Grand Prix
Jacques Villeneuve:
No Miracle in Montreal

May 8th, 1982 - a cool afternoon in Zolder, Belgium. Gilles Villeneuve might have been trying to beat hated team-mate Didier Pironi’s time, it’s difficult to tell as his default plan was always to drive the Ferrari as fast as it would possibly go no matter what the circumstances. It doesn’t matter why, either way he clips the back of Jochen Mass’ March after a moment of confusion where the German tried to get out of his way at the exact moment Villeneuve decided to go around him. The Ferrari is sent cart-wheeling away, destroying itself, and Villeneuve – no doubt cursing himself for messing up his lap - is thrown from the cockpit, with fatal consequences.

Just over a month later, the Canadian Grand Prix served as a wake – the whole weekend was grey and gloomy, the fans subdued. To cap it all off, Riccardo Paletti was killed in a start-line accident (with Pironi showing he might have been human after all, desperately trying to get close enough to free the Italian from his destroyed Osella), and the delay meant the race – already held late in the day to keep the television people happy – finished as dusk descends on Montreal.

However, for the Canadian enthusiasts, hope would return a year later. Gilles’ younger brother, Jacques, was that hope. He had previously failed to qualify an Arrows in the last couple of rounds of the 1981 season, but these were in the days when a rookie F1 driver wasn’t necessarily expected to make an instant impression – such odd end-of-season drives were often handed out to those winning junior championships (as Jacques did in 1981 with Formula Atlantic) as smaller teams were happy to take onboard the sponsorship these young guns brought to get them through the last few races of a season (though it never seemed to do any of these drivers much good – see Mike Thackwell, Jonathan Palmer or Tommy Byrne).

He had then spent 1982 driving an Osella-BMW in CanAm, culminating in a win at the 1982 Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix support race. Jacques had actually spent much of the year in discussion about joining Osella’s 1983 F1 line-up, but the nasty ending to the team’s 1982 (with Jarier storming out of Vegas after a suspension failure in practice, declaring the car unsafe and just stopping short of accusing Enzo Osella of criminal negligence) led to Osella shelving his plans for 1983. When friends and sponsors convinced the Italian to continue, Villeneuve fell out of his plans in favour of a patriotic all-Italian line-up.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve was on F1’s radar, if not any of the top teams. For his part, Jacques was eager to get a foot in the door, though he was realistic enough to see that paying for a lower order seat was his only real chance – to start with, anyway. Enter RAM Automotive. Mick Ralph and John Macdonald had previously specialised in national racing in the UK, winning the Aurora F1 championship with Rupert Keegan in 1979 and Emilio de Villota in 1980. During this time they also entered their 1979-vintage Williams FW07 cars in various World Championship races with no real success. In 1981 they took over running the March F1 team, and had progressively moved further away from the Bicester concern – again with no real success.

By 1983 they were experiencing even less success than usual. Dave Kelly had designed the RAM March 01 car for the season in accordance with the new flat-bottom regulations, and the car was – frankly – a dog. The flat-nosed device had initially been driven by Eliseo Salazar, who qualified for the first two races, then didn’t qualify for the next four by an ever-increasing margin. RAM had also planned to run a second car for anyone who could pay for it – initially Jean-Louis Schlesser signed up to do so, but when he didn’t cough up the funds he was dropped. At this point the team entered discussions with Jacques, who began chasing sponsorship to run at his home race, with a view to continuing if more money could be found or if the combination was a success.

In the meantime, Salazar disappeared from the team. His sponsorship from Copec was dependant on results, and four straight DNQs didn’t quite fit the bill. Rather than spend money on a car which wasn’t even getting into the races where it would get TV coverage, Copec withdrew, and Salazar’s F1 career (highlight – standing looking embarrassed while Nelson Piquet had a strange little fit in front of him at Hockenheim in 1982) was over. With no driver, RAM skipped the United States Grand Prix at Detroit, though Macdonald did arrive to give a press conference announcing his team would be at Montreal with their new driver – Jacques Villeneuve.

While everyone else was busy repairing the damage done at another Detroit demolition derby, Jacques and RAM were at Mosport testing the car, Villeneuve having just won a CanAm race there. Just getting this far had been a struggle for him. March’s North American importer, Doug Shierson, had used what sway he had to oil the gears. Gilles’ manager, Gaston Parent, had helped, as had Jacques' father Seville. Canada in general seemed to be behind Jacques. Canadian Tire and car rental firm Avis had come up with $65,000 in sponsorship; Bombardier, who made the snowmobiles Jacques raced in the winter season, had come up with $10,000. The company also provided a petition bearing the signatures of all 1500 Bombardier staff wishing Jacques luck.

The Mosport test went well on the whole. Jacques found the car easy to drive – certainly easier than the ground effects Arrows. RAM had tried an old mechanics’ test on him before he first went out, without his knowledge changing the wing settings so the car oversteered wildly. A lap later he was back in – wanting the wings adjusted, the car was oversteering too much. Test passed. The sessions were encouraging, despite Villeneuve breaking two front wings on unfortunate local marmots, and heading to Montreal Villeneuve was confident.

He reported after the test: -

“Everything went well; I adapted to each situation quickly and I’m already integrated with the team. They please me and I think they like me, I’m absolutely not nervous and I feel strangely calm, which gives me confidence. The only thing I ask is that at the circuit which carries my brother's name, I’m left to work in peace. To qualify will be something important for my career, it could mean a regular Formula One drive later; if I fail, I will undoubtedly have to find money to continue. That makes all the difference…”

By Friday evening he was distraught. He had been besieged by the local media since his arrival, but there was one problem – most of them didn’t know much about F1. They didn’t know the RAM was terrible. They expected him to do as well in the RAM as the beloved Gilles had done in the Ferrari. After finishing the first qualifying session 2.305 seconds from making the grid with a time of 1:37.858, Jacques couldn’t even face them - Seville doing his best to explain to an aggressive, disappointed press pack that the RAM wasn’t a good car without blaming everything on the team.

The problem was tyres. 1983 qualifying regulations meant each driver had two marked sets of qualifiers per session, and that was it. Running on unmarked race tyres was a disqualifiable offence, unless marshals were informed in advance – in which case the times simply weren’t counted and the driver was allowed to work on race setup. RAM were running on Pirellis – while the Italian race rubber in 1983 was dire, their qualifiers weren’t bad. The problem was they were tailored to the company’s turbo teams, Lotus and Toleman, and Jacques had only ran on race tyres at Mosport. The slower Cosworth-engined RAM just couldn’t get enough heat into the short-life qualifying tyres to get them working properly, with the result being that the car was sliding all over the place whenever Villeneuve pushed. Add into the car’s lack of straight-line speed and Jacques’ own inexperience and it was little surprise he was off the pace.

The good thing about the Friday performance was that the local media wrote him off as a loser, and left him in the peace he wanted in the first place. The team believed in him (indeed, Macdonald took his feedback on the tyres so seriously he reportedly tried to switch to Goodyear tyres overnight, only to be told the company couldn’t handle any more teams at such short notice), and he still believed in himself. In Saturday morning’s untimed session he recorded a time of 1:34.693, more than three seconds faster and 23rd on the charts – on race rubber. The same morning, Bernie Ecclestone dropped in to the RAM garage to offer words of encouragement.

However, the afternoon session was warmer. This was good and bad – it would get a bit more heat into the Pirelli qualifiers, but it would also mean they only lasted one lap a set. So Jacques had two laps to pull off a miracle. His main opposition were the Osellas of Corrado Fabi and Piercarlo Ghinzani, and the Ligier of Raul Boesel.

Villeneuve’s first run left him with 1:35.223 – two and a half seconds faster than Friday, but not fast enough. Fabi went out and was faster. Ghinzani went out and was slower – one down, one to go. Boesel went out and was faster. With 15 minutes to go, Villeneuve went out on his second run, needing to improve by 0.249s to beat Boesel. He improved, but only by 0.090s, and Boesel promptly went out and went faster anyway, bumping Mauro Baldi down to 26th. The Italian’s time was 0.378s faster than Villeneuve’s, and Jacques had no tyres left. It was over, there was to be no miracle in Montreal, and his F1 dream was finished.

Jacques had moved mountains to get the original one-race deal together, and despite his talk there was never any real chance of him raising the funds to continue without getting into the race and doing well. Kenny Acheson would take over the drive for the British Grand Prix, and vindicate Jacques to some degree by failing to qualify for the next seven races before starting in South Africa – when there were only 26 entrants. RAM would then go on to find new and not terribly exciting ways of failing to find much success in Formula 1, which largely involved running Philippe Alliot, until folding at the start of 1986 without having scored a single point in any of their myriad guises.

Villeneuve's Canadian Grand Prix weekend just went to show how much factors that rarely cross fans’ minds can conspire to make a capable driver look like an idiot. Between the Pirelli qualifiers, the shadow of his brother and the media pressure, it’s not a stretch to consider that Jacques didn’t do a bad job. His Friday morning time wasn’t quite good enough for the grid, but considering how much he improved over the weekend it’s tantalising to think he could well have started had he been able to run race compounds in qualifying. When you consider someone like Roberto Moreno, who made a terrible F1 debut with Lotus for all sorts of reasons, but got a second chance and managed to carve a much-respected career in limited machinery, it’s perilous to write Jacques off as useless based on one ill-fated showing.

As it is, sadly he’s doomed to being a trivial footnote in Formula 1’s history, as the brother of Gilles and uncle of the other Jacques who landed in a March and failed to make the grade.