Feature F1 Unlocked
F1 ICONS: Melanie Villeneuve on her father Gilles, the legendary Ferrari racer
Gilles Villeneuve is regarded as one of the fastest drivers in F1 history who missed out on a world title, with the Canadian’s life and career cruelly cut short amid controversy involving Ferrari team mate Didier Pironi. Following the release of the documentary Villeneuve Pironi – Racing’s Untold Tragedy, Gilles’ daughter, Melanie, shares some early memories of her dad, his lasting legacy and how the family plan to honour him moving forward…
I was raised on the tracks with my dad, my mum Joann and my brother Jacques.
Gilles started out in snowmobile racing and there are pictures of my mum pregnant with me while holding hands with Jacques, who was only a couple of years old.
When my dad moved to the Formula Atlantic single-seater series it was me – baby Melanie – and Jacques running around the paddocks. We grew up with the sounds and the smells and the excitement of it all. For us, it was just everyday life.
We moved to Europe when I was around five years old. Taking the plane was a big deal, moving over there was a big deal.
For the first couple of years my dad had a motorhome that his friend drove to every race on the continent. He lived in it and we were there with him for the races.
It was in 1977 that Gilles made his F1 debut at Silverstone, running a third car for McLaren. He was incredibly fast and came out of nowhere, so much so that Enzo Ferrari took a chance and signed him for Ferrari. It was intuition, I guess.
I think what attracted Enzo was his pure speed, along with his understanding of the car and ability to push the machine. My dad was a very honest guy, he recognised he had been given a chance and he drove the best he could. He had an excellent 1978 season and won that year’s Canadian Grand Prix, which kind of sealed the deal. I think Enzo saw something special about him as a person and as a driver.
Gilles certainly learned some tricks from his snowmobile days.
I read a couple of articles where he was answering questions about it all and he mentioned what he did to increase visibility, as you can’t look right in front of you, so you kind of need to look to the side. You can imagine that, when you’re driving a car in torrential rain conditions, the same principal applies. I think driving a snowmobile for the visibility and the ability to slide – conditions where with snow everything is slippery – taught him how to manage the car.
But Gilles always wanted to do things in a spectacular way. He was not a slow driver on the Autostrade, if I can say it in Italian. He was doing 200 km/h in his Ferrari with us kids in the back screaming, ‘Go faster, go faster!’, or he was doing boat rides, jumping the waves left and right, everywhere he could, or he was in a helicopter, seeing how fast he could go, if he could go vertically… He was always testing the limits of everything he was doing.
I guess it’s the adrenaline highs that we grew up with all the time. When you’re a kid you pretty much get used to everything – we didn’t know anything else. That’s how he was with us, that’s how he was with his cars, that’s how he lived his life.
After a season racing alongside Carlos Reutemann and two with Jody Scheckter, Didier Pironi came to Ferrari for 1981 and Gilles grew very, very close to him – they were very good friends.
I have memories of doing boat rides with Didier. Gilles would take us on the boat, Didier had his boat, and we would drive, stop on an island somewhere off the coast of the Mediterranean, have lunch and come back home. Didier was sponsored at the time by the candy company Haribo, so every time we saw him, he brought us a big bag of candy, and as kids we loved it.
In 1981, the Ferrari was a really bad car. Gilles managed an incredible season with what he had and Didier was far behind him. When 1982 came around, the car was a lot better. I think it would have been a championship-winning year had tragedy not hit.
Didier was very hungry to win; he wanted to win at all costs. There was some politicking in the background. For example, Didier got married and Gilles and my mum were not invited. My dad didn’t even know it was happening, so it was a bit of a shock. He kind of let it slide, thinking, ‘It’s not a big deal’, but in essence when you look at it, it was a little bit weird, because they were not just team mates, they were good, good friends.
Then Imola happened.
It was here that the feud between Pironi and Villeneuve ignited when the Frenchman broke what the Canadian understood to be a gentleman’s agreement by making a move for the lead and ultimately claiming victory. A still-riled Villeneuve arrived at the next round at Zolder in Belgium determined to make his mark, but tragedy struck during qualifying when his flat-out Ferrari hit and launched over the rear of Jochen Mass’ slow-moving March – an accident that inflicted fatal injuries on the 32-year-old. Pironi’s time in F1 would also end in 1982 after a violent crash at Hockenheim, before he was killed – aged 35 – in a powerboat racing incident five years later.
Gilles was completely shocked by what happened there. He never drove in that manner; he wanted to win, he wanted to push the car as much as he could, but he never would have stepped over anybody or pushed them out of the track to get his win. Never.
Everything happened really, really fast and two weeks later it was Belgium.
When the Pironi twins were born in 1987, following Didier’s death, his girlfriend Catherine Goux called my mum and said she really wanted to name them Didier and Gilles, if that was okay. My mum said of course, but we’ve never spoken in between. Catherine was not in Didier’s life in 1982, so my mum didn’t really get to know her at the time that she and Didier were really close.
I think it’s just a separation of time, events and circumstances, not from wanting to separate anything. Now Gilles Pironi is an engineer in F1, so he and my brother speak sometimes and they’ve gotten to know each other, which is fun – I wish him the best. I think the documentary did a lot for both families in terms of getting back in touch with those people.
When we were approached by Noah Media Group and John McKenna about the documentary, we looked at what he had done in the past, including the documentary on Steve McQueen, and we thought he did a great job. John had spoken to the Pironis as well, and we felt it would be important to have both families discussing the events. It’s the first time that I heard their side of the story, so to get their take on it was interesting for us.
The feedback since has been amazing. Everybody is really enthusiastic about it. It’s racing but it’s also a human story, two men who through competition and Didier’s thirst to win created this storm of emotion that, depending on who you talk to and how you see the things, may have influenced my dad in the following event at Zolder a certain way.
Now we’re working on a film – produced by Christal Films and written and directed by Daniel Roby – to showcase my father’s early life. It’s focused on his snowmobile racing and his rise to Formula Atlantic, the part that people know less about. There’s a lot about him that you will see and figure, ‘Oh, wow, that’s why’, in terms of the things he did in F1. We hope it will be released in 2025 and we’re very, very excited.
Overall, it’s difficult to put into words why certain personalities such as my dad catch the eye, make people dream, entice passion and passionate responses in people. From being his own mechanic in Formula Atlantic and us all living on the prize money to getting himself to F1 and Enzo magically signing him for Ferrari… It’s almost mythical.
I think if you were to write this as a story, nobody would believe you.
Villeneuve Pironi – Racing’s Untold Tragedy is now available in more than 30 countries, including the United Kingdom via Now TV and, as of December 1, the United States on HBO Max