The Legend of Gilles Villeneuve


I saw Gilles Villeneuve race.

Just the once, and not for long. But as time has passed, it’s a brief blurry memory I’ve come to cherish. Why? Because for me, on a personal level, beyond the day-job perspective from the editor’s chair, Villeneuve is what it’s all about. The cool little bloke in the slab-shaped Ferrari personified the perfect racing driver: flat out, edgy, brave, total faith in his own ability… He had the lot.

Six wins, no world titles. That didn’t matter. In fact, I’ve always liked it better that way. The only thing that came easily for Villeneuve was his pure speed. He had to fight for everything else.

The day I watched him is not mentioned in our celebration of his life, which forms the cover story for the May issue of Motor Sport. It was, from his perspective, a GP to forget.

Silverstone, 1981. I was seven, peering over the grass bank and the top of the railway sleepers at Club Corner. A flash of red meant a Ferrari (Gilles or Pironi), yellow meant Renault (Prost or Arnoux), white and blue Brabham (Piquet or Rebaque), and so on. Gilles had only qualified eighth, over two seconds off poleman Arnoux and down on his team-mate to boot. In the race he ran as high as third – until the end of lap 4 when he spun on the kerbs at the Woodcote chicane and caused total mayhem, eventual winner John Watson just missing the pile-up by the skin of his carbon fibre McLaren MP4/1.

As I jumped from the sleepers (big leap for a little lad!) to celebrate Wattie’s win with the traditional post-race track invaders later that Saturday afternoon, Villeneuve was far from my mind.

The following May, again on a Saturday afternoon, I could think of little else. News of Gilles’ crash at Zolder was announced on the BBC’s Grandstand. As Jenks would write in Motor Sport, things would never be the same again.

Even so, 30 years later, we still get a brief taste of that old Villeneuve spirit. I thought of him again during the first two GPs these past weeks, in Australia and Malaysia. Here we had a fiercely talented racer, driving a pig of a Ferrari and pulling off minor miracles. Fernando Alonso is no Gilles Villeneuve out of the car – too much guile and ambition for that – but his performances in the F2012 should strike a chord with any fan of Ferrari’s most revered hero. Alonso’s win in Malaysia was one of the great drives of modern times. Villeneuve would surely have approved.

There are more cult heroes in the May issue. ‘King’ Klaus Ludwig is one, and our own Andrew Frankel recounts the day when he joined the German as his team-mate – around the fabled Nordschleife. Klaus also gave him a brutally honest interview, which is a must-read for sports car fans. It also gave us an excuse to use a lovely shot of the New Man Joest Porsche, and you can’t go wrong with that…

Other highlights include a fascinating story from Simon Taylor who traces the route of a British road race that tantalisingly never was. Hands up, I’d never heard of the plan hatched in the mid-50s to run a Dundrod-style sports car race around the beautiful roads of the Peak District in Derbyshire. Here, Simon explains all and blasts around the route (within the legal speed limit, of course) in his wonderful HWM Stovebolt Special.

Then there’s Teo Fabi, surely F1’s fastest racer to sport a comb-over. Paul Fearnley talks to the Italian about his frustrating ‘nearly man’ F1 career with Benetton and Brabham, and his more fruitful days in Indycars. March’s Robin Herd and Benetton’s Pat Symonds add depth and confirm what we suspected: Fabi should have achieved more, and with a fair wind, a couple of GP wins at least.

There are also details in my Matters of Moment pages about how you can claim a 25 per cent discount on admission to the Donington Historic Festival on May 5/6.

And you can also win a fabulous trip for four to the Le Mans 24 Hours, courtesy of our friends at Speed Chills (click here). A year without a trip to the great race is never quite complete, so make sure you get your entries in.

Finally, for UK readers, we’ve put together a free supplement on our Motor Sport Hall of Fame, which took place at the Roundhouse in London on February 16. If you’re based overseas, you can read all about it on the website, and of course within our fab iPad edition – a great new way to get your fix of the green ’un.

Feel free to let me know what you think of all things Motor Sport on the website, or even via Twitter at @Damien__Smith. See you in cyberspace!

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