Jody Scheckter knew Gilles Villeneuve well, they were teammates at Ferrari and were friends off-track too, it is fitting today 8th of May – always remembered as the day the Formula 1 legend died in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder – that we reflect on some truths about the Canadian.
Scheckter and Villeneuve were teammates at Ferrari in 1979 and 1980, the South African winning the 1979 Formula 1 World Championship title for the Italian team. A milestone only repeated 21 years later by the Italian team when Michael Schumacher launched their golden era at the tun of this century..
Over a decade ago Scheckter gave an in-depth interview with Motorsport Magazine which to this day provides great insight into Villeneuve who for many was one of the greatest F1 drivers of all times despite a short career of only 67 Grand Prix starts of which he won six.
This is what Jody had to say about his former teammate: “How good was Gilles? Well, he didn’t win the World Championship. He was capable of it, no question but he was always trying to be the fastest, not worrying about winning the title, and he paid for it.”
“If he wanted to be World Champion and concentrated on that, he would probably have lost this image of being a daredevil. Gilles might have won the title in 1982, and Ferrari was certainly capable. But you never can tell; he was still at that early stage of his career. At one time I was more aggressive, but as you grow older you realise you’ve got to finish races.”
Gilles thought fastest laps were important
“The way the points work, that’s how you become Champion. Some people never lose that stage. Gilles thought fastest laps were important and, in a way, they were; the press loved it when he put on qualifiers and went quickest.”
“I guess I wasn’t surprised by what happened to his popularity after he died. People liked his image and I suppose if you get killed in the middle of it all, you get bigger, not smaller. But I think it’s gone away a little recently, especially since Jacques has come along. Gilles is getting more forgotten now, and Jacques has achieved more than his father ever did.”
“I signed for Ferrari at the end of 1978 and at the time it wasn’t clear who’d be leaving the team. Carlos Reutemann was driving with Gilles. I met Carlos in France, and I said: I’m going to be number one, because that’s my agreement. If you stay that’s fine with me, we can work together. I think after that meeting he ran away and signed for somebody else! So my team-mate was Gilles.”
“The team orders were simple. Whoever was in front stayed there as long as you weren’t going to lose a place. If you were first and second and the third guy was a long way back you’d stay there, and if you were fifth and sixth and nobody was trying to pass, you would stay there. In other words you didn’t fight when it wasn’t necessary, and we stuck to that.”
“I didn’t really know Gilles at the start of ’79, and in fact I don’t remember the early races. Quite often you get people that come in to F1, and you don’t really notice them until they start to beat you. I suppose the first time I really paid attention was when he beat me in South Africa.
“I should have won very easily, but he ended up winning it. It was painful. I went out on dry tyres, and it was slightly wet. It was the right decision, and I was 30 seconds ahead. He started on wets then changed to dries. But my dries went off – the Michelins weren’t very solid – so the car became undriveable at the end.
We had an honest and open relationship
“He caught me up so I went in and put on a new set of tyres and started catching him again, but it was all over by then. It was at that stage that team orders came into being. He then won in Long Beach. So all of a sudden I was under massive pressure; I was the number one, but he’d won two races. This was tough stuff.
“However, I always worked very well with Gilles. We had an honest and open reletionship, which was part of our success. There was no bullshit: if he made an adjustment and went quicker, he’d tell me and I would tell him. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship, and was part of us winning the championship.
“Ferrari drivers were traditionally always fighting each other, and that’s what the press liked. Part of our skill was to keep working as a team. Gilles had a good relationship with Enzo, and would say it was friendlier than mine. He certainly had a lot of respect for Enzo; I never remember anything other than that.
“We spent a lot of time together in Monaco. He liked to dance and he liked girls. He was fun, intelligent and he was a mate. But more than anything, there was mutual respect between us.
“But I always felt he didn’t care about the tifosi. I think in his part of Canada they looked down on Italians, and I think he had that attitude. I always used to think it was funny that they liked him so much. Perhaps he was putting it on, and inside he did like them a lot, but outwardly he would make the odd remark…
“He wanted to do photography, and bought thousands of pounds worth of equipment he hardly used. Then he wanted tools, because he used to work as a mechanic. He went to Beta and bought a whole garage full of the best stuff, and never used them!
One story sums him up: he had air-conditioning and a fire so he put both on!
“I then won in Belgium and Monaco, which put me back on track but he was dominant over me was Dijon. I battled like mad, but he was quicker, and I couldn’t really work out why. That was the race where he had the fight with Amoux. I thought what they did was stupid. I told Gilles, and I think he knew it was stupid.
“I was the President of the Grand Prix Drivers Association at the time, and Gilles really worked with me. From a safety point of view he was very responsible. I think we both wanted to make it as safe as possible. That didn’t mean to say we were driving carefully; you still drove with aggression. But you felt that if something happened, you wanted to have a chance.
“I don’t think he tried to do things that put him in uncalculated danger. I think from that point of view he was a responsible driver. He always had this image of being crazy, and he wasn’t really. He was only crazy when he wanted to be, it was his image.
“I always tell the story about driving from Monaco with him. I didn’t want to do it, because I hated to be a passenger. But the whole time he drove perfectly, until we got just outside Modena, and soon the wheels were spinning and he started sliding around and everything. That was the proof of what I felt.
“I also remember going with him in his helicopter, and again once we got over Modena he started his tricks again. I stopped that really quickly. I hated flying. He was going down and then up. I said you better stop now or I’ll wring your neck. He knew I meant it.
“Zandvoort was really the turning point that year. I messed up the clutch at the start, and dropped to the back. He was at the front, and then his tyre went down, which was pretty spectacular. I went through the field and came second behind Alan Jones, and that really put me into a dominant position.
I knew Gilles was doing these silly things
“I had it under control in Monza. What gave me confidence was I knew Gilles was doing these silly things to keep his image up and that gave me comfort. He was testing qualifiers and getting the quickest times, and I was sticking to hard tyres and testing bits of the car I knew would help me in the race.
“In qualifying I think that was the biggest gap between us all year, and in the race I was quicker. As soon as Jacques Laffite dropped out, I cut my revs back and sat ahead of Gilles. Only on the last lap did I accelerate away again. Although I trusted him, I didn’t want to take a chance; it was too important a thing to take a chance with!
“I think we were professionals. We tried as hard as we could and the one who came out in front, won. There were lots of times when he was faster than I was, and times when I was faster than he was.
“We raced hard, and I beat him. I won the Championship because in the races that counted I got out in front, and was in front when it settled down. At that stage there was no point in fighting. There were no circumstances where he had to give up a place to me, so I don’t think it was frustrating for him.
The 1980 car was a disaster
Gilles had very good performances in it. I didn’t. I was more advanced in my career, and found it very difficult racing for tenth place, whereas he just drove. He brought it near the front a few times, which I couldn’t do. I announced my retirement halfway through the year, and felt out of place soon after I did that. The cause wasn’t there, like it had been before. You were retiring, you were last year’s driver.
“After I retired there was talk of Gilles starting a team. I don’t think he ever felt tied to Maranello. Gilles would have left Ferrari if he felt he could go where he would win races. From that point of view I don’t think he was particularly sentimental.
“There was supposedly a sponsor – a cigarette company – that had masses of money to help him start this team. I think he would have liked his own team, and he was quite excited doing something like that, and the idea was that I was going to be team manager.
“I volunteered to look into it, and found out this guy was nobody, a bullshitter basically. I came back to Gilles with the news. If the sponsor was real, it could have happened. Later we had a bit of an argument over something personal, and I didn’t see him for a year.
“However, after Didier Pironi overtook him at Imola in 1982 to steal the win, he called and we went to Modena in his helicopter. I suppose a relationship is worth more than one argument; at least that’s what I felt.
“We talked a lot. He hated what had happened at Imola. He realised what a good relationship we’d had, and that we never double-crossed each other, and we were very honest and open, and that Pironi hadn’t been that way with him. I don’t think he ever thought that it could ever happen.
Gilles was a really genuine, honest guy
“In fact if he had a weakness he was honest to the point of being naive. He trusted Pironi. It would have affected him badly for quite a while, and I say that because very honest, naive people are shocked when something like that happens to them. Crooks think that’s the way it should happen. If he had not trusted Pironi, could he have avoided that situation? Probably.
“I think at Zolder he was under massive pressure to beat Pironi, who had been faster than him in early qualifying. In F1 we all had problems with that sort of situation; I well remember nearly smashing into a TV cameraman at Monaco, because I thought Gilles was quicker than me, but it turned out I had been quicker. You’re trying so hard, you get so aggressive.
“I certainly got angry in a racing car a lot of times. You get to the end of practice and are so wound up and wanting to go for it, you do stupid things. I don’t know exactly what happened at Zolder, but it seems to me that’s the most likely reason for the accident. Gilles took a chance that didn’t pay off. He went for a gap that wasn’t there, and he got caught. I’ve done it myself, and got away with it.
“That weekend I was in Monaco, and had just had an operation. I got a call from Zolder, I went straight to see his wife, Joanne. My wife went to Belgium with her. A couple of days later we all went on a Canadian Air Force plane to Montreal for the funeral.
“I spent a year after he died working on his sponsorship deals, getting all the money I could for his family. I suppose I took it upon myself as my task. I had a cause and negotiated with Ferrari for a massive amount of money and got rather more money than I really should have done, by putting pressure on them.
For a long time, I really didn’t keep in touch with Joanne and the family
I had no contact with Jacques until I met him in Monaco when he was doing Formula Three. He was complaining about how difficult everything was and I thought to myself, “You’ll never make it!” The next time I remember seeing him is on TV in America, after he won the Indy 500. I thought, “Boy, that is incredible.” I felt good for him. His father would have been proud.
“I think poor Jacques is completely run out on questions about Gilles. It’s nearly become a complex for him, or at least that how it seems from the outside. There’s nothing that really stands out in terms of similarities between them; you wouldn’t know they were father and son. In a way it almost seems that Jacques is trying to do the opposite to his father.
“I wouldn’t have thought that Gilles would like Formula One in 1999. He was a racer, and he probably would have got into the grooved tyre argument. But if he had the same spirit he would probably have still made holes in places where there weren’t any…
Scheckter’s recollections are stark, brutally honest and raw, devoid of glorification of Villeneuve, but it is worth remembering what he said at the legend’s funeral, “I’ll miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. Second, he was the fastest racing driver in the history of motor racing.”