Last Saturday afternoon Gilles Villeneuve died violently at the wheel of a Ferrari. It was the end of the final practice session, and he was going for it. He was on his last set of qualifying tyres, and came upon a slower car. In those circumstances, Gilles so often said, you had to squeeze your fear, keep your foot down. It was absurd, but the system left you no alternative.
Many people in motor racing were totally unable to understand Villeneuve. He was more fiercely competitive than anyone I have ever seen, yet the attraction of the man was that he saved it all for his racing. On the track or off, his integrity was absolute. He had not a trace of affectation. There was no need to surround himself with vacuous hangers-on, as did so many of his colleagues.
Ego is very important in motor racing, essential even. But Gilles enormous confidence came from within himself. He had no need of yes-men to tell him how good he was. He knew. As a consequence, he was secure enough to admit his mistakes, rather than blame the car, and he would look you straight in the eye as he did so.
It was a short career, just over four years at the top of the sport he loved so much. When Gilles first appeared in Formula 1, at Silverstone in 1977, he already had an awesome reputation. Those who had seen him in Canada spoke of an astonishing balance and confidence and pace, and it was apparent in Europe from the start.
History will relate only that he drove in 67 Grands Prix, and won six. It will not remember him as a World Champion, but that is of no consequence. Any such list which omits a Moss is already an absurdity, and Gilles himself often said that the World Championship was a secondary consideration, a bonus. Driving 'for points' was complete anathema to him, a concept he found impossible to comprehend. What mattered was winning races, an instant, intuitive thing, a passion to beat everyone now, today. Planning a Grand Prix season like a military campaign, calculating gains here, losses there, was not Villeneuve's style.
The loss of any great racing driver is a blow to the sport, but Gilles Villeneuve was so much more than that. Those who knew him well liked him enormously, but beyond that there was something of the man which touched fans across the world. There has never, in my experience, been adulation and love for a racing driver such as that for Gilles. Wherever the circuit, the response of the public, as he drove round on the warm-up lap, was instinctive. The mystique of Ferrari helped, of course, but it went further than that. People sensed that, with Gilles, the impossible could happen. There was a crackle of excitement in the air. He would take an inferior chassis, demand of it more than it had to give, and thus we had the Villeneuve style. Genius can never be hidden. He was the best of his generation, and stands comparison with anyone in the history of the sport.
Gilles was a good friend of mine, and I find this task extremely distressing. Quite apart from his superlative ability in a race car, he was a charming man, who never changed with fame and fortune. Polite, honest, and straightforward, he had a tremendous sense of humour and a simple love of life. His attitude to motor racing was unfashionably romantic. In a bland, commercial, world, he loved it for its sake. The jet set made him cringe, and he had an instinctive abhorrence of anything bogus. For me, and, I suspect, many thousands of others, the light has gone out in motor racing.
To his wife, Joanne, their children, Jacques and Melanie, to his family and countless friends, to Mauro Forghieri and everyone in the Ferrari team, we offer our deepest sympathies. Their grief is shared across the world.
AUTOSPORT - MAY 13, 1982
Race Cars on a Different Scale.