Book review: Gilles Villeneuve by Gerald Donaldson

In the month following the 30th anniversary of the tragic death of one of the greatest racing drivers ever, Gilles Villeneuve,’s Hugh Podmore came across his biography in a charity shop in South London. Here, he reviews the book, written by legendary F1 journalist Gerald Donaldson.

This book charts Villeneuve’s rise through snowmobiling, through Formula Atlantic and into F1, right up to his death in Zolder in 1982. Those close to the French Canadian, such as wife Joann, Jody Scheckter and manager Gaston Parent, feature prominently, and add a great deal of insight into the life of the man who became a legend. Notable contributions also come from Enzo Ferrari and his contemporaries like James Hunt and Niki Lauda, but a significant proportion of the book consists of Donaldson’s account of watching Villeneuve behind the wheel.

Villeneuve’s daredevil style was renowned and much loved. His unwillingness to lift from the throttle, yield a position or accept that a race was over was the stuff of fairy story, and putting that magic into print can be a challenging task. It is, however, one that Donaldson usually manages, conveying the passion, dynamism and above all speed with which Villeneuve undertook his art.

Further than that, Donaldson often enlightens even the knowledgeable reader. Villeneuve’s style, though obviously treated by the author with the careful reverence it probably deserves, is shown to be the causative factor behind many of Villeneuve’s not infrequent shunts. Jody Scheckter also tentatively suggests that mechanical misfortune could also be the fault of the little French Canadian, as his penchant for thrashing up and down through the gears wore the patience of a number of Ferrari mechanics and engineers, not to mention their driveshafts. Scheckter’s triumph over Villeneuve in the 1979 world championship was perhaps, then, a victory for reticence and controlled aggression, rather than out and out charging with no perspective.

And it is here that probably inadvertently, the Villeneuve story as told by Donaldson loses some of its sheen. Villeneuve lost out on his best chance of championship glory in ’79 because he was too demanding of himself, the machinery and the track, flaws which may also have led to his death. There is a strong argument that he was driving with anger in his eyes when he came across the slowing Jochen Mass in qualifying in Zolder in 1982, and that his traditional refusal to lift off was the direct cause of his death. Donaldson has it that his time had run out; perhaps luck running out would be more apposite.

Donaldson’s periodic tendency to recount stories of public highway felonies also detracts from the man’s mystique, although the author’s intention is clearly the opposite. Villeneuve often drove recklessly and illegally on the roads of Europe, and more than once an autograph sufficed as bribery for the authorities. Donaldson’ stance is that Gilles refused to lift driving anything, and always did everything at the maximum; but that is rather unsatisfactory, considering that often he was carrying passengers like his wife and young children. That is not big or clever, and is certainly not to be tacitly endorsed. Joann’s account of Gilles’ extravagant purchase of a large powerboat, its fitting out with oversize engines, and his insistence on taking youngsters Jacques and Melanie out in it, is mind-numbing in its stupidity.

As such it may be difficult for the reader of this book to accord such a Villeneuve the mythological demi-god status that many do. What cannot be called into question was his fierce determination, sheer passion, and rapidity. Stories of his sterling defensive effort to keep the superior pack behind him at Jarama in 1981, or his magnificent drives in the rain, or the wheel-banging duel with Arnoux in Dijon, themselves speak for the man. As does his willingness to follow the Ferrari credo as he understood it in Italy in 1979, declining to challenge Scheckter in the closing stages.

That not everyone acceded to the same scrupulous code of honour (some would say naivety) would ultimately be Villeneuve’s undoing. He stuck to a pre-arranged team agreement not to ‘race’ at Imola in 1982 in the bastardised race entered by only a handful of cars. But race his team mate Didier Pironi did, re-taking Gilles repeatedly, taking the race win, and ‘stealing’ it in Villeneuve’s eyes. Perhaps the greatest accolade that could be accorded him was that Pironi probably thought he was in an actual race, whereas Villeneuve slowed immediately after passing his team mate, thinking that he could cruise from there on in as per team orders. The ins and outs of this battle are well-documented, and this column will be the most recent to avoid laying total culpability at Pironi’s door – but Villeneuve left Imola seething.

And that was the anger that would kill him. Donaldson alludes to this, but stops short of outright statement. For the author, perhaps, Villeneuve’s fury was a contributing factor to the accident. But to me it was the catalyst, the final straw, when the gap did not materialise, and the luck finally ran out. Villeneuve himself had a strong sense of foreboding – ‘one of these days I’m going to have a really big accident,’ he said.

Ultimately, that is what makes him such a hero, and this book so eminently readable. As F1 fans we idolise those who push the limits and who fear little, who are so often so close to the edge that they have stepped over it. In a club of very, very few – a sole other who immediately springs to mind is Ayrton Senna – Villeneuve stands proud. He was quite simply too fast for his own good, too good for his own good. He must, therefore, stand very high in the pantheon of great F1 drivers.

Sid Watkins: Life at the Limit – Triumph and Tragedy in F1

Sid Watkin's Book: Life at the Limit - Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One

Sid Watkins: Life at the Limit – Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One

‘Life at the Limit – Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One’ are the memoirs of on-track doctor, Professor Sid Watkins if there is a crash, it is he who must get there first.

Watkins is highly respected amongst those whom he works and has been a pivotal character in improving the safety in Formula One racing. His book houses vivid and moving collections of motor sport crashes between 1978 and 1994 including many where drivers have sadly lost their lives, treading a line between autobiography and documentary.

Despite the serious nature of the book, Watkins has retained a dry wit and sense of humour which is infused into his writing. Life in the Fast Lane is a touching yet informative book which provides a truly fascinating insight into Formula One and the evolution of safety and medical facilities within the sport.

Buy Sid Watkin’s Book: ‘Life at the Limit – Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One’ here

Steve Matchett: The Mechanic’s Tale

Steve Matchett: The Mechanic's Tale

Steve Matchett: The Mechanic’s Tale

The Mechanic s Tale is a follow-up to Matchett s book, Life in the Fast Lane. The book is well-written and entertaining throughout, telling of a young mechanic and his life from apprentice through to Ferrari mechanic and his later success with the Benetton F1 team.

There are plenty of eye-witness accounts of all the greats of the era from Michael Schumacher to Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost to Ayrton Senna. Matchett writes with wit and intelligence and provides an excellent overview to what life is like in the fast lane. Despite this, the book is not chronological or a collection of racing adventures it is semi-autobiographical so Matchett also takes us through some personal, non-F1 related memories such as an ill-fated ballooning trip.

Technology in F1 moves so quickly that the book is now slightly out-dated however even if you are not a Formula One fan, this book is an excellent read and comes highly recommended.

Buy Steve Matchett’s Book ‘The Mechanic’s Tale’ here

Lewis Hamilton: My Story

Lewis Hamilton: My Story

Lewis Hamilton: My Story

It seems slightly strange that Lewis Hamilton has chosen to write his autobiography after just one season in Formula 1. However, given his explosive entrance into the sport during one of the most exciting and turbulent years in living memory, there was plenty for the youngster to write about.

Lewis Hamilton: My Story kicks off with a look at his early career, and then moves from his karting days right through to his first season at the pinnacle of motor sport. The book gives some insight as to what drives (no pun intended) the driver and provides an in-depth look at his colourful life both on and off the track. The book details the sacrifices his father made to further his career, how he himself coped with being on the move all the time, and how he overcame the mental and physical challenges facing every one of today s F1 drivers.

Perhaps the biggest draw of this book is his take on his debut season in Formula One a season which has seen much controversy and excitement. Hamilton details his four race wins, the high-speed crash at the Nurburgring which saw him stretchered to the Medical Centre, his rivalry with McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso, and his special relationship with Team Principle and CEO Ron Dennis a relationship that was fostered when the precocious nine year-old, wearing a borrowed suit, strode up to Dennis and announced that he would one day drive for McLaren!

Overall, ‘Lewis Hamilton: My Story’ is a surprisingly honest and open account of the life of a young driver from Stevenage who sacrificed everything to reach the heady heights of F1 it is a book that every F1 fan should have, but a warning, if you are anything like us, it will leave you very envious!

Buy Lewis Hamilton: My Story here.