Jochen Mass on Villeneuve's final day: ‘I felt so guilty’


Jochen Mass has spoken of the remorse he felt over the incident which killed his friend Gilles Villeneuve, and the forgiveness he found years later

Formel 1, Grand Prix Frankreich 1979, Dijon, 01.07.1979 Jochen Mass, Arrows-Ford A2 Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4 , copyright: HOCH ZWEI / Ronco (Photo by Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mass and Villeneuve were friends off track before the tragic accident

Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

It was only a split second decision, but it was the difference between life and death, and is still felt forty years after it happened.

Jochen Mass moved to the right at Zolder to get out of Gilles Villeneuve’s way but the Ferrari driver, full of fire and fury after feeling he was wronged by Didier Pironi in Imola, chose the same piece of circuit as he bore down on the slowing March.

The ensuing accident claimed the life of Villeneuve, and as Mass told Motor Sport recently, that moment’s choice haunted him for years afterwards – until a chance meeting with Gilles’ world champion son Jacques, who said: “‘Our family never blamed you, it was a racing incident.'”

“Gilles was private, living in his world” Jochen Mass

The two drivers became irrevocably linked by tragedy, with Mass saying “I felt so guilty.” However, there was never animosity between them prior to the accident – in fact quite the opposite. The pair first became familiar years earlier, leading to a burgeoning friendship.

“The first time I helped him was at the Japanese GP, quite ironic,” remembers Mass.

“Gilles went over Ronnie Peterson’s car and flew into a crowd of journalists over the barriers, killing two people.

Gilles Villeneuve

Villeneuve collided with Mass whilst still seething about the Pironi incident

Grand Prix Photo

“He was arrested by the police and I went with him. I tried to explain, and after several hours they eventually let him go.”

It was soon after this meeting that the relationship strengthened – in that typical setting for F1 stories.

“Gilles, [Jody] Scheckter and I lived close together in Monaco, so we spent quite a bit of time together,” says Mass.

“He was living in his world. But he was a nice guy, we were quite [good] friends.

“Pironi I knew for years, he was quick – very quick. He was nice, had different interests: boat racing etc. Gilles was a little bit more private.

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“However, because of this competition between him and Pironi, obviously that made him take risks.”

This rivalry has become one of F1’s most legendary, is set to be examined in a soon-to-be-released documentary called Villeneuve Pironi.

“The edge of it is where you have to be,” says Villeneuve’s former wife Joann in the footage from an upcoming documentary. “He was just a true racer at heart.”

Ultimately, that friendship between Villeneuve and Mass would sadly come to a halting end on that fateful day in Belgium. It’s clear that the latter felt the weight of the tragedy on his shoulders for quite some time, until a couple of chance meetings years later.

“A while later, when he was already racing, Jacques came up to me when we were sitting on a plane together,” Mass says.

“He said: ‘Jochen, our family – we never blamed you. It was a racing incident – just a wrong decision by the two of you.’

Even now, the relief delivered by this statement is palpable for the German, and it was further helped by another family member.

“Melanie his sister, who was a lovely girl, she came along and said ‘Hi, I’m Melanie.’

JOCHEN MASS DRIVER during the 2014 Le Mans Classic, France from July 4 to 6th, 2014 at Le Mans. Photo Jean-Michel Le Meur / DPPI

Mass was haunted by Villeneuve’s death for years afterwards

Jean-Michel Le Meur / DPPI

“After the accident, and I didn’t feel like talking about it – I felt so guilty, but she said: ‘No, no, no – all good.'”

Mass has seen all the highs and lows of racing one can possibly imagine: taking his GP win at Montjuïch park after Rolf Stommelen’s crash which killed four spectators, the incident with Villeneuve, retiring whilst leading Le Mans with Stefan Bellof at Le Mans in ’83 before winning the enduro classic Mercedes in ’89.

However the German is certain on what was his greatest win in racing.

“People ask me what was the highlight of my life? The highlight is that I’m still here.”