Gilles Villeneuve, already 40 years old: always present

For a rare time, Joann Villeneuve was not at her husband Gilles’ side as the drama unfolded at the Zolder circuit on May 8, 1982.

• Also read: Confidence of the Villeneuves

• Also read: Gilles Villeneuve, already 40 years old: “I think of him every day”

• Also read: Gilles Villeneuve, already 40 years old: The drama in Zolder

But she had a good reason to be absent.

“No, I was being held in Monaco for my daughter Mélanie’s First Communion, which was scheduled for Sunday,” she said in an interview with the protocol. At the time it was an important event and I told myself that it only happens once in a lifetime. »


“Gilles would certainly have wished I was there to support him as usual but he understood the situation very well,” she continued.


Joann and Gilles with their children Mélanie and Jacques.

Archive photo

Joann and Gilles with their children Mélanie and Jacques.

In 1982, however, qualifying sessions were not even broadcast live in Europe.

“After watching on TV the horrific accident that claimed the life of Welsh driver Tom Pryce at the 1977 South African Grand Prix, she said I made sure to be by Gilles’ side at all times. But not in Zolder. »


Joann with her husband and her best friend in 1978.

Archive photo

Joann with her husband and her best friend in 1978.

Jody’s call

The phone rang on Saturday afternoon. There were only a few minutes left until the end of qualifying to set the starting grid for the next day’s race. At the end of the line, Jody Scheckter, Villeneuve’s former Ferrari teammate, tells her that Gilles has made a terrible swerve and she has to go to Belgium immediately.

“That’s when everything stopped,” Joann remembers. Jody confirmed that it was very serious, although he didn’t want to tell me everything on the phone. He told me to go to Gilles bed as soon as possible. »

His death was confirmed around 9 p.m. local time.

“When I arrived at the hospital in Belgium, I knew that despite the doctors’ constant efforts, there was nothing more to do,” she says. I was obviously upset. I had just lost my best friend. »


Joann Villeneuve upon the arrival of Gilles' remains at the airport.

Archive photo

Joann Villeneuve upon the arrival of Gilles’ remains at the airport.

Joann did not hesitate to welcome us to her residence in suburban Montreal to answer our questions. Because she always wants to talk about Gilles.

How does she react when she sees that her late husband is still being given this kind of attention 40 years after his sudden departure?

“Honestly, I’m not surprised,” she replies. In Quebec and Italy nobody has forgotten it. Gilles remained present 40 years later. I realized that when my son Jacques went for a spin a few years ago
Montreal at the wheel of the Ferrari that Gilles drove in 1978.”


Photo taken at the funeral of the famous Berthierville pilot.

Archive photo

Photo taken at the funeral of the famous Berthierville pilot.

“Seeing marshals wanting to be photographed and all this encouragement from the public made me even more aware of the impact he was making. The youngest have not seen him walk, but they know who Gilles Villeneuve is. »

“For these young people he is an inspiration. They are aware of the effort Gilles has made to get this far. He started from scratch and realized his dream of Formula 1 racing. »

In a hell of a state

Joann was a privileged witness to the events that marked the San Marino (Imola) Grand Prix, controversial two weeks before the fatal accident. The behavior of his teammate Didier Pironi, who did not want to respect the instruction to stay behind Villeneuve until the end of the event, had shocked the latter.


Joann Villeneuve holds in her hands an issue of the collection dedicated to Gilles Villeneuve, recently published by the prestigious French magazine AUTOhebdo.

Photo Chantal Poirier

Joann Villeneuve holds in her hands an issue of the collection dedicated to Gilles Villeneuve, recently published by the prestigious French magazine AUTOhebdo.

“He thought he was his friend,” she says. From then on they never spoke to each other again. Gilles had this trait of being loyal. He had shown it when, in 1979, he agreed to compete behind Jody Scheckter, who would become world champion that year. »

“Gilles hasn’t been to all the states for nothing. He felt cheated. When every person lives a betrayal [non le mot n’est pas trop fort, dit-elle], it leads to anger and deep emotions. »

“I was his confidant. He found solace in me. He wasn’t mad at me, he was mad at the situation. »

For many, this tumultuous episode marked the beginning of the end of a glittering career, but far too brief for the Quebec driver in F1. It’s as if Gilles could no longer accept seeing Pironi in front of him, as happened at Zolder in qualifying.

burst questions

Joann, have you lived in fear of another major accident like the one at Imola in 1980 where Gilles miraculously escaped unharmed?

“There are two perspectives. In his time, pilots were killed every year. In addition to Pryce, Patrick Depailler, Elio de Angelis and Ronnie Peterson died when Gilles was there. I always thought there was such a possibility. But you cannot live in constant fear. Gilles was aware of the danger, but he didn’t talk about it. However, he knew that cars were very dangerous and that there was no such thing as zero risk. »

What did Gilles’ future at Ferrari look like?

“He had a contract for 1983 but it is true that he considered leaving Ferrari, especially after the events in San Marino two weeks earlier. We will never know what he would have done the following season. »

How was your first meeting with Enzo Ferrari?

“Impressive as you can imagine. Enzo was an intriguing character who commanded great respect. I quickly realized that he loved Gilles very much. And I didn’t know he spoke French. »

Would Gilles be proud of his son Jacques?

” Certainly. Gilles has already told me that he has this dream of taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his son. They would have made an impressive team. »

Jacques christened his fifth boy Gilles. What do you think ?

“I personally wouldn’t do that to a kid to call him Gilles. Imagine the expectations and the pressure on him. But it wasn’t my place to choose that first name. Honestly, it’s hard to take. Also, Jacques wasn’t the first name I wanted to give my son [elle souhaitait plutôt le baptiser Charles]. But my husband had the last word. »

– Interview by Louis Butcher

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