“I know that no human being can do a miracle. Nobody commands magical properties, but Gilles made you wonder. He was that quick” Jacques Laffite told Nigel Roebuck in a conversation over 30 years ago.
First he was seen as a madman, very fast, but erratic, with huge natural talent and an ability to drive right on the ragged edge unsurpassed in his era. But he was more than an acrobatic quick driver. And Enzo Ferrari was the first to see that. When Scuderia called for him he had only one GP drive under his belt. Totally inexperienced, it was his teammate Carlos Reuteman who had the upper hand, but only in the first half of the season, until Gilles made his tricks work. And at Monza he was the only man to contest Mario Andretti’s Lotus 79’s superiority with a drive full of grit and panache.
“Oh, I think he’s superb, and I believe he’ll get better and better. At the moment he still makes mistakes, misses the odd apex, gets up on a curb, uses a little too much road on the way out sometimes, but I’m being hypercritical here. His level of natural talent is phenomenal – there’s real genius in his car control” said Jackie Stewart after his first season with Ferrari.
After this kind of performance “the tide of public opinion had definitely turned in Villeneuve’s favor” writes Gerald Donaldson.
And then he became a local hero by claiming his maiden win on home soil, in Montreal, in the 1978 Canadian GP. Mistakes were inevitable in his early part of the career, but unforced errors were pretty much ironed by the end of 1978 season. In 1979, partnered with Jody Scheckter, he was by far the fastest driver and he should’ve won the title.
The dropped-scores rule for 1979 was uniquely extreme in that points could be taken from only four races from each half season, meaning anyone behind at the halfway point was going to find it extra difficult to make up the deficit in the second half, with effectively just four races in which to do it. With Villeneuve well ahead on points going into the last two races of the first half-season, Ferrari issued a statement saying that Scheckter had until Monaco (the final race of the first half) to win a race. And, should he fail to do so, the team would be obliged to switch its title focus to Villeneuve.
At Zolder an error from Scheckter on the opening lap resulted in him clattering into Clay Regazzoni at the chicane, bouncing Williams into Villeneuve. Scheckter continued without damage, but Villeneuve was forced to pit for a new nose. Villeneuve climbed all the way back to third, but the charge had extracted a toll on fuel consumption and he ran out on the last lap. Only this mistake by south-African deprived Gilles of that year’s championship.
After some stellar showings in North America at the end of the season, he thought he will have his chance in 1980. But the Ferrari 312T5 was perhaps the worst Ferrari of all time. Nonetheless, he performed miracles from time to time, like his incredible drive on slicks on a damp Monaco. In 1981 he had the best engine, but the worst chassis. With such a nervous and unpredictable car he demolished his new team mate in qualifying at Monaco, being 2,5 seconds faster and had taken two fantastic and improbable wins: on the Principality streets and at Jarama.
That Spanish win was “the greatest drive I’ve ever seen” according to design guru Gordon Murray. As the fastest driver in one of the fastest cars, Gilleswas surely on the way to the 1982 crown before fate intervened in may at Zolder…Maybe he wasn’t configured to win titles, but rather to extract the maximum possible from every car, shooting for the stars in a manner seen only at half a dozen drivers of the last century.
And one last thing: the pure facts suggest a driver of a rare delicacy and sensibility, almost on a par with the great Jimmy Clark, one who invariably made tires last longer than his rivals.
“He was like a magician with tires”, sais Michelin’s chief Pierre Dupasquier. “I know people don’t realize this because the image is of him driving with three wheels or locking up fighting Arnoux at Dijon in 1979, but those instances were not about making the tires last. When he again made the choice of the soft tire for Long Beach in ’79 I was again concerned, but by this time I had more faith in him because of what he had done in Montreal – and also what he had done one race before Long Beach, at Kyalami. If you remember, there he came from half a minute back to catch Scheckter, made Jody work his tires too hard and then just cruised past.”
Don’t judge him by cold statistics, never they misled so radically. A little man with a huge sense of honor, brilliantly gifted and performing in the Nuvolari mood, his legend lives on as one of the very best in this sport.
“Gilles was the perfect racing driver who knew where to take which advantage where , said Niki Lauda. He had the best talent of all of us”.