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Inspiring Canadians - In Sport and Life

Honoured Member

GILLES VILLENEUVE

Inducted in 1983

Member Details

Date of Birth: January 18, 1950
Place of Birth: St. Jean, Quebec
Date of Passing: May 8, 1982
Sport: Auto Racing
Member Category: Athlete

Career Highlights

1978

Canadian Grand Prix

1979

South African, Long Beach and Watkins Glen Grand Prix

1981

Spanish and Monaco Grand Prix

Honoured Member GILLES VILLENEUVE
Inspire

Story

A man as soft-spoken and introspective off the race track as he was intense on it, Gilles Villeneuve understood both the risks and rewards of Formula One auto racing. He began racing snowmobiles at 17 and by 1974 was the world champion. A year earlier, however, he had begun pursuing his true passion--auto racing. In 1973, Villeneuve began racing on the Formula Ford series and was named the rookie of the year. The following year, he progressed to the more challenging Formula Atlantic circuit. He recorded his first victory in 1975, at Gimli, Manitoba, and won the series championship in both 1976 and 1977. Villeneuve attracted the attention of the elite Formula One racing circuit in 1977. He joined the McLaren team mid-year and raced in the British Grand Prix, finishing eleventh. McLaren was worried about Villeneuve's aggressive driving style and, before the season was out, he had joined Ferrari, the team with which he would race for the remainder of his career. Villeneuve's results, however, did nothing to dissuade the critics who said that he was too aggressive and reckless to be successful. He finished only three of the first seven races in 1978. But, he capped the year in style, winning his first-ever Formula One race - a victory made all the more special because it came in front of a cheering hometown crowd of 70,000 at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Villeneuve blossomed as a world-class auto racer in the 1979 Formula One season. He won three races that year - one in South Africa and two in the U.S. - and finished second in the overall Formula One championship standings, behind teammate Jody Scheckter. He was honoured at year's end by Canadian Press with the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada's male athlete of the year. Nevertheless, the next two seasons were difficult ones for both Villeneuve and Ferrari, as the team struggled to adjust to technological changes in Formula One cars. After not finishing higher than fifth in any race in 1980, Villeneuve rebounded in 1981. He won two races - including a victory on the famed road course at the Monaco Grand Prix - and gained praise for a third place finish in Montreal where he completed the race with a damaged front wing obscuring his view. Villeneuve entered 1982 generally acknowledged as one of the most skilled drivers on the Formula One circuit, combining a daring style with technical ability, and destined one day to win the overall championship. Such lofty expectations, however, were not to be fulfilled. His best race in 1982 was a second-place finish at San Marino. In May, he travelled to Zonder for qualifying runs for the Belgian Grand Prix. Villeneuve had already set a track record of 272 km/h when he decided to race one more lap. On the fast Terlamenbocht curve he came upon the slower car of German Jochen Mass. Mass moved right to allow Villenueve to pass on the left as was standard practice. The Canadian, however, chose to pass on the right where there was more room. The two cars touched tires and Villeneuve's Ferrari cartwheeled off the track throwing the driver from the car. Seven hours later, at a hospital in Louvain, Belgium, the 32-year-old Villeneuve was pronounced dead. At his funeral in his hometown of Berthierville, Quebec, 25,000 mourners paid their respects, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque. The town is now home to the Gilles Villeneuve Museum, and the Canadian Grand Prix course in Montreal has been renamed in Villeneuve's honour, as has the street leading to Ferrari's Italian headquarters. And the Villeneuve name lives on in Formula Racing through Villeneuve's son, Jacques, who in 1997 captured the Formula One championship his father never won.


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