On May 8th 1982, already 25 years ago today, the legendary Gilles Villeneuve died in a spectacular crash on the Zolder, Belgium racetrack at the age of 32. Today, racing fans from around the world remembers exactly where they were when they heard about Villeneuve's fatal crash.
Gilles Villeneuve was born on January 18th 1950. At a very young age, Gilles was already addicted to racing. As soon as he finished high school, he participated in drag races with his own Ford Mustang. In 1973, he went to Jim Russell's driving racing school and participated in the Quebec Ford Formula championship. That season went almost perfect as he won 7 of the 10 races and won the championship.
But coming from a poor family, he had to leave racing and settle for snowmobile racing, with lower costs and better purses. On his snowmobile, Gilles Villeneuve won the world championship in 1974. His financial situation was still critical, in 1974 he started competing in the Atlantic series without real success.
One season later, in 1975 some good results came in but nothing compared to his 1976 season. During that season, Gilles Villeneuve took the championship while winning 9 of the 10 Atlantic series races. His most spectacular win coming on the Trois-Rivieres circuit as many Formula 1 drivers were invited and participated to the race. A memorable race that Gilles won on board of his famous Direct Film car. I had the chance to touch that car once on a visit to the Villeneuve museum in Berthierville, Québec. So it was a hard fought battle with James Hunt, who was about to win the Formula 1 championship, that really started it all for Gilles.
Gilles Villeneuve's performances and driving abilities impressed James Hunt so much that he suggested his hiring to McLaren. During the 1977 season, as he was still competing in the Atlantic series, McLaren gave Villeneuve his first chance at the Silverstone Grand Prix. On board of McLaren's third car he experienced a few engine problems but managed to finish 11th. His lap times and aggressive driving during that race caught Enzo Ferrari's attention. Enzo Ferrari proposed him a bit later a testing session on the Fiorano circuit. Villeneuve did well enough to convince Ferrari to hire him on board of the 3rd Ferrari car for the last two races of the season. He finished 12th in Canada, and was implicated in a crash with Ronnie Peterson, whose car ended up over the security railing, killing an official and a photograph during the last race of the season in Japan.
In 1978 during his first complete F1 season, he had a hard time to the point that the italian press had doubt in his driving skills, even suggesting his replacement. But Villeneuve slowly started to find his marks to eventually win the Canadian Grand Prix in front of a ecstatic crowd during the last race of the 1978 season.
Gilles Villeneuve's most spectacular season in Formula 1 came in 1979 as he won 3 Grand Prix and even took the lead of the drivers championship at some point of the season. He ended up 2nd of the championship, only 4 points behind his teammate Jody Scheckter.
But the most spectacular race of the season happened in Dijon at the 1979 French Grand Prix as Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux battled side-by-side during the last few laps of the race. Villeneuve refused to accept that his Ferrari 312T4 was slower than Arnoux's Renault as this race became one of the most intense moments in Formula 1 racing history.
The year 1980 was catastrophic for Villeneuve as he only managed to grab 6 points during the entire season. But 1981 was another spectacular season for Villeneuve. After winning the Monaco and Spain Grand Prix during the season, his most spectacular performance of the season happened during the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal as he managed to finish in 3rd place even after losing his front wing because of a contact during the beginning of the race. Only God knows how Gilles Villeneuve was able to keep his car on the track. A spectacular performance that I remember very well. I saw it live on television as I was still a 7-year old kid. My admiration for Gilles Villeneuve never faded since that particular race.
Then came the fatal 1982 season. Villeneuve was back at the front for the San Marino Grand Prix, and it was agreed that Villeneuve and his teammate Didier Pironi would not contest the lead past the first corner of the race. However, Pironi disobeyed this agreement and passed Villeneuve as they were coasting to save fuel in the final laps of the race. After passing Pironi on a few occasions, Villeneuve was under the impression that Pironi was merely entertaining the crowd, Gilles once again slowed the pace down to ensure they reached the finish line. Against his expectations, Didier then repassed Gilles at the last available passing opportunity of the last lap. Gilles had been duped. Feeling betrayed and angry, Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again.
The following race was the Belgium Grand Prix on May 8th, 1982. Villeneuve, after completing his last qualifying lap at Zolder, was coming back in the pits at high speed. As he came up behind Jochen Mass' March-Ford, the front left wheel of his car came into contact with the right rear wheel of Mass' car, who moved aside to let Villeneuve pass. Villeneuve moved the same way and was launched into the air before nose-diving into the earthen embankment and somersaulted along the side of the track. The violence of the accident reduced the car to its cockpit, and ripped Villeneuve's seat. Villeneuve, still strapped to his seat, was thrown across the track and into the catch fencing. When the medical team arrived, he was not breathing. Villeneuve was resuscitated at the scene, but his injuries were fatal. He died in a local hospital that evening, his fatal injuries were likely caused by the force of his car landing after the initial impact.
The spectacular driving style, his will to win and his fair play on the racetrack is what made Gilles Villeneuve so special in the Formula 1 racing fans hearts.