I’m looking forward to Long Beach next weekend, America’s greatest street race.
Founded by Chris Pook in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race, Long Beach was the scene of the United States Grand Prix West for eight warmly remembered years from 1976-83 before switching in 1984 to CART and Indycars.
I’ve had the pleasure of covering all 37 Long Beach GPs, starting with the inaugural F5000 race, and have many fond memories of the place. But none can exceed the sparkle of our old friend and hero Gilles Villeneuve in action through the California streets in Long Beach’s heyday as a Formula One race.
Gilles’s first start at Long Beach came in 1978 (above), his rookie year in F1. He qualified his Ferrari 312T3 on the outside of the front row beside team-mate Carlos Reutemann who had won the Brazilian GP two months earlier. Gilles had set the fastest lap in the season-opening race in South Africa, but had yet to score any points or lead any laps. Having watched his enthusiastic rise in Formula Atlantic over the previous four years, however, I was an unabashed Villeneuve fan convinced he was ready to win in F1.
I always watch the race at Long Beach from the relatively long left-hander leading into the hairpin that takes the cars onto Shoreline Drive and the blast past the pits and main grandstands. It’s a great place to watch the cars and drivers at work and there’s even room for out braking into the right-hander or going into the hairpin.
Back in 1978 I arrived at my usual spot just before the start to join colleagues Nigel Roebuck and Denis Jenkinson. Nigel was already a Villeneuve fan, of course, but I was sure Gilles was going to get the jump on Reutemann at the start and was excited at the prospect of watching him lead a Grand Prix for the first time.
“You’re about to see the new ace of the era lead the first lap and win the race,” I babbled almost uncontrollably to ‘Jenks’. “Gilles is going to be the man to beat in the next few years. Mark my words!”
Imagine the broad grin on my face and whoop of joy as the cars came wailing into view near the end of the first lap with Villeneuve’s Ferrari in front. Here was a guy I had watched with pleasure and admiration for four years as he drove the wheels off a series of March Atlantic cars displaying tremendous panache. He was also a lovely guy, very funny with a sharp wit, and a low-key family man too with his wife Joann and two kids Jacques and Melanie always nearby. You couldn’t help but admire and like the guy, and it was a fine thing to see all his enthusiasm and hard work begin to earn its just rewards.
Of course, not for the first or last time Gilles’ passion got the better of him that day at Long Beach in ‘78. After leading the first 38 laps he tripped over another car while trying to lap it, putting him out of the race and allowing Reutemann to go on to win. That was the year of the Lotus 79 and Mario Andretti’s World Championship and increasingly, as the season wore on, the Ferraris were outpaced by Andretti and Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 79s. But Gilles came through to score his first Grand Prix victory at the end of the season in the first Canadian GP run in Montreal on what would later become the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The following year Villeneuve finished second in the World Championship to new team-mate Jody Scheckter, winning in South Africa, Long Beach and Watkins Glen. At Long Beach in ‘79 (above) Gilles made amends for his mistake the previous year as he qualified on pole, led every lap and turned the fastest lap too. By then there was no reason for me to offer ‘Jenks’ any advice about Gilles’s potential.
The last time we saw Gilles at Long Beach was in 1982 aboard the fearsome Ferrari 126C2 turbo, three weeks before that year’s fateful San Marino GP. The turbo Ferrari was a beast to drive, particularly around a street circuit like Long Beach, and during practice Ferrari lashed up a pair of wings to try and make a more effective rear wing, challenging the regulations by stretching the full width of the car.
The contraption shook and vibrated as Gilles hammered away in the cockpit, eventually finishing third behind Niki Lauda’s McLaren and Keke Rosberg’s Williams only to be disqualified because the wing was deemed illegal. But I’ll never forget him thrashing and slithering that turbo Ferrari through the streets of Long Beach, power on, tyres churning as close to the wall as anyone might dare without the slightest margin for error.