On May 8, 1982, Formula 1's galaxy of stars was dimmed forever by the loss of Gilles Villeneuve in a crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. He was 32.
By comparison with Ayrton Senna, whose death in a racecar came after three World Championships and 41 victories, Villeneuve's F1 record sounds paltry – six wins and just two poles in 67 career starts – but it was the manner in which he strove for success in too-often sub-par equipment that won him lasting adoration. As Mark Hughes explained in the May 2012 issue of RACER magazine:
"Gilles Villeneuve was totally pure. He absolutely refused to acknowledge the things that other drivers allowed to pollute the essence. No one controlled him, he faced destiny eye-to-eye and told it to do its worst; no one was going to stop him. This was his bubble. He lived his life that way, he drove racing cars that way. He had a total love of his life, could taste the wonder of life and wanted it to just keep coming, but on his terms – at 200mph and with no compromises.
"Villeneuve had the absolute certainty he could drive a racecar faster than anyone on earth – and he was right. He'd be out to prove that to himself every time, with commitment and a romantic's love. Then he'd hop out of the car and be the easy, smiling, sincere man he evidently was, unmoved by the pomp and politics surrounding the sport. That's what inspires – the essence of racing, unalloyed with anything else – and Gilles was cast from the stuff. Here's the sport we love and here's the guy who was the embodiment of all the reasons we love it: the rage against the limitations, conventions, mediocrities – and sometimes even the very laws of physics – that the outside world imposes upon us. Villeneuve was the world's greatest exponent of that essence – maybe the greatest there's ever been.
"Of course, such an attitude makes you vulnerable, not only physically, but also to the real world's lower thinking, with its tricks and connivances. And so along came Didier Pironi. It could have been anyone – it would have happened eventually – but it was Pironi, a deeply ambitious man and an abnormally brave one. He went about the task of succeeding in the way he was best equipped to do – with thought, with planning and, through fruitful lines of communication with those best placed to help him, with cunning. These were – still are – much more “normal” and accepted values in both the real world and in racing.
"Villeneuve was not even aware it was happening around him until April 25, 1982, at Imola [where Pironi passed Villeneuve for the lead and win of the San Marino GP, breaking an informal agreement between the two Ferrari drivers -Ed.], because he'd never allowed such impure stuff to get into his head. His was a simple philosophy: Just drive faster than any other man can.
"That simple, innocent view was brought up brutally short by the Imola incident, and he was ill equipped to deal with that and all its implications. Certainly, Gilles was not in a rational frame of mind as he sought to beat Pironi's qualifying time at Zolder two weeks later. Up ahead: a slower car approaching a fast corner. The instant decision: commit. And, at that moment, the wonder of life ran through his fingers like dust."
From "What If," which contemplated Villeneuve's future in F1 had the events of 1982 played out differently, in the 20th Anniversary May issue of RACER magazine.
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