LAT Archive: Gilles Villeneuve’s maximum-attack approach

On this week in 1982, the racing driver’s life was cut tragically short following an qualifying incident at Zolder. We reflect on his flat-out driving style

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‘I’ll miss Gilles for two reasons,’ said 1979 Formula 1 world champion Jody Scheckter during his eulogy at Villeneuve’s funeral. ‘First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.’

Villeneuve’s F1 career was cut horribly short – less than six full seasons at the top – but he nevertheless left an indelible mark on motor sport. He was renowned for his absolute flat-out approach, and retrospectively looking at his statistical success doesn’t come close to capturing the truth depth of his talents.

Thanks to the LAT Archive, AutoClassics reflects on his single-seater career.

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1976 Trois-Rivieres Grand Prix

Formula Atlantic. Three Rivers, Canada. 5 September, 1976

Having started out racing snowmobiles, Villeneuve made the switch to single-seaters competing in Quebec regional Formula Ford. Over the next four years he plied his trade in Formula Atlantic. Villeneuve’s crowning glory in the junior series came in 1976 when, driving a March 76-B, he won both US and Canadian Formula Atlantic titles courtesy of victory in all but one race that season.

1977 British Grand Prix

Silverstone, England. 16 July, 1977

It was with his Formula Atlantic success that Villeneuve leapt onto the F1 radar. He beat 1976 F1 champion James Hunt in a non-championship race, and was offered a deal for up to five races with McLaren. He made his GP debut in the British Grand Prix. Driving a M23, he qualified in ninth – ahead of his team-mate Jochen Mass. Despite him setting the race’s fifth-fastest lap, a faulty temperature gauge cost him two laps; he eventually finished 11th.

1978 Canadian Grand Prix

Montreal, Quebec, Canada. October 8, 1978

Considering Villeneuve to be too expensive, McLaren passed on the opportunity to sign him for 1978. A deal with Wolff Racing wasn’t to be, either, but a meeting with Enzo Ferrari was enough to convince the team to sign Gilles in the wake of Niki Lauda’s departure. The somewhat risky decision was rewarded in the final race of the season at Canada. On home soil and in a Ferrari 312T3, Villeneuve took his maiden grand prix win.

1979 United States Grand Prix (East)

Watkins Glen, New York, US. October 7, 1979

That year’s eventual champion Jody Scheckter joined Ferrari for 1979. Villeneuve took three wins, but arguably his crowning glory was during practice for the rain-soaked grand prix at Watkins Glen. He set a lap time in the region of ten seconds faster than any other driver. Scheckter later recalled: ‘I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and… I still don’t really understand how it was possible.’

1980 Italian Grand Prix

Imola, Italy. September 14, 1980

The 1980 season was something of an annus horribilis for Villeneuve and Ferrari. Williams had pioneered the use of ground effect with its FW07, but the flat-12 Ferrari engine limited any chance of Maranello replicating the same levels of downforce. The early championship favourite ended the year with a measly six points. Here Villeneuve crashes heavily in front of the Italian Tifosi fanbase at Imola.

1981 Spanish Grand Prix

Jarama, Spain. June 21, 1981

A new cause presented a similar problem the following year. With the new-for-1981 126CK, Ferrari introduced its first turbocharged engine. The car created enormous power, but was still compromised on handling. Villeneuve, testament to his talent, was able to overcome this. Most notable was at the Spanish Grand Prix. For much of the race, five quicker cars were kept at bay – mainly thanks to the Ferrari’s superior straight-line speed. Come the chequered flag, only 0.22 seconds kept Ligier’s Jacques Laffite behind. Fifth-place Elio de Angelis was little more than a second behind.

1981 Spanish Grand Prix

Jarama, Spain. June 21, 1981

Villeneuve is joined on the podium by John Watson, who finished the race a narrow third in his McLaren MP4/1-Ford Cosworth.

1982 Long Beach Grand Prix

Long Beach, California, US. April 4, 1982

The Long Beach Grand Prix compounded a poor start to 1982. Villeneuve retired from the first two races that year, only to then be disqualified from third in California following a technical irregularity. A second place at the next race in San Marino was to be his final classification, with the ill-fated qualifying session at Zolder only two weeks later.

Images courtesy of LAT Archive

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