Following in the footsteps of Gilles

Spa-Francorchamps with Senna and Michael Schumacher; Monaco also with Senna. These are ties bound so strongly that they go beyond mere stereotypes. They are born of exceptional performances, often out of victories that have to be seen to be believed. Senna claimed his second career victory in Belgium, but he did it with such authority on such a challenging circuit that the hallmarks of the champion who would win the race four times in a row were clearly revealed.

Michael Schumacher also cast an imperious shadow of superiority over Spa. Michael made his Formula 1® debut through those mind-bendingly fast corners in the dense Ardennes forest, constantly either climbing or descending with a backdrop of truly schizophrenic weather. 

Even the modest Jordan he was driving at the time failed to hide his monstrous talent. He won the Belgian Grand Prix the following year and went on to do that five more times in the 10 years that were to follow. That record would maybe have been even more emphatic had it not been for the infamous mistake he made while overtaking through a cloud of spray in 1998, depriving him of a victory that was there for the taking. Even Monaco, with its six wins courtesy of Senna (who also has reason to curse the mistake he made just a few corners from home at the 1988 grand prix, while he was in a class of his own) isn’t quite as symbiotic with the Brazilian as Montreal is with Villeneuve. After all, the first phenomenal run of five victories in the narrow confines of Monte Carlo had already been claimed by Graham Hill back in the swinging 60s. Faced with this record of success that is almost monumental in scale, the inextricable link between Canada and Gilles may at first seem difficult to explain. But maybe it’s not so hard to see why when you consider how his life was cruelly cut short, while his status remains immortal as the Canadian driver who was faster, more popular, and more loved than any other. The fact is that Canada had always been waiting for Villeneuve. They always wanted Villeneuve. In fact, they had been dreaming of someone like him without even realising that the dream was there. And it’s not as if before Villeneuve there was no Formula 1® in Canada. Grands Prix had been held there already since 1967: nearly always at the fearsome rollercoaster of Mosport and then on a couple of occasions in Mont Tremblant. Following that there was Montreal: which has hosted a race every year with only two exceptions, in 1987 and 2009. And it was just as this circuit was being established on the Ile de Notre Dame that the roots of the Villeneuve myth were taking hold. It was the year in which the world of F1® realised that it had been overcome by Villeneuve fever. Gilles, sporting his characteristic is cheeky smile, was transformed when he was at the wheel of the Ferrari. He pushed it to the brink of grievous mechanical harm, always at maximum speed and only occasionally to the finish line. He was flying but not winning: there were too many mistakes in the heat of the moment, but he was forgiven for those by the wave of global love that rewarded him for dancing the fine line between bravery and madness. His heart was seemingly big enough to overcome every obstacle, just as fans wanted their swashbuckling heroes to be. In 1977, Gilles made his Ferrari debut in Canada at Mosport. He arrived in Maranello by one of life’s strange twists of fate: a few days earlier two-time world champion Niki Lauda had quit Ferrari two races before the end of the season, under acrimonious circumstances.

Villeneuve had been winning local snowmobile races and shown some promising performances in Formula Atlantic single seaters as well. In July, he had made his grand prix debut with McLaren, which passed reasonably unnoticed. The choice of Villeneuve was made by Enzo Ferrari himself: in that cheeky smile, he had seen the energy and fire that burned within. Ferrari was the spark to make it explode all over the racing world. 

When Gilles arrived in Montreal for the grand prix, the summer of 1978 was already over. On race day, a north wind blew across the Ile Notre Dame, whipping up waves on the St Lawrence Seaway that surrounds the circuit. And that is how Gilles’s first F1® victory occurred: like a sign of destiny at the end of a race that was even touched by a few snowflakes. It was a special day: one that in decades to come will be looked back upon as something truly memorable. On that evening of 8 October, the world understood that it had found a champion. Canada made Formula 1® a national sport, which even began to threaten the popularity of ice hockey. The 1979 season would truly be miraculous for Gilles, they thought. But while that season’s mighty Ferrari offered Gilles plenty of success at the start of the year, some technical misfortunes as well as political choice in the team ultimately diverted the title to his team mate Jody Scheckter. The rest is history that may not be recent but remains unforgettable, like his shockingly violent death during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix in May 1982. And yet on many of those corners in Canada the spirit of Villeneuve is still alive and well.

There are those three straights travelled at more than 300kph, the wall of champions that is so-called because it welcomes so many of them abruptly at the end of the double corner before the start-finish straight. All these seem to be designed especially for Gilles and his inimitable style, taking lines that are simply incomprehensible to everyone else. Montreal is a circuit without fast corners: everything is either up, with full throttle, or down, while standing on the brakes. Black and white. Just as Gilles was. 

Read more