Nobody can say for sure he would have been World Champion. But nobody cares, either.
Thirty years ago today Gilles Villeneuve gained Formula One immortality.
Since the horrific crash at Zolder in 1982 which claimed his life, the French-Canadian has held a special place in the hearts and memories of motorsport fans and personnel the world over. A remarkable driver, a genuine person, he was an inspiration to many and, it would seem, a friend to all.
His 1979 Ferrari teammate Jody Scheckter, who pipped Gilles to the title, said he “was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. But more important for me is that he was the most genuine person I have ever known." Alain Prost labelled him “the last great F1 driver”. Prost, a four-time World Champion who took all his titles in the years that followed that Saturday in Belgium, knows what he is talking about. Villeneuve passed into legend; the fastest driver to grace the sport, his life taken before he could realise his immense talent.
His legend benefits from his death. Few doubt he would have gone on to win the World Championship that year – as it was Keke Rosberg was champion – and few doubt he would have won many more. But beyond the legend, there will always be that doubt – it is impossible to say, inconclusively, he would have been World Champion, that year or any other.
The reason nobody brings this up – and I, too, am loathe to entertain the position as devil’s advocate for too long – is because this is a man with the combined talents of Fangio and Senna, the personality and charisma of someone like Hunt, and the respect of his peers like Lauda and Schumacher. So who cares if it cannot be proved one way or the other?
He had the attitude of a winner, the confidence of a champion, but there was never an air of arrogance. He was a fan first, a driver second. He was there to entertain, and win.
"Finishing second means you are the first person to lose," he famously said. Accepted as part of the Ferrari family so quickly into his short Formula One career, he dragged the car – often technically inferior to the rival Brabhams, Williams and Renaults – to the front on many occasions. Six wins was a paltry return for the effort and skill he brought to the team.
Often on the edge of an accident, Gilles never feared one. Perhaps he grew so accustomed to driving his Ferrari 312s and 126s on the ragged edge; it did not faze him any longer. "I don't have any fear of a crash,” he said. “No fear of that. Of course, on a fifth gear corner with a fence outside, I don't want to crash. I'm not crazy. But if it’s near the end of practice, and you’re trying for pole position maybe, I guess you can squeeze the fear."
Gilles’ is a legend which Formula One needs. An inspiration to many on the track, he was also an example off it. He was mischievous, crazy at times, but always good-natured. His personality will stand him in the hearts of true fans as long as his talent.
Jacques Laffite, a rival in the early stages of the 1979 season, sums up the man in one sentence: "I know that no human being can do miracles, you know...
“But Gilles made you wonder.”