Saturday is the anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder in 1982. I still recall Gilles’s four years in Formula Atlantic, and his 1976 season in particular when he won all but one race and began his leap to Formula 1 legend status with Ferrari. Back in 1976 and ‘77 former March F1 and F2 team manager Ray Wardell ran Villeneuve’s Atlantic cars out of Kris Harrison’s Ecurie Canada shop in Toronto, and Wardell has some funny stories to tell about Gilles.
“I remember the first time we went to a track together,” he says. “We went to Savannah in Georgia to test the new March Atlantic car. Bobby Rahal was going to drive the car first and then Gilles was going to try it.
“Gilles was driving us in a rental car and we arrived at the track and the gate was closed. So I got out and opened it, and Gilles pulled the car through and stopped. As I was getting back in the car he decided he was going to do a tyre burnout. He just lit the rear tyres up on the rental car and kept going until one burst! There was so much smoke I couldn’t breathe and I thought, ‘What the hell have I got involved in here?’
“Then about three or four hours later we were sitting in the pitroad waiting for our turn with the new car. Gilles and I were sitting in the hire car chatting. He’d changed the flat rear tyre and Rahal cruised by on track in his hire car. Well, the conversation immediately stopped. Gilles turned on the ignition and we were off down the pitroad. He was going to catch Rahal.
“We were hauling ass down the straight and there was almost a 90-degree corner at the end. I was thinking, ‘He’s gonna brake. No, he’s not gonna brake!’ And he threw the rental car sideways. I was hanging onto the hand-strap on the roof and my feet were almost in Villeneuve’s lap as we went around this right-hander on two wheels. I thought, ‘my God!’ I’d never seen car control like this. He kept going round the track like that until some more tyre tread flew off and he had to stop. That was Gilles. Any opportunity he had he was going to drive fast.”
Wardell recalls how close the Villeneuve family was and how champion-to-be Jacques behaved as a child. “I had quite a nice relationship with the family. Gilles and Joann were inseparable and little Jacques hardly spoke any English. He would come creeping round the car and if he saw me standing there he’d come running by and kick me in the shins. Then he’d run away laughing his head off!”
Wardell also recalls that, fierce racer though Gilles was, he was also an eminently fair sportsman. “Obviously he had a good working relationship with Jody [Scheckter], who I enjoyed working with as well. I think Gilles was lucky to go to Ferrari with the other driver being someone like Scheckter. On a couple of occasions Gilles actually tried to help Jody win races or points to win the championship.
“And of course who can forget that 1979 French Grand Prix when Gilles and René Arnoux had their fantastic wheel-to-wheel race, both of them racing as hard as humanly possible but both leaving each other room? They weren’t trying to be dangerous in any way. They were just being full-blown racing drivers. It was wonderful to watch.”
It was indeed.