Four stories of Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles wears Ferrari colours for the first time - courtesy Richard Kelley
Gilles wears Ferrari colours for the first time – courtesy Richard Kelley

When man becomes myth, oft-times the human element is lost. The stories are told and retold, the feats and the failings, and a figure becomes fixed in the imagination like a colossus. We read, and watch, and we think we know – but often we don’t have the whole picture.
Gilles Villeneuve, born today sixty-five years ago, is still considered one of the finest drivers to have grasped a wheel, and is a national hero both for Canadians and for Ferrari-crazed tifosi. He soared and fell to earth like Icarus, a tragic hero, another victim of the carnage that consumed so many great drivers at the very peak of racing. We watched his epic battle for second place with Arnoux, perhaps the most feverish duel to ever occur in F1, we heard Niki Lauda call him the “craziest devil I ever came across,” and we mourned his passing.
As I’ve roved around this strange business of writing about cars, I’ve had the good fortune to meet those who knew Gilles and hear their stories. Today, on what would have been his birthday, I’m passing them on to you.
Gilles on the grid for the first time in a Ferrari - courtesy Allan de la Plante
Gilles on the grid for the first time – courtesy Allan de la Plante

I owe Allan de la Plante a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Walter Wolf (who will pass on his own story a little later), and now must also thank him for the kind use of his photos here. The above was taken the very first time Gilles sat on a F1 grid behind the wheel of a Ferrari – Allan was his personal photographer for six years and, if you’re interested in hearing more about Gilles, has written a best-selling insider’s account which you can find here in eBook form, or through either his website or facebook (he has a very few hard-copies left). Below is one story he passed along.
“When someone asks me to relate a story about Gilles it is easy to fall back on well known events like the Friday in qualifying that he was eleven seconds faster than everyone else that dared to go out in a torrential downpour at Watkins Glen or his victories in Spain and Monaco. The race at Imola is also high on the list as is Zolder, but I think the lesser known, or untold stories are the best to share after all these years.
Gilles naturally was a big draw to advertisers now that he was driving for Ferrari in Formula One. One of these sponsors was Midas Muffler. Gilles and Gaston, his mentor and manager, flew into Toronto from Montreal and took a taxi to a studio in Scarborough. If memory serves me right, it was the studio where CFTO television originates from. They were going to shoot a commercial there. Len Coates and I were partnered with Gilles to produce a book on Grand Prix racing. Gilles would have some input with details as Len wrote the text. It was going to be a ghost-written type of deal. I was to provide the images. The book turned out quite differently when the spring of 1982 presented itself.
The real story here is not the Midas commercial or the book, but the ride back to downtown Toronto. Len was a journalist with the Toronto Star. He did mostly sports, but he also did evaluations on cars for consumers. We arrived in a Dodge Colt which apparently had a two speed rear end or some such new twist to get the buying public on the hook. Once the commercial shoot was over Len and I were going to drop Gilles and Gaston back to their hotel. The Colt was a shit brown-four-door about the size of a Toyota Corolla. It was a cheap sedan.
I remember Gaston turning to Len and quietly telling him not to give the keys to Gilles. Len had already done so. Gaston got in the back seat. I got in beside him. I sat behind Len. Gilles was smiling as he started the car and revved the engine until it was almost internally hemorrhaging. I knew I was in for the ride of my life!
There was a light drizzle falling, but hardly one that you needed full wiper mode. The first part of the ride was uneventful other than the rate we took the onramp to the 401. When we hit the Don Valley Parkway we were hauling ass faster than this sorry work of a car was designed for. Gilles wove his way south until we got to the Eglinton Avenue exit where everyone was either crawling or parked. Gilles took to the shoulder of the road and once to the grass. We kept right on charging down the road. Cars weren’t even honking at the brown rocket that passed them like they were tied to a post. I doubt they got over the shock. When we got the the Bayview extension exit the traffic was thinner. If you have ever driven through that exit ramp you will remember that the gentle right turn gets tighter then straightens out, but the fact that it is slightly off-camber makes it a tricky turn to the best of drivers when you are at least double the speed limit. I was clinging to this dumb loop on the back of the passenger seat which held a speechless Len Coates. I could clearly see Gilles on my left. He was calm and still chatting. No one was listening to his chatter over the Hail Mary’s being mumbled in the back seat. Gaston just looked at me and gave me a weak smile. We got through the corner and the ones that followed and headed down Jarvis Street. We hung a right on Charleton when we should have taken Gerrard. Gilles and Gaston were staying at the Chelsea Hotel at Yonge and Gerrard. Gilles missed Yonge Street and hung a left at Bay and again onto Gerrard. Their hotel was at the end of the block. A dazed Len just told Gilles to pull up in front of the hotel.
Gilles spotted a parking spot right across the street from the hotel and headed straight towards it. At the last moment he hung on the parking brake and the car spun then slid between two cars already parked there. Out he jumped after throwing the keys in Lens lap and scampered across the street and into the hotel. Gaston just sat there. I just sat there. Len tried to get out of the car, but was too wobbly. hen we gathered ourselves together and were standing on the sidewalk we saw that there was no way that Len was going to get the car out as it was wedged between the car in front and the one to it’s rear. We had to wait until the driver of the car behind came back to his car to let us out.
There are other untold stories that will probably remain so, but that day is still very clear in my mind.”
Gilles wears Ferrari colours for the first time - courtesy Richard Kelley
Gilles wears Ferrari colours for the first time – courtesy Richard Kelley

Richard Kelley is another F1 photographer I met through a story lead from Road & Track. Go take a look at his stuff as his portraits are utterly amazing. This one was taken with a long lens between a crack in the rear walls of the pits.
“It was when he first arrived to take over Niki Lauda’s car at the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix. Essentially, the first moment he sat in a Ferrari after he was signed. The pits were cleared, except my spot and I got the only private images as he arrived, was given the jacket, etc and joined the team for first practice.”
Just a great shot – the picture worth a thousand words. Megawatt grin.
Gilles at the Canadian GP in 1981 - courtesy Richard Kelley
Gilles at the Canadian GP in 1981 – courtesy Richard Kelley

Betty Verkuil, who just retired from running the Honda press fleet out here in Vancouver, had a very lucky encounter with Villeneuve, then later a hilarious one.
“I was involved in car racing promotion in those days (worked for Labatt handling their racing sponsorships, including the Canadian Grand Prix and the Formula Atlantic Series) and met and worked with both James Hunt and Niki Lauda. And of course the late great Gilles Villeneuve, who replaced Lauda at Ferrari, graduating in an unprecedented move straight to F1 from the F/At series.
Gilles won every F/At race he entered, except those where he put it shiny side down in the ditch. He was a legend even then. As luck would have it, I had signed Gilles to a Labatt personal services sponsorship about five minutes before Enzo Ferrari invited Gilles to test for him. I got a big promotion right after that. And a bonus of a trip to the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix, where I watched a qualifying round with Joann in the Ferrari pit; the next day Gilles and Joann invited me and Ray Wardell, Gilles’s Formula Atlantic team manager and an architect of his success, to their very nice house in the south of France and.
Gilles and Joann were invited to the ball at the palace with Princess Grace and Prince Ranier that night and there was a little dispute over attire. Joann had laid out his tuxedo and tie.
Gilles: “I’m not wearing black tie! People will think I’m the f**king waiter.”
Us: “Gilles, no one will ever confuse you with a waiter!”
It was a long, long way from the motor home they used to live in and drive, packed with kids Jacques and Melanie and the dog, to the F/Atlantic races in Gimli, Shubenacadie, Mosport Park and other Canadian hotspots. And it was at that Monaco Grand Prix in 1978 that Gilles first realized how crazy the Europeans are about F1 drivers, to say nothing of the Italian tifosi, who worshipped the Ferrari drivers. We were right: no one ever did confuse him with a waiter!”
Gilles at Watkins Glen, 11 seconds faster than everyone in the rain - courtesy Allan de la Plante
Gilles at Watkins Glen, 11 seconds faster than everyone in the rain – courtesy Allan de la Plante

And last, Walter Wolf. For those not-in-the-know, Walter is an Austrian-Canadian businessman who once owned a Formula One team in the seventies, and had driers like Jody Scheckter and James Hunt on his payroll. He also is probably responsible for Lamborghini’s survival during the time.
I went up and met with him at his ranch in BC’s interior, had a beer and listened to him chat about the old days, something he did with ridiculous nonchalance. It was very surreal – “oh yes, Senna was very nice in person” – that sort of thing. Just as I was about to leave, he casually dropped in, “and then I won that Ferrari off Enzo on a bet.”
So anyway, here’s this Ferrari 512 BB that Wolf got for free from Enzo himself on a handshake bet made on the outcome of the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix. We’re in the South of France. Gilles Villeneuve lives next door. Car’s due for a service. Wolf only has his cars fixed at the factory.
“Gilles, can you pick my Ferrari up from Maranello and bring it here?”
Villeneuve arrives in Italy, picks up the 512 and drives it to France like he was trying to set a record. When it shows up, Walter has to ship it right back to the factory to have nearly everything replaced – brakes, tires, clutch, valves, you-name-it.
Ferrari 512 BB
Ferrari 512 BB

And that, friends, is how I’d like to imagine him. Wild and free, in a borrowed Ferrari, tearing up the European roads with natural skill and an intense ferocity. It couldn’t last. It never does.
But there Gilles was briefly, a flash of red along a curving road, here and gone again in an instant. I never met him, but the more I talk to people who did, I wish I had.

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  1. Maxichamp Avatar

    Great stories, Brendan. Thank you.

  2. zetep Avatar

    One of my all time favorite drivers, we need people like that in the totally boring F1 today.

    1. Maxichamp Avatar

      Are you calling Maldonado boring?!

  3. 1977chevytruck Avatar

    As a younger Canadian who doesn't follow really follow racing, it surprised me how much I enjoyed this article. I now feel great pride as a Canadian, and am happy to learn of the legacy of this amazing man. Thank you for this.

  4. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Nice stories. Gilles was a phenomenon when he broke into international racing. No telling what he could have done, if he'd stuck around. Pure, natural talent. I think I might have seen him at an F5000 race at Watkins Glen. But I was young, and he probably drove so well, he looked slow. If it's the race I remember, there was a terrible downpour Saturday night, as my dad and I were touring the pits. Somehow, he got Derek Warwick to give us a lift back to our tent. And I've tried to follow and appreciate that classy guy, ever since.