There are few drivers in the history of Formula One who have captured the hearts and loyalty of fans, in the manner which Canadian driver, Gilles Villeneuve has. His amazing natural speed and uncanny manner in which he tamed his Ferrari through corners in spectacular power slides, has garnered him both praise and criticism.
To his adoring fans, he was quite simply what a race car driver should be, fast and on the edge. His approach to racing was simple – to drive as hard and fast as he could all the time. His driving style was more akin to that of a rally driver than that of a Grand Prix driver; a testament to his natural ability to control a mechanical beast that did not want to be controlled. To his detractors, he was an accident waiting to happen, reckless pushing the envelope when things seemed impossible. He wore his passion for racing on his sleeve for all to see, never relenting on his competitive & aggressive nature. Whatever side of the fence you chose to take, Villeneuve was undoubtedly one of the fastest and most spectacular drivers of all time!
He easily ranks with the best drivers Formula One has produced: Nuvolari, Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Moss, Senna, Schumacher… many would argue such notable company, but the facts lie deeper than what was recorded in the statistical archives. If you analyze the 67 races he competed in, you come away with an astonishing sense of what a truly fantastic driver he was. Had he not perished on that day in May, he could have easily been World Champion, many times over. He should have won the championship in 1979, instead he handed it over to Scheckter on team orders. He most certainly would have been World Champion in 1982, I state this without question. One can only imagine what he could have achieved if he had taken Ron Dennis’ offer to drive for McLaren.
Beyond the track, Gilles was friendly and unpretentious. His unassuming, polite & sincere character endeared him to those he knew and those he met. “I found him unbelievably charming and friendly,” Peter Windsor once wrote of him “He loved the physical act of driving, but beyond that he was a very sensitive and warm person who cared about people and was never rude to anyone.” He centered his off-track life around his family rather than the jet-set life normally associated with Grand Prix drivers.
His untimely death on May 8th in Zolder created a void which has yet to be filled. Sure there are the Vettels, Alonsos and Hamiltons… but they lack that certain magic; the wildness and emotion that Gilles brought to the track. I don’t hesitate in stating that Gilles was certainly the last of his kind. Living and driving with the simple philosophy that values such as honesty, trust & sportsmanship, were just as important as winning – living for the sheer thrill of driving quickly.
Gilles has been my racing hero ever since I first started following F1 back in the late 70’s. And clearly for me, he is what a hero should be all about. I will forever remember him in his red Ferrari # 27 coming out of a fast corner in an outrages power slide – completely in control.