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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Remembering Gilles Villeneuve's last Atlantic race

by Gordon Kirby
Gilles was seriously upset with himself. We were in Quebec City in September of 1977 for the final race in that year's Labatt's Atlantic championship and Villeneuve had just crashed for the second time in two days. Villeneuve was trying--against the odds it seemed that afternoon--to win his second consecutive North American Formula Atlantic championship at the same time that he was wrestling with some serious Formula 1 contract-trading between McLaren, Ferrari and common sponsor Marlboro. But now, while going for the pole in the final qualifying session, he had smacked the guardrail while chasing a slower car through one of the street circuit's tight chicanes.

Two months earlier Gilles had made an impressive F1 debut aboard a McLaren in the British GP, but McLaren boss Teddy Mayer decided he didn't want the French-Canadian. Mayer thought Villeneuve was too aggressive, too wild, and the promises of a third McLaren for the Canadian and United States GPs had been withdrawn. Villeneuve had also talked to Bernie Ecclestone about driving for the Brabham team and in the week before the Quebec City race Gilles and his manager had flown to Italy to talk to Ferrari about a possible drive in the Canadian and Japanese GPs and a contract for 1978.

But nothing was settled and the last thing Villeneuve needed in the middle of trying to launch his F1 career was to throw away the Atlantic championship amid a skein of crashed cars. Yet that's exactly what looked likely to happen that Saturday afternoon in Quebec City thirty-two years ago and as Gilles stalked back to the pits, leaving his crumpled car laying against the guardrail, he was absolutely furious.

"Oh, it was my fault," Villeneuve snapped as he strode past me. "I was following a slower car into the corner and I just wasn't paying attention the way I should've been."

© Marc Sproule
Back in the pits, he knew his team was going to be equally unhappy because they had spent the previous night building a new car after Gilles had collided with another crashed car on Friday. The first accident wasn't his fault but it wrote-off his regular car and now the freshly-built spare car was also badly bent. The team lacked the parts required to build yet another car so Villeneuve was forced to take over teammate Richard Spenard's car for Sunday's race. This wasn't the way the script was supposed to read.

Villeneuve had spent four long years in Atlantic. After many years of snowmobiling and one season of Formula Ford he parlayed some of his snowmobile prize money to help pay for his first year of Atlantic in 1974. His car was run that year by Kris Harrison's little Ecurie Canada team but at Mosport in the middle of the season Gilles crashed and broke his leg. With sponsorship from snowmobile manufacturer Skiroule he ran his own car in 1975, scoring his first Atlantic win in drenching rain at a remote airport circuit in Gimli, Manitoba.

Villeneuve showed what he could do that year and Kris Harrison hired him again for the '76 season to drive Ecurie Canada's Marches. Harrison also hired former March F1 and F2 team manager Ray Wardell to run the team and Gilles was almost irresistable in '76, winning nine of ten races he started and taking both the Canadian and IMSA Atlantic championships.

At the Trois Rivieres street circuit in '76 he not only added another win to his belt but he also defeated a brace of F1 drivers led by Alan Jones and defending world champion James Hunt. Both were mightily impressed with Villeneuve's driving and when Hunt got home he raved about Gilles to McLaren bosses Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, and to sponsor Marlboro too.

Hunt's enthusiasm convinced Mayer and Alexander to give Villeneuve a try and after a fast, spin-filled test he made his F1 debut in the 1977 British GP at Silverstone. A fantastic showing was muffled by a faulty water temperature gauge which forced Villeneuve to make a pitstop. But as fast as he clearly was Teddy Mayer believed Gilles would crash too many cars and the relationship cooled. As the season wore on, Mayer decided to hire Patrick Tambay instead of Villeneuve.

Meanwhile, back in North America, Gilles's Atlantic season wasn't going as well as hoped. Villeneuve was able to win only two of the first six Atlantic races of '77 and he arrived in Quebec City trailing wily Atlantic veteran Bill Brack by three points with Keke Rosberg, Price Cobb and Bobby Rahal also in championship contention.

Some people were saying that weekend that Villeneuve was going to crumble under the pressure but one man who had complete faith in Gilles's ability was Andy Roe who was chief mechanic on Villeneuve's cars at Ecurie Canada in 1974, '76 and '77. Roe was a very funny man who went on to fly helicopters in Alaska and Canada's great white north, and I enjoyed a long chat with Roe the morning before practice began in Quebec City.

© Marc Sproule
"The kid's drive is tremendous!" Roe grinned. "Everything he does, he wants to do better than anyone else. You know, last year his emotionalism--I guess you'd call it that--but all that disappeared from him. The way it is now, if one of us makes a mistake, it doesn't bother him. He thinks, that's their problem and it's their job to get it right. And he'll just sit there looking completely unconcerned and leave us to it."

Roe always referred to Gilles as 'The Kid' and his enthusiasm for his driver was almost unlimited.

"Before he became a hero last year (in 1976), he told Ray (Wardell) in a very serious voice that he was going to win every race in North America. Ray said, 'Don't be silly. That's a foolish attitude.' And we all thought the same. Then of course, he went out and did it!"

Roe chuckled heartily, then continued his story-telling.

"Just before he left for the British GP this year he said to us, 'Who won the last race?' 'Andretti,' we said. So Gilles said, 'Well, he better enjoy his victory party while he can because he won't have many more.' He really is amazing!"

If anyone thought Villeneuve's driving was all about big cojones and nothing else, Roe wanted them to know his driver enjoyed an extremely sensitive feel for his car.

"Once, we put an engine into the car and right away he said it was no good," Roe related. "He said he was sure it would blow up if he put any miles on it. Well we took it out and checked it and found nothing wrong. And we were thinking, 'Oh, these drivers. They're all the same.'

"Then we put the engine on the dyno, ran it for a bit, and of course, it blew up! It turned out there had been a minute crack in the crank and Gilles somehow felt it! Amazing."

Roe had another story to tell about Villeneuve's sensitivity.

"We were getting along at one race this year, down to fine-tuning the wings and getting ready for 'The Kid' to do his big effort. We raised the tab on the rear wing just a little and Gilles went out, and after a few laps he came in and said, 'It was good for a while and then something went wrong.'

© Marc Sproule
"We looked over everything and couldn't find anything wrong. So we changed a few things anyway and he went out again. Then he came in again, still a bit unhappy. So we changed some other things and off he went again. Finally, he came in one more time and said, 'It's all OK, but there's still something wrong back there. It's a bit wavery at the right rear.'

"Well, that made us have a really close look and we finally found the wing tab had slipped down about an eighth of an inch on the rightside! We fixed that and he went out again, and it was fine. He was completely happy with the car and just blitzed them!"

Roe laughed roundly as he finished his story and on raceday in Quebec City Villeneuve confirmed Roe's faith in him with an almost perfect performance. Starting from the second row he was through to the lead after only five laps and when second-placed Bill Brack crashed midway through the race Villeneuve was left with an eight-second lead over Bobby Rahal. Brack arrived in Quebec City with the championship lead so his demise put Gilles in the catbird seat. Everything was looking good to win both the race and the championship, but Villeneuve then made another mistake, missing his braking point and sliding down an escape road.

"It was like yesterday all over again," Gilles rolled his eyes after the race. "I was following a slower car and I was dreaming a bit, and I missed my braking! But this time I decided to go down the escape road rather than try to make the corner."

He didn't hit anything and quickly rejoined without drama, but Rahal had taken the lead and was driving beautifully. It was going to be tough to catch and pass Rahal but Villeneuve attacked with his usual brio and was beginning to get in range when Rahal's engine lapsed onto three cylinders. Bobby had to make for the pits and Gilles drove on to score a comfortable win and wrap-up the championship.

"It's too bad Bobby's car went wrong," Villeneuve grinned after the race. "Because I would have soon caught him and we would've had a good race. And I would have beaten him of course!"

At that evening's victory banquet someone started throwing bread rolls. Gilles responded in a flash, firing back a barrage of rolls as if he was a heavy artillery commander. The next day Gilles and his manager flew to Italy to sign a two-year contract with Ferrari and two weeks later he would make his Ferrari debut in the Canadian GP at Mosport. It had been a turbulent weekend in Quebec City for Gilles, but on that Sunday evening we knew he was on his way.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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