Joe-Pinions: Sports

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

  2. […]  8. Gilles Villeneuve […]

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