Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born in Richelieu, a small town in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada, the son of an itinerant piano-tuner. He grew up in the nearby town of Berthierville.
After dabbling with music Gilles developed a passion for automobiles and at the age of 15 his father gave him an old 1958 MGA sports car which he had bought for $100. Gilles stripped the car down, learning as he did so and eventually the old car became roadworthy although he was still legally under-age. His early career as a driver was frightening as he destroyed a series of cars, including his MGA.
When he finished school he started competing in drag racing events entering his road car, a modified 1967 Ford Mustang. However a visit to Mont Tremblant to watch road racing convinced him that he could better than most of those competing. He did not have enough money to get into single-seaters and so used the money he earned from a job with a construction company to fund snowmobile racing, eventually turning professional.
He married Joann Barthe in 1970, with whom he had two children, Jacques and Melanie.
Money was very tight in Villeneuve's early career and in his first few years the bulk of his income actually came from snowmobile racing, where he was extremely successful, receiving appearance money as well as race money, especially after winning the 1974 World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
Eventually in 1973 he went to the Jim Russell Racing School at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant to get his racing license and had a very successful season in the Quebec regional Formula Ford series, driving a two year old car which he ran with some of his friends from snowmobiling. He won seven out of the ten races he entered and won the provincial championship at his first attempt.
He moved on to Formula Atlantic in 1974 with the Ecurie Canada, selling the family house to pay for the drive. The family lived in a camper van and they went on the road together during the racing season, a habit which he continued to some extent during his Formula One career.
The early races of the 1974 series were disappointing and in the mid season Villeneuve crashed heavily at Mosport Park and broke his leg in two places. He lost his drive with Ecurie Canada and had to scrape together money to get a new chassis to finish the season.
His second season in Formula Atlantic was part-sponsored by his snowmobile manufacturer, Skiroule. He credited some of his success to his snowmobiling days: "Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I'm talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 mph. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing in the rain."
He won his first Atlantic race that year at Gimli Motosport Park in heavy rain.
Then in 1976, teamed with Chris Harrison's Ecurie Canada and factory March race engineer Ray Wardell, he totally dominated the season, winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles. That summer he was invited by Ron Dennis to race a Formula 2 car at Pau. he showed well but the car overheated. Then Villeneuve impressed James Hunt by beating him and several other Grand Prix stars in a non championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières. Hunt went back to Europe and told the McLaren management about the French-Canadian and in the autumn McLaren signed him to take part in a number of races as third driver to Hunt and Jochen Mass, with an option for 1978.
He often claimed to have been born in 1952. By the time he got his break in Formula One, he was already 27 years old and took two years off his age to avoid being considered too old to make it at the highest level of motor sports.
He made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix. Villeneuve qualified an impressive 9th in McLaren's old M23, splitting the regular drivers Hunt and Jochen Mass. Delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge he ran competitively, setting fifth fastest lap and finishing 11th. Despite this the team decided not to opt for Villeneuve's services again.
Then in August 1977, Villeneuve met with Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari was immediately reminded by Villeneuve of the legendary Tazio Nuvolari. The obvious interest shown by Ferrari towards Villeneuve prompted Niki Lauda to leave at that year's Canadian Grand Prix, having already clinched his second championship. In the race, Gilles retired, after going off on another competitor's oil. He also raced in Japan, but also retired. On lap five of the race, Gilles tried to out brake the Tyrrell P34 of Ronnie Peterson, but the pair banged wheels. Gilles' Ferrari went airborne and crashed down onto two spectators watching the race from a prohibited area. Both were killed.
After making his debut for Ferrari, he would later remark that: "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 1, my third to drive for Ferrari."
In 1977 he had also put together a deal to race in Formula Atlantic again but it was going to harder as a new challenger had emerged in the form of Keke Rosberg. Never the less he took the title for the second time.
He was partnered with Carlos Reutemann for the 1978 F1 season. A season which saw a succession of retirements for Villeneuve, often after problems with the new Michelin radial tyres, but also due to his own inexperience, don't forget that this was his still only his fifth season of car racing. Despite calls in the Italian press for him to be replaced, Ferrari persisted with him and Villeneuve scored his first Grand Prix victory at his home race, the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, at the end of the season in front of an ecstatic crowd.
For 1979 Ferrari hired Jody Scheckter to be the team leader after Carlos Reutemann moved to Lotus. Villeneuve won in South Africa and in Long Beach and built up the Villeneuve folklore with his epic last lap struggle with Rene Arnoux at the French GP at Dijon. Villeneuve refused to accept his 312T4 was slower than Arnoux's faster Renault and produced one of the most intense moments in Formula One racing. Arnoux passed Villeneuve for second place with three laps to go, but Villeneuve re-passed him on the next lap. On the final lap Arnoux attempted to pass Villeneuve again, and the pair ran side-by-side through the first several corners of the lap, making contact several times. Arnoux took the position, but Villeneuve attempted an outside pass one corner later. The cars bumped hard, and Villeneuve slid wide. Villeneuve then tried an inside pass at a hairpin turn and managed to make it stick. He then held off Arnoux for the last half of the lap to secure 2nd place. Villeneuve commented afterwards, "I tell you, that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another."
Then at Zandvoort a slow puncture collapsed his left rear tyre and put him off the track. He returned to the circuit and continued back to the pits on three wheels, with sparks flying from under the car and the punctured tyre flapping loose behind it. The deflated tyre soon tore the wheel away from the suspension. On his return to the pits Villeneuve insisted that the team replace the missing wheel and had to be persuaded that the car was beyond repair.
At the end of the year he supported Scheckter's title challenge. When that was successful Villeneuve won again at Watkins Glen. During the extremely wet Friday practice session for the race, Villeneuve set a time variously reported to be either 9 or 11 seconds faster than any other driver. His team-mate Jody Scheckter, who was second fastest, recalled that "I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles's time and I still don't really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!" Jacques Laffite merely laughed and quipped "Why do we bother? Gilles is different from the rest of us. He is on a separate level."
In 1979, Gilles could have won the World Championship by beating Scheckter, but chose to follow team orders and finish behind him at the Italian Grand Prix leaving him just four points behind in the final points standings.
The 1980 season was a disaster for Ferrari and Villeneuve scored only 6 points with the unwieldy 312T5 which had only partial ground effects. His world champion team-mate could manage only two points and retired at the end of the season.
However the Ferrari 126CK in 1981 was a different matter. The chassis was agricultural but the turbocharged engine was extraordinary and Villeneuve used it to the full, winning at Monaco and in Spain. That win at Jarama, he wrestled an unwieldy turbo Ferrari 126C to victory in a classic display of defensive driving, keeping 5 quicker cars behind him using his tactical acumen and the superior straight line speed of his car. After an hour and 46 minutes of racing, Villeneuve led second-placed Jacques Laffite by only 0.22 seconds. Fifth-placed Elio de Angelis was only just over a second further back. Harvey Postlethwaite, designer of the 126C, later commented, "That car...had literally one quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was."
The car was refined over the winter though in 1982 the season started with a series of reliability problems. Two retirements and then having crossed the line in third at the US Grand Prix, he was disqualified when a protest of his Ferrari's rear wing was upheld by the officials.
Then at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola for the fourth race of the season, the Ferraris were handed an unexpected advantage as an escalation of the FISA-FOCA war saw the FOCA teams boycott the race, effectively leaving Renault as Ferrari's only serious opposition. With Prost retiring from 4th place on lap 7, followed by Arnoux on the 44th lap, Ferrari seemed to have the win in the bag. In order to preserve fuel and ensure the cars made the finish, the Ferrari team ordered both drivers to slow down. Villeneuve believed that the order also meant that the drivers were to maintain position, but Pironi didn't come to the same conclusion and passed Villeneuve. A few laps later Villeneuve re-passed Pironi and slowed down again, believing that Pironi was simply trying to entertain the Italian crowd. However, on the last lap Pironi passed and aggressively chopped Villeneuve and took the win. Villeneuve was irate, as he believed that Pironi had disobeyed the order to hold position. Meanwhile, Pironi claimed that he had done nothing wrong, as the team had only ordered the cars to slow down, not maintain position. Feeling betrayed and angry, Villeneuve vowed never to speak to Pironi again.
Two weeks later at Zolder while trying to take pole position he ran into the back of Jochen Mass's Rothmans March. The Ferrari cartwheeled and Villeneuve was killed.
Villeneuve death had a profound effect on everyone in the sport. Since 1982 he has become an iconic figure in the history of the sport, renowned for his car control, aggressive driving style, and a 'never give up' attitude. Lauda wrote of him, "He was the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula 1... The fact that, for all this, he was a sensitive and lovable character rather than an out-and-out hell-raiser made him such a unique human being". He was a risk-taker of epic proportions. Yet on the track he was always fair and never put anyone's safety other than his own in jeopardy. He was exceptionally popular not only with the fans but also with his teammates and opponents as well.
At the funeral in Berthierville, former team-mate, Jody Scheckter, delivered a simple eulogy: “I will miss Gilles for two reasons. First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known. But he has not gone. The memory of what he has done, what he achieved, will always be there.”
In 2007 former Marlboro marketer John Hogan disputed the claim that Pironi had gone back on a prior arrangement with Villeneuve. He said: "Neither of them would ever have agreed to what effectively was throwing a race. I think Gilles was stunned somebody had out-driven him and that it just caught him so much by surprise." Hogan's company sponsored Pironi while he was at Ferrari. A comparison of the lap times of the two drivers showed that Villeneuve lapped far slower when he was in the lead, suggesting that he had indeed been trying to save fuel.
His younger brother Jacques, known as "uncle Jacques", also had a successful racing career in Formula Atlantic, Can Am and CART, and his son, Jacques, also became a racing driver, winning the Indianapolis 500 and the CART Championship in 1995 and the F1 World Championship in 1997.