As part of the special celebrations held today at the Fiorano Circuit, in memory of Gilles Villeneuve, there was a round table discussion chaired by respected Gazzetta dello Sport writer, Pino Allievi, which recalled Gilles Villeneuve through recollections and films from that era. From the first phone call from Enzo Ferrari to the signing of the contract, on 29 August 1977, those present looked back at Villeneuve’s time with Ferrari and how he became a legend that galvanised all of Italy, when it was going through a period of great change.
His son Jacques recalls the ten years he spent alongside his father: “The whole family always went to the races and we lived in the motorhome…it was much better than going to school! Most of the memories I have are from the race track, sitting down watching the races. So ninety percent of what I remember of my father is him as a driver, not home very often, always on the go and if he wasn’t in a car, then it was a helicopter or a plane.
"But that seemed normal, he was my father. I think I am lucky to be driving at a time when cars are safer, otherwise maybe I’d be dead too, given that like him, by nature, I tend to go always right to the limit.” Jacques was asked how he thought his father would have reacted to him racing. “He would have been happy, because it was his dream to see me become a racing driver.”
On this subject, Felipe and Fernando also revealed they had received a lot of support from their parents. “My father always helped me, because he raced too,” said Felipe. “Even if he was doing it for fun in touring cars and was not a professional driver. I dreamed of racing from when I was a kid and racing like my dad meant everything to me. From the start in go-karts to my arrival in Formula 1, he has always been close to me.”
The father figure was also a vital element for Fernando. “Especially at the start, when he wanted my sister to race and built her a kart. Luckily for me, she didn’t like it, so I took over and that’s how it all started. I was two and a half years old and he had tied a rope to the back of the kart so I couldn’t crash. I can imagine it can’t have been too much fun, hanging onto a rope after working all week, but he definitely had a great passion for it.”
Both drivers were too young to have known Gilles, but they are well aware of the legend through hearing of his deeds and in fact, both of them have been team-mates with Jacques. “The tales about him were some of the most amazing I’ve ever heard of in Formula 1 and he had a driving style and an aggressive nature at the wheel that was out of the ordinary,” said Felipe.
For Fernando, there can be no better tribute than that of footage from that time, as well as the feelings generated by his talent, the fact he is remembered for memorable climbs back up the field and the high esteem in which he is held, especially within Ferrari.
Asked if the Formula 1 of today could have coped with his temperament, Ferrari Vice President Piero Ferrari had this to say: “Gilles had an aggressive driving style, but was never incorrect in his dealings with his adversaries. Things are very different today, everything is controlled, especially the cars. And if today, a driver drives in an aggressive fashion, then he is likely to be slow, because now you need a special driving style to set quick times.”
He was simply racing in each race and that was it for him
Jacques sees impropriety among the drivers of today that was not there before. In the past, accidents would occur and those involved were heroes, not victims or creators of incorrect moves. An opinion shared by Fernando, who also feels that some of a driver’s tasks today involve executing mechanical actions, that are almost robotic, while Felipe called into question the difference between the contemporary Formula 1 cars, with high downforce levels and those from a time when mechanical grip meant they often had to be driven sideways.
Bringing to an end this thrilling account were the words of Mauro Forghieri, who was Technical Director at the Scuderia in the Villeneuve era. “He wasn’t taking part in the World Championship, he was simply racing in each race and that was it for him. He would race with a hastily put together chassis because, at the time, there were only one hundred and sixty two of us, including Commendatore Ferrari and we did not have time to build new cars. These cars were very demanding to drive physically and today, you just could not race with them.”