Villeneuve: Views at Variance
MAY 9, 2012
It bothered me on 8 May 1982 - and it bothers me now - that I was not as devastated as some by the death of Gilles Villeneuve. The terrible manner of it, yes. But not the actual loss of one of the most thrilling drivers it has been my privilege to watch.
The truth is, I was subjected to the same feeling of sadness when word of Jochen Rindt's fatal accident came through in September 1970. But it was not the total and utter sense of desolation and shock accompanying the news that Jim Clark had been killed at Hockenheim on 7 April 1968.
That's because Clark was a seemingly indestructible hero who rarely made a mistake. When the supremely gifted twice World Champion died at the wheel of a racing car, the flip side of the coin was suddenly exposed for all its cruelty. So, when extrovert drivers such as Rindt and Villeneuve appeared, the ever-present risk factor seemed to be accentuated and this, in turn, alerted my personal defences.
Pictures of Rindt, forever sideways, covered my bedroom walls but, apart from asking for his autograph, I never met the man. Not so Villeneuve, whose all-too brief life as a F1 driver coincided with my early days as a motor sport writer.
Villeneuve began 1979, his second full season of F1, by winning two of the first four Grands Prix. By the time the Ferrari driver came to Brands Hatch for the non-championship Race of Champions, he was at the top of the points table. Not that you would have known it.
As John Watson hung around the paddock in his Marlboro-McLaren overalls and Mario Andretti buried himself in technical discussion with Colin Chapman over whether to rely on the old Lotus 79 or press on with the troublesome Lotus 80, I found Villeneuve, casually dressed in a tan shirt and brown jeans, leaning against a Fiat 131. No one seemed to notice or bother him. Probably because he was leaning through the window, kissing Joann and disrupting his wife's sewing.
Choosing my moment, I asked for an interview. He agreed readily and we sat on a concrete wall for a chat lasting, I guess, about 15 minutes.
Reading through the story now, one quote stands out because of its relevance to the theme of this column.
Gilles was talking about his early days racing snowmobiles: "They were very twitchy - especially at around 100 mph. There was a lot of sliding and it helped develop a sense of control. If you were second or third, there was a lot of snow flying through the air. In motor racing it's possible to fog your visor in the summer so you can imagine what it was like in snow in winter. You could be looking with just one eye; sometimes you couldn't see at all! You would expect to come off at least three or four times in a season. It helped to build the heart up a little bit!"
It was impossible not to warm to the guy. I saw him a week later at the Spanish Grand Prix, his American-style trailer parked in the dusty paddock at Jarama - much to the annoyance of Bernie Ecclestone, who had yet to bring his meticulous authority to bear on F1 and all its works. That, of course, pleased the Ferrari team no end, particularly when, after supper with Joann and the two kids (Jacques and Melanie), Gilles would saunter into the garage and keep his mechanics company. Small wonder they loved him to bits.
A couple of years later, I was to be reminded of the snowmobile quote when listening to Gilles talk about his drive in the wet 1981 Canadian Grand Prix, where he finished third in a battered Ferrari. A collision had knocked the nose wing askew before it stood up vertically in front of the car for a while and then flew off. None of this fazed the driver, any more than subsequent questions about how he had managed to drive the thing in such a condition.
"It (the wing) came off OK, didn't it?" came the bemused response to what he thought to be a silly question. "Alright, so it might have caused me to crash and everybody would have called me an idiot. But it didn't. The visibility on the straight was alright - just - if I tilted my head. But I couldn't really see on the left-hand corners which made life particularly difficult on the second part of the ess-bend beyond the pits (in their original location at the top of the circuit). So, all I could do was watch my right-front wheel to see whether it was on the dry or the wet patch. I was keeping the right-hand side of the car on the verge of the wet patch, thinking that if it was there then it must clear the barrier on the left-hand side of the car. I suppose I was lucky that it was a wet day so that I could work out where I was from the dry patches on the track."
You can understand why Gilles tended to divide opinion. Personally, I loved this care-free spirit; the refusal to give up; the exploitation of incredible car control and positional judgement. He was blindingly fast. And happy with it. Until the weekend of 25 April 1982 when team-mate Didier Pironi robbed him of victory at Imola.
Two weeks later at Zolder, it was a totally different Villeneuve. I never spoke to him that weekend, leaving it to my friends and colleagues Peter Windsor and Nigel Roebuck to talk with a man who clearly continued to be very angry and was in no mood for idle chat. It was disturbing to witness the sea-change in someone who had just had received a rude-awakening about some of life's more unpalatable aspects.
It was not difficult to imagine what must have been going through his mind when Gilles saw that Pironi had gone a tenth of a second quicker in the final minutes of qualifying.
It does not matter now whether Jochen Mass in the slow-moving March should have been in the centre of the track or whether he should have moved left instead of right. The only certainly was, Villeneuve was not going to lift off. A combination of circumstance and personal chemistry would, on this occasion, have disastrous consequences.
A motor racing photographer once said she always felt the constant need to put her arm round this little guy with the slight build, pale complexion and photogenic features. That summed up the mixed emotions evoked by Gilles Villeneuve. You loved him. But you also feared for him.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.