Few drivers were at the same level as the late Gilles Villeneuve, who died on track precisely 38 years ago on May 8, 1982, says journalist Norris McDonald.
Villeneuve raced in Formula One from 1977 to 1982, recording six wins, 13 podiums, two pole positions and eight fastest laps until his career was cut short by a fatal crash in the qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.
According the editor emeritus at the Toronto Star, he is one of the five greatest F1 drivers of all time.
“There were not that many as talented as Gilles,” said McDonald, the first journalist to be inducted to the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, in 2013. “Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna, and Lewis Hamilton are the only four I would put in his class.”
Still active, British driver Hamilton is a six-time world champion, while the late Senna, from Brazil, has three titles. Moss, who was the runner-up four times from 1955 to 1958, died in April at 90 years of age in England, his home country.
While Villeneuve also failed to win the driver’s championship, the lack of it doesn’t take away from him, says McDonald.
“Several years, the Ferrari car was God-awful and he got more out of it than anybody else could have.”
The journalist points to the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix, when “his car wasn’t the fastest but through hard, fast racing (Villeneuve) held off the field that was closely bunched behind him.
“You can’t really beat that.”
The cut-short career of the driver born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec is more recognized by his talent than by his numbers, says McDonald.
“Gilles was Canada’s most naturally talented racing driver, in that he became one with the car once he strapped himself into the cockpit.”
The writer sees Paul Tracy and Robert Wickens as the only other Canadians who were that naturally talented. They didn’t make it to Formula One due to how commercialized the category has become in their time, he says.
He mentions other notorious Canadian drivers, naming Ron Fellows, Scott Maxwell and Gilles’ son, Jacques Villeneuve, as great racing drivers.
However, they “had to work at it,” he says.
“Gilles and those other two didn’t have to work at it. It was easy for them.”
Son Jacques Villeneuve won the driver’s championship in 1997 – Canada’s only world title to this day.
Other than natural talent, Gilles Villeuenve is also acclaimed by his driving style, says McDonald.
“(Gilles) was always ‘on.’ His ‘Devil-may-care’ approach to motorsport won the hearts of people who were F1 fans in that era.
“Particularly in first practice on Fridays, Gilles would be all over the place and people would criticize him. But anybody who knew him knew that Gilles was just finding out how far he could go.”
Villeneuve’s reputation as a fearless driver lives on, says McDonald, although he believes it tends to fade over time like other famous athletes.
“Rocket Richard was a great hockey player but few people alive today remember seeing him play,” says the journalist. “Babe Ruth, Pele, Terry Sawchuk – they were the greatest and the best but they live on only in the history books and grainy old photos and films.”
The Montreal circuit that holds the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix has been named after Gilles Villeneuve. He is also treated as a Ferrari icon and legend to this day by team fans.
The late Canadian driver received praise by many Formula One world champions through the time.
Austrian driver Niki Lauda, who passed away in 2019, was one of them.
“He was the craziest devil I ever came across in F1,” said the three-time world champion to BBC in 2001. “The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being”.
Villeneuve’s former teammate Jody Scheckter also praised him in a eulogy at the latter’s funeral.
“I will miss Gilles for two reasons,” said the South African, who won the 1979 world championship. “First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing.
“But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
FIA president and teams remember Villeneuve
Villeneuve was celebrated by the International Automobile Federation president (FIA) and Formula One teams this Friday, the anniversary of his death.
“A special tribute to Gilles Villeneuve, who left us 38 years ago in Zolder. An iconic driver who will forever occupy a unique place in the hearts of all F1 fans,” said Jean Todt, former Ferrari team principal and current FIA president.
“38 years on from that tragic day in Zolder, we remember the legend that was Gilles Villeneuve,” said the official Scuderia Ferrari account on Twitter.
The other team the Canadian raced for, McLaren, and Mercedes, the latter on a six-straight world and driver championship run, also remembered the late driver.
“Remembering Gilles Villeneuve today. 1950 – 1982,” the McLaren team said on Twitter.
“Today we remember Gilles Villeneuve. A remarkable talent and a true racer. A man who embodied the trailblazing spirit of F1 and was taken away from the sport far too soon,” Mercedes said on their social media accounts.
The official Formula One account also made sure to praise Villeneuve.
“Always flat-out, never forgotten. A hero we lost on this day in 1982,” said the Motorsport highest category in a tweet.