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Red fever break-out



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Gilles Villeneuve (Patrick Tambay)


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Mosport Park


1977 Canadian GP


Go and ask a random teenage F1 fan to name one or two famous drivers from the past and the chance is he'll go blank - or say Gilles Villeneuve.

Seldom has a driver of his statistic stature (6 wins, 2 poles, 8 fastest laps) stirred everyone's imagination as this Canadian dare-devil. But of course the truth is not in the statistics. It lies much deeper. The fact is Gilles - as he is heroically referred to by his many fans - has won innumerably more hearts than Grands Prix by showing sheer guts on the track, in the same way Nigel Mansell became Our Nige to the British nation.

The difference with folk hero Mansell is that Villeneuve not only had fans in the stands but also in the paddock and the press room, for off-track he was a likeable fellow without the pomp and circumstance surrounding Il Leone. But the best fun you had with Gilles was watching him attack some daunting corner head-on, always on the limit but preferably crossing it. His maniac driving style perfectly suited the hot-blooded tifosi selecting their saints on personality rather than results. Villeneuve driving a Ferrari was therefore a match made in heaven.

It nearly wasn't to be though.

Villeneuve was a huge star in Formula Atlantic and was en route to his second championship when James Hunt and Alan Jones entered the race at Trois-Rivières as guest drivers. To their horror Hunt and Jones were soundly thrashed by the youngster. The following season, with Hunt now crowned as World Champion, Gilles' impressive drive hadn't been forgotten by the Englishman and eventually it led to McLaren giving the Canadian his F1 break. So it happened: McLaren entered a third car at Silverstone but to the ignorant onlooker Villeneuve's accomplishments mostly comprised of run-offs and spins all over the place. Still, without any previous experience of car and track he stuck the M23 9th on the grid, ahead of McLaren regular Mass. Taking more notice of Gilles' car-spinning capabilities, Teddy Mayer however declined to follow up on the opportunity.

So the Canuck was picked up by Enzo after Niki Lauda had announced his Brabham deal for 1978. Again, a third-car arrangement was set up for Villeneuve, this time at his home GP at Mosport, where he was entered with the peculiar No.21. Gilles finished last after a mid-race spin spoiled his chances.

Driving the Ensign behind Villeneuve is his good friend Patrick Tambay, who finished a spectacular 5th in the race and was to replace him at Ferrari after that horrible Saturday afternoon at Zolder. Ironically, Tambay was also picked over Gilles to replace Jochen Mass at McLaren in 1978.

In the end, Lauda stayed away from the two North American races, having already sewn up the championship (and upset with the firing of his faithful mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi), which gave Villeneuve the opportunity to race Niki's No.11 at Fuji - a dramatic race for Gilles after he lost control of his Ferrari, the car somersaulting over the barriers to kill several spectators. This time, Gilles survived...

From that moment on, racing fans were treated on bravado unseen since the sixties. Everyone will remember such highlights as his race-long battle for second with Arnoux at Dijon, or stubbornly leading a train of five cars at Jarama to win in a dog of a car, ahead of his equally unbelievable victory at Monaco.

My best memory of Gilles' never-say-die attitude is witnessing his retirement lap of Zandvoort in 1979, reaching the pits on three tyres and a stricken wheel. A year after this picture was taken, Villeneuve won his first Grand Prix. The place was the Ile-de-Notre-Dame in Montreal, which debuted on the GP calendar. Fittingly, the track is now known as Circuit-Gilles-Villeneuve.

Reader's Why by William Dale

Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most well known and liked Ferrari drivers ever. The French-Canadian started competitively racing snowmobiles in Canada, and became national champion. It is almost certain this is what developed his particular style of driving. After clinching the snowmobile championship, he began racing in Formula Ford, and after winning the Quebec FF title, Formula Atlantic.

But it was in a Formula Atlantic race in 1976, at the Trois Rivieres street circuit, where he impressed guest drivers Alan Jones and James Hunt by winning the race and leaving Jones and Hunt to fill out the top three. It was this performance that got him a guest drive in a third McLaren at the 1977 British GP, qualifying ninth ahead of regular driver Jochen Mass, and finishing tenth. But McLaren decided to hire Patrick Tambay, so Ferrari quickly signed up Villeneuve for the rest of the season, after Niki Lauda won the championship and left.

Villeneuve remained at Ferrari for the rest of his career. His Ferrari debut came at Mosport Park, Canada where he finished dead-last, four laps down after a mid-race spin. His 1977 season came to a tragic end at Fuji, where he crashed and killed several marshalls and spectators. In 1978, he won his first GP, in front of his home crowd, at the Ile-de-Notre-Dame circuit in Montreal. For 1979 he had Jody Scheckter as team-mate, and they finished 1-2 in the championship.

After such a dominant year, you would expect Ferrari to have continued their success into the next season, but when you have a car that handles like 'a garbage truck', as Gilles put it, it does tend to be hard. He only managed six points the whole season, but that was three times as many as team-mate Scheckter, who had decided to retire at the end of the season. Didier Pironi replaced Scheckter in 1981, when Gilles took the new 126CK chassis to victory in the Spanish GP at Jarama, and the Monaco GP.

1982 seemed distinctly promising. Harvey Postlethwaite designed the first real ground-effect Ferrari - the 126C2. The car was competitive from the outset, and when the FOCA-aligned teams boycotted the San Marino GP, the Ferrari pair of Villeneuve and Pironi had the race to themselves, with the only competition coming from the Renaults, which both retired. A couple of laps from the end, the Villeneuve-Pironi 1-2, as ordered by Ferrari through their pit boards, was disrupted - Pironi passed Villeneuve on the entry to Tosa and won his first race for Ferrari. Gilles never spoke to Pironi again, and two weeks later, at Zolder for the Belgian GP, Pironi and Villeneuve were locked in a battle for pole. Pironi had the upper hand, but in the final dying moments of qualifying, Villeneuve went out to put in a blinder. Sadly, he tripped over Jochen Mass's March at high speed, and died in the subsequent accident.

It is ironic that his brother, Jacques, was to drive Mass's March later at the Canadian GP. Now Gilles' son, also named Jacques, races in Formula One, winning the championship in 1997, finishing what his father started.