Would Gilles have quit Ferrari?


Dear Nigel,

First of all, many thanks for all the great pieces you’ve written over the years, including your book on Gilles Villeneuve.

I know you have been asked numerous questions about Gilles, but would appreciate your thoughts on the following, especially as he was (and still is) my ultimate all-time F1 hero.

Firstly, what was Gilles like as an individual? Was he the carefree, yet fearless driver that everyone seems to remember?

And secondly – particularly after the issue with Didier Pironi and the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix – would Gilles have stayed with Ferrari?

I understand this is all hypothetical, but do you think he would have made a move to Williams, Lotus or McLaren?

D. Paul Moncur

1979 Monaco Grand Prix.

Dear Paul,

Hard to believe, isn’t it, that we’re closing in on the 30th anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve’s death? I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my writings on him over the years.

What was he like as an individual? Well, I’ve always said that I liked the man even more than I admired the driver. Formula 1 was, of course, much ‘freer’ in Villeneuve’s era than it is now, but even then there were those in the sport whom you upset at your peril, and an appealing aspect of Gilles’s character was that he was completely without guile, and would always say what he thought about a given person or situation, regardless of the possible consequences for himself. That, of course, made him wonderful company – no one in the paddock ever made me laugh more. Yes, he was healthily cynical about certain people and their actions, and would put his salty sense of humour to good use as he talked about them, but for all that I always saw Gilles as an innocent in F1. As Keke Rosberg said, “On the track he was the hardest bastard I ever raced against – but always (itals) completely (end itals) fair. If you’d beaten him to a corner, he would never think of chopping you. He was a giant of a racing driver…”

After the debacle with Didier Pironi at Imola in 1982, I called him a couple of days later, and have never – even in the Senna/Prost days – known a racing driver so angry. He wasn’t screaming and shouting, but the intensity of his fury was evident. Pironi had duped him, stolen a Grand Prix victory from him, and he told me he would never exchange another word with him. When I asked him if he would stay with Ferrari beyond the end of that season, he said he wasn’t sure – “For sure no, if Pironi’s there…”

My belief is that he would have left, for either McLaren or Williams. Frank was always a huge admirer, and Ron Dennis had got as far as discussing numbers with him. Gilles always used to say that he would find it very difficult to leave Ferrari – “Enzo always finds a way of talking me round!” – but there’s no doubt that the events at Imola, and Marco Piccinini’s subsequent refusal to criticise Pironi, affected him profoundly, and, yes, I believe he would have made the move.

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