Scuderia Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto has joked that he is “lucky” not to have to manage a driver like Gilles Villeneuve in modern Formula 1, as the Ferrari boss was present at an event that commemorated the Canadian racing driver’s life, who spent six years in Grand Prix motor racing with the Italian side, winning six races and widespread acclaim for his performances
On May 8, it will be 40 years since the crash that claimed Gilles Villeneuve’s life. On May 8, 1982, Gilles Villeneuve died after an accident during the final qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. With eight minutes of the session left, the Ferrari driver came over the rise after the first chicane and caught Jochen Mass travelling much more slowly through Butte, the left-handed bend before the Terlamenbocht double right-hand section. Mass saw Villeneuve approaching at high speed and moved to the right to let him through on the racing line. At the same instant Gilles Villeneuve also moved right to pass the slower car. The Ferrari hit the back of Mass’ car and was launched into the air at a speed estimated at 200 to 225 km/h (124 to 140 mph). It was airborne for more than 100 m (330 ft) before nosediving into the ground and disintegrating as it somersaulted along the edge of the track. Gilles Villeneuve, still strapped to his seat, but without his helmet, was thrown a further 50 m (160 ft) from the wreckage into the catch fencing on the outside edge of the Terlamenbocht corner.
Many drivers stopped and rushed to the scene of the crash. John Watson and Derek Warwick pulled Villeneuve, his face blue, from the catch fence. The first doctor arrived within 35 seconds to find that the Ferrari driver was not breathing, although his pulse continued; he was intubated and ventilated before being transferred to the circuit medical centre and then by helicopter to University St Raphael Hospital in Leuven where a fatal fracture of the neck was diagnosed.
Gilles Villeneuve was kept alive on life support while his wife travelled to the hospital and the doctors consulted specialists worldwide. He died at 21:12 CEST (UTC+2). An inquiry into the accident was led by Derek Ongaro, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) safety inspector. The investigation concluded that an error from the Canadian driver caused him to strike Mass’ car and exonerated the latter of any responsibility for the tragic incident at Zolder.
Since that moment, few have come to realize what being a Formula 1 driver means. Gilles Villeneuve took only six race victories during his F1 career, while his son, Jacques, went on to have a more successful career and was able to become Formula 1 world champion in 1997. However, Villeneuve senior has always been one of the most widely loved drivers in the history of the sport.
While modern Formula 1 drivers have to also focus on other tasks and be much more disciplined when driving the car to save fuel or manage the tyres, the Canadian was of a different era and it was this all-or-nothing attitude that made him a fans’ favourite of not just the sport but particularly with Ferrari fans.
One particular fan has gone on to have quite the influence at the Maranello team and is now in charge of the Maranello team as he hopes to lead Ferrari it its first Drivers’ title since Kimi Räikkönen won back in 2007: “I had his poster hanging in my room,” Mattia Binotto explained, as reported by Italian daily newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport – “I am lucky not to have to manage a driver like him. Mine are disciplined, they know how to manage tyres, strategies. But Gilles, with his passion, embodies well the hashtag that is Ferrari. He won only six races, but nobody has nurtured the myth of the Prancing Horse like him.” – he added.
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Mattia Binotto was with Gilles Villeneuve’s mechanics and engineers in Maranello for the premiere of the documentary “L’aviatore”, which is a film about Gilles Villeneuve’s life that will be released on the 40th anniversary of his death during qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, and in the past he has been wary about comparing the Canadian’s style with current Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc.
“It would be the same as comparing footballers from different eras. Gilles was a brave driver, always on the limit. Talking about tactics and strategy was pointless with him and Enzo Ferrari fell in love with that. Compared to today, fortunately I don’t have to manage someone like Gilles. People often compare Gilles with Charles, but there is a big difference in the comparison with now – which is the risk these guys took. Before, an accident could take away their legs and feet. Today, fortunately, safety in Formula 1 has improved dramatically. Ferrari have been very active in this journey. If Gilles had raced in today’s cars, he would still be here. This is also a tribute to Formula 1 and to Ferrari that has always been instrumental in this growth.” – the Ferrari boss concluded.
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