Patrick Tambay: The Phoenix – Part 2

Updated: December 18, 2012

On to Formula 1 and Tambay’s Close Friend Gilles

Gilles Villeneuve and Patrick Tambay met for the first time at the star-studded September 1976 Trois Rivières Grand Prix, a Formula Atlantic street race in Quebec. The entry list that weekend included James Hunt, Alan Jones, Vittorio Brambilla, Hector Rebaque, Bobby Rahal, Tom Klausler, Tom Gloy and Price Cobb among other international class drivers. Gilles won handily over Jones and Hunt with Tambay finishing 6th, holding off Gloy and Cobb. “The Canadians were trying to evaluate how they would do against the Europeans,” reminisced Tambay, “Gilles just blew our socks off.” With their common language and racing goals, they became fast friends—and later—very close friends.

While Tambay humbly acknowledges that he and Villeneuve were close friends, he said, “Gilles was a friend to everyone. He was a very generous guy, a very friendly guy and had a very easy way about him. Everyone liked him. He was a very special character and a very nice human being.”

Others observe that their friendship transcended racing, “They were very close, best friends.” remarked Stefan Johanssen, a veteran Ferrari and McLaren driver of the heralded F1Turbo era. Gilles and his brother Jacques (uncle to the future Indy 500, CART, and F1 racing Champion), made the successful transition to open-wheel motor racing from snowmobile racing in their native Canada. The elder Jacques would go on to be the first Canadian to win a race in the CART series at Road America in 1985—paving the way for fellow countrymen like Paul Tracy, Alex Tagliani and Greg Moore.

Soon, both Tambay and Gilles were crossing the pond regularly, splitting time between F1 and North American commitments. Tambay remembers, “Driving in Can-Am, I had to make it successful as all the income earned in Can-Am was going towards my F1 driving with Teddy Yip and Ensign. He wanted some driver participation in the funding, at that time. It was $80,000,” he laughs. “I don’t think you could buy a decent Formula Ford ride with that today.”
Villeneuve, with his snowmobile background, translated those reflexes and skills to become a magician of car control and rain dancing. He thrilled F1 fans with his fearless and incorrigible driving style that was truly and always on the ragged edge. “We both got our first F1 start in the 1977 British Grand Prix.” recalls Tambay, “Gilles was driving a McLaren M26 and I was driving a Theodore” (the Canadian was discovered by James Hunt who raced against him, and lost, in the aforementioned ’76 Trois Rivières Formula Atlantic race). Hunt recommended Villeneuve immediately to McLaren team boss Teddy Mayer, who gave him a ride in what was then a year-old McLaren M26 and decided he wasn’t a good fit.
Tambay simultaneously was offered a Ferrari drive: “I was invited to drive with Ferrari in 1977, but I ended up going to McLaren as I felt it was a better situation. Carlos Reutemann and I suggested Gilles to call Mauro Forghieri. Gilles took the drive.”

Villeneuve would ultimately become one of Enzo Ferrari’s favorite sons and reach international fame during his time riding the Prancing Horses of Maranello. With a Ferrari contract comes commitment like no other… a commitment to endless testing hours and travel throughout Europe, Asia and beyond. As he went overseas to get established, Gilles, his wife Joann, six-year-old son Jacques and daughter Melanie, moved into Tambay’s house in Cannes. They would later relocate to Monaco as Gilles’ career advanced rapidly. The 1997 Formula 1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve fondly remembers Patrick and Gilles’ friendship. “We lived in Tambay’s house for awhile at first. They were good times and I still have fond memories of living there. Patrick gave me a few very important lessons in life back then that were never forgotten.”


Au Revoir Gilles; Bonjour Jacques

Fast Forward to 1982, Zolder. The Belgian Grand Prix. At age 32, Gilles Villeneuve takes to the track in his Harvey Postlethwaite designed Turbo V6-powered Ferrari 126 C2. He is in an angry mood and has not spoken to teammate Didier Pironi in a fortnight, the result of a rift at the San Marino GP owing to Pironi’s final corner move on his race-leading teammate to win Ferrari’s home race despite alleged team orders.
The Belgian GP qualifying session was coming to a close. According to Ferrari Team manager Mauro Forghieri, “Villeneuve was on an in-lap after narrowly missing the 6th grid position by .01 second from (teammate-turned-arch rival) Pironi, but still pressing hard.” In a story that has been painfully told time and time again, Villeneuve came upon Jochen Mass, also on an in-lap and going very slowly just before the Terlamenbocht corner. The German moved to the right to let the Canadian through, but in a fatal judgment, Villeneuve too decided to move right. The Ferrari’s right front met the March-Cosworth’s rear left with dire results.

In the wake of that fateful moment, Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve left behind a widow, a son, a daughter, a mother, a brother and countless friends and admirers. An entire country mourned the loss of a Canadian phenomenon.
“Our families were very close. Sentimentally we were quite different than just Formula 1 rivals on the track.” Patrick pauses sadly, “I really wish we could be old guys and reminisce about the good old days we had together. I really miss that.”
Ferrari withdrew from the Belgian race and only entered Pironi for the next three races at Monaco, Detroit and, tragically, found themselves involved in another ill fated incident in Canada. At the start of what would have been Villeneuve’s home race at Île Notre-Dame (that now bears his name, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve), Pironi waved his arms furiously—stalled—in an onslaught of angry F1 machinery … but in vain. Italian rookie Ricardo Paletti slammed square into Pironi’s motionless Ferrari, and erupted in a fireball. Rescue workers, aided fleetingly by Pironi, who was clearly in shock, managed to douse the flames, but Paletti succumbed to massive chest injuries from the initial impact.

During this stretch, Patrick Tambay had stepped up for his endeared friends, the Villenueves. According to Tambay, “When Gilles passed away, Joann [Villeneuve] was a little bit lost, obviously, and the kids (Jacques, now 10 and his younger sister, Melanie) were very young and we helped them by suggesting they come over to Villars-sur-Ollon (Switzerland) at College Beausoleil where I was living at the time. I proposed to look after them to make sure everything was okay.”
“My mom needed some time off. Patrick was living in the mountains at the time and there was a great boarding school in the village”, recalls Jacques. “It was perfect as at the time I was ski racing, education was good and boarding was a good preparation for life. Patrick was there to keep an eye on us when needed. I think it was his idea for us to go there and when it was mentioned, I jumped at it.”

Jacques and College Beausoleil’s ski coach-turned-athletic director developed a very close friendship through their mutual passion for skiing—a friendship that would become one of the most prevalent and publicly complicated partnerships in modern motorsport: Scotsman Craig Pollock.
Despite the tragedy that befell the Villeneuves, it wouldn’t be long before young Jacques would begin talking with his uncle Jacques (who later would enroll him in racing school), and Tambay about his racing aspirations. “Jacques came to me after he decided he wanted to race,” remembers Tambay, and I told him I was not keen on him going racing after being through the dramas of losing his dad. However he was strong in his decision to go racing.”
“I always knew I would race, since I was five,” commented Villeneuve. “No one influenced me apart possibly from growing up in a racing family. At that time I was talking a lot with Patrick, obviously mostly about racing. I had a lot of respect for him, as he had also been a ski racer before racing cars. I was still in boarding school when I started racing, at an age where you don’t listen to grown ups!”

Tambay recollects, “So Jacques went for three years in Formula 3 in Italy. He came to me again and asked what he should do. I told him he should go as far away as possible in order to get your personality and your name established by yourself and be away from the European and Italian way (read paparazzi) of doing things. So he went to Japan for a year.”
It was at that point, in Japan, that a chance reunion, at a race, between the younger Villeneuve and Craig Pollock would become a business relationship that netted Jacques the CART Championship, an Indy 500 victory, two successful years at Williams in Formula 1—where he clinched the World Drivers Championship in his sophomore season and the ill-fated, Pollock-led purchase of Tyrrell by the British American Tobacco Company—to become British American Racing (BAR).
“Craig Pollock came to me and asked me if he could be Jacques’ manager,” Tambay recalls. “I replied, ‘sure you can be his manager, but be careful, I will be watching you…’ That was the only way I could participate in being a good father by being able to give a little input.”
Despite his patronly influence on the younger Villeneuve, Tambay vehemently denies that he was a surrogate father, but instead was an endeared influencer who wanted the best for his late friend’s son.

“When he won the Indianapolis 500, I was doing the commentating for French TV. For the last six laps, I didn’t say a word into the microphone, as I was speechless. I laughed, I cried. It was a very emotional victory as it felt like a victory by my own kid.”
Jacques and Patrick maintain a good relationship to this day. “I always enjoy catching up with Patrick when we cross paths,” says Villeneuve. “I am supportive of (Patrick’s son and GP2 driver) Adrien (Tambay) too. He is a very good skier so I mainly spent time with him on the slopes.”

Tambay laughs, “I like to give him crap for when he does some silly things.” The next generation of Villeneuve had proven unstoppable on the trail blazed by his dad. With some influence from Patrick Tambay, this meteoric rise from the ashes adds to the examples of Phoenix-like circumstances.

Continue to Part 3


  1. francois bouet

    December 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Merci …

  2. Massimo Burbi

    December 22, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    That was really a great reading, and I very much like when you can have an insight in drivers private world without gossip!

  3. Pingback: Patrick Tambay - The Phoenix - MotorPosts - MotorPosts

  4. Pingback: Patrick Tambay: The Phoenix - Part 1 - MotorPosts

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