Book Review: Gilles Villeneuve (Gerald Donaldson)

Villeneuve Cover

You can barely begin to debate who holds claim to the title of greatest Formula One driver of all time without Gilles Villeneuve popping up. Born in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu hospital on January 18th, 1952, the French Canadian showcased to the world his innate talent behind the wheel in breath-taking style. An acrobat of the racetrack, Villeneuve’s impetuous driving style hypnotised fans and drivers alike and his boyish smile fronted a shyness that would characterise Villeneuve’s life away from the wheel. The only thing that holds Gilles back from being a definite contender for the title was a World Championship – a goal he came so dreadfully close to achieving in 1979.

That’s what’s re-hashed in every Gilles Villeneuve biography that pops up every so often.

Gerald Donaldson’s book explains so much more.

The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver is 298 pages of pure investigation. A story so rarely told, yet held in such high esteem, needs to be recorded to a degree of accuracy that leaves few questions unanswered. Providing great insight into the professional and personal life of Gilles Villeneuve, Donaldson has created a work that renders all alternatives obsolete.

Villeneuve, a hero to many, has been encapsulated brilliantly by Donaldson. Photo © motorsportretro.com

Villeneuve, a hero to many, has been encapsulated brilliantly by Donaldson. Photo © motorsportretro.com

Donaldson guides the reader through Gilles’s early days in Richelieu, his first encounters with the women of the town and his early experiences with family cars, his brilliance in sports cars and snow mobiles, his personal battles and less-publicised misdemeanours through to his highest goal – Formula One and his short experiences with McLaren and his deep loyalty to Scuderia Ferrari. In a single review you cannot stress the level of information Donaldson has uncovered to detail Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve’s all-too-short life.

Filled with a number of touching quotes from both Gilles, his family and colleagues, the biography is a treasure trove of anecdotes and interesting facts. From friends, family and police officers recalling the young Villeneuve’s escapades on the Quebec open roads to McLaren and Ferrari personnel, Donaldson left few stones unturned in his quest to ascertain the complete Gilles Villeneuve story. You’ll need to read this to truly understand why Villeneuve is held in such high esteem.

Another brilliant piece of work by Gerald Donaldson.

4/5

 

On his return to Europe, when Gilles touched down at Nice airport on the Cote d’Azur, there were more journalistic vultures circling over his head. ‘Crazy Overtaker’ was a milder term among several that alluded to his propensity of leaving the ground. Other descriptive flights of fancy included ‘Air Canada’ and ‘The Pilot’, and there were jokes that he would soon become a friend of Lauda’s (an avid aviator and the proprietor of his own airline, Lauda Air, now a successful commercial enterprise) because they were both keen on flying. Even some of the Ferrari mechanics nicknamed Gilles ‘Flyer’ because ‘he spends more time flying than he spends on the track’.

But while Antonio Tomaini and his work force grumbled about having to labour longer repairing his cars, they appreciated the interest Gilles took in what they did. This was no prima donna who treated his mechanics as servants and showed up at the last minute to drive. Gilles spent hours with his crew, as if he were just one of the boys, and actually enjoyed getting his hands dirty. Then, when the last nut was tightened, he would hop in the car and proceed to use it for its intended purpose to a degree the Ferrari men had rarely seen. Such was the case during qualifying at Monaco where the Ferrari pit watched, with awe and apprehension in equal measures, as Gilles went to work.

Their T3 came hurtling around the corner like some unguided missile, defying gravity and several other laws of physics. At nearly right angle to the road and a few centimetres from the steel barriers, with the fat rear Michelins sending up puffs of blue smoke and Forghieri’s 312B motor screaming just a few revs this side of disintegration, Gilles seemed completely out of control. Barely protruding above the tiny plexiglass windscreen of the number 12 red-and-white winged projectile, Gilles’s helmet was cocked in a defiant attitude, his white-gloved hands whirling in a flurry of activity, making vigorous corrections on the saucer-sized steering wheel as he struggled to avoid the inevitable accident.

Somehow, at the last possible instant, milliseconds before the T3 cannoned into the rails or spun around madly to bite its tail, Gilles gathered it all together and caught the spectacular power slide. Winding off the opposite lock to straighten out the front wheels in the approximate direction of the Ste Devote hairpin, he smashed the gear lever into third, fourth, fifth, as quickly as the words can be said, and catapulted spectacularly sideways down the pit straight in a roar of noise that shook the very foundations of the principality of Monaco.

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