choose the former. Jody Scheckter would go for the latter and therefore it was Jody who won the World Championship. It was as simple as that.
Now it wasn’t that Gilles couldn’t have done it — he could have done it as well as any man — there was something within him that wouldn’t let him do it. That’s just the way he was.
I remember going out to eat with him one evening, and we were coming back to Maranello in his 308. Cold engine, eight thousand revs, typical Gilles. He would drive down the outside of a line of traffic, with no gap in it and a truck coming the other way, just to get himself warmed up! He just knew that he would find a gap. He had complete blind faith in as own ability and it was that, I think, that made him drive round the outside of Mass without lifting off. In terms of sheer God-given ability, I think he was on a different plane from the other drivers.
Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari design legend
When Gilles was alive, maybe we underestimated Didier, because he was always gelling beaten by someone in the same car — because we were judging him against Gilles, we didn’t realise what a great driver he was. In all my time at Ferrari the years with Gilles and Jody were the happiest. Villeneuve had a competitiveness that I’ve never seen in any other driver — a rage to win — but the amazing thing was that he was only that way in a car; as soon as he was out of it, he was relaxed and laughing. Gilles loved his life. When he drove, it was with such joy, such pleasure…
Jacques Villeneuve, son and 1997 World Champion
I inherited two passions from my father — speed and music. There was this speed, and excitement, in my childhood and my dad played both trumpet and piano. We were always travelling, from track to track, and when I was five years old he sat me on his lap behind the wheel and we went flat out everywhere, tyres screeching, or sliding around the roads on the snow. We went snowmobiling, he took me in his helicopter. There was always speed and excitement.
He was always pushing the envelope, stepping out to the edge, and I inherited some of that. He took risks. Like my dad, I needed to feel the speed, and now I relate to the way he was because he pushed himself in everything he did.
When I went to F1 I didn’t want to talk about my dad, I wanted to do my own thing, on my own terms. Now I can talk about him, I can say how much I admired and respected him for the person he was, and for the times we had when I was a child.
Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s chief doctor
I was very fond of Villeneuve — a good, honest, bloke, as well as a genius of a driver. On one occasion, at Monaco in 1980, we were out on the circuit in the medical car, and the pack caught up with us at the hairpin. All the drivers gave us a wide berth — except Gilles, who seemed to use us as his apex! I started to give him a bollocking afterwards, about how he’d missed us by an inch or so, and he simply couldn’t understand what I was talking about. ‘That’s the whole point,’ he said. ‘I missed you!’ And then I realised that, to him, an inch was like a yard to anyone else. He was that precise.
When I first met him, I remember he said, ‘I hope I’ll never need you’. I was really very upset at Zolder — it was obvious immediately that there was nothing that I could do for him.
Jochen Mass, March F1 driver, 1982
The first we knew of Gilles was when he came to drive a third car for McLaren at Silverstone in ’77 and he surprised everyone with his speed in the M23. For me especially, and for James (Hunt), we could see that this was the next generation of drivers.
He fitted in very well at Ferrari but it was a pity they overdid it by putting Pironi up against him. This brought things to the boil because Pironi was very quick and equally reckless, more so than Gilles in some ways.
What happened at Imola in ’82 (when Pironi took the lead from Villeneuve on the final lap) was bad, both morally and psychologically for Gilles. There was anger and frustration offer that and you don’t need that at the racetrack where you need a certain tranquility in your mind. This put a lot of strain on Gilles and in my view, when he came to Zolder, he was totally frustrated, still angry, and in the wrong frame of mind for a driver. It was all terribly, terribly unnecessary.
In the practice I was driving slowly back to the pits with a blistered tyre and, going over the crest, I saw him coming behind me, a reasonable distance away, and normally I would have expected him to back off. I never thought he would pass me where he did, it was dirty off the line on the right where he passed, and maybe he thought I would move left. You can think, ‘maybe I should have waved him to the left’, but you cannot go over and over this for ever.
It was a cataclysmic event, of course, but, you know, a whole lot of circumstances came together at that moment. Of course people talk about it, and I don’t complain about that, but sometimes, in moments like this, there is a lot of bad luck.
I spent a lot of time with Jody Scheckter and Gilles, and he was always so relaxed, so open, and you could talk to him about anything. He had this sort of Canadian aura about him, he was fun, and intelligent.
Sometimes, like at Zandvoort (in 1979), he was stupid and ridiculous but the fans loved the way he raced, and that’s just the way he was. Motor racing needs drivers like this, especially today. You have Lewis, he’s a real charger who sometimes makes mistakes, but it doesn’t matter, it brings excitement. Like Gilles, these guys are racers.
Eddie Cheever, Ligier F1 driver, 1982
Think of the circumstances that day. Gilles was a fraction off Pironi at the time — and this was right after their falling out at Imola. Last qualifying run… good lap, probably, a hundred revs more in the straight… through the chicane and up the hill… Mass is in the way… is he going to go left or right?… Gilles commits himself to the right… Mass also goes right to try and give him room… You know how long that takes? It’s a snap of your fingers…
John Watson, McLaren F1 driver, 1982
Gilles was a huge natural talent. But the talent was misdirected. In some ways Ferrari was the ideal team for him, but it was also the worst possible place to be because Ferrari didn’t understand how to get the best out of Gilles. Had he gone to a British team, his talent could have been channelled in a more efficient and effective way. Winning championships is not all about being a ‘hot rod’, it’s as much about using your intelligence.
At Dijon in 1979 his driving was irresponsible. He was going beyond what was acceptable and maybe the GPDA should have been more critical of him banging wheels with René Arnoux. And again at Zandvoort, with three wheels on the car offer a puncture, he received adulation for the spirit of what he did with bits falling off the car. But he had no regard for his fellow drivers, for what might have happened on that lap with the car falling apart around him. I think he needed a better sense of balance on that occasion.
To me, Gilles was a hyperactive child, and Ferrari allowed him to drive in a manner which was probably a throwback to the 1950s. They could have done more to help him harness the raw talent. Gilles allowed himself to be used by Ferrari, they played driver against driver, and old man Ferrari didn’t give a damn for drivers.
Would he have been better off at McLaren? Well, you can mull over that into your old age, but in 1979 the Ferrari was arguably a better car than, say, the McLaren M28. But the fact is that Gilles drove with a flair and a passion that was not channelled constructively and when he came up against a clever team-mate like Pironi, who was sometimes faster, he found it hard to cope with. And then, after the row with Pironi at Imola, I have never seen a driver so bitter, so angry, and that led to him taking risks over which he had no control at Zolder. Gilles made a commitment, took a risk, which was influenced by the feud with Pironi and which he could not control. And that’s a dangerous position for a racing driver to put himself in. But that’s what he did all his life in a racing car, he believed he could get away with anything.
Gilles loved to throw the dice, that was the buzz. His road driving was dangerous and selfish, and he took unacceptable risks flying his helicopter. A great many people are attracted to rebels or mavericks, and that explains some of the hero worship that still exists today. Gilles was a loose cannon at a time when F1 was starting to show signs of political correctness. He was outside the box, and I believe a team like Williams, or McLaren, would have contained his wild side, disciplined the raw talent more effectively, and enabled him to win a World Championship.
Derek Warwick, Toleman F1 driver, 1982
I’ve always been a little bit confused by the mystique surrounding Gilles. Sure he was very fast, he was a nice guy, very passionate, but he could also be reckless and that stirs the loins of journalists and photographers, even some fellow drivers.
The journalists have put him up there among the word’s greats and I’m not sure he was at that level, never a multiple World Champion like the true greats. If he’d been driving in today’s word he’d have been disqualified from many races. At Zandvoort, when he brought the car back on three wheels, everyone said it was wonderful whereas I thought it was just bloody dangerous. I raced with him, never against him, because he was in a Ferrari, and I was in the ‘Flying Pig’ (the Toleman TG181), but I was fortunate to be in F1 with him because he was someone special.
At Zolder I was the first car on the scene, the first to pull him out of the catch fencing, and when I ran to his car I was shocked and bewildered that he wasn’t there, he was 150 yards up the track and his helmet had come off. I’ve read that he always wanted to die in a racing car, and — if you analyse Gilles — that was the way he drove, even the way he flew his helicopter. He created that aura, that image, which in a way was a pleasure because he didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
Patrick Tambay, replaced Villeneuve at Ferrari
I love to talk about Gilles, he was a great guy. Gilles drove a racing car like he behaved in the rest of his life — he was a really outgoing guy, open to life, to people, to the world, and it showed in his driving style. He was never calculating in as approach.
I can recall the emotion of going to Ferrari after the accident, to drive his number 27, more than any other part of my life. It was such an emotional situation, personally and professionally, for me and for the team. Ferrari was in a very deep trough, you cannot imagine how bad it was, but the team got on with the job with a lot of respect for Gilles and also respect for me although I was not of his calibre.
It is emotional even now for me. I was close to him, and after he died, even though he was not there physically any more, he was there intellectually, psychologically and even today his presence is nearby, you know. He is still around. It’s strange because I turned down my first chance with Ferrari, went to McLaren in 1978 instead, and Gilles went to Ferrari when he was supposed to have got the McLaren drive. That’s how close the connections were in our careers, somehow they were intertwined in a strange way. I cherish my happy times with Gilles — he was a great man, and it has been nice for me to talk about him, to remember him in this way.
Niki Lauda, three-time World Champion
Recorded on Sunday morning at Zolder, 1982
Gilles was a perfect racing driver, I think. He had the best talent of all of us. In any car he was quick. He didn’t drive for points, but to win races. I liked him even more than I admired him. He was the best — and the fastest — racing driver in the world.
And speaking today…
Ah, Gilles… I was at Zolder, of course, the weekend he had the accident. On the Thursday evening I was in my hotel room — it was completely dark, and I heard a helicopter. I looked out of my window and there was a helicopter landing in the grounds! There were lights on, but still it was difficult to find the hotel — difficult to see! Next day I said to him, ‘What the hell were you doing?’ He said, ‘Oh, I left Nice too late and it got dark…’ I told him you’re not allowed to fly during the night, and he said, ‘Yes, I know…’
Then we started practice, and Gilles went out in front of me — and spun like crazy on the second lap! After the session I said, ‘Why are you so crazy going so quick when the circuit is dirty?’ He said, ‘Niki, I can’t do any different…’
I really liked Gilles — he was a real racer and took chances like you can’t believe. I was a big fan. He had huge talent — I liked him for his driving, his helicopter flying, but also I really loved him as a person. He was friendly and open and very funny. We were the same type when we spoke to each other we knew exactly what we were saying, and there was never any bullshit. People say Gilles was too brave, but I don’t agree. He was certainly the most aggressive driver of the time, but he was never unfair on the track — you could absolutely trust him never to put you in danger. I don’t think he was too brave: he just raced the way he raced, and I admired him for that. At the time of his death, Gilles was absolutely the guy in F1 — he had the best talent of all of us, no question. Unbelievable. A lovely, lovely guy.
Denis Jenkinson, Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent
The whole racing world must have been sad at the death of Gilles Villeneuve, especially those who admired him as an individual as well as a racing driver. He brought a breath of fresh air into F1, not only in his driving but by his simple philosophy. No long-winded psychological explanations of what he did and why. He just loved racing and had ‘the will to win’ that was in the same class as Fangio, Moss and Jim Clark. They used to do the impossible with a racing car and so did Villeneuve.
Those of us who watched him race from the track-side will remember him more for the races he didn’t win than those he did, when he battled against impossible odds. To my mind Alan Jones paid him the greatest compliment of anyone, when he said to a group of us chatting after dinner, “Jeez, that guy just won’t give up”.
To us, who had seen him walk away, unmoved, from some monumental prangs caused by tyre failures or mechanical breakages he seemed to be indestructible. But Jim Clark always seemed indestructible, and so did Mike Hailwood. We live in a wonderful world but at times it can be very cruel. Perhaps it is so to ensure that those of us who are left do not get too complacent.