Thirty eight years have passed since Gilles Villeneuve lost his life at Zolder. We tell the story of the final weekend and the events that led up to it.
Saturday May 8th, 1982. Just a few minutes remained of the final qualifying session for the following day’s Belgian GP, and for those drivers hoping to improve their grid positions, it was now or never.
Gilles Villeneuve never, ever gave up such hopes. Despite the fact that his second and final set of sticky qualifying tyres had run several laps, and were thus well past their best, he was still pressing on. And this time, he had an extra incentive.
For the past 13 days, his mind had been a mess of angry thoughts. At the San Marino GP two weeks earlier, he had fallen out with Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi, who had ignored orders and stolen what should have been an easy win for Gilles. Friends had never seen the normally relaxed Canadian in such a preoccupied and agitated state.
Here at Zolder, set in a pine forest in the Flemish part of Belgium, only one thing mattered – he wanted to go faster than Pironi. But as the minutes ticked away, his rival’s time remained just out of reach.
Aware that his tyres were used up, and a quicker lap was thus unlikely, the Ferrari team signalled from the pits that Gilles should come in at the end of the next lap. No one knows whether he was actually planning to stop, but he certainly didn’t slow down.
Halfway round the lap he exited the chicane, and blasted up and over the hill which followed. The next turn was a fast lefthander. As he exited it he saw a slow moving car in the distance.
He knew that the car would be in the way just as he arrived at the following righthand turn. In a matter of seconds, he had to make a choice. He could back off and stand on the brakes, or he could keep his foot on the throttle and drive past it, on either the left or right.
It was just one of dozens of such instinctive, critical decisions that any grand prix driver has to make every weekend. But for Gilles Villeneuve, the fastest and most popular driver of his era, it was to be the last.
The path to the top
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 126C2
Photo by: David Phipps
Born in 1950, Gilles grew up in Quebec with a passion for anything involving engines and going fast. His first love was snowmobiling, a sport in which he excelled at international level, but once he discovered car racing, he was hooked.
He landed his big break when several top F1 drivers were invited to Canada to take part in an event at Trois Rivieres in 1976. It was virtually his backyard, and he duly beat the visiting stars.
One of them was James Hunt. Impressed by his speed, and by his unassuming character, Hunt told his McLaren team boss Teddy Mayer that Villeneuve, then unknown in Europe, was a talent worth looking at.
Contact was made, and Gilles was signed up and invited to drive a third McLaren in the 1977 British GP. In practice he caught the attention by spinning off at nearly every corner. He never hit anything, and casually explained that he was merely trying to find the limits of the unfamiliar car. A great performance in the race was spoiled by an unnecessary pit stop, triggered by a faulty gauge.
McLaren didn’t offer him a fulltime job for ‘78, and took Patrick Tambay instead. Luck went Villeneuve’s way when Niki Lauda left Ferrari for Brabham. To fill the vacancy Enzo Ferrari took a gamble on the rookie.
Here was a guy still almost unknown in Europe, having missed the traditional F3 and F2 ladder to the top, and with a single Grand Prix start to his name. And yet he was replacing a double World Champion in the biggest and most charismatic team in the sport. A team whose legions of rabid Italian fans often elevated their favourite stars to mythical status.
A star at Ferrari
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T3
Photo by: Motorsport Images
There were accidents as Gilles learned his way. However in October 1978 he won his home race, held for the first time at the new circuit in Montreal. Three more wins followed in ‘79, but Gilles was happy to obey team orders and help his new and more experienced team mate Jody Scheckter to secure the World title. He knew his time would surely come.
“I always worked very well with Gilles,” Scheckter told me a few years later. “We had a very honest and open relationship, which was part of the success we had. We really didn’t bullshit each other.
“If he put wing on or made an adjustment and went quicker, he would tell me and I would tell him, as painful as it was sometimes. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship, and was part of us winning the championship.”
Villeneuve always showed incredible speed and a tigering, determined quality that endeared him to the tifosi. He confirmed his never-say-die reputation by driving back to the pits in Holland on three wheels, while tales of wild exploits in roadgoing Ferraris added to the mystique – although Scheckter recalled that at times he was playing up to his reputation.
“I don’t think he did things that put him into uncalculated dangers. I think he was a responsible guy. He always had this image of being a crazy guy, and he wasn’t really. The only time he was crazy was when he wanted to be, because that’s the image he liked to portray.
“I always tell the story about driving from Monaco with him. I didn’t want to do it, because I hated to be a passenger. But the whole time he drove perfectly, until we got just outside Modena, and soon the wheels were spinning and he started sliding around and everything. That was the proof of what I felt.”
The 1980 season went down the tubes, as the latest 312T5 was hopelessly uncompetitive. Ferrari fought back in ’81 with a new turbocharged machine, following the route pioneered by Renault.
Meanwhile Scheckter retired, and was replaced by cool, calculating Frenchman Didier Pironi, who had emerged as a race winner with Ligier. Villeneuve got on well with Pironi, but he had to work hard to stay ahead.
The 1981 turbo car was powerful, but its poor chassis was no match for the Williams, Brabham and Renault. And yet Villeneuve scored two virtuoso wins, the first on the streets of Monaco, the second in Spain, when a train of four potentially quicker cars could not find a way by. More than anything, those two victories fuelled the growing Villeneuve legend.
For 1982, Enzo Ferrari promised his drivers a car that would do justice to their talents. He broke with tradition by hiring a British designer who would bring knowledge of modern technology that the Italians lacked.
Harvey Postlethwaite, who had latterly been with Wolf and Fittipaldi, came up with the goods. In early testing the new 126C2 showed promise, and it seemed that finally Gilles would have a crack at the world title.
The first three races brought little luck for either Villeneuve or Pironi, although Gilles showed the potential of the car by qualifying third in South Africa, and second in Brazil, well ahead of his teammate.
The fourth round was the San Marino GP in Imola, held at the track named after Dino Ferrari, Enzo’s late and lamented heir.
A conflict at Imola
Didier Pironi, 1st position on the podium
Photo by: Motorsport Images
A political dispute meant that most of the British teams missed the race in protest, and just 14 cars were present, with only the Renaults of Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux likely to challenge the Ferrari duo. When Arnoux dropped out, Villeneuve and Pironi moved up to first and second, and there was no one else in sight.
The team knew that the cars were marginal on fuel consumption, and if they pushed, both drivers risked running dry. The signal from the pits said ‘Slow’, which to Villeneuve meant that the two should maintain station.
Mindful of fuel, always tight at Imola, he slackened off the pace, and was surprised when Pironi went past him. He thought that perhaps the Frenchman was trying to put on a show for the fans, who had paid good money to watch a race with half a grid.
With a lap to go Pironi appeared to let Gilles by again, and once in front, the Canadian assumed that his teammate had indeed been playing to the crowd, and was now finally falling into line. However on the last lap he was stunned when Pironi barged past and stormed to the chequered flag. Villeneuve crossed the line a speechless second, just 0.3s behind.
Alighting from the car, he was in an uncharacteristic rage. He was eventually persuaded to join Pironi on the podium, but he refused to celebrate, or acknowledge his rival’s presence.
He was adamant that the win had been stolen from him, and for it to happen on Ferrari’s home ground, and in front of the fans who loved him, was too much.
A man to whom trust and honour were crucial, he swore never to speak to Didier again. However the situation led to a reunion with his previous teammate.
“We had a bit of an argument over something personal, and then I didn’t see him for a year,” Scheckter recounted.
“However, after he had that incident when Pironi overtook him at Imola in 1982, he called me up, and we went to Modena together in his helicopter. I suppose a relationship is worth more than one argument. At least that’s what I felt.
“We talked a lot. He hated what had happened at Imola. He realised what a good relationship we’d had, and that we never double crossed each other, and we were very honest and open, and Pironi hadn’t been. I don’t think he ever thought that it could ever happen.
“Gilles was a really genuine, honest guy, and in fact if he had a weakness, he was honest to the point of being naive. He trusted Pironi. It would have affected him badly for quite a while, and I say that because very honest, naive people are shocked when something like that happens to them. Crooks think that’s the way it should happen…”
The last weekend
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 126C2
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The dispute weighed heavily on Villeneuve’s mind over the next fortnight, and when he arrived in Belgium in his Agusta helicopter, his only thought was to beat Pironi. It was, as he said, “War.”
For once the family wasn’t with him, wife Joann having remained with their kids Melanie and Jacques back in Monaco, so he stayed in a hotel rather than in his motorhome, which was his usual practice for European races. With the family absent he had little to distract him from his smouldering rage.
On Friday he was fifth fastest, but crucially for him, he was 1.2s and 10 places ahead of a troubled Pironi. Now it was all down to final qualifying.
I was at Zolder as a paying spectator, and can attest to his state of mind as he walked past me in the paddock that Saturday afternoon. His face bore a grim expression. He had no time for autograph hunters, and the door at the back of the garage was closed in my face.
A little more than an hour later, Gilles left the pits for his final qualifying run, aware that Pironi was faster, albeit by just one tenth. It was never easy to find a clear lap in traffic, and by the time he’d used the best of his tyres, he hadn’t been able to better his teammate.
After he was called into the pits he went through the chicane and round the left-hand corner that followed, and saw the slow moving March of Jochen Mass up ahead.
The German veteran knew Gilles well, as they had briefly been teammates at McLaren in 1977, and had later spent time socialising in Monaco. He was coasting back to the pits after finishing his qualifying efforts for what would be his 100th GP start.
Seeing a flash of red in his mirrors, Mass jinked to the right in order to allow Gilles to pass on the left. However by then Villeneuve had already made his decision – he was committed to passing on the right.
“I think at Zolder he was under massive pressure to beat Pironi, who was faster than him in qualifying,” Scheckter recalled.
“We all had problems with that sort of situation. I remember nearly smashing a TV cameraman at Monaco, because I thought Gilles was quicker than me, but it turned out I had been quicker. You’re trying so hard, you get aggressive.
“I certainly got angry in a racing car a lot of times. You get to the end of practice and you are so angry and wanting to go for it, you do stupid things.
“I don’t know exactly what happened at Zolder, but it seemed that’s what happened. Gilles took a chance that didn’t pay off. He went for a gap that wasn’t there, and got caught out. I’ve done it myself, and got away with it.”
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 126C2 leads Manfred Winkelhock, ATS D5-Ford
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The last thing that Villeneuve saw was Mass move into the path he’d chosen. The left front tyre of the Ferrari touched the right rear of the March and instantly the red car flew skywards and to the right, briefly disappearing from the view of the TV camera which had just about caught the moment of impact. The car nosedived with sickening force, and somersaulted back across the track.
In the course of the violent tumble, the front of the chassis was ripped off, and Villeneuve was thrown out as if catapulted by an ejector seat.
He landed in the catchfences on the outside of the corner. He’d lost his helmet, but he was still wrapped in the Ferrari’s seat belts, which were attached to a piece torn clean from the chassis. Mass jumped from his car and ran across to see what they could do, and others, including Rene Arnoux and Derek Warwick, also stopped. When Pironi arrived on the scene, Jochen led him away.
A few minutes later, I saw Didier strolling through the paddock, red-faced. In his hand he carried two crash helmets; his own, and that of Gilles, which was badly damaged after its flight across the track. He headed for the sanctuary of the Ferrari motorhome, and slammed the door shut.
Scheckter was at home in Monaco, recovering from a recent operation. Someone called him from Zolder and told him about the crash. He then informed Joann, who travelled straight to Belgium with Jody’s then wife Pam.
Villeneuve clung to life for a few hours in hospital in Leuven. He’d suffered massive injuries, including a broken neck, and it was a matter of waiting for Joann to arrive from Monaco and give permission for the life support system to be switched off. He died that Saturday night. By then the devastated Ferrari team had already packed its trucks and begun the journey home.
The racing world was shocked, and Italy and Canada went into mourning. Enzo Ferrari had lost too many drivers in his long, majestic career, but the death of Villeneuve hit him hard. However racing, as always, had to go on.
“Gilles might have won the championship in 1982, and Ferrari was certainly capable,” said Scheckter. “But you never can tell… He was still at that early stage of his career. At one time I was more aggressive, but as you get on you realise you’ve got to finish races.
“The way the points work, that’s how you become World Champion. Some people never get out of that stage. He thought winning laps was important. And it was in a way; the press people loved it when he put on qualifying tyres and went quickest.”
Gilles Villeneuve 30th anniversary at Zolder
Photo by: Adam Cooper
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