I was at Silverstone in 1977 when Gilles Villeneuve had his first race in the McLaren M23 and was impressed with the way he was in the leading bunch with Hunt, Lauda and Andretti - I had never heard of him before that British GP.
The following year I took photos of him at just about every corner at Brands Hatch in the superb 312T3.
He was one of those drivers who got the crowd going, I remember each lap as his car approached people would be nudging each other and pointing and smiling as they couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.
My main memory of him at Brands was the sight and sound of the Ferrari up on the kerbs at the exit of the curves through the woods out at Hawthorns Bend, Westfield and Dingle Dell.
He overtook my Dad and I once on the way to Silverstone for GP practise circa 1981... Metallic blue Ferrari (his not ours - we were in a yellow Maxi!) I would have been about seven years old and looked right from the back seat of the Maxi as this LHD Ferrari screamed past - so he overtook me once and I was about 4 feet from the great man...
Oh, and the Prince of Destruction crashed out on the Sunday after 4 laps!
As a Canadian, just 1 year younger than Gilles, and living within a day's drive of his hometown, I had the rare opportunity to watch him climb the motorsport ladder all the way from snowmobiles to F1. He was a winner in all levels of the sport, and a champion in all but F1.
Many thought he was a reckless daredevil, but nothing is further from the truth. He was simply a driver who knew only one way to drive and that was on the very brink of disaster. His amazing car control allowed him to get away with it, 99.9% of the time. One day during F1 practice, after harmlessly spinning once in nearly every turn on the track, he was asked if something was wrong. "No, but until you have spun you can not know what the limit really is."
The one thing I wish he had never said was "I know that one day I am going to have a very big accident".
It took 15 years of pressure from the motorsport community, but in 1997 Canada Post finally released comemmorative stamps.
To this day, I have not regained the level of interest in 1:1 motorsport that I had prior to May 1982.
Besides fantastic on-the-limit car control, he was also well-known for his brilliant starts and many thought he jumped the lights. When asked, he said " I don't steal. My Ferrari simply has a much better accelerator." None of his colleagues worked out how it did it, and Prost himself is quoted as thinking Gilles had a trick.
When asked by a friend's wife, he explained. "You didn't notice? Nobody notices". At the start of the warm-up lap, most drivers light up the rear tyres and left rubber just after their start position. What Gilles did was to scream up to his start place for the warm-up then brake very hard, leaving rubber up to and on his start position. He would then complete the warmup lap and park just on his freshly-laid rubber marks, giving him a huge traction advantage over the others. What some thought was just wild driving was really very smart.
There was an additional bit to his phenomenal starts - in those days the red lights would go out a fraction of a second before the green lights came on. Everybody else waited for the green - needless to say, Gilles floored it the instant the reds went out! Could have been a bit tricky if they switched to yellow but usually he got away with it.
Many drivers lay claim to be the greatest of all time but I have only one yardstick - those who "stir the blood" - it is a fairly short list and Gilles is top of it by a country mile.
There is an excellent biography available written by Gerald Donaldson but if you don't believe how great he was just watch a video of the 1979 French Grand Prix and the 1981 Monaco GP.
I count myself extremely privileged to have seen him in action and F1 has never been the same for me since his untimely death.
But the action had been going on for several laps earlier, with Arnoux and Villeneuve passing and banging wheels a countless number of times. In today's era, there would have been accusations of dangerous driving..... in those days, Villeneuve and Arnoux hugged each other after the race and became the absolute best of friends.
Going way off topic here, but I was looking through some of my photos and stumbled across this slide I took about 1975. It's awful quality and I've blown up and tried to enhance a section of it to show to show what Scott's racing livery would look like should he take up racing.
Cats like Gilles made the sport for me. I love a driver with a personality. Even if it's a loud mouthed in your face type. At least they come equipped with emotions. I'm not saying Gilles had that kind of a personality. That may be the main ingredient missing today, the reason I have a hard time getting as fired up as I once did. Most drivers have become walking shills.
I love the thrill of watching a driver appear to get in over his head and making it work. If he does this often enough, he becomes a true racing god.
Scott. Thanks for the thread. The pics are better at getting the old ticker beating than anything else out there.
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