All about my father

Jacques Villeneuve

A Formula One World Champion and winner of the Indy 500, Jacques Villeneuve was able to establish his own career independently of the fact that he was the son of the Gilles, one of the Ferrari tifosi’s most loved drivers. Returning to Maranello on the 30th anniversary of his tragic death, Jacques reminisces about his father with Piero Ferrari, a man who knew him as a driver and who remembered the affection his own father, Enzo, felt for the great Gilles

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Come evening time, the Ristorante Cavallino has an unassuming and secluded look about it, despite being situated directly opposite the Ferrari factory. It doesn’t have the frenzied atmosphere in the foyer that you find at noon when it is full of people pleading for a table. There are fewer clients and their voices are a low hum. Piero Ferrari leads the way through the big room and heads towards a little door at the end. This is the room, not a big one, which Enzo Ferrari used when he wanted to dine with guests of a certain standing without having to worry about prurient eyes. The small room has changed a little since then, or perhaps it has simply been tidied up. But the magnetism has remained, and is, perceptible. ‘All right, Jacques, you sit at the head of the table, where your father always used to be, and I’ll sit on your left in my father’s place. And you [pointing at me] sit opposite me,’ says Piero. Jacques Villeneuve has a polite, slightly embarrassed smile on his face. He moves the chair, but remains standing for a while before taking a seat. It is a sudden leap back in time and in life. He has never seen this place as a child, but he knows that his story passed that way. Piero senses his discomfort and tries to put him at his ease by saying the right things but, all the same, there is a charged atmosphere that affects everyone. It is certainly an unusual situation. It is the 30th anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve’s death and his son Jacques has been offered the chance to drive the Ferrari 312 T4 that his father once raced. The tragedy forgotten, now Italians only remember the thrills that Gilles gave them. The 1980s were other times: Italy was enjoying widespread prosperity and was only just beginning to discover the first political scandals.

Gilles was the shock factor that interrupted normality, someone who met the consequences of both the risks he faced and his success with disarming nonchalance. At last, there was someone who transgressed, who brought creativity to bravery, who rocked a worrying complacency. Someone who showed, with Formula One as a pretext, a way to break with the past, and who, in the process, became a legend. ‘When Dad ate in this room, my mother and my sister waited for him in our camper van parked over there. We were very close but Melanie and I were small, we didn’t really know…’ says Jacques, beginning to feel more at home. The questions begin. Piero first asks about Indianapolis, where the race is to take place at the end of the month. Jacques gets carried away: ‘I have wonderful memories. The Indy 500 is an odd race, even if you have the fastest car. To gain a tenth of a second per lap you have to drive around for three days. And the three weeks of trials before the race end up sending you to sleep and at that point it gets easy to make mistakes.

Gilles was the shock factor that interrupted normality, he met the consequences of both the risks he faced and his success.

‘During the race, you drive with the steering wheel turned towards the left the whole time. There are slow drivers, drivers who get tired. The tension makes you lose speed. And then, with the controls in the cockpit, the handling changes on every lap. It’s a monstrous job over a seemingly never-ending distance.’ Piero asks which is more difficult, the Indy 500 or Nascar. Jacques is in no doubt: ‘In Nascar you can make up for the car problems with your driving, and if you bump into something, there’s no great harm. In the Indy you’re going at 300km/h all the time; when you see the wall coming up to you, you’re sure you’re going to hurt yourself. In Indy-type races I’ve always had an advantage, that of consuming less petrol, and wearing out the tyres and the brakes less than the others.’ Piero returns to the past: ‘The brakes only lasted three laps for your father before they were burnt out. It was staggering to see how he wore them out and we were struck because we had had [Niki] Lauda in the team until the year before, and at the end of the race his brakes were still as good as new. They were very different characters: Niki was a careful, precise driver, Gilles was more decisive and drove more violently.’ ‘What was [Alain] Prost like? Last winter in France I entered some Andros Trophy events on ice with Skoda. He was there too…’ Piero, directly involved in managing races during Prost’s two years at Ferrari, has an anecdote. ‘Alain came close to winning the World Championship in 1990, but his contract was broken off early the following year because he didn’t get on with some of the mechanics. But as soon as he arrived he put the car in order and did an excellent job. [Jean] Alesi was with him, but he didn’t have the same experience and copied the set-ups. Alain let him get on with it, then changed the settings between the warm-up and the race, and Jean found that he was racing with the wrong set-up. Prost was very astute…’ Jacques smiles. ‘Do you know that today is the first time I’ve been round Ferrari? When I was a child I wasn’t interested. As a driver I was engaged with other teams, so I’ve never been able to come back here till now. I’ve seen the Fiorano track, where I did my first Formula Three tests. Did my father like Fiorano?’ Piero nods. ‘He drove round Fiorano all the time, the tests were only carried out at Fiorano. Gilles had a mania, he never completed the home lap. As soon as he saw the “in” sign, he span round and went back to the pit from the opposite direction. Forghieri used to get very angry because the manoeuvre was dangerous for the drive-train. But my father enjoyed it, so he let him get away with anything. You were at home here, your camper was always next to the track.’ Jacques is evidently moved by all this. ‘Yes, it was so nice, we were all together, there was a dog, too. It wouldn’t be possible today, this is the time of drivers who are paid to race, of teams bought and sold again. I don’t enjoy seeing Grands Prix knowing that even the real champions can’t go at top speed from start to finish, because the tyres are in danger of losing grip at any moment. And the moveable rear wing? If there had been DRS in the 1980s, my father would only have done three laps in front of Jarama and then they would have overtaken him.’

It was an F1 in which everyone knew they could get really hurt.

Piero remembers that day very well. ‘Your father achieved a historic feat, he kept them all behind him with his flair for driving. But Gilles was never unfair.’ Jacques smiles. ‘It’s true, I must have seen the Dijon duel thousands of times and both my father and [René] Arnoux left room, neither ever tried to push the other off the track. Gilles always respected his adversaries. Because it was an F1 in which everyone knew they could get really hurt. ‘Now the circuits are wide, the run-off areas are enormous and you can go over the limit without running any risks. It’s a video game. The cars are very safe. It made me nervous to get into the cockpit of my father’s car with my shoulders
exposed without protection. Look at some of the accidents that took place at the time, and yet Gilles and De Cesaris always came out unharmed.’ Talk moves on to one of Jacques’ celebrated overtakes, one of the finest ever seen, in which he passed Michael Schumacher on the long Estoril bend at Magny-Cours in 1996. Jacques relives the moment: ‘The day before the race I had told my mechanics that I would willingly try and overtake someone there. They looked at me as if I were mad. “Tell me what lap you’re going to do it on, so we can come and pick up the pieces, you can’t overtake there, remember…” And yet, I overtook Schumacher, of all people, who was dealing with a driver that he was lapping. He didn’t leave me much room, to tell the truth, but I managed it. The only way to pass Schumacher was to surprise him. He was convinced it would be impossible for anyone to overtake him round there, but I did it, preparing the manoeuvre in advance. At the very moment he braked, without looking in his mirrors, I went outside him and managed to get past.’ Piero is impressed. ‘But at Jerez things didn’t go so well…’ Jacques shrugs: ‘Yes, that’s true. But you know what I remember about it? That I was afraid the springs had broken after the collision. In addition to this, the battery was attached to a cable that had almost snapped. After that episode, every time Schumacher was battling against me, he always braked a metre before without taking any risks. I’m enormously pleased to have won the World Championship beating him above all. That was a wonderful day…’ Piero smiles again. ‘But your father was a little crazy, he really was…’ Jacques laughs. ‘Well, he was a bit. Did you know that when I was 10 he tried to make me fly a helicopter? He wedged me between his legs and rested my hands on the controls… In a helicopter he did the maddest things, he was never afraid. Life was like that for him. He liked challenges. ‘A little like me when I went round the Eau Rouge bend at Spa at top speed for the first time. It was a risk that only gave you an advantage of a tenth of a second a lap, but it was good to do it for your pride, in order to feel you were stronger, to make the others afraid of you.’ Piero finds himself in the unusual situation of inquiring into the life of Gilles’ son in order to uncover the secret hiding places of the champion who played such an important part in the Ferrari story. He’s clearly fascinated. He asks Jacques about the challenges he faced with establishing a career with that surname. Jacques is as stoic as ever. ‘Pfft! Every time I made my debut, in Formula Atlantic, then Indy and F1, everyone was asking me if I was doing it to continue Gilles’ achievements. And I started by not saying anything. It was only after I had won the World Championship that I became Villeneuve, cancelling out “Gilles’ son”. When he died I became the man of the family. But if he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have become what I am. ‘Fame? It’s overrated. It actually isn’t easy to be the son of someone famous. I’ve lived the same experience as Gian Maria Regazzoni, Nico Rosberg, other “sons of”. ‘People expect you to go on track and win in your first race: you sense all this and it puts you under tremendous pressure. If you then manage to survive, all of the pressure you faced before helps you afterwards.’ Jacques reflects on a father who lit up the racing world with his supernatural car control and flamboyance. ‘Gilles had awesome reflexes. I can remember the time I saw him change a lens in his camera with a lightning move: he took a second to remove one lens and fit another. I was at a loss for words. It wasn’t a mechanical ability, but a question of the brain. The brain is fundamentally important when it comes to putting things together and making decisions. Some people are simply unable to make two movements at the same time.’ ‘Did your father take a lot of photos?’ Piero asks. ‘Yes, he had a special dark room at home. He took snaps, printed them and kept them in order.’ ‘Talking about speed of execution,’ Piero continues, ‘did you know that Gilles was absolutely the first to try the steering wheelmounted gear shift, instead of the usual floor mounted one? It was 1978, he did a test drive at Fiorano with the T3. ‘At first, there were two buttons on the spokes of the steering wheel, up and down. But your father said that taking his thumbs off the wheel, even for an instant, affected his grip. And so, at his suggestion, we gave him paddle gear levers like those mounted on all our F1s and GTs today. He invented them! And yet, he didn’t want to use the system because he didn’t get any fun out of it. So, we forgot all about it for a few years…’ It was Nigel Mansell who, in 1989, took a Ferrari equipped with an electro-hydraulic steering wheel mounted gear lever to victory. A hero, Nigel.

Gilles was absolutely the first to try the steering wheel mounted gear shift.

Like Jody Scheckter. Jacques warms to the mention of the Scheckter name. ‘He had an extraordinary relationship with my father. Team mates and rivals, but friends too. There was another driver who was a real friend of Gilles, Patrick Tambay. His son races too now and is doing really well. I hope he breaks through, he has quality. Who do I currently like in F1? Certainly Alonso, who was with me for three races at Renault. Very good on the track, and off the track too.’ Jacques, speaking with Piero in perfect Italian, is curious about something: ‘How did your father and mine talk to each other at the beginning?’ Piero explains: ‘My father spoke a little French, there was a dialogue. Jody, on the other hand, didn’t understand and so was a bit left out. After each test drive at Fiorano, your father always wrote a report for mine.’
Jacques smiles softly. ‘Just think, I once went along to one of those chats…’ There is a moment’s silence, broken by the lady that has been serving us: ‘Will you have coffee?’ ‘No thanks, I won’t have any. And you, Jacques?’

Published on the Official Ferrari Magazine issue 18, September 2012

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  • Otto Au

    We want more!!
    One of the most important names @ Ferrari

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