For most of the first 19 years of my life, May 8 was the shared birthday of two of my childhood friends, twin brothers Mark and Jeff Kelly.
Then, one Saturday in 1982, that all changed when Gilles Villeneuve, Canada’s first bona fide Formula 1 ace, was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.
It was in the days before perpetual live coverage in Canada, and one had to work hard to find out results of races, a far cry from today’s world of instant information; F1 was even more than now, barely on the fringes of sport.
But even Canadians outside of the close-knit motorsport crowd knew of the diminutive Canadian, and he was already a legend in Quebec. It could be argued that he was already legendary before his F1 exploits; his snowmobile racing was largely without peer. And when he became arguably the most exciting driver in F1, he gave an entire generation of would-be racers in Canada and particularly in Quebec proof that success in the sport was at least conceivable.
His six wins over five seasons don’t begin to scratch the surface of his impact on the sport and on automotive and racing culture here.
Much like so many rock stars can trace their childhood dreams back to seeing the Beatles, or Elvis on Ed Sullivan, those who saw Villeneuve thrash any of a series of ill-handling Ferraris around the track were moved and inspired.
While his premature death was certainly a profound loss for the sport, the wheels were already in motion for the next generation.
A generation of those who wanted to follow in his footsteps behind the wheel, and for those who chose to pursue other roles in Formula 1 and other motorsport disciplines as technicians, engineers, team owners.
And just to add a little more impetus, didn’t his son Jacques go on to join F1 and win the World Drivers Championship in 1997.
By that time of course, the sport had changed dramatically and the younger Villeneuve clearly bristled under the media microscope that still pales in comparison to today’s social media world.
For all of his accomplishments, it is his father who remains the pioneer that inspired a generation.
And in a way, this industry can owe a debt to the inspiration he spawned; in Quebec, in particular, motorsport has flourished and an automotive culture perpetuates in a way that is not quite true for the rest of Canada.
It’s really too bad that he couldn’t be around the witness it.
It is a loss that I feel probably more profoundly that I should. I only met him one time, very briefly.
I was heavily involved in karting in my teen years, and in 1980 or 1981 I think it was—I forget the exact year—organizers had arranged for a race on Ile Ste-Helene in Montreal, a week or so before the Canadian Grand Prix. Ile Ste-Helene is just a short bridge away from Ile Notre Dame where the F1 circuit is.
I guess Villeneuve must have heard the karts across the water and wandered over to see what the noise was all about, because I looked up from getting my kart ready alongside my father and there he was, standing a few metres away, unassuming, without fanfare. We just looked at each other, nodded, and I got back to work.
Villeneuve was an exciting driver, but he always seemed grounded. A small town guy who had made it big, but could still hang with a bunch of karters.
For me, that is the legacy I remember.