Salut Gilles!: Remembering Gilles Villeneuve

Francois GendronSenior Writer IMay 8, 2007

On the 25th anniversary of Villeneuve's passing, racing fans around the world still remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.
On May 8th, 1982, the legendary Gilles Villeneuve died at the age of 32, in a spectacular crash on the Zolder racetrack in Belgium.

Gilles Villeneuve was born on January 18th, 1950. He caught the racing bug at a young age, running drag races in his Ford Mustang as soon as he finished high school. Villeneuve enrolled in Jim Russell's racing school in 1973, then went on to participate in the Quebec Formula Ford Championship.

He was almost perfect that season, winning seven of 10 races en route to a title. His family's limited financial resources forced Villeneuve onto the more lucrative snowmobile circuit after that, where he won the world championship in 1974.

That same year, with his financial situation still critical, Villeneuve began competing in the Atlantic Series. He struggled for two seasons before breaking out in 1976, when he won nine of the 10 Atlantic races. His most spectacular victory came on the Trois-Rivieres circuit, where Villeneuve won a hard-fought battle with eventual Formula 1 champ James Hunt.

Hunt was so impressed that he encouraged McLaren to hire the young upstart. Villeneuve got his first chance with the team at the 1977 Silverstone Grand Prix, where he survived engine trouble to pilot McLaren's third car to an 11th-place finish. 

His performance at Silverstone caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who hired Villeneuve as a third driver for the last two races of the year before keeping him on for the 1978 season.

Villeneuve was frequently at odds with the Italian press in 1978; the media questioned his driving skills and even called for his replacement. Still, he hit his stride as the year wore on, and eventually won the Canadian Grand Prix before an ecstatic crowd in the last race of the 1978 season.

Villeneuve's best F-1 campaign came in 1979, when he won three Grand Prix and finished second in the championship standings, only four points behind teammate Jody Scheckter.

The most spectacular race of the 1979 season happened in Dijon, where Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux battled for second place during the last few laps of the French Grand Prix. Villeneuve's courage and moxie helped produce one of the most intense moments in Formula 1 racing history.

Villeneuve struggled in 1980 before rebounding in 1981, when he won the Monaco and Spain Grand Prix. He also managed to finish third in the Canadian Grand Prix after losing his front wing in a collision early in the race. Only God knows how Villenueve was able to keep that car on the track. I was watching the race on TV as a seven-year-old kid, and my admiration has never faded.

Then came the fatal 1982 season. After a contentious finish at the San Marino Grand Prix that led to a falling out with teammate Didier Pironi, Villeneuve ran in the Belgium Grand Prix at Zolder. He was coming into the pits at high speed after completing his last qualifying lap when his front-left wheel clipped the right-rear wheel on Jochen Mass' March-Ford. Villeneuve was launched into the air before nosediving into an earthen embankment and somersaulting along the side of the track.

The violence of the accident reduced the car to its cockpit, and threw Villeneuve's seat, with Villeneuve still in it, across the track and into the catch fence. A medical team was able to briefly resuscitate an unresponsive Villenueve, but his injuries were fatal. He died in a local hospital that evening.

His spectacular driving style, his will to win, and his sportsmanship on the racetrack all earned Gilles Villeneuve a special place in the hearts of Formula-1 fans. He's been gone for 25 years, but his legacy will never fade.

Salut Gilles!

P.S. More pictures of Gilles Villeneuve and his different cars are available in the archives on May 8, 2007 at