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His first F1 race (also the debut event for the turbo Renault) was at Silverstone in 1977 partnering James Hunt and Jochen Mass. Toward the end of the ’77 season Villeneuve had established a reputation as a promising talent, Teddy Mayer, due partly to Marlboro sponsorship considerations, declined to keep Gilles with McLaren, apparently leaving the promising young driver high and dry for 1978. But in August of 1977 Maranello called.
Enzo Ferrari said that when he first met the diminutive Canadian, he was immediately reminded of the great Nuvolari. Ferrari’s obvious interest in Villeneuve prompted Niki Lauda to jump ship at Canada in October, and Gilles began his short but storied Ferrari career in a less than auspicious fashion. In the Mosport race he left the course on someone else’s oil. The next race, at Fuji, saw him off again, but this time at the cost of some spectators’ lives.
On the final lap at Imola in 1982 Pironi snuck past his unsuspecting teammate, who had slowed feeling that the race was in hand, to snatch the win. Villeneuve was uncharacteristically furious.
Still feeling the sting and out to prove something two weeks later at Zolder, during Saturday qualifying, he came up behind a much slower March of Jochen Mass who may have been on one of his slow down laps and though Mass pulled over Villeneuve could not avoid his car. The resulting collision sent the Ferrari off into a cart-wheeling disintegration.
Villeneuve was resuscitated at the scene, but his injuries were mortal. He died in a local hospital that evening.
Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, where he qualified 9th in McLaren’s old M23, splitting the regular drivers Hunt and Jochen Mass who were driving newer M26s. In the race he set fifth fastest lap and finished 11th after being delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge. The British press coverage of Villeneuve’s performance was generally complimentary, including John Blunsden’s comment in The Times that “Anyone seeking a future World Champion need look no further than this quietly assured young man.”
After Villeneuve impressed James Hunt by beating him and several other Grand Prix stars in a non-championship Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières in 1976, Hunt’s McLaren team offered Villeneuve a Formula One deal for up to five races in a third car during the 1977 season.