Reading various Sir Stirling Moss obituaries I was surprised to find that, when asked who his personal best Grand Prix drivers of all time were he replied that Fangio was at number one, Clarke at two, then Senna before himself, but what was remarkable was that he rated Gilles Villeneuve up there with him. He was ‘fabulous to watch’ he said.
Grand Prix racing in the second half of the 1970s was in danger of becoming fairly anodyne. The so-called Lauda versus Hunt battles were actually only brief and occasional, existing more off the track and invented as much by the media as by the men on-track.
Then, in 1977, just before the British Grand Prix, Mclaren announced that they would be running an extra car for Gilles at that year’s Silverstone fixture. Initially he did little to endear himself to the establishment, but anyone yearning for someone special to arrive and shake up GP racing he seemed as if he might just be that man.
During practice he spun a lot. Also making his GP debut was Patrick Tambay, who knuckled down and made steady progress through the weekend. When asked later why, in comparison, he was losing his car so much, Gilles said that he had so little time to learn both the car and track that he took the approach of just driving harder and faster all the time until the car wouldn’t take it any more and let go; then he would know the limits. This sounded like someone worth checking out. A radical approach at last. After the race though, Mclaren management in the shape of Teddy Mayer, perhaps looking for someone more malleable, decided against taking him on.
However, Enzo Ferrari had noticed and by the Canadian GP that year Gilles had joined the team. His first two GPs were not auspicious, ending with a spectacular accident in Japan that proved fatal to a spectator and marshal. He had been recorded earlier in the weekend saying that his 312T2 was the ‘worst handling racing car he had ever had to drive’.
Work at Maranello over the winter resulted in the 312T3, which was a great improvement and in one of those typical late-season Ferrari charges, the team won the last two GPs of 1978. Not only that but Gilles won the Canadian GP, his first such win, much to his sheer joy.
For 1979 Jody Scheckter joined the team with the sole intention of winning the World Championship. He and Gilles were provided with the 312T4, which turned out to be the car they needed in order to succeed. On occasions, they would run to a 1-2 finish and Gilles showed just how genuine and honourable he was by always running second to Jody, even though he knew within himself that he could have been leading over the line at the finish. ‘There’s always next year’ he was once recorded as saying.
His driving was nothing short of miraculous, as he was always on or above the limit, power-sliding and sideways a lot of the time thus endearing himself to many who just loved the sheer joi-de-vivre of the guy. One who was impressed mightily was Enzo himself who loved him for it, even when things didn’t go right, such as at Zandvoort where Gilles went off whilst in the lead due to a rear puncture. Never one to give in, he selected reverse, drove the car back onto the track and headed for the pits on three wheels with tyres and one without. Above all, Gilles wanted to win, not just drive to win. He hated bullshit and anodyne, fake if you like, people who had no integrity and so many of us loved him for it.
So, he was second to Jody at the end of 1979, then it all turned sour as the 1980 312T5 was a disaster, mainly due to its tyres and chassis stiffness. Gilles once said that his best GP was one in 1980 when he finished fifth and reckoned no-one on earth could have done better, or even that well.
You could say that things got worse in ’81 with the first turbo Ferrari GP car, the 126CK which Gilles described to Enzo face-to-face as a ‘s**tbox’ and a ‘big, red, Cadillac’ but it just made Enzo and Gilles’ countless fans, love him even more for it. He added that, even so, he was happy to drive it round and round Fiorano all day if necessary. Usually driving it sideways, with the power hard on, he won the two GPs, Monaco and Spanish at Jarama, that he really had no right to with such an evil-handling chassis. This finally should have dispelled any criticism from the establishment of his sheer ability in a GP car.
Into 1982 engineer Harvey Postlethwaite provided him and new teammate Didier Pironi with the much-improved 126C2. At Imola, Gilles should have won having led Pironi for most of the race, but the Frenchman overtook the Canadian at the end to take victory. Gilles never forgave him as he would never have been so dishonourable himself having led the race for so long.
This was in the days of stupidly stiff ground-effect chassis and qualifying tyres and, perhaps overdriving during Belgian GP qualifying on May 8th a couple of weeks later, he hit Jochen Mass’ slow March, which was on-line beyond a blind-brow and he cartwheeled to oblivion.
The light went out that day for me and many GP racing enthusiasts. There has been no replacement since.