Sunday, May 20, 2012

Maranello Celebrates Gilles Villeneuve 30 Years On

When I was in Maranello yesterday for the Mille Miglia race, I couldn’t help but take note of one of the town’s tourist attractions in particular. The bronze Gilles Villeneuve bust, situated on the street that bares his name, was once again sporting a new look. Gone were the massive potted flowers that adorned the monument less than two weeks ago for the celebrations which marked 30 years since the little French Canadian died in a horrific accident during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend and a large Banner had been placed beneath the memorial, “Ciao Gilles” it read simply.

Italians have constantly impressed me with their knowledge and enthusiasm for motorsports since I arrived in this country less than one year ago. In fact, I remember once being told that I could not possibly hope to understand Ferrari until I had lived in Italy. While it is true that many tifosi are only partial fans at best, it was upon the anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve’s death that I came to see the true passion that many Italians have for Ferrari and its drivers. I also came to see that Gilles was loved in Italy possibly more than any other driver to have donned the famous scarlet overalls.

In the week running up to May 8th, every major sporting newspaper and magazine ran at least one article dedicated to Villeneuve and his legacy. The Gazetta dello Sport even sold a large book dedicated to the former Ferrari driver, filled with pictures detailing his life and career. People who I spoke with about the anniversary all knew the legend of Gilles Villeneuve. “He was the pilot who Enzo loved the most.” One of my neighbours commented upon noticing my purchase of the above mentioned book. “He loved him like a son.”

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event that was held to mark thirty years without Gilles took place on the day of his death in Maranello. Villeneuve’s son, Jacques took to Fiorano to drive his father’s Ferrari 312 T4. When I heard about this tribute, I made it my mission to attend. I grew up watching Jacques Villeneuve race and I remember being thirteen and painting a huge mural on my wall to commemorate his 1997 World Championship. He wasn’t a Ferrari driver, but he was Canadian and to me that was worth cheering about.

It wasn’t until I began to learn more about the history of Formula 1 that I truly first encountered the story of his father, Gilles. I think that I have already written about my admiration for Villeneuve, who is remembered for his passion, his speed and his courage. He died before I was born and yet I have seen the videos of him working his magic behind the wheel of various cars and came to identify with him as I identify with Ferrari. Gilles Villeneuve was not simply a driver, no, he was a driver who embodied the very things that I love about the prancing horse itself and the qualities which drew me in and made me a life long fan of this inspirational team. It helped, of course, that Gilles was also a Canadian but had he been from Romania, I think that I would have still come to idolize him.

On the day of the tribute I was surprised to find Maranello bustling with people and not just any people, but true tifosi. These spectators were genuine fans with genuine memories. A few of them donned Gilles memorabilia and many more toted around various copies of magazines and spoke fondly of what Gilles Villeneuve had meant to them. The atmosphere was calm and relaxed and when, at approximately 10:30am, Jacques Villeneuve began his tribute, the knowledgeable crowd watched in awe.

It was the perfect day to be Canadian in Maranello and once the Italians nearby me detected my accent, they were full of questions about what Canada is like and if Canadians still think of Gilles as they do in Italy. Interestingly enough, although Gilles Villeneuve is far from forgotten in Montreal (they named the Formula 1 circuit after him.) I do think that the Italians really adopted him as one of their own and took him into their hearts in a way that the average Canadian has not. It was lovely to see the real emotion displayed from those in attendance.

After the handful of laps, I joined a group of fans outside the gates of Fiorano, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the Ferrari celebrities in attendance and hopefully Jacques Villeneuve himself. My expectations were more than met when the gates opened and out came Luca di Montezemolo in his silver Ferrari. The car rolled along slowly as people shoved magazines and pieces of paper into the car’s passenger seat window, where Montezemolo was sitting. “Luca, I’m Canadian!” I shouted in Italian without really thinking about it. The moment the words left my mouth, it seemed as though the world froze and Luca di Montezemolo himself leaned forward in his chair to greet me personally and thanked me for coming.

After my brush with the Ferrari president, I didn’t really expect to see many more things, but the celebrities kept pouring out of the Fiorano gates. Fernando Alonso made a mad dash out the alternative exit to the circuit in his car, much to the crowd’s great displeasure. When the next vehicle attempted to leave Fiorano, the congregated tifosi refused to make way. “Go the other way!” one cheeky fan exclaimed in Italian to roars of laughter. “It was good enough for Alonso!” Mauro Forghieri, who was technical director during Gilles Villeneuve’s time at Ferrari, also experienced humorous crowd problems of his own. As the Italian attempted to sign autographs, the car behind him began honking at the swarmed Forghieri, who laughed at the joke.

All those in attendance were in a fantastic mood and as Gilles’s former mechanics left the facility, the tifosi erupted into applause, acknowledging the service that the men had given Ferrari. The crowd was in fact so respectful, that the team treated us to a special viewing and photo session with the car as it was taken back to the factory, with several of us crossing the forbidden threshold, beyond the gates of Fiorano, for and unforgettable few minutes!

After several hours of stories and laughs with the fans around me, finally the Villeneuve family and their entourage came into view. Melanie Villeneuve, Gilles’s daughter, was the first to greet the crowd with a warm smile and friendly wave. Her mother, Joann walked a few feet behind her, chatting happily with friends. Both women embraced the crowd immediately and spoke in Italian. I was fortunate enough to speak with both of them, who were shocked to discover that I too am Canadian. Melanie in particular was especially down to earth and it was a joy to hear a Canadian accent for the first time in almost a year!

Suddenly the focus of the crowd shifted when a flashy yellow Ferrari, containing 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve in it, approached the exit. I managed to exchange only the briefest few words with him before the fans climbed all over his car…literally. “Is it always like this?” I asked Melanie Villeneuve as she watched her brother get mauled by the tifosi. “Yes.” She replied, while glancing at her mother.

As the cars containing Jacques Villeneuve, Melanie Villeneuve and their mother, Joann made their way out the Fiorano gates, well wishers approached Joann in particular and began to tell Gilles’s widow how much her late husband had meant to them. Obviously touched by their words, both Joann and Melanie seemed to really appreciate the love that the fans still have for Gilles Villeneuve.

As her car was about to disappear from view, Melanie Villeneuve greeted me one last time. She gave me the thumbs up and exclaimed “Go Canada!” while beaming broadly. I like to think that if Gilles could see the way that he was remembered, he would have been extremely proud. For me, it was a very special day in Maranello that I will not likely forget anytime soon.


  1. Holy smokes! What a fabulous experience! Thank you for your article.

  2. Just a beautiful piece, and a great write up, great photos too!!
    I was 17YO when GV died, i shed a tear and my world was rocked, and i have NEVER EVER forgotten about him, i have a quiet reflection every May 8th each and every year since.
    Sorry i was not present, but i have a photo of me cleaning that statue of GV while i was in Italy
    Is GV's daughter the one with the white pants on the phone...she is hot!

  3. Nope, Gilles' daughter Melanie is the one in a black T-shirt and brown pants carrying a bottle of water...