Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 12: Gilles Villeneuve

This year, BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to give their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week, number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve.

Gilles Villeneuve won only six grands prix in a career that spanned a little over four years, yet 30 years after his death his name still shines out like a beacon as a symbol of the heroic qualities that to many make up the very essence of a grand prix driver.

Villeneuve's is a name to rank alongside - and in some eyes even above - the very best, the likes of Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio.

The cliche is that he was blindingly talented - arguably the fastest racing driver the world has ever seen - but also madly irresponsible.

That view is based on races such as the 1979 Dutch Grand Prix when, following a puncture, the diminutive Canadian wrestled a three-wheeled car back to the pits at an unimaginable speed, ending any hopes of rejoining a race he had been leading.

Classic F1 - Dutch Grand Prix 1979 (UK users only)

It is an assessment summed up by BBC F1 analyst Eddie Jordan, who says: "He was a hooligan who would never have won a championship. He drove like an idiot."

But it belies the truth of a man with a talent of beguiling richness and who would surely have gone on to win multiple titles had he lived longer.

Undoubtedly there were times when Villeneuve pushed too hard.

But this stemmed from a career in which only rarely did he have a car even remotely comparable with the best; from what legendary Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri called "a rage to win"; and from an ability that allowed him to get those cars into places they had no right to be.

Perhaps no other driver has transcended the capabilities of his car on quite such a regular basis as Villeneuve. So it is worth running through a few highlights of his extraordinary feats, starting with his grand prix debut, the only race in which he did not drive for Ferrari.

At Silverstone in 1977, in an outdated McLaren, he out-qualified team-mate Jochen Mass, who had a newer and faster car. After an early pit stop left him two laps behind, Villeneuve then ran the entire race in the company of the leaders - including the eventual winner James Hunt, also in the newer McLaren.

At Monza in 1978, he disputed the on-track lead throughout the race with the much faster Lotus 79 of world champion Mario Andretti.

In South Africa in 1979, he made up 30 seconds on team-mate Jody Scheckter in 33 laps to win.

Classic F1 - South African Grand Prix 1979 (UK users only)

In a practice session at the 1979 US Grand Prix East, run in torrential rain, Scheckter felt sure he must be fastest, so hard had he pushed his car. He came back to the Ferrari garage to discover Villeneuve had been faster - by nearly 10 seconds a lap.

The 1980 Monaco Grand Prix was hit by a late shower of rain. Villeneuve, driving his uncompetitive Ferrari on slick, dry-weather tyres, was five seconds a lap faster than anyone else.

The list goes on and on, but perhaps his extravagant gift is summed up best by his final victories, in Monaco and Spain in 1981.

These two races undermine the belief that Villeneuve was a heavy-handed and irresponsible driver. His driving actually had great sensitivity and a delicate touch.

In 1981, Ferrari had a turbo engine that was probably the most powerful in the field, but it was mated to a chassis so rudimentary it was almost agricultural.

Classic F1 - Monaco Grand Prix 1981

Villeneuve called it his "big, red Cadillac" and a less suitable car for the tight streets of Monaco is hard to imagine. Yet Villeneuve somehow qualified it second to Nelson Piquet's Brabham, which is widely accepted in F1 to have been running underweight.

Villeneuve's new team-mate that year was Didier Pironi, who was probably the second-fastest driver in the world at the time. The Frenchman qualified 16th - 2.5 seconds behind Villeneuve.

In the race, Villeneuve could not keep up with the more nimble Brabham, or Alan Jones's Williams, but he pushed hard throughout while looking after his brakes and when the Brazilian crashed and the Australian ran into problems, Villeneuve was close enough to pounce.

Two weeks later in Spain, on the twisty Jarama track, he produced a very different, but equally remarkable, victory - making no errors and using his peerless race-craft and the power of the Ferrari engine while fending off four faster cars for 50 laps.

Classic F1 - Spanish Grand Prix 1981

Brabham designer Gordon Murray, watching from trackside, said it was the best drive he had ever seen.

But it was not just his ability that won Villeneuve admirers - he was also a man of great integrity, who always drove hard but scrupulously fairly. "A giant of a driver," as 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg put it.

That integrity, though, was to play a part in his death. Cheated out of a victory at the 1982 San Marino Grand by Pironi when Villeneuve thought they were cruising to a one-two under team orders, he vowed never to talk to the Frenchman again.

Villeneuve was still bitter two weeks later when he went out for his final qualifying run at the Belgian Grand Prix.

He came across Mass's March car going slowly and a misunderstanding led to a collision. Villeneuve's Ferrari took off and he was thrown out as it cartwheeled down the road. He died later that night from a broken neck.

The tributes came thick and fast. Scheckter called him "the fastest driver the world has ever seen".

Alain Prost said Villeneuve was "the last great driver - the rest of us are a bunch of good professionals".

Jacques Laffite - second to Villeneuve in Jarama 1981 - said: "No human being can do miracles, you know, but Gilles made you wonder."

Those remarks are a measure of the impression left on all those who witnessed his career by a man who drove a grand prix car to limits beyond the capabilities of all his rivals.

In doing so, he thrilled millions around the world and left his fellow drivers under no illusions about the scale of his talents. But he also, in dancing with death once too often, paid the ultimate price.

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

Number 19 – Graham Hill

Number 20 – Jochen Rindt