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, from the mouth of Richard Spénard.
After a successful 1973 season spent in F1600, the young Gilles Villeneuve decided it was time to pack his things and move on to the next level: Formula Atlantic.
At the time, Europeans knew very little about the North American series. Still, the single seaters, propelled by a 1.6-litre atmospheric engine, were doing well to attract the young and bright talents of Europe, maybe because of the wings and slick tires they featured. Keke Rosberg, Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite, James Hunt, Riccardo Patrese and Didier Pironi all had a go at it.
1974 – Villeneuve's first season in Atlantic – saw the Canadian break a leg at Mosport. He came back in 1975 and earned his first triumph, through the rain of Gimli, in Manitoba. Soon after that, driving the March 76B that now sits at the Berthierville Gilles-Villeneuve museum and then Écurie Canada's 77B, Villeneuve won the 1976 and 1977 championships.
Partnering him through these successful times was fellow up-and-coming Quebec native Richard Spénard – a future F2000, Porsche Cup and GM series champion and 24 Hours of Le Mans racer. Today, the 58-year-old is still active as a Ferrari Challenge coach and remembers very well his first meeting with Gilles Villeneuve.
"I met him for the first time in the spring of 1975, in a restaurant. I was coming up from Formula Ford, he already had a season of Atlantic under his belt. What stood out of that meeting was how, three weeks before the start of the season, Villeneuve had no deal at all. He was looking for a drive," Spénard remembers.
"And for him to get a seat, he would have to do all the work associated with it. I mean all the work, from preparing to driving the car," he told Auto123.com.
"So I partnered him at Écurie Canada through 1977. There I saw how big the gap was between him and the rest of us."
"By that, I mean he was already top-notch, professional in his approach because of all his snowmobile years. Building, developing and testing new parts was nothing new for him. Those technical abilities he had were what set him apart from us, who knew little about running a race car.
"We sat in and drove. He worked non-stop with the engineers to improve whatever could be improved. Hands on he was, indeed. […] He also did all those exercises away from the track to improve his field of vision and that sort of things. Being in the same team as him also meant that if he crashed his car, he was allowed to take mine."
Other memories of Spénard being Villeneuve's teammate include watching future F1 world champion Jacques grow, sitting duck in a Ford Mustang and off-roading in Berthierville.
"Gilles' family was very much with him at the track. I remember watching Jacques, growing up from breathing and living in the paddocks."
"On the road, I was a very disciplined driver because, ironically, I wasn't much of a car guy, not a nutcase anyway – unlike Gilles who always had either a wrench or a wheel in his hands. If he was not souping up his cars, he was driving them. In his Mustang V8 for example, it was pedal to the metal… all the time. 'I just don't know how to slow down,' he told me once. Speed was in his blood."
"Once I also went off-roading with him in Berthierville. I had no experience in that field, and stayed stuck a couple of times. Good thing he was there to fish me out. The funny thing is, he didn't even remotely care about whether I damaged the engine or the differential of his pick-up. But I had to watch out for the body.
"He could change the motor in a flash, but didn't like doing bodywork. That's just the way he was."