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The next Canadian hero

Catching up—figuratively—with Gilles Villeneuve

Michael McHugh October 31 1977
Closeup

The next Canadian hero

Catching up—figuratively—with Gilles Villeneuve

Michael McHugh October 31 1977

The next Canadian hero

Closeup

Sports

Catching up—figuratively—with Gilles Villeneuve

Michael McHugh

Gilles Villeneuve’s frustration is as palpable as the pungent odor of burnt brake pads that has settled over the racetrack at Trois Rivières, Quebec. It’s

a sunny early September day, the disappointing end of the race in the Molson’s Grand Prix, which the 25-year-old driving superstar swept last year. He should have won this one; instead, it’s a race that will go down on the long list of might-have-beens.

i-first lap he had a sixthe

second lead on the next car. Then two American drivers,Gregg Young and David Oxton, slammed into each other and chaos was unleashed with a roar. Villeneuve lost his precious lead as all the cars lined up in order behind a yellow pace car. With the tempo gone, his engine faltered and two cars passed. When he attempted to ertake the second one, he spun in a desperate whirl. He

finished fourth, locking his brakes in rage.

Villeneuve steps out of his dark blue Can-Am car, a muscular gymnast, a compact jockey controlling 300 horses instead of one. Slowly, because of sheer exhaustion, he removes his helmet, deeply scratched from other risks, spins and crashes. The imprint of his fireproof balaclava leaves a small oval outline around his eyes—the only eight square inches of flesh exposed while he drives. The rest is covered by fireproof long johns, turtleneck, socks and a double layered driving suit with mid-arm length gloves. He has lost five pounds in sweat, enclosed in a cockpit where the temperatures sometimes go up

to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And he’s blown it after two days of tinkering with the engine and studying the temperature readings of his tires, all because of another driver’s error. But here he is, still talking about the “last second,” about pushing it harder and harder. Still saying: “When you’re reaching your limit, you know it because you’re half an inch from the walls. If the wall would be five feet further, I’d use those five feet.”

Taking it to the limit, despite the many losses along the way, is the determined dream of this young hot rodder from Berthierville, Quebec. In the past four years he has gone from being a championship

snowmobile racer to Canadian National Driving Champion driving Formula Atlantic cars, and is now launching a career in the big leagues—Formula One racing in the Grand Prix circuit. He did so well last year—he won nine out of 10 races he started, even beating world champion James Hunt, a regular Formula One driver—that Team McLaren signed him up for four Grand Prix races. On July 16, he slid behind the wheel of an M-23 Marlboro McLaren in Silverstone, England, for the British Grand Prix, the first Canadian to race a Formula One. He finished eleventh after ironing out difficulties with the car (“The car was vicious. It wasn’t predictable and it could easily get away from me”), and “the boy” was hailed by the London Times as “racing’s brightest new star.”

McLaren didn’t take up its option to keep Villeneuve on contract, but Ferrari, one of the world’s toughest racing teams, quickly snapped him up. He went from a former championship team to this year’s championship team all in one summer. His first appearance in a Ferrari was at Mosport October 9 for the Grand Prix of Canada, where once again frustration was the winner. He spun twice and came in twelfth, resigned at having to leave the glory to a car owned by Montreal industrialist Walter Wolf.

Frustration has never stopped Villeneuve. He remembers going to the races at St. Jovite, outside Montreal, and getting mad. “In those years racing was impressive. It looked like you needed a lot of money ‘o get into it. I thought the other drivers I saw there were a bunch of wonkers. I thought it was easy. When you are on the other side of the track that’s the simplest thing to say. It got me mad seeing guys who had the money to do it but not the talent. So I never went back to races until I started doing it myself.” Now, he has four seasons of Formula Atlantic racing behind him. (Formula Atlantic cars are similar to the Formula Two cars used in Europe, single-seat, open-wheel machines powered by 1,600 c.c. Ford Cosworth BDN engines where aspiring drivers train for positions on the Grand Prix.) But it hasn’t been easy. It takes between $70,000 and $100,000 to run a season properly and in the past few years it has been hard for drivers to find the money. Villeneuve’s first season was a disaster. He finished his first race third. In the second race, the engine blew up. The third time out, he spun off into the weeds. In the fourth race he went into the guardrail at Mosport in a bad crash and broke his left leg. A month later, he drove at Halifax in a full leg cast, finishing ninth. The season ended and he was broke. He was forced to sell his home to pay off the debts. But he still had one thing going for him. He was a very talented snowmobile racer, good enough to be the World Champion of snowmobiling in 1974. That explains why he is in such trim physical form. He is al-

ways racing something. He continued in the winter of’75 on a very tight budget. He started calling places in advance, asking for appearance money. He started winning races and race purses. For him, it was the best decision that he ever made. He was on the map running around and his name was still there.

Skiroule, a snowmobile company under fresh management, wanted to improve its image through racing.The firm thought Villeneuve could help sell more machines. After many discussions Skiroule made a deal with Villeneuve with one condition. Villeneuve said, “If you want me, you sponsor my car racing too.” He didn’t

get what he asked for but he did get enough to run in the summer season. That year he won his first Formula Atlantic race. Also, after all the bills had been paid, he had broken even. He was no longer in the red.

The following year, Skiroule pumped even more money into the car racing. He won nine out of 10 races. It was a driver’s dream come true. But his most important win was at the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivières. He beat all the imported Grand Prix drivers. This included James Hunt of England, then-to-be world champion. That one win opened everybody’s eyes to his shining potential. Villeneuve credits his success to his team manager, Ray Wardell.

“Without him I would have never won all those races last year and I would not have had my contract with McLaren. It wasn’t the driving, because I do my own driving. He taught me more, the thinking of it, the way of setting up a car and how to identify and solve a problem.”

Every minute that Villeneuve is away from the car, it is being worked on by his team of mechanics. No other sport demands so much attention to keep the equipment in form. The work for the mechanics is not complicated, it is tedious. If you look at a mechanic, the most visible attributes are his hands. They are dirty but they are never inactive. The gripe of most mechanics is that they never fully recover from one cut or bruise while working before they receive another minor gash. Villeneuve no longer considers himself a mechanic. “When I first started racing, I used to do all my own work on the car. I liked it but I couldn’t afford anything else. Now, I don’t want to touch the car. Sure, maybe to help the guys align it. Things like changing an engine—I hate it. No way can you drive well and be your own mechanic. You’re too tired.”

When Villeneuve is racing, every time he brings his car back into the pits for consultation to see if things are improving, the Goodyear tire man takes temperature readings with a special device. He samples on the inner and outer edges of each of the four tires. Then he writes all the numbers

on a little diagram and gives it to Villeneuve. What this tells him is the way the car is handling. Too much oversteer or understeer will cause the tires to have improper heat distributions across the surface of the tires. If one tire is too hot on one side, the mechanics will change the suspension settings to try to balance things out. The tires work well only within a certain temperature band. When you put your hand on them, they feel like a hot, gummy, city sidewalk. Each set of tires costs about $350. Villeneuve will use three different sets before he finds that last second which will give him the pole position for the race.

When Villeneuve wakes up on the morning of a race, he lets his mind wander and dream about the race. To see where he can make mistakes and where he can improve.

What does a driver experience when he races? Picture yourself shrunken, strapped to a hockey puck on a slapshot path arcing toward the corner of the net. Insects are sucked into the vacuum of the cockpit to kamikaze themselves against your face shield. Colored shapes dance in your (the driver’s) mirrors—a challenger intimidating you with his vehicle. The goalpost looms frighteningly close, in reality the corner of a bridge abutment. Toward the periphery of your vision the ribbon of a guardrail catches the sun like a million fish scales spinning lengthwise away and behind you. Decelerating abruptly, the energy of the puck transfers to the string meshing and you feel the shoulder straps

that secure you to the car tighten—slowing down from 100 miles an hour to near zero in a matter of yards because the brakes are that efficient. You have been so fatigued toward the completion of a race that sometimes you are not able to raise your helmeted head after you have braked; you have to wait until the next acceleration picks it up and back before you can see.

You are feeling some very powerful sensations and the experiences you are dealing with are forces similar to those subjected to a hockey puck, the velocities changing constantly from player to player, short scrappy transfers and long, fast

graceful passes and sometimes they actually fly. A crash—what is it like to crash at speed? During a shunt (racing slang for a crash) things appear to slow down. You watch the object that you are about to hit with a certainty that it is happening so abruptly that the wait before impact is unbearable. Already the mind is questioning what went wrong—error or mechanical failure? Legs and arms and the complete torso are tensed to complete contraction— and usually one phrase is shouted at the moment of impact—“Ah, shif'\

In a lot of ways, this is just the beginning for Villeneuve. At the end of September he

went on to win the Labatt’s Series for the second year in a row after that disappointment at Trois-Rivières. But now that he is replacing World Champion Niki Lauda, who left the Ferrari team in anger, Villeneuve is going to have to deal with all the politics and pressure that Ferrari is notorious for. Villeneuve says: “I’m a calm person, I guess, and it takes an awful lot to make me jump in the air. I don’t get excited easy.” Fie was talking about his racing nerve, but he will need it all to get through the political circuit of Grand Prix racing. And while he is fast enough, Villeneuve will also have to cope with the ruthless driving that produces pileups like the one at the Canadian Grand Prix. Says Bill Brack, who is one of Canada’s top drivers, “Villeneuve is a clean driver. I mean he won’t drive you off the track. Besides it’s almost impossible to catch him.” Villeneuve summed up his own lineup position in this particular race for success: “This is a dream come true for me. Now I have to prove that I can do it.”