Formula 1: Gilles Villeneuve has the legacy of a World Champion

Gilles Villeneuve, Formula 1,Mandatory Credit: Steve Powell/ALLSPORT
Gilles Villeneuve, Formula 1,Mandatory Credit: Steve Powell/ALLSPORT /

Since the 38th anniversary of his passing is today, let’s look into what made Formula 1 daredevil Gilles Villeneuve so great.

Every driver who enters Formula 1 creates his own legacy, but not every driver’s legacy is remembered. World champions of the sport write their names into the history books, which staples them into the minds of the fans, whilst some names disappear as quickly as they was heard.

But Gilles Villeneuve was different.

Despite only having six Grand Prix victories to his name, his legacy remains as wholesome as it ever was nearly four decades after his passing. He carries a legacy that is bigger then a vast majority of world champions, and it continues to grow.

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It is always an accomplishment when another driver says someone has a “God-given talent”, but some of Villeneuve’s rivals did think that, Jody Scheckter in particular.

However, Villeneuve’s “God-given talent” was not to drive a car. No, driving a car was just a passion which he had managed to find throughout his years.

His talent was pushing a vehicle or machine to its absolute limit, and then finding a way to extend that limit even further — whilst flat-out, of course.

It was one thing to even control the beasts that those boys were driving in Villeneuve’s era, and it was another to be able to control them whilst still being fast. He had no problem with being fast, that’s for sure.

As for being in control, you could never tell. He was able to entertain everyone at the circuit with his speed and pure racer mentality, but he was one of very few drivers who was still entertaining to the people even when he was sideways or facing the wrong way — or on one occasion, on three wheels with his hand in the air.

Gilles Villeneuve, Formula 1, Ferrari 126CK (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)
Gilles Villeneuve, Formula 1, Ferrari 126CK (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images) /

The statistics do not shine brightly on Villeneuve as they do on other drivers, but we have all heard the saying, “The stats don’t tell the whole story”. This could not be a better example.

Villeneuve showed that a driver does not need multiple titles, many pole positions or many race wins to be a hit.

If a driver is able to be himself on and off track, many fans will gravitate towards him, and if a driver is also able to be an entertaining mad man on the track, everyone will gravitate towards him.

Of course, they are some people in the world who would not have been a fan of the French-Canadian. There always are, and those people are entitled to their opinion.

But they are rare. He was not controversial enough to split the fanbase in his day, unlike some drivers. If he was not winning whatever session he was in, whether it be practice one or the race, he was not bothered with where he finished. Second place was the same as 15th in his eyes.

It is funny when you really think about it. A Gilles Villeneuve fan would have a bank of their favorite moments of him, and most of those moments would be him being a daredevil in the car while few would be his triumphs.

That is who he was. The people were able to relate to his passion for the cars and his love for driving, filling the fans with excitement every time his red Ferrari would shoot past, at a higher speed then any of the other cars.

And the best thing? They would not know whether or not they would see his car the next lap, meaning they were always on the edge of their seats. It was either win, or end up in the catch fencing.

The daredevil also had a calmness about him which kept him down to earth. That calmness did follow him into the car. In 1981, a heart monitor was used on both Ferrari drivers during the Grand Prix at Dijon.

His resting heart rate of 70 beats per minute during practice increased during a 140 mph shunt, which showed a flash of 168 bpm before sinking back down to his usual.

A highest reading of 182 bpm only occurred on a qualifying lap. It sat around 127 bpm during the race. Now compare that to his teammate at the time, Didier Pironi. His would consistently range between 180 bpm to 207 bpm. Astonishing.

Away from his endeavors, he did show brilliance on numerous occasions. He was able to show just how good of a driver he was when he hooked it up. His wins in the dog Ferrari 126CK in 1981…no other driver on that grid could have replicated what he pulled off in that machine.

His overtake on Alan Jones at Tarzan around the outside is another example. Okay, so he spectacularly spun a few laps later, but that just adds to his entertainment scale, right? Another example is when he was lapping over 10 seconds quicker than anyone during a wet practice at Watkins Glen in 1979.

Jacques Laffite had it spot on that day: “Why do we bother?”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Formula 1 has seen many talented drivers place themselves, but there will never be another Gilles Villeneuve. Some drivers can show glimpses of the great man, but they can never be him, the most skilled driver to ever sit in a Formula 1 car.