1979 South Africa
1979 Long Beach
1979 United States
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was born in Quebec on 18 January, 1950. He rose up through snowmobile racing and Formula Atlantic. In fact he credits some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills - and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 mph. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions - and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain." In 1976 he dominated the Formula Atlantic championship with an Ecurie Canada team so impoverished that he was forced into the role of spectator at the Mosport race because the team couldn't afford to field an entry. This impressive performance against daunting odds earned him a great deal of notice and a spot with McLaren.
The next race, at Fuji, saw him off again, but this time at the cost of some spectators' lives. He would later remark that: "If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari..."
Gilles' signature race was not a first, but a second. At the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon, Renault and Jean-Pierre Jabouille posted the first win for a modern turbo car. Rene Arnoux, running well, looked to make it a Renault one-two. Villeneuve, however, asserted a definite au contraire in a sliding, wheel-banging, tire-boiling duel with Arnoux that no witness to it is likely to forget. Villeneuve's insane insistence that his slower Ferrari could beat Arnoux's faster Renault was rewarded, and he finished just ahead of the Frenchman. It is probably safe to say that this was the most exciting race for second place in the history of motor racing.
Like certain other great drivers, including Clark and Senna, Villeneuve was a curious mixture of seemingly disparate personality types. Lauda wrote of him, "He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1...The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being". Flying, snowmobiling or driving, he was a risk-taker of classic proportions. Yet his fellow drivers said that on the track he was scrupulously fair and did not put anyone's safety other than his own in jeopardy. This combination of traits made him exceptionally popular not only with fans but with teammates and opponents as well. He still remains even today a fan favorite in Canada, Italy and in the rest of the F1 world.
Gilles' bon ami did disappear on one notable occasion, which may have contributed to his tragic and untimely end. On the final lap at Imola in 1982 Pironi snuck past his unsuspecting teammate, who had slowed feeling that the race was in hand, to snatch the win. Villeneuve was uncharacteristically furious. Still feeling the sting and out to prove something two weeks later at Zolder, during Saturday qualifying, he came up behind a much slower March of Jochen Mass who may have been on one of his slow down laps and though Mass pulled over Villeneuve could not avoid his car. The resulting collision sent the Ferrari off into a cart-wheeling disintegration. Villeneuve was resuscitated at the scene, but his injuries were mortal. He died in a local hospital that evening.
If his death was not greeted with great shock and surprise (everyone knew his style), that was more than offset by the profound sadness it produced. Even Arnoux, his adversary in the Dijon epic, confessed that he cried the day Gilles died and the day after.
In June, 1997 Canada issued a stamp in honor of its favorite racing son. Villeneuve fils may now have more wins than Villeneuve pere, but he has a ways to go to match his father's legend.
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