The cover photo is one of Formula 1’s most iconic images. Ferrari No.27 on full opposite lock, rear wheel dipped over the kerb, sparks flying. Taken at the 1981 Argentine Grand Prix, it can only be one driver – the late, great Gilles Villeneuve.
It’s just one of many photos in Wow Gilles! Villeneuve. The Undying Legend, a 208-page book which pays tribute to the French-Canadian through the work of legendary Italian photographer, Ercole Colombo. Briefly touching on his early days as a snowmobile racer and in Formula Atlantic, it quickly dives into the meaty content of his F1 career, which spanned from 1977 until his death in 1982. There are a few brief written parts (written by journalist Giorgio Terruzzi), as well as many quotes from both Gilles and his peers. It’s entertaining to read and provides vital context, but there’s nothing really new to be learned from the text. That’s OK though because this book is all about the photos.
And magnificent photos they are, too. For a sport whose enjoyment is so dependent on motion it’s difficult to really get a sense of someone’s driving style through images alone, but that certainly isn’t the case with Colombo’s shots of Gilles. In so many photos he’s seriously sideways, dipping wheels on the grass, or making light contact with someone (or something) – sometimes all at once.
Pretty much all of his most famous moments are in here – the punctured tyre at Zandvoort, his unlikely final victory at Jarama and of course, that wheel-banging duel with René Arnoux at Dijon.
Where this book shines though is in the less famous moments. There are some shots of him in 1981 winning a powerboat race – I’m an enormous Gilles Villeneuve fan, but I’d never even heard of him doing that, let alone seen photos of it, yet here they are!
Another highlight is the launch of the 1980 Ferrari 312T5. There’s nothing flashy about it, it’s literally just Gilles and Jody Scheckter standing by the car and joking around with each other. It leaves you wondering: why can’t current F1 car launches be that chilled?
Despite the minimal amount of text, the book does manage to convey a real sense of the passage of time, as well as a sense of dread over the near-inevitability of his death. There’s an almost haunting set of images surrounding the 1982 San Marino GP which really give a sense of how Villeneuve felt betrayed by teammate Didier Pironi. Call me cliché, but it really is a case of pictures speaking a thousand words.
Gilles is a real cult figure in F1 history and Wow Gilles! puts across the impact he had on the sport brilliantly. At an RRP of £40 ($50) it’s not cheap, and if you’re not a Villeneuve fan you might be left wanting. If you are a Gilles fan, though (and let’s be honest, you all should be Gilles fans, because he was magnificent), then you’re going to need this.
I can think of few better ways to decorate your coffee table because that cover image alone will put a smile on your face every time you glance at it.