Gilles Villeneuve remembered

From The Sun:

SUNSPORT’S Chris Hockley shares some personal memories of Formula One great Gilles Villeneuve, who was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, Zolder, on May 8, 1982.

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I FIRST met Gilles Villeneuve a couple of days before his explosive entry into Formula One.

A wiry, jockey-sized bloke with a quirky accent born of his French Canadian roots, he was instantly both unique and likeable.

And boy, was he fast…

I don’t do heroes but if I did Villeneuve would be right up there.

And I don’t mind admitting I shed a bucket-load of tears when he was killed 30 years ago today in one of F1’s most shocking accidents.

We met at Silverstone during practice for the 1977 British Grand Prix.

In those days I was working on an evening paper covering the Thames Valley — including the nondescript town of Colnbrook, then the home of McLaren.

Villeneuve had been drafted into the squad on the recommendation of team leader James Hunt.

The previous year, Hunt’s world championship season remember, Villeneuve had taken on and BEATEN the playboy Brit and a host of other Grand Prix stars in a lesser formula race in Canada.

Impressive stuff. But at Silverstone he had to learn all about F1 and the daunting high-speed track in the blink of an eye.

At a test session just before the Grand Prix, he tackled the task with swashbuckling abandon — finding the limit of his year-old McLaren M23 in corners by deliberately exceeding it, and spinning.

In the race he outpaced McLaren’s experienced No2 driver Jochen Mass, who was in a newer car.

And he would have finished fourth but for an unnecessary pit stop triggered by a faulty temperature gauge.

From nowhere, the Canadian cavalier had arrived as one of the fastest drivers in motorsport’s history.

Yet Villeneuve was never a preening superstar and often stayed in a motorhome with his family at tracks, walking out in the evening with champ-to-be son Jacques on his shoulders.

The contrast between his startling ability and his “ordinariness” made him all the more special.

“This guy is gonna be a world champion!” I screamed confidently in my report for the paper.

Sadly, it was not to be.

But before his death, Villeneuve provided us with some of F1’s most enduring memories.

Quickly snapped up by Ferrari to replace the departing Niki Lauda, his name became synonymous with spectacle.

He never failed to wring the neck of the Italian giants’ cars, shooting past in a scarlet blur, hanging the tail out as the engine screamed for mercy.

At the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon, he banged wheels with Rene Arnoux’s Renault for the last three laps as they raced for second place in an uncompromising battle — won by Villeneuve — that is still talked about with relish today.

Later that year he was pitched off the track at the Dutch Grand Prix by a deflating tyre while leading.

Villeneuve’s never-say-die solution was to reverse back on to the circuit and head back to the pits at high speed on three wheels, sparks flying in his wake.

Perhaps the greatest of his seven Grand Prix victories came at Jarama in Spain in 1981.

Driving Ferrari’s dreadful truck-like 126CK, Villeneuve held off a convoy of much faster cars for 67 gruelling laps.

Across the line he led five others covered by little more than a second.

The performance quickly entered F1 annals as the stuff of legend.

The following year it was all coming good for Villeneuve and he finally appeared on course for the world championship.

Ferrari had waved a magic wand and his 1982 car was the best of the bunch.

But in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, he was duped by sneaky team-mate Didier Pironi, who ignored team orders to take Villeneuve by surprise and sweep by for the win.

Villeneuve, a man of honour, was shocked and enraged by the deception.

At the next race at Zolder in Belgium, he was determined to show Pironi he would beat him by speed, not stealth.

But on a flat-out qualifying lap he tagged a slower car and was launched into a series of sickening rolls.

Many things have been said and written about Villeneuve since that black day.

One of the most poignant came from Lauda, who said: “He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One.

“But for all this he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser, which made him such a unique human being.”

For me, I’ll pay my respects with two simple words always painted by fans on the Grand Prix circuit named after him in Montreal.

Salut Gilles!

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