Remembering Gilles

By Weenson Oo on 23:16

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Thirty years ago tragedy struck on a Belgian grand prix circuit east of  Brussels. Approaching the seventh turn during the closing laps of the final qualifying session, Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari was launched into the air off the rear wheel of a slowing car. With alarming ferocity the car somersaulted along the short straight which was the first part of a section called Terlamenbocht, at the end of it throwing it's driver out across the track onto the catch fencing. At just 32, Gilles Villeneuve's grand prix career was brutally cut short and a shining light was lost to the world of motor racing.

Gilles' first formula 1 race was at Silverstone in 1977 and though at the wheel of an aging Mclaren M23 acquitted himself very well,  running ahead of far better-established stars in the early stages and closing on Mario Andretti, the pacesetter of that season. Less than a year later in the fourth race of his first full season in the sport, he would lead the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach until half distance when an over hasty move to overtake a car which he was about to lap on a twisty section of the circuit resulted in contact with the wall. By then however Gilles had served notice of his ambitions and many would remember well his astonishing and near impossible levels of car control.


The tales of inhuman feats are many such as emerging with a lead of 12 seconds after practice at a rain-soaked Watkins Glen. That's Twelve Seconds!!! There might have been only six wins in his short career which lasted little more than four years but every one of them was memorable. The last two in 1981 probably most of all since they were achieved in a car that had no part to play at the front of a chasing pack of pursuers. Hanging onto third place which would then become second by the skin of his teeth, Giles wrestled a beast of a car and pressed Alan Jones until the Australian's Williams car broke, resulting in a most unexpected victory and a first for a turbo-powered car around the tight confines of Monaco. Till this day I do not believe this would have been possible were another driver behind the wheel of that Ferrari. Then just a fortnight later he led a train of five cars home at Jarama. No one it has been widely testified could have held it all together let alone at the front.


By far the most impressive characteristic about Gilles for me was his integrity. At the end of the 1978 season, despite having been with Ferrari for a year, the prancing horse team signed a more experienced Jody Sheckter to be the number 1 driver in the team. However as it turned out, the driver who would lead Ferrari's charge over the season would be Gilles so when it came to Monza in September, all Gilles had to do to be world champion was to overtake Sheckter, something well within his near limitless ability. But Gilles having given his word that he would help Sheckter to the world title was not about to renege on his promise. Thus when Didier Pironi overtook Car No 27 at Imola less than three years later when both cars had been given the directive to slow down, Gilles took the move as a duplicitous act of enormous proportions. That was why on the morning of May 8 1982 notwithstanding that once again his was generally the pacesetter of the two red cars, he felt a need to establish his role at the front of the team, a desire that cost him dearly. Former world champion contender Carlos Reutemann met with Gilles before the race at Monza 1979, saying to the Canadian that if he had an opportunity to take the title he should not throw it away. World championships were very hard to come by added Reutemann and there may not be another chance. " Nah " replied Gilles. " I've promised Jody I'll let him win. He's going to help me win in 1980... " Be it at the cost of a world title, for Gilles his word was more important. 

The stuff of champions, Gilles was the hero you would find in boys' own comic books. He had a sense of honour and a set of values from a bygone age. Enzo Ferrari once said he loved Gilles like a son. and called him " Il Piccolo Canadese ", the tiny Canadian, a term of affection he reserved for Gilles. Ferrari was a man who had seen them all and had contracted even for a short time, arguably the greatest of them all. 


Salut Gilles.



Picture Credits - victorvarela.com, timblair.net, actualfoto, unknown sources
Video Link - youtubeuser GDH1981
and Peter Windsor

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