It was the last weekend of August, the 49th lap of a 200-mile Dutch Grand Prix race in Zanndvoort, the Netherlands. Gilles Villeneuve was careering his bright red Ferrari 312T4, bearing the number 12, at more than 160 miles per hour. He was trailing Alan Jones in
his Saudi Williams car by seconds and his teammate at Ferrari, Jody Scheckter, by six points in the world driving championship.
Villeneuve, the diminutive 27-yearold daredevil from Berthierville, Quebec, was having a tremendous year. It all began in last year’s Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal when he won his first Formula One event. Gilles tasted the champagne again, winning the rainsoaked South African Grand Prix last March, and followed that by winning the next race, the U.S. Grand Prix West in Long Beach, California. A little more than a week later,Villeneuve slipped past Mario Andretti and breezed in with his third consecutive checkered flag, winning the “non-championship” Race of Champions in Brands Hatch, England. A disappointing seventh-
place finish followed in Jarama, Spain, but a flashy second at the Austrian GP in mid-August prompted a media campaign in Italy and his promotion to No. 1 over Scheckter on the Ferrari team.
Villeneuve’s hell-bent flair, in competition and practice, had caught the imagination of the Italian fans and the press. He learned Italian, Scheckter didn’t. He is cool but ruthlessly efficient, Scheckter is moody and belligerent. He is popular with the tempestuous Ferrari team and mechanics, Scheckter is decidedly not. He blazed to a second in Austria, Scheckter allowed Jacques Laffite of France to overtake him on the 54th lap and come third. With the subtle support of the Ferrari team, Villeneuve eclipsed Scheckter in the practice runs, which decide starting positions for the race, as they prepared for the Dutch GP
the last weekend in August. Yet, “There has never been any question that Jody is the No. 1 driver at Ferrari, it’s in the contract,” says Villeneuve. “If any team is equipped to have two equal drivers, it is us. Our cars are precisely the same, it is only that Jody has the backup car. If I am forced to use it I have to wait 20 minutes as the crew puts in my seat.” All things being equal, Villeneuve was driving like the No. 1 man at Zanndvoort. He broke into second place quickly as the race began. Scheckter started poorly and was 13th after one lap. Villeneuve chased after the frontrunner, Jones, and finally passed him on the notorious Tarzan curve. On lap
47, Villeneuve spun, allowing Jones to pass, his Ferrari developing tire problems. Villeneuve had seta lap record in his first pursuit of Jones but now, on lap 49, his left rear tire exploded. Villeneuve nursed his car into the pit only to find that the rear wheel and the car’s suspension were ruined, as were his chances of becoming the 1979 world driving champion.
“I was very disappointed. There was much criticism of me about not coming in earlier, after the first spin, but Jones was gaining on me, and I knew Jody was behind me,”saysVilleneuve.“If Jody got in front, then, because of the team’s policy, he would have taken second or first.
I was down that Sunday and Monday, but then thought that with three races left, I still might have some chance.”
It was not remarkable that at 27, Villeneuve would be hurtling past the landscape at 160 m.p.h., but it was remarkable that he would still be alive and that he would be risking his neck for one of the most renowned names in motor racing—Ferrari. Speed had always been part of the Villeneuve psyche. As a child, he would sit on his father’s knee as the seniorVilleneuve drove along in an old Ford, begging his father to go faster. At age 11, he rambled through fields in his dad’s old pickup truck; at 16 he was repeatedly ticketed for speeding through Berthierville, explaining that the urge to drive fast was stronger than he was. In 1973 he won the Canadian snowmobile racing championship; in ’74 he won seven of 10 Formula races in a car he bought himself. In 1975 he moved up to Formula Atlantic racing and the following year won a record nine of 10 races (he was leading in the 10th but his car broke down) and won the North American Formula Atlantic and the Canadian driving championships.
He caught the attention of the McLaren Formula One team and after his debut at the British Grand Prix in 1977, the London Times hailed him as “racing’s brightest new star.” Ferrari plucked him from McLaren, and, in his first race in the famous Ferrari red at the Japan Grand Prix, he hit the car in front of him and cartwheeled into a group of spectators, killing two people. He left the track so often in his first year that he was nicknamed “Air Canada.” But his storybook win at the Canadian Grand Prix last year and his
three victories this year silenced all the critics and skeptics. Not only was his victory in Montreal the first Grand Prix victory ever by a Canadian, but Villeneuve’s first world driving championship points were the first ever won by a Canadian. And now, in only his second full year of Formula One racing, Villeneuve is a provincial, national and international hero.
The spray of champagne caught in newspaper photos and the glamor of international datelines create an impression far removed from the reality of the Formula One cockpit. It is a harrowing, mindand body-wrenching crucible: “You know, each race I lose about four or five pounds. The racer doesn’t have to be that physically strong, but he must have great stamina. For instance, at the race in Montreal last year, I shifted gears about 2,400 times.”
One of Grand Prix racing’s former greats, Stirling Moss, has recently said that the space-age technology of today’s cars have taken the premium of skill away from the driver. Villeneuve responds: “Today the G-force on the driver is much greater, the demands much finer. Ten years ago, at a speed of
80 m.p.h., a driver would brake about 200 yards from a sharp turn. Today, at the same speed, we brake at about 70 yards. Braking two yards too late could be disastrous. Today, at higher speeds, the driver must control slides around corners to a matter of inches.”
Villeneuve’s year has been a matter of inches and breaks of a different sort. (He comes to Montreal in second place in the world driving points standing.) The differential failed in his first race, tire problems greeted him in Spain (though he set a track record), he ran out of gas in Belgium (after a track record), it was the differential again at Monte Carlo, his rear wing broke in Germany. “Jody finished all but one race that he started this year, and gained points in all but one. His consistency has been amazing.”
Following Villeneuve’s disaster in the Netherlands, Ferrari returned Scheckter to the No. 1 spot. The quest for this year’s world driving championship ended in Italy, fittingly for Ferrari, ruefully for Villeneuve. According to Ferrari instructions,Villeneuve stayed behind Scheckter, and his teammate won the race and the championship. It was reported that Villeneuve repeatedly, tauntingly, pulled up beside Scheckter on the Milan course, but never passed him.Villeneuve denies it. “I was getting out of his slip stream to cool my engine. No, we were equally matched in that race.”
Villeneuve does admit,though,“I was sincerely hoping that he might blow a tire and I would win.” There was also talk that Villeneuve was blocking up the traffic behind Scheckter. “That is something that I would never do, even if I was ordered to.”
The Ferrari team of Scheckter and Villeneuve, and Saudi Williams, Renault, Ligier, Tyrrell, Lotus, will all be there this Sunday for the Canadian Grand Prix on Ile St. Hélène in Montreal, the site of Villeneuve’s first and most treasured victory. He never dreamed of driving Formula One cars (“In Canada 10 years ago, you know, it was hard to really learn anything about the Grand Prix. If you were not born to a family that could give you $2 million for a car, you didn’t have those dreams”) yet, but for the nightmare in Zanndvoort, the screaming blur of two red Ferraris might have been deciding this year’s world driving championship Sunday on his home circuit.
“But, I got into Formula One by getting some breaks, at the right times. This year, yes, I have been very unlucky, but for the race Sunday I will again be going flat-out, trying to win.” It has been a rough road from Berthierville back to Montreal, but for Villeneuve, second in the world in his second year, the road still stretches far ahead.
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