Unusually, Gilles Villeneuve was alone that fateful weekend at Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix. The motorhome he usually brought to races was not at the circuit. Of the 68 races he took part in, his wife had been present at more than 60. That first weekend of May 1982, she was not.
He had arrived in his own helicopter on Friday morning and, as was customary, had flown it low over the paddock to announce his arrival. No one was concerned when he flew low, missing electric and phone cables by inches. That was Villeneuve, always taking risks. And he wasn't a particularly experienced pilot. That same year he had upset his wife, Joann, and mortgaged his house to buy the $900,000 Augusta 107 seven-seater. He deliberately used to fly it on dry fuel tanks to save weight and go faster.
Usually his wife Joann and children, Jacques and Melanie, would have been with him. They had grown up around Formula One. But for the Belgian race they had stayed at home in Monaco to make preparations for Melanie's first communion, which fell the same day.
Villeneuve was staying at the hotel near Zolder, and on Friday evening he had dinner with Philippe de Laey, a Belgian business colleague, who had helped him secure some sponsorship back in his Formula Atlantic driving days in North America. De Laey remembers that Villeneuve was still livid about his team-mate Didier Pironi's treachery at the previous race two weeks earlier in San Marino. Pironi had denied him victory by passing him, unopposed, on the last lap. Villeneuve also felt there was a Ferrari conspiracy against him. He was distracted and preoccupied to a very noticeable degree, disturbed by an apparent lack of support from Ferrari manager Marco Piccinini and the team, who refused to censure Pironi for his conduct. Had they done so it would probably have ended there and then, but they didn't - which was hardly surprising, as Pironi and Piccinini were very close friends. Piccinini had been best man at Pironi's wedding a few weeks before, an event to which Villeneuve had not even been invited.
Instead, Villeneuve insisted to everyone he met that he was going to get revenge by beating Pironi at every opportunity, on every lap, every time they were on the track. This was nothing new, since being faster than anybody else was all Villeneuve really cared about, but his hatred of Pironi was so deeply felt that many observers feared it was impairing his judgement.
The day's qualifying had not been happy. There were 30 cars trying to qualify and a six-second difference between slowest and fastest. Villeneuve set a best practice time of lm 17.507secs (fifth fastest of the day behind Rene Arnoux's Renault), while Pironi managed only a 1m 18.796secs. But he constantly complained that his car was quite undriveable on the harder compound Goodyear tyres. He said: "I scared myself several times. We just don't have enough grip, but it was better on the softer tyres we'll use for qualifying."
Ominously, Villeneuve said his Ferrari's steering seemed to lock momentarily in the straight-ahead position as he was going through the left-right curves over the hill towards the Terlamenbocht corner. He was also worried by the traffic problems caused by 30 cars on the 2.648-mile circuit. There were tremendous speed differentials between faster and slower cars as some drivers were cruising to warm up their qualifying tyres, or slowing down after their quick laps, or waiting for gaps in traffic to go for a quick time. "It's no worse than usual, I guess," Villeneuve said, "which means it's very bad. Every time I was on a quick lap I came across someone going slowly. Like I've said a million times before, it's crazy having only two sets of tyres to get your time with. You're forced to take fantastic risks."
Later that day Villeneuve was interviewed in French newspaper Le Soir. He was asked about the dangers of his profession. "It's normal to have one or two big accidents in a season," he said. "I know I risk finding myself in hospital. This does not frighten me, because I am aware of the risks. But there are times when one cannot do anything. If at Zolder my car skids, all I can do is call mama and cross myself."
Against this background, the Ferrari team atmosphere was tense. It was a bright Saturday afternoon and the final hour of qualifying began at 1 pm. Pole was a forgone conclusion. It would go to Renault, the dominant team of the time. The Renaults of Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux were fighting over it while the Ferraris tussled over row two.
With a little over 15 minutes remaining, Pironi's was the faster Ferrari with a 1m 16.501secs. Villeneuve was fractionally slower at 1 m 16.616secs. As the minutes ticked away, more and more cars took to the circuit in last-ditch attempts to improve their positions - among them German driver Jochen Mass, whose best time of 1m 19.777secs had relegated him to the back row of the grid.
With less than 10 minutes to go, Villeneuve was out on the circuit on his last set of qualifying tyres. He had already established what would be his fastest time but continued to circulate, trying to improve, trying to beat Pironi. As he came past the start-finish line Ferrari team manager Mauro Forghieri showed Villeneuve the `IN` signal on the pit board. "I called him into the pits because his tyres were finished," Forghieri said. "He had already done three fast laps on them before and was close to the best time of Pironi and there was nothing more he could do. I'm sure he knew he couldn't do any better and was coming in. But even when the car was coming into the pits it was lapping at over 125mph. That was Gilles."
Those present recall a sense of dramatic foreboding at the circuit, hidden in a dark pine forest in eastern Belgium and gloomy at the best of times. The sky was dull and grey after morning showers, but the track surface was dry. At the back of the circuit Villeneuve's red number 27 Ferrari came powering through the chicane - at full throttle and completely sideways as usual - and disappeared over the hill toward Terlamenbocht. It was to be his last lap.
Villeneuve came over the brow of the hill and into the left-hand kink before Terlamenbocht, at a speed later estimated to be about 140mph. In front of him was the number 17 March driven by Jochen Mass. Competing in his 100th Grand Prix, Mass was a careful and considerate driver and was watching for following cars. He was in fifth gear but cooling his tyres and moving much slower than the oncoming Ferrari. "I saw Gilles in my mirrors and expected him to pass on the left," Mass says. "I moved right and couldn't believe it when I saw him virtually on top of me. He clipped my right tyre, bounced off the front tyre and was launched into the air."
It was a take-off of extraordinary proportions. When a car spins and then hits a solid object; no loss of speed, no deceleration before impact. The Ferrari was airborne for over 100 yards before it slammed down nose-first onto the track with terrific force, buckling the front of the car into the cockpit. But the energy was scarcely dissipated and the accident went on and on. The car catapulted high into the air again and began a series of horrific cartwheels, at one point touching down on an earth bank some distance behind the guardrails on the right side of the entry to Terlamenbocht. On its return to the circuit the uncontrolled projectile very nearly landed on the slow-moving March of Jochen Mass that had triggered the accident. Mass was just able to swerve onto the grass to avoid being crushed.
The aluminium honeycomb chassis began to disintegrate; pieces flew in all directions. The seatbelts pulled out of their mountings. The driver, the seat and the steering wheel became detached and were hurled nearly 150 feet before ploughing through two layers of catch fencing on the left side of Terlamenbocht. Villeneuve's helmet flew off and rolled some distance from his body. Villeneuve was thrown from the car with his seat and seatbelt restraints still attached to him - all having been wrenched form the car - so high was the energy. Whether his neck fracture occurred when he left the car or landed near the catch fencing will never be known. A Belgian surgeon was on the scene in 35 seconds and began to try to revive Villeneuve's inert form with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He banged his chest and gave him heart massage. At 1:52pm, alerted by the red flag, professor Sid Watkins, the FIA doctor, roared round in his Mercedes estate driven by Belgian Roland Bruynseraede who had to thread his way through the wreckage. Watkins could see it was bad. The scene of utter devastation bore awful testimony to the enormity of the crash. Bits and pieces of wreckage were strewn along the circuit for over 500 feet. There, in the middle of the track, was the totally destroyed chassis, shorn of all bodywork, with only the right rear wheel remaining and the entire front section ripped off at the point where the driver once sat.
Beyond the remains of the car, amid the tangled wire of the catch fencing on the outside of the corner, distraught track marshals stood around the medical personnel, wringing their hands in anguish. The Belgian surgeon bent over Villeneuve waved over to Watkins to help. He lay in catch fencing.
It had taken Watkins two minutes to get to the scene from the pits and Villeneuve had stopped breathing. He was intubated and the medics started ventilating him with an Ambu bag and oxygen. Watkins remembers: "He was quite flaccid and his pupils were dilated. Generally he looked otherwise uninjured, so we concluded he probably had a cervical spine fracture with high spinal cord injury. The strange feature was that his shoes and socks were off; and his feet quite bare. I looked up and found Pironi had stopped and was behind me, but after a few seconds he turned and left. Other help arrived and we set up intravenous drips. Gilles's pulse had been present throughout and had been quite strong, but the situation looked pretty bad."
Quickly, the marshals held up a curtain of blankets to shield onlookers from the view. Their agitation increased as running crowds converged on the area and the marshals, joined by truncheon wielding police, began physically to beat back the spectators.
Jochen Mass stopped and rushed over to the milling crowd. John Watson, Rene Arnoux and Derek Warwick crowded round the scene and eventually the shaken drivers returned to the pits.
John Watson, then driving for McLaren, remembers the chilling sight that is burned into his memory: "I stopped, got out of my car and walked over to where the driver was lying. I saw it was Gilles. I saw something I'd never seen before and don't ever want to see again. I remember looking into his eyes and seeing no life. I got push-started and drove back to the pits. I told people Gilles was dead. There was disbelief all around." In fact Villeneuve was still alive, but only just. His body was shattered and he was brain-dead, but hanging on.
Villeneuve was put on a stretcher into the ambulance with Watkins holding his head and neck in traction. At the medical centre he was stabilised and kept alive but Watkins knew it hopeless. Eleven minutes after the crash he was stretchered into a military helicopter and left for the University of St Raphael Hospital at Louvain.
Gradually everyone filtered back into the pits and many drivers hid their feelings behind their helmets as they walked into the paddock behind the pitlane. But some didn't and wept openly, among them Alain Prost, who said: "I've lost my motivation for the race. Gilles was my friend."
The remaining eight minutes of practice resumed but only six cars went around for a few half-hearted laps. The teams packed away their equipment for the day. The deeply shocked Ferrari team loaded everything, including the twisted pieces of metal that were once the number 27 car, into their transporters and left for Italy. Enzo Ferrari's assistant Marco Piccinini stayed on, saying “a miracle is still possible”. Gloom and grief spread along the pitlane and through the paddock, and Piccinini's words made it no better. Only the last portion of the accident was caught on television cameras and its enormity was immediately apparent. At the circuit the disaster was shown in endless replays and many people burst into tears on viewing it. Less than 10 minutes after taking off the helicopter landed at the University of St Raphael Hospital with Villeneuve and Sid Watkins aboard.
At that precise moment Joann Villeneuve was in her kitchen at the Monte Carlo villa baking cookies for Melanie's communion. Jody Scheckter also lived in Monte Carlo. He was called from Zolder and told the news. He immediately went to the house. Scheckter was Villeneuve's team-mate at Ferrari until he retired in 1980 and a close family friend. He knew it was his job to be the strong one for the family. It was difficult for him as he was recovering from a hernia operation a few days before and was under sedation. He told Joann her husband was alive but in a very serious condition. He remembers: "From then on it was chaos and disaster. You don't even want to think back on it."
At the hospital Professor De Looz was on duty in the intensive care unit and Villeneuve was immediately wheeled into X-ray. As soon as Watkins had the films he saw a fatal fracture of the neck where the spine meets the base of the skull. He spoke quickly to Joann Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter standing by on the telephone in Monaco. Arrangements were made for Joann to fly to Belgium immediately. Scheckter was unable to travel because of his hernia. Joann was distraught and Scheckter gave her some of the tranquillisers he was under. Pam Scheckter, Jody's wife, flew with Joann to Brussels, from where they were driven to the hospital in Louvain.
At 5:40pm the doctors at the hospital announced in a news release that Villeneuve was unconscious and suffering from severe injuries to his neck and brain-stem: officially a fracture of the cervical vertebrae and the severing of the spinal cord. His vital functions were being maintained by a life-support system. Meanwhile Marco Piccinini refused to believe nothing could be done. He ordered Watkins to contact `the best neurosurgeon in the world, Professor Gilles Bernand, who was in Montreal. Bertrand and Watkins were old friends and agreed the situation was hopeless. As soon as Piccinini heard that he too realised it was hopeless.
Joann Villeneuve and Pam Scheckter arrived at the hospital around 7pm. Joann Villeneuve had a long talk with Watkins and De Looz. Watkins explained to her the sheer desperation of the situation. The professors told Joann there was nothing more they could do. They had talked with several specialists around the world and all agreed there was no choice but to cut off the life support. She remembers: "The doctors told me there was nothing more they could do. I wanted them to try and operate. They told me I had to make the decision to cut the life support off. I told them they were crazy." There was an emotional scene and Joann refused her consent, despite there being no hope.
Sid Watkins remembers it slightly differently: "She was very brave, dignified and rational, so we bore the last minutes together in silence:"
Joann's husband died at 9:12pm. Even with the effect of the tranquillisers she was utterly distraught. The hospital then issued a final official bulletin, which simply read: "Gilles Villeneuve died at 9:12pm on 8th May 1982."
The news flashed around the world and was featured on front pages the next morning, with many reading the stark announcement for the first time. A family friend, John Lane, immediately flew to Monaco to look after the children. Jody Scheckter devoted all his time to protecting the family. Melanie was eight and Jacques was 10. Melanie went to bed with a picture of her father in her arms.
On Sunday, the Belgian Grand Prix went ahead as scheduled, the first race since 1976 that was run without a Ferrari. A proposal to hold a minute's silence for Gilles Villeneuve before the start was rejected on the grounds that it might affect the drivers' concentration.
The Canadian government diverted an army Boeing 707 jet from Frankfurt to Brussels to pick up the body. The coffin was draped in the maple leaf flag and given full honours on and off the plane. Marco Piccinini and the Scheckters accompanied the family on the plane to Montreal. It was an emotional journey.
At the airport Joann went with her husband's body to Berthierville where he lay in state in the town hall for two days as five-and-a-half thousand people paid their respects. In an open bronze casket, Villeneuve lay dressed in a white jumper with a single red rose on his chest. At his feet were the helmet and driving gloves he had been wearing at his death.
Gilles Villeneuve was buried on Wednesday 12th May in front of 900 people including Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Of the current drivers only Jacques Lafitte turned up.
An official inquiry later attributed the cause of the accident to an error by Villeneuve and absolved Jochen Mass of any blame. But it was not so clear-cut. Niki Lauda blamed Mass for not giving Villeneuve enough room, and also thought that Villeneuve's propensity for risk-taking was a contributing factor.
He said: "I liked everything about him. He had the best talent of all of us, but he was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One. I must say that Gilles was perhaps the only driver around who would have chosen the risky option of overtaking a slower car going flat-out off the ideal line. The chances of a misunderstanding were simply too great."
Keke Rosberg, driving for Williams that day, said: "Gilles was a very popular guy and it affected us all quite badly. Metaphorically, we were all wearing black armbands at Zolder on Sunday."
John Watson, who had seen the results of the accident at first hand, and remarkably went on to win the race the next day, remembers the phenomenon that was Villeneuve: "Gilles had a different aura about him. He drove with so much passion that it aroused a lot of strong feelings. I didn't necessarily approve of his forever flat-out approach, but it was undeniably exciting. No doubt his concern with the Pironi situation clouded his judgement, but I also know that the act of driving a racing car makes you feel more alive than anything else. I believe that until that final millisecond of his life Gilles Villeneuve was enjoying himself."
The next day Rosberg was driving past the Zolder circuit on his way home, as he remembers: "It's the emptiest place in the world after the race. After all that activity and intensity, there's not a soul about. It's dead. Nothing but litter. And parked out there was Gilles's helicopter. Then it hit me. Very hard."
Sid Watkins said afterwards: "I was very upset because I knew him very well. He was always rational and reasonable, a thoroughly nice person to deal with. I remember he said, `I hope I never need you'. When I identified his car as we arrived on the scene of the accident... well, I just thought of those words."
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The Last Day
* Author unknown
Race Cars on a Different Scale.