The road leading to the entrance of Ferrari’s Fiorano test track is called Viale Gilles Villeneuve. There’s a small statue at the top of it, honouring the man most tifosi regard as the greatest of all Ferrari’s fallen heroes.
Thirty years ago this week, Villeneuve got it wrong while passing another car in the last minutes of qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, launching his Ferrari into the air and sending the driver, still strapped to his seat, into the catch fencing. He was pronounced dead later that evening.
Yet the combination of the red car and Villeneuve’s supernatural pace and sublime car control have turned him into the Jimi Hendrix of motor racing. In many ways, he’s a bigger star now than he was then, a guy who could go wheel-to-wheel with another driver for 34 laps without playing dirty, as he did with Rene Arnoux in 1979’s epic French GP, a throwback to a time when Formula One cars still needed pure, distilled driver skill to wring the best out of them. He has become a symbol of a different, arguably more thrilling era. An era when drivers had more respect for each other and the consequences of their actions.
Fans love Gilles because he went hell-for-leather, often sideways. But his reputation for wildness wasn’t entirely justified. He more or less crash-landed into F1, with no real experience to call upon, and simply got to work. ‘I like to think that Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars,’ Enzo Ferrari noted. ‘I admired Villeneuve. He’s the product of a bet I made with myself. Some people called [him] crazy. I said, ‘Let’s try him.’ [His] hiring surprised the public and unleashed an outcry which might have been justified at the time.’
It took time, but Gilles got there. He may only have won six Grands Prix, but he delivered entertainment way beyond the statistics. More than 20,000 tifosi gathered in Modena last weekend to remember him, and earlier this week his son Jacques attracted the great and the good, including Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, to Fiorano, simply by donning red overalls and driving his father’s 1979 world championship winning car. It was a genuinely emotional occasion, testament to Gilles’ powerful legacy.
F1’s Machiavellian politics eventually caught up with Enzo Ferrari’s ‘Little Prince’. In his last race, the San Marino GP, he believed that his team-mate Didier Pironi had cheated him out of victory. Mystery still surrounds what went on that weekend, but Gilles certainly had a point to prove as he arrived at Zolder.
‘My father was honourable, and he expected people to behave in a certain way,’ Jacques Villeneuve told me. ‘Other people were opportunistic, and he simply wasn’t like that. He had respect.’
Brave, honourable, brilliant. As you watch the Spanish GP this weekend, remember Gilles Villeneuve, one of F1’s true greats.