Spain is here and Formula 1 can’t help but remember Gilles Villeneuve. There are two reasons why. In May 1982, the Canadian driver was killed by a fateful accident, which described an impossible arc through the sky and ended with an impenetrable sense of grief that was felt all over the world. The second reason is that on the Jarama circuit in Spain, close to Madrid, the Ferrari driver claimed his final victory in June 1981. It was a very special win of the sort that writes history. And it’s all part and parcel of the myth of Gilles Villeneuve.
That remarkable win in Jarama gave the world almost a reborn Gilles; one that had rarely been seen before. Up until that day, the diminutive Canadian was best known for his character traits that were perfectly reflected in his nickname: the aviator. Villeneuve certainly flew. He flew when it came to setting lap times, with innate and indomitable speed. Obstacles were but a figment of his imagination. But he also flew in the literal sense, with accidents in which all four wheels left the ground, only to land again somewhere unthinkable. Those habits gave him a lot of critics but also a lot of loving fans. Gilles was always one to get straight back on the horse even after his most epic accidents – and go even faster than before. This caused a worldwide outbreak of Gilles Villeneuve fever. There were even headlines written about it.
But in 1981, Villeneuve was somehow different. He was still aggressive at the limit but less inclined to overreach it. His Ferrari – which up to the end of 1980 had been the protagonist of drama and emotion in equal measure – was now beginning to emerge as a technical tour de force as well. Its turbocharged engine that Maranello adopted somewhat later than most teams, which were winning with turbos already, was extremely powerful – as was always the tradition at Ferrari. The motor was the beating heart of the Prancing Horse.
The way it delivered its power, however, was something else – which made it very difficult to drive. Nonetheless, Gilles won in Monaco on 31 May, and the tifosi began to smile again. It was an exceptional win in the Principality, crowned by an almost impossible overtake (although to Gilles, no overtaking manoeuvre was ever really impossible) as he got past the Williams of reigning world champion, Alan Jones.
And then came 21 June in Spain. At Jarama, Ferrari was not the fastest car. It was very fast indeed on the straights but in the corners Villeneuve and his team mate Didier Pironi were forced to defend. Or rather wrestle their cars, elbows out, in order just to keep them on the road. But then came the miracle. Gilles got into the lead and somehow managed to stay there with a masterclass in driving. The car was uncatchable on straights but regularly pursued closely by its competitors in the corners: Williams, McLaren, Ligier, and Lotus – all of which were more agile to drive.
It wasn’t long before a train of cars had formed behind the leader. The Canadian had to block the chasing pack, which tried to get past him at every corner and braking point. It ended in a way that was impossible to forget: Villeneuve first, his shoulders and hands destroyed, and four uncomprehending drivers behind him, all within just one second and 24 tenths.
This new Villeneuve – a fighter yet a tactician at the same time – soon made people forget about the ‘aviator’. But in May the following year, at Zolder in Belgium, destiny played its final hand. At the time Villeneuve was almost in the grip of a delusional madness. At the previous grand prix in Imola his teammate Pironi had disobeyed a team order to claim a victory that was not rightfully his, according to Villeneuve. The Canadian arrived in Belgium furious and frustrated; seething with resentment and betrayal. And a stupid accident in practice, in which he tripped over the back of Jochen Mass – at what was one of the slowest parts of the circuit – sent the Ferrari cartwheeling into the air and Gilles into the pantheon of deceased greats.
It was on Saturday 8 May in the University Hospital of Leuwen, not far from Zolder, that perhaps the most loved driver in Formula 1 history breathed his last. He had taken his final flight, terrifyingly televised all over the world. Gilles was gone. And yet he’s still with us now.