The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, one of the most popular on the Formula 1 calendar, will forever be in the hearts of all Canadian motorsport fans as the place where F1 legend, Gilles Villeneuve, won on home soil in 1978.
GP Traveler had the privilege to sit down with Gilles Villeneuve’s wife, la grande dame of Canadian motorsport, Joann Villeneuve. Joann had lots of great stories to tell, such as the life of the famous driver and his personal philosophy. After meeting Gilles at 16 years old, Joann became his constant companion on and off the track. Being a family man at heart, Gilles made traveling to the various international races a family affair by surrounding himself with his children in a motor home, one of whom, Jacques, inherited his late father’s passion for speed. Joann was 30 years old when fate stepped in and took Gilles from her at the Circuit Zolder in Heusden-Zolder, Belgiun in 1982. Though initially angry at the heart-shattering event, Joann Villeneuve now takes pride in not only being the wife of a great Canadian champion (and the mother of another), but also knowing that her late husband still has a place in the hearts of motorsport fans many decades later.
GPT:I’m very curious about the snow-mobile days of his racing career. What was that like?
JV:He started off with a small salesman in his home town. He started on his own during the very first races and then a local guy wanted to go racing in Quebec and that’s when I met him. He had just started snow-mobile racing. It was just a passion for him and he was the kind of guy who didn’t know…obviously he was seventeen or eighteen at the time… that he didn’t really know what he was going to do in life. And it ended up being, “oh this is a lot of fun, let’s do this more!” So that’s how it started and it became his profession.
James Hunt was present during the 1976 Grand Prix of Three Rivers (Trois Rivieres) and “discovered” Gilles. Do you remember that day?
The organization at Three Rivers would invite a few drivers from Europe, and in those days Formula One drivers accepted to come over. There were Formula Two drivers, Formula One drivers, and James was the driver that was in his [Gilles’] team. So being very competitive, he ended up winning. But what we didn’t know is that James went back to England and a very generous person said to Teddy Mayer, “you should check out this guy. He’s really quick.” We didn’t know that until we got a call from Teddy Meyer who was the boss of McLaren at the time.
Fast-forward a bit a year later to the 1977 Grand Prix at Mosport, which was his first race with Ferrari. A lot of people don’t know that the Canadian Grand Prix started in Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. What do you recall about the circuit and that race in particular?
Gilles was surprised that the car was not built for him. It was very hard to drive. It was very heavy and he had a hard time driving because it was built around Niki [Lauda] who had a totally different driving style.
Fast-forward a year later to 1978 and the Canadian Grand Prix. We all know what happened. How did you live that weekend?
If someone had written a script for a film, everyone would’ve said that we couldn’t use that script because it’s not realistic. But that’s what actually happened. It was a hard race. Obviously, being in Montreal, there was a lot of press and pressure. When it happened it was unbelievable and a great way to end the year. It was really the kind of thing that you think about and say, “wow, had someone written a script like this it would’ve been thrown out because it’s too unrealistic!”
What did you feel when you discovered that Jarier’s oil tank had leaked?
Well, it’s the sort of thing that makes you think, “wow, now let’s hope Gilles going to go to the end.” So you start to look at every lap and say, “ok, one more, one more, one more” until the end. I think it all just builds up into a crescendo until the checkered flag comes out – it’s unbelievable.
Like you said, there was a lot of pressure on Gilles, and you’re a supporting figure behind Gilles…
Well I didn’t live it as much. I kept myself busy so I don’t feel the pressure at that time. The race went by quickly and I didn’t really realize all the pressure that was on Gilles or on the race itself.
Do you feel that race was a defining moment to the sentiment that Quebec had towards Gilles? Did something change during that particular race?
What changed was the reaction to Canada, Quebec towards Formula One. Gilles was known and liked from his former Atlantic racing and snow-mobile days. He already had an aura and a reputation…I don’t know what you can call it…a “following.” All of a sudden, the public realized, “oh, Formula One can be exciting.” Formula One was not a sport that was actually that well-known in Canada and Quebec. You had that very small part of the population that were racing fans. It wasn’t “grand publique,” but all of a sudden it became “grand publique.” People realized, “hey, we have our own driver there, we have our own star!” Then they began following it more.
Do you think the Canadian Grand Prix, as we know it today, would have been the way it is today had it not been for the outcome of that particular race?
For me that’s two or three questions, so I’ll answer them all in my own order. It think Formula One racing would have become well-known because Gilles was both a Canadian and Quebecois hero. Jacques followed not long after, giving the people a new hero. The fact that Gilles won was the reason it became more “grand publique.” All of a sudden he become someone everyone wanted to follow – where he was going, how he was doing. This momentum increased during the years when Jacques started racing. If Gilles hadn’t won in Montreal it probably wouldn’t have become as big. Then Jacques continued it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen when Jacques won the championship at the Centre Bell and then in Italy, at Maranello. In both places, cameras filmed him going off the track and you saw how much Canadians were following the sport – they had continued! Gilles had started a movement of Canadians following the Formula One and then when Jacques came in, it grew and grew. Now we have a new Canadian racer [Lance Stroll] and I’ll think it’ll continue. It’s very good for the sport.
A lot of people associate Formula One with a jet-set lifestyle. But from the pictures of Gilles’ racing years, it wasn’t really the case for your family.
Well there’s two things. For one, it feels jet-set because we’re in hotels all the time while we’re traveling to different countries. Sometimes we came home quick because it’s wasn’t too far away, but when we traveled to South America or in Asia, we stayed awhile. When we came to Europe, we had our camper. We’d live in the camper around the race track. I loved it and so did Gilles, who needed that kind of life. The kids adored it because it was their home. We did both sides of the spectrum there. We did the jet-set part of it because we had to. We sometimes had to fly to the race track with a helicopter because the roads were too busy. We were in Europe for the summer season, with the kids out of school. We just loved being in the camper.
That must’ve been demanding with two kids?
I don’t know, it was just our way of life. We had someone at the race track to take care of the kids when Gilles was racing. When I came back to the camper I would do the cleaning and take care of the kids. I really couldn’t say it was demanding.
What was your relationship with Enzo [Ferrari]? Was there any particular thing that you’d like to recall?
Well I didn’t see him that much. Instead of going with Gilles to Fiorano to see him perform his tests, I stayed home with the kids who were either in school or off for vacation. He was home every now and then so I didn’t see him that much. But for me, he [Enzo] was someone that was very impressive as a person. He had a lot of presence. You could feel the space he occupied when he stood in a room. But then again, he was someone that was very easy to talk to. Obviously I didn’t speak Italian as much as I do today so conversation was much more difficult. He spoke some French so that made it a bit easier. But he was someone that was very open and easy to speak with.
What was the perception of Europeans and Italians towards Canadians?
I think they questioned the decision until they fell in love with Gilles. Everybody fell in love with Gilles so that made it all easier.
Why do you think that was? Why did they fall in love with him?
I don’t know. He just had this charisma about him. He could be standing on the podium, smiling, and his passion for racing would shine through him. I guess it’s just the way he was. He was a very quiet man and very simple. He just loved the sport and had a lot of passion for it. I guess it showed through him. He become the idol and inspiration to a lot of people.
The 1996 Canadian Grand Prix was the first year for Jacques in Formula One. Do you remember that race in particular? He finished second…he didn’t quite get the win…
He didn’t quite get the win, but then again, there’s was a lot of pressure on him. Jacques started his career in Formula Three after never having raced or formally driven so it was a hard time for him and he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. But overall, I think he was happy. He was pleased about how his season was going. Obviously, for me as a mother, the hardest part was deciding to sign the contract for him at sixteen when he wanted to start racing. You assume the worst could happen the first time you sign such a contract. It was very real for me. At one point I said, “I was married to someone who did this knowingly.” I can’t say to my son, “you can’t do that.” I just wouldn’t make sense to me accepted one [Gilles] and not the other. So I signed the contact. The hardest thing I ever did was signing something that I felt could be very dangerous. You know what can happen. You know that there’s going to be a lot of pressure on him and myself with everybody saying, “how can you think of doing that?” I’m always having to answer that. Eventually you can’t hold everyone back and you’ve got to let them fly. So that’s basically what I did.
Do you believe in fate?
Is there anything that’s happened to you or your family that you felt occurred for a reason?
Yes. You make decisions thinking that you’re in total control, but one decision might take you onto an unexpected road. That’s what I call fate.
Do you think the 97′ European Grand Prix in Jerez (Spain) was unfinished business for you and the Villeneuve name?
Not really. I can’t say that’s how I felt. I was very proud of his accomplishments. I don’t think a son can ever accomplish what a father didn’t finish. A son can be inspired by his father but they have their own road to walk. Strangely, it never occurred to me that he was finishing something. To me, it they were two different situations.
He never quite got the victory in Montreal…
I’m sure he would have loved to have that one. I think every driver dreams of winning their home race. Every driver dreams of winning their home Grand Prix for their fans and the people who supported them. Yeah, he would have loved doing that.
How would you describe the relationship Canadian audiences have had with the Montreal race over the years?
I think it’s become one of the races everyone really likes. I’ll put it this way – it’s the North American “Monaco race.” It’s in the middle of the city, there’s a lot of partying, though most of the drivers don’t party, with the exception of Sunday. All the spectators are partying throughout the weekend and having fun. Monaco’s the only other race in the world where you get that. Actually, it’s become well-known that Montreal is a great party city to go watch the race.
Gilles only won six races and never won the world championship. I can’t think of any other athlete that’s had such a profound impact on future generations without a world championship. Why do you think that is?
A big part of it is the passion. A big part of it is how he raced. He raced for the race itself and for every corner. In his mind it was, “if I’m the quickest at every corner I’ll be the quickest around the track. And if I do that at every lap, I’ll win the race.” That’s how he saw racing. It was never calculated. It was always. “I’ll give it all that I have at every turn.” That’s how he was. And I think that transpired into how the people saw him and I think that represents what a race driver should be. Other than that, I don’t know. When I go to Italy I still see people that aren’t even eighteen years old come up to me with tears in their eyes, telling me how much Gilles inspired them. He’s an inspiration to people. For one, the sky’s the limit if you work hard and have passion for something. I think that’s part of it. It’s that passion, that dedication, and that hard work that inspires people to go forward and try.
That’s a good philosophy to have…
He didn’t think of it that way. It’s just the way he was and didn’t have a thought process for it – period. Just continue and do something you love doing and be the best you can be.
Do you think he would fit into today’s Formula One?
Yeah. He would fit in any kind of Formula. He was just a racer at hear. He’d would race anything. He just loved racing. Well, he would enjoy the cars of this year more than last year. I’d have liked to see him go against the likes of Vettel and Hamilton. That would be interesting.
You told me you did some timing at the races. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well, when he started off in Formula Atlantic, he didn’t have enough money to hire a crew, so whoever has around was the crew. They put me in that situation and I started enjoying it. When you get into it and start understanding the process, you start to understand the race. This gave me a passion for racing. When we got to Formula One, there was someone doing the timing and he needed someone to write all the numbers that were coming up. Whoever did that was someone that was not working on the car. So I just said, “well I can do that” and so I ended up doing it at all the races. I loved it.
It shows you have a real passion towards the sport. A lot of wives aren’t as passionate…
You can only be passionate about something you understand. Not everyone can be a race car driver, but you still have to understand how a car works, what it does, the pieces, engineering, and the feelings of the drivers when they’re racing. I would also sit in on the debriefings which gave me the opportunity to understand the technical side of racing, which makes it all easier. After awhile you just end up interested in the sport. So even though you can’t compare the cars from those years to the cars of today, if you continue to learn about them, you’ll understand how they work and you just continue to be passionate about the sport.