"He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One – he was a sensitive, lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser, which made him such a unique human being" Nikki Lauda
Gilles Villeneuve was born in Canada in 1950 and started in local drag racing events in 1967 with a modified Ford Mustang before moving to Formula Ford running his own car and winning 7 of the 10 races. The next year he progressed to Formula Atlantic, competing for four years, winning the Championship in 1976 and '78. Money was very tight in Villeneuve's early career. He was a professional racing driver from his late teens, with no other income. In the first few years the bulk of his income actually came from snowmobile racing, where he was extremely successful. He could demand appearance money as well as race money, especially after winning the 1974 World Championship Snowmobile Derby. He credited some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain.
In 1977 McLaren offered Villeneuve a drive in Formula 1 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He came a respectable 11th. They didn't keep him on which made him available to Ferrari who offered him a drive at the end of the season of '77.
Villeneuve scored his first win at his home track, Montreal, which is now named after him. He is the only Canadian who has ever won here. He went on to win five more times, taking two poll positions over a six year period. Not only was he known for his risk taking, and late breaking antics, he was also phenomenal in the wet. Many remember the US Grand Prix on an extremely wet Friday afternoon practice session; Gilles came in ten seconds faster than any other driver on the track. He was paired with Jody Schechter at this time but despite their rivalry, Villeneuve followed team orders, at Monza this meant not claiming the championship for himself, but coming second only four points behind.
By 1982 Gilles had a new teammate, Didier Pironi who did have Villeneuve's racing integrity; at San Marino Pironi overtook him on the last corner to win the race. Villeneuve was furious and vowed never to speak to him again. Sadly this wish was granted at the very next Grand Prix when Gilles came up too fast behind the slower car of Jochen Mass, they crashed at over 150 miles an hour, Villeneuve was thrown 100 metres from his car, still attached to his seat. John Watson and Derek Warwick got to him first and pulled him out of the safety fence, but his neck was broken and he was already dead. At the funeral in Berthierville former teammate Jody Scheckter delivered a simple eulogy: "I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there."