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1982: Funeral for Gilles Villeneuve

Legendary racing car driver Gilles Villeneuve rose from humble origins in a small Quebec town to win hearts around the world in the second most popular sport on earth. A shy, slight, family man who didn't smoke or drink, he was Canada's first Grand Prix winner. His life was tragically cut short at 32 years of age, doing what he loved best. Please note that you won't find racing footage on our site; the International Automobile Federation does not licence F1 footage for use on the Internet.

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He may be the fastest driver in history. In his blood-red Ferrari, Canadian racing legend Gilles Villeneuve is tearing up the Formula One circuit. His risky, all-or-nothing style is thrilling to watch and lands him on the podium 13 times in only four seasons from 1978 to 1982. Formula One is the pinnacle of world auto racing, and for the first time in history a Canadian is the best of the best. And then the worst happens.

During a practice run in Zolder, Belgium, Villeneuve's speeding Ferrari hits rear of the slow-moving car of German driver Jochen Mass. The Ferrari is tossed high into the air; Villeneuve's safety harness breaks and he is thrown 30 metres across the track. Doctors try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but Villeneuve's neck is broken. He dies in a local hospital that evening.

Few drivers were ever adored as much as Villeneuve, particularly in Quebec, where he was "the little guy from Berthierville." He won his first Formula One race in Montreal in 1978. Fans loved his exuberant racing style, reputation for integrity and unfashionably romantic love of racing in an increasingly commercial sport. In his hometown of Berthierville, Que., Gilles Villeneuve's funeral brings thousands of mourners from across Quebec, including Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque.

• Gilles Villeneuve was part of a legendary racing family. His brother Jacques is a world champion snowmobile racer and was also the first Canadian to win an Indy-car race. Gilles' son Jacques began racing at age 15, was the Indy-car rookie of the year in 1994, and made the move to Formula One two years later. In 1997 he won seven times and was the Formula One world champion, surpassing his famous father's achievements.

• Gilles Villeneuve began his career racing snowmobiles, then switched to Formula Atlantic car racing and then Formula One. He had six Formula One wins and delighted the home crowd by finishing 1st, 2nd, 5th and 3rd in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal from 1978 to 1981. That track has been renamed Le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

• Gilles Villeneuve was known to be an aggressive driver who took a lot of chances, and he had a history of crashes and mishaps. Fellow driver Niki Lauda once described him as "the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula One." But most drivers considered Villeneuve a fair driver who did not endanger others.

• Jochen Mass, with whom Villeneuve collided at Zolder, was Villeneuve's teammate in his first Formula One race at Silverstone, England in 1977.

• After the crash, Villeneuve's Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi withdrew from the race, which was won by John Watson. Only nine of the 32 entrants finished the race.

• The same year, Pironi was involved in a career-ending crash at a German Grand Prix pratice. He was killed in a powerboat race five years later.

• During the four years Villeneuve raced the Formula One circuit the cars got dramatically faster. Technological improvements like turbochargers and aerodynamic ground effects boosted top speeds from 170 km/h up to 270 km/h.

• Villeneuve once told reporters, "I will not get killed in a car, I have that feeling." He said he only really felt alive in a race car.


Also on May 12:
1870: Manitoba is "born" as George-Etienne Cartier sees his Manitoba Act, incorporating most Métis demands, given Royal Assent. The former District of Assiniboia enters Confederation as Canada's fifth province.
1876: A British polar expedition - HMS Alert and HMS Discovery under the command of George S. Nares - stops 650 kilometres short of the North Pole. It is the farthest northern point reached to that point.
1989: Canadian Olympian Ben Johnson admits to the Dubin Inquiry that he used anabolic steroids to enhance performance.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: May 12, 1982
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Don MacPherson
Duration: 2:08

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on November 3, 2014

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