2012 marks the 30th year since Formula One Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve's fatal crash during qualifying of the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Here is the latest piece of our special feature on this special hero, about his stunning Formula Ford 1600 debuts.
Gilles Villeneuve's first steps in circuit racing were at the wheel of a small, humble open-wheel: the 1.6 litre, single carburetor, Kent-powered Formula Ford. To keep the tubular chassis on track, drivers could only count on their small, grooved tires… and on their skills. No wings.
About those early formula days, we spoke with Jean-Pierre St-Jacques, the man who, after building Villeneuve's first race car –the Formula Ford Magnum–, became good friend with the star-to-be.
"In 1968, I was a machinist for Sibec-Dosco, in Contrecœur (Qc). At that time, the only way to go racing if you had no money was to build your own car. I was no engineer, but knew how to use my head. So I went ahead and built myself a car," St-Jacques exclusively told Auto123.com.
"After a few Super Vee races, I made a copy cat of a Caldwell Formula Ford, formerly Merlyn. I made five of those, which I called 'Magnums', and then teamed-up with Reg Scullion to go to the races. In the spring of 1972, at the ACAM driving school, I was supposed to meet this guy a friend of mine knew from Skiroule, called Gilles Villeneuve."
St-Jacques explains: "My upcoming marriage meant I was racing on borrowed time, so I just wanted to get some seat time in my Magnum before selling it. I knew it was my last year of racing. This Villeneuve, not that tall, not that big either, came up to me. He wanted to race in Formula Ford.
"So I told him at the end of the year, I'd sell him all my gear."
The 1972 season came and went.
"Just like he said he would, Gilles called me. He confirmed what we had discussed at Sanair: 'I'm in the market for buying,' he said. 'Car, wheels, spares…everything.' I gathered his young wife Joann didn't quite agree with him, but that's the way he was. Through the winter, Gilles was always at my place, working on the car, getting to know it. One day, he came to pick up the No. 04 Magnum, with his Pontiac 62 and a trailer. I stayed in touch with him, and often drove to Berthierville to lend a hand," St-Jacques recalls.
"Gilles was an incredibly skillful mechanic, even though he had no special training whatsoever. His hands were just special. I was impressed by all those natural abilities he had."
Without a race licence, Villeneuve took a first driving lesson in 1973 at the Autodrome St-Eustache, under the watchful eye of Marc Cantin.
"Right off the bat, he was spectacular at the wheel. In no time, he clinched his first Formula Ford victory. Not because he had a better car or anything. Just because he was good. Mind bogglingly good. Never before my Magnum had been driven like that: some wheels on the track, some on the grass, and some in the air… Good thing the car was solid! It was no surprise he won the Québec Formula Ford championship in his rookie season."
After a lengthy pause, St-Jacques resumes: "When you think about it, it's amazing what he did. It's amazing how from a broke, Formula Ford racer, he went on to become one of the best F1 driver, at the wheel of a Ferrari! He literally came out of no where with just his talent to offer. In 1973, he was coming up in a Magnum. Four years later, he was in a McLaren for his first Grand Prix.
"The thing is, he was incredibly egotistic. Racing came before everything for Gilles, even before his family," St-Jacques draws, before going on with his memories.
"That same year he started driving in Formula Ford, 1973, we went to the Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport. Saturday night was spent luring the mechanics at work. Sunday, by the fence, through the fog, we were watching the cars lining-up on the grid. Giving me a nudge, super serious and looking at me dead straight in the eyes, he says: 'Soon, that'll be me.'
"He did it alright. No money, just a whole lot of talent," concludes Jean Pierre St-Jacques, friend of Gilles Villeneuve, builder of the Magnum Formula Ford car.