How Would Gilles Villeneuve Fare in Modern-Day Formula 1
Formula One will never see another driver like Gilles Villeneuve.
The French Canadian made his debut in the 1977 British Grand Prix for McLaren. Despite an excellent display, McLaren overlooked him the following year in favour of Patrick Tambay; his career might have been over before it had even begun.
But Enzo Ferrari saw something in him that McLaren had not, and in a little over four years with the Scuderia, Villeneuve established himself as one of the greatest raw talents the sport has ever seen.
Sadly, he lost his life in a horrific accident in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at just 32 years old.
Villeneuve started 67 races, won just six and started on pole only twice. But of all the drivers to have ever graced the grid, it could be argued only Ayrton Senna is spoken of with more reverence and love.
Statistics are the worst possible way to look at Gilles' career; only in watching him drive is his true genius revealed.
Pondering how great drivers would have fared in different eras is difficult. There are no guarantees a driver who shone in one decade would have been able to transfer his skill set to another.
Villeneuve was awesome in the 1970s and 1980s, but could he have succeeded in the modern era of DRS, Pirelli tyres, (over)zealous stewards and upright professionalism?
On Jan. 18, on what would have been his 65th birthday, we enter the world of alternative history and ask that very question.
Villeneuve possessed as much, if not more, natural talent than any driver of his generation.
Autosport's poll of 217 then-current and former F1 drivers ranked Villeneuve as the 10th-greatest driver in the sport's history. It's no substitute for watching as many of his races as possible, but that his fellow professionals ranked him that highly—despite him only winning six races—is sufficient testament to how good he was.
Villeneuve's wet-weather driving in particular was sometimes on a different level than anyone else's. In 1979 during a wet practice session for the United States Grand Prix, team-mate Jody Scheckter felt he'd done a good lap. But upon returning to the pits he saw Villeneuve's time.
The Canadian was lapping (conflicting reports exist) between nine and 11 seconds quicker. Scheckter said, according to Rob Burnett of The Mirror, "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles' time and—I still don't really understand how it was possible."
There's no doubt he was, in terms of raw ability, one of the best of all time.
Natural talent is perhaps less important today than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Without all the engine modes, brake-by-wire, DRS and other fancy electronic gizmos, steering wheel input back then mattered more to lap times than it does now.
But it still makes a big difference and would surely be enough for him to at least open the door to even modern F1 without the need for a huge sponsor on his back.
The video above is from the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. Villeneuve drove the whole race with a damaged front wing and several laps with almost no visibility. After the nose fell off entirely he finished third.
Raw talent gets you started, but what matters the most is what it ends up as once it has been shaped, moulded and refined into a finished product.
Through this process, a driver with a touch less natural ability can become a better driver than one with God-given brilliance. Conversely, one with natural excellence can fail to fulfil his incredible potential.
Villeneuve did change throughout his career, but he never lost what made him a legend. If first was on offer, he never settled for second. If a gap was there, he never held back. If there was more time to be extracted, he never stopped trying to find it.
Maybe he'd have a spin or crash every once in a while, but that was OK because of what he did the rest of the time.
It's difficult to say how successful his style would be in modern F1—one suspects it wouldn't really work. What was acceptable then would not be acceptable now.
Many drivers are near-robots who take personal offence to the slightest contact. The stewards are eagle-eyed and unforgiving of even the tiniest indiscretion, and many team bosses would rather just take the points for second than risk it all to win.
BBC Sport quotes Alain Prost speaking shortly after Villeneuve's death, who described him as "the last great driver—the rest of us are a bunch of good professionals."
That's probably true—and today's drivers have to be highly professional, as even minor lapses aren't tolerated. Villeneuve would have needed to tone it down a touch for today's F1.
Had he been able to do so without losing a crucial 10th or two, it may have actually made him an even more formidable opponent.
The video in this slide is from the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix. Villeneuve brilliantly held off a string of faster cars in an ill-handling Ferrari for his final F1 victory.
Modern F1 is a hugely expensive business, and income for the teams is partly based on their constructors' championship position. This means the success of the team as a whole matters more today than ever before.
Villeneuve showed his willingness to take a team-first approach in 1979. Jody Scheckter was de facto No. 1 at Ferrari, and when ordered to remain behind the South African at the Italian Grand Prix, Villeneuve did so.
Scheckter's win clinched the title; had Villeneuve overtaken him and the remaining races gone the way they did, he would have been champion.
Later in his career Villeneuve fell out with another team-mate, Didier Pironi. At the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, per ESPN.com, the Frenchman ignored team orders and overtook a cruising and unsuspecting Villeneuve on the final lap to win the race.
Villeneuve was still furious and not on speaking terms with Pironi when he lost his life two weeks later in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.
But this falling out should not be seen as a stain on Villeneuve's character—it was not representative of who he was.
He was always willing to put his team first and get on with team-mates—including Pironi, until that one incident.
This would have served him well in the modern era.
The video in this slide is from the 1979 Italian Grand Prix mentioned above.
Sponsor Backing and Relations
An unpleasant fact of modern F1 is the need for every driver, no matter how good, to be assisted in his journey from the foot of the motorsport ladder to the pinnacle.
This journey typically costs, per figures given by ESPN.com's Kate Walker, several million euros. Fortunately, F1 teams' young driver programmes tend to pick up and fund the better youngsters tend.
Villeneuve's talent was evident early in his career, so it's likely he would have been one of the lucky ones. But he'd still be required to develop relationships with sponsors and the team's commercial partners—one of the many requirements of being a modern F1 racer.
He'd probably fare well. He was a North American, and with his talent he would have been first in line to attract backers from across the continent. He was also, by numerous accounts—including Niki Lauda on Grand Prix History, Rene Arnoux on Crash.net and Jody Scheckter on Formula1.com—a pleasant, likable man.
He would have thrived in this arena as he did on the circuit.
Many fans revere Villeneuve today. Some saw him race live, while others have studiously researched and watched as many of his races as possible. Others know him from just a few highlight clips.
In his own day he captured the hearts of the tifosi and fans around the world. Maybe he'd spin every now and then or have the odd crash, but that was inevitable with the way he drove. Villeneuve didn't recognise what others thought a car's limit was.
He'd go out and find out for himself.
Doing so with such obvious brilliance won him millions of fans in his lifetime and many more after he was gone. However they know of him, the appreciation is near universal.
But if he drove today as he did back then, he'd probably be a polarising figure.
Many modern fans prefer their drivers to be sensible, to not take what the fans deem unsuitable risks and to never even risk touching a rival's car, especially if that car belongs to their favourite driver.
They wouldn't like Villeneuve. He was a genuine racer who often went for a gap even if it wasn't an easy pass. He'd bang wheels if wheels needed to be banged and simply didn't know how to give up.
That wouldn't go down well today, even though his rivals on the track confirm there was never any malicious intent in the way he drove. Speaking to Crash.net about their famous duel at the 1979 French Grand Prix (see next slide's video), Rene Arnoux said:
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.
Fans who appreciate the sort of racing Villeneuve remains famous for would adore him as they did back then; maybe in today's world of sensible drivers all cut from the same PR-friendly cloth, they'd love him even more.
But for every fan clapping and cheering as he speedboated back to the pits on three wheels (video above), there'd be another tutting, taking to Twitter or Facebook to call him reckless and dangerous. Someone like BBC Sport's Eddie Jordan, who went so far as to call him a "hooligan" who "drove like an idiot."
That's grossly unfair, because Villeneuve was not that sort of driver—but Jordan wouldn't be the only one saying such things.
A modern Villeneuve's F1 career might go three different ways.
The first is that he'd be unable to tame his style and would never fit in. Fellow drivers and stewards would be unhappy about the way he drove, and it's unlikely any team would give him the time of day.
The second and more likely outcome would be that he'd tone it down a little—not so much it neutered his brilliance but enough to allow his natural talent to shine through and develop into a finished product.
More refined and professional, this Villeneuve would rival the likes of Fernando Alonso at the pinnacle of the sport. He'd surely win world titles.
The third possibility is that he'd come in and be brilliant...but dislike the way things were done and leave. It may seem outlandish, but this was a man who didn't believe in doing things by halves. He strongly believed in his own way to race.
He spoke to Autosport's Nigel Roebuck (h/t Racing Colours by Simon Owen) about his own approach:
I don't have any fear of a crash, I never think I can hurt myself. It seems impossible to me. If you believe it can happen to you, how can you possibly do the job properly? If you're never over eight-tenths or whatever, because you're thinking about a shunt, you're not going as quick as you can. And if you're not doing that, you're not a racing driver.
Most of the guys in Formula One...well, to me, they're not racing drivers. They're doing half a job, and I can't figure out why they do it at all...
Modern F1 is a world of lights-to-flag fuel saving, driving to a delta, race-long tyre management and penalties for the most minor contacts.
Would that appeal to Villeneuve?
Maybe, maybe not. And maybe it doesn't matter.
The important thing is that Villeneuve lived and raced in his own era. Many of the races in which he drove are available for us to watch today—some online—and they offer a glimpse into a different world.
There are few better cures for offseason withdrawal symptoms.
The video here is from the 1979 French Grand Prix. Extended highlights are available here, with the full duel from 22 minutes.