Saluting Gilles

Saluting Gilles 01

The first notable thing you see these days when you arrive at Montréal airport is not actually an advert. Even before you get to the passport desk, at the end of the travellator, you find a sign on the ground that simply says ‘Salut Gilles 40’ – which calls to mind one of the most epic periods in the history of Formula 1. 

Of course it refers to Gilles Villeneuve and his first, unforgettable, victory in Canada in 1978. Whenever the Canadian Grand Prix takes place it’s inevitable that people think of the country’s greatest driver, especially this year. With all due respect to his son Jacques – who in 1997 even became a champion himself. It was a destiny cruelly denied to his father for reasons that went far beyond technology or race craft. Instead, Gilles’ story was much more linked with a sense of destiny: a predetermination that went beyond the course of normal events.

We’re not here to remember who Gilles Villeneuve was: that much is already clear. He burst onto the Formula 1 scene like a hurricane, famous for being able to transcend the abilities even of the legendary Ferrari cars that he drove. His myth grew larger through every daredevil act on the track, before he too passed into history with his terrible death during qualifying at Zolder in Belgium on May 8, 1982, cartwheeling his way into oblivion.

On that day he left the world as a true legend of racing, with a reputation that went beyond mere victories and defeats, lap times and championship points. He became a myth of the sort that you rarely experience. And the inextricable link between Gilles and his homeland of Canada forms the start of this incredible story.

Gilles Villeneuve was nearly 28 when at the end of the 1977 world championship, Enzo Ferrari called him to Maranello to replace Niki Lauda, who had just become world champion for the second time in three seasons. The one Niki lost was the one from 1976: consumed by the flames of the Nurburgring, before his miraculous return in Monza and the title that slipped through his fingers during the final showdown at a sodden Fuji in Japan. 

Lauda left on bad terms with Ferrari, or rather with Enzo Ferrari personally, who he believed had cast him aside by bringing in Carlos Reutemann, secured at any cost to guarantee the Prancing Horse something that Lauda might not be able to give them. Lauda of course delivered but his abilities had been questioned, so the Austrian was out, and Villeneuve was in. The Canadian was a complete unknown at the time. 

But within his native Canada he had a certain degree of fame. This was gained by winning snowmobile races: the equivalent of F1 cars on skis, a core sport in a country constantly battered by snow and ice for many brutal months of a very long winter. Villeneuve also had a few promising Formula Atlantic outings, piquing the interest of McLaren, which offered him his Formula 1 debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, halfway through season. 

Something about Villeneuve stirred the emotions of Enzo Ferrari, who later surprised the world by calling him to take Lauda’s place at the end of the year. His debut with Ferrari was at the Canadian Grand Prix at the end of 1977, where he was classified 12th after going off on some oil. 

Saluting Gilles 02

Then there was the Japanese Grand Prix that closed the season, which ended up in an accident that launched Gilles over the wheels of Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell, into an area where spectators were standing. The Ferrari was destroyed (the first of a few to meet a similar fate) and two spectators were killed.

Life and death. That’s how the myth around Gilles was formed: perhaps inevitably, as he always went over the limit, and of course it didn’t always go well for him. His accidents were often way more than just ‘accidents’: frequently resembling plane crashes instead. Maybe that’s why he ended up with a nickname of the ‘aviator’ – he took to the sky as often as he took the track. 

However, when it came to the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix 40 years ago, the little Canadian managed to keep his car glued to the asphalt. Not only that, but he won his first Canadian Grand Prix and delighted Ferrari: a team that frequently told him off for his misdemeanours but was also very much aware of the respect and affection that Gilles was garnering throughout the world. All or nothing, which meant that when everything went well he won. Canada 1978 was one of those days. And so 40 years ago, on that Sunday at the beginning of autumn, Canada realised that it had a true champion in its ranks: someone who had already booked a place in racing legend. One year later in Montréal, Villeneuve finished second – beaten only by the Williams of Alan Jones. It was scant consolation in a season where he also finished second in the title standings: a season that could have been his for the taking, but instead went to his team mate Jody Scheckter.

But Villeneuve’s incredible stories in Canada do not end here. Montréal, 27 September 1981. The championship was being dominated by the Brabham of Nelson Piquet, but Ferrari was facing an interesting season too. Its powerful turbo engine was formidable but so capricious that it could only really be tamed by Gilles. Somehow, the Canadian managed to pick up two wins in Monte Carlo and Spain in the first half of the season. Then there were a number of technical problems, but still enough proof to conclude that the following year, Ferrari would truly be capable of fighting for the championship again. Which this time had to go to Gilles. And so on to Montréal… 

The Ferrari started out behind: Villeneuve was just 11th fastest in qualifying, ahead of his team mate Didier Pironi. But on race day it was raining – in fact, it was pouring. Gilles put on a mesmerising display. By halfway through the race he was within touching distance of the podium, but on lap 36, while overtaking the Lotus of Elio de Angelis, he touched the other car, twisting his own front wing (which was already damaged thanks to contact in the first few corners with a Renault). 

The damage was clearly visible and a visit to the pits seemed unavoidable. But nobody told Gilles that. He continued pushing hard, until by lap 54 the front wing had twisted round completely, blocking most forward vision for the driver. Unbelievably, Gilles carried on like this for another three laps: practically driving blind but just as quickly. How, it’s impossible to say. When the front wing finally came off completely, the Ferrari was left without any front downforce at all, but Gilles continued to push like mad through opposite locks and power slides, in appalling conditions, to claim a breath-taking third place that was nothing short of a miracle. So, Salut Gilles. We’re thinking of you.

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