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GP Week : Issue 152
It’s 30 years since we lost Gilles Villenveuve – since we lost a latter-day Nuvolari, who put money and fame about 149th on a list of priorities that began with “racing”, was followed by “racing”, which in turn was followed by by “racing”, “racing” and “racing”... What I really loved about Gilles, though, was his selflessness. He knew he was good – great, even – but he never had to tell anyone about it. On the contrary, he was as enthusiastic about his peers as the average F1 fan. He respected them; and, until they did something underhand to him, he trusted them. I remember chatting to Gilles in Argentina, at the opening round of the 1979 World Championship. Gilles had his first full season of F1 behind him (and his first win) and was thus the key Ferrari incumbent. Joining him from Wolf was Jody Scheckter. Given that – and given how fast a racing driver Gilles Villeneuve was by that stage – you would have thought that Gilles would be thinking Joint Number One status at the least – perhaps even a slight edge as Number One. He held the Fiorano lap record, too. Gilles had lapped in 1min 8.8sec two weeks after winning the 1978 Canadian GP. He was the man of the moment. The next Big Thing. Yet, as we chatted in the lobby of the Buenos Aires Sheraton, hard by the docks and the old trading ships, Gilles told me that he was “very happy” to be Number Two to Jody: “I would have been happy to have done another year as Number Two to Carlos (Reutemann), to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ready yet to be a Number One. All I want is the same car preparation as Jody, even if I don’t get exactly the same equipment. I just want to be near him most of the time.” The two Ferrari drivers ran the old T3s that weekend; the new T4, with which Gilles would win at Kyalami and Long Beach, was still in the testing stage. I remember that the transverse gearboxes arrived in Argentina with incorrect first gear ratios fitted (Jody’s was too long, Gilles’ too short!) and that, in order to maximize the intermediate gearing on Friday, Gilles was told to run a shorter fifth. He agreed with a smile – then promptly switched off the rev limiter when he was flat-out in top! (He switched it back on for the corners, however: Gilles loved to use engine braking wherever possible, the better to tame the rear of the car...). As I sat on the pit wall with him after that session, he couldn’t stop laughing as he told me how fabulous that flat-12 engine had sounded at 13,200rpm! It wasn’t all fun, however. Colin Chapman had introduced ground effect in 1977-78 and the T3 Ferrari – and to some extent the T4! – were still very much of the ground ineffect era. Gilles told me that he’d looked in his mirrors before he turned-in to the gorgeous, fifth- gear right hand Curvon and seen no-one behind him: “So, when I exited the corner I looked in the mirrors again and switched off the limiter. I could still see nothing behind me, so I settled down to driving a lap with no traffic around me. It felt as though it was going to be a quick one. “Then I came up to the Ascari chicane, switched on the limiter – and from absolutely nowhere came Reutemann in the Lotus 79, going about 10mph faster than me. He tucked into my tow, flicked out, and was gone almost before I’d started to brake. It was incredible.” “Yes – I remember that,” said Carlos, when I spoke to him later. “That’s how I used to feel last year when Mario was behind me...” Gilles had no luck in Argentina. The Michelins went off quickly in the race and he retired, in the end, with a diff failure. Nor was it his year. He would win three Grands Prix; so would Jody Scheckter. Alan Jones, devastatingly quick in the new Williams FW07, would take four victories. That year, though, a new points system was introduced: the season would be divided into two halves; the best four races from each half would count towards the championship. It seems incredible now, looking back – but it happened. The Cosworth teams cynically (but correctly!) deemed it the only way Ferrari were ever going to win a championship: put the emphasis on reliability; make it easy for them. They came to Monza, Gilles and Jody, with Scheckter sufficiently ahead on points to be able to clinch the title. By that 25 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: F1 >>> FEATURE