Raw, youthful Gilles Villeneuve set sail in North America’s single-seater shallows. It was a tough voyage that would lead him directly to the shores of F1
By Gordon Kirby
Back in 1973, Gilles Villeneuve was a young snowmobile champion in his native Quebec unknown to most motor racing people even in la Belle Province, let alone the rest of the world. Gilles used some of his snowmobiling prize money to go to the Jim Russell Racing School at Mt Tremblant, site of the 1968 and ’70 Canadian Grands Prix, and bought a Magnum Formula Ford that he ran in a handful of races. That winter he appeared on the doorstep of Kris Harrison’s little Ecurie Canada shop in Montréal and asked Harrison to run him in the next year’s Canadian Formula Atlantic championship.
Harrison himself had dreamed of becoming a racing driver and competed in eight Can-Am races in 1969 with a McLaren-Chevy. The next year he ran a handful of Trans-Am races but discovered he had neither the talent, money nor organisation to race successfully, and decided to concentrate purely on setting up his own team.
Harrison’s small shop and team were struggling to survive and he was considering quitting the sport when Villeneuve walked into the shop. “Gilles came in and introduced himself,” Harrison recalls. “I had no idea who he was. He said, ‘I want to drive your race cars.’ His English wasn’t very good, but he was very clear in what he said and I was captured by the fact that he was so cocky and self-assured.
“I asked him if he had any references or anybody I could talk to about him. He said, ‘Call Jacques Couture. He’ll tell you what I can do.’ Jacques ran the Jim Russell Driving School at St Jovite and I knew him, so I said I would call him and Gilles left. We agreed that he would come back in a couple of days and we would talk it over. Just thinking back on it, I remember saying to myself that was kind of an amusing conversation. Again, his confidence and self belief stood out like a beacon.
“So I called Jacques Couture and asked him if he knew this guy Gilles Villeneuve. He said, ‘Oh yeah!’ I said, ‘Should I give him a chance?’ And Jacques said, ‘He’s extraordinary.’ Those were his words. I liked and trusted Jacques and I believed he wouldn’t deceive me. As you know, there are all manner of people out there with the same kind of mindset that Gilles was projecting but without the skills.
“When Gilles came back a few days later I said that I had talked with Jacques and we should do this thing. I think I told him it was going to cost him $50,000. I said I don’t have the money to do it without you paying me. He never said a word. He just said, ‘I’ll pay you the money.’ And we shook hands. For me, we had just hired our first driver and it was just as casual as the way I’m telling you.”
Villeneuve drove home to Berthierville and told his wife JoAnn that they were selling their home to pay for his first season in Formula Atlantic. “In his mind it probably wasn’t casual at all,” Harrison adds. “He didn’t tell me, but he went home and sold his home and moved his family into a motorhome. A little bit later he showed up with a cheque. We never had a contract or signed any letters. He just handed me a cheque for $50,000.”
Harrison was able to convince Schweppes to provide Ecurie Canada with a small amount of sponsorship for the 1974 season but the relationship started disastrously when Villeneuve destroyed both of the team’s shiny new March 74Bs in his first test session. “We went to Mt Tremblant; it was the first time he had sat in that kind of a race car and within a couple of hours he wrote both cars off. He just totalled them. There was nothing left. The first race as I recall was a month away out in Vancouver and we had no cars. But Robin Herd and Max Mosley at March were really good. They trusted me. I had insured the cars with Lloyd’s of London which was very fortunate. They took a long time but they eventually paid March Engineering. So we pulled it together and went racing.”
But at Mosport in the middle of the season Gilles crashed and broke his leg. He missed three races and finished a distant 16th in the championship. “Gilles and I fought constantly,” Harrison says. “I couldn’t understand how he could be so one-sided. He wouldn’t consider any of the financial problems or anything else. He would just say, ‘Give me the car and let’s go. I’ll do my job.’
“In those days I was pretty young so I didn’t understand his mindset. I had put everything I had on the line and I only saw how much pressure he put on me and the team. We weren’t very good at being able to provide the equipment for that much talent. In car racing the last tenths of a second are the difference and the most difficult. If it took you $10,000 to get to third on the grid it took another $100,000 to get you to first place and none of the people we had assembled or our financial partners were in that league. They were not prepared for that kind of pressure.
“At the end of the year Gilles said, ‘To heck with you guys. I’m going to run my own race car.’ He bought a car from March and ran it on his own with sponsorship from Skiroule, a snowmobile manufacturer.”
Driving his own car Gilles scored his first Atlantic win in the middle of the ’75 season in pouring rain at a remote airfield circuit near Gimli, Manitoba. He also finished second to Elliott Forbes-Robinson at Mt Tremblant and was fifth in the championship behind Bill Brack, Bertil Roos, Tom Klausler and Forbes Robinson. “He found running his own team just as tough as I did and the following year he wanted to come back with us,” Harrison says. “I liked the guy but there was so much tension on every issue. I was fighting for financial survival and he was fighting to win races and not really understanding what issues I was facing. But he asked me if we could do it again and he brought Skiroule as a sponsor.”
Harrison decided he needed an experienced pro to help run Villeneuve and hired former March F1 and F2 team manager Ray Wardell for the job. Wardell and Bill Stone were March’s first two employees. They built the March 693 F3 car that Ronnie Peterson drove, Wardell worked on the first two March 701 F1 cars, then became March’s F1 and F2 team manager. He also managed Chris Amon’s Can-Am effort in the March 707 and won the European F2 championship in 1973 running Jean-Pierre Jarier. In 1975 Wardell came to Trois-Rivières to run Patrick Depailler in a second Ecurie Canada March entry, and after the race Ray spent a few days with Harrison at the latter’s family home in the Laurentian Mountains.
“It had become very apparent that there was huge potential with Gilles, but it was very, very raw at the time,” Wardell remarks. “Gilles had tremendous potential. I wouldn’t say I thought that he was going to be another Peterson or whatever. Having worked with a lot of young drivers I didn’t try to compare him at that stage with any of the others. But there was just something about him, a real determination and a very natural ability that was exciting.”
Harrison took a big step forward for 1976 by making a deal with Goodyear to become the company’s Canadian racing tyre distributor. With Wardell on board and the Goodyear deal in place Harrison decided to move Ecurie Canada to Toronto.
“We rented a really nice shop,” Harrison says. “”The Goodyear distributorship gave us a boost because it was exclusive for all of Canada so we supplied and serviced everything from stock cars to the Formula 1 cars when they came to Canada for the Canadian GP. So we had some income from car racing.”
Harrison stayed away from the races in 1976 and 1977. “Ray used the same people I was using but he knew how to do it,” Harrison recalls. “I really liked Ray. He was much easier to get along with than Villeneuve was. Ray took the team off to the first race and Gilles won and just kept on winning. He did just fantastically well. Ray Wardell and Villeneuve were just perfect together. It was a match made in heaven.”
Gilles proved to be completely irresistible in 1976, winning nine out of 10 races he started and taking both the Canadian and IMSA Atlantic championships. “We went off to Atlanta for the first race and in the first day’s qualifying he was getting quicker and quicker and doing very nicely,” Wardell recalls. “I was watching from the pitroad waiting for the car to appear from under the bridge at the top of the hill. And a cloud of dust went up and then there was a bit of green. He had tried to take the turn under the bridge flat and gone off big-time and absolutely destroyed the car. Fortunately we had two cars but we were a bit short on money and I didn’t want to phone Kris and tell him we’ve just totalled one of the cars already.
“But Gilles was unscratched and unfazed about the whole thing. He just said, ‘I was sure it was going to be flat, but it wasn’t.’ But he still managed to win the race in the back-up car. When we left there I thought, if he’s going to do this at every race we’re not going to finish the season. But he certainly knew how to pull it out of the bag. What a talent! He had this incredible ability to find the limit by spinning or doing something to take the car over the limit and 99 per cent of the time he got away with it.
“When it came to qualifying Gilles was so impressive. At St Jovite, right at the end of qualifying Gilles just knocked a second and a half off his time and none of us could believe it. He had an incredible ability to do that, and it just made us in the team feel very special. It was just a pleasure.”
At the Trois-Rivières street circuit in September of ’76 Gilles not only added another win but also defeated a brace of F1 drivers led by Alan Jones and soon-to-be world champion James Hunt. Both were mightily impressed with Villeneuve’s driving, and when Hunt got home he raved about Gilles to McLaren bosses Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, and also to sponsor Marlboro.
“The organisers at Three Rivers always paid me to bring someone over from Europe,” Harrison relates. “I brought Patrick Depailler over one year and then I brought Hunt over in ’76. We had four cars for Villeneuve and Hunt. I had never met anybody quite like James. He was quite a character and it was really interesting and exciting to have a world champion-calibre guy driving one of our cars. But Hunt couldn’t outqualify Villeneuve and he really tried. We had three-lap qualifying tyres and we just gave him everything that we could like a professional team because Ray was running it. But he couldn’t outrun Villeneuve.”
Gilles charged away to win the race comfortably while Alan Jones drove one of Fred Opert’s Chevrons and beat Hunt to second with Vittorio Brambilla finishing fourth in a Shierson March, Bobby Rahal taking fifth place and Patrick Tambay sixth in another Opert Chevron. “Hunt never said anything to me until the end of the weekend,” Harrison recalls. “Then he said, ‘this guy is really good. I’ve never seen anything quite like this guy and I’m going to tell Teddy Mayer about him.’ The next thing that happened was Teddy Mayer called our shop and asked if Villeneuve would like to drive in the British Grand Prix. Winning a bunch of Atlantic races wasn’t important. What was important was that race against James Hunt. He could have said I’m not going to even talk about this guy, but that wasn’t Hunt’s makeup and that’s significant. That shows the character of a person.”
Hunt’s enthusiasm convinced Mayer and Alexander to give Villeneuve a try, and after a fast, spin-filled test he made his F1 debut in the 1977 British GP at Silverstone (see p52). After winning the Atlantic championship a second time Gilles signed in September ’77 with Ferrari. Thus began a legend.
“The nice thing about Gilles was he didn’t pretend that he knew anything,” Wardell adds. “He let you do it. He gave me feedback on what he thought was going on. He didn’t tell me why he thought it was going on. He just told me what the car was actually doing and would accept my opinion about what we were going to do. It just worked so well.
“From that point of view he was probably one of the easiest guys I ever worked with. He didn’t pretend he knew what changes we should do next. I would draw a map of the circuit and he would mark off around the map car what was happening with the car. It was a really nice routine we got into after every session, and it worked very, very well.”
Wardell later formed Pi Research with Nigel Bennett and Tony Purnell. They subsequently sold the company and Wardell retired in 1996. Harrison went through a variety of businesses and today owns a small stable of horses he trains for endurance racing.
“Anywhere around Gilles there was always contention and fire going off all over the place,” Harrison observes. “He pushed everybody and I had to get used to that because I was pretty young and it was a new thing for me. It was a great learning experience and I enjoy looking back at it and thinking, ‘That was something.’ Gilles was absolutely on fire and it was a privilege to experience that. It was just a unique moment in time and I’m so glad to have been a part of it.”