The good, the bad, the ugly: Gilles Villeneuve

Date published: May 29 2020

Gilles Villeneuve Canada 1978.

Rated as one of the best drivers to never win a World title, Gilles Villeneuve’s life was tragically cut short in a qualifying crash in Belgium in 1982.

Prior to his death, the Canadian had won six F1 grands prix and finished runner up in the 1979 World Championship.

He was a family man, a “sensitive and lovable character” according to Niki Lauda but was also a fierce competitor – “the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1”.

The good: 1979 French GP

Running in second place at the Dijon circuit 75 laps into the 80-lap French Grand Prix, Villeneuve found himself ahead of Rene Arnoux.

What happened next was one of the most ferocious fights ever seen in the history of F1.

The Renault of Arnoux had the better horsepower but Villeneuve was as tenacious as ever, determined to crush the crowd’s dream of a Renault 1-2 on French soil.

Arnoux caught up to the back of the Ferrari’s gearbox and two laps later made his move, slipstreaming the Canadian to take second place. But he couldn’t pull away.

With Arnoux’s Renault suffering from fuel pickup problems, Villeneuve stuck with him before putting alongside the Frenchman on the approach to the Double Droite de Villeroy.

Villeneuve braked late and tried to pass around the outside with the two taking the corner as if one.

Villeneuve returned to second in a plume of tyre smoke but the battle was not over. They bumped, they bashed, their wheels over lapped, they recovered and then they did it all over again, this time with Arnoux coming out ahead before running wide. Villeneuve too ran wide with Arnoux back ahead.

The Ferrari driver retook second on the final lap with an inside pass at Parabolique. He took the chequered flag in P2, 0.024s ahead of Arnoux.

“I tell you that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it’s very easy for one car to climb over another. But we didn’t crash and it’s okay,” said Villeneuve.

The bad: 1977 Japanese GP

With the World title in the bag, Formula 1 headed to the Fuji Speedway for the final race of the 1977 season.

Disaster struck.

Qualifying down in 20th place, Villeneuve found himself fighting with Ronnie Peterson, P18 on the grid, for position in the opening few laps.

Villeneuve caught up to Peterson and engaged in a brief battle but outbraked himself – some reports suggest there may have been a brake issue – and hit the right rear tyre of the Tyrrell. He was launched into the air.

The car rolled several times, flipping nose over tail, before landing in on an embankment where spectators, photographers and marshals were watching.

A marshal and a spectator were killed by the debris while 10 others were injured. Remarkably Villeneuve walked away unhurt.

The race continued with James Hunt taking his final Formula 1 victory.

The ugly: 1982 Belgian GP

The events of the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix began two weeks earlier at the San Marino race when Villeneuve and his team-mate Didier Pironi had a huge fall out.

The consequences were more than anyone could have ever predicted.

Racing for position at the San Marino race, Villeneuve was leading his Ferrari team-mate when both were told by the Scuderia’s pit wall to ‘slow’, an order to hold position and guarantee the 1-2.

Villeneuve eased off only for Pironi to shoot past him and steal the win, leaving the Canadian absolutely furious.

He vowed to never speak to Pironi again and was still smarting from what he saw as betrayal when the Formula 1 fraternity headed to Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix.

With the Renaults locking out the front row, Villeneuve was fighting Pironi for sixth on the grid with the Italian a tenth ahead.

With eight minutes left in the qualifying session, Villeneuve came across a slow Jochen Mass. The March driver moved to the right to let Villeneuve through, however, the Ferrari driver also moved right to make the pass.

Villeneuve hit the March at 200–225 km/h and went airborne. The car flew some 100m before crashing nose first into the ground and somersaulting.

With the car disintegrating into pieces as the accident continued, Villeneuve was thrown from the 126C2.

The doctor was quickly on the scene with the 32-year-old rushed to hospital. He was declared dead at 9:12 p.m.

Later that same year Pironi suffered a crash at the German GP that left him with severe leg fractures. He never raced in Formula 1 again and died four years later in a powerboat accident.

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