Gilles Villeneuve’s Beginnings

Had he been alive today, Gilles Villeneuve would be approaching his 61st birthday. For a man who spent most of his time on the world stage roaring toward each and every chequered flag with such youthful enthusiam it’s not a particularly easy image to conjur up in one’s mind, is it?

As it is, Canada’s first Formula One superstar has lain in rest in a quiet corner of Cimetiere de Berthierville, Quebec, for almost three decades now. The events of the 8th of May 1982 at the Circuit Zolder may have faded from the forefront of a sport now dominated by glamour, marketing and drivers so young that they would barely be able to afford the insurance on a modest family saloon, yet for those who were there and for those who were keen followers of the sport at the time, 13:52 on that particular Saturday afternoon bought the shocking dangers of a sport already teetering on the edge of political oblivion home in the most tragic of manners.

As someone who was a mere embryo when all the above happened, one could presume that I subscribe to the classic (not to mention slightly romantic) view of Villeneuve that seems to have been passed down through the decades: a hard-charger, who thrashed his cars to within an inch of their lives and lacked subtlety and consistency. In actual fact, from the moment James Hunt casually mentioned his name during the sodden 1989 Australian Grand Prix, countless hours, days and weeks of my life have been spent carefully piecing together articles, video footage and opinion on one of the most divisive figures the sport has ever known.

Villeneuve, deep in thought.

Villeneuve was no playboy racer, and certainly not a man who made it to Formula One via traditional routes. Born in Richelieu, Quebec to Seville, a piano tuner, and Georgette in January 1950 (his commonly accepted birth year of 1952 had been fabricated by Gilles himself, for fear that his advancing age would hurt his career prospects), early experiments with drag racing in a modified Ford Mustang saw him bitten by the racing bug. From his early years it was clear to anyone close to him that his was to be a career based around motor vehicles, for which he had a passion and regularly poured over ever and any kind of related reading material he could get his hands on. This passion often saw him in trouble too; numerous speeding tickets were issued his way by local authorities (luckily for him in an era before one risked losing their license for repeated offence), and one time a chastened Gilles had to inform his father that no, the family saloon hadn’t been stolen and ditched; he had succumbed to the temptation to give it a quick whirl one night and had to abandon it in a rather crumpled state.