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, forumula1.com’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.