Gilles Villeneuve

His Untold Life from Berthierville to Zolder

Reviewed by Phil Koch

Posted March 18, 2020

Gilles Villeneuve was the first Canadian driver to win a Formula One motor race, and he did it in 1978 at the first event held in Montreal, less than a hundred kilometres from his hometown of Berthierville, Quebec. His career at the top level of motorsport lasted less than five years. Yet the deceased former Ferrari driver remains one of the most beloved and, for the most part, respected F1 racers — as demonstrated by the many interviews in the book Gilles Villeneuve: His Untold Life from Berthierville to Zolder.

Sports journalist Károly Méhes became a Villeneuve fan while growing up in Hungary. For this book he spoke and corresponded with the driver’s former competitors, racing team owners, sponsors, other journalists, and even Villeneuve’s wife, Joann, and son, Jacques — who in 1997 became Canada’s only Formula One world champion. Besides interviews with several other world champions, Méhes’ book includes tremendous photos of races and trackside life.

Gilles’ best season was in 1979, his second full year in F1, when he won three races and placed second in the championship. Then Ferrari sporting director Marco Piccinini said Villeneuve “was always on the limit and often beyond! But that was his genuine nature, which all Ferrari’s fans around the world deeply loved.”

One famous on-the-limit event was Villeneuve’s battle with his French competitor and friend René Arnoux for second place at the 1979 French Grand Prix, where the two drivers banged wheels during the race’s closing laps before the Canadian driver claimed the higher podium spot. In an interview with Méhes, Arnoux called it “the best race in the world!”

Even when driving a less-competitive car, Villeneuve managed victories that endeared him to Ferrari fans — such as in 1981 at the Monaco Grand Prix, Formula One’s pinnacle event, and at the next race in Spain, where he held off four other drivers who finished within 1.24 seconds of the lead. Villeneuve died from a crash during practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

Buy this book from Chapters-Indigo

This article originally appeared in the April-May 2020 issue of Canada’s History.

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