1976: Gilles Villeneuve staggers the grand prix world before he's even sat in an F1 car. John Zimmermann describes an astounding season of dominance and the Formula Atlantic car a future legend made his name in
The competition aligned against him was the toughest our hero had yet faced, but he gave a performance to crystallise his outstanding season and enable his legendary step into Formula One. The occasion was the 11th Grand Prix Molson Trois-Rivières, run for Formula Atlantic cars through the streets of a small Quebec town about 60 miles down the St Lawrence River from Montreal, and the young man in question was, of course, Gilles Villeneuve.
The race around the local fairgrounds was a special event, a non-championship thrash for which the organisers annually brought in a handful of distinguished European racers to embellish the standard entry list. Thus did Villeneuve arrive in Trois-Rivières to find not only his regular Atlantic rivals, but also James Hunt, headed for that year's World Championship, future F1 champion Alan Jones and Vittorio Brambilla, the defending Trois-Rivières winner.
Undeterred, Villeneuve qualified fastest, joined on the front row by his constant nemesis Tom Klausler. Bobby Rahal gridded third, ahead of Brambilla, Formula Two star Patrick Tambay, Hunt and Jones. At the start Gilles quickly opened a 10-second lead and cruised to the finish, with Jones emerging in second ahead of Hunt. The astonished Englishman returned home raving about the quick Quebec driver, and Gilles was soon offered a test with McLaren that opened the door to F1 and begat the dream that has filled the heads of Atlantic racers ever since.
As important as that race may have turned out to be, it was but the jewel in the crown of a 1976 season during which Villeneuve won nine of the 10 races he started for Kris Harrison's Ecurie Canada team, thereby claiming both Canada's Player's Challenge Series and IMSA's one-season-only Formula Atlantic Championship in the USA. All nine of those victories came in a March, chassis 76B-3, featured here, which has recently been restored by Jon Norman Racing from Berkeley, California, for Dan Marvin to drive in Historic Formula Atlantic events.
Atlantic cars of 30 years ago were nimble, well-balanced machines of just over 1000lb, powered by 220bhp, 1.6-litre Cosworth BDAs. Ground effects had not yet taken over, so what were called 'sportscar noses' helped them slip as effortlessly as possible through the air. "It's really fun," beams Marvin, who began to make his name in Atlantic at the same time as Villeneuve. "While the ultimate performance isn't there, it's still gratifyingly fast. Compared to later cars, it's kind of a Cadillac. I remember Three Rivers as being real bumpy and, while there's no mistaking that they haven't repaved the place, this car just floats over the bumps. It doesn't matter if you're half sideways when you reach that manhole cover in the first turn, because the suspension soaks it up.
"It doesn't develop a lot of downforce, so being a bit of a cowboy is not as detrimental to lap times as with a tunnel car. It's easy to find the limits, and the limit is a wider swathe because yaw doesn't kill the downforce as badly. The wing doesn't like it, but then the wing isn't exerting the kind of downforce that a wing and tunnels do.
"The edge is more easily explored — and abused — than in a modern car, and I think because of that they're really fun to watch. That's why you see great pictures of Rosberg bouncing off walls and Gilles all crossed up, because you could drive that way and still win races. It's not a car you have to drive with conservation of equipment in mind. It's a sprint car, so you don't have to baby the tyres or the brakes. You can drive hard, and that agrees with me."
The only race Villeneuve was defeated in that year was a wet Player's Pacific round at Westwood, a heart-shaped, undulating 1.8-mile circuit carved out of the verdant rain forest just east of Vancouver. "It was a terrible race," remembers Graham Scott, lead mechanic in charge of the Canadian's spare car, which got a full-wet set-up when selected for front-line duty that day. "Gilles spun off, ran over a tree stump and knocked an oil line loose." That incident erased a comfortable lead and handed victory to unheralded Formula Ford ace Marty Loft. Otherwise, whenever Gilles and the Ecurie Canada March showed up they usually started from pole position and always led at the chequer.
It wasn't as if Villeneuve went unchallenged. The Player's series enjoyed a well-earned reputation as the toughest training ground in North America, with the highlights from each race televised weekly on the CTV network's Wide World of Sports programme. Every round featured a deep array of aspiring American and Canadian talent that included Rahal, Klausler, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Price Cobb, not to mention triple defending Player's champ Bill Brack, highly regarded Swede Bertil Roos, future Atlantic and Trans-Am champ Tom Gloy, and Mexico's Johnny Gerber. Gilles dominated them all, despite uncertain finances which became a tale of their own.
The year began with a trio of IMSA-sanctioned races in the USA, at Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca and on the infield road course of the old Ontario Motor Speedway. In Georgia, Villeneuve outlasted an early challenge from Tom Pumpelly for his first win, but the next round at Laguna Seca became the only race that he didn't start from pole. A two-heat format established the grid, and a local driver named Dan Marvin claimed the first grid spot by winning the fastest heat.
In the final Marvin led early, but soon gave way to Gerber and Villeneuve. Gilles pressured the Mexican into a mistake at Laguna's famous Corkscrew and drove away to the win, with Forbes-Robinson's Tui second and Gerber's Chevron third. Marvin, taken out of third by a backmarker, finished 25th.
By race three the relationship between Villeneuve and his team manager Ray Wardell had begun to solidify, giving the season its all-too-familiar shape. After his chief mechanic, Andy Roe, had trimmed his car out more than the others for the high-speed OMS layout, Gilles drove away from pole to win by 15 seconds from EFR, with Brack another 10 ticks back in third.
It's this relationship between Villeneuve and the moustachioed Englishman Wardell which Rahal credits for their incredible success. "Ray came from the March F2 team and was just very, very good," says Bobby. "He was all business and brought a whole new level of seriousness and preparation to that team. There's no doubt in my mind that Gilles was tremendously talented, but Ray was able to take all that and channel it in the right direction. It was a very frustrating year for me as we had horrible mechanical issues, but obviously for Gilles it was a magical year."
The Canadian season opened in mid-May with the Player's Alberta on the windswept flatness of Edmonton International Speedway, where a colourful race ensued as the first five ran nose to tail in the opening laps. Villeneuve led the queue in the familiar green Skiroule machine, trailed in ever-shifting order by Klausler's white Traylor Lola, Brack's fluorescent red STP Chevron, Rahal's orange Shierson March and Gordon Smiley's pale blue Fred Opert Chevron. Once the initial fireworks had been sorted out, however, Villeneuve ran home uncontested, with Brack second ahead of Smiley. Rahal retired early after an off-course excursion and Klausler lost third to a late tangle with lapped traffic.
From Alberta everyone headed west to British Columbia, where Loft scored his upset, then turned back east across the prairies into Manitoba. The Gimli airfield circuit had been the site of Villeneuve's maiden Atlantic win the previous year, and he spent the afternoon duelling with Brack until the reigning champ spun out of contention just past three-quarter distance.
"The amazing thing about Gilles," remembers Brack, "was that you'd think you had him beaten, you knew he was going into this corner in front of you way too fast. Then he'd go off and you'd think, 'That's it, I'm on my way to the chequered flag.' But he had this ability to know which way the car was going when it was spinning so he could catch it going the right way. He had an extra ability, something special, there's no doubt about that."
The week before the next Player's round, in July at the daunting Circuit Mont Tremblant near Ste Jovite, Villeneuve had an enormous accident while testing at the track in the spare car. Fortunately he escaped injury and his primary March remained untouched in the truck, so the race-weekend story could stay the same: pole position, dominant drive, race victory.
"I was on the front row with him at Ste Jovite," recalls Klausler, "and at the start of the race he just drove away from us. His car was very light on the ground, and in the big downhill right-hand first turn I remember thinking he was going where I wanted to go, but I just couldn't get my brain to make the car go there. It was disheartening. He was in a different league."
The threatening financial clouds appeared on the horizon about this time, however. Skiroule's sponsorship — backing which Villeneuve had brought from snowmobile racing, in which he'd been World Champion in 1974— dried up as the company entered bankruptcy proceedings. All the hard work was in danger of going for nought, and Ste Jovite would be the car's last outing in the familiar all-green colour scheme.
The scramble for funds to complete the season began in earnest. Through his contacts at Molson Breweries Gilles met a Montreal entrepreneur named Gaston Parent. Parent would eventually become Villeneuve's personal manager, but at this point all he did was arrange the cash needed to get the team to the next round at Atlantic Motorsports Park near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The car arrived for the Player's Maritime painted basic white with a blue fleur de lys on its nose. One of Parent's companies had designed the emblem, which served as the official symbol for the province of Quebec, and he chose it to adorn the car. Villeneuve withstood a stern challenge from Brack to win again and clinch the Player's title.
With the Canadian crown now secure, the team skipped Mosport, where Rahal dominated, and because Gilles enjoyed a healthy lead in the IMSA championship he also bypassed the following race at Mid-Ohio, where Klausler overtook an out-of-fuel Rahal on the last lap to score Lola's only win.
Parent proceeded to set up the Gilles Villeneuve Fund, soliciting contributions from all across Quebec to aid the province's new hero and help promote its most important race, the Grand Prix Molson Trois-Rivières. Just prior to the event, mail-order photo processor Direct Film came aboard as primary sponsor, and the livery that today graces the restored 76B-3 made its debut at this race.
After Trois-Rivières, two rounds remained in the IMSA series, but by leading flag-to-flag at Road Atlanta Villeneuve wrapped up that title as well, eliminating the need to contest Laguna Seca's season finale, which the steady Cobb won after Rahal once again hit trouble. At Road Atlanta, however, the history of March 76B-3 had taken an unexpected twist. Howdy Holmes drove a second Ecurie Canada entry that day — as Hunt had at Trois-Rivières — and crashed it on the last lap. Graham Scott picks up the story.
"Howdy had a major accident — probably as big as Gilles had had at Mont Tremblant — after arguing with Price Cobb into the big downhill right-hander after the bridge. Well, it turned out that the spare car had been on loan from Doug Shierson, the March importer. So when we headed back to Toronto we were told to stop in at his shop in Adrian (Michigan), one, to pick up parts to rebuild the car, and two — and I vaguely remember that this only happened while we were there — Doug wanted a car back.
"Since we only had one in running condition he got the primary car, and the second one, the one Howdy had crashed, went back to Toronto to be rebuilt. While the primary car was at Shierson's, Doug rented it out to Tom Pumpelly for the (SCCA National Championship) Runoffs (at Road Atlanta). Well, we had re-routed the rear brake and clutch lines underneath the engine, tie-wrapping them to the scavenge line that went into the oil pan. Apparently they changed an engine and forgot to re-tie the lines, and the Aeroquip dragged on the racetrack and wore through. Tom arrived at Turn Six with no rear brakes and wrote it off."
Jon Norman, also competing at Road Atlanta that day, found himself in an unexpected position after the race. "I was looking at the wrecked car," he remembers, "and Joe Grimaldi (Shierson's partner) came up and put his arm around me and said, 'I know just the guys who are gonna buy this car' and proceeded to make us a deal to buy the wreck. I think I paid $3000 or $5000 for the wrecked rolling chassis."
Norman and co rebuilt the car and ran it in both Club and Pro races during '77 and '78, then off and on over the next couple of years before retiring it in 1980 once ground effects became prevalent in Atlantic. Not long after that Scott approached Norman about buying the rolling chassis to restore it to its former glory. "At that point," Norman admits, "I thought, 'Hey, we're racing, we need every dime we can get.'
Scott's intentions may have been good, but for a variety of reasons 76B-3 sat under a cover in his shop until 1988, when it returned to Norman's hands. Jon had joined forces with publisher Paul Pfanner to re-acquire the car, but with Pfanner about to embark on launching Racer magazine no progress was made for another 11 years.
As 2000 approached, Pfanner elected to sell his share of the still-unrestored machine to Norman, but it took the 2004 announcement of the formation of the Historic Formula Atlantic association and its inaugural race at Trois-Rivières to catalyse the rebuild process.
"It was always one of those 'maybe next year we can do it' things," offers Norman, "and that went on for many years. Anyway, I got the press release for the Three Rivers (HFA) race last April and we thought about it and decided it would be nice, but that we couldn't do it. Then I went to Thunder Hill in May for the Historic GP race and James King (an HGP director and former Atlantic racer) twisted my arm. I came back on Monday and we had a little meeting and said, 'Well, what the heck. We don't have enough time, but let's go ahead and give it a try!' So we brought it down from the loft, and..."
With time short, all the Norman Racing Group old hands — Stefan Dwornik, Dennis Etcheverry and Paul Hasselgren — joined Marvin and Norman in the rush to completion. Marvin admits that a certain mystique still surrounds driving Villeneuve's car, especially at the venue he calls "the spiritual home of Formula Atlantic", but says all the hard work was validated by the way the Trois-Rivières fans responded.
"For us it had become nuts and bolts," he confesses, "just like any racecar to the guys who are working on it. We were all pretty burnt out by the time we showed up, but the spectators there are amazingly knowledgeable and many came up and thanked us for bringing it. It wasn't just greyhairs like myself, who were Gilles's contemporaries, but young twenty-somethings too. That reception made it all worthwhile and really brought home to me just what a special car it is.
"One thing that we didn't do," Marvin adds, "was put Gilles's name on it. We gave that a lot of thought, but it was something I felt pretty strongly about. Gilles was clearly something special, particularly in Quebec, where he's a national hero, and I think that putting his name on the car while someone else is operating it would be disrespectful."
It's good to see that this piece of Gilles Villeneuve's legacy has been entrusted to such a man.
Our thanks to Dan Marvin and Jimmy Johnston of Historic Formula Atlantic for their help with this feature
The man in the cockpit
Like all too many racers, Dan Marvin never managed to land the full-time ride in a top-rank championship that he so desperately desired, but he was still able to compile a record which complements the ex-Villeneuve March.
After discovering his susceptibility to speed as a high-school karter -- "I just sort of stumbled across it and realised, 'Uh oh, this is me!" -- an underage Marvin tackled club racing in the SCCA's San Francisco Region with an F Production Alfa Romeo before moving into a Titan Mk6 Formula Ford.
Graduating to Atlantic in 1976 in a year-old Lola, he made his debut at nearby Laguna Seca, actually starting the final from pole position after a victory in one heat over Villeneuve himself.
Following that auspicious beginning, Dan piloted a string of second-hand Lolas and Marches before securing the 1984 Atlantic championship with Norman Racing's Ralt RT4. His 10 Atlantic wins rank equal sixth all time alongside 'Uncle' Jacques Villeneuve.
Mild-mannered and even-tempered outside the cockpit, Marvin once explained his aggressive racing style by commenting: "I guess I have a low tolerance for adrenaline."
During the late '80s and early '90s he flourished in IMSA GTP's Camel Lights category, with both Joe Huffaker's Pontiac-powered squad and the Comptech Acura outfit run by Doug Peterson and Don Erb, where he co-drove with Parker Johnstone.
From 36 starts spread over five Lights seasons, Marvin collected 17 wins and 25 top-fives, helping Johnstone to bag a hat-trick of driver crowns and both Pontiac and Acura to claim manufacturer titles.
With the growth of vintage Formula One and 2004's introduction of Historic Atlantic, Marvin has re-emerged. He's been virtually unbeatable driving early mentor Phil Reilly's Brabham BT44 in Historic Grand Prix events, and has dominated both HFA outings at Trois-Rivières in the former Villeneuve March.
Nine out of ten ... Gilles Villeneuve's 1976 Atlantic run:
CASC Player's Challenge Series Qual Result Starters
May 16 Edmonton, Alberta 1 1 30
May 30 Westwood, British Columbia 1 19 31
June 13 Gimli, Manitoba 1 1 30
July 11 St Jovite, Quebec 1 1 40
Aug 8 Halifax, Nova Scotia 1 1 26
Non-Championship Special Event
Sept 5 Trois-Rivières, Quebec 1 1 29
IMSA Formula Atlantic Championship
April 11 Road Atlanta, Georgia 1 1 35
May 2 Laguna Seca, California 3 1 32
May 9 Ontario, California 1 1 37
Aug 29 Mid-Ohio, Ohio DNE 21
Sept 19 Road Atlanta 2 1 1 23
Oct 3 Laguna Seca 2 DNE 25
TechSpec -- March 76B-3:
Chassis: Aluminum monocoque; Weight 1050Ib
Dimensions: Wheelbase 97in; Overall length 171in; Overall height 38in; Overall width 67in; Front track 51in; Rear track 51in
Brakes: Girling four-piston F & R
Steering: Rack and pinion
Tyres: Goodyear: 20x9.5-13 F; 23x13.0-13 R
Wheels: March alloy 10x13 F. 14x13 R
Engine: Cosworth BDA four-cylinder, Displacement 1601 cc
Transmission: Hewland FT200 5-speed
Updates then: Car ran an F2 nose from mid-season on, as the Atlantic nose had no splitter; rear brakes originally had two-piston calipers, but Gilles insisted on four.
Updates now: For the sake of reliability. a Power Safe battery has replaced the original Varley and a Tilton starter has taken over from the original Lucas unit; also the Weber carburettors were originally DCOE 45s but are now DCOE 48s.