May 8th, 1982 in Zolder, Belgium was a dark day for motor racing, and a dark day for Canadians.
During a qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix, Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari touched wheels with a slower car, which sent Villeneuve’s car end over end, destroying the car and killing Villeneuve. When Gilles’ son, Jacques, climbed into the Ferrari on Tuesday that Gilles drove in 1979, it was a fitting tribute to a man who remains beloved and remembered three decades after his death.
Gilles Villeneuve was a supremely talented driver who took his skills as a snowmobile racer to the dizzying height of Formula One. During Gilles brief career he scored six wins, two pole positions and 13 podiums, including a stirring victory at home in Canada on a circuit that now bears his name.
The Ferrari factory organized the memorial drive Tuesday at the famed Ferrari test track, Fiorino. They felt his son, the man who fulfilled Gilles’ dream of being world champion, should be behind the wheel of the 1979, 312T4. This is the car in which he finished second overall in the world championship as a way to celebrate his memory and accomplishments.
The significance of this event should not be lost. Jacques, who was 11 at the time of his dad’s death, has always tried to avoid comparisons and distance himself from the legend of Gilles. Understandably Jacques wanted to be judged on his own accomplishments, not on the legacy of the Villeneuve name.
It is also significant, and no surprise, that Ferrari has gone to such great troubles to commemorate Gilles’ career with them. Gilles met world champion James Hunt in a race held at Trois Rivieres, Que. Hunt was so impressed with Gilles’ natural ability that he set up a test with McLaren. Enzo Ferrari heard about young Villeneueve and took an instant liking to him. He compared Gilles’ spirit to win to that of Tazio Nuvolari — the legendary champion of the 1930’s.
Enzo respected and loved Gilles for his spirit and ability, he affectionately referred to him as “the high priest of destruction.” He said Gilles could “absolutely destroy anything mechanical.” Gilles would never, ever, give up and fought every lap of every race and could win with a less than perfect car and sheer will. It is for that iron will that his career is still remembered three decades after his death.
Ferrari has once again welcomed a Villeneuve to the driver’s seat, to hear the symphony of a Ferrari 12 cylinders in full song and see the beautiful scarlet rocket at the hands of a world champion.