Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada’s top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We’ve also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome, and looked back at the Richard Riot.
There seems no stronger metaphor for the racing careers of the Villeneuves, father and son, than a poignant scene from May of 1982, outside a small church in Berthierville, Que.
It was four days after Gilles was killed in a Formula 1 qualifying session crash on the Zolder circuit in Belgium, and tens of thousands had come to the village to witness the body of Canada’s most famous international athlete carried into the funeral in a coffin draped with a checkered flag.
Following behind were Gilles’s wife, Joann, daughter Melanie, 8, and son Jacques, 11.
Jacques would one day surpass everything his father achieved, including winning the Formula 1 world championship and the Indianapolis 500.
But there the metaphor falls short, because the son would always say he was not walking in Gilles’s shadow.
He was making his own path.
Outside of the great Montreal Canadiens hockey legends Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau, there is perhaps no name more revered in Quebec sports than Villeneuve. It means speed. It means dash and daring. It means international recognition of the province’s sons.
Norris McDonald, now the dean of Canadian motor sports writers, says the family name is synonymous with racing.
“When you say the name Trudeau, you automatically think of Prime Ministers,” he said in a phone interview last week. “If you mention the name Villeneuve, there is an automatic attachment to motor sport.”
At a time now when auto racing in this country is in a dip of popularity, caused in part by a dearth of Canadian talent on the world stage, it’s difficult to imagine how huge the sport was back in the 1970s when Gilles hit the scene.
He was not from a family predisposed to racing anything. Dad and mom were regular folks, but their son caught the muscle car bug of the late 1950s, early 1960s.
“Gilles had this natural ability to play with cars and make them go fast, and he was a daredevil,” says McDonald. “Talk to his wife, and she says what attracted her to him initially was he was this crazy kid who was always showing off … he had this crazy devil-may-care need for speed.”
Villeneuve raced everything from jalopies to stock cars to snowmobiles, finally catching the attention of Formula 1 bosses by dominating North America’s Formula Atlantic series in 1976, winning every race but one.
From there, things took off.
Gilles made his F1 debut in an uncompetitive McLaren in 1977 at the British Grand Prix, finishing an impressive 11th. Ferrari, looking for an up-and-coming new driver, shocked a lot of pundits by signing the fast Canadian for the final two races that year, and permanently for the following season.
Villeneuve then won his first F1 race at Montreal in the final run of 1978, when a surprise exit by leader Jean-Pierre Jarier (oil leak with a 20-second lead) opened the opportunity.
In 1979, Gilles finished second in the driver standings, behind teammate Jody Scheckter.
Ferrari ran into trouble for the next few seasons, with uncompetitive cars, but was on its way back by 1982.
In the fifth race, at Belgium, Villeneuve went out late in qualifying to try and move up on the grid when he hit the back of Jochen Mass’s car, flew into the air and landed on the Ferrari’s nose, catapulting himself out of the cockpit when the belting system failed.
He died in hospital seven hours later.
At the funeral, Scheckter delivered the eulogy.
“I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have even known.”
Like father, like son
Before Gilles’s son, who was raised in Monaco, came of age, he would be making his own name in the racing business by following his uncle Jacques through the Atlantic series and into the top level of North American open-wheel racing.
As a rookie in the world famous Indianapolis 500, Jacques the son took advantage of an error by another Canadian, Scott Goodyear, to win the race and put himself on the Formula 1 path.
Frank Williams signed the 23-year-old after a fast, fast test on the Silverstone track in England and paired him with Damon Hill who, ironically, was the son of another F1 star who died (Graham, in a private plane crash back in 1975). After that:
Hill and Villeneuve dominated in 1996, finishing first and second in the driver’s championship. After that year, Williams went with Jacques as his lead driver.
It was a surprise move that paid off when Villeneuve survived Michael Schumacher’s attempt to bunt him off the track in the final race of 1997, clinching the world title. The German Ferrari driver was stripped of his points for the incident.
After an off year in 1998, Jacques moved to the new BAR team co-owned by his manager, where he never finished higher than seventh in an uncompetitive car, still battling onto podiums on occasion.
Jacques’s F1 career would end in 2006, never again reaching the heights of the world championship. He would finish his career moving between other series, including a foray into NASCAR.
Asked about his father for a short documentary on the F1 website, Jacques was open and thoughtful.
“What you can see [in Gilles's career] is the passion … the passion of being behind the wheel, but not only that, the passion of pushing the envelope and the mechanical pieces of the car,” he said. “Part of his fun was to see if he could destroy it or not.
“It was linked to an element of speed, an element of danger, but also an element of judgement — where the limit is, what you can do as a human being, as a driver…”