Before the Ambassadors: Heuer & Formula 1

Posted by: Mark Moss   |   4 June 2012   |   14 Comments  

Gilles Villeneuve

And lastly to my favourite F1 driver of all, the Canadian Gilles Villeneuve (or Villanova as some Ferrari team members would have it!). Not the most successful of this list by any means, nonetheless his driving style won him a lot of fans and plaudits. His son Jacques might have surpassed Gilles’ results to win the 1997 championship but, for my money, he never surpassed the man.


Villeneuve’s early career had largely been in snowmobile racing, and that gave him a notable degree of car control, able to slide and recover the car perhaps better than many of the other competitors. This was perhaps most evident during wet practice for the 1979 US GP, when Villeneuve was at least 9 seconds faster than the next fastest car, an unheard of margin in F1 racing.

Having moved to Formula Atlantic and winning championships there, he caught the eye of the McLaren team by beating James Hunt and several other F1 drivers in a non-championship Atlantic race, leading to an invitation to drive for McLaren at a number of races in 1977. He made his debut at the British GP and generally impressed, but McLaren didn’t take him up for the following season. Later that year he was introduced to Enzo Ferrari, who was taken with the driver, comparing him to pre-war racer Tazio Nuvolari, and offered him a contract with Ferrari for the last two races of the season and for the whole of 1978.


Results gradually improved through that first full season, culminating in a win at the last race of the season, which happened to be in Canada. The Montreal circuit where he celebrated his first F1 win would later be renamed the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in his honour. 1979 looked to be a big chance for both Ferrari drivers, Gilles being partnered with new arrival Jody Scheckter. Villeneuve won 3 races during that season, but ultimately finished second in the championship to Scheckter, having obeyed team orders to follow his team-mate home at the Italian GP. Scheckter was expected to return the favour in 1980, but that year’s Ferrari was desperately outclassed by cars with better ground effect, finishing only 10th in the constructor’s championship.


Ferrari introduced a turbo-engined car for 1981 but still struggled for handling against the other teams. Despite other teams having around four times the downforce of the Ferrari, Villeneuve was able to use the power of the engine and thus straight-line speed to win two races against much sweeter-handling cars. His car control also came to the fore again in Canada, where he managed a podium finish despite the car’s nosecone being damaged and eventually missing for most of the race. 1982 started well for Ferrari, but Villeneuve was incensed at being passed and repassed by his team-mate Didier Pironi at Imola when the drivers had been instructed to save fuel by the team to ensure a win. Gilles, remembering his own obedience in following the team’s instructions in 1979, felt betrayed by Pironi and vowed not to speak to him again. That would prove prophetically true as Villeneuve would lose his life following an accident in qualifying at the next GP in Belgium.

As a Ferrari driver whilst sponsored by Heuer, Gilles received one of the 1158 Carreras given to the drivers.Another Jack Heuer quote from David’s interview:

“One thing that I’ll never forget is that 5-6 years ago it was the Grand Prix of Monaco and Gilles Villeneuve’s son, Jacques, he had this big boat and he had his mother on the boat, and so he gave a little reception on the boat and we had to go up these stairs to get to the top deck where we had the reception and at the top of the stairs was his mother who received guests. When I was introduced to her, she said “You know that I still have the watch that you gave to my husband” and so you nearly cry, it’s so emotional to think that she cherishes this gold watch, so these are some of the memories…this is one of my favourite watches”.

However, he is more often pictured wearing the Chronosplit in the earlier picture.


When I started this article, these were the only two Heuers I was aware of Villeneuve having owned and worn. And then a reader on Chronocentric found a picture of him wearing a late Autavia 73663:



Well, that is just six drivers of the 17 I had in mind when I started. I hope that writing a bit more about each of the drivers helped give a bit of colour to both them and the watches they wore, though I’m mindful it ended up perhaps more of a motorsports article than a watch one! But Heuer’s link with motorsport and F1 is inescapable and many of these drivers were wearing watches paid for out of their own pockets, so I think it appropriate for a fellow Heuer fan to celebrate their lives as well as their watches. I hope you do too – let us know here, and maybe the other 11 drivers and more besides will get their chance too!



[0] [1][2][3] [5] [13] [15] [23] TAG Heuer

[9][12][17] Courtesy

[4][6][10][14][18][20][22] Courtesy Wikipedia under Creative Commons

[7] Courtesy

[8] Courtesy and Mark Thompson/Getty Images South America

[11] Courtesy Peter Moller and

[16] Courtesy Gianvittorio Molteni and

[19] Courtesy

[21] Courtesy Armando Camacho and

[24] Courtesy Foxy100 and

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