Gilles Villeneuve was killed in a crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.
Villeneuve’s death came in a turbulent and tragic year for the sport which led to wide-ranging safety changes.
It began as a normal weekend in an abnormal year for the sport. Two weeks after more than half the field had boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix, a full entry assembled at the 4.261km (2.648 mile) Zolder circuit.
The previous Belgian Grand Prix had also been struck by tragedy and changes had been made to the pits and paddock as a result. Osella mechanic Giovanni Amadeo was struck by Carlos Reutemann’s Williams in the crowded pits, and died following the race. In response the pit lane had been widened.
Reutemann announced his retirement from F1 after losing the world championship in the final round of 1981. He then changed his mind, and returned to Williams for the first two races of the new season.
But following the Brazilian round he reconsidered, and returned to retirement. Williams called up Mario Andretti for the Long Beach race but his IndyCar commitments prevented him from continuing with the team.
At Zolder Derek Daly was in the second car alongside Keke Rosberg. Daly had raced for back-of-the-grid single-car entry Theodore at the beginning of the year. Now he was entrusted with giving Williams’ new FW08 its competitive debut.
There was change at Brabham, too, who had returned to BMW turbo power which they last used the first race of the season. BMW demanded the switch, threatening to pull the plug on the project if Brabham did not run their engines at Zolder. The team suffered a string of engine-related problems in practice.
Before qualifying began the field had to be whittled down from 32 cars to 30. As had been the case in every preceding round that year with the exception of under-subscribed Imola, Riccardo Paletti failed to make the cut in his Osella. He was joined by Emilio de Villota (whose daughter Maria is now a test driver for Marussia).
The turbo Renaults were comfortably quickest in qualifying, Alain Prost edging Rene Arnoux for pole position by 29 thousandths of a second. Rosberg delivered on the strong testing promise of the FW08 by setting a time a tenth of a second slower.
Niki Lauda, just four races into his comeback and already having won at Long Beach, claimed fourth for McLaren ahead of Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell.
Alboreto was using a different suspension to team mate Brian Henton. But even so the other Tyrrell driver, making his second start for the team, was dismayed by the 2.8s gap between them.
Another driver was feeling the urge to beat his team mate much more keenly. Villeneuve had been infuriated by Didier Pironi’s duplicity at Imola two weeks earlier, stealing victory when Ferrari had instructed them to hold position while Villeneuve led.
With just over ten minutes left in qualifying, Villeneuve handed his engineer the paper scroll of lap times which had told him Pironi’s 1’16.501 was a tenth of a second quicker than his best. He left the pits with his last set of super-sticky qualifying tyres.
As he flashed past at the end of his flying lap, engineer Mauro Forghieri signalled him to return to the pits. With no onboard lap timing, Villeneuve could not be certain that he had failed to beat Pironi’s time, but he probably guessed it. At any rate, he continued to drive flat-out on his way back to the pits – because that was the way he always drove.
As he accelerated Terlamenbocht, he was catching the March of the experienced Jochen Mass. Mass was also returning to the pits, but had backed off. He saw the Ferrari coming and pulled right, off the racing line. But Villeneuve had already committed to passing him on the same side, and he slammed into Mass’s right-rear wheel at around 225kph (140mph).
The Ferrari reared up into the air, flipped over, and crashed nose-first into the ground. Its nose penetrated the soft earth and the front of the car was wrenched off with enough force to tear Villeneuve’s helmet from his head and throw him driver across the circuit.
Mass swerved left as the Ferrari cartwheeled back across the track in front of him, then came to a stop and ran to Villeneuve’s aid. The appalling scene was captured live on television screens, Motorsport magazine’s Denis Jenkinson recalled the circuit commentator “became so hysterical it was sickening”.
The session was stopped and a medical vehicle arrived moments later, followed by Professor Sid Watkins. Villeneuve was rushed to the University St Raphael Hospital in Louvain where he was found to have a fatal neck fracture at the base of his skull.
At 12 minutes past nine that evening, seven hours and 20 minutes since the wrecked Ferrari came to a rest, Villeneuve was pronounced dead. The world of motor racing went into shock. It had lost one of its greatest stars.
1982 Belgian Grand Prix grid
In the aftermath of the crash, Ferrari withdrew Pironi’s car and left the circuit.
In an unfortunate and ironic twist, the withdrawal of the two Ferraris promoted Mass into the race.
|Row 1||1. Alain Prost 1’15.701
|2. Rene Arnoux 1’15.730
|Row 2||3. Keke Rosberg 1’15.847
|4. Niki Lauda 1’16.049
|Row 3||5. Michele Alboreto 1’16.308
|6. Andrea de Cesaris 1’16.575
|Row 4||7. Nigel Mansell 1’16.944
|8. Nelson Piquet 1’17.124
|Row 5||9. Riccardo Patrese 1’17.126
|10. John Watson 1’17.144
|Row 6||11. Elio de Angelis 1’17.762
|12. Manfred Winkelhock 1’17.879
|Row 7||13. Derek Daly 1’18.194
|14. Eddie Cheever 1’18.301
|Row 8||15. Bruno Giacomelli 1’18.371
|16. Jean-Pierre Jarier 1’18.403
|Row 9||17. Jacques Laffite 1’18.565
|18. Eliseo Salazar 1’18.967
|Row 10||19. Derek Warwick 1’18.985
|20. Brian Henton 1’19.150
|Row 11||21. Teo Fabi 1’19.300
|22. Marc Surer 1’19.584
|Row 12||23. Chico Serra 1’19.598
|24. Raul Boesel 1’19.621
|Row 13||25. Jochen Mass 1’19.777
|26. Mauro Baldi 1’19.815
Didier Pironi, Ferrari – 1’16.501
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari – 1’16.616
Did not qualify:
Roberto Guerrero, Ensign-Ford – 1’20.116
Jan Lammers, Theodore-Ford – 1’20.584
Did not pre-qualify:
Riccardo Paletti, Osella-Ford – 1’21.784
Emilio de Villota, March-Ford – 1’22.879
“The fact of having seen him on the ground after the accident troubled and shocked me deeply,” said Prost. “He had a lot of luck in his accidents and one thought nothing could happen to him, which made what happened a greater shock.”
Aside from the gap where the Ferrari transporters had been, there was nothing to signify the tragic events of the day before.
Jo Ramirez, who was with Theodore at the time, recalled the day in his autobiography: “One of the best racing drivers of the last six years, if not the best, had been killed and yet there was no acknowledgement of it on race day – no minute of silence, no space on the grid, no mention of his name.”
“It was really sad, as if the world hadn’t noticed his absence, and I felt it was dreadfully wrong,” he added.
The Formula Ford 2000 series was one of the day’s support races. Ayrton Senna, whose own death 12 years later rocked the sport in much the same way, started from pole position and led convincingly before retiring.
Renault hit trouble
Had it not been for the dreadful developments on Saturday, the weekend might instead be remembered for a close race that was only decided in the final laps.
Rene Arnoux assumed the lead from Rosberg as Prost slipped back to third. But, running true to their 1982 form, the Renault threat faded quickly.
Arnoux’s engine faltered on lap four, letting Rosberg by into the lead. He was out soon after, and Prost followed him after dropping further down the order.
Zolder’s narrow start/finish straight had produced predictable chaos at the start. When Nigel Mansell’s clutch failed a crash was almost inevitable.
Bruno Giacomelli and Eliseo Salazar collided trying to avoid the Lotus and were out on the spot. Salazar’s retirement meant ATS’s involvement in the race ended on the first lap – team mate Manfred Winkelhock failed to get off the line with clutch failure.
Mansell made a charging start to the race before his clutch gave up for good on lap ten – though it probably only spared him being disqualified for a push-start.
Up front Rosberg was leading Niki Lauda, who had Andrea de Cesaris in close attendance. He held the Alfa Romeo driver back until the 30th tour, when they came up to lap Chico Serra.
The Fittipaldi driver spun in front of them and as Lauda braked hard to avoid him, de Cesaris nipped by into second. It was a reversal of the situation in Long Beach, where Lauda had taken advantage of de Cesaris being delayed by a backmarker to take the lead. But just four laps later the Alfa’s transmission failed and Lauda was back into second.
Watson hunts down Rosberg
Meanwhile the other McLaren of John Watson had passed Riccardo Patrese’s Brabham and was up into third place. As Lauda began to struggle with his tyres Watson took advantage, passing his team mate for second at the first corner on lap 47.
Rosberg looked on course for his maiden F1 win. But he too was beginning to struggle with his tyres, and Watson gradually reeled him in. He paused briefly in his charge when he spotted Daly’s spun Williams and mistook it for Rosberg’s car, before the pit wall urged him to resume the chase.
With three laps to go the McLaren was shadowing the Williams. As they headed into the hairpin on the 68th lap Rosberg braked later and deeper than his tyres could stand and the Williams slithered wide. Watson was through in a flash.
Two laps later he brought his car home to score McLaren’s second win in a row – the team having missed the Imola race. But Lauda’s third-placed car was found to be 2kg under the minimum weight limit, and he was disqualified. The team had cut it very fine – Watson’s car was only legal by 1kg.
That promoted Eddie Cheever to third place. His bulky Ligier JS17B had no problem satisfying the scrutineers – it was a whopping 32kg over the minimum limit. Team mate Jacques Laffite had flown to Clermont-Ferrand on Friday after practice to conduct testing on the new JS19.
Elio de Angelis moved up to fourth ahead of Nelson Piquet. Serra collected his one and only point for sixth place.
Marc Surer, who had returned from injury for Arrows, was seventh, with Raul Boesel’s March and Laffite the only other runners. Mass had been running in seventh when his engine died with ten laps to go.
1982 Belgian Grand Prix result
|3||25||Eddie Cheever||Ligier-Matra||69||+1 lap|
|4||11||Elio de Angelis||Lotus-Ford||68||+2 laps|
|5||1||Nelson Piquet||Brabham-BMW||67||+3 laps|
|6||20||Chico Serra||Fittipaldi-Ford||67||+3 laps|
|7||29||Marc Surer||Arrows-Ford||66||+4 laps|
|8||18||Raul Boesel||March-Ford||66||+4 laps|
|9||26||Jacques Laffite||Ligier-Matra||66||+4 laps|
|5||Derek Daly||Williams-Ford||60||Spun off|
|15||Alain Prost||Renault||59||Spun off|
|2||Riccardo Patrese||Brabham-BMW||52||Spun off|
|31||Jean-Pierre Jarier||Osella-Ford||37||Broken wing|
|22||Andrea de Cesaris||Alfa Romeo||34||Gearbox|
|23||Bruno Giacomelli||Alfa Romeo||0||Collision|
F1 lost the most popular driver of the day on May 8th, 1982. Villeneuve lived for racing, was revered by fans and loved by many journalists who found his plain-spoken style a refreshing antidote to the caustic political environment in early-eighties Formula 1.
The terrible circumstances of his death and the events of Imola two weeks earlier meant he was deified after the crash that claimed his life.
The number 27, which his Ferrari bore for 19 of his 67 race starts, became a frequent sights on flags and banners at F1 tracks around the world in the years that followed.
Even Enzo Ferrari admitted the effect Villeneuve had on the Ferrari brand: “He made Ferrari a household name and I was very fond of him,” he wrote.
Over 5,000 people attended his funeral, including the prime minister of Canada.
The cause of the crash
Inevitably, some sought out a scapegoat for the crash and blamed Mass – though others were quick to defend the March driver.
“I was going down the middle of a straight and saw Villeneuve in my mirror coming up,” was Mass’s account of the crash. “I moved right to let him through, but he came in on the right as well. He touched my right rear wheel and somersaulted.”
Cooler heads divided the blame between both drivers. Niki Lauda saw the accident as follows: “To my mind, when you are coming in, you should either edge out towards the grass verge or clearly adhere to the ideal line, so the the driver coming up behind you knows what’s what. Moving over at the last moment simply takes the man behind by surprise.
“I don’t think Jochen Mass did the right thing but, having said this, I must say that Villeneuve 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 sport’s governing body FISA saw things differently in a statement issued 13 days after the crash: “The cause of the accident was attributed to driver error on the part of Gilles Villeneuve. No blame is attached to Jochen Mass.”
A hue and cry went up for qualifying tyres to be banned. Villeneuve himself had spoken out against them in the past, and warned of the risks involved in trying to set a fast time on a busy track with two sets of tyres which were only good for one lap.
FISA initially appeared to go along with this view, stating: “The enquiry calls for immediate action to reduce the risks posed by qualifying tyres.”
But qualifying tyres remained in use during subsequent seasons with multiple tyre suppliers, and were still in use in 1991. In that time there was no repeat of the accident that befell Villeneuve. So how were repeat accidents avoided?
Had there been too many cars on too short a track at Zolder? The circuit was longer than most on the 1982 schedule and 30-car qualifying fields were commonplace in the eighties, so we can discount that too.
Nor did the performance of the slowest cars relative to the front-runners improve. Mass’s qualifying time was only 5.4% slower than the pole sitter’s – two years later at the same track the back row were over 7% slower.
The narrowness of Zolder was a contributing factor, and the track only held one more F1 race after 1982. Other tracks have had blind crests and corners eased, and new, wider circuits were built with better sight lines.
Better pit-to-car radio communication has also played a role: listen to the team radio channel during a qualifying session today or watch McLaren’s Pitwall transcript on their website and you’ll see how drivers are fed information about the cars around them.
Car and driver safety
One week after Villeneuve’s crash, IndyCar racer Gordon Smiley lost his life in a ferocious crash during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. A month later, Riccardo Paletti was killed in a start-line accident at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Later in the F1 season, crashes involving Arnoux at Zandvoort and Mass and Mauro Baldi at Paul Ricard put spectators’ safety at risk. The spotlight turned to the high cornering speeds created by the cars using skirts (such as those on the Renault RE30B, pictured) to create ‘ground effect’, sucking the cars down onto the track.
After the 1982 season, both F1 and IndyCar announced ground effect aerodynamics would be banned for 1983. In order to give F1 teams time to redesign their cars, the South African Grand Prix was moved from the beginning of the new season to the end.
Regulations changes and advancements in car design improved the chances of drivers surviving similar accidents in the future. McLaren had introduced all-carbon-fibre construction the year before which offered improved chassis rigidity which benefited performance and safety.
Ferrari were working to catch up and the Harvey Postlethwaite-designed 126C2 raced in 1982 used Nomex honeycomb wrapped around carbon fibre bulkheads. Following the crash Ferrari impact-tested another of the cars plus a 1981 126CK to understand how the structure had deformed.
At the Hockenheimring Pironi suffered a similar aerial accident to Villeneuve’s but, crucially, landed with the rear of the car first. He survived the crash, but suffered horrific leg injuries and never raced in F1 again.
By 1983 Ferrari had their own autoclave at Maranello for building a full carbon-fibre chassis. This was used for the 126C3, introduced at that year’s British Grand Prix.
While all-carbon-fibre construction became the norm in car design, the sport’s governing body raised safety requirements including requiring the drivers’ feet to extend no further than the front wheel axis.
Villeneuve paid the price for a split-second misjudgement with his life. Today there are several reasons why that error would not happen to begin with, and several further chances to save a driver’s life in the event their car is launched into the air. Mark Webber’s escape from injury in a violent aerial crash at Valencia two years ago demonstrated the progress that has been made.
Grand Prix flashback
- Schumacher’s yellow flag penalty helps Villeneuve slash his points lead
- Coulthard charges to win as title contenders struggle
- Schumacher capitalises as Williams get it wrong in the rain again
- Last-lap heartbreak for Hill and Arrows
- Berger takes final win in ‘a race I shouldn’t have done’