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The Cult: Gilles & Jacques Villeneuve

Gilles Villeneuve's life was short, but the Canadian is remembered as a true Formula One great. His son Jacques survived the sport and became world champion, but has always lived in his father's shadow. Both belong in The Cult.

by Jim Weeks
Sep 28 2016, 2:12pm

Illustration by Dan Draws

Gilles Villeneuve's life was short, but the Canadian is remembered as a true Formula One great. His son Jacques survived the sport and became world champion, but has always lived in his father's shadow. Both belong in The Cult.

Cult Grade: Flesh & Blood

Few sports have seen as many sons follow in their father's footsteps as Formula One. Graham and Damon Hill were both world champions; Nico Rosberg is currently on course to emulate dad Keke, the 1982 title winner; and grand prix racing's brightest young star, 18-year-old Max Verstappen, is the offspring of furious nineties backmarker Jos.

It's not all about strong genes, however. In truth, motor racing is rife with nepotism, and it costs such prohibitive sums to get a foothold in the sport that having a wealthy grand prix driver for a dad gives you one hell of an advantage.

To some extent this was the case with Jacques Villeneuve. The fact that his father Gilles had been among the most gifted and famous drivers of the late seventies and early eighties eased Jacques' path into the sport. His uncle and namesake was on hand to offer advice and the name was a huge draw for sponsors. Jacques made good use of the advantages this afforded, too, winning the Indy 500 and IndyCar tile in 1995 at the tender age of 24, then relocating to Formula One and becoming world champion in 1997.

It was most certainly not the case with Gilles. The father's climb to the top included a spell racing snowmobiles and did not include the leg-up of a famous name, spurred on instead by his own determination and an almost macabre fascination with danger. The Canadian broke into grand prix racing in 1977 and remained there until 1982, driving all but one of his races for Ferrari, in whose car he died during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. The things he did on-track have become the stuff of legend.

Legend is not a word often attached to his son. After winning the title in '97, Jacques never even stood on the top of a podium again. His F1 career dwindled – partly through bad career choices, partly because his skills seemed to ebb in the mid-2000s – and he left the sport for good in 2006. He has since raced in too a wide variety of series to name here, but it can be said that he has generally been a bit crap in the lot. His limp efforts back at the Indy 500 (2014) and a short-lived stab at Formula E last year stand out.

Nevertheless, he can call himself world champion. In the eyes of some, his title was the righting of a great wrong. The Villeneuve name deserved an F1 title. Gilles was seen as the rightful owner, only for fate to intervene, and so his son set the record straight.

READ MORE: The Cult – Alex Zanardi

Quite what spurred Jacques to follow his father into the sport is not wholly clear, though it's evident that they did not have a particularly close relationship. Speaking in 2015, Jacques said Gilles "wasn't a father basically, for two years," prior to his death, preferring to go "play on his boat" than spend time with his boy. It is very telling that Jacques chose not to use the same helmet design as Gilles, a tradition that is almost universally observed by the sons of former drivers.

And yet Jacques seemed to exhibit so many of his father's traits: he was daring in the car, brash out of it, and bloody quick in everything he did. Though they may not have been close, something was clearly passed down. It is almost as if Gilles had more influence over his son in death than he could have hoped to in life.

Point of Entry: In Life, in Death

History smiles favourably upon those who die young. James Dean's reputation as an icon is built on the fact that he was dead at 24 having made only a handful of movies, one a stone cold classic. The list of gifted musicians who died at 27 is extensive – Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, to name a few – and their legacies (and record sales) have been greatly enhanced by such fleeting lifespans.

In contrast, Robert De Niro got old and made Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers, after which it became quite difficult to look at him any more. Paul McCartney has cashed in much of his cultural cache and now bears more resemblance to a drunk aunt at a Christmas party than the co-creator of one of music's most incredible bodies of work. And punk progenitor John Lydon shamelessly and aggressively advertised butter.

And so when the conversation turns to true greatness, the person who died young and handsome, having never found the time to make shitty work or hawk Country Life spreadable, tends to be singled out.

Similarly, when discussing which of the Villeneuves was better, the majority would settle on Gilles. In fact, most believe that the difference in ability between the two was vast.

The consensus on the father is that he was one of the most gifted drivers of all time, a man whose name belongs in conversations about F1's single greatest competitor. Jacques, on the other hand, is considered a contender for the sport's least gifted world champion.

Yet so much of this is based on the extra years Jacques has spent on this earth, and in F1, compared with his father. Jacques had time to get old – he's already outlived his dad by 13 years – to lose his skills, to speak out of turn one time too many.

READ MORE: Lessons From the Life and Death of Gilles Villeneuve

Which leads us to a couple of hypotheticals. Firstly, what if Jacques had lost his life in qualifying for his 68th grand prix, at Imola in 2000 – how would we have remembered him? Gone at 29 years old, F1 world champion, IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner. Undoubtedly, he'd have been discussed in similarly reverential tones to his father. His win at Indy from a lap down, and his pass around the outside of Michael Schumacher at Estoril in 1996, would be the stuff of legend. Absolutely no one would have slung the "worst world champion" tag around.

And what if Gilles had backed off at Zolder and lived to fight another day? We can't know, of course, and given the nature of the man he might well have met his end at another circuit. Perhaps he would have been a world champion, perhaps not, but had he grown old he too would have fallen victim to the same travails that overcome us all: reaction times extending, sharpness ebbing, desperation setting in. It is hard to imagine him coping with any of these things very well, but it's also difficult to see him stopping and accepting that his racing career was over – just as his son has done.

Death inexorably alters how we perceive a person, particularly a grand prix driver cut down at the height of their abilities. Gilles' legacy was not just secured by his untimely death, it was created by it. By dying young in pursuit of pole position, the things he had done before – his scrap with Rene Arnoux at Dijon, his superhuman efforts to drag a crippled Ferrari back to the pits that at Zandvoort – took on new meaning. Had the same fate befallen his son, then moments from his highlight reel would have been embellished in the same way.

This is not to suggest that Jacques was better or even the equal of Gilles. And you would also be hard pressed to defend some of his public statements – this is a man who argued against both Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen being allowed to race in F1.

But the way the two Villeneuves have been portrayed is too heavily reliant upon how the father died to be fair on the son. The key difference between the two, then, is not talent: it is that one grew old and slow, while the other remains young and daring.

The Moment: Zolder, 1982

Gilles' death at Zolder was clearly a defining moment for his son. In fact, had his father lived, Jacques – rebellious, uncomfortable with conformity – might well have stayed away from motorsport. As it was, the real act of rebellion was to follow the father he did not know into racing and to eclipse his achievements, if not his standing within the sport.

Closing Statements

"If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula One, my third to drive for Ferrari." Gilles Villeneuve makes his priorities very clear.

"A lot of people say when you have kids, you slow down. I want my kids to see me race." Jacques Villeneuve offers some explanation as to why he has continued competing past his prime.

Words: @Jim_Weeks / Illustration: @Dan_Draws

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