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The fame, the anguish and the euphoric feeling of winning all comes part and parcel of being the wife of a Formula 1 driver. While the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen make looking driving at speeds of 200mph look as easy as a Sunday afternoon stroll, the threat of death was a much more precarious reality for an F1 star back in the 1980s. And for Joann Villeneuve, all of her wildest dreams and deepest fears were realised when following her husband Gilles Villeneuve around the world’s finest race circuits.
Having started his F1 career at the late age of 27, he was keen to make up for lost time with Ferrari. There is a sense of individuality, that incessant burning to be number one, which fuels the drivers such as Verstappen, Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna to consistently strive for more victories – even when they have been so dominant in their own eras of the sport. As racing fans of a certain age can attest, Villeneuve was no different.
“To be a racer, you have to have that side of you that is selfish,” she said. “The whole team have to work for you so that you can win. It’s a team effort, but it revolves around the driver and I guess it’s just the way they are made.”
But even with that same self-centred focus, when asked for the best three words to describe Gilles, Joann produces a smile and without much hesitation says: “The biggest one was passionate. Then after that, honest and loyal.”
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That loyalty is evident in a large segment of the new Sky documentary titled ‘Villenueve Pironi: Racing’s untold tragedy’. It is dedicated to exploring Villeneuve’s friendship with Didier Pironi, his Ferrari team-mate for the 1981 and 1982 seasons, touching on how their initial close relationship deteriorated into a bitter rivalry after disagreements on the track. Some might say it was the prelude to how Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fell out at Mercedes between 2013 and 2016, having gone from best friends to worst enemies just by working together.
Pironi went against Ferrari’s golden rule to maintain track position if the team’s drivers were positioned first and second on the track, swapping the lead multiple times with Villeneuve at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1979. Despite upholding his side of the bargain earlier in the season when Villeneuve could have won the championship and remained in second, Ferrari sided with Pironi.
Villeneuve felt betrayed and stopped talking to his team-mate, with Joann opening up on his feelings. “What really created the divide was the fact that after being so loyal to the team in ’79,” she explained. “He couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t be the same for him. It was beyond comprehension for him.”
Having married young, Joann would travel all across the world with Gilles and their two children, Jacques and Melanie, and spend their time together as a family in a motorhome. When Gilles was in testing, Jacques would go to watch his father by climbing a tree as he sped around the circuit, entrenching in him a love for motorsport at a young age.
But as the wife of a driver involved in a highly dangerous racing environment, Joann could not relax when watching from the garage – not even when attending dozens of races.
“It was always a mix of something I did every weekend and something I feared, that I was stressed about,” she said. To pass the time, she would distract herself from the nerves by watching the timings of the laps to see who was going fastest because back in the 1970s and 80s, there was no communication between the drivers and teams during races. Onboard footage was also hard to come by, so it was the only way she felt connected with Gilles: “It just made me more comfortable,” she says softly.
Gilles Villeneuve: The Canadian with his wife Joann, daughter Melanie and son Jacques
But on May 8, 1982, Joann lived through the worst nightmare that any F1 driver’s wife could imagine. It was qualifying day for the Belgian Grand Prix, which was held at the former Zolden venue as opposed to the current race circuit in Spa-Francorchamps. Villeneuve had been approaching Jochen Mass on a warm-down lap when he tried to overtake on outside, catching the rear wing of the March car at a speed of 140mph. He was sent hurtling through the air as his car smashed into the barrier and flipped several times.
In the documentary, footage is shown of the accident and for the viewer, it is utterly shocking to see the impact and aftermath – somewhat unfathomable in the current day of F1 safety. The camera turns to the pile of wrecked metal, what was left of his Ferrari, as Villeneuve’s body – which had been launched into the barrier – lay completely still. He was still breathing but not moving when marshals attended to give him urgent medical support.
The worst thing for Joann was that she was blissfully unaware that her husband’s life was hanging in the balance.
“I stayed home, it was one of the very few races I had missed,” she said. “I received a phone call and you hear what was said to you, but struggle to process it. Jody [Schechter] did say it was a serious accident but not much more than that, and I had to fly up to Belgium.
“You don’t want to hear something that could be so bad, so you put it in the back of your mind maybe. And then you arrive in Belgium, and you’re still in this bubble where you don’t want it to be true. You put it aside and think ‘well, medicine has come so far, that it could fix it’. But eventually, you realise it’s not going to happen.”
Gilles Villeneuve: The remaining wreckage of his Ferrari after crashing in the Belgian Grand Prix.
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Villeneuve had sustained a fractured neck and was rushed to hospital in Leuven while Joann and surgeons travelled to the University St Raphael hospital to examine him. Later that night, however, it was announced he had succumbed to his injuries and his death at the age of 32 was announced.
It was then that Joann made a remarkable admission: she had never seen the video footage of the incident until watching the documentary. Suffice to say, it was painful viewing to see the love of her life perish in such a horrific accident, and it dredged up the emotions she felt from that fated day nearly 41 years ago.
“It’s not something…” she said, hesitating as she composes herself. “I guess it’s something that had to be in there. I might have seen pictures but never really saw it live that way. I don’t remember, but I was expecting it. You’re prepared for it, but never prepared enough, even 40 years later, to see the person you love die in front of your eyes.”
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Footage in the documentary shows a mass funeral being held to honour the Canadian hero, but such a public event meant it was difficult for Joann and her children to process their grief. “It was [difficult] on my side and for the children, but they were small so it’s different. But I didn’t expect it to be such a big funeral, such a public event. I think the people there were really grieving, though, because he was a national hero and how he represented Quebec.”
For Joann, Gilles’ death changed everything. Her life turned from glamorous race weekends to the difficulty of becoming a single parent to her two young children overnight and looking after them, while processing her tragic loss, was difficult to take.
“When you lose someone at such a young age, you grieve but you have so many things to take care of – and two small children. You go through these processes and have to be strong for them. Also, the fact my grief had to be public which made it more difficult, so you just go through it.
Joann Villeneuve: The widow of Gilles Villeneuve talks about their life together.
“It becomes part of you, there’s never a start or an end… you just progress into a different way of viewing your life. Even 40 years later, you have the memories and they remain with you. And sometimes you have to slow down, and just do other things [to take your mind off it].”
Naturally, the father-son dynamic in F1 is one that has developed over the years. Kiko and Nico Rosberg, Michael and Mick Schumacher, Jos and Max Verstappen, and, of course, Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian was only eight when his father passed away but, after watching his dad race from an early age, he developed the taste for motor racing and made it clear he was his own man.
“Jacques always had this interest in racing, cars and he played with the Hot Wheels, but most of them had to be Formula 1 cars! He was already interested in that. He didn’t feel resentment [towards Gilles]. Jacques is a very straightforward person and his perception of it was that when he compared it between himself and his sister, I mean obviously she was daddy’s girl so it made it harder for Jacques. He needed Jacques to be a tough boy, he had grown up that way and I guess it was just that generation of gentlemen.”
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When asked if she was keen to push him into a racing career, Joann insists it wasn’t her choice. But in 1997, she watched on as Villeneuve Jr became the first driver from his country to win a Drivers’ world championship with Williams, beating Schumacher to the punch.
“Having lived through the hard ways of racing with Gilles and arriving in Formula 1, and having my son go through the same thing was hard,” she added. “He had to carry that weight of being his father’s son on his shoulders and people were expecting a lot from him. It made it harder for him in a certain way, even if the doors opened for him, he still had to carry that. But to see how he overcame everything, I’m proud.”
His father had won six races and finished second in 1979, but never won the title – and for Joann and Jacques, that moment of unbridled joy was something that ensured his legacy lived on after years of sadness.
VILLENEUVE PIRONI: RACING’S UNTOLD TRAGEDY on Sky Documentaries and NOW streaming service from March 18.