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.