Posts Tagged ‘Ferrari 126C2’

GV Wolf WD1 Chev, Trois Rivieres 1977 (MotorSport)

1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve’s dad doesn’t have awe inspiring race-statistics, so why is he revered by generations of F1 fans born long after he died? Mark Bisset looks back at the French-Canadian legend 40 years after that tragic May 8, 1982 Belgian GP weekend at Zolder

Before the carbon-fibre era few of motor racing’s supreme automotive acrobats died quietly in their beds.

Bernd Rosemeyer, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Ayrton Senna, Stefan Bellof, Gilles Villeneuve and their ilk had God-given skills which awed fellow competitors and spectators alike.

Spectacular car control, seemingly impossible passes and flagrant disregard for their own safety were their modus operandi, performed without the many ‘safety nets’ of modern F1.

Attack! GV during the September 1977 GP de Trois Rivieres, Canada weekend. Q3 and 14th with engine problems aboard Walter Wolf’s Wolf WD1 Chev. Patrick Tambay took the win, Lola T333CS Chev (MotorSport)
Gilles during the 1977 British GP weekend at Silverstone, F1 newbie (LAT)

Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve (18/1/1950-8/5/1982) was one of the most spectacular practitioners of his art, he wanted – needed – to be the quickest racer out there in every session. To his ultimate cost.

Seville Villeneuve whetted his son’s competitive juices by giving him a snowmobile, by 1972 Gilles was a pro-driver with Skiroule, in 1974 he won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby at Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Villeneuve mounts his Alouette 650 single-track, all set to win at Eagle River in 1974 (CJ Ramstad)

Seville nurtured Gilles’ early interest in cars too. Villeneuve took a Jim Russell course at Mont Tremblant, then demonstrated the same mastery of machine on bitumen as on snow aboard a Magnum Formula Ford, winning a regional Quebec championship in 1973.

Villeneuve later said of snowmobiling “Every winter you could reckon on three or four big over 100mph spills. They slide a lot, which taught me about control. Unless you were in the lead you could see nothing with all the snow blowing about, it was good for the reactions and stopped me worrying about racing in the rain.”

GV, Magnum Formula Ford in 1973 Trois Rivieres? (MGV)
March 77B Ford BDA, Trois Rivieres 1977. Fourth from pole, Price Cobb won in another 77B (MotorSport)

Villeneuve progressed and was immediately quick in an Ecurie Canada March 74B Formula Atlantic (FA) in 1974 until the wild-man broke his leg at Mosport mid-season.

Fully committed, Gilles sold his home to fund a privately run March 75B the following year, travelling to the races with wife Joann and his children Melanie and Jacques in a motorhome. His breakthrough win came in the wet at Gimli, then he stunned visiting GP drivers by putting the March third on the grid at Quebec’s GP de Trois Rivieres street race.

Racing for the top-gun Ecurie Canada equipe again in 1976, he won Canadian and US (IMSA) FA Championships then popped the icing on the cake by winning Trois Rivieres from pole ahead of Alan Jones, James Hunt, Vittorio Brambilla, Bobby Rahal and Patrick Tambay.

Teddy Mayer tasked Leo Wybrott, Stevie Bun and John Hornby to look after Gilles’ McLaren M23/8. “He was communicating with me so well, and we started to change the set-up of the car and he went faster and faster. We were fourth or fifth quickest, eventually qualifying ninth. We didn’t qualify higher because we didn’t have access to the soft Goodyears” Wybrott recalled. (MotorSport)
Villeneuve lapping Silverstone in ’77. His first race outside North America was in the 1976 Pau GP for Ron Dennis’ Project Four outfit, Q10 and DNF in a year old March 752 Hart impressed the F2 regulars (LAT)

The international racing world was abuzz with the other-worldly-skills of the pint-sized Canadian magician. No less an admirer than James Hunt pressed his cause with McLaren’s Teddy Mayer who ran a car for Gilles at the 1977 British GP.

Villeneuve explored the limits of his M23, spinning on most of Silverstone’s corners as he worked out the car’s limits, outqualifying his vastly more experienced teammate, Jochen Mass. He finished 11th despite a pitstop for what turned out to be a broken water temperature gauge.

Further impressive Formula Atlantic drives and pace aboard Walter Wolf’s wilful Wolf WD1 Chev Can-Am car established his big-car credentials.

Villeneuve in the Wolf WD1 Chev, circuit unknown, 1977. The Canadian was immediately quick in this challenging car vacated by Chris Amon upon his retirement from racing (unattributed)
GV and Patrick Tambay at Trois Rivieres in September 1977. Tambay won the race (and the series overall) in the Carl Haas’ Lola T333CS Chev behind him, GV DNF engine from Q3. #25 is Bobby Rahal’s Lola T296 Ford BDX (LAT)

When Mayer signed Patrick Tambay to replace Mass in 1978, Enzo Ferrari bagged Villeneuve. Gilles remained a Ferrari driver – surely ordained at his birth – for the balance of his way-too-short career.

His first 1977 start at Mosport ended with a DNF, tragedy followed at Fuji a fortnight later. Gilles challenged Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler under brakes, the pair collided causing the Canadian’s Ferrari to vault the armco into a restricted area where it killed a spectator and a marshall. Despite a no-fault finding his year couldn’t have ended on a worse note.

Villeneuve mid-flight at Fuji with the fatal consequences imminent. Peterson’s Tyrrell P34 rear damage ‘clear’. Rare shot of the underside of a 312T2 Ferrari inclusive of the pipe-bender’s artistry (unattributed)
GV on the way to his first GP win at home in October 1978, Montreal, Ferrari 312T3. His future teammate, Scheckter was second in a Wolf WR6 Ford and present teammate Reutemann was third (unattributed)

1978 was character building. Villeneuve was unsurprisingly bested by his seasoned Ferrari teammate Carlos Reutemann who won three Grands Prix in the year of the dominant ground-effect Lotus 79, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson.

After a series of early season DNFs and accidents the Italian press were baying for his blood, twelve months later they wanted him anointed a Saint.

Better performances in later ’78 were capped by a season-ending Mosport home win. His emotions at the year’s conclusion were the complete reverse of those twelve months before.

Gilles and Jody at Hockenheim in July1979. Alan Jones started his late season run of wins that weekend in his Williams FW07 Ford. Sceckter was fourth and Villeneuve eighth (unattributed)

Enzo Ferrari’s pairing of F1’s 1973 and 1978 enfants terrible, Jody Scheckter and Villeneuve in 1979 seemed a volatile Molotov Cocktail to many pit-pundits, but the kindred spirits gelled.

They extracted all Mauro Forghieri’s ground effect Ferrari 312T4 had. Gilles had the edge in outright pace – both won three Grands Prix – but Jody’s better placings, and Gilles preparedness to keep to team instructions, in a line-ball season edged out the Canadian by four points.

British GP, Silverstone 1979. Ferrari 312T4 14th on the day Clay Regazzoni i took a famous first win for Williams – FW07 Ford (M Lee)
It may not always have been the quickest way around a racetrack, but GV’s style sure was entertaining! Zolder, May 1979, 7th, Scheckter won (MotorSport)

Two races which partially forged the Villeneuve legend were at Dijon and Zandvoort.

Two-mad-little-Froggies, Auvergne’s Rene Arnoux and Quebec’s Gilles Villeneuve went at it hammer and tongs in the French GP’s final laps in an epic, breath taking, wheel to wheel-tapping battle between Renault RE10 and Ferrari 312T4 for second place.

 In a magnum-opus of car control the pair waged a dice the likes of which GP racing hasn’t seen since. The duo gave each other just enough room – centimetres – to carry off a balletic-opera rather than tragic-comedy which concluded in Gilles’ favour.

So all-consuming was this dice that Renault and Jean Pierre Jabouille’s first turbo-car, and first GP win (Renault RE10) were almost forgotten!

During the Dutch GP’s closing laps Villeneuve’s left-rear tyre exploded. Undeterred, and desperate for points he reversed back onto the track and headed for the distant pits shredding the tyre, wheel and left-side suspension assembly. Gilles devotees saw it as his passionate will to win while his detractors offered the display as further evidence that he was absolutely bonkers…

Crazy last laps at Dijon in 1979: Villeneuve 312T4 and Rene Arnoux, Renault RE10 (MotorSport)
Ferrari 126CK, Dijon DNF French GP 1981 (MotorSport)

1980 was a Ferrari disaster as more advanced ground effect cars bested the 312T5, limited as it was by the width of its 180-degree V12 (or Flat-12 if you wish) which impinged on critical sidepod/tunnel size.

Ferrari joined the turbo-age in 1981 with the 550-600bhp 1.5-litre 126CK. Its combination of tricky power delivery mixed with chassis and aerodynamic shortcomings created a machine in which Gilles comprehensively blew-off new teammate, Didier Pironi after Scheckter retired (Villeneuve outqualified Pironi 10-5 that year).

Villeneuve showed plenty of controlled aggression, winning at Monaco after keeping the tricky car on the island as others crashed or had mechanical misfortune.

Three weeks later at Jarama, Gilles took the Spanish GP lead on lap 14 then fronted a high-speed freight train of Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio De Angelis, nose-to-tail for 18 laps in a classic battle of a more powerful but ill-handling car holding off four better handling cars. The top-5 were separated by 1.5 seconds at the finish of a thriller in which Gilles put not a foot wrong.

On the way to winning the 1981 Monaco GP, Ferrari 126CK. Jones second in his Williams FW07C Ford and Laffitte third in Ligier JS17 Matra (unattributed)
Here we go with 2 laps to run, Imola 1982 (unattributed)

And so, to the Final Act.

1982 started as ‘81 finished, Gilles outqualified his friend Pironi – they were mates let’s not forget – four nil aboard the improved 126C2 at Kyalami, Rio, Long Beach and Imola.

Pironi was feeling the pressure, why would Ferrari keep him if he couldn’t deliver the goods?  The consistent gap between he and Gilles was marked.

The San Marino Grand Prix grid was decimated by the ongoing FOCA/FISA turf/sporting/commercial battle, ten of the FOCA teams didn’t enter. After the retirement of the leading Renaults, Villeneuve led Pironi (as usual).

Ferrari’s ‘slow’ pitboard was interpreted as slow and hold position by Gilles. Pironi passed Villeneuve, Villeneuve re-took the lead three times, and then slowed thrice. Despite this – Villeneuve’s superiority over the Frenchman crystal clear to all over the previous 15-months – Pironi passed again and took the chequered flag having interpreted the signal differently. Or took a win he badly needed and hadn’t achieved mano et mano in fair combat.

Gilles burned with fury, setting up the tragedy which unfolded at Zolder a fortnight later on May 8, 1982.

Zolder pits, May 8, 1982. GV ready for the off, Ferrari 126C2 chassis #056
GV 126C2 #055 at Kyalami in January 1982. The monocoque chassis was a composite structure made of Hexcel carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb, a far cry from the strength of the high speed carbon fibre dodgem-F1s of today

Fuelled by anger and determined to beat Pironi’s better qualifying time, Villeneuve set off on those final laps, fell short, then collided with Jochen Mass’ March at 120-140mph as both cars changed direction before Terlamenbocht – Mass moved his March, in fifth gear but going much slower than Villeneuve, to the right to allow the Ferrari to pass on the left – launching the Ferrari into the air and then a series of horrific cartwheels. The hapless racer suffered a fracture of the cervical vertebrae and a severed spinal chord, he died at 9:12pm that evening at the University of St Raphael Hospital in Louvain

Canada and the racing world mourned, as many still do.

Based on statistics Villeneuve isn’t one of the greats, but like Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Rindt and Peterson, Gilles is revered for the passion, brio, fire and electricity he produced in a racing car every time he jumped aboard.

When Villeneuve was on track the beer-tents emptied. The automotive acrobat was about to strut his stuff, sadly the catch-net and the gods were absent on that day in Belgium 40 short years ago.

“I know that no human being can perform miracles. But Gilles made you wonder sometimes,” quipped Jacques Laffite.

R.I.P Gilles Villeneuve. We salute you.

Credits…

MotorSport, LAT, CJ Ramstad, museegillesvilleneuve.com, Martin Lee, Leo Wybrott on auto123.com, Getty Images, ‘Gilles Villeneuve:The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver’ Gerald Donaldson

Tailpiece…

Last lap. Still on the hop, quallies useless by then but he was still on the hop…

Finito…