Looking to forward his career onward, Villeneuve enrolled with the Jim Russell School based at Mont Tremblant, and was soon issued with his first racing license. This led on to a season in Formula Ford in which his talent first became obvious to anyone following the series. In a two-year old car that he engineered mostly himself, Gilles won seven out of the ten races he entered in that first season. This was the prelude to four years spent racing in the popular and competitive Formula Atlantic series against drivers such as future Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and Keke Rosberg, who would go on to win the Formula One World Championship the same year Villeneuve was killed. Race wins and the American and Canadian titles followed, and word of the phenomenally quick little Canadian began to spread across the Atlantic.
Yet, despite the successes, Villeneuve continued to struggle financially during his early Atlantic career, even running his own car for one season. The Villeneuve family – wife Joann whom he had married in 1970 and children Jacques and Melanie – trooped across the country in their own motorhome, from which Gilles would set up in the paddock most weekends and work on his car. To fund all of this he raced snowmobiles during the winter to great success and this would not only lead to him gaining vital sponsorship from Skiroule, his manufacturer, but also honed the lightning-quick reflexes and almost sixth sense for car control that he would become famous for later in the decade. So bereft of funds was he at one point that he even took to stealing tools from his local depot – something he put right in his later years with a free-of-charge diary column in their company newsletter.
Thus, when he rocked up at the twisty Trois Rivieres circuit for a non-championship Atlantic race in September 1976, you can imagine that it must have been strange for Villeneuve, so used to being his own man and having to struggle up through the ranks, to be caught in the midst of quite some fanfare. Amidst drivers of the ilk of Patrick Depailler, Alan Jones and that season’s F1 champion James Hunt, Gilles drove in his customary hard-charging fashion and won convincingly. So impressed was Hunt by what he’d seen that upon his return to Europe he suggested to his McLaren team boss Teddy Mayer that he really ought to seek out Villeneuve and get him sat in an F1 car. Even the British press caught onto the story, with John Blundsden, motorsport corredspondent for The Times, being moved to write “Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man.”
The wheels were – quite literally – in motion for Villeneuve now, and although he would return to the Atlantic series in 1977 alongside occasional appearances in Walter Wolf’s Can-Am car (at the suggestion of Chris Amon, who had walked away from the seat), it was to Europe and the grandest stage of them all that he was headed. The first part of the decade for Villeneuve had been about getting a foot in the door – of making the most of meagre means and working his way up the motorsport ladder. Little did he know as he travelled to the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen at the end of 1976 to meet Teddy Mayer, but Gilles Villeneuve was about to embark on a new adventure that would propel him to superstardom within two years.