The Canadian Grand Prix begins today with free practice. Now we can stop speculating over the speed of Schumacher’s Ferrari and whether Alonso can improve on Renault’s poor finishing record at the Montreal circuit – all will be revealed in these three days of practice, qualifying and the race. To me, it seems a good moment to remember the man after whom the Canadian circuit is named: Jacques’ father, Gilles Villeneuve.
It is fitting that the circuit should be named after Gilles for he was reputed to be the fastest driver of his time. But there was so much more to him. He was endlessly competitive and determined yet philosophical when dogged by bad luck. The fans loved him because he was a wild card, always driving at the limit of his machinery and getting in amongst the established stars. And there were times when he would continue even after his car had lost a wheel.
There was a moment in 1979 that epitomizes all that was Gilles. The French Grand Prix that year was held on the Dijon circuit and the Renault team put out a massive effort to win their home race. As it turned out, the one fly in their ointment was the irrepressible Gilles.
From the start, he jumped into the lead and held it for most of the race. He was having to force his Ferrari beyond its limits, however, and the tires began to go off towards the end of the race. Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the lead Renault passed him and stayed in the lead to the end. But then RenÃ© Arnoux in the second Renault caught up and a battle ensued that many think made this race the best ever in F1.
There is a video of the last three laps of the race at this address. I would urge you to have a look because it shows how good F1 can be at its best. The page mistakenly states that Villeneuve and Arnoux were fighting for the lead; in point of fact, their squabble is over second place but both drivers give their utmost. At the finish line they were separated by a mere two-tenths of a second.
Yes, they banged wheels, risking putting themselves out altogether. But, as both said afterwards, they trusted each other not to do anything too foolish. They were racing and enjoying it to the hilt; it almost does not matter who crossed the line first (it was Gilles). And RenÃ© was gracious in defeat – he pronounced himself honored to have been a part of such a high point in F1 history.
This is why we loved Gilles: he raced because he loved the sport and there was no cold calculation or careful balancing of the odds in his character. When he won, it was because he drove faster than anyone else; when he lost, it was because even he could not wring enough speed from a car that was not the fastest. He reminds us of an earlier age when the driver was more important than the technology of his machinery, when politics was unheard of and everyone competed just because they wanted to race. Long may he be remembered.