Today marks the 40th anniversary since the death of the great Gilles Villeneuve. He wowed Formula 1 during his all too brief career with spectacular driving and other heroics.
The diminutive French-Canadian was, by all accounts, a lovely bloke—very open, honest, and humble.
But his fiery driving style encapsulated the spirit of F1 and his legend is everything F1 is all about. So, we’re here to remember him today.
Gilles Villeneuve: 40th Anniversary Tribute
Right, above is the legendary footage (complete with Murray Walker commentary) from Dijon, 1st July 1979.
The battle was between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux for second place, in a clip that’s come to epitomise what F1 is all about.
Supreme driving skill, hanging it all out, giving it everything. Villeneuve was like a fighter pilot, endearing himself to millions of fans in the process.
Born in Quebec on January 18th, 1950, with his father a piano tuner. He wasted no time meeting Joann Barthe, who he married in 1970 and the couple had two children—Jacques and Mélanie.
He also wasted no time finding a love for motorsport, competing in local drag racing events, then Formula Ford in Quebec’s regional series, before shifting to Formula Atlantic, and even snowmobile racing.
But at a non-championship Formula Atlantic race in 1976 at Trois-Rivières, he beat many F1 stars. Including James Hunt (who won the F1 title that year).
Hunt convinced F1 team McLaren to give him a go and Villeneuve debuted at Silverstone in 1977, qualifying ninth and setting the fifth fastest lap in the race.
However, McLaren decided not to take a further option on the French-Canadian.
But after Niki Lauda quit Ferrari at the end of 1977, having won the title, he was signed by Enzo Ferrari as his replacement. Hitting the big time straight away!
However, his early form was erratic. He retired from his home race in Canada, then at the Japanese GP he had a massive crash with Ronnie Peterson. His car vaulted over the barriers and landed on several spectators.
Now, these people were in a prohibited area. But one of them was killed. Altogether, seven people were injured.
But following an investigation, Villeneuve was cleared of any blame.
Looking at it now, it highlights more the sport’s horrendous attitude towards safety than anything else (see 1: Life at the Limit). Earlier in 1977, Welsh driver Tom Pryce and marshal Jansen van Vuuren were killed in one of the sport’s most appalling, and utterly pointless, incidents.
There were happier times in 1978, though, as Villeneuve was regularly at the front and won his first race… in Montreal, Canada! As you’d expect, the nation went mad for its new star.
And in 1979, Ferrari had the best car on the grid.
Paired with South African driver Jody Schketer, the pair semi-battled it out for the title. But as Scheckter was the official lead driver, he was provided with favouritism in the title bid.
Despite that, Villeneuve was the faster driver and only bad luck prevented him from likely winning the title. The pair both won three races apiece that year, finishing 51 points to 47.
However, that was Villeneuve’s approach—the dutiful team player. In return, he expected Ferrari to get him the 1980 title.
Instead, the 1980 Ferrari was a disaster. It was so bad Schketer retired at the end of the season for good. And in 1981 things weren’t much better, although with a mega powerful engine Villeneuve was able to bag two outstanding wins.
Most notably, holding off a swarm of faster cars behind him at the Spanish GP on 27th June.
His patience paid off with Ferrari, as in 1982 he had the best car on the grid.
Again, he likely would have won the title that year. But paired with Frenchman Didier Pironi, the duo had a notorious controversy at Imola.
13 days later at Zolder in Belgium, on this day 40 years ago, there was an abrupt end. As F1 commentator Murray Walker put it:
“A shining light of Formula One was extinguished.”
Before we take a closer look at the legendary driving style the French-Canadian was famous for, it’s worth taking a look at his F1 career stats.
On a surface level overview, these don’t appear overly special. In 67 race starts he achieved:
- Six wins
- Two pole positions
- Thirteen podium finishes
How did he do that?! Well, it was all down to flooring it.
Gilles Villeneuve’s Spectacular Driving Style
Gilles Villeneuve’s style was about taking everything to the absolute limit.
He was an adrenaline junkie. In Professor Sid Watkins’ Life at the Limit (1994) he recalled how the French-Canadian would get kicks from flying his helicopter close to power lines.
It was that daredevil nature alongside his never give up attitude that endeared him enormously to F1 fans.
A classic example was on 26th August 1979 at Zandvoort.
Having battled spectacularly into the lead, he later suffered a puncture and was ditched into the gravel.
Every other driver would have called it a day, but Villeneuve reversed onto the circuit and battled back to the pits—all whilst the suspension collapsed behind him.
On returning to the pits (yes, he made it), he yelled at his mechanics to stick another tyre on so he could get back racing. But then he was told to get out of the car and, finally, he saw the extent of the damage. Race over.
Such antics are the stuff of legend—F1 fans love that never give up attitude. It’s part of F1 lore; fight to the very bitter end.
But it was that combative style that put him at risk more than most drivers from his era. When he died at Zolder on 8th May 1982 in an appalling accident, his peers were greatly upset. But not surprised.
He’d already been lucky to survive his Japan 1977 crash, plus a massive accident at Imola in 1980 (caused by a puncture).
On the day he died, Villeneuve collided with Jochen Mass during the final minutes of qualifying, his car cartwheeling off the circuit.
His Ferrari disintegrated and Villeneuve was actually thrown from the car, the forces involved ripping his helmet, shoes, and socks off.
There’s footage of this fatal accident, which we’re not showing here. But it’s online if you have that morbid desire to see it.
After an investigation, Mass was cleared of any fault and the blame was handed to Villeneuve.
And what’s left 40 years later are those tantalising glimpses of his genius. But we feel it’s important to understand the daredevil behind the wheel, too.
There’s not much interview footage with Gilles, but what’s available shows an open and honest man with a calm demeanour.
He was good friends with many in the F1 paddock, not least Professor Sid Watkins the sport’s brilliant lead doctor, safety analyst, and humanitarian.
But we think what Niki Lauda said of him sums up his character best:
“He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1 … The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hellraiser made him such a unique human being.”
The Villeneuve Legacy
Finally, there’ll be a full documentary film released later in 2022 called Villeneuve Pironi. It’s to mark the 40th anniversary and cover this legendary story from F1’s history.
Above is an excerpt from the film with Villeneuve’s wife Joann.
It’s about time, too, as the French-Canadian remains one of the leading legends in F1 history. Canada’s official F1 track is named after him, his name also painted onto the track (“Salut Gilles“).
And that iconic surname continued on in the sport.
His son Jacques went on to have an F1 career, winning the title in 1997 for Williams. He retired in 2006.
And Jacques now has a son! He called the newborn Gilles.
Didier Pironi’s wife also named their two sons Didier and Gilles. The latter now works for the Mercedes F1 team. However, Pironi died before they were born on 23rd August, 1987, in a powerboat racing accident off the Isle of Wight.
It’s all very touching, but it does nod to the poignant sense of loss—for the families of all concerned, above F1 and the drivers’ respective fan bases.
As Gilles Villeneuve is now lost to time. Forever young, the good looking 32 year old with a swashbuckling style that wowed millions. He represents his era, but also a time in F1 where the death of a driver was accepted as normal.
The sport could lose its superstar in the most shocking of circumstances, but continue on without making any reasonable safety adjustments.
It’s a very sad reminder on what F1 once was and how we must be thankful of the safety advances since 1982.