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The unforgettable Gilles Villeneuve - his maiden win remembered

18 Jan 2017

He was only in Formula One for just over four short seasons and never won the title, but the legend of Gilles Villeneuve still burns as brightly as ever. On what would have been the late Canadian’s 67th birthday, we remember his fairy-tale first F1 victory...

As Gilles Villeneuve hoisted the large maple leaf-topped winner’s trophy above his head, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

“To win a Grand Prix is something,” he said. “But to win your first Grand Prix at home is completely unthinkable.

“This is the happiest day of my life.”

He'd driven better races before, and would go on to do so again, but on this day the script couldn’t have been penned better by a Hollywood screenwriter.


Home town hero

The scene of Villeneuve’s ‘unthinkable’ triumph was the new Ile Notre-Dame Circuit (later renamed Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in his honour following his death in 1982), built on the same manmade island that had hosted both Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympic rowing regatta.

Situated just outside downtown Montreal, the circuit was about as close to home as you could get for the 26-year-old Quebecois, who was hoping to end an up-and-down first full season with Ferrari on a high at this, the 16th and final round of the 1978 championship.

Although he’d led races, unreliability and accidents had blighted Villeneuve’s campaign, leading to murmurings from certain sections of the Italian media that the Scuderia should consider ditching him. But Ferrari kept faith with the slightly-built Canadian and they were rewarded with some promising results towards the tail end of the season.

Third in Austria was followed by sixth in the Netherlands and second on the road in Italy, before a time penalty for a jump start dropped him to seventh. Then, the week before the Canadian race, Villeneuve had been running a strong second at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen before the flat-12 engine in his 312T3 went pop.

The question was, could Villeneuve carry his promising form into Canada? 


In the mix

Cold, wet conditions greeted the drivers on Friday, and to the delight of the locals the Michelin-shod Ferraris of Carlos Reutemann and and the typically spectacular Villeneuve comfortably set the pace as other drivers spent time investigating the new circuit’s rather muddy run-off areas.

But in a tense and thrilling final qualifying session held in dry conditions the next day it was Jean-Pierre Jarier - drafted in at Lotus for a second race in place of the late Ronnie Peterson - who grabbed pole, with Wolf’s Jody Scheckter sealing a place alongside him on the front row.

Villeneuve had to make do with a fighting P3, which was considerably better than Reutemann who slumped from fastest in the wet to 11th in the dry.


Up against it

Race day dawned icy cold but dry, and a sense of anticipation hung in the air as over 70,000 fans began to file into the circuit. On the grid many of the drivers wore thick winter coats as they waited to get into their cars, several layers of fireproof clothing not enough to guard against the early October chill.

At the start, Jarier made a perfect getaway and immediately raced into an impressive lead - indeed by lap 20 the Frenchman had accrued what already looked to be an unassailable lead. His advantage over second-placed Scheckter was more than 20 seconds, whilst Villeneuve had made amends for a bad start and moved up to third, overhauling the Williams of Alan Jones in the process.

Having nursed his car through the opening stint of the race, Villeneuve then began to ratchet up the pace, easing onto the back of Scheckter’s black Wolf WR5, before lunging his number-12 Ferrari inside the South African’s car to roars of approval from the bulging grandstands.

He began to streak away from Wolf, but despite his relentless pace, Jarier maintained his monumental half-minute lead, even lapping world champion team mate Mario Andretti who was still struggling after an earlier clash with John Watson’s Brabham.


A sudden opportunity

But then, around lap 46 with the race result looking utterly inevitable, Jarier’s lap times took a sudden dip. ‘Jumper’ was renowned for his oversteer style, but observers could see the Lotus’s rear end sliding ever more vigorously and he seemed to be having particular trouble under braking.

Sensing the Frenchman’s troubles, the capacity crowd began to roar Villeneuve on in his pursuit, but it wasn’t necessary. On lap 49 Jarier reluctantly entered the pits and clambered from his stricken vehicle, his chance of a maiden victory over thanks to a cracked oil cooler that had leaked fluid all over the rear tyres and brakes. It was little wonder he’d had trouble stopping the car…

To the home fans' amazement, their hero was now in a comfortable lead and in with a real chance of becoming the first ever Canadian winner of a world championship race. With his wife Joanne watching on, Villeneuve reeled off the remaining laps, each accompanied by deafening, engine-hushing encouragement from the partisan crowd.

“Those last laps were torture,” he’d say. “I could hear all kind of noises in the car. And I didn’t like it because I was having to drive like an old woman, shifting at 10,000 (rpm) and being careful not to break anything.

“I just kept saying to myself, ‘Ferrari is the best! Ferrari is the best! It doesn’t break. It never breaks!’”

And it didn’t.


Victory at last

The odd snowflake hung in the early October air as Villeneuve finally crossed the finish line - a Canadian victory in the most Canadian of conditions. Scheckter, who’d signed to lead the Ferrari team in 1979, came in 13 seconds behind the scarlet car to claim second, whilst Reutemann finished a satisfied third on a glorious day for the Scuderia.

You could argue that Villeneuve had been lucky - that he wasn’t the fastest man on the day - but as Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau handed him the winner’s trophy, the delirious home crowd didn’t care a jot - they had just witnessed an F1 fairy tale.


Images copyright Sutton Images & LAT Photographic