Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Sports - Gilles Villeneuve 25 years later

Villeneuve with Enzo Ferrari

25 years ago today we lost Gilles Villeneuve in a tragic crash while qualifying at Zolder. It was difficult for Americans to follow Formula 1 until ESPN took over the television rights in the late 80's and ABC's Wide World of Sports was our only option. Even then we only got the races a week later on tape delay and heavily edited. But it was difficult to miss Villeneuve's tragic death that year.

Villeneuve had a reputation for grabbing a car by the scruff of it's neck and wringing it for all it was worth. Seeing him race in anger was a true pleasure to behold for this, then teenager. Villeneuve would push the car to it's absolute edge and he would either win, crash or break the little Ferraris with style and courage.

The age of the Internet has been extremely kind to Villeneuve. His greatest and worst moments can be found on YouTube and other video sharing sites. His reputation seems to grow with each passing year as a wildman with no fear and a true legend has grown up around this man.

Villeneuve's legendary run back to the pits at Zandvoort.

His legacy can be seen in video and photographic footage. The manic race back to the pits in Zandvoort, first with a flat tire, then on 3 tires and a rim and finally a wobbling Ferrari with sparks trailing. The amazing final laps of Dijon, where he and Rene Arnoux swapped places and went wheel to wheel as though their lives depended on the outcome, even though they were racing for a 2nd place finish. The almost spooky practice at the Glen in '79, when Villeneuve ran all out in a downpour so heavy that only 6 tried to record a lap time.

The year of 1982 was a true "annus horribilus" for racing fans. The FISA-FOCA war raged in Formula 1, Villeneuve died at Zolder, Paletti died on live television in Montreal before the race could even start, and just weeks later Pironi neary died in a horrific crash at Spa. In CART, Jim Hickman died at Milwaukee and Gordon Smiley was killed in one of the most sickening crashes ever seen at Indianapolis. That was the first year I understood what Robert Daley meant when he called racing the "cruel sport". A huge amount of my interest in racing left that year. It was too much for a 16 year old kid to handle. The racing bug didn't return until I attended the French Grand Prix, almost by accident, in 1989.

Typical Villeneuve

I'd like to look back at Villeneuve's career not thinking of it's tragic end or asking the mind numbing question of what could have been. I'd prefer to think of him wringing the neck of that little Ferrari, taking corners too deep and too fast, only to pull it off with flair, style and bravery.

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