5 of the Greatest Moments of Gilles Villeneuve's Formula 1 Career
On May 8, 1982, Gilles Villeneuve lost his life in a dreadful crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. He was 32.
Villeneuve's death shocked the F1 world. Widely considered one of the most talented drivers to set foot in a car, Gilles is and always will be the only proof needed that statistics are a poor judge of excellence.
Never world champion, he won only six races and finished in the points a mere 21 times. But just a few moments watching him on the circuit were enough to tell you how good he was.
His fellow drivers agreed. In Autosport's 2009 poll of 217 past and then-present drivers, Villeneuve was ranked the 10th-greatest driver of all time.
On the anniversary of Villeneuve's death, here are videos of five of the greatest moments of his F1 career.
Spanish Grand Prix 1981
The 1981 Spanish Grand Prix saw one of the greatest defensive driving displays in the history of F1.
Villeneuve qualified seventh and was third by the first corner. He passed one rival on the opening lap, and when John Watson ran wide, he was able to take the lead.
The race was being run on the narrow and twisty Jarama circuit, and Villeneuve was driving the less-than-wonderful Ferrari 126CK. Though more powerful than rival cars, its handling was appalling—per the Ferrari Owners' Club, Villeneuve once described it as a "big red Cadillac."
As the race progressed, four faster cars lined up behind the wallowing Ferrari, but Gilles somehow kept it on the track without making a single error. He didn't block or weave—rather, he simply placed the car superbly to ward off any overtaking attempts.
None of them could pass, and the five-car train crossed the line separated by just 1.24 seconds.
It was his final win.
1979 French Grand Prix
If you've ever looked into who Gilles Villeneuve was, you've surely seen this one before.
Towards the end of the 1979 French Grand Prix, Villeneuve was in second and being pursued by Rene Arnoux in the Renault.
On lap 78 of 80, Arnoux slipstreamed past Gilles on the way into the first corner. A lap later at the same location, Villeneuve wasn't really close enough—but he had a go anyway, locked up his tyres and somehow emerged in front.
Going into the final lap, Arnoux was again close behind Villeneuve on the pit straight, and he took the inside line into Turn 1.
Villeneuve let him have it and went around the outside.
They were wheel-to-wheel, touching several times. Arnoux went off and rejoined, then they banged wheels again, harder this time. Villeneuve nearly went off, and the Frenchman appeared to have secured a Renault one-two.
But Gilles got past again into Turn 4 and held on to the place all the way to the chequered flag.
Jean-Pierre Jabouille's first F1 win, on home soil in a French car with French tyres, was an afterthought.
Speaking to crash.net, Arnoux recalled the battle:
It was a battle against my best mate in F1—I didn't call Gilles a driver, I called him the acrobat of the circuits! You could only have that kind of fight with Villeneuve; I think we had the same temperament, the same way of regarding racing, the same hunger to win.
With the cars the way they were back then, you needed to have complete faith in the other driver, because if you collided, you would be flying immediately. He trusted me and I trusted him, so we were able to tap each other seven times. It's true that Gilles was someone who was trustworthy and loyal, both on the track and in life. He was someone I really liked.
One can only imagine how many grid-drop penalties two drivers would get if they did something like that today.
Extended race highlights with English commentary are available on YouTube here. Jump to 21 minutes to see the whole battle.
1981 Canadian Grand Prix
non-englishAt the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix, fans were treated to one of the most bizarre, brave and brilliant driving displays of all time.
Villeneuve qualified his Ferrari in 12th. On the opening lap, he tried to pass another car down the inside and was involved in a minor collision which damaged his front wing.
Despite the problem, he fought his way through the field in treacherous conditions. The wing worked itself looser and looser, ending up at such an angle that it looked like it was about to fall off.
Late in the race, it did—but not all the way off.
The wing and part of the nose came up and lodged itself in the worst possible place, right in Gilles' line of sight. But despite not being able to see exactly where he was going, Villeneuve continued driving as if nothing had happened.
A few laps later, the wing and nose detached fully and ended up on the side of the circuit.
Villeneuve nearly lost control as it happened but held on and could now see. Despite having lost the front end of his car, he carried on and finished the race in third, on the same lap as the leader.
The full race (non-English language commentary) is available on YouTube here.
1979 United States Grand Prix East
This 1979 United States Grand Prix East weekend was memorable for two of Gilles' greatest displays of wet-weather driving.
During Friday practice, rain fell heavily and conditions were about as bad as they get. Of the few cars which ventured out on to the circuit, the two Ferraris of Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter were among them.
Scheckter returned to the pits after doing some laps, happy with what he had done and believing he was fastest. Then he looked at the timing screen.
He later said (h/t retroformula1.com): "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles's time and—I still don't really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!"
The rain returned for the race on Sunday. Villeneuve got a great start from third to lead into the first corner, ahead of Alan Jones in the Williams.
The two men drove away from the field, Villeneuve leading Jones, and by a little over half distance, they had lapped everyone else.
When Jones retired on lap 37, Villeneuve was on his own at the front. His Ferrari developed an oil pressure problem which slowed him down, but he still held on to win by nearly 50 seconds.
1979 Dutch Grand Prix
At the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix, Villeneuve was leading but spun on the 47th lap. He lost the lead to Alan Jones but got going again and was running in second.
Then on lap 51, his left-rear tyre failed on the run down to the first corner—the same place he'd spun just four laps earlier.
He sat for a few seconds weighing up his options, then reversed back on to the track and set off back to the pits. He had a whole lap of the daunting Zandvoort circuit to do.
But rather than take it easy, he tried to go as fast as he could and almost lost it at the first corner he encountered. The damaged tyre carcass came away shortly after, leaving the wheel hub itself scraping along the ground.
This then came loose and began to drag behind the car, lifting the right-front wheel off the ground in the process. Still Villeneuve carried on, raising his arm to warn rivals he had a problem as his car sped along on two wheels.
He made it back to the pits, but the damage was too great, and he was forced to retire.
Whether you consider his actions reckless, heroic or both, it's difficult to fault his determination.