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An exclusive interview with the First Lady of Canadian racing

Joann Villeneuve, mother of Jacques and widow of F1 legend Gilles, talks to Wheels’ Norris McDonald about life inside Canada’s premier racing family.

Published November 23, 2012

Thirty years ago in 1982, on an awful May 8, Gilles Villeneuve was killed at the Belgian Grand Prix.

A nation mourned.

Never before (with the possible exception of Montreal Canadiens hockey star Howie Morenz), and certainly not since, has a Canadian athlete received the respect in death accorded Villeneuve. A Canadian Forces plane was dispatched to bring his body home and the service, in his birthplace of Bethierville, Que., was close to a state funeral.

Thousands attended and there was blanket television coverage on the national networks. All of Canada’s prominent politicians were there and the then prime minister Pierre Trudeau escorted the widow, Joann Villeneuve, into the church before sitting with Joe Clark, the opposition leader, in a remarkable show of respect.

It remains a very emotional time for many.

Last weekend, through the kindness of Michael Taylor, CEO of MultiMedia Entertainment, I was able to visit with Madame Villeneuve for part of an afternoon prior to the 40th anniversary Canadian International AutoShow Charity Gala, where she was introduced.

Joann, who also goes by Joanna, remained in Monaco — where the family moved after her husband was contracted to race for Ferrari — until 2004 when she relocated to Montreal and went into the real-estate business. She and her oldest daughter, Melanie, now own and operate a Quebec construction company.

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Norris McDonald: There are lots of stories about your husband — the wild driving through city streets, the antics in his helicopter, selling the house without telling you. I’d like to know what’s true and what isn’t.

For instance, the late Prof. Sid Watkins liked to tell the story of being in a car with Gilles in Sao Paulo, which he called a frightening experience, and turning to say something to you in the back seat and you were on the floor.

Joann Villeneuve: No, that’s not true. Gilles never scared me in the car. There were reasons for this. I met him when I was 16 and I grew up with him. I actually thought everybody drove like him. To me, that was normal driving.

People like to tell the story about us going from Monaco to Balogna (470 kilometres, 4 hours, 25 minutes) in two-and-a-half hours and me being scared the entire drive. The story is real, but I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I slept the whole way. I don’t know why, but I never thought it was dangerous when I was with him.

He drove like that with the kids in the car, too. It never occurred to me to tell him to slow down.

NM: What about the helicopter? Jody Scheckter says Gilles would fly normally until he saw people looking up and then he’d start to show off. True?

JV: I have to admit that he did scare me once in the helicopter.

In the south of France, you have these huge wind storms that can last for three, four days and during one of those storms he decided it would be a good idea to fly into the mountains and test the auto pilot.

So we were flying up and down and sideways and every which way and he wanted to make sure this thing would actually work. I couldn’t tell him to just pull over and let me out, so I had to sit there and endure the wind storm.

He was thrilled. He said, “I got you to be scared once.”

NM: And what about selling the house (Villeneuve was racing snowmobiles at the time and had yet to start racing cars)?

JV: That one is true. He walked in one day — we were living in a mobile home — and told me we were moving. I said why?

“I sold the house,” he said. Why did you sell the house? “Because I had to buy a race car.”

We’d been married for three years. He was an impulsive person in everything he did. He didn’t think about the ramifications. He’d make a decision and he’d go through with it and see what happened after. He lived in the present.

We spent a few months with his parents and a few with my parents and then we got a small apartment in Berthierville. We moved a lot. But then we got the camper and we moved around the States and Canada a lot with that.

That was a very happy time. I loved the camper. I loved living in it. There were the two of us and the two kids (son Jacques and Melanie) and the German shepherd.

NM: But then you, as a family, got lucky. Really lucky. Gilles won the Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres in 1976, James Hunt went back to Europe raving about his talent, he makes one start for McLaren at the 1977 British Grand Prix and then he signs to race with Ferrari. This is rags-to-riches stuff.

JV: I think that when you live it, it’s different because you work so hard to get there and then once you are there it doesn’t seem that special; it just seems like a lot of hard work, dedication and determination has been rewarded.

But it was a big change for us, a nice change. You could relax about having enough money for groceries. The house was nicer.

But he was who he was. He never changed. Even when we were living in Monaco, in the garage he would rebuild the engine of the Bronco. We changed as a family, though, in that when you live in a place like Monaco, and you don’t have to worry about the next paycheque, life becomes easier. Your worries are different. Your outlook on tomorrow is much happier.

NM: We all know the stories, but from your perspective, how did it happen? How did Gilles get to Ferrari?

JV: What happened was that James Hunt went back to (McLaren boss) Teddy (Mayer) and said, “You have to pick this kid up.” Gilles went to England for the British Grand Prix on his own — we still had to count our pennies and I couldn’t afford to go.

He was supposed to do three races with McLaren, but they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain — there are always loopholes, you know — and Enzo (Ferrari) got wind that they weren’t keeping Gilles, so Enzo called Gilles and asked if he was available. He had seen Gilles on TV — he never went to the race tracks — and he said he really wanted this guy.

When we got the call, we thought it was a joke. Even in your wildest dreams, you never think that Ferrari is going to call. You say, “Oh, yeah — sure.”

I just gave the phone to Gilles and he started talking and after awhile, he realized it was probably the real thing. Even at that, when they asked him if he would go over to Italy to discuss a contract, it was still a matter of we were iffy that it was for real. But then they said, “We’ll send you the plane tickets,” and this and that and whatnot. It was then that we knew it was for real.

NM: You mentioned James Hunt. He was always on the prowl. Nowadays there are some who say he suffered from sex addiction. Did he ever make a pass at you?

JV: (laughs) If he did, I didn’t notice!

NM: You met Mr. Ferrari. What was he like? He seemed to be this gruff, demanding guy, pulling the strings of his puppets.

JV: He was that, but he was also a very nice guy. But very, very demanding. (Mauro) Forghieri (Ferrari designer and sometimes-team manager) would call after a race and say “We came first and second,” and Ferrari would say, “And the spare? How did the spare car do?”

But he had a wonderful sense of humour. He was a very special man, very particular, very impressive.

NM: When Gilles started racing in F1, did you go to the races or stay home with the children?

JV: I went, but I didn’t just sit there. I was involved in the timing — I was actually working at the race track. It becomes your world. But in those days, in the beginning, there were none of the amenities everyone enjoys today.

If it was cold, or raining, you would try to find some place warm. I would try to find a tire they just took off one of the cars. It would still be warm and I could sit on it and have a sandwich.

That was the first year. After that, they started to bring along a cook who would make the most fantastic pasta and slowly it started to get more organized, more comfortable. And they had to do that because the mechanics would arrive at six in the morning and work until midnight and they hadn’t eaten all day. So that was a good thing.

In all, I missed maybe five or six F1 races. We hadn’t found a babysitter, or something like that. I liked being part of the team because I got to listen in to the engineers and the mechanics and I thought that was fun and you got to know the sport, how the cars work. You get involved in it so you’re not bored for 12 hours out of your day.

Gilles was obviously the kind of guy who would fly in, land, go to the hotel, go to the race track, go to the hotel, go to the race track, back to the airport. That was his idea of visiting a country. We weren’t tourists because it was his job and the kids were at home and we had to leave quickly.

One year, I flew in and out of America — the Long Beach, Brazil and Argentina races were all within a month — and I flew back and forth to Europe. I flew on the Concorde and wasn’t that a beautiful plane?

NM: Let’s switch for awhile to Jacques Villeneuve, your son, who is the only Canadian racing driver to win the world championship. Were you there? Did you go to his races? Were you nervous, considering what happened to your husband?

JV: Oh, yes. I was nervous. But it was difficult for me to say to him that you can’t do that when his father had done it. It’s like a smoker saying to a kid you can’t smoke. It didn’t make sense to me and I just thought that whatever the destiny of someone is, they will eventually do it so just be there and help.

No, I was not there when he won the championship; in fact, I went to very few of his races. When he was in Formula 3, I drove him around everywhere because in Europe you have to be 18 to drive on the road and he wasn’t, so I had to take him. He could race but he couldn’t drive on the highway.

I went around Italy with him for two years but after that I think he needed the separation because it was hard for him to be Gilles’s son and, when I was there, there was added pressure — not from me but from the people.

I am very proud of what he accomplished. When he drove in CART and won the Indy 500 while driving for Barry Green’s team, it was a very well-run operation. And he won the championship at Williams.

The end of his Formula One career was a bit . . . difficult. It was not all of his own doing. When it’s your own doing, you adjust. When it isn’t your own doing. . . . He stayed loyal to people for quite awhile that maybe he should not have stayed loyal to.

NM: Legendary motorsport journalist Nigel Roebuck wrote recently that Gilles would most likely have gone from Ferrari to McLaren in 1983. Is he correct?

JV: Because of what happened (when teammate Didier Pironi disobeyed team orders and passed him for the win at the San Marino Grand Prix, the race that preceded Belgium), that was it for him as far as he was concerned. Gilles was a very straightforward and honest guy; a shaking of hands was a contract to him. So when what happened happened, it was just this huge disappointment and in his mind, I think it was, “I’ve got to get out of this,” for no other reason than he was such an honest person and what happened was crushing.

NM: Roebuck has suggested McLaren had made overtures to Gilles before the San Marino race. He entertained some of us at the Canadian Grand Prix in June with a story about contract details and money being shown to Gilles on a pit board as he drove past in his Ferrari.

JV: I’m not sure about that specifically, but it rings a bell. There was something but it’s very vague in my mind. But there was something like that. We also had a family friend who travelled with us often during that period, who got on well with the people at McLaren. I know they were sending Gilles information through him so that Ferrari wouldn’t find out what was happening.

NM: When Gilles died, there are suggestions that you didn’t get much support from Ferrari.

JV: No, I got a lot of support. I don’t think they would have done as much for anyone else. It shocked a lot of people at Ferrari and I know it hurt Mr. Ferrari deeply.

But Enzo being Enzo, he had a very peculiar way of doing things. It wasn’t like, “Come over every weekend,” but I heard from him regularly for a long time afterward. He wanted to make sure things were being taken care of, being looked after. And I got Christmas cards for years.

Earlier this year, to mark the 30th anniversary, I was invited to the Fiorano Circuit (near Maranello), as was Jacques, who drove his father’s car that day, and all of Gilles’ mechanics came back to prepare the car. One of the gentlemen, who is 84 now, got in the car to rev the engine to warm it up. You could see the emotion in their faces and in their eyes. All those who are still living were there. You realized that Gilles was a very special person to them.

NM: Are you still a fan?

JV: To this day, I love the sport. I watch every race. I get up early in the morning to watch F1 live. I think Alonso deserves the championship this season because he’s raced consistently; Vettel has just been so lucky. Alonso has been making the car fast while Vettel has a fast car and that’s the difference.

I watch NASCAR, I watch the IndyCar Series. I watch all kinds of racing. My youngest daughter said to me once, “Mom, your perfect day is Formula One in the morning, NASCAR in the afternoon and IndyCar in the evening. You are worse than any guy.”

NM: Would you do it all again?

JV: Oh, yeah.

In every case, there are always good parts, bad parts. But I have no regrets. Gilles loved racing cars. He loved it so much.

From the beginning, he would race whatever was available. He didn’t have anybody questioning him about what he was doing. When you’re 16 and madly in love, and you just follow along, you don’t realize what you’re getting yourself into.

You didn’t marry a race driver. You ended up being married to one.

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