MPH Grand Prix debuts: Gilles Villeneuve marks his arrival

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Gilles Villeneuve during the 1977 British GP

Gilles Villeneuve made his mark in F1 on debut with McLaren

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Gilles Villeneuve had barely been heard of on the international stage when McLaren entered him in a third car for the 1977 British Grand Prix. ‘Who?’ was not an uncommon reaction even to racing enthusiasts.

But if they were close followers of American single-seater racing, they’d have known all about him. He’d recently made his first ripples on the international stage when he beat the visiting F1 stars James Hunt, Vittorio Brambilla and Alan Jones as they took part in the 1976 Trois Rivieres Formula Atlantic race.

This was Villeneuve’s home territory, the track on which the former skidoo racing champion had forged his local reputation in cars. He was already crowned Atlantic champion when he showed Hunt et al his dust at Trois Rivieres.

This was an end-of-season non-championship invitation event to raise the profile of the series, and a budget was allocated for selected F1 drivers to compete. Hunt – on the verge of winning that year’s world championship – was paid $10,000.

History doesn’t record the fees paid to Jones and Brambilla, neither of whom enjoyed anything like Hunt’s profile at that time, but Villeneuve was paying for his seat by way of his sponsors.

He’d won eight of the series’ 12 races that year on venues spread between the USA and Canada– against some pretty tough competition including Bobby Rahal and Price Cobb.

But it wasn’t just his winning of them; it was the sensational style too, the incredible car control. Hunt had been assigned a place in the same Ecurie Canada team as Villeneuve by the race organisers. He was assigned a brand-new chassis and was somewhat taken aback at how much quicker Villeneuve’s times were than his own.

Villeneuve in fact was nursing a serious handling problem from a bent chassis and when he later tested Hunt’s newer car, was much quicker. Nonetheless, Villeneuve set pole by 0.4sec, and was over 0.8sec quicker than Hunt despite the bent chassis. Villeneuve won the race going away, with Jones second and Hunt third.

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Hunt was seriously impressed and suggested to Teddy Mayer, his team boss at McLaren, that they should take a serious look at this funny little guy from rural Canada.

It was hardly the accepted route to F1 – a season in regional Formula Ford followed by three more in a national Formula Atlantic series that was somewhat of a backwater in terms of international recognition.

But Villeneuve’s form and style made him stand out. At the beginning of ’77 he took up where he left off in Atlantic, and also took up an offer to replace the retiring Chris Amon in the Wolf Can-Am car, with Amon staying on as team manager.

The Kiwi became just as big a fan as Hunt. “He’s one of the fastest drivers I have ever seen,” said the F1 veteran of 14 years. “I’ve only seen one driver in the world who had the car control Villeneuve has, a guy who always knew where he was in the car no matter what. That was Jimmy Clark.” This all about a guy who’d not even driven F1 or even ventured out of north America yet.

After consulting with Marlboro’s John Hogan – who had also been campaigned by Hunt – Teddy Mayer entered a McLaren M23 for Villeneuve at Silverstone, in addition to the team’s regular M26 models for Hunt and Jochen Mass.

This entailed a general test session in the week before the race together with taking part in pre-qualifying on the Thursday. That’s all the opportunity Villeneuve had learn about both F1 and the circuit, one of F1’s fastest of the time. Villeneuve’s driving in that test session has become a thing of legend as he repeatedly and spectacularly spun the car.

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It was the first time the F1 world got to see Villeneuve’s ‘find the limit by going over it’ technique. It was all quite calculated and planned as the best way to find the limits in a very unfamiliar environment with not much time. The spins were always recovered on track, didn’t involve the gravel traps and didn’t put a scratch on the car. And he was super-quick.

He breezed through pre-qualifying as the fastest, though that might have been expected with a works McLaren against mainly privateer cars. It was in qualifying itself he caused a sensation.

He put the obsolete car ninth quickest, 0.8sec off Hunt’s pole but quicker than Mass’ M26, the Tyrrells of Ronnie Petersonand Patrick Depailler, Jones’ ShadowCarlos Reutemann’s Ferrari and Jacques Laffite’s Ligier, among others.

In the race he was even more impressive. He was running in what would have been fourth place when he noticed his water temperature gauge climbing. He pitted, not wanting to destroy the engine. It was found to be nothing more than a faulty gauge. It was a long stop and he returned to the fray almost two laps down.

He moved aside for the leaders John WatsonNiki Lauda and Hunt, then simply followed them, apparently easily holding their pace. His finishing place of 11th was in no way representative of his performance. On merit, he would have finished fourth in an obsolete car and he was fifth in the fastest lap list.

He was justifiably pleased with how it had gone despite losing out on the sensational result. “If I’d ignored the gauge and the engine had blown I’d just have been seen as a dumb beginner in over my head, not paying attention to the gauges. I didn’t want that tag so I pitted… after I got back out I was just driving at my own pace but I realised I was keeping up with them. I said to myself, ‘that’s Scheckter, that’s Andretti and I can keep up with them.’” Everyone knew Gilles Villeneuve’s name now.

Watching on TV in Italy, an Old Man was excited by what he’d seen.