The Villeneuve Spirit

A family of old school drivers brought new school ideas

The Allouette twin track earned Gilles Villeneuve fans and detractors.
Snow Tech magazine
If you had the chance to watch Gilles Villeneuve in action on a snowmobile racetrack during the mid-1970s, you left with a lasting impression of a driver mastering speed at the absolute limit, no matter the track conditions or what machine he rode.

For him, there was no taking it easy, he always strove to be the fastest, although for most of the time his team was underfunded and he raced against large factory teams.

The first time I watched him was at the “Hodag” races in Rhinelander, Wis., in the early ’70s. He was there with his younger brother Jacques and their new Allouette racers. The “Hodag” races had a twisting Grand Prix-style course in addition to the regular oval races. This course used the oval track, but at the end of the front straight it made a sharp turn to the right, out into the fields with an extra loop.

In this loop there was a sharp left turn and Gilles entered it at much higher speed than the other drivers. Instead of taking the normal line, he would short circuit the turn by jumping part of the snow bank, then land in full control like a cat playing around.

Despite his 130-lb. 5-foot-4 frame he could muscle the Allouette around, always right at the limit of traction. The Allouettes were powered by modified Sachs engines, nice but not quite the cutting edge of power like Yamaha, Polaris, Arctic, or Ski-Doo motors.

Yet Gilles seemed able to wring extra performance out of his sleds to win races. The whole thing was puzzling to many. While the factory teams arrived in big semis with million dollar budgets, Canadians Gilles and Jacques arrived in an old converted school bus named “Bertha,” and usually at the last minute due to “Berthas” habit of constantly breaking down on the road.

Once at the track the Villeneuve brothers concentrated 100% on racing and preparing their sleds, often through the night. While you could go to the bar at the Holiday Inn in Rhinelander and see all the factory drivers and public relations guys mingling with fans and the press, I can’t remember ever seeing Gilles or Jacques at those events. If they were anyplace, you might find them at McDonald’s wolfing down a burger, some fries and a Coke before returning to the pits for more work on their sleds.
Gilles and brother Jacques were mainstays at the Eagle River Derby.
World Snowmobile Headquarters
Gilles mounts his 650 single-track Alloutte, ready to win the 1974 Eagle River title.
CJ Ramstad photo archives
Gilles starts the IFS revolution on his Skiroule at the 1976 Killkenny Cup.
CJ Ramstad photo archive
A natural engineer
The Villeneuve brothers quickly impressed everyone with their constant “on the limit” driving styles and their “never quit” spirit. Besides being an exceptionally talented driver, Gilles also was a skilled “natural” engineer. Although he never had any basic technical college training, he had a good eye and natural instinct for what would work mechanically, and was always looking for a technical advantage or a new design to give him an edge.

Perhaps the biggest shocker was when he rolled out the Allouette twin tracker. Gilles had started racing Formula cars in Canada, and his twin tracker was basically a Formula car with skis and tracks. Instead of front wheels, there were skis, but they were mounted on Formula car style A-frame suspensions that were only seen 15 years later on Arctic Cats. Now, 30 years later, they are standard equipment on modern snowmobiles.

Two tracks replaced the wheels in back, and Gilles sat in a cockpit like a racecar, with the engine behind him, operation coming via a 5-speed gearbox of his own design. The sled created an absolute sensation, but had plenty of development problems in the beginning, especially with the gearbox. When the gearbox was changed to a belt drive, the pace quickened and results came.

With its low seating position, there was not enough weight-transfer at the start, and Gilles often found himself last off the line. The twin-track sled did, however, have an advantage in the corners, and Gilles started picking off the other drivers one by one, by aggressively driving under them in the turns.

This was intimidating to the drivers that were being passed, and soon there were a lot of complaints from drivers who felt the little race car with skis and tracks was way too dangerous the way Gilles moved them out of the way. That’s not a snowmobile, went the argument and it’s not what the rules were meant to allow.

Unfortunately for them, the twin tracker was totally within the new rules governing the new professional driver circuit. Perhaps the Allouette people felt they got more grief than good PR from the twin tracker in the U.S, although the Canadian fans loved the ingenuity. As a result, Gilles showed up at the 1974 Eagle River World Championship Derby with his regular 650 single-track sled and not the dual track one. After a poor start due to a misfire, Gilles still drove to a convincing victory once the engine was firing on all three cylinders.

1975 still found Gilles and Jacques on Allouettes, but finances were strained. “Bertha” finally gave up its guts on the way to Eagle River, and Gilles, with his wife Joan and their new baby in tow, arrived in a rented cube van. He had no mechanic with him, and could use any help he could muster.

Through the years, my friend and technician Jimmy “the Greek” Anagnoustopolous and Gilles had become good friends, and since we were only there observing that year, Jimmy became Gilles’ assistant for the weekend. I checked in on Jimmy as he was sitting in the van changing studs on Gilles’ track.

“Hey Olav look at this,” he said as he grabbed the track and gave it a jerk. The track spun almost two revolutions before it stopped. That was incredible. Gilles must have spent untold hours getting everything lined up and spinning freely in the drivetrain. That was part of his secret, he might not have had the most horsepower, but he probably had the most efficient drivetrain in the pits, and as a result got just as much power to the ground as the competition.
Gilles concentrated 100% on his racing, if he was not working on the sled, he would walk the pits and check out everyone’s equipment, crawling on the ground looking at suspensions, jumping on the running boards to check out the spring rate and if no one was around, lifting sleds front and back to check the weight. Everyone got so used to his antics they mostly joked about it, and he always had a smile and a joke-back in his shy and disarming manner.
To the larger world Gilles Villeneuve was a Formula 1 star with Ferrari, finishing second in the 1979 World Championship.
Copyright Ferrari SpA photos
A turn toward cars
Despite the Villeneuve’s success, Allouette filed for bankruptcy, and Gilles found a new ride with Skiroule, on the condition that they sponsor his Formula Atlantic racecar. Gilles used whatever money he made snowmobile racing to race open wheel Atlantic cars each summer.

The Canadian and U.S. Atlantic car series was just below Indy cars in speed at the time and was a breeding ground for young talent aiming for Formula 1 or Indy cars. Gilles won both the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic Championships in 1976 and 1977. More importantly, he beat a number of established F1 stars, including James Hunt who later became F1 World Champion, at the big race at Trois Riviere.

Such success caused a major sensation among the Canadian and European press, and led to a development contract with McLaren in 1976. In the meantime his 1976 snowmobile racing season with Skiroule had caused a major upset at the Kilkenny Cup in Lancaster, N.H., when he beat the whole Sno Pro establishment in the 250, 340 and 440 classes with his IFS-equipped sled. It caused several factories, including Polaris and Kawasaki, to take a serious interest in IFS for their race sleds.

Since Gilles was now under contract with a major F1 team, and Skiroule had declared bankruptcy, Gilles decided to concentrate on car racing and ran in South Africa over the winter. Brother Jacques took the IFS design with him to a new contract with Kawasaki, although that proved short lived. Jacques then moved to Ski-Doo where he eventually won 3 Eagle River World Championships.

After racing snowmobiles Gilles Villeneuve joined Ferrari’s F1 team full time in 1978 and won six Grand Prix before his death in 1982.
Copyright Ferrari SpA photos
Formula 1 fame
Gilles’s relationship with McLaren did not work out, because other drivers had larger sponsorships, but he landed at Ferrari, where he became a favorite of Enzo Ferrari. In his first year with Ferrari he had plenty of problems through the season as he got used to the cars, often drifting through corners in snowmobile style. This won him many fans, but also many mechanical failures, as well as crashed cars.

All was forgiven at season’s end as he won his first F1 race, the Canadian Grand Prix, at the inaugural race on the new Canadian Ille Notre Dame Circuit. Canadians went nuts and his place in the Ferrari team was secured. That racetrack now bears his name.

His 1979 season was his most successful, finishing second to teammate Jody Scheckter in the F1 World Championship. Both won three races, but Gilles had more mechanical problems and DNF’s due to his aggressive style, while Scheckter was better at nursing his cars home for points.

Gilles raced the 1980 and 81 seasons for Ferrari and in 1982 was on a fast qualifying lap at the Belgian Grand Prix when he came up on a slower racer. Gilles tried to pass on the outside, while the driver moved in the same direction to give room on the inside. His left front wheel drove up the other car’s right rear, catapulting him into the air and cartwheeling off the track in a horrifying crash that cost Gilles his life.

The aftermath was one of stunned grief across both Europe and North America. Gilles had won an army of fans in Canada and Europe for his intense and flamboyant driving style and his always charming, almost shy character.
In snowmobile racing Gilles was known not only for his riding talent, but also for his technical abilities. His IFS Skiroule started the industry down the road to IFS suspensions when Bob Eastman decided to make Polaris race sleds with IFS.
Gilles’ brother Jacques also raced cars, winning two Atlantic Championships, two Can-Am Championships and an Indy Car race at Elkhart Lake, Wis., in 1985.

Gilles’ son Jacques won an F1 World Championship in 1997 and the Indy 500 and Indy Car Championship in 1995.
Gilles’ brother Jacques still races snowmobiles, in his 50s, and is as good as ever despite a severe 2008 crash. Last year at Eagle River, he drove from the last row to a third place finish, in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in years. He was aggressive, but smooth, looking more like Gilles than I ever remember seeing him. He is still chasing Championship No. 4, and if you want to see a Villeneuve in action, watch for Jacques at Eagle River.
The Villeneuve “never quit” spirit lives on.
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