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Gilles Villeneuve: His first Grand Prix with McLaren in 1977

Canadian racing legend Gilles Villeneuve contested his maiden Grand Prix in 1977, driving a McLaren. recently had an exclusive interview with the man who was in charge of running the No. 40 car that weekend.

Most motorsport fans know that McLaren F1 driver James Hunt spoke very highly of young Canadian driver named Gilles Villeneuve after the 1976 Formula Atlantic race in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. McLaren's Teddy Mayer decided to sign a contract with Villeneuve for him to contest a certain number of Grands Prix.

The first F1 race for Villeneuve was scheduled for the British Grand Prix in July 1977 at Silverstone.

Gilles Villeneuve F1
Photo: WRi2

Former McLaren man Leo Wybrott picks up the story. “My position at that time at McLaren was project manager. My responsibilities were building and testing the new cars, but I was not a member of the actual race team. When there were special events, Teddy (Meyer) would always leave me and my group of people to run it. This is how we get to run Gilles,” Wybrott told from his retirement home in Australia.

“James (Hunt) and Jochen (Mass) were racing M26s. The car we allocated for Gilles was chassis number 8, the newest and best M23 available. Gilles came to the factory for a seat fitting, and he got a tour of the place with Teddy,” Wybrott said.

The crew of three was formed to run Villeneuve at Silverstone: Wybrott, Stevie Bun and John Hornby.

“We went straight into pre-qualifying. From very early on, from the moment he drove the car, there was a confidence and an ability about the person. It's one of those things you come across. From the lap times he was setting, we knew he was very capable,” Wybrott explained.

Gilles Villeneuve F1
Photo: Personal collection, Rights reserved

Villeneuve emerged quickest in the pre-qualifying session, beating his good friend Patrick Tambay who was driving for Ensign and the 12 other drivers.

Gilles spun several times during his first day in the M23. “He was always near the top of the list. He had two or three spins early on, but he was learning. Later in the first practice session, he had more high-speed spins but he was getting to grips with the car. He was always bringing the car back in one piece. He ended up 11th fastest. This is when people started to become aware of his performance,” he continued.

“He was communicating with me so well, and we started to change the set-up of the car and he went faster and faster. At some point, we were 4th or 5th quickest. He eventually qualified 9th. We did not qualifying higher because we had not access to the soft Goodyear tires,” Wybrott recalled.

Saturday night, everyone wanted to know more about this young Canadian driver. “We kept having visitors coming to see us. Teddy (Mayer) came down and wanted to know the settings I had on the car. It was a huge stirring about this new driver and his ability. He was setting the whole place alight. He was a joy to work with. His wife Joann was there all the time with a lovely smiling face. Gilles stayed with us all nights, and he wanted to understand the complexity of the car. He stayed and talked to us. It was a genuine interest from his part to understand how the car was made and worked,” he declared.

“I then explained him about the gauges in the M23. Having worked at Lotus and driven F1 cars on occasions, I knew the Smith gauges were fully unreliable! I forgot to say to him that gauges sometime failed,” he added.

Gilles Villeneuve F1
Photo: Personal collection, Rights reserved

Race day. The pit box of the No. 40 car was located way down the pit lane, near the entrance of Corner 1, Copse. Leo Wybrott and the signaller positioned themselves at the other end of the pits to give Villeneuve the chance to read the pit board before braking for Copse.

Gilles had a good start and ran very well early in the race. On lap 10, he was running in seventh place, unimpressed.

“Gilles was running well ahead of (Jochen) Mass and suddenly went missing. We saw him take the pit road flat out and he stopped at our box at the other end of the pits. The cars ran at extremely hot temperatures, the water barely managed to keep the cars cool enough to run. But the moment you stopped, the heat sinked from the engine into the water system without the pump circulating the water, and they just boiled instantly. The pressure cap on the header tank released the water through the bypass. And water poured from under the car. Gilles showed Stevie the needle of the water gauge stuck at maximum temperature. Stevie looked at the water pouring from the engine and was ready to tell him to retire,” Wybrott told us.

“I ran down the pit lane as fast as I could. Gilles was still in the car and he showed me the water gauge. I told me to watch the oil temp indicator – that will be a reliable source of information. The water temp did not matter. We quickly added some water in the system. We got the starter out and told him to fire the engine. He rejoined the race in 21st place but pushed hard an finished eleventh,” Wybrott recalled. Villeneuve also set the 5th fastest time if the race on lap 65.

“We were all very impressed with him. He and Joann sent me a card a week later, saying he was so thankful about the experience. Whenever they saw me afterwards, they both were very kind to me and came to talk a bit. He was a true gentleman,” Wybrott ended.