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Ferrari's lost hero

Formula One
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I was 12 years old when I found out Gilles Villeneuve had been killed - and it broke a schoolboy's heart.

It was the legendary French Canadian who first sparked my interest in Formula One, when as a nine-year-old I came home from a family holiday and turned on the TV to see some madman driving a three-wheeled Ferrari at some unimaginable speed.

That madman turned out to be Villeneuve, the event the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix, and it started a fascination with Villeneuve in particular, and F1 in general, that continues today, even if the rose-tinted spectacles have long since been removed.

Villeneuve was my first - and last - sporting hero, but what a hero to have.

Unquestionably the greatest driver of his era - and undoubtedly one of the finest of all time - Villeneuve made you wonder, to paraphrase Jacques Laffite, his F1 contemporary, whether human beings could perform miracles.

The fastest driver in the world - some would say ever - Villeneuve was hampered throughout his career by cars not worthy of his talent.

But he never gave less than his all, and usually had them in places they had no right to be.

His career was littered with heroic performances the like of which have scarcely been seen before or since.

It's little wonder that a small boy ended up lost in admiration.

My parents were well aware of my hero worship, so it was with a degree of sensitivity that my dad broke the news of Villeneuve's accident as he picked me up from a school trip.

"I've got some bad news," he said. "Villeneuve's crashed."

"Is it bad?"

"It's critical."

"Is that worse than serious or not as bad?"


The rest of the journey passed in near silence. When we got home, my mum had cooked my favourite meal, and as I ate it the news came on the TV, and with it the information I had so wished I wouldn't hear.

Around the world, I was later to discover, thousands more felt the same.

Some might say Villeneuve's death is what secured him his legendary status, but I don't agree. He'd have it regardless.

People remember the bravery, the daring, the sheer unadulterated speed, as well as the honesty and honour that - as contributing factors to his death - make Villeneuve's story all the more tragic.

But there was another side to Villeneuve, a sensitivity and intelligence that is less well known, but which has been explored expertly by my friend and fellow journalist Mark Hughes

I've learnt a lot more about F1 in the intervening 25 years. I continued to follow it. I spent five years attending the races as a reporter. And I continue to work on it now.

I expected that knowledge would tone down my appreciation of Villeneuve, but in fact it has done the opposite.

The more I learn about F1, the more I realise just how special he was.

And even now, 25 years later, remembering the man who I think just might be the greatest talent ever to step into a racing car sends a few shivers down my spine.

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posted May 9, 2007

ShelbyUK - "Villeneuve, Schumacher, Senna were all great drivers but lacking that little extra professionalism and maturity that was evident with the likes of Stewart, Lauda and Prost."

I personally believe that the "selfish" streak that so many great drivers have in both F1 and other motorsport is partly what makes them great.

TO have that iron will, selfishly desiring more than an ordinary man would. That single minded determination that means a driver WILL drive on 3 wheels (Villeneuve) or with the car stuck in 5th gear (Schumacher).

It is that same bloodymindedness that can make a driver appear unprofessional or less chivalrous at times.

I am afraid it is just part of the psyche of great drivers.

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posted May 9, 2007

Gilles was the best DRIVER of an F1 car of any period. Unbelievably talented.
His first go in the M23, at Silverstone, he spun at every corner. It seemed mad, until he explained that you cannot find the limit until you cross it, and he had very little time to find it!

I still have posters from Grand Prix International in the garage. Only Gilles, no one else.

Nuff said?

My only complaint is, he had to choose my birthday to die...

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posted May 9, 2007

Gilles "le Petit Prince" is the definitive F1-driver. There were no better ones, nor shall there be!

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posted May 9, 2007

I would have to say that Gilles is probaly formulas ones greatest ever hero, even more so than Senna, my hero as a child.

I was only 1 years old when he died but like others on here I have been captivated by some of the old footage and some of the old stories. True genius.

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posted May 9, 2007

He was an odd one was Gilles. He had a massive will to win, but he looked purely at himself and not others to do it. If he was behind, and there was an agreement that his team mate would win, that's what he'd do.

Had he lived and gone to McLaren, what an age it would have been. Senna and Villeneuve racing in the wet.

Sigh....... I just wish he hadn't took his anger out in a totally meaningless practice session, and done it in the races instead. Formula One, even at that time, was still dangerous enough without you losing your head.

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comment by delly44 (U8338897)

posted May 12, 2007

I remember being fascinated with snowmobiles and formula one as a youngster. I used to read the reports on all the F1 races in an automobile magazine and could not wait to read all the details of each and every F1 weekend. Imagine my surprise when I was reading my favourite snowmobile magazine about a young racer who drove an old school bus between snowmobile races. The writer asked young Gilles Villeneuve what he wanted to do in the future. I almost flipped when I read I would like to drive in Formula 1. I could not believe what I read. Gilles was winning all the important snowmobile races and yet F1 seemed light years away from the ice and snow of Canada. The day the CBC announced Gilles would drive a Ferrari was for me unforgettable. Gilles typified everything I loved about F1. For me its never been the same since he left. Salute Gilles!

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posted May 14, 2007

As with many of those who have commented, this tremendous piece brought back powerful memories and not a little sadness. I was 16 when he died and at that age I strangely felt he was somehow 'my' hero, not everyone else's. Now I realise his life (and his passing) reached out to affect all true aficionados of both Ferrari and the sport in general - the world over.

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posted May 4, 2010

At the age of 12 my Father took me to belgium to watch the GP, a year previously I had been with Page & Moy to spain to watch the '81 spanish gp & had cried as the dust soiled my Canadian fag with 27 across the centre. at the sight of that scarlet car doing what was not possible, and none have done since.
I sat on the coach that dreadfull morning just leaving the ferry with about 40 other males to hear the words " Villeneuve has had an accident" to this day i hear my Dad say don't worry stevie, he always does, remember silverstone, and woodcote, I looked up to a murky sky never realising that the truth was in it.
As we travelled through belgium the news broke that "it was a BIGGIE" and he was hurt and might not race, I was 12, I was the fan who had met him for 4 seconds a year before and had cried at the experience. and now I heard he was not going to race, my mate Gilles, whom I had dreamt about being his team mate when he went on to win the championship, the one I had so many posters of.

to this day I still churn when speaking of the great racer.....
I never lost faith in the name, in 2001 I backed Jaques to be F1 world champion in 5 years, the odds given were 150-1, I put on a fiver, sadly a year prematurely!

I fell sad that those who have never seen the true skill of the first villeneuve, a racing Marvel, beyond greatness, to me a life long Idol, of Honor, will, passion and guts.
I have a will to visit his grave in Canada, as I have visited both the Zolder circuit and San Marino since, However to me the death of Gilles was the equall to Americam Pie.
The day the Music Died.

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posted May 19, 2010

Gilles was my hero too. He was the only driver I was really interested in. If he retired or didn't finish I wasn't really bothered who went on to win the race.

I was at Zolder qualifying that day watching from near the pits. The circuit commentator suddenly became very excitable and mentioned a big accident to one of the Ferraris and said the driver was lying beside the track. Pironi wasn't on the track at that time so I knew it was Gilles. Slowly all the other cars arrived back at the pits and the drivers got out to be met by members of their team. The reaction of the drivers and their body language told you it was really serious. I remember Jochen Mass coming back and he seemed to be getting most of the attention from his collegues, he seemed genuinely upset and was ushered away into his garage. There was no more news about Gilles and we eventually returned to our coach and hotel. I secretly feared the worst but deliberatly avoided any radios or TV for the rest of the evening. It was when we got back on the coach in the morning that the rep told us he had died. The Grand Prix that day was totally irrelevant for me and I seriously thought I don't want anything more to do with this sport. When we returned to the coach we walked past Gilles's helicopter and that was the saddest moment for me.

It took quite a few months but I eventually re-found my love of the sport but it has never been the same nor will it ever be. RIP Gilles, you brought a smile to your many fans and will always be our hero.

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comment by mole (U14412770)

posted May 19, 2010

I was 13 when the accident happened. The only real hero I ever had. Honestly when Senna came along I wondered what all the fuss was about.

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