The real Gilles Villeneuve: inside the motorhome after Imola betrayal

F1

Jonathan Giacobazzi and his family travelled to F1 races with Gilles Villeneuve, witnessing first-hand the man behind the legend, the deal ahead of Imola '82, and the tragic fallout when Pironi won. He tells his story

Gilels Villeneuve and Didier Pironi on the podium at 1982 San MArino GP

A frosty Gilles Villeneuve on the podium at Imola 1982

DPPI

Gilles Villeneuve walked into the motorhome, threw the second-placed trophy to his sponsor and said: “Remember my trophy’s been stolen? This I brought for you.”

The dramatic moments at Imola, just after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix where Didier Pironi ignored Ferrari team orders to overtake Villeneuve and win, were the prelude to the tragedy at Zolder a fortnight later.

By then, Villeneuve was already planning to leave Ferrari after being crushed by the betrayal. Watching it all unfold was Jonathan Giacobazzi, the 9-year-old son of a winery owner who sponsored Villeneuve and travelled with him to the European races.

Jonathan Giacobazzi

Now, 40 years after the death of Villeneuve, Giacobazzi (right) remains in the paddock, this time as the key relationships executive manager for Ferrari, a role that he credits entirely to Villeneuve sparking his love of F1.

His opinion of the daredevil racing hero is unfiltered, formed from weeks living alongside him and spending time with his children, Jacques and Melanie. Giacobazzi’s unique view only fuels the legend.

“In Maranello, wherever you go is like the Vatican [where] there is a picture of the Pope and the picture of God. In Maranello, there is a picture of Enzo Ferrari and a picture of Gilles, he says.

The winery was part of that story from the start. Enzo Ferrari and Jonathan’s father, Antonio were well-acquainted already when the phone rang summoning Antonio to Maranello to meet a new driver.

From the archive

“He found himself in front of Gilles Villeneuve and didn’t have any clue who he was,” said Jonathan.  Enzo Ferrari just said to him, ‘Look, you’re already selling your wines to your to the US. This is the new Ferrari driver. His name is Gilles Villeneuve. And he’s from Canada. So now you have the chance to sell your wines also in Canada.

“And from there, my father, of course, wouldn’t refuse the offer. He decided immediately. He woke up that day without even knowing Gilles Villeneuve and went to bed at night with a [sponsorship] contract for the next Ferrari driver.”

It was Villeneuve’s first F1 sponsorship deal but this was more than just a business relationship. “He was all alone when he came to Italy,” said Jonathan. “He found himself in contact with the very first Italian person, which was my father. So the Giacobazzi family became friends of the Villeneuve family since then.”

For young Jonathan, the initial meeting was a letdown. He’d only seen drivers on TV in racing helmets and overalls, battling for glory at almost 200mph.

He remembers the disappointment when a dressed-down Villeneuve appeared at his home. I was hoping to see Spider Man, you know, coming but with the overalls and everything,” he says before switching superheroes. “But it was Clark Kent — you know, without the power.

Gilles-Villeneuve-powersliding-Ferrari-at-Long-Beach-in-1979

Villeneuve the hero

Grand Prix Photo

Gilles-Villeneuve-at-the-beach-in-1977

Villeneuve off-duty

DPPI

“He understood that I wasn’t that happy. And because of that Gilles started to give me something every year on my birthday. The very first gift he gave me it was the white Simpson gloves that he signed to me. And then for the next birthday, he gave me the Nomex. And then the overalls. And then the helmet, and then the boots. So my Spiderman was completed. And it was at home. So I was happy.”

In summer, the Villeneuve and Giacobazzi families literally lived side-by side, in motorhomes parked next to each other in the paddocks of European races. “Every time at night, after dinner, me and his boy Jacques and Melanie spent some time together before going to bed. 

“He was hanging around with my father, my mother, it was like a travelling family life. We were using this motorhome that we still have to go around all the grands prix in Europe.

“Gilles was like a big brother, my only idol. I haven’t had any idol since then: I was really living with my idol.”

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Gilles with wife Joann, daughter Melanie and son Jacques in 1977

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After a difficult 1981 season developing Ferrari’s first turbocharged car, the following year brought hope of Villeneuve achieving the much-promised championship. He’d shown that he had the measure of Pironi and in the improved V6-powered 126 he had a car capable of winning consistently.

After three races without scoring points, Imola was where his title bid would begin. At a pre-race press lunch, guests laughed off a prediction from a magician performing tricks that Pironi would win the race. 

”Gilles was absolutely the leader of the team,” says Giacobazzi. “Everybody was sure that Gilles was winning, because in 1981, Pironi, didn’t even get on the podium and Gilles got two famous victories.

“In qualifying, the first row was Renault and within second [of René Arnoux’s pole time] was Villeneuve third. Two seconds behind [Arnoux] — two seconds with the same car — was Pironi fourth.

rt of the 1982 San Marino GP

Arnoux and Prost lead at the start of the 1982 San Marino GP

DPPI

It was a bizarre weekend from the start, with most British teams on strike and remaining at home after a dispute over cars’ minimum weight. 

With only Ferrari and Renault having a realistic chance of winning, a furtive deal was struck between the two teams and the circuit to ensure the crowd witnessed ‘a race’ but which also reduced the risk of cars breaking down, putting current concerns about entertainment and sporting integrity into perspective.

Giacobazzi says that he has consistently been told the same account by leading Ferrari figures and mechanics from that time. “Everybody told me the same story,” he says. “There was a deal made the night before at the Olympia Hotel. And then another deal that was confirmed with [Roberto] Nosetto, the director of the circuit, the two Renault drivers and the two Ferrari drivers.

“Nosetto was taking care about the show. So because of this he asked the drivers to do the show, but once the half race was done, they will keep in the position to finish the race because Ferrari was having a lot of brake problems.”

In the race, the Ferraris fought Arnoux for the lead. At half-distance, the Renault driver took Villeneuve for the lead. But then the Grand Prix took an unexpected turn. Arnoux’s engine blew up on the pit straight, and Ferrari took a comfortable 1-2 lead.

Villeneuve eased up so that Pironi joined him to reel off the remaining 15 laps in a triumphant “Ferrari Festival”,” we reported. “They were both given the “SLOW” signal and Villeneuve knocked the pace down.”

Didier Pironi leads Gilles Villeneuve in the 1982 San Marino GP

San Marino Grand Prix 1982 with Pironi, No28, leading

What happened next is legend, as the Ferrari pair repeatedly, aggressively battled for the lead, Pironi stepping up the pace each time Villeneuve slowed. “Gilles was sure that he was doing this for the public, so he was sure that he was winning the race in the end,” says Giacobazzi. “We know how it ended.”

He was in the motorhome with his father when Gilles walked in, furious. “It was quite a surprise to see Gilles coming in our motorhome because he was supposed to be on the podium so my father asked him: ‘Did you go on the podium?’

“‘I don’t want to go’

“‘If you don’t want to do this for you, you should do this for the tifosi’.  

“Villeneuve went out, came back with a trophy and [threw] the trophy to my father. He said, ‘Remember my trophy’s been stolen, this I brought for you.’ That’s really the last image I have of him.

Ferrari sign calling for cars to slow at the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix

The sign calling for the cars to slow at Imola

Grand Prix Photo

“That day the team was managed by Marco Piccinini because [team manager] Mauro Forghieri wasn’t there on Sunday.

“Piccinini was the witness of Pironi in his wedding the week before. Gilles Villeneuve was not even invited. So when my father asked, ‘Gilles, why didn’t he invite you to the wedding?’ he said he probably forgot. 

“Because Gilles was genuine. He wasn’t a political guy, you know, he was really crystal clear. He had something to say he did. If you betrayed him, you betrayed him forever. There is not a second chance.”

Villeneuve, his fury still raging, took immediate action. “He rang my father and he said, I’m gonna leave Ferrari the end of the year I need to talk to you,” says Giacobazzi. “He went to have a meeting with [Enzo] Ferrari and Jody Scheckter. 

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Villeneuve’s Giacobazzi-sponsored overalls from 1982

Grand Prix Photo

“Ferrari instead of, you know, begging Gilles, he said, ‘Gilles, what do you want? In the end a Ferrari won’ which is very typical of Enzo Ferrari, because Gilles was becoming bigger than Ferrari: it was Villeneuve winning in Jarama, it was Villeneuve winning the very first race for the Ferrari turbo in Monaco. It was not Ferrari doing miracles, you know, it was the driver. 

“As it happened many times in the past, you know, because if you look from Alberto Ascari to Niki Lauda in the Ferrari, almost every world champion he has kicked away from the company. Because he was intending that the car and the Ferrari team is in front of everybody else.

“Gilles asked my father if he wanted to follow him, and he said, Look, Gilles, because of the relationship with Enzo Ferrari we’ll never quit the team, but I will definitely stay with you. So I will do both. 

“It is still nowadays unclear to me if it was to build a Villeneuve team, which was not unusual, because at the time you had a Fittipaldi team and Merzario team, or to go to Williams or McLaren. Or maybe to stay in Ferrari in the end.”

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Neither Antonio nor Jonathan were at Zolder, although the winery did send staff to return the Imola trophy and to pick up a set of Villeneuve’s overalls, which they got each season as part of the sponsorship deal.

Jonathan heard what had happened in qualifying while watching TV: “I was watching the cartoons and the news came on. It said that in the Grand Prix at Zolder, in qualifying, the Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve got involved in a horrible crash. And the driver is dead. Because they use the word deceased I went to my mother. And said, ‘What does deceased mean?’

“She said, ‘no, it’s an awful word. What’s happening?’

“‘Gilles is deceased’.

“All of a sudden, all the news started to arrive, the phone started ringing and we got confirmation from Ferrari.

“That day, that Saturday, for me is something that I will never forget and really affected my life a lot,” he says.

The Villeneuve-Giacobazzi connection still remains, not least in the trove of memorabilia collected during Villeneuve’s Ferrari career. As well as the personal gifts, Jonathan acquired Villeneuve’s 1979 Watkins Glen-winning 312 T4 car and the family also possesses reminders of the tragic Zolder weekend.

“We were the only sponsors that fully committed to paying all the amount to Gilles’ family; the family wanted us to have a his last overalls. So we still have it in our collection. They were the overalls that were supposed to come back with us.”

Enzo Ferrari also gifted bodywork parts from the car Villeneuve drove at Zolder in appreciation, Giacobazzi says, of what the winery had done for the family.

Several of the items will go on display at the winery in Nonantola, Modena, later this year to commemorate the Ferrari legend.

illes Villeneuve at the 1978 Italian GP

Villeneuve in Monza, 1978: lighting a spark

This weekend, Giacobazzi is at the Miami Grand Prix with Ferrari and says he owes his love of racing and career to Villeneuve, which he can trace back to September 10, 1978 at Monza: his first grand prix.

I was five-and-a-half and I remember everything,” he says. “That day, that weekend, I got a spark inside me, full of passion that still is burning nowadays.

“I can only be grateful to my father, my family, to Gilles, Ferrari, for the different opportunities that I was able have in my life.

“ I believe that without Gilles, it wouldn’t be happening.”


More information on the Gilles Villeneuve exhibition will be published by Giaconazzi Vini