This year, Auto123.com is commemorating the 30th anniversary of legendary Formula 1 driver Gilles Villeneuve’s tragic death.
The third part in this series tells a little-know tale, that of his first ever driver training course.
Gilles Villeneuve took his first lesson in 1973 at the Autodrome St-Eustache, a small road course outside of Montreal.
His instructor was Marc Cantin, a car and motorcycle racer and an excellent teacher. Cantin told us the story.
“The first time I heard of Gilles, is when I received a phone call from Roger Peart, who was the chief instructor for the Fédération Auto Québec at the time,” remembers Cantin.
“This young man had just bought a Formula Ford 1600 car from Jean-Pierre St-Jacques so he could race in the Bulova Championship. But Gilles had to take a driving course first and compete in a few amateur races before he could get his national license. As luck would have it, the FAQ asked me to give the young greenhorn his first private racing lesson.”
“I showed up at the Autodrome St-Eustache early one Saturday morning in April of 1973, and here was this tiny little guy waiting for me in his Ford Capri V-6 shod in brand-new Dunlop SP36 tires. The track owner, Claude Aubin, had given Gilles the keys to the place that morning.”
“After a short explanation of the theory behind it all, the on-track procedure was pretty simple. I started out behind the wheel, demonstrating the proper race line. Then it was my student’s turn to drive, with me sitting on his right. That’s when all hell broke loose! We were going sideways in every corner! It was mighty impressive. Gilles was a champion snowmobile racer, and on those slippery winter tracks, the race line changes from one lap to the next.”
“I quickly realized that Gilles had incredible talent, I just needed to get him to slow down a bit so he could turn in better lap times. I had him stop the car so I could give him some pointers. After a series of ‘Yes, sir, Ok, sir,’ we took off for another 10 laps. In the afternoon, I devised a track that doubled back on itself. One lap was now twice as long, and the resulting lap times confirmed that smoothness and regularity make you go faster,” explains Cantin.
At the end of the day, Cantin was blown away by the snowmobile champion’s natural talent.
“Gilles treated me to a hamburger steak at a little restaurant west of the track. That’s where he told me about his career plan: ‘I should be able to dominate the field in Formula Ford this year. I tried the car at home; it’s not fast and the settings are simple. No problem there! Next year I plan on upgrading to the Atlantic series. I saw those cars, and they’re much more complicated and trickier to drive. I want to win a race as soon as possible, probably in the second year, then I’ll go on to dominate that series. I’m not sure where I should go after two or three seasons, though. What do you think about Formula 2?’ That was Gilles for you. After three hours of lap time, he’d already worked out a detailed career path that actually turned out to be pretty realistic.”
“Gilles’ intensity was plain to see. He never did anything lightly. He concentrated all his attention on the moment. When you talked to him, he gave you his full and undivided attention. You could almost hear him ask himself ‘ Will this help me win?’ I wasted no time in letting the guys at the Fédération know that here was a driver who had a serious chance of making it to the very top, to Formula 1 itself!” says Cantin with a smile.
Rumour has it that Gilles Villeneuve took his first racing course at the Jim Russell School of Mont-Tremblant under the direction of Jacques Couture. The truth is that Gilles indeed went to the Jim Russell school, but that was after his experience with Marc Cantin. Gilles had already started to race in the Formula Ford 1600 series when he went to Jim Russell where the instructors fine tuned his driving.