Sitting in Gilles Villeneuve's
Seattle collector restores F1
classic - Car raced by Canadian legend
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
Wash.-When Paul Tracy celebrated his CART win this past
weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, I
thought back to another Canadian racer who made Long
Beach an unforgettable race.
In 1979, with ground-effect
Formula 1 cars roaring on the track, my hero Gilles
Villeneuve stole pole position there in his Ferrari 312
T4 from Lotus 79 driver Carlos Reutemann.
As the story goes, it was a day
of confusion at the USA-West race when Villeneuve missed
his grid position at the end of the formation lap.
Unfazed, he took the first corner side-by-side with
rival teammate Jody Scheckter and never looked back
He set the fastest lap of the
race at 1:21.20 and flew over the finish line half a
minute ahead of the second-placed fellow Ferrari. Of the
24 cars entered, only nine finished the race.
This was one of three
first-place finishes for Villeneuve that year and the
Ferrari 312 T4 that he raced at Long Beach was retired
after just three races - Villeneuve's driving technique
was not known to be kind to machinery.
It was sold to a personal
friend of Enzo Ferrari himself, who eventually passed it
on to a New Zealand collector who shipped it to England
and put it up for sale in 2001. A Seattle-area car
collector heard of its availability and flew over to
take a closer look.
He brought along a
leveled-headed business partner to help him in the
buying decision. With their best poker faces, they
critiqued the car from top to bottom: it needed work -
how easy would it be to find the right parts for such a
unique piece of machinery? - but when the seller started
the engine, the partner's expressionless face cracked an
enormous, childlike grin.
An avid fan of Ferrari, Formula
1 racing and Gilles Villeneuve, the Seattle collector
knew at the blip of the throttle and roar of the exhaust
that he couldn't resist. A year later, after a total
restoration in England with the original equipment
installed, it was just as Villeneuve drove it in 1979.
And now, 24 years after that
historic race, it's my turn to settle into its snug
The collector, Rick, an
Internet entrepreneur who asks that his last name not be
published, owns other vintage Formula 1 cars, but
Villeneuve's 3-litre flat-12 is the pride of his
"The others resemble `kit cars'
in comparison to the detailed work that Enzo Ferrari put
into his racing machine," he says. And how much did it
cost? He smiles secretively. "Compared to other
significant Ferraris, I think F1s are a relative
No one can describe the emotion
you feel when you sit in your racing's idol's car. When
you place your hands on the steering wheel, the same
wheel Villeneuve gripped, you hope that by some form of
osmosis you could feel what he did and drive like he
could. My heart raced as I remembered Gilles diving into
corners with reckless abandon.
When I looked up, I knew Rick
understood - this was not just an incredible Ferrari,
but one that belonged to Canada's racing legend.
This year, Rick looks forward
to taking the car on the track. "When I do drive it this
June, it will be a very incredible day for me," he says.
"Not only to drive an F1
Ferrari, but to do it in a car that was driven by one of
the greatest, most talented drivers of all time."
The Ferrari's engine makes 515
hp at 12,300 rpm, although its objective was not power
but aerodynamic efficiency. The unique design allowed
air flow to create maximum adhesion to the track
surface, yet some of its competitors did an ever better
job. Lotus had its winning ground-effect car in 1978,
while the Renault Turbos had more speed and the Williams
had more grip.
But in 1979, the reliability of
the Ferrari as well as its two talented drivers brought
Ferrari the constructors' championship.
I asked Rick why he bought this
piece of racing history.
"It was always my dream as a
youth to drive for Ferrari," he said. "I never got the
chance, but thought I had the talent. So I purchased the
next best thing!
"Now I can realize my dream,
and provide others the experience of watching and
hearing this magnificent race car go by on the track
Gilles Villeneuve's life was
cut short on May 8, 1982, after a collision during the
time trials of the Belgium Grand Prix. He had driven a
total of 67 Grand Prixs.
And although Enzo Ferrari
called the T4 the ugliest race car to ever leave his
factory - I beg to differ.
In my eyes, it will always be a
priceless work of art.