Joe-Pinions: Sports

30 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 7)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 30/12/2011

We continue now with my countdown to P1 amongst my personal top 10 F1 drivers.

In case you missed them, please read my posts on #10 Nigel Mansell, #9 Jean Alesi, and #8 Gilles Villeneuve.

And now, lucky number 7.

7.  Nelson Piquet

Perhaps unbelievably, Nelson Piquet is somewhat underrated.  Hardly anybody thinks of Nelson the elder when people compile their personal lists of top F1 drivers.

Nelson Piquet's helmet livery: One of my all-time favorites.

I certainly can’t be guilty of that.  After all, here he is, taking the seventh spot on my own personal version of an F1 top ten list.

Chances are, though, if you ask F1 fans to name the drivers who won more than two Drivers’ World Championships, if there’s a name that’s going to get left out, it will be Piquet’s.  (For the record, here is the list of drivers who won the World Championship more than twice:  Michael Schumacher; Juan Manuel Fangio; Alain Prost; Ayrton Senna; Nelson Piquet; Niki Lauda; Jackie Stewart; Jack Brabham.)  Why that is is a mystery to me.

Nelson Piquet was the second great Brazilian F1 world champion.  He followed in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi, who lifted the champion’s cup twice (1972, 1974) for both Lotus and McLaren.  Because of his victories in the Indianapolis 500, Emmo probably enjoys more fame and notoriety than Piquet today.

Piquet may also be a bit of a forgotten man despite his three world championships because he preceded the most recent Brazilian F1 world champion, the late Ayrton Senna.  Senna, unsurprisingly, is probably the only Brazilian F1 world champion that more casual F1 fans (meaning, fans who never cared to study the sport’s history to any depth) would be able to name today.

All this is a bit unfair, in truth, since Nelson was one of Grand Prix racing’s great drivers.

He entered F1 in 1978 with one race start (the German GP) with the tiny Ensign team, then had three starts in a non-works McLaren.  He saw out 1978 with a drive for Bernie Ecclestone‘s Brabham team.  He spent 1979 serving as Niki Lauda’s apprentice, earning his first points in the Dutch Grand Prix (for fourth place), before being thrust into the role of team leader after Lauda’s surprise retirement in the penultimate round of the 1979 season (the Grand Prix of Canada).

As the 1980s began so did Nelson Piquet’s winning habits in Formula 1.  His first GP victory was that year’s United States Grand Prix West in Long Beach, ironically on a street circuit, the type of track that he openly detested.  He would win twice more that year, at Zandvoort and at Monza, and would finish second to Alan Jones in the Drivers’ World Championship.

1981 saw Piquet win three more Grands Prix (in Argentina, San Marino, and Germany).  Entering the final race of the year, in Las Vegas, Piquet was one point behind points chase leader Carlos Reutemann (49pts) and five in front of Jacques Lafitte (43pts).  Reutemann claimed a dominant pole position, with his Williams teammate Alan Jones the only likely threat based on the times set in practice and qualifying.  Nelson, meanwhile, was suffering horrific neck and shoulder pains, the legacy of the Las Vegas temporary circuit’s counter-clockwise configuration (uncommon in Grand Prix racing even today) and relatively high average speeds for a temporary circuit.

In the race, Reutemann faded after a bad start, failing to score any points.  But as he had a razor-thin one point advantage over Piquet (Lafitte was never a factor in the season’s final grand prix), the Brazilian still had to score at least one point to win the World Championship.  Piquet duly earned two on a day when his physical capabilities were stretched to their absolute limits.  His 1981 season’s total of 50 ensured he lifted the world champion’s cup at season’s end.

The following year, Piquet only won once (in Canada).  However, that 1982 Canadian GP victory was special, since it was the first-ever win for BMW in F1.  It was also a harbinger of greater things to come.

1983 saw Piquet win his second world championship.  His Brabham-BMW arguably fell a little short of Alain Prost’s Renault for most of the year, but when the chips were down towards the end of the year Piquet and his team came on increasingly stronger.  The final race, in South Africa at the mighty Kyalami circuit, saw Nelson finish third (to teammate Riccardo Patrese, the winner, and second-placed Andrea de Cesaris), thereby earning enough points to pip Prost.  Piquet not only won his second world crown, he also became the first driver in history to win the championship with a turbocharged car.

Piquet in the beautiful Brabham-BMW BT53

The following season, Piquet demonstrated that he still had the hunger and the ability to contend for the world title despite being a two-time world champion.  He took pole position nine times; unfortunately for him, the McLaren-TAG/Porsche tag team of Lauda and Prost had faster and more reliable machinery during the races.  Piquet won twice, in Canada and in Detroit, but failed to finish nine races out of sixteen.  His twenty nine points for 1984 was good for only fifth in the world championship tally.

1985 saw him win just one race, the French Grand Prix.  This would prove to be the end of two eras, as Piquet, fed up with Brabham’s declining status as a top-flight Formula 1 team, chose to join the Williams Grand Prix team starting 1986.  Piquet’s win in France was also the last win for BMW during the turbo era.  The famous German marque would not win in F1 again until 2001, two years into the manufacturer’s return to auto racing’s glitziest and most demanding stage.

Nelson Piquet should have won his third drivers’ world championship in 1986.  He won four races (in Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Italy); he drove what was considered definitively the season’s best car, the Williams-Honda FW11.  Unfortunately, he was also teamed with Nigel Mansell.  Mansell won five races.  Despite the dominance of the Williams-Honda combination, Alain Prost managed to outfox both and take that season’s world championship.  However, despite the failure to wrest the drivers’ crown from a growing McLaren stranglehold (McLaren drivers had won the previous two drivers’ world championships; Prost’s ’86 title victory made it three in a row), Piquet was credited with lifting the Williams team’s collective spirits as team principal Frank Williams suffered a road crash that resulted in near-complete paralysis.  Piquet’s enthusiasm, combative rivalry with Mansell (which, in 1986, energized the team), and built-in cachet as a two-time F1 world champion helped keep the Williams team together at a time when despondency might have ripped a lesser outfit apart.

On the surface, 1987 was arguably a more successful year for Piquet.  The Williams-Honda combination was again the best in F1, and Piquet won three more grands prix.  However, Mansell, determined to prove that he was Piquet’s equal (or superior) in terms of capability if not in contractual status, won six races.  In the fifteenth round of the championship, at Suzuka, Japan, Mansell made a mistake during qualifying and was forced to withdraw.  By virtue of finishing races and scoring points (when Mansell did not), Piquet thus won his third drivers’ world championship.  After Mansell crashed in Japan, Piquet rather unkindly said, “This is a victory of luck over stupidity.”  Mansell outperformed Piquet, but his penchant for not finishing races doomed the Englishman’s 1987 title challenge.  Piquet might have taken the title, but his unkind words and attitude towards his defeated rival dulled the shine from his championship.

Sadly for Piquet, 1987 would prove to be his final season of championship glory.  An ill-fated move to Lotus-Honda in 1988, the season of near-absolute McLaren dominance, meant that Piquet went without a grand prix victory for the first time since 1979.  1989 would prove to be even more disastrous, as Lotus, now bereft of Honda’s mighty powerplant, was firmly on the decline.  Piquet even suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix.  Piquet’s fall from grace was as dramatic as any could remember.  His two years with Lotus did much to submerge all thoughts and memories of Piquet as a great Grand Prix champion.

A move to Benetton to close out the final two years of his career saw him return to the grand prix winners’ rostrum three times.  He closed out 1990 with a pair of victories in the season’s two final races (in Japan and Australia), and in 1991 he was the beneficiary of old rival Nigel Mansell’s misfortune again when he took an improbable win in Montreal.  Again, Piquet’s luck won out over Mansell’s lack of it.

Alas, Piquet’s own luck would turn sour soon thereafter.  He found no takers for his services in Formula 1 for 1992, so he went across the pond to race in the Indianapolis 500.  During a practice run, Piquet’s Lola-Buick snapped out of control and hit the wall exiting Turn 4.  He suffered broken legs and feet and a concussion, but miraculously survived the crash.

I saw Piquet’s crash on TV, and at the time I was horrified at what I saw.  After seeing some of the stills from the crash, I’m still amazed that Piquet wasn’t damaged even more severely, even killed.

Piquet today is not considered to be one of the greats in Grand Prix racing in most people’s eyes, but I believe that is undervaluing the man’s achievements.  He was one of four great champions during what was arguably Formula 1’s most competitive era ever; of the four (Prost, Senna, Piquet, and Mansell), I consider Piquet to be the third-best.  After revisiting the man’s achievements, it’s still a mystery to me why he is undervalued in the decades after the end of his long career.  Perhaps perceptions are colored by the way by which his career ended; I’m sure even he would not challenge the notion that his last three race victories owed more to luck than to the sharpness of his talents and skills behind the wheel.  Nevertheless, this should not dull the fact that he won three world championships, all during F1’s most competitive decade ever.  As I said in the opening, he is one of only eight drivers to have managed this feat to date.

In my opinion, for Piquet to not be remembered as a true Grand Prix great is a triumph of stupidity over logic.

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29 Dec 2011 – Why I’m Boycotting the NBA

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 29/12/2011

I’ve been telling buddies and family members that I’ll be boycotting the NBA starting this 2011-2012 season.  That means I will not watch any of the broadcasts.  I may read reports and columns about the Los Angeles Lakers – I simply cannot do without the thoughts and opinions of people such as Adrian Wojnerowski of Yahoo! Sports (@WojYahooNBA on Twitter), Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register (@KevinDing), and Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports (@WhitlockJason) – since I don’t want to be ignorant of NBA- and Lakers-related issues, but as far as actually watching any of the games?

No way.

I don’t want to even be perceived as supporting, condoning, or accepting David Stern’s continuing reign of terror and destruction as the NBA’s malevolent dictator-for-life Commissioner any longer .

I don’t want to keep on contributing to the continuation of the status quo, where spoiled, bratty superstars are hailed as the greatest basketball players ever, when most of them can’t even dribble properly as the rules say they should and too few know how to sink their free throws even when it’s not yet crunch time.

I just feel that the NBA is no longer about basketball.

Well, truth be told it has been a long time since I thought and felt that way about the NBA.  Opinions on when the NBA transformed from a professional sporting league to a straight-up, cutthroat business enterprise will probably vary, but I think it started sometime during the 1980s.

Of course, NBA historians know that David Stern took over as league commissioner in 1980.

The 1980s, of course, was the decade of the resurgence of both the Los Angeles Lakers and their hated rivals, the Boston Celtics.  The renaissance of these two marquee NBA franchises was spurred by the arrival of both Earvin “Magic” Johnson (with the Lakers) and Larry Bird (with the Celtics).

Both are now considered to be two of the greatest NBA players ever.

(As an aside, I consider Larry Bird to be the greatest NBA player ever, just ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)

Not coincidentally, with the arrival of both Magic and Bird came Stern’s opportunity to really put his stamp on the NBA.  Magic and Bird were the first beneficiaries of Stern’s policy to promote the stars of the league.

Whenever their teams met, whether it was during the regular season or during the Finals (where the Lakers and the Celtics met thrice in the decade, in 1984, 1985, and 1987), the games were almost inevitably billed as “Magic vs. Bird.”

The phenomenon wasn’t just all about Magic and Bird, though.  The 1980s saw the rise of several other superstars.  In Philadelphia you had Dr. J and Charles Barkley; Houston had its Twin Towers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson; the Utah Jazz ensemble was led by “the Mailman” Karl Malone and John Stockton; the Detroit Pistons were headlined by Isiah Thomas and his Bad Boys crew; and so on and so forth.

Stern’s policy of promoting his superstars undoubtedly worked (spectacularly so, in fact), and the league became more prosperous and popular than it had ever been.

But for every success there is a price to be paid.  In the case of Stern’s edict of “promote the superstars,” the price was steep.  Stern’s policy led to the gradual corruption of the game of basketball as played in the league and, perhaps inevitably, the dilution of the concept that basketball is a team game.

What do I mean when I say that the game of basketball became corrupted?

People who love the game, who have actually played or officiated or coached the game on a competitive basis (especially for a long time), or studied its nuances the way a hardcore player or coach would, would probably understand my point better than people who just play pick-up games or are casual fans at best.  Fundamental skills of basketball players at all levels have deteriorated.  The rules specify that there are correct ways to dribble the ball, to move your feet when you have the ball, to set screens, to do lots of things.  Watch basketball today in the USA, at any level, and if you know the rules of the game you’d just feel sick when you see people palming or carry the ball when they dribble.  You’ll see people take one or two extra steps when they take off on a dunk attempt on a fastbreak.  You’ll see people moving as they set screens.  You’ll see so many rules violations that aren’t called when they absolutely should.

You want more examples of the erosion of fundamental skills?  Let me ask you a question, then:  Who knows how to shoot the basketball properly these days?  Who can you rely on to shoot free throws?  These days, accurate shooters have become such valuable specialists because too few players actually learn this most fundamental of skills.

Instead, almost everyone who’s tall enough or athletic enough who plays basketball wants to develop their hops so they can do the highlight 360° one-handed slam dunk instead.

Dunking the basketball takes so much less skill than shooting it properly at any range does.

But in David Stern’s corrupt basketball universe, the slam dunk is glorified like nothing else because it is spectacular.  The slam dunk made a star out of Kenny “Sky” Walker and Dee Brown, who were marginal as professional-caliber basketball players but superb athletes.  The slam dunk made Shaquille O’Neal a more relevant center than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; you can substitute Dwight Howard for Shaq and Andrew Bynum for Kareem for the modern equivalent.

What am I saying here?

David Stern’s rule as Commissioner of the NBA has wrecked basketball.

*****

The NBA’s 2011-2012 season should have been aborted instead of being born.  Instead of a healthy child, what NBA fans will get instead is an ugly, misshapen thing with missing parts and more problems than ever.

The labor unrest in the NBA dominated the months since last season’s end.  The league’s team owners, the players’ union, and the players’ agents all had their agendas to push during the lockout.

The owners as a group wanted more money, and they wanted to install changes in the system such as an NFL-style “hard” salary cap, franchise tag, and non-guaranteed contracts in order to promote more parity within the league.

The players, of course, balked at everything that would take money away from their pockets.  Neither would they ever agree to the loss of their fully-guaranteed contracts.

And what of the agents?  You’ve got to figure they were firmly against any changes that would reduce their cut of the players’ salaries.  Many of these agents were accused of misinforming their clientele, a lot of whom are really too stupid to know for themselves what the lockout was about and all the issues being fought over.

For too many, the NBA lockout was all about making a greedy grab for larger slices of the money pie.

Consequently, none of the systems changes that were calculated to eventually result in an NBA with more parity, more competitive balance were approved.  The lockout was reduced to squabbling over who got more “Basketball-related income.”  The end result?  Things are essentially unchanged in the NBA.

*****

Don’t believe the horse “S” that the NBA lockout was all about helping the smaller market teams get themselves in a more competitive position.  That’s baloney.  If so, the owners in the smaller markets would have killed to earn real victories in getting the hard salary cap pushed through.

Instead, you have Dan Gilbert, LeBron James’ jilted lover, belly-aching about how the nixed Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers-trade would have reduced the Lakers’ salary tax figure and therefore shrunk his own bottom line (from smaller luxury tax penalties levied against big-spending teams like the Lakers).

There’s a reason why teams like Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers are perpetually terrible, and teams like the Lakers are almost always fighting for championships:  The Lakers are simply run better.

Sure, having deep pockets helps a lot, but the Lakers, like the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball, believe that anything short of a championship victory at the end of the year is a failure.  Accordingly, they try to do everything they can within reason and within the rules to put themselves in a position to do just that.

As a fan of the team, that’s all I want.

But for fools like Dan Gilbert, well…  how about having people who know about basketball run your team so that it can build itself up to be more competitive?  I understand it’s a business, but success in business requires know-how and a strong work ethic.  Waiting for a hand-out just to keep your books balanced is a fool’s ploy, and to me, that’s the common denominator for the majority of the owners in the NBA.

*****

What would I have preferred to have seen result from the lockout?

If all that angst was truly about making the NBA a better league for the small markets, then these are what I would have wanted to see come out of it at the end:

  • A hard salary cap, just like what the NFL has.  A hard salary cap is the true equalizer in a sports league.  A fixed cap ensures that no team has the advantage of being able to out-spend its competitors.  This is why you see teams transform seemingly from irrelevance one year to competitive status the next.  A hard salary cap also puts the onus on the teams to invest in effective scouting, which leads to more effective drafts; moreover, you also have to be very good at assessing talent as far as signing and re-signing free agents.  The teams with the best management capabilities will naturally rise to the top; a hard salary cap prevents teams that simply have the capability of outspending its competition from being able to buy its way into competitiveness.  A hard salary cap, of course, is not designed to cap owners’ and players’ potential earnings, especially if you take the point of view that a hard salary cap means players now must compete amongst each other to get as high a salary as they can command in the free agent market.
  • An increased age limit for rookies.  One of the NBA’s biggest problems is that the new blood coming into the league is corrupt and immature to begin with.  Most players entering the NBA have absolutely no concept of what it is to be an adult; most players, no matter what age, seem to be entitled, arrogant young athletes who lack the maturity to handle everything that the NBA throws at them.  Too many players start their NBA careers with nary a year past high school.  For bigs (centers, some power forwards), some of them haven’t even finished their physical development yet at that age.  Subjecting their body to the incredible stresses of an NBA career can do untold damage.  In my considered opinion, everyone wins with increasing the rookie age limit, generally speaking.  Rookies with at least three years of college will be more mature in respects – physically, psychologically, and in terms of basketball seasoning – than rookies just one year out of high school.  Moreover, the NCAA should also naturally improve by having more upperclassmen playing basketball.  Just look at football, where teams with the most upperclassmen tend to play the best, especially during tournament time.
  • Having only partially-guaranteed contracts.  Partially-guaranteed contracts are not evil, no matter what the agents and the players might believe.  In the real world, this is how most salary contract structures are.  The only guaranteed portion of most salaries in the real world that I inhabit and am familiar with is the signing bonus.  You work for everything else.  Pro athletes, though, are sick with the disease that makes them believe they deserve everything they get (everything good, that is).  But partially-guaranteed contracts work as a positive force in at least two ways:  The players are required to live up to their end of the bargain by playing as well and as hard as they can (if they don’t, the teams have the option of terminating or buying out the contract at a value far smaller than the cost of the full contract), and teams have the power to get out from under onerous contracts if the player isn’t performing as well as they believed.  This is an entirely fair arrangement, and a mutually-beneficial one in my opinion.

These are just a few ideas to improve the NBA, given the stated (yet totally ignored) issues presented during the lockout.

Alas, none of these have come to pass.

It’s just more of the same NBA bullshit as before, as far as I can see.

If anything, the lockout only made things worse than ever before.

*****

I love basketball.  It is the game I played the most when I was growing up.  Ask my family.  I wasn’t even very good, but I love the game so much in my youth that in the summers I woke up at 4:30AM just to round up my teammates for 6:00AM practices.  I love the game so much that I studied it quite a bit, reading coaches’ manuals and talking with everybody I know whose basketball knowledge I respect.  I love the game so much that I volunteered my time in my senior year in high school to help my school’s girls’ basketball team — I served as a coach’s assistant, working with the big girls and helping out on drills.

I love the Lakers.  From the time I learned the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when I was five or six years old, I’ve been a diehard fan of the team.  I’ve never rooted for any other NBA team.  Sure, from time to time I’ve followed the careers of a few ex-Lakers once they left the team (Vlade Divac, Kurt Rambis, and A.C. Green are amongst these very chosen few), but for me it’s always been about the purple-and-gold uniform.  I still remember the utter devastating shock I felt when I heard Magic Johnson had contracted HIV, and I wept in grief when Chick Hearn died.  Off all the sports teams I’ve followed in my lifetime, no matter what the sport, the Lakers have been in my sports fan’s heart the longest.  The Lakers are my first love.

I used to love the NBA.  In my formative years as a basketball fan, I admired the spectacular athleticism of players like Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, tiny Spud Webb, and “Dr. J” Julius Erving.  I admired Magic Johnson’s showmanship, Larry Bird’s unerring shooting touch, Kevin McHale’s footwork in the low post, Kareem’s awesome Skyhook.  I even grew to love Shaquille O’Neal’s rim-rocking thunderous slam dunks, even as I cringed every time he tried to shoot free throws.

The NBA’s biggest problem, the reason why I’ve fallen out of love with it, is the NBA’s penchant for creating superstars at the expense of everything else.  Teams (and the concept of teamwork) seem to have been de-emphasized, sacrificed at the altar of individual superstardom.  The idea of growing and nurturing the collective good has been destroyed, all for the glory of just the one man.

The NBA, sadly, has become all about the wrong individual.

David Stern must go.  At this point, I don’t even care how he goes.

And as far as I’m concerned, he can’t leave soon enough.

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14 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 8)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 14/12/2011

Welcome to the next in our continuing series of my personal top F1 drivers, a list of grand prix pilotes who captured my imagination best and for whom I have the strongest feelings.

To recap, spots #10 and #9 went to Nigel Mansell and Jean Alesi, respectively.

We pick up our countdown with an absolute legend.

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

Few drivers in modern Formula 1 are as beloved, as revered, as the late Gilles Villeneuve.

Gilles' orange-red and midnight blue helmet livery.

My favorite F1 journalist, the great Nigel Roebuck, once wrote that to praise another driver was almost anathema for grand prix pilotes.  But Niki Lauda, himself a three-time World Champion, once said of Villeneuve:  “Gilles was the perfect racing driver, with the best talent of all of us.”

It takes an extraordinary driver for someone of Lauda’s stature and undeniable place in the pantheon of F1 greats – I hate myself for leaving him out of my own personal Top 10 list – to be granted such a lofty accolade.

But Gilles was far more than just an extraordinary driver.

Gilles was…  Gilles.

So much has already been written and said of Gilles that adding anything original to the discussion is difficult.

I saw precious little of Gilles.  I was a wee youngster when he was at full flower.  But as someone who loves Formula 1, I have obviously read much about what I missed; thankfully, there are also enough of his performances captured on film that you can see for yourself just how inadequate the written word can be in trying to capture the essence of Gilles the racing driver.

His car control was on the level of the seemingly divine.  Grand Prix cars, even the fairly primitive ones Gilles drove in the late 1970s-early 1980s, have always been designed to take corners at speeds that would terrify most people just watching.  But when you watched Gilles do his thing, fully sideways with the outside rear tire riding the curb at corner exit, you had to wonder just how much raw talent, how much sheer feel Gilles must have had to keep his Ferrari just under control.All drivers who make it to Formula 1 know how to dial in opposite lock, to steer the car using the throttle, to drive sideways.  But only those with the purest driving talent could do so time after time, corner after corner, lap after lap, without ever stuffing the car into the barriers.

Gilles sliding his Ferrari 126C2 in Long Beach.

In the almost thirty years I’ve been watching Formula 1, I can think of just maybe three or four drivers whose raw talent and ability took my breath away.  Gilles is on that list.

Gilles always said that he drove the way he did not necessarily to please the fans.  For sure the people watching on TV or, better yet, seated at a grandstand at any Grand Prix circuit, loved Gilles’ spectacular driving style.  Gilles argued that if his driving style was so attractive to watch, it was because he had to drive his car that way in order to be fast enough.

How did his Ferrari race engineer, Mauro Forghieri, put it?  Ah, yes, Forghieri said Gilles “had a rage to win.”  It didn’t really matter if he was fighting for 1st place or 10th place; if he and you were fighting for position, Gilles was determined to beat you.  You could see it in his classic battle for second place (it wasn’t even for outright victory in the race!) against René Arnoux at Dijon-Prenois in 1979.  The two banged wheels, went off the circuit a couple of times, yet neither man gave up.  At the end, which saw Villeneuve beat Arnoux to the finish line, both men embraced.

Here is their great contest: 

Indeed, Gilles had that almost maniacal devotion to the gods of victory.  But what marked Gilles as a superior man was his sense of honor, both on and off the track.  Roebuck wrote on more than one occasion that Gilles was one of only maybe two or three drivers who he had never caught in a lie.  Considering Roebuck has crossed paths and spoken to literally hundreds – maybe thousands, even – of racing drivers during his decades covering motorsports, that’s quite a strong statement.  And on the track, well, Keke Rosberg had this to say about Gilles the racer:  To Gilles, racing truly was a sport, which is why he would never chop you.  Something like that he’d look on with contempt.  You didn’t have to be a good driver to do that, let alone a great one.  Anybody could do that.  Gilles was the hardest bastard I ever raced against, but completely fair.  If you’d beaten him to a corner, he accepted it and gave you room.  Then he’d be right back at you at the next one!  Sure, he took unbelievable risks – but only with himself – and that’s why I get pissed off now when people compare Senna with him.  Gilles was a giant of a driver, yes, but he was also a great man.

Rosberg’s appraisal of Gilles goes some way towards explaining why Gilles was crushed, absolutely devastated, after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, when his Ferrari teammate, Didier Pironi, stole the victory from him on the penultimate lap of the race.  Gilles was following long-established Ferrari tradition which dictated that, should the Scuderia find its cars running 1-2, the drivers would hold station and not attack one another.  Entering the second-to-last lap, Villeneuve, already marginal on fuel, was in front of Pironi.  Didier pounced on the run down to the Tosa hairpin and took the lead.  Villeneuve gave chase, but Pironi rebuffed him and held on to win.  Gilles was distraught and furious beyond description, both with Pironi’s duplicity and with the team’s lack of support in the aftermath of the race at Imola.  Gilles swore to friends such as Alain Prost (and to Roebuck himself) that he would never again speak with Pironi.  He had even strongly considered leaving Ferrari, the team with which he made his name in Formula 1.

Tragically, Gilles suffered fatal injuries during qualifying at the next race, the Grand Prix of Belgium held not at the beautiful Spa-Francorchamps, but at boring Zolder.  Gilles set out on his final qualification run in an effort to beat Pironi’s best time and misjudged an overtaking maneuver on Jochen Mass.  Gilles’ Ferrari clipped Mass’ March, sending the scarlet car into the air before it crashed back down to earth like an out-of-control aircraft.  The violence of the crash destroyed the Ferrari and sent Villeneuve flying into the catch fence.  He died shortly after.

I was all of seven years old when Gilles was killed, but I do remember hearing the news of his death.  I can’t say I was already a huge fan of F1 at that age, but I did watch coverage of the races and the highlights packages back then.  As I grew older, my love and fascination for the sport only grew, and as it did I devoured as much of the sport’s history and legends as I could get my hands on.

Gilles Villeneuve the racing driver died before I truly became a fan of Formula 1.  But Villeneuve the legend, and, more importantly, Gilles the great knight of honor and virtue, will live forever with me.

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