MAY 8, 2007
Twenty five years ago today
On May 8, 1982, Gilles Villeneuve was fatally injured during the final qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. He was trying to beat his team mate Didier Pironi's best lap time when he came up to pass Jochen Mass's Rothmans March. Mass moved out of the way but Villeneuve's Ferrari, which was travelling much faster, moved the same way as Mass and as a result of the misunderstanding the left front of Villeneuve's car hit the right rear of Mass's car and the Ferrari was launched into the air. It crashed nose-first into the earth bank beside the track and cartwheeled to destruction. Villeneuve suffered a broken neck and was pronounced dead that evening in hospital.
Villeneuve was an old fashioned kind of racing driver, braver than the brave, not worrying himself about World Championships but flat out to win in every race. He was honourable as well. In 1979 he was number two to Ferrari's designated team leader Jody Scheckter and often sat behind the South African when he could probably have passed and won. At the end of the year, after Scheckter had won the title, Villeneuve went on the rampage, finishing second behind Alan Jones's Williams in Canada and then winning the US Grand Prix at a canter. The following year the Ferrari car was a disaster and in 1981 it was little better but Villeneuve still managed to win extraordinary victories in Monaco and Spain, the latter with four cars on his tail for the last part of the race.
His passion behind the wheel of his Ferrari captured the imagination and the fans, particularly in Italy. He had extraordinary natural speed and the happy-go-lucky character that endeared him to his team, his fellow drivers and to Ferrari fans around the world.
Villeneuve was the absolute star of his generation in Formula 1 but when Ferrari finally produced a car with which he would win races he found himself cheated of victory at Imola by his team mate Didier Pironi, who ignored team orders and overtook Villeneuve on the last lap, when Gilles was not even fighting. He was furious about the move and was made more angry when Ferrari management did not support him. And it was in this frame of mind that he went to his death at Zolder.
When he died Villeneuve was 32. He had raced in 67 Grands Prix and had won six of them.
His son Jacques came to F1 in 1996 and won the World Championship for Williams in 1997.
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