Formula 1 Legend Gilles Villeneuve Died 35 Years Ago Today

The Quebecois driver was known for his relentless on-track aggression.

On May 8, 1982, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit Zolder, the Scuderia Ferrari 126C2 of Gilles Villeneuve and the March 821 of Jochen Mass collided. The two drivers were on a cool down lap on their way back to the pits, though in his signature brash fashion, Villeneuve was driving his car to its limits. Mass saw Villeneuve approaching at a rapid rate from behind, and pulled off the line to allow the Canadian to pass, but Gilles made the same maneuver, leaving the racing line to try to get around Mass. 

The resulting crash sent Villeneuve’s Ferrari airborne, and when it came back to earth, the somersaulting action tore the car apart, flinging Villeneuve into the catch fencing. Other drivers stopped to free Villeneuve from the fence, though he was already blue in the face and not breathing. 

He died at 9:12 PM that night, the cause of death being a fracture in his neck.

His legacy lasted well beyond his death, however. The Circuit Notre Dame Island in Montreal, the site of the Canadian Grand Prix, was rechristened Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, and fifteen years after his death, his son, Jacques, won the 1997 Formula One World Championship. One of his finest moments, a battle for second place with Renault driver Rene Arnoux during the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix, has been digitized so that future generations may too watch in awe. Though modern Formula One fans know little of Villeneuve, as he never won a World Championship, the praise from his contemporaries, such as Niki Lauda and James Hunt should be heeded by any and all fans of the sport.

To celebrate the racing career of Gilles Villeneuve, YouTube channel Antti Kalhola has uploaded a fitting tribute to the Quebecois driver, featuring some of his zaniest, most showy driving. Gilles would probably give it his two thumbs up.