Damien Smith's Off the line

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The spirit of speed

I only saw Gilles Villeneuve race once, and it wasn’t exactly his finest performance: British Grand Prix, 1981.  I was six. He was out early on after losing his Ferrari 126CK at Woodcote and ending up in the catch fencing after being collected square by the closely following Williams of Alan Jones.

That day I was caught up with the rest of the partisan crowd in the fervour surrounding John Watson’s victory. A year later Villeneuve was gone, the violence of his death two months before still raw in the minds of all who loved him. His legacy would cast a long shadow for years, not because of his relatively paltry six grand prix wins, but because of what he represented. While Carlos Reutemann looked  like the archetypal racing driver, Gilles had the spirit  of what it was all about.

I’d seen Gilles in a typical pose: fighting a dog of a Ferrari, running higher up the order than it had a right to be. But when he had equal equipment, as for example in 1976 when he was a little-known Formula Atlantic pedaller, he could ram home his superiority like a Fangio or a Senna. Our cover story examines a rare time in his career when he was able to do just that.

Big, burly Dave Coyne appears to have little in common with the little French-Canadian. Villeneuve lived for racing, as eloquent on Formula One out of the car as he was fierce within it. Coyne never made it beyond Formula 3000, a wheeler-dealer with an everyday life to get on with and a personality that rubbed some people up the wrong way. Ron Dennis wouldn’t have liked him!

But dig down and look at what actually counts. Coyne shared with Villeneuve the gift of pure natural ability. I’m not saying he was as good as Gilles — although he beat most of the star names that he came up against — and I’m certainly not saying he shared the same high moral racing ethics! But he was really  good.

If you’re reading this magazine, chances are you recognise why Villeneuve is revered. But if you’ve spotted our Dave Coyne feature and turned your nose up at Superstox and glitzy glamour girls, give it a try too. If they’d come up against each other they might not have been the best of mates, but I bet there would have been plenty of mutual respect. You just can’t fake pure speed.

***

 We previewed the Goodwood Revival last month. There’s no report in this issue as deadlines dictated we wrapped it up before the big event. See the November issue, out on October 14, for a full report. Sadly we’ve had to put the shelf price up to £4.95 from next month — but with Cooper, Lotus, Andretti, Unser and McRae it’ll be worth it!

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