A racing snowmobile that belonged to Quebec racing legend Gilles Villeneuve displayed at the Gilles Villeneuve museum in Berthierville, roughly 80 kilometres east of Montreal on Tuesday, May 28, 2013.
Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette
The racetrack on Île Notre Dame is named after him and we all know Jacques, his son. But who was Gilles Villeneuve and how did he put Montreal on the Formula One map?
A trip to Berthierville on the north shore to visit the Gilles Villeneuve Museum on Gilles Villeneuve Ave. will answer those questions. It’s a trip an estimated 15,000 fans a year make.
Berthierville, located roughly 80 kilometres east of Montreal and halfway to Trois-Rivières, is inordinately proud of its native son. In the three decades since the driver’s untimely death at age 32 during a qualifying crash at the Belgian Grand Prix, his museum has grown from a collection of mementos in the local post office to a large stand-alone building with a life-size bronze statue of the diminutive driver out front.
Villeneuve and his son are the only Canadians to ever win a Grand Prix race, and both have done so on the track located on the former site of Expo 67.
Gilles Villeneuve was presented with his trophy by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Oct. 8, 1978. After the intense heat in his cramped car, Villeneuve was chilled by the frosty air and wore a winter jacket borrowed from his manager for the presentation.
The track suit, trophy and jacket are all under glass at the museum.
Want to dazzle your friends at the next cocktail party? How about these facts: when Gilles won the Grand Prix, tickets cost $10; the Saturday of the race it snowed on Île Notre Dame; instead of the traditional champagne bath the winners take on the podium, a specially made magnum bottle of Labatt 50 beer was the fizz of choice.
All of these items and anecdotal documents are in the museum.
There are race cars that were driven by both Gilles and his son Jacques, more than a hundred trophies, race suits and other paraphernalia, as well as a photographic history of Gilles’s short, but spectacular, racing career.
“You can see the evolution of the cars, as they became faster and safer,” said Alain Bellehumeur, director general of the museum.
Villeneuve started out racing snowmobiles, a fact he later credited for his confidence driving a race car in rain and poor visibility. He knew how to control a machine that was constantly slipping like a snowmobile.
Villeneuve’s driving style was described as “fearless” and “all out.”
“Gilles always wanted to be the fastest in each turn, he was always at the limit,” Bellehumeur said.
There are two trumpets in the exhibit — apparently Gilles was an excellent musician. He raced boats as well as snowmobiles and cars, the faster the better.
From snowmobiles, to stock cars, to a course at the Jim Russel Driving School at Mont Tremblant, Villeneuve climbed the ranks toward his ultimate dream.
“If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula One, my third to drive for Ferrari,” Gilles is quoted as saying.
When Villeneuve was racing in 1976 in Formula Atlantic, he drove in 10 races and won nine of them — and in the one he didn’t win he had a flat tire.
An event was staged at the track in Trois-Rivières where some F1 drivers were invited to race with Gilles. He cleaned all their clocks, and James Hunt — with the McLaren F1 team — went back and told his sponsors if they were looking for a young driver, then Villeneuve was their man. The people at McLaren listened.
Villeneuve’s first contract with McLaren in 1977 guaranteed him $1,000 per race. The actual document is blown up on the wall in the museum. His contract was not renewed by McLaren for 1978, but other forces were at play.
If you’re lucky enough to have Bellehumeur as a guide at the museum, he’ll tell you the story about what happened when Villeneuve signed with the iconic Enzo Ferrari for 1978.
“Gilles had his manager say he wanted to be master of his own career, he didn’t want to have Ferrari tell him he had to sign autographs on a Tuesday,” Bellehumeur said.
Ferrari pushed back, but the manager was firm. An agreement was struck, but somehow lost in the translation from French to Italian was the fact Ferrari had misunderstood the demand. They had agreed that all advertisers would pay Villeneuve direct, and not Ferrari.
This was unheard of in the racing business and brought millions to Villeneuve.
“For every badge on his suit he got paid. One sponsor was a helicopter company and for that badge he had the use of a helicopter,” Bellehumeur said, explaining that it would be impossible to put a dollar value on how much Villeneuve was being paid at the time of his death.
When he first signed with Ferrari, Villeneuve kept cracking up the cars and blowing the transmissions, Bellehumeur said.
“He began to work with the Ferrari engineers and got them to build better cars for him,” Bellehumeur said. “He raised the bar for the other drivers in terms of the machines they drove.”
The museum welcomes visitors from about 30 countries every year, and there is a surge of European tourists that come directly after Grand Prix weekend and in the autumn.
Bellehumeur told a story about an Italian fellow who showed up one day in a motorhome he had shipped over to Canada.
“He came in and took me by the arm and showed me a photo of Jacques with his pit mechanics, and he was one of them,” Bellehumeur said. “He had come to Canada and his first stop was the museum.
“There is always a story of passion when people speak about Gilles.”
Oct. 8 will mark the 35th anniversary of Villeneuve’s Canadian Grand Prix win and Bellehumeur said the museum is planning a special event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
If you go: Musée Gilles Villeneuve, 960 Gilles Villeneuve Ave. Berthierville. Take Highway 40 east and get off at exit 144 and follow the signs. Admission costs $10 for adults. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. For more information please go to www.museegillesvilleneuve.com
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