It’s difficult to explain the unique quality of Gilles Villeneuve without sounding a bit simple. The overwhelming aspect of Gilles’ personality that made him so special is that he liked to drive very, very quickly. See, simple. It’s a given that he liked to drive quickly, all Grand Prix drivers do of course, but not like Gilles.
Gilles Villeneuve took fast driving to a whole new level; Gilles was flat-out, constantly. Regardless of how many wheels were on the car, whether he could see where he was going or not, his right foot would bury the throttle pedal deep into the cockpit. He would ferociously kick the clutch and slam through the gears with intense urgency whether he be on a warm-up lap or last second qualifier. And rarely would Gilles’ car – a McLaren or Ferrari – be anything less than sideways, more often than not going considerably quicker than anyone else. Some drivers drive with their head, some with their heart; Gilles drove with his right foot, powered by a simple desire to drive very, very fast. And nothing else mattered.
Villeneuve’s warm-up for life as a Formula One driver may not have been regarded as conventional – snowmobile racing in Canada – but from the second he got behind the wheel of a McLaren at the 1977 British Grand Prix, there was no more exciting driver to watch; attempt to research Gilles using the internet and you’ll become hypnotised by YouTube clips of the diminutive French-Canadian hustling, drifting and flying behind the wheel. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watch Gilles and Rene Arnoux banging wheels at Dijon in 1979 or when he drove flat-out at the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix despite the rear wheel hanging off the car.
Gilles personified Formula One in its truest sense more than any driver before or since. More so than Senna, Schumacher, Fangio or Moss because for all the money, politics, media and PR, Formula One is ultimately about driving flat-out at ten-tenths and nobody embodied that more than Gilles.
Following his one-off race at Silverstone for McLaren, the team – unbeknown to them at the time – had snagged a very big fish indeed, only to cast it back into the ocean. That decision by McLaren allowed Gilles to sign for Ferrari and while it may very well have cost McLaren a few wins and maybe a championship, it may have ultimately cost Gilles his life, depriving the sport of possibly the most exciting driver to have ever entered it.
Gilles was violently thrown from his Ferrari during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix and as his body crashed to the ground it was clear that a shining light of Formula One had gone out in an abrupt moment.
Typically, Villeneuve had been driving flat-chat at the time of the crash.
The race prior to the Belgian GP – in San Marino – a feud had started between Gilles and his Ferrari team-mate Didier Pironi. Pironi – according to Gilles – had ignored team orders by overtaking Villeneuve repeatedly to take the race win.
Gilles vowed never to talk to Pironi again; he never did.
Some say Gilles was driving so fast when he hit the back of Jochen Mass’ car – the reason he was thrown from his own – because he was determined – to an obsessive level – to beat the time set by his nemesis Pironi. This simply isn’t true. Gilles Villeneuve drove flat-out to his death simply because he was Gilles Villeneuve; driving flat-out is what he did and what’s more, it’s what he loved.