Io non ci credo’ (I don’t believe this), he said, with a perplexed face. I could understand, though. Here he was staring at a Singaporean driving licence that belonged to me, an Indian. With me in the Ferrari was my buddy Jake, a Chinese national, living in Italy for the past five years and who could speak fluent Italiano. The poor Polizia obviously needed a minute to wrap his head around this United Nations angle of things.
‘Io non ci credo,’ he said. This time with a face that meant he had hit upon the heist of the year. I had told him the car belonged to Ferrari and while I was digging for the registration his smirk kept growing.
‘Io non ci credo’ he said as he ran his fingers over the words, ‘Name of Owner: Ferrari SpA.’ At this point, I think he seriously contemplated kneeling down and bowing to the 458.
Of course, if you are even remotely familiar with Villeneuve’s far-too-short career, you wouldn’t find this surprising, for here was a guy who drove his heart out every single time. So while statistically he wouldn’t even deserve a footnote in the hall of fame (six wins in a career that lasted just four years), here’s an example of why he’s regarded as one of the greatest drivers. At the 1979 US Grand Prix practice, it was pouring by the bucketload. Jody Scheckter came into the pits, having scared himself while putting in laps so quick that he was sure he was fastest. And he was right. Until the mechanic came over and told him that Villeneuve had just gone 11 seconds faster. E-L-E-V-E-N seconds! To this day, Scheckter can’t believe how he did it. Or if you want an example of how hard a competitor the Canadian was, I suggest you drop everything right now, get on YouTube and look up Villeneuve vs Arnoux. Few battles in motor racing have been so hard fought.
Anyway, the idea behind this drive was never really to match or beat his time. Okay, so the stop watch was running, but I assure you it was for academic purposes only. No, the idea behind this (apart from an excuse to drive this sterling prancing horse) was to try and understand the heroic capabilities of the best driver never to have won a championship. Besides, few office commutes sound as glorious as that from Monte Carlo to Maranello.
Yet, despite the glamour of it all, a post sunrise departure out of Monte Carlo meant I was plodding through early morning rush hour. Not that there were too many cars, mind you. You see, Monte Carlo is the sort of place where those lab rats who run through mazes all day would feel right at home. Why the rich would want to stay here and drive their Phantoms is beyond me. Oh wait, I forgot. No tax! The tenth of a distance had taken a major part of the hour and by the time I bid arrivederci to the star-struck cop just past the French border at Ventimiglia, it was sixty minutes and counting.
Once past the city limits it was like climbing through the grey clouds and then suddenly bursting into the golden sunlight. Rising above and past idyllic pastel towns with the azure Mediterranean for a backdrop, the A10 was unfolding with the sort of intent that made you wonder if Italians built highways for transportation or driving pleasure. San Remo, Finale Ligure, Sportano, Varazze all connected through a series of tunnels and bridges were blown past with minimum fuss. The V8 bellow was now bouncing off tunnels and the exhaust note approaching a supernatural plane while the VDA was telling me all systems are go. Gilles never had that sort of thing even in his race car. His 1981 championship-challenging 126CK made 540 bhp, (albeit from a 1500 cc twin-turbo V6) – 30 less than the 458 puts out.
Sitting there, gripping that perfectly proportioned steering wheel, a nice big tacho in front and the best of Italy in my windscreen, I decided to savour the moment and trundle in the slow lane. Five minutes of that and I was soon getting passed by Puntos and Pandas with drivers half baffled, half annoyed. Their dinner table conversations probably revolved around how they overtook a 458 that day. Not that their audience would’ve believed them. Well, I had decided I would observe the speed limit, that I wouldn’t fall for the temptation of the ultra-quick gearbox, that I wouldn’t want to verify just how good the launch control is. But it just seemed rude not to. Because when you are driving a Ferrari in Italy, you instantly get a fan club. Men gesture to you to rev, women blow kisses at you, children gasp and grandparents gawk like they wouldn’t have in decades. Everyone participates in your fast show and on the Autostrada, the Palios and the Bravos were making way for me with the sort of urgency minions would reserve for an emperor.
The 458 is totally dedicated and always a little raw – it makes simple lane change manoeuvres exciting. It’s not so challenging to drive fast and yet so rewarding all the way to the limit, you feel guilty even when you take one hand off the steering wheel. Sensationally quick and never entirely relaxed, there isn’t a car out there that drives this good. A part of why the car feels so good to drive is the SCM or Magnetorheological Suspension Control, which allows you to decouple whatever suspension setting you are in whenever you hit a rough patch. So on broken tarmac, just hit that switch and the suspension just gets up and says ‘Ah, don’t bother, we’ll take care of it.’
Past Arenzano, the A10 turned north, merged into the A7 that turned east and quickly became the most arrow-straight road in Italy. When I was researching this story, I had read about Villeneuve and his team-mate Didier Pironi taking turns to see who could keep the throttle floored the longest, with the passenger operating the stop watch. On these rather prosaic last 250 km, it was easy to see why the Canadian would engage in these cheap thrills. Boredom for one, but for someone who came in fifth in a race that his team-mate – the then current world champion – didn’t even qualify seems like this was the only way he could drive. Which is really what Gilles Villeneuve was all about, you see. You had drivers more technical than him, some with more finesse, some who persevered more, but heroic? Now that’s a word that’s fallen out of the Formula 1 dictionary ever since that fateful day at Zolder.
Past noon, as I pulled into the hallowed brick wall gate to hand in the 458, I felt like Superman giving up his super powers. The scarlet V8 had been an absolutely epic companion on this drive and at this point if Joanne, the PR lady at Ferrari, had asked me for one of my limbs in exchange for the car, I would have produced my own hacksaw. No such luck though, and as I looked at my stopwatch it read 4:25:18. Vis-à-vis Villeneuve’s 2:25:00. 435 km at a 180 kph average in a car that topped out at 255 kph. Io non ci credo!
Why do we bother? Gilles is different from the rest of us. He is on a separate level. – Jacques Laffite
I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there. – Jody Scheckter
The last great driver - the rest of us are a bunch of good professionals. – Alain Prost
Gilles was the hardest b*****d I ever raced against, but completely fair. If you'd beaten him to a corner, he accepted it and gave you room. Then he'd be right back at you at the next one! Sure, he took unbelievable risks – but only with himself – and that's why I get p****d off now when people compare Senna with him. Gilles was a giant of a driver, yes, but he was also a great man. – Keke Rosberg
No human being can do miracles, you know, but Gilles made you wonder. – Jacques Laffite
Ring side Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman? No, it’s Gilles Villeneuve At the 1977 British Grand Prix, Villeneuve, in the previous year’s McLaren (M23) out-qualified team-mate Jochen Mass, who had a newer and faster car (M26). This when he had never been to Silverstone or sat in a Formula 1 car before. The 1980 Monaco Grand Prix was hit by a late shower of rain. Villeneuve, driving an uncompetitive Ferrari, was five seconds a lap faster than anyone else. This, when he was driving on slicks! At the 1979 Dutch GP, Villeneuve spun off due to a puncture in his rear left tyre. Gilles being Gilles, he refused to accept that this would slow him down and blistered to the pits on three wheels, wheelie-ing down the straight. He was furious when the mechanics didn’t attach a new tyre and send him out again, but it was only when he stepped out and saw that there was nothing left on the car for them to attach the wheel to, that he calmed down. In 1981, Ferrari had a car that thanks to its turbo engine was incredibly quick. But the 126CK refused to go around corners with any sort of grace. In fact Villeneuve called it his ‘big, red Cadillac.’ Yet at the Monaco GP that year (a track where this car was least suitable), the Canadian qualified second and then went on to win when Nelson Piquet, the leader, crashed out. The 1981 Spanish GP at Jarama saw the second closest finish ever in Formula One with the first five cars all finishing within 1.24 seconds of each other. Villeneuve, who had qualified seventh, managed to take the lead in the early stages and then led much quicker cars to win by just 0.2 secs.