It was about lunchtime when it happened. It was 8th May 1982 and those who witnessed it wrang their hands in anguish. I shunted my dark green Grifter bike on a kerb in the back alley of our street – Millfield Road, York. Innocuous really, except for the fact that I landed on my chin. Hands cupped to face, I ran in to our kitchen to present the bloody, flappy-skinned mess to my mother.
York District Hospital beckoned and some never to be forgotten stitches were applied, making my previously un-remarkable lower jaw look like a zipped-up pencil case. I was seven years old and was being a big brave boy. Dad had to finish work early and my sister was taken in by the alcoholic pensioner opposite for safe keeping. As you did back then.
We got home at tea-time. I got cuddles. I got chocolate and sympathy. Dad switched on the six o’clock news. Jan Leeming, all embalmed un-blinking expression and Thatcherite fondent hair, piped up:
“The racing driver, Gilles Villeneuve is critically ill in hospital after a 170mph crash……..”
The accident happened at approximately the same time as the alley/chin affair. My fear threshold had been breached. It was complete co-incidence of course but I remember the feeling of utter incredulity that Gilles Villeneuve, the Gilles Villeneuve could be in hospital as well. Would he have stitches too?
At first there seemed hope. Dad even went to the pub as usual and said that it would all be ok in the morning. It wouldn’t be. Later that evening Gilles’ life support machine was turned off and he died. His brain stem had been dislocated and there was no real hope from the very moment he took the decision to go right of Jochen Mass, rather than the left as they approached the Terlamenbocht corner.
I don’t remember seeing the accident but I listened in abject horror the next morning, as my friend and I sat on the wall of his house, both of us admiring my grisly battle scars. He had seen the accident by dint of slightly more care-free parents who allowed a post 9 o’clock bedtime.
“He popped out,” Dan said matter of factly. “Giles (sic) came out of the car and went in to the fence. He must be dead. My Dad says he must be dead and my Dad’s never wrong because he saw him at Brands Hatch a few years ago in the pits. He’s dead alright.”
I shook my head not knowing what to think of this seven year old’s logic. I knew Dad would be upset. And that would upset me too. He couldn’t be dead though could he? It didn’t seem real. It meant he wouldn’t be in the race. Would the race still happen without him? Was I allowed to watch the Grand Prix it if people could die in it.
I put on my Parmalat Brabham cap on and walked back down the alley in a whirl. I passed my sister in the back yard. She was sporting another bruised ‘egg’ on her forehead and gravel-rashed kness courtesy of the indifference that the inebriated neighbour showed while walking her across the street the previous evening while we were all at York District Hospital. She was also sporting a totally unacceptable haircut which had been administered by my own fair hand some weeks previously.
I looked at the spot where my chin hit the ground. I remembered the metallic burning smell and the flashing stars when I hit the cobbles. That hurt. That really hurt, I thought to myself. I won’t do that again.
31 years later I’m at Zolder. It’s very early on a Monday morning in mid-April. The air is fresh, the trees not yet quite lush. I head back to the circuit after working in the FIA GT Series. The trip back is necessary after forgetting to hand the Press Room key in the night before.
Driving out, I see an opening in the trees and by guess work alone I realise that somewhere through the thicket would be Terlamenbocht. I get to the corner. I feel nothing. The dip just before where the accident happened is instantly recognisable but the corner where the car and Gilles landed is now a chicane. It’s a nothing place. No feelings exist there and the woods are ghostless.
And yet. On the way back just before I get to the car I look to my left and there is a gate. The sun is dancing between the early Spring foliage and there is a heavy dew. I look through and see a chapel. It’s the most unlikely sight. Beautiful and beguiling but out of bounds and totally incongruous to the location. Immediately I think of Lucia Gallucci.
At the circuit welcome dinner the previous Friday I met Lucia who is the Race Organisation Manager at Zolder now. 31 years ago she had been the liaison between Ferrari, the circuit and the hospital due to her Italian heritage.
“When the accident happened I was the only Italian speaking person at the circuit and although very young I was entrusted to liaise with the team,” recalled Lucia. “Informing the mechanics and engineers about what was going on at the hospital was very difficult and of course I will never forget it. Gilles was taken to University St Raphael Hospital in Louvain but it was obvious there would be no hope. The mechanics were devastated, many of them crying. He was loved by not just his team but by the whole racing fraternity.”
I drove back to the hotel thinking of Lucia’s heartfelt words and how, after 31 years, Gilles Villeneuve was still affecting people’s lives. His legend has, if anything got bigger over the years. His son took on the great family name and brought success his father should have enjoyed in 1982 and possibly beyond. His daughter Melanie and wife Joann attended a moving tribute to him in Italy last year on the 30th anniversary of his death.
Now, approaching the 31st, I was back at the hotel in Hasselt. I looked in the mirror as I had a morning shave. Noticing the faint outline of the scar on my chin, I looked at the mirror again and just smiled. I hope that somewhere, far from Zolder, Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve is smiling too.