May 2012 - On the 30th anniversary of his death during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, Ferrari has marked the life of Gilles Villeneuve by bringing together his son, Jacques, and his father’s Ferrari 312 T4 Formula One car for a unique event witnessed by Ferrari’s Formula One drivers today as the son who achieved his father’s dream, the Formula One World Championship, drove his father’s car.
Such was the sense of history spectators and fans gathered around the track could be forgiven for imagining that Gilles Villeneuve was back on track, when shortly after 10.30, a 312 T4 rumbled out of the pits prior to doing a few laps of the track. In fact, this was a special commemoration organised by Ferrari as a tribute to the Canadian driver who raced for the Maranello Scuderia from 1977 until he died tragically during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on 8 May 1982.
On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, his son Jacques took to the track in his memory, at the wheel of the same car with which his father won three races in 1979 and that his team-mate Jody Scheckter drove to take the Drivers’ Championship title.
Taking part in the event were Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, the Vice President Piero Ferrari, the Scuderia Ferrari drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, the Managing Director, Amadeo Felisa and the engineer, Mauro Forghieri, who was Technical Director in Gilles’ day.
Many fans were drawn to Maranello by the ever present memory of the courageous driver and bringing the event to life, they were joined by Villeneuve’s mechanics, his widow Joann and their daughter Melanie, who had been by his side back in those unforgettable days.
Speaking after his historic son, Jacques recalled 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 today’s Ferrari drivers, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso 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.” 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.”
So how does Villeneuve compare to today’s Formula One Drivers?
“Villeneuve was amazing in terms of momentum. But then, his temperament would cost him points and that would affect his standing at the end of the season. Alonso, especially in the races, is the best driver in the world,” said Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo on the day dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the Canadian driver.. “Gilles gave the public what they wanted. And he did not care about the championship, he drove each race as it came. Maybe I was less close to him than I was to my other drivers such as Lauda, Regazzoni or Reutemann. I recall when Enzo Ferrari told me he’d spotted a youngster with great temperament and talent who raced snowmobiles in Canada. He had a pre-contract with McLaren, but Ferrari wanted to bring a breath of fresh air into the team. He was an extraordinary driver and human being. We must not be prisoners to the past, but if one looks at football, F1, politics, Italy back then, one can see that human relations were different and better. But we look ahead and to have Gilles’ old mechanics here alongside Alonso and Massa shows that Ferrari thinks of the future while looking to the past, which is unique in the world.”
Asked about the chances of hiring drivers who maybe lack discipline but have plenty of heart, Montezemolo replied, “With F1 the way it is today, there would be no place at Ferrari for an undisciplined driver,” while on the subject of the team’s start to this season, he did not hide a slight feeling of disappointment. “I got a shock from the way we started, as I was not expecting it. I had in mind a different scenario. There have been four races and we have won one of them. So we are there abouts and now we have to make a leap forward in terms of quality to have a more competitive car. I have noticed the engineers seem more confident and now we will see what happens in Spain. I have said to those around me that maybe we have been too engrossed in ourselves in Maranello, without seeing what is going on around us, without bringing in some fresh air from other sources. These regulations which mistakenly make aerodynamics the key factor in determining who wins or loses, have convinced us to bring into the team some greater experience in this area of aerodynamics to try and change this situation.” Fernando Alonso was a bit more optimistic, going into his home race, which takes place this weekend at the Barcelona circuit. “We have significant updates for Spain, as indeed will our competitors and that means we have to think it will not be easy. We are not in an easy situation and we know we must do our best. However, the aim is to fight right down to the last lap. We will bring new parts, we will never give up and our aim is to win the World Championship.”