Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Gilles Villeneuve

Increasingly these days, I blanch at the idea of having "heroes", putting people on pedestals, or relying on one person or interest for my emotional sustenance. Hero worship, or other related obsessions, have been consigned to my past. More often than, they prove corrosive or counter-productive.

There was a time, however, when I, like other confused, insecure and impressionable kids, craved someone to look up to, to relate to, to believe in.  One of the first people to fulfil this role for me was the racing driver Gilles Villeneuve.

As is often the way with these things, it happened almost randomly.  I had been aware of motor racing before, but it had shimmered in and out of my consciousness. Then, one soporific Sunday afternoon in 1981, our TV became tuned to coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix. I did not recognise most of the drivers' names, and the technical ins-and-outs were beyond my ken, but the one thing which did capture my imagination was the driving of the number 27 Ferrari.

At the next race, at Jarama, Gilles won again, this time leading home a baying pack of pursuing cars.  I had found my new hero.  Then it struck me that this was the same guy who had performed those heroics in Holland back in '79.

Looking back, a combination of factors drew me to Gilles.  His unquenchable spirit, humility and underdog status were part of the appeal.  Also, at the time, I was going through a dark and bewildering time in my own young life, and Gilles represented something pure, heroic and optimistic to hold on to.

Of course, I naively expected the run of successes to continue. Ignorant of the vagaries of racing, little did I know that circumstances and the hand of fortune had contributed to the back-to-back victories.  My mind was ill-equipped to cope with the reversals and mishaps which followed during the remainder of the 1981 season.  I was dispirited particularly by his trip up the escape road in Austria, whilst being challenged for the lead.

Like many a callow youth, I learned through disappointment that my new hero was not infallible, but was human like the rest of us. Once I had readjusted my outlook, this made me appreciate Gilles' qualities even more.

The auguries for the 1982 season were good for Ferrari and Gilles, and strong showing in Brazil and Long Beach seemed to back up this optimism.  I recall being unhappy with events at Imola, but was largely oblivious to the political background, and the alleged duplicity of Didier Pironi.  There was still everything to play for....

On 8 May 1982, I had been out with friends, and returned home in the late afternoon.  As soon as I had entered the house, my mother informed me that there had been a serious accident during practice at Zolder.  It soon became clear that Gilles was involved.  I watched the footage on the television news, hoping that this was all a bad dream.

That evening, as the sun began to go down, I vividly remember walking to the bottom of our driveway, with tears in my eyes, and just staring into space for many minutes. 

Since that day, I have respected many people in many fields of endeavour, but rarely have I allowed myself to idolize them as I did with Gilles for that eleven of twelve month period.

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